Peter Van Derick

  Help for the Classical Teacher mit Angst

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When I began teaching Broadway voice students over 10 year ago, I had no experience with that musical style. I had been singing opera internationally for over 30 years, and the last Broadway musical I had seen was a national tour of A CHORUS LINE. I knew how to teach voice, but I was not really aware of the current Broadway scene, and knew less of the successful shows from the ‘70 - 90.s. Not a great recommendation actually.

I was hired by the very farseeing Vocal Chair at CAP21...who was stocking her vocal stable with teachers who had operatic experience and/or training. She wisely understood that a classical vocal technique was applicable and necessary for a Broadway sound.

Suddenly I had a studio filled with Broadway babies. I figured out very quickly that I could teach them what I considered “a perfect technique,” which for me meant classical. That would mean lovely singing, but probably no jobs for them. Or, I could go about giving them useful technical tools that would result in good vocal health and longevity, and employment. Since most of the voice students did not possess operatic tendencies or aspirations, I did not think it was ethical to teach them to sing with pear-shaped tones and then dismiss them with a stern warning that to sing musical theater literature would damage them vocally. So, I decided to embark on the second alternative, which has been a wonderful adventure for me and my students.

The majority of young people today interested in singing, have most likely come to it through exposure to Musical Theatre written after 1980, not from opera. While it is important for the teacher to expose students to a broad array of music, there may not be the curiosity to pursue operatic study even if they had the vocal potential. Beyond their musical tastes, vocal aptitude will clearly define which direction a voice should develop. I find it sad that many fine, if not world class vocal students, are simply dismissed by teacher after teacher because of the lack of classical vocal promise. The students are left to fend for themselves and more often than not end up in severe vocal trouble. These students deserve our respect and expertise.

Here are some of the discoveries I made along the way which may give you some courage to proceed where you have not gone before.


Broadway is not necessarily the cause of the vocal problems, but bad technique certainly can be. Singing the operas of Wagner and Strauss have ruined many great voices,while many others have sailed through with long and healthy careers. It was the poor technique or singing incorrect repertoire, that snuffed out those careers. Do not the assume that simply singing Musical Theater (MT) repertoire is the sole cause of the vocal issues.


As you would with any voice student who comes to you for guidance, look at their level of development. What do they do correctly? What training have they had? You will need to check breathing and support issues to discern whether or not the singer is in agreement with what you believe to be correct. Work on the posture. Get rid of tension. All the rules still apply. Go for the obvious problems first: facial tension, jutting jaw, high larynx, faulty breathing. These are difficulties that must be corrected regardless of the type of music the student is will perform.


The physical commitment of the entire body is necessary to sing an operatic aria in a 2000 seat auditorium over an 80 piece orchestra. While Broadway is generally more conversational, the physical exertion will be similar to classical singing rather than to conversational speech. The need to teach this type of exaggerated technique is paramount. Because Broadway requires 8 performances a week it becomes clear why this is necessary. At the end of the week, youth, natural response, and enthusiasm will not win the day. The singer must know how to activate the supporting mechanism to manage their breath even though the body may not be willing or able to do so on demand. My experience has been that dancers and pop singers manage to sing amazingly well with virtually no real technique for the simple reason that they are physically active while they sing.


The following is what is I see regularly with new students:

Female voices tend to sing with a whiny, thin, immature sound for a fake belt that has no chest connection. It is usually produced by pinching every available bit of resonance out of the sound.

Male voices usually have a more natural and healthy approach in the middle voice, but sing with a high laryngeal position in the upper voice, and a spread mouth resonance.

Dancers will generally have no connections to the breath and use a very intense vocal closure. Previously I stated that I thought dancers may be able to sing well in spite of the lack of real technique, I was referring to singing while dancing. When a dancer stands up to sing without the benefit of movement, almost every connection to their natural vitality is lost.



For the MT student the greatest issues will be the fear of being turned into an opera singer. The teacher’s response must NOT be laughter. In most cases I find that technical and pedagogical explanations fall on deaf ears. If you approach the vocal changes as a requirement for dramatic color and emotional expression you can almost always get the student to take the journey with you.

My MT students all are required to sing the basic 24 Italian ditties. There is usually a great deal of resistance for about 2 songs, then the student begins to feel some change in the way they are singing their other material. I keep these arias as part of the “warm-up”, so mentally it is not “real singing”. They are required to get a literal english translation from an online site, which they read as a monologue. I also ask them to select an MT song which carries the same emotional properties. In this way, they begin to have an dramatic reference for that sound.


