Holy Belting!

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Cunningham 1 Drew Cunningham Dr. Whiddon FYRS-1104-06 3/27/13 Holy Belting: How Popular Music and Microphones Have Changed Musicals Theatre and Affected Vocal Health “So beat the drums ‘cause here comes thoroughly modern Millie now!” (Andrews). This is the closing line to Thoroughly Modern Millie, one of the most iconic shows of the last decade for musical theatre and jumpstarted the career of stage and television actress Sutton Foster. If a person know anything about modern musical theatre then it is almost certain that they have heard the name, Sutton Foster. Sutton Foster is one the most influential stars to grace the stages of Broadway in the last decade with multiple nominations and one Tony award for Best Actress. She is a dynamic actress who has risen through the ranks from chorus girl to leading lady and is the epitome of

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An analysis of vocal music techniques across the years via Thoroughly Modern Millie

Transcript of Holy Belting!

Cunningham 1

Drew CunninghamDr. WhiddonFYRS-1104-063/27/13Holy Belting: How Popular Music and Microphones Have Changed Musicals Theatre and Affected Vocal HealthSo beat the drums cause here comes thoroughly modern Millie now! (Andrews). This is the closing line to Thoroughly Modern Millie, one of the most iconic shows of the last decade for musical theatre and jumpstarted the career of stage and television actress Sutton Foster. If a person know anything about modern musical theatre then it is almost certain that they have heard the name, Sutton Foster. Sutton Foster is one the most influential stars to grace the stages of Broadway in the last decade with multiple nominations and one Tony award for Best Actress. She is a dynamic actress who has risen through the ranks from chorus girl to leading lady and is the epitome of Broadway singing. But there is another actress who originated the role of Millie in the 1967 movie version of Thoroughly Modern Mille: Julie Andrews (DeRemer). However, there is a major distinction that should be made between these two amazingly talented performers and that is the style in which the sing. Andrewswho originated the role thirty-five years before Fostersang in what is called the bel canto or classical style and Foster in the belting style of todays popular music. What are some possible reasons for this change in vocal style and what are the implications of this change? This essay will explore how the style of singing in Broadway musicals has changed over the years and what the implications are of this change specifically in the area of vocal health. It will first outline the two main vocal styles that are used in stage productions, belting and bel canto, and give definitions for each along with artists who employ these styles. After describing the voice styles used in Broadway shows an explanation of how the voice works is in order because it is imperative in understanding the claim that is made by using the phrase vocal health. Then, a description of what vocal health is and how it can be achieved through proper vocal technique and voice training will occur. Julie Andrews will then be showcased whose career on the stage was lengthened greatly because she is a classically trained and how her vocal health was a part of this equation. Next, there will be a discussion of how the shift of popular music styles after the Golden Age led to the rise of belting stars. Along with the increase in belting, the need for amplification in performance became necessary to hear the performers. Amplification use came to be expected in stage performance and with this I will talk about the societal influence that has led to the increase in belting on stage. And in conclusion, there will be a comparison of the two womenAndrews and Fosterand a final argument for bel canto singing in attaining vocal health and how microphone use along with popular music trends have brought about a decline in the vocal health of Broadway performers today. The first vocal style that will be discussed is the popular form of belting. Belting is a specific vocal style in which the upper-middle register of the voice is used to perform without switching into the upper register of the head voice. It is primarily in this range in which the speaking voice lays for most performers. This can be coupled with a mixture of the head voice to strengthen the upper tones to be a pseudo-belt. This type of mixed singing is a trademark of many Broadway singers. Anthony Tommasinis article, A Big Belter Who Found a True Voice contains an interview with Sutton Foster in which he asks her about her vocal style, and she gave him a statement she made in front of a group of NYU students, I dont care how you sound; I care about the lyrics (Tommasini, Big Belter). This view point is indicative of the style of singing that is used in Broadway performance, diction and lyrics are the medium through which emotions are conveyed. In fact, this holds true across the performance spectrum when belting is performed. One of the reasons that popular music has given way to belting is that there is a large focus on the message that is being conveyed. Singing and the Actor, a work by Gillyanne Kayes, has an entire section devoted to instructing actors and singers on how to effectively use