Common Mistakes in Learning Musical Theater Songs

The wants of the musical theater industry are constantly in flux. At the moment, the trends have moved away from wanting to hear obscure, never-before-heard songs to songs that are known quantities, and away from trying to replicate the artist on a cast album. Instead, artists are expected to bring their unique artistry to the music and the acting.* What is not in flux are the tools available to the performer to prepare a piece of music. I have borrowed, with permission, the phrase The-Tools-of-the-Tune from my colleague, Dr. David Herendeen, at Oklahoma City University, to highlight some of the practices singers can employ to avoid the common mistakes in learning a piece of music.

*There are always exceptions.

Tools-of-the-Tune: All of the devices at a composer’s disposal to craft a song, AND all of the devices at the singers’ disposal to learn and interpret a song.

MISTAKE #1: Copying the rhythms, pitches, and style from the recording artist instead of learning the notes, rhythms, and style indications as they were written by the composer. 

The result of mimicry is that intonation, rhythmic clarity, and pulse suffer. The singer is copying, so a secure sense of pulse is often absent, pitches often lack a clear center, creating an overall insecure sense of rhythm and messy intonation. By copying another person’s artistry, the singer is not giving their own a chance.

Tools-of-the-Tune: Lay a firm and clear foundation by learning the pitches and rhythms on the page.

  • Composers write music with dramatic intention, and with composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein and Sondheim, etc., you can guarantee that they had strong artistic choices behind that quarter note, triplet, tritone, fermata, etc.
  • By learning the music on the page first, you can then make decisions to alter what is on the page from an educated and artistic perspective. You must be able to explain your choices to a music director, teacher, director, or coach. 
  • Ask questions about the composer’s choices?
  • Why did the composer change the rhythm in the second verse?
  • Why a ritardando at this point in the song?
  • Why is a railroad track/caesura marked here? (hint: the composer wants you to make a strong acting choice)
  • Why a triplet? Why 4 quarter notes instead of swung notes?

MISTAKE # 2: Ignoring the composer’s dynamic markings, changes in key and time signatures as well as changes in the piano or orchestral texture.

The composers choices for dynamics, key and time signatures, and texture changes have dramatic thought behind them. In acting terms, there is usually a dramatic beat occuring at these points in the music. Use them as sign posts to lead you toward a more fully developed dramatic work.

Tools-of-the-Tune: Use the dynamic markings in the vocal AND instrumental parts as well as dramatic changes in the texture of the accompaniment, and any key time signature changes to inform your acting and vocal choices.

  • What does a piano dynamic indicate in this piece of music? 
  • Why a crescendo or decrescendo here or there? 
  • Why a subito piano? 
  • Young singers often need to ignore dynamics while they are laying a technical foundation, but the dynamics, especially sudden dynamic changes indicate that acting choices need to be made even if a dynamic change is unavailable.
  • Key changes and big style/texture changes like a change from block chords to arpeggiation in the piano/orchestra change the atmosphere and energy of the song. Ask yourself “how” and “why” in every song.

MISTAKE #3: Using the same vocal strategies as another singer.

Tools-of-the-Tune: Understand what vocal expectations the composer had originally, then make choices that make sense for YOUR voice with the guidance of your teachers and coaches.

  • Did the composer create the song with a specific singer in mind? What if your voice doesn’t work like that singer’s voice? If you feel the song is perfect for you, adjust your vocal choices to what YOUR voice does best, not what the person’s voice on the recording does best. 
  • It is not for you to judge whether or not you are right for a part. Let the artistic team do that. They may find your acting choices, or look, or color of your voice more important than the strategy you use to hit notes in the extreme parts of your voice.
  • Bonus: Why did the composer choose a high note or a low note on that word? Why middle voice for much of the song?

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MISTAKE #4: Ignoring poetic devices and subtext present in the lyrics.

Tools-of-the-Tune: Analyze the lyrics like poetry.

  • What poetic devices were utilized? Internal