Vocal Health for the Ensemble: Maintaining Your Instrument in a Cast

Vocal Health for the Ensemble: Maintaining Your Instrument in a Cast

As a singer, I’m constantly reminded of the importance of caring for my “instrument” – that is, my voice. But when you’re part of a musical theater ensemble, maintaining vocal health can feel like a whole different ballgame. With the demands of rehearsals, performances, and ensemble work, it’s easy for your voice to become strained and fatigued.

That’s why I’m excited to share some of the vocal health tips and techniques I’ve learned over the years, specifically tailored for singers in a musical theater cast. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, these strategies can help you keep your voice in tip-top shape, even during the most grueling of production schedules.

Embrace Your Unique Instrument

One of the first things I learned as a voice student is that each singer’s voice is a unique instrument. Just like a violin or a flute, our voices have their own distinctive qualities and capabilities. And just like those instruments, we need to learn how to properly care for and nurture our voices.

As my teacher Kinneret Ely eloquently puts it, “Voice teachers don’t teach you how to sing–they teach you to learn for yourself how to sing.” The most effective voice teachers are the ones who understand that each singer’s voice is different, and who empower us to take ownership of our own vocal development.

This is especially important in the context of a musical theater ensemble, where we’re often asked to blend our voices together seamlessly. It can be tempting to try and imitate the vocal qualities of our castmates, but that’s a surefire way to end up straining our voices. Instead, we need to focus on cultivating the unique strengths of our own instruments.

For example, as voice expert Dr. James Burns explains, each singer’s vocal cords are actually positioned horizontally, not vertically. This means that the way we produce sound is highly individualized, depending on the unique shape and tension of our vocal folds.

By understanding and embracing the inherent qualities of our voices, we can learn to sing in a way that feels natural and effortless, rather than trying to force our voices into a mold that doesn’t fit. And that’s the key to maintaining vocal health, even in the most demanding of musical theater productions.

Tailoring Technique to Your Unique Voice

Of course, understanding the uniqueness of our voices is only half the battle. We also need to know how to apply the right vocal techniques to get the most out of our instruments.

As Kinneret Ely reminds us, “Tailor technical principles to fit your specific instrument–when a one-size-fits-all approach to vocal technique is prescribed by someone, that’s typically a sign that they don’t know how to tailor information to a student’s particular instrument and body.”

In the world of musical theater, this is especially crucial. The demands placed on our voices can vary widely, from the legato lines of a Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad to the full-throttle belting of a Sondheim showstopper. And what works for one role or style may not necessarily work for another.

That’s why it’s so important to work closely with a qualified voice teacher who can help you develop a solid, well-rounded technique. They can guide you in adapting your approach to suit the specific requirements of each show or role, without compromising the health and integrity of your voice.

For example, as voice teacher Peter Hilliard points out, the vocal technique required for choral singing can be quite different from the technique needed for musical theater. Whereas choral directors often encourage a more uniform, blended sound, musical theater demands a wider range of vocal colors and textures.

By working with a teacher who understands these nuances, we can learn to navigate the diverse vocal demands of the musical theater repertoire while still maintaining the health and flexibility of our instruments. It’s all about finding the right balance and tailoring our technique to our unique voices.

Mastering the Art of Pacing

One of the biggest challenges of singing in a musical theater ensemble is the sheer physical endurance required. Unlike a solo recital or an operatic role, where you might have intermittent breaks to rest your voice, ensemble work often involves hours of continuous singing, often while dancing or moving on stage.

As Kinneret Ely explains, “Holding your arm outstretched is not necessarily physically tiring. However, holding that same arm outstretched and staying there without a break for an extended period of time is definitely physically tiring.” The same principle applies to our voices.

Vocal pacing is a critical skill for any musical theater singer to master. It’s not just about singing loudly or softly – it’s about finding the right balance of breath support, articulation, and vocal placement to sustain your instrument through the demands of the performance.

As the Kennedy Center’s vocal health guide explains, “Singing is a completely collaborative art form. You cannot go it alone.” And that’s especially true when it comes to pacing.

Whether it’s coordinating your breath with the ensemble or finding opportunities to “refresh” your voice during lulls in the action, developing an acute awareness of your vocal stamina is essential. It takes practice, but the payoff is a performance that feels effortless and sustainable, even in the most physically demanding of shows.

Maintaining Vocal Flexibility

One of the hallmarks of great musical theater singing is the ability to effortlessly navigate a wide range of vocal styles and registers. From the legato phrasing of a Golden Age ballad to the belt-y power of a contemporary showstopper, versatility is key.

As voice teacher Peter Hilliard points out, this can be a challenge for singers who have been trained primarily in the classical or choral traditions. The techniques required for these genres, while invaluable, don’t always translate seamlessly to the demands of musical theater.

That’s why it’s so important for ensemble singers to maintain a high degree of vocal flexibility. Whether it’s mastering the “ring” of a classical head voice or the power of a musical theater belt, we need to be able to access a wide range of vocal colors and textures.

Kinneret Ely puts it this way: “Even if one doesn’t eventually specialize in music with coloratura, it will be important to keep your voice flexible with coloratura within the parameters of one’s instrument.” In other words, maintaining a certain level of vocal agility is crucial, even if you don’t plan on singing Queen of the Night anytime soon.

