The dreaded screlt. Like an uninvited party crasher, this unsavory contraction of scream and belt sometimes shows up at musical theater auditions without warning. But more often it’s an insidious visitor, detectable from a mile away when you know the signs to look out for. Whether the product of well-intentioned, sing-out-Louise parental coaching or natural pipes of steel that have yet to be brought under volitional control, there are many reasons why screlting just isn’t a good idea. For one, it isn’t ever truly necessary to storytelling or characterization. On top of that, chronic screlting can lead to vocal pathology.
But learning how not to oversing can be a process that feels easier said than done. To get you started, here are five tips to launch you on the path of getting rid of that screlt once and for all.
1. Make a plan for approaching the peak.
Although it’s true that screlts can emerge seemingly from nowhere, greeting those in their path like an out-of-left-field slap to the face, they much more commonly arise from growing effort and tension that precede them, the result of inadequate breath management or insufficient support. Think of scaling a particularly tricky mountain, only to have your legs turn to jelly the minute you reach the summit. The same thing occurs when you’ve pushed through a particularly challenging vocal passage, instead of having taken the time to carefully pre-plan your ascent from a technical standpoint. In the case of the screlt though, your musical legs still have to keep going. Rather than giving in with a victorious rest at the mountaintop, your voice continues to push even harder to screlt that sustained money note.
Don’t forget, push is a dirty word when it comes to the voice. Never do it. Always pre-plan your approach to a belted note or passage, and stick to the plan.
2. Throttle back and trust the lift.
If we think of flying in its simplest terms, we can identify two primary things that keep the plane moving aerodynamically toward our destination: engine power and lift. When oversinging, it’s frequently the case that our engines are set to near-maximum power, making it almost impossible to achieve control over what results from our vocal mechanism. It can be a scary thing to throttle back on the engines of our voices and allow the natural lift of the airstream to support our desired notes and tone. But with solid training, a singer can learn to create the right amount of airflow and become equipped to manage it in such a way that the lift and engines work in tandem.
Remember, effective breath support does not equal engines at full throttle. Good support means channeling the right amount of energy to undergird the vocal sounds you’re desiring to make in healthy ways.
3. Delegate excess vocal energy to other aspects of your performance.
One symptom of oversinging can be that too much energy is being focused on the vocal aspect of one’s performance. Instead of delegating energy across various dimensions of the moment (characterization, physicality, connectedness, tactics), oversinging often emerges from too much onus for an energetic performance being placed on the voice alone. This is certainly not to say that we should deprive the voice of the energy necessary to sing powerfully and healthily, but too frequently the vocals seem to be the only aspect of a performance receiving such attention.
In most cases, I suggest that performers conceive of vocal auditions for musicals primarily as acting auditions. Clearly, it’s important that the casting director becomes acquainted with your voice and what it’s capable of. But shifting one’s focus to conceive of the moment as an acting audition can be especially helpful in channeling all of that good, passionate energy into multiple dimensions of a sung dramatic moment, thus freeing the voice from the burden of totality.
4. Work consistently toward vocal flexibility.
In developing a program for training the singing voice, it’s important to include exercises and vocalises that focus on the goal of creating additional flexibility in the voice. Flexibility can take the form of switching more effortlessly between registers, being able to navigate tricky arpeggiated passages, or ironing our sirens and glides. Just as increased flexibility in the body results in the ability to achieve more impressive extensions as a dancer, so too does increased flexibility as a vocalist afford one greater access to an extended range and successful register blending.
Think once more about the airplane’s wings. They’re engineered with flexibility to allow for lift. Like these wings, the vocal mechanism mustn’t be stiff and immobile if we expect it to function as designed.
5. Call, don’t yell.
One of the most ubiquitous techniques for teaching belting is the “call,” whereby the singer learns to belt by conceiving of calling across a room, canyon, or other space. Voice teachers in the musical theater world often spend many hours of their days coaching students to discern the difference between this call and a yell or shout, and certainly to differentiate it from a screlt. By learning to call within a particular pitch spectrum, and then to extend that call, the singer can learn to belt without strain, fatigue, or oversinging. More often than not, the contemporary belt is actually a relatively light phenomenon, capable of expressing shades of characterization without putting undue pressure on the voice or resulting in a scream.
So, the next time you find yourself preparing for a musical theater audition, remember: to screlt is human, to belt is divine.
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