At least a portion of the vocalises should be emotionally motivated, and sung with emotional connection. Rotate the emotion randomly with each stepwise change. Develop vocalises with words, so that the MT students understand the experience of singing a full word with the full sound that is emotionally committed. MAKE IT FUN!. My studio is filled with exercise balls, thigh masters, Pilates rings, hand grips, and Chinese Bell Balls. They get pulled into service regularly.

When an important technical breakthrough occurs, immediately ask the student how it is happening. Is it the body, the breath, the jaw? Try to apply that to song material by helping the students understand how the dramatic need of the song could require that type of breath or posture. If the new technique is not related to a dramatic need, it will usually be misplaced in the heat of a performance or audition.



You already know and are teaching more of these techniques than you may realize. Most classical teachers do not understand that the knowledge they already possess relates directly to teaching the musical theater sound. If you are teaching a mezzo-sop who will sing Eboli or Amneris you are already working with some of the techniques needed for the female MT voice. If you are teaching an operatic tenor, you are well on your way to understanding how to teach a female belter. In most cases for the male voice simply making the diction more conversational will move the sound from the classical realm into the Broadway without disturbing a correctly produced operatic position.


Belting is a frightening concept for most classical singers and teachers. It’s received a lot of bad press and is very misunderstood. First, understand what it is and isn’t. It isn’t singing as loud and as high as possible in chest voice for a whole song! Chest and Belt are different. One is voice, the other is style. Most young singers attempt to belt in chest all the time. The great belters never belted all the time. At most, there are a few phrases and high notes in a song that are full-out belt. It may or may not be vocally advisable to belt an entire song, but it is certainly very boring to do so. Belting must be emotionally or musically justified. If there is no dramatic reason for that word being belted, then the note must be approached differently.

Listen to the great Broadway singers of the past with different ears. John Raitt, Alfred Drake, Richard Kiley, Mary Martin, yes, even Ethel Merman. Merman never sang in chest all through her range as most listeners assume. Her singing is much closer to what a dramatic mezzo would use. Although she did not sing on Broadway, I would include Judy Garland in this list, particularly the earlier recordings. The performance of Harold Arlen’s THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY from the movie soundtrack of A STAR IS BORN, is one of the finest examples of healthy MT singing: steady larynx position, open, clear throated sound with easy transitions between head voice and chest. Continuous high belting can frequently lead to vocal pathologies, such as nodules. This is one of the reasons we tend to shy away from teaching the technique for this style. But proper training should enable most singers to be successful with it.


Most young singers are completely unaware that the printed music they have is in a different key than the recording from which they learned the song. In general, all MT musical selections before a very few years ago were printed in keys comfortable to play for the pianist, and are a 3rd to a 5th higher than the actual performance version. Yet the singer will try to make his/her voice do what the original performer did with the song unaware of the harm they may be doing to themselves.

I have a theory, with no way to prove it, that this is one of the major reasons we are dealing with voices that are able to belt so much higher today than 30 years ago. A few generations of singers attempting to sing material in keys which are too high, has actually altered the direction of vocal technique and style. Whether or not this is true, it is still most important for young singers to know the correct key of a song, and to find the music appropriate for his/her voice.

The SINGER’S MUSICAL THEATRE ANTHOLOGY is a great aid in this department. Four volumes for each of the four voice types with a wide ranging array of music from early operetta to contemporary Broadway. All of the songs are published in the original performance keys with the original accompaniments. Most of these keys were previously unavailable until the publication of these volumes.


How does it all work? Work from the dramatic point of view. The student should prepare the text of a song as a monologue, using all of the acting tools available. If the student has had formal speech work in a dramatic training program, this is the time to use it. Many actors speak with excellent vocal placement and support, which is immediately abandoned when they start singing. Help them to understand how good speech and singing are related. Singing MT is more about speaking on pitch than we want to admit. As they add the emotional factors to their interpretation, it is a good idea to work with a mirror; they can become aware of all the physical ‘addition’s they have made. Have the student speak a phrase, and then sing it. In most cases, there is no reason for the mouth, jaw, and face to look any different if the song is in a comfortable conversational range.

