Peter Van Derick

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Sound Design

The Challenge of Teaching Voice in the Microphone Era

By Peter Van Derick

Several years ago I began to be aware of an emerging trend among many of my musical theatre students. After explaining technical, musical, dramatic, and physiological reasons for a particular vocal approach, I continued to meet with resistance. The statements I would hear ran the gamut from "too legit," "Operatic," "not dramatic," "anyone can do that," and, my personal favorite, "am I allowed to do that?" In general, all the comments come down to the same complaint, that they didn’t sound like the Broadway singer they emulate.

I speculated that students were trying, either consciously or unconsciously, to reproduce the sounds they hear from their favorite singer. The problem with this is that the sound they were trying to reproduce was not a human sound. It is an electronic sound.

Having been onstage, in the same room with, or taught some of those very voices my students are desperately trying to imitate, it is sometimes amazingly difficult to convince them that the sound they are hearing in the theatre, is not the real sound of the singer’s voice. I have had many heated arguments with my students on the subject of whether or not a singer was using her chest voice up to high F. I have played recordings and video tapes of live performances for them where it is clear to practiced ear what the singer is really doing. Most of the time, they are not convinced of my argument.

I theorized that the microphone process changes the quality of the voice in ways that the listener attributes to the singer’s voice. I speculated that the voice gets an edge that masquerades as "chest" voice, particularly in the female singer. Having heard Patti Lupone in the theatre in EVITA many years ago, I wondered how is it was possible for anyone to sing in chest voice that high. Years later when I stood a few feet from Ms. Lupone I could hear very clearly that she was singing in a head voice mix with a very bright resonance. On the recording of the very same scene, it sounded very much like full chest.

While mimicking microphone singing seems to lead the female vocalist to over-singing, it tends to lead to under-singing in the male voice. Two very prestigious recent Broadway revivals featured tenors in leading roles. Both sang with a vocal approach I thought too light which did not match the physique. This is one imbalance that makes me suspicious, when the voice does not relate at all to the look of the singer. Both actors sang with an over specific placement, in this case confined to and exclusively supported by the cheekbones. This causes pitch problems, a whiny tone, an unstable vibrato, and questionable rhythm due to inability to sustain notes for the full values. The greater problem was that both singers were entirely unengaged physically and dramatically. Clearly the overriding difficulty with relying on microphones to supply defining elements of a performance, is that it is not only vocally unhealthy, it is dramatically unsatisfying for the audience.

While these thoughts were beginning to rumble around my mind, I was able to attend a lecture sponsored by the New York Chapter of NATS. The presenter was a sound designer for one of the production companies handling the amplification for several major Broadway Musicals. I arrived at the lecture with a fist full of questions, and the attitude of a pit bull ready to attack.

I was completely unnerved with the speaker’s opening words: "Amplification is ruining Broadway!" I thought, "My God! he is on our side!" He then went on to demonstrate his thesis. He had brought in about eight microphones. Among them were a floor mic, a stand mic, hand held, chest mic, three mics that fit on the head: chin, temple and fore head. In addition, there was an overhead hanging mic. A young female musical theatre student then proceeded to sing with each mic. The sound was completely different with each.

The floor mic sounded quite natural, but distant. The standing mic was still natural and more present. With the chest mic the voice sounded very deep and a little dark in color. As she progressed to the head mounted mics the sound became brighter and thinner. The chin mounted unit emphasized the mouth resonance. The temple mount was bright and edging toward nasality. The forehead unit caused the most significant distortion. The sound was extremely nasal, very bright, and whiny. The resulting quality did in fact sound like chest voice.

After the demonstration, the speaker went on to discuss his opening statement. He felt that an actor knowing the amplification can help him on an off night, could achieve a satisfying performance. However, if relied on too heavily, the fully committed performance begins to suffer. This is unfortunate for the audience and the performer. Younger performers developing in an era of electronic sound, do not ever build the craft separate from that performance crutch.

As voice teachers, what do we do with this information? How can we gain the trust of our students to believe that the sound we are encouraging is sufficient?

Repetition. Constantly remind them of this truth. Making them aware of the resonance in their own sound. Encourage them to explore the space and how it might affect the voice and resonance. Most importantly, help them eliminate any artificial brightness or focus produced through muscle tension or laryngeal pressure, and find the ring from a free and supported voice.

Sadly, it is also the producers, casting directors and musical staff who need to become award of this. All auditions are done in rooms with natural sound. If the directors are listening unconsciously for the electronic sound, it will be very hard for the young singer to succeed without trying to imitate it. The influence of certain prominent music directors on the sound of the performance is quite noticeable, as the amplified sound never seems to take center stage. However, the majority do not exercise guidance in this area.

A short time after attending this lecture, I met another sound designer and discussed my reaction to the experience with him. He suggested that I forbid my students from ever listening to professional CD recordings of Broadway shows. His description of the electronic manipulation that goes into the making of a cast recording was enlightening but not surprising. The difficulty is that these manufactured performances become a completely unachievable goal for the student. Reminding the student consistently that even the singer they admire cannot produce that performance eight times a week is very important. Sometimes a student will return from hearing a show that they have listened to hundreds of times on a CD and be disappointed by the performance they had heard. That is a wonderful moment to point out the humanity of the actor. If you are prepared for it, it is an opportunity to begin the discussion about what is real and what is electronic.

This is not meant to be a discussion of the validity of head voice over chest voice. It is about helping the student develop an awareness of human sound versus electronic sound. Too many students have never had the opportunity to her a voice in a large space without the sound being filtered through some sort of electronic device. In a classroom or vocal studio the pressure from teachers, coaches and friends to make the voice sound like the recording or the performance heard last night can be intense. I encourage my musical theater students to attend operas or symphonic choral concerts. When the become aware that there is nothing between the singer’s mouth and the listener’s ear, it can have a powerful affect on the perception of what they need to strive for in their own voices.

There are many, many fine vocalists on the Broadway. They must be accomplished and intelligent technicians as well as actors to survive the rigors of a long Broadway run. I suggest that my students try to listen "under" the artificial sound to understand what the performer may be doing. Seeing the performer live, even when the performance is different from the recording can give them great insight into the depth of the performers real craft.

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