This Is A Voice

Classical versus Musical Theatre - which is healthiest to sing? Is there one vocal technique for both?

March 06, 2023 Jeremy Fisher and Dr Gillyanne Kayes Season 7 Episode 1
This Is A Voice
Classical versus Musical Theatre - which is healthiest to sing? Is there one vocal technique for both?
Show Notes Transcript

Voice experts Dr Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher share their thoughts about classical versus musical theatre.
Is there one technique that works for both?
Is one inherently healthier to sing than the other?
Should we be teaching different genres to young singers?

We have comments and questions sent in by our This Is A Voice podcast listeners too - there are some strong opinions!

We share our own backgrounds and talk about knowing yourself. And why recognising the "filters" through which you view the world is important.

We describe how the knowledge of vocal function might bypass musical taste and expectation, and why we prefer to talk about different balances for different contexts.

Check it out!

Today's featured resource is the Vocal Process Learning Lounge - over 600 videos, lists and resources for the curious singer and singing teacher, for less than the price of one singing lesson. Click here to find out more and watch the free previews: 

This is a voice, a podcast with Dr. Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher, This Is A Voice. Hello and welcome to, sorry, I'm gonna have to do that again cuz I was just about to cough. Hello and welcome to season seven episode one. The podcast where we get Vocal about voice. I'm Jeremy Fisher. And I'm Dr. Gillyanne Kayes. And today's topic is classical versus musical theatre. Now, isn't it? Musical theatre versus classical? Well, oh, okay. It's a corker. We have had such fun putting this together. We have had people emailing in their answers. We've had people recording questions for us. So this episode is packed! Please stop emailing us now. Okay, so we're gonna start with full disclosure, which is where we come from. And I think this is important because there are many, many, singing teachers and Vocal coaches in our situation. Where we are coming from is as classically trained musicians. I was a classically trained singer, whatever that means. Let's not go there just yet. And performer and both of us side-stepped into working in musical theatre. Well, when I started, I mean I had, you know, piano lessons from the age of six or seven, and I was full on classical as far as I was concerned. Ragtime and Scott Joplin was the devil. Uh, so I played entirely classical all the way through, mostly all the way through college as well. So by the time I was 20, 21, I was still really fully on the full classical thing. And I very much grew up listening to the Messiah. We listened to the Messiah every Sunday. My mom loved classical music, but as it happens, she also loved musicals. And I will say something about how it is possible to grow up with an idea of what is the correct way of singing and certain soundscapes. So even when I was young, one of the first things I remember from my musical background is singing the I Hear Music Duet from Call Me Madam, and I used to sing the tenor role. That's one of the ways I learned to sing in harmony. And mum would sing Ethel Merman. And she used to say, now Gilly, you mustn't do this one because, uh, this is not good singing. And to be fair Have I told you that one before? No, you have. Yeah, yeah, yeah. To be fair, my, my brother was very into Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and all of that sort of rock stuff, so I had that around me as well. But as a musician, training as a, as a professional musician, I purely did classical. What then happened was that I decided that I loved working with singers and I loved working with people on stage. So I went into opera for about three or four years as a repetiteur and then moved across to musical theatre. And this was, ooh, the late eighties. And I've actually worked in musical theatre ever since. Uh, I still do classical accompaniment work. In fact, I'm doing a concert next week, but where my main thing is, is a musical theatre MD. That's so interesting. I mean, as a, you know, a teenager and going forward into my early twenties, like most people, I listened to the popular music of the day and enjoyed the popular music of the day. I mean, particularly bands like Pink Floyd and all of that, you know, that material was wonderful to me. But I think I'd been raised very much to sort of do it properly and to be trained properly as a singer. And I also had musical training, played, uh, piano and violin as well. And I did a music degree, but when I was growing up, doing it properly was always classical. Now the sidestep happened. Sidestep happened almost by mistake because I was asked to go and work at a drama school, and I'd always loved drama, and suddenly there was this whole new world. So that's where we're coming from. And I think as such, like I said earlier, we represent quite a lot of the teaching community. So I hope that what we've got to share with you today is gonna be really helpful to you. Hmm. And in fact, somebody on, uh, SpeakPipe has actually asked this question or made this comment. I'm just wondering whether we should go straight back. I think we should go straight there. So this is Charlotte Mendly. I think this is a really interesting topic and that singing teachers with different backgrounds, whether it be classical or musical theatre, may approach repertoire very differently. And I think if you're coming from a classical background, you would approach legit musical theatre songs quite differently to maybe an MT, uh, singing teacher, and vice versa. If you are looking at something that required maybe more of a contemporary sound with a belt, such as, I don't know, maybe