twang. Twang is used in belting because it carries with it a brassy, nasal quality and is largely dependent on raising the larynx (Kayes 111). She goes on to describe how twang is a component of American and British musical theatre and has applications in classical singing (112). Twang can and is a way to give extra projection without the use of a microphone, but constant use and misapplication can cause damage to the vocal folds. Raising the larynx as a common vocal practice places large amounts of tension on the neck muscles since it must maintain this pressure. It can be a dangerous practice and causes several problems in the vocal organs. It also works directly against many classically trained vocalists are instructed to do while performing. There is another vocal style that is in direct contrast to belting and that is the classically driven bel canto style of singing. Bel canto is the classical vocal style employed in opera and in some earlier musical theatre productions. Opera requires many different skills from Broadway performance and the technical approach to singing is completely different. Noticing this contrast, W. Lewis Johnson wrote about opera performers, Singer-actors have multiple means at their disposal for expressing emotion, including tempo, volume, pitch range, accents, phrase shape, vocal color, and even vocal gestures such as sighs and tremors (95). In comparison, the two styles of operatic singing and that of the Broadway stage are different because of focus for performance. Bel canto is used to engage the entirety of the body in the productions of sound and completely reliant upon the performer to effectively utilize the air supply produced by the body. When this is achieved there is a greater amount of sound that is produced and focused, therefore allowing bel canto performers to sing without the use of a microphone while not harming them in the process. Since the main focus of this paper is a comparison of vocal styles in is necessary to understand from a biological standpoint how the voice is produced to comprehend what vocal health is. (Purves 1)The image on the previous page is a diagram of the organs and structures that are a part of the production of the human voice. The main structures that are involved in the production of the voice are the lungs, larynx, pharynx, nasal cavity and the mouth. When discussing a general overview of the voice it is helpful to think in the terms of a generator where the lungs are the power supply, the vocal folds act as an oscillator and the vocal tract is a resonator (Sundberg 106). The lungs build up air pressure and force it up through the vocal tract. The air moving rapidly across the vocal folds causes them to open and close thus making vibrations and resonations in the vocal tract. These resonations are sent up into the nasal cavity and mouth and then are projected outward. Constant air is needed to produce any notes that are longer in duration than just a few moments. The rapid opening and closing of the vocal folds and the stopping and starting of these openings and closings are what produces the pitches heard as speaking and/or singing. Optimizing the way air is manipulated by the body and how it is formed in the upper vocal tract creates the proper singing style. Constant air pressure is a staple of the bel canto singing style and is the first step towards attaining proper vocal technique. Usually, instructors require students to bend over to release the muscles in students backs all the way up to the neck. This release of tension allowed for maximum expansion of the lungs and lowering of the diaphragm. All of this is to prepare the students bodies for proper breathing techniques and subsequently for proper singing. Another aim of bel canto is to achieve high amounts of vocal output and therefore eliminate the need for amplification. This high level of hertz allows for greater control of the voice to and a performer is able to easily control the sound that is being produced. Even though singing naturally creates a higher level of hertz output than the spoken voice, bel canto produces a higher level than belting (Sundberg 109). As Fosters quote in the Tommasini article shows, belting attempts to give spoken word qualities to singing, but this also lowers the hertz output of their voices and thus creates the need for a microphone. The tension that is associated with trying to add spoken voice qualities to singing can cause issues in a performers health. There is a need in bel canto to focus on complete release of tension because this will prohibit the strain of voice and achieve the idea of vocal health. Vocal health is defined as the achievement of proper technique in the aim to avoid disorders of the voice, such as vocal cord paralysis and voice loss (Voice Health Institute). Bel canto singing can aid in achieving vocal health because the entire aim of the technique is to reduce the tension on the vocal cords. In belting there is a tendency to have great amount of tension in the neck and improper utilization of air. To achieve higher notes and elongate the vocal cords, untrained singers and belters will force the larynx up, tightening the vocal cords. This allows for high notes to be reached, but at the cost of healthy sound production. This is the main way in which twang is produced and what Kayes suggests vocalists and