By incorporating targeted vocal exercises and repertoire into our daily practice, we can keep our instruments nimble and responsive, ready to meet the diverse challenges of musical theater. And with the guidance of a skilled voice teacher, we can do so in a way that prioritizes the long-term health and sustainability of our voices.

Harnessing the Power of Resonance

One of the most important aspects of vocal health, especially for ensemble singers, is learning to harness the natural resonance of our instruments. After all, what good is a beautiful, well-supported sound if it can’t be heard over the full orchestration of a musical?

As Kinneret Ely explains, “Focus on creating the most resonant voice that you have within the parameters of your instrument.” She uses the analogy of a violin, which is able to project clearly into a large theater despite its relatively small size. The key is in optimizing the instrument’s natural resonance.

The same principle applies to the human voice. As the Kennedy Center’s vocal health guide explains, the various “mini-auditoriums” of our bodies, like the nasal cavity and chest, act as natural resonators that amplify the sound of our vocal cords.

By learning to efficiently channel our breath support and vocal cord vibration into these resonant spaces, we can produce a richer, more projecting sound without straining our voices. And in the context of a musical theater ensemble, this ability to “fill the house” with our voices is absolutely essential.

Of course, like any aspect of vocal technique, harnessing resonance is a highly individualized process. As Kinneret Ely reminds us, “Tailor technical principles to fit your specific instrument.” What works for one singer may not work for another, and it takes dedicated practice and experimentation to find the right approach for our unique voices.

But the payoff is worth it. By learning to maximize the natural resonance of our instruments, we can not only protect our vocal health, but also deliver performances that captivate and inspire our audiences, even in the largest of musical theater venues.

Embracing the Art of Rage Singing

One of the trickier vocal challenges in musical theater is what I like to call “rage singing” – those moments where our characters are experiencing intense emotions like anger, defiance, or anguish. These scenes can be vocally demanding, with composers often using techniques like extended ranges, staccato phrasing, and powerful dynamics to heighten the dramatic impact.

As Kinneret Ely shares, she once worked with a coach who gave her some invaluable advice about navigating these types of vocal moments. The key, they explained, is to approach them from a place of technical grounding, rather than just raw emotion.

“This coach then suggested that when practicing I should approach a rage sing from the perspective of singing with as grounded and centered a vocal approach as possible, almost dissecting the vocal technique from the emotional content of the piece,” Ely recounts. “From there I would not only be able to get a rage sing into my voice in an efficient way, but I would be best set up to convey the emotion of the piece – which at the end of the day would have been a composer’s goal to begin with.”

In other words, it’s not about just letting loose and screaming our way through these intense vocal moments. Instead, we need to apply our technical training in a way that allows us to channel that emotion through our voices without straining or damaging our instruments.

This is especially important in an ensemble setting, where we may be called upon to deliver these types of vocal performances repeatedly over the course of a production. By approaching “rage singing” with a grounded, technical foundation, we can ensure that we’re delivering the dramatic impact the composer intended, while still preserving the long-term health of our voices.

Cleaning Up the Fundamentals

At the end of the day, maintaining vocal health in a musical theater ensemble often comes down to mastering the fundamentals of good singing technique. And as Kinneret Ely emphasizes, one of the most important of these fundamentals is clean vocal fold adduction – in other words, the ability to bring the vocal cords together cleanly and efficiently.

“Clean vocal fold adduction in one’s chest voice, the vocal register around where we speak, is the foundation for being able to sing cleanly and healthily all throughout the rest of our range, especially in high notes,” Ely explains.

This seemingly simple concept is actually the bedrock upon which all healthy vocal production is built. Improper vocal fold adduction can lead to issues like vocal nodes, polyps, and other vocal injuries – not something any ensemble singer wants to deal with, especially in the midst of a demanding production schedule.

As voice teacher Peter Hilliard points out, the Italian language provides an ideal foundation for developing this clean vocal fold adduction, thanks to its wealth of open vowels and lack of harsh consonants. By starting with exercises and repertoire in Italian, we can train our voices to produce sound in a way that minimizes strain and maximizes efficiency.

Of course, this is just the beginning. As we progress in our vocal training, we’ll need to continue refining and reinforcing these fundamental technical principles, no matter what style of singing we’re tackling. But by mastering the basics, we lay the groundwork for a healthy, sustainable singing voice – essential for any singer navigating the demands of a musical theater ensemble.

Embracing the Journey

At the end of the day, maintaining vocal health as a member of a musical theater ensemble is a lifelong journey, not a destination. There will always be new challenges to overcome, new techniques to master, and new roles to conquer. But by approaching this journey with a spirit of curiosity, adaptability, and self-compassion, we can ensure that our voices remain strong, flexible, and resilient, even in the face of the most demanding performance schedules.

As Kinneret Ely so eloquently reminds us, “Each voice is a law unto itself. Take your own vocal path into your own hands.” No one knows your voice better than you do, and by taking an active, engaged role in its development, you can ensure that it serves you well, not just in the context of a musical theater production, but throughout your entire singing career.

So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, I encourage you to embrace the journey of vocal health. Experiment, ask questions, and surround yourself with mentors and teachers who can help you navigate the unique challenges of ensemble singing. And above all, remain true to the inherent strengths and qualities of your own singular instrument. After all, the world of musical theater is waiting to hear your voice.

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