Vocal Health for the Musical Theater Artist: Maintaining Your Instrument

Vocal Health for the Musical Theater Artist: Maintaining Your Instrument

The Haunting of Idina Menzel

You know, I’ll never forget the day I saw Idina Menzel’s New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square. The internet was abuzz with commentary – some supportive, some downright cruel. “You could hear it coming,” they said. “It was cold out. She’s lost her talent. She’s a bad role model.”

Ouch. As a fellow musical theater artist, my heart went out to Idina. I know all too well the fragility of the voice and the pressure to perform at our best, no matter the circumstances. But you know what they say – when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So instead of piling on the criticism, I decided to turn this experience into a learning opportunity.

A Communal Responsibility

See, the thing is, vocal health isn’t just the performer’s responsibility. It’s a communal effort – one that involves writers, musical directors, casting directors, and even ENTs (Ear, Nose, and Throat doctors). We’re all in this together, and it’s high time we start having an honest conversation about how to keep our singing actors healthy and thriving.

I’ve spent the last several months interviewing Broadway veterans, regional performers, and even cruise ship singers. And you know what I’ve learned? Vocal issues are becoming increasingly common in our community. From nodules to acid reflux, it seems no one is immune. But the good news is, there are ways to prevent and manage these problems. We just have to be willing to work together.

The Delicate Instrument

As a musical theater artist, your voice is your most precious instrument. It’s the conduit through which you connect with your audience, the tool that brings your character to life. And just like any other instrument, it requires careful maintenance and attention.

Think about it – a piano doesn’t just stay in perfect tune on its own. The tuner has to come in and make adjustments, tightening the strings, adjusting the hammers. And the pianist has to be diligent about their practice, ensuring they’re not striking the keys too hard or too soft.

It’s the same with the voice. You can’t just show up to rehearsal or performance and expect your voice to be ready to go. You have to warm it up, hydrate it, and protect it from the rigors of the stage. And that’s where the communal responsibility comes in.

The Writer’s Role

Let’s start with the writer. These are the brilliant minds who craft the songs and stories we bring to life. And they have a crucial role to play in preserving vocal health.

As one of my interviewees, Darius de Haas, pointed out, the writer needs to be aware of the limitations of the human voice. They can’t just write a song that climbs up to a stratospheric high A and expects the performer to nail it, night after night. That’s a recipe for vocal disaster.

Instead, the writer should work closely with the musical director and the performers to ensure the vocal demands of the piece are achievable and sustainable. And if they can’t find that balance, they need to be willing to make revisions, even if it means sacrificing their “perfect” vision.

The Musical Director’s Role

But the writer isn’t the only one with a responsibility here. The musical director also plays a crucial part in keeping the singing actor healthy.

As another interviewee, Kevin Massey, shared, the musical director needs to be attuned to any vocal issues the performer might be experiencing. If they notice something off, they need to step in and offer guidance, whether that’s adjusting the arrangement or suggesting a visit to the ENT.

And it’s not just about reacting to problems as they arise. The musical director should also be proactive, working with the performer to develop a warm-up routine and a performance regimen that keeps the voice in tip-top shape. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Performer’s Responsibility

Of course, as the musical theater center knows, the performer also has a vital role to play in maintaining their vocal health. After all, who knows your voice better than you do?

As Mamie Parris, another one of my interviewees, put it, “the greatest responsibility for maintaining vocal health falls upon the performer.” You need to be in tune with your instrument, attuned to any changes or issues that arise.

And that means being proactive about your vocal care. Warm up before every rehearsal and performance. Stay hydrated. Avoid vocal strain whenever possible. And if you do start to feel something off, don’t hesitate to speak up and get it checked out.

The ENT’s Role

But even with all that diligence, sometimes the voice still needs a little extra help. And that’s where the ENT comes in.

As Darius de Haas explained, when a performer is dealing with vocal distress, they often turn to an ENT for help. These specialists can diagnose issues like nodules or acid reflux, and prescribe treatments like vocal rest or medication.

But the ENT’s role doesn’t stop there. They should also be working closely with the performer, the musical director, and even the writer to ensure the long-term health of the voice. After all, what good is a temporary fix if the underlying problem isn’t addressed?

A Lesson Learned

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Well, for one, we need to stop pointing fingers and start working together. Vocal damage shouldn’t be a “regular part of someone’s career,” as I mentioned earlier. It’s a sign that something in the system needs to change.

And that change starts with all of us – the writers, the musical directors, the performers, and the ENTs. We need to be open, honest, and collaborative. We need to put our egos aside and focus on the greater good of the art form and the health of the artists who bring it to life.

Because at the end of the day, the show must go on. But it can’t go on if the performers are constantly struggling to keep their voices intact. And that’s why vocal health needs to be a top priority for everyone involved in the musical theater ecosystem.

So, let’s take a page from Idina Menzel’s playbook and turn our lemons into lemonade. Let’s use her experience as a catalyst for change, a wake-up call that inspires us to work together and keep our singing actors healthy and thriving. After all, the show is nothing without its stars. And we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to keep their instruments in top shape.

Maintaining Your Instrument: 7 Tips for Vocal Health

Of course, all the communal responsibility in the world won’t do you much good if you’re not taking care of your own voice. So, here are seven tips to help you maintain your instrument and keep it in peak condition:

  1. Warm Up Properly: Before every rehearsal and performance, take the time to warm up your voice. This could involve lip trills, vowel exercises, or even just some gentle humming. The key is to get your vocal cords ready for the demands of the show.

  2. Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and avoid dehydrating beverages like coffee and alcohol. Your vocal cords need to be well-lubricated to function at their best.

  3. Monitor Your Vocal Habits: Be mindful of how you’re using your voice, both on and off the stage. Avoid yelling, whispering, or straining your voice whenever possible.

  4. Get Plenty of Rest: Your voice needs downtime to recover, so make sure you’re getting enough sleep and taking breaks from singing when you can.

  5. See an ENT Regularly: Even if you’re not experiencing any vocal issues, it’s a good idea to get a checkup with an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist every so often. They can help identify any potential problems before they become serious.

  6. Be Willing to Adjust: As Darius de Haas pointed out, the way you approach your voice may need to evolve as you get older. Be open to trying new techniques and adjusting your routine as needed.

  7. Listen to Your Body: Above all, trust your instincts. If you start to feel something off with your voice, don’t ignore it. Speak up, get it checked out, and take the necessary steps to protect your instrument.

Remember, your voice is a precious gift. It’s the tool that allows you to bring your characters to life and connect with your audience in a profound way. So treat it with the care and respect it deserves, and you’ll be able to keep singing and performing for years to come.

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