actors use in performance, but this should not be done too frequently. The issue that arises is the formation of nodules on the vocal cords. Vocal nodules are calloused like areas on the vocal cords that prohibit sound correct sound production. The nodules are difficult to get rid of and sometimes permanent damage can be done to the voice, resulting in the complete loss of the ability to sing. (Parker)It is interesting to note that in Broadway performances have shifted overtime from bel canto singing to the current performance style of belting that pervades most shows of today. In the Golden Age of Broadwayroughly 1943-1965 (Naden), bel canto was the vocal style that was most commonly employed by actors and actresses. This is true even of character parts which require odd voices of the person playing it. An example of this is Kristen Chenoweth and her performance of Glinda/Galinda in the musical Wicked. Chenoweth would use a strange speaking voice (sort of a squeaking nasal tone) but still pulled out her operatic training when singing. Even when there was need to alter the voice to produce the desired tone, proper technique is still used. Bel canto was a staple of the Golden age and allowed for natural sound to resonate in performance without the need for amplification. One of the shining stars of the Golden Age, Julie Andrews, employed the classical style of vocal performance throughout the entirety of her professional stage and movie career. From a young age she learned to perform with bel canto technique and this served to her to allow her singing career to span from the 1950s-1990s (DeRemer). Since Andrews never had to worry about vocal abnormalities because of her proper technique, nodules and other disorders did not plague her as other artists have been in the past. If bel canto is able to prohibit the loss of the vocal ability and allow for long and healthy careers in performance, why is it not still prevalent in todays music? One particular reason would be the undying bond between popular music and Broadway musicals. Crawford in Americas Musical Life states: By following popular-song conventions of the day, show songs of the Golden Age successfully entered the marketplace (669). This quote shows the connection between popular music and show tunes during the Golden Age. In fact, the entirety of Crawfords chapter, The Golden Age of the American Musical, explains how early musicals were written as a response to and a way to exploit popular music of the time period. It comes as no surprise then that the performance style of musicals has changed over the years. Just as popular music has progressed so has the music that is now show tunes. Musical theatre, an art form that is largely an American creation that draws upon many different genres of music and performance styles. From the soaring operatic sounds of Bernsteins West Side Story to the jazz inspired show stopping numbers in Cole Porters Anything Goes, the American musical is a conglomeration of many styles of music and sounds. Bernstein said in 1956 that musical theatre was, an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our way of moving (770). Bernsteins quote shows that musical theatre is highly influenced by the popular music of the time in which a show is created and therefore this affects the types of songs written and the subject matter of the musical.At the end of the Golden Age in 1965 there was a rise in the popularity of rock music and R&B influenced performers. After this time period there was a shift to poppier sounding music in musicals and a decline of classical technique. Also, the counterculture movement was starting to take hold in the youth of the United States at this time. These culture and musical changes contributed to new musicals that were being created. One example is the 1968 musical Hair, which is a celebration of the counterculture and was a direct result of the popular culture of the time. The music in Hair is heavily influenced by rock and R&B and because of this influence there is a lessening of bel canto technique. This change of performance type made it a necessity for microphones to be used by performers on stage. The rise of Hair microphone use illustrates what Byrne wrote in the first chapter of How Music Works. He writes, The microphones that recorded singers changed the way they sang and the way their instruments were played (Byrne 24). Microphone use had become standard by this time on stage in Broadway musicals and this eventually led to a decline in vocal health over the years of Broadway performers. The danger of the microphone that is not known by many is the issue with vocal health. Its use has become so ingrained in performances today that several generations have no clue what a performance without some sort of amplification sounds like. The implications of microphone use are also unknown to the vast majority of people, and it is important for performers to be aware of what can happen to them if they are not wary of their actions.A recent example of this decline in vocal health of a Broadway performer is Tony Award winning actress Alice Ripley. In one of her earliest roles on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard in 1994, Alice Ripley played the role of Betty, falling into the voice classification of soprano (the highest female voice type). By the time that she