Queen, Billy Joel, '80s metal, and even the power punk of Green Day are being performed eight times a week on Broadway and on tour—not to mention the hard-driving songs written by U2's Bono and the Edge for "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," as well as the early-rock sounds of "Million Dollar Quartet," "Jersey Boys," and "Baby It's You!" and new songs inspired by the same era in "Memphis." And don't forget "Rent" and "Hair," which will be returning to New York stages this summer.
While this more intense music is exciting audiences and bringing younger people into the theater, it is also creating new challenges for the traditional Broadway performer. Just as singers had to adjust when the musical moved away from classical influences into jazz and pop, this new type of singing changes everything again. Performers might find that their previous vocal training or experience has not prepared them for the demands now being placed on the voice.
Back Stage talked to a number of professionals about how to best approach rock vocal performance. Their insights should be helpful for those looking to add some extra vocal fireworks to their singing.
Pushing the Envelope
"Rock singers are pushing the envelope of human phonation," says voice teacher Robert Lunte, founder of the Vocalist Studio, as well as the Modern Vocalist, an online forum for rock singers. His "The Four Pillars of Singing" is a home study course for rock vocalists. According to Lunte, singers may need to undergo new vocal training to deal with these new sounds. "The singer might have to learn new muscle memories, to recalibrate timing and placements," he says.
While some of these techniques might be unfamiliar to the traditionally trained singer, they are "just as valid," argues Ethan Popp, vocal arranger and orchestrator for Broadway's "Rock of Ages." "I tell the singers who come into rock musicals to allow themselves to experience new techniques." Popp points out that these methods have allowed great rock singers to "successfully perform for 20 years or more."
OTHER STORIES IN THIS WEEK'S SPOTLIGHT
Singing for Actors
In David Coury's persuasive, insistent tone, he says "Where I've been successful is how they apply directly to the actor bringing a text to life: How does a voice make it better? How does it make a script sing, make a moment sing? I'm using singing as a metaphor. It has larger meaning."
How Does the Musical Director Shape an Actor's Performance?
There are a number of roles the musical director plays. One is the preparation that the musical director does with the actor in rehearsal, and another is the maintenance that the musical director tries to encourage through the run. Then there is the conducting of the actual performance.
Vocal distortion is one technique that can be employed to get the rock sound, but it can cause real problems. Lunte works closely with singers to show them how to create a "healthy distortion that does not put the voice at risk," he says.
Popp stresses the importance of these "glottal" types of sounds, noting, "We are taught in our musical theatre programs that these sounds are unhealthy." Popp has been studying rock singers since he was five years old and has noticed the best ones do not create these sounds by forcing air, which can cause vocal stress. "It's a pressure and release of air, holding your breath against the glottis and then relaxing. That's a completely healthy way to get that sound," he says, referring to attack and maintenance of proper breath control. However, these sounds can be very damaging to the voice in most circumstances. He elaborates, "Glottal activation, when not 'forced,' can be used to articulate the attack of open vowel sounds (such as 'ah,' 'oh,' 'eh,' etc.) while avoiding popular habits in rock and pop singing such as the addition of certain consonants to the open vowel sounds upon their attack. The most common of such habitual "pop" sounds would include the addition of an 'h' to the attack, whereas a phrase such as 'I don't wanna...' becomes "(H)I don't wanna...." Such usage of the 'h' wastes breath, and can lead to a lack of support. When the open vowel sound it attacked with a gentle relaxation of the glottis, the most value can be earned in terms of pitch and breath control. The creation of 'grinding' sounds in rock music (to accomplish them healthily) are a much more advanced technique and should only be taught under the direct supervision of a professional vocal pedagogue."
Finding a good vocal coach to help with rock's extreme sounds is absolutely necessary, according to Dr. Shawn Nasseri, a Los Angeles–based ear, nose, and throat specialist who serves as the voice doctor for "American Idol" and a large number of celebrities. "Vocal distortion should be controlled yelling as opposed to screaming," he says. "It is critical to use your technique so you can do this without hurting yourself."
How High the Moon
Boko Suzuki has been the musical director for such rock musicals as "Rent" and "Tommy." He recommends that singers master a "pop mix," so they're not trying to shout or belt the high notes. "That way, you're not using as much air or stressing your cords as much," Suzuki says. "You can do that eight times a week." Lunte works to "create the illusion that singers are belting high notes in their chest voice, but they're not," he says.
Making changes to vowel sounds can be very helpful, especially on the extreme high notes found in these shows. "Rock of Ages" has men singing up to high-E, which creates the need to "cheat" these notes, according to Popp. "We have to find a way to sing them in a healthy way. A lot of great rock singers will avoid closed vowel sounds like 'ee' or 'oo,' " he says. "Instead of singing 'me,' they'll sing 'meh,' cheating these vowel sounds so that they're open." Popp says the singer will find more ease in the upper range this way: "The jaw is more relaxed, the tongue can stay forward, and the palate can stay up. There's no tension at all in the neck or the vocal cords."
A regimen of vocal exercise is a key component to keeping the voice show-ready. Lunte recommends doing "semi-occluded" drills—various lip and tongue trills and other "buzzy" sounds. "This can help balance your air pressure and build resonance through the bridge," he says. "You will rehabilitate the voice and lift the speaking voice, making it healthier."