something from Rent, uh, where it requires, you know, that kind of rock, voice quality that the MT teacher. Definitely approach that differently from the classical side. Even I think if the teacher has got knowledge maybe, and experience on both genres, I think their authenticity to whatever style that they've, you know, been trained in, will always be at the forefront of their, of their singing, teaching and, and the style that they produce. And, you know, what they require there for, from the students that they're, they're teaching. Such a great point from Charlotte and I, I just want to unpick this because one of the reasons that we started with where we're coming from is precisely the answer to this question, and I sort of agree with it, which is, where was your main training? What was it based in? And the only reason why I think both Gillyanne and I are exceptions to this, and I think we are, is that we have both worked extensively in the musical theatre world in the West End. Yeah. 20 years in my case. 20 plus. Yeah, 20 plus, you know? Plus I still work with leading musical theatre singers. So this is actually about not just knowledge of the, of the, the genre, but experience of the genre actually working in the genre itself. And I think that's, the trump card, if you like, over your previous training, because I remember when I first started working with actors who sing as opposed to singers who act, That it was a, it was quite a surprise to me how important the words were, how important the storyline was, how important, and I, I know I've said this, moment to moment interaction as opposed to phrasing interaction. And I think that's the first difference between standard musical theatre and standard classical is that classical is about phrase shapes and architecture and beauty of sound, and musical theatre is, uh, it comes from drama, so it's about moment by moment interaction, emotions, very, very specific things, word painting, word use. And I would say that in the delivery, not only in terms of sound quality, but the way that you shape the words, the way you articulate your consonants is normally in much more of a vernacular style. And that of course, then impacts on whether or not a musical theatre singer is able to project, hate that word, but, uh, acoustically over an orchestra, a band that is in front of them, which is a big change. Mm-hmm. Okay. And mm-hmm. Also, I want to pick, pick up this thing because, because I still do coach both genres. Mm-hmm. I still coach classical singers and I still coach musical theatre singers and I catch contemporary commercial singers. And, you know, I coach a wide range of people, and I know, and I've talked about this in the book, Why Do I Need A Vocal Coach, when I'm working with classical singers, I switch a different part of my brain on because their requirements are different. Mm-hmm. The requirements of the performance style is different, and I know that we are gonna do something, we're gonna do a podcast on performance styles and style envelopes later on in the series. Mm-hmm. I think what's very important about what Charlotte said is that you are likely to be, oriented, orientated, from a particular direction. And I think it's important for you to know that as a trainer, that you will be carrying some of those values with you. And as we go forward, you know, listening to some more of the offerings, we'll talk about perhaps where level and age of the client makes a big difference. We're not saying that if you come from a classical music background, you shouldn't teach musical theatre. Be aware of where you are coming from. It's actually so important to know what your own background is and to be aware of the filters that you bring to what you're doing. Uh, there are certain things that as a classical, classically trained person, you can bring to any music style. You can bring an understanding of rhythm and pulse. You can bring an understanding of phrasing, you can bring an understanding to a certain extent of sound quality. The difficulty with classical singing is that it is actually quite a limited range of sound qualities that are considered acceptable and appropriate. Oh, we're gonna get kicked back from that one. I don't care. It's reality. So the reality is the moment you, you move into any contemporary commercial style and contemporary commercial covers 700 different genres. So everything from folk to world to jazz, to, I mean, all sorts of things. The constraints on what sounds you are allowed to make for certain songs just disappear. There are certain envelope, style envelopes within which you work, but that envelope has quite a lot of stretchiness in it. You know, you can hear somebody recording the same song in four or five completely different ways. Mm-hmm, and all of those styles work. Once you get into classical music, and I'm going to go opera and art song, because those are two of the big ones. Mm-hmm. In the, in the western classical world, uh, you have certain constraints. You have an orchestra, you are un amplified. You have to get that sound across, and that really requires that you sing on vowels because vowels are the carrying power, if you like, of singing. Mm-hmm. The moment you have a microphone, you don't need to do that. And I want to be really specific. When you are training as a classical singer, you are training to make your voice bloom, to have its most beautiful extreme resonance sound about 20 meters away from you. Uh, and I remember recording with a tenor, classical tenor, uh, in a big hall, and we actually had to have two microphones. We had one microphone, about eight feet, a couple of meters away, and we had one microphone 20 meters away and he, he had to mix the two. The engineer had to mix the two in order to get the real bloom of the sound, plus the sort of the, the, the consonants if you