played Diana Goodman in 2009s next to normal, her voice had changed to that of an altosinging in the lowest register for women. The misuse of her voice over the years helped to contribute to this change and as a result there has been permanent damage to Ripleys voice. A danger of the belting culture is that this permanent damage can be present in young amateur performers because of the lack of training. Emulating the styles of popular performers in our time has led to unnatural expectations of the voice because of the presence of microphone technology and lack of proper training. So far the main argument of this paper is for vocal health and how bel canto training and techniques could help to attain this vision. However, belting is the pervasive style in todays Broadway musicals and there are several counterclaims that are contrary to the claims that have been made. The first is that there is the idea that a microphone is necessary to be heard while performing on stage. This view is false if one uses bel canto. In opera houses of old there was no such thing as a microphone to assist in helping a performer project. It was all on them to be heard by the entirety of the crowd and with bel canto it was easily to do. The eradicating of the microphone in the performance paradigm of modernity would also come with an unexpected plus. Body mics are temperamental pieces of technology in my experience and if the transmitter is covered to heavily by costumes there is interference. A tunnel sound occurs and there are periods when the microphone will cut out. Without a microphone there will never be this type of interference and therefore no lessening of a performance based on technological difficulties. Another issue with bel canto singing is the difficulty in mastering the technique and the amount of time that is necessary to do so. It can take many years to master the bel canto technique and many feel that it is unnecessary to be a great performer. For many performers it seems to be an unnecessary hassle to try and develop their voice to what a true bel canto performer has. However, there are many benefits to learning the technique. Directors love to have trained singers in casts of shows. It increases the overall talent that is present in the company and they are able to assist other performers as far as teaching them correct vocal technique. Also, there are more opportunities for performance for classically trained singers. Although most people would not consider opera performance there are many chances to explore avenues for performing. In Lebons The Versatile Vocalist, the author describes ways in which performers can be fluent in both classical and popular idioms of performance. The key to success in both areas is understanding the differences between both performance styles and what works the best for each one. Vocalists that employ bel canto will also have longer performance careers and again more opportunities to perform. A final counterclaim to my position is the cultural irrelevance of bel canto in todays music. Belting seems to be the only vocal style that is used in popular and that is the only style that young performers are interested in learning. To become an accomplished vocalist, one must start at a reasonably young age as the voice is just beginning to mature. Young audience members want to be like the performers they hear and since bel canto is no longer in vogue, it is not as desirable to learn. This has led to declining vocal health in young performers over the years such as Adele, who has already had to have vocal therapies. What many young vocalists do not realize is that there are ways in which to modify bel canto singing to be used in a belting pedagogy. Sutton Foster is a performer who utilizes this modified sound to great effect. It is this singing style that performers should try and model their sound because ultimately belting is here to stay and if it is going to be performed it should be done so in a healthy manner. Since bel canto focuses on proper use of the vocal organs it is important to train them properly to prohibit vocal health issues. Air is the foundation of singing and must be used correctly to achieve vocal health. Straining means you are doing something wrong and relaxation is key in producing health sounds. Performers push sound through with too much pressure on the neck region and can cause damage such as nodules and voice loss. This damage shortens and ends careers when done for extended periods of times. Society has changed and therefore music and theatre have too however, there is no need to change vocal technique. However, with a modified bel canto style of singing a person is able to attain vocal health and achieve greatness in performance. Sutton Foster and others have done this with great success and will have longer performance careers because of their talent and training. Vocal styles in Broadway have changed over the years for a couple of reasonspopular music, technology. Change has led to decline in vocal health caused by loss of bel canto technique and focus on belting. This doesnt have to be a bad development though because artists are able to use bel canto in belting performance but not all do. Basically we should all sing like Sutton Foster and no one would have to worry about vocal health.

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