Lip bubbles are a must for Merissa Haddad, who has performed in "Jersey Boys" for more than two years, including on Broadway and now in Las Vegas. "I still have to go back to the core singing techniques I learned," she says, "back to the basics of singing, because if I get too far away from it in the show, I feel like I lose my singing chops."
Warming up before performances was essential for Kyle Martin when he played the Piano Man in the Billy Joel musical "Movin' Out." Martin would also use the show's 20-
minute intermission to vocalize. "The second act was vocally harsher than the first act," he says. "This way I could rehab my voice in between." His regimen worked, as he had to cancel only one out of 365 shows, "and that was for the stomach flu," he notes.
Choose Your Battles
Martin had a particular approach when singing the harder Billy Joel songs. "I chose my battles, finding the most important parts to exert the voice," he explains. "I would sing the high notes with more proper technique, so I wouldn't risk the quality of the note. If the part of the song was easier, I could add some extra growl."
Singing without a traditional musical theater vibrato is a particular challenge for Haddad: "We are constantly reminded about it by our musical director. Straight tones work better for the rock sound in our show. I still have to focus on not getting a vibrato and will catch myself doing it after two years in the show."
For Suzuki, whether to use vibrato depends on the length of the note; he adds it only on long sustained tones. "Some singers bring their big Ethel Merman vibrato right at the beginning of the note," he says. But Suzuki finds that this makes the singer sound too traditional. He suggests waiting for the bigger notes: "The longer the note, the more pronounced the vibrato. On shorter notes, you don't bring in vibrato."
Consonants are another area in which rock singing differs from traditional musical theater singing, with its more-refined pronunciation. "Rock is about spitting out the consonant at the front of the words and moving very quickly to nice open vowel sounds," says Popp. Suzuki agrees: "If it's too clean, you sound very legit or classical; it needs to be the kind of diction you would use in everyday speech."
Don't Rock 'n' Roll All Night
Nasseri recommends that singers adopt an "ascetic" lifestyle and be extremely cautious with their voice at all times in order to "maximize what they are able to do onstage." He cautions singers to stay well-humidified. "Most people in theaters dry out because of either the heating or the A.C.," he says. Haddad sleeps with a humidifier in her room to help with this. "Being in Las Vegas," she says, "it's an absolute must."
Although nearly every performer has some type of vocal spray or elixir he or she swears by, Nasseri calls most of them "voodoo." "I tell my singers to stay away from most of it," he says. "Too much lemon juice, vinegar, different sprays—these things are caustic or irritating to the throat." He suggests that singers stick with some kind of chamomile or "throat coat" tea and plenty of water: "Singers can also take Mucinex to thin out mucus, if that's okay with their system."
Nasseri has seen what happens to singers who take on a rock musical without the proper training: "I had a performer from a rock musical come in last week with a vocal cord hemorrhage. That's a bruise on the vocal cord because it's been so traumatized that they actually leak." He finds that the problem is a lack of vocal control: "They need to know how not to hurt themselves."
Haddad has found that she needs to be extremely careful with her speaking voice. "The most important thing for me when I'm not performing is I do not talk loudly," she says. This has forced her to be somewhat less social: "I stay in a lot to avoid talking over loud music. If I do go out, I am really careful to not talk as much." Nasseri agrees: "Singers need to stay very focused and disciplined, so that when they're not performing or rehearsing, they're resting their voice. No going out late after the show, and definitely don't go out drinking."
Martin also found that he had to resist the nightlife. "The musicians could go out and party," he says, but his voice needed rest, especially with a grueling tour schedule. "We would sometimes have 4:30 a.m. bus calls, and I can't sleep on a bus." Even naps had to be correctly timed. "If I took a nap, I knew I had to be awake at least three hours before showtime," he says.
Suzuki has found a common trait among all the successful singers with whom he works: "The singers who take care of themselves, who have a routine, those are the ones who do best. It's not about talent; it's about a work ethic." He points out that "the people who have had the long rock 'n' roll careers do not tend to live the stereotypical rock 'n' roll lifestyle."
There is also a new trend of casting singers with rock backgrounds in rock musicals, which offer a set of challenges that the average rock singer has not faced. "Rock singers typically sing a 90-minute set, with breaks in between performances," says Nasseri. "They are not used to singing a two-hour show eight times a week."
The typical grueling theater schedule, combined with extreme vocal demands, means that singers must find a way to pace themselves. "It's about not blowing it out in one shot," says Popp, "which you can do when you have one gig down at the Bitter End."
Being true to the material of "Movin' Out" while saving his voice was a challenge for Martin. "I had to fight between a musical director who wanted me to sing a certain way versus ways I know will save my voice," he says. "I had to find an alternate way to do what they wanted me to."
Martin had several strategies for getting through the show's two solid hours of intense singing, including developing two separate versions of his vocal performance: "I created an A show and a B show, depending on how important the show was. The B show was still very good, but the A show would have extras in there, more vocal risks."
Suzuki recommends waiting for key parts of the song: "You don't have to scream every note. Pick your moments, and it will make your songs more exciting."
Even with all the risks associated with rock musicals, the good news is that, with hard work, this great music can be performed at a high standard consistently. Says Popp, "Anyone who comes to this with an open mind and dedication can succeed at it."