like. Hmm. If you are working with a microphone, you gear your sound to bloom within a couple of centimeters of your mouth because the microphone is there. The microphone is acting as the audience's ear. So even the way that you produce and project your sound has different requirements the moment you move from acoustic to mic'd. Hmm. I think that's a very good point. I feel quite strongly about that. Yes. And particularly with musical theatre as it is now. Well, why don't we, thank you for that, comment, Charlotte. That's great. Was very insightful of you. Where should we go next? We've got another one, haven't we? Did we think we would listen to Lorraine? Should we go to Lorraine? Yes. Uh, okay. This is Lorraine Worley. I'm Lorraine Worley. So musical theatre versus classical. In my experience, I've found that to start young singers, it doesn't matter what genre you choose, the basics are the same. In fact, the early grades in either the Trinity or the A B R S M are a mixture of styles anyway, and I'm doing both genres at the moment and finding for young singers, in many ways the standard repertoire is better because it's not so low. But either way, it doesn't matter. Is it, I think it's important to go very slowly to allow the voices to grow naturally and to allow things to develop when more range, is available usually around 15 to 16. So, you know, if you go on a steady path and teach musicianship and all the things that you're gonna need later, and lots of sight reading work, to integrate the whole process, then you can start to diversify a bit later on, or even a bit before. But you know, for Vocal learners, ie, humans, exposure to to head voice sounds is actually very important. I find so even throwing in a few recordings of So apologies to Lorraine though. Uh, we only have 90 seconds on Speakpipe. She probably had more to say. Yes. Well, now this is very interesting. And I, I was, writing a few notes."It doesn't matter what genre they sing, the basics are the same." Which I'm gonna pick up on a minute."Musicianship and reading as in sight reading are important skills", and she's talking about working with young singers. I'm going to position myself over there where Lorraine is because I think many, many singing teachers actually carry a similar view, hold a similar view, and ask the question, we're looking at developing a voice, a young voice. And to be fair, Jeremy and I have not worked with people under 10. So if, if a teacher is working with young students and going through into their teenage years, how important are these basics and what are they? What are the basics? Hmm. Because if they're singing in different genres, , we still need to know what those basics are. Range, obviously was mentioned. Development of range and going slowly. That sounds good. So I'm going to put, uh, two performances side by side for a nine year old boy, Amahl and the night visitors, which I sang when I was nine because I was a classical treble, and Matilda, one of the roles in Matilda, and they are essentially for the same age. The thing is, which type of training is going to work for both of those, because honestly, I can't really see it. If you're going to sing a lead role in an opera and you're gonna sing a lead role in a West End musical at the age of nine, and those voice productions are very, very different and the requires requirements for the job are very different, I don't really see, uh, a a technique. A technique that will cover both of those to that level. And I think that's also important. We're talking to that level. Ah, you're talking about level as opposed to working with, young people, let's say from 10 to 18. Sure. And, exploring different genres, making sure that they're having fun, that they're, maybe acquiring musical and expressive skills and an enjoyment of different genres. And I suppose the question is, Is there a basic technique? Can I go there now? Sure. Is there a basic technique that is genre neutral? Mm-hmm. If so, what would it be? It's a really good question. Mm-hmm. Answers on a postcard, please. Or if you want to come onto and let us know, we would love to know that. I've gotta tell you that, when I was doing my PhD in a very early stages, and I was having one of my supervision sessions with Professor Graham Welch, and, uh, we were talking about the song material that we might use for some of my investigations. And I said, oh, well, what I'd like to do, why don't we find a genre neutral song? I didn't spot the raised eyebrow . I said, you know, they, they could all sing something like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and he turned and gave me a hard stare and said, there is no such thing as a culturally neutral piece of music. Isn't that an exciting statement? I went into shock. I remember coming home feeling quite frustrated. But of course by the time I'd finished the PhD I knew this. So, this is, just cuz I was looking at different genres, uh, musical theatre and classical amongst other things. But I mean, isn't that, might talk about the research outcomes later. Yeah. Isn't that interesting though? Because in reality, music is just dots on a page. Mm-hmm, going left to right and up and down. That's really all it is. And then with sticks, To show you how long each note is. That's really all it is. So, and that's assuming you come from a background that says you write it down at all. Yes. Which we now know is very much, you know, from a Eurocentric Western lyric perspective. So is there such a thing as genre neutral music? And the answer is, well, of course there is because it's written down if you like. Mm-hmm. But the moment you take it off the page, the moment you perform it, the moment you sing it, , if you like, imposing your own genre expectations on it. And you're bringing your own cultural background of you. Yep. Which we should do. Maybe your geographical region. Yeah. The expectations of your audience. All of those play a part and you know, he, he was spot on. So you could say no such thing. You could say that there is such a thing as genre neutral music as long as it is never heard or played or read, it just exists in a piece of paper somewhere in space. That would be genre neutral music. I'm so interested to hear your perspective cuz I threw this at him, everybody. I never heard that, but yeah. That's really interesting. The moment, even if you are, you are reading The mu, if you're a music reader and you read the music and you hear it in your head mm-hmm, you will still hear it through your own filters, through the filter of some expectation Yeah that you have about that music. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. It's very interesting. It's one of the things that I like doing is looking at music and going, what are the style expectations that I. What are the style expectations that I expect, if you like, and I like the idea that I love it when people change style on me. Mm-hmm. I love it when you, when you bring, I love all of this mixing and, and matching and, you know, when you meld styles together, I think it's amazing. Yeah. Mix it up. Yep. So, that was, that. That was fun. Thank you for that, Lorraine. Yes. Because it was really good to speak about that. Now, where should we go next? I wanna talk a bit more about knowing where you're coming from. Okay. Because I think that if you aren't aware of where you are coming from, the beliefs that you have, which are beliefs, by the way, they're not facts. The beliefs that you have about how something should sound or how it should look or what situation it should be put in, or who is allowed to sing it or not, these are all expectations. They're beliefs, but they aren't fact because music is just dots on a page. In Western Lyric. And again, you're talking about filtering or, or what is often called, centering nowadays. Yes. You know, where have you centered yourself? And one of the things you learn when you do research is that you learn to position yourself as a researcher. What is your background? What other perspectives? And to open out looking other angles. It's huge, actually. It's a very important skill as a human being as well, because if you can center yourself alongside someone else, then you can see and understand and feel their perspective on something. Mm-hmm. And therefore, their take on something. I think where it gets problematic is when you aren't aware that centering is a thing. Mm-hmm. That what you see is, this is my world, and my world is my truth. And my truth is everybody else's truth. And that's a problem because it isn't. Can I give an example? When Singing and the Actor was first released back in 2000, I think it was the very first review I received. And I'll try and remember the wording because on the back of the book it said, classical Vocal training is no longer suitable for the musical theatre singer. Still believe that. This was quoted right at the beginning of the review. Thus says Kayes and proceeds to talk about respiration, phonation, resonation and articulation. Like, it was some, like, you weren't allowed to like some evil thing. But like those are classical now, to be fair. It was 23 years ago. Can we let 'em into a secret? It, yeah. They're not, they're not classical. They are not. It's like everybody who sings has phonation, resonation, articulation, and uh, resonance. Everybody who sings. Everybody who speaks does it. And it's one of the reasons why when we're talking about our practice, we, we talk so much about Vocal function because we got a lot of our information from clinicians, which, okay, there may be a bias that comes there in terms of what's healthy and unhealthy. That's another podcast altogether. But in terms of when we think about Vocal function, we're not thinking about it from a classical Vocal point of view. No. We're thinking about how the mechanism functions. From a musical style perspective we may sometimes be influenced by our classical background. I think this is really interesting. Whoa. You know, the whole business of, of Vocal function, which is the voice works like this and I'm going hold it right there because that in itself is a belief. Mm-hmm., the voice is an incredibly complex multiset of mechanisms and it is unbelievably flexible and it will do all sorts of things. So once you get away from your voice is this, and you get towards your voice can do this, what you're talking about then is balances. There are many, many different balances that you can do as a, as a speaker, as a singer, as an actor, as caricaturist, as a cartoon voiceover. I mean, there's all sorts of things that you can do and make work. I love this because it, it takes us away from any kind of position that says there are certain sound templates that we need to teach our students to make them flexible. There's zillions of sound templates and in fact, I don't like the word template because what we need to in terms of if we're looking at a sound outcome from a singer, we need to match the singer to that and not the other way around. Oh, did I say that correctly? Please? Can we talk about context? Mm-hmm. Yeah. Context is everything. I can't say it more. Context is everything, because if your singer wants to do this particular style and they want to do it in this particular way, then the job as a teacher is to help them to find that version on their voice of that piece in that genre. I just said it arse-about-face, everybody. Okay. What I meant was, You need to match the template to the singer. Oh, yeah. And not the other way around. Oh, absolutely. And I know you, you took that from what I said. Absolutely. Yeah. Okay. Let's just talk about this. Let's talk templates. Mm-hmm. You know, you must belt and this is