Sondheim Singers, Want to Learn to Hold Your Notes for Longer?

Photo Source: Michael Lavine

Tony nominee Melissa Errico (“Amour”) has been keeping busy the last few years! In addition to being a working mother, the singer-actor has also had some guest arcs on “The Knick,″ “Billions,” and “The Gaffigan Show”—and just wrapped her first round of “Melissa Errico Sings Sondheim” at Feinstein’s/54 Below! Here, she offers a professional’s tips on tackling Sondheim, vocal health, and holding your notes for longer.

Why did you decide to do “Melissa Errico Sings Sondheim”?
I stopped and thought about my concerts over the last few years at many venues in the city and around the country. I have been singing cabaret my whole career, especially and more often in the last five years. Concerts allowed me to get back on stage after giving birth to three daughters once they were about ages 3, 3, and 5. I felt I could remind myself—and my beloved colleagues—that I still missed my work, that my heart never left Broadway. It wasn’t easy to balance my return to that actress identity with all the fun and fascination of young kids to amuse me.

By this point, I have found a groove as both a mother and an actor; one life enhances the other in unexpected ways. So this year when 54 Below asked me back, I thought maybe it was time to to try a new kind of concert that was personal in the way a topic interests me, a person, a fascination. Then I would research and study and share it, with less of a focus on confessional stories of my own life. It was Sondheim who rose to the top. I wanted to study him and figure out why he hits me to the core.

Which of his works do you think is essential for any musical theater actor to know about and why?
I think “Company” is an exciting and groundbreaking show. It’s a fascinating look at how Sondheim’s contribution to musical theater went deeply into human psychology and ambivalence. No other musical I can think of swirls inside the mind like it—exploring personal fears and how we make choices. “Getting Married Today” might very well be the funniest stream of consciousness, most neurotic song in history.

What are the biggest challenges of singing his songs? How do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge is learning the lyrics. You must slow down and pay attention to every small thought shift. The lyrics will always make sense, and the order of details become inevitable. When you slow way down and study the songs beat by beat, you start to realize how Sondheim himself writes purely for actors. He has an actor’s mind.

READ: How to Audition With Sondheim

What are your favorite methods to keep your voice healthy?
After having lived through ups and downs on this topic, I have known several of the industry’s top doctors. Their advice goes like this: “water, water, water.” And I would add sleep.

Hydration in every form is essential. Steaming is good, though I don’t do it often enough. I always have a steamer backstage and in the winter. I sleep with a cool mist humidifier. I drink a half gallon a day when I’m working. I love tea and I love showers. I would say if there’s water in the activity, then it’s a good activity.

Once when I was 22, I was asked, in the studio, to record a strong loud scream when I was starring in “My Fair Lady” on Broadway. That night I broke a tiny capillary on my vocal cord—and this was before there were lasers that can easily repair such a thing. This kind of injury, from yelling or pushing too hard, is very common and is very curable. I did not sing on it and I healed perfectly. But many people get hoarse and keep on pushing along. If you are the slightest bit hoarse, go to your doctor! It’s like an athlete. You feel a sprain, you don’t stay in the game. You rest. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Do you have any tips for performers who are looking to hold notes longer?
I have noticed over the years that learning about certain posture adjustments can help a last note ring out nice and long. Nice tall posture, not tense. It always helps to study Pilates and Alexander Technique type stuff. Get to know your individual tendencies. I personally have a gymnast’s posture from my childhood as a competing gymnast and dancer, and need to watch my rib cage doesn’t pooch out.

Sustaining long notes comes from a lot of places: You want a relaxed jaw, a good simple vowel choice, and a good calm inhale. And you want to not psych yourself out! Some songs I love so much and my voice just flies. Other songs where I’m second-guessing then become more tricky. Sometimes I practice singing freely without making sound, as in mouth the song and just breathe it, like a music video with no volume on. Practice that free and easy process as a kind of visualization of singing, then try it with sound; I always notice it sounds and feels freer.

What’s your favorite Sondheim musical and why?
“Sunday in the Park With George,” because it is musically intoxicating and full of themes that fascinate me. I was an art history and philosophy major at Yale, and have always loved studying the lives behind the canvases. I admire Sondheim’s own ability to concentrate and become absorbed in a creative process, much like he expressed in the song “Finishing the Hat,” an artist in a cocoon of his own creation.

Catch Errico at Birdland on July 3 where in addition to performing, she’ll be doing a talkback for young actors. (Drop her a line!) She’ll also be appearing in two free concerts of “Kiss Me, Kate” in the Hamptons on Long Island in August, and will return to Feinstein’s/54 Below Nov. 17–18, 2017 for another round of “Melissa Errico Sings Sondheim.”

Put these tips to the test! Check out Backstage’s Broadway audition listings!