Vocalize the song to get it mechanically in as good shape as possible. Use one vowel thoughout, then find the predominate vowel sound for each phrase. This helps the singer feel the best resonance space for each line of the song. Then reassemble the song keeping full awareness of the dramatic and vocal work just done. At this stage, insist that the presentation be dramatically involved even in the vocal studio. The physical and vocal work will not come together without the dramatic element being present. This is something something I have taken back to my operatic students. Attention to text and dramatic intent were never part of my training to the degree I now understand they are required on both the classical and Broadway stage. Always insist that the emotional stakes of the performance be raised to the highest degree possible. Whatever the song, no matter how simple, it must always be a matter of life or death for performer. You will be amazed at what this brings to the quality of the tone and to the physical involvement.


Addressing physical problems such as posture and tension in the neck and jaw can be done by asking questions about the dramatic viability of that physical expression. Ask, “If you were a director, what would you say to an actor who presented that facial expression all the way through this song?” Or, “if a singer auditioned for you holding his body in that position, would you give him the job?” That will usually get you the response you need to work on the problem.


There was a time when it was acceptable for MT performers to be musically illiterate. This is no longer the case. I find a higher level of musical knowledge among my students today than I did a few years back. When I encounter one with minimal skills, I insist on correcting it. Improved musical skills result in improved vocal technique almost immediately. Help the singer look for subtexts in the accompaniment of the songs. Knowing how long a note is to be sustained, brings greater confidence to the presentation. Remind them that during their careers they may actually sing for the composer of the song, and it would be a good idea to know what he had originally written. This can be a good encouragement. Nothing will lose a job faster than singing wrong notes in front of the composer. The music of our new crop of young composers, Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, requires serious musicianship, as does the music of Stephen Sondheim.


If you think something is wrong with the vocal chords, say so, and recommend a visit to the Doctor. If a clean bill of health is the diagnosis, then you know. Request a video tape or photograph of the vidoescopy for use in the future. If a vocal fold pathology or muscle tension is diagnosed, then a new course of action must be immediately devised.


There is no need to over emphasize the need for practice at first. Insist that the student record the lesson, and try to give a tight 10-15 minute warm-up without interruption. This allows the student to replay the lesson without having to fast forward through conversation. It might not be possible to do this at the first lesson or two, but after a pattern has been established, it may be easier. If the student can work with the tape 2-3 times a week between lessons, that is enough. In addition to that, suggest that they vocalize at least 8 minutes a day on their own. That is such a reasonable amount of time to devote to this, that they will always agree and usually follow through. Obviously, they can go longer, but no less that 8 minutes.

If you can play piano well enough to record the accompaniments, record as much as time allows. There are site on the internet where MIDI file of standard songs are available in adjustable keys. Also, several Broadway and Classical collections come with accompaniment CD’s now.


With students new to voice study, I always start with a collection of early standards. Rodgers and Hart, Gerschwin, and Kern all produced songs which will have the same benefits of the 24 Italian Arias. They have easy melodies, comfortable ranges, and less complicated emotional demands. My starter list includes MY ROMANCE(R&H), EMBRACEABLE YOU(Gerschwin), THE SONG IS YOU(Kern), I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT(Ellington), IT’S TIME FOR A LOVE SONG( Lerner and Lane), ANYONE CAN WHISTLE(Sondheim),IF EVER I WOULD LEAVE YOU(Lerner& Loewe) for baritones, and MY SHIP(Weil) for the female just beginning to use head voice.

It is my experience with MT students that they progress rapidly from song to song, but do not improve by working a song over and over. I suggest no more than two weeks(lessons) on any given song once it is learned to a reasonable degree. Move through as many songs as possible for a few months, then go back to see if the new growth can be added to the early songs.

By the end of this list, you should have a clear idea of what direction a voice is taking and where the work is needed. At this point, ask the student to search out their own material. Especially if you are unfamiliar with MT repertoire. The students should be requested to find two songs: a ballad and an up-tempo, for each decade, starting at least with 1940(possibly 1920, 1930’s if the voice has some operetta potential), right up to the present. The singer can amass a rather large book of usable material in a very short time.

The time commitment to bring an operatic voice full circle may be many patient years of growth and training. MT singers, by contrast, can begin to audition and get jobs in as little as six months. With so few of these singers having any practical training, the ones who do, show a confidence that immediately puts them in a class apart from the untrained. There is an energy and enthusiasm I find very affecting in these singers, that is often missing from the “serious voice students.” Perhaps this is related to the shorter turn around time. Maybe it comes from finally getting the attention they have desperately sought for so long.

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