belt. Mm-hmm. And you are not making the belt sound so you are wrong. Because we have to find this way of you doing this belt sound. And I'm going hold it a second. Mm-hmm. Because what you're trying to do is to fit that person onto an imaginary template that you have in your head. Mm-hmm. There are things called, funnily enough, I was doing a, a coaching session this morning, an Accountability session for our Accreditation people this morning on exactly this, which is, you know, We'll, we'll take Belt Belt, but there are all sorts of labels. There's legit, there's Mozart, there's Wagner needs to be sung like this, and Rossini needs to be sung like that and, and, you know, Jazz needs to be sung like this and pop needs to be sung like that, all that nonsense. There are certain envelopes within which you can drop a singer and go, what would you like to do within this, within this envelope? And you are working with the person in front of you, the singer in the room, singing the thing that they want to sing. There is something about singing, which is, please can we sing the things that we want to sing? Mm-hmm. The job of a music teacher or, or a voice teacher or a singing teacher is to help that person to get to the place where they can sing the thing that they want to sing. And I'm going to use the word healthily, or safely. As in sustainably for that. Or repeatedly without damage. Mm-hmm. That's really what it's about. I know that some people are even objecting to the word healthily. It's like any sound at all is healthy if it's repeatable eight shows a week for a year. Yeah. Any sound at all? That's our position. Absolutely. And I am going to stick to it. Okay. You are ranting. You're having a little rant. I am. I feel this is a wonderful moment to read some of the things that Heather Grace Gallagher of Oh yes. Stage and screen shared with us. Heather's put this rather nicely. She sent a really quite long and complex email and it is so packed with really good stuff. We're going to read bits out of it. And I'm just going to explain that this was a response to a discussion we're having on this topic in the Singing and the Actor Facebook group. Yeah. Okay. So MT versus classical debate. I feel like I've often been the champion of MT in this old age old debate. Does a child need to study classical until their voice is more developed? Question. What is classed as developed? Such a catchall phrase that actually means very little due to its ambiguity. Are we saying that young voices can't sing do you want to build a snowman until they've developed? Developed what? Is the elusive sound slash technique slash style that only classical can develop that makes an appropriate sound for this kind of repertoire? Can I just stop there and say, I couldn't have put it better myself? It's beautifully worded. What is this thing about? We are not allowed to do musical theatre sounds or pop sounds or, or whatever sounds because. Well, because. I never actually quite understood the reason why kids are not allowed to sing what they sing. So what is it about classical training that the classical teachers think is the way forward? And can I just read, I mean, we're skipping some of this, Heather, because it was so effusive actually. Mm-hmm., you had so much to say and it, it was really, really beautiful. I mean, possibly it'll be published in another way. What I'd like to say here from what you went on to say is, as teachers, aren't we here to help our students fit their style, technique and Vocal quality to the genre being demonstrated? Yep. I totally agree with that. I wanna read some another bit out, which I think is very interest. I do agree, this is, this is Heather. I do agree that young voices should only be taught repertoire that is suitable for their age, level and physical ability. No seven year old really needs to be belting out Defying Gravity. But there is so much scope for suitable musical theatre repertoire for this age. Let's not forget that musical theatre has the widest range of genre and style applicable to it, legit, contemporary, pop, rock, cabaret jazz, and I'm gonna add, uh, Jukebox musicals to that as well. Mm-hmm. All fall under musical theatre and as musical theatre specialists, it's our job to understand as much as we can to deliver this to our students. This is what we are finding.. If you are a musical theatre specialist teacher, you have to deal with almost every style under the sun in the context of musical theatre. That requires a very wide range of knowledge. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I think I'm going to finish what Heather sent to us by reading this little bit here, Jeremy, which I think is nice. Classical isn't best. It isn't first, it isn't fundamental. It's different. Yep. And as practitioners, it's our duty to embrace the difference and understand the why and the how. Love it. And I'm gonna, I'm gonna do the last line. Learn what's appropriate, use what's appropriate, teach what's appropriate for the student in front of you, not just because that's the narrative you've long held. And my, my favorite line is the last line, Learn more. Be better. Okay. Thank you Heather. That is gorgeous. So I think that's quite enough contentious stuff for one episode. We are actually going to carry on with this topic into the next episode, and we want you to send your thoughts in because we need to hear what you think about this, or send us an email to and we will answer your questions. And can we give them a little tidbit, which is to tell them what we are gonna be starting with next time. Which is to answer some of the specific questions that came up from teachers. We're going to answer some of the specific technical questions and training questions, so we will see you next time. This is a voice, a podcast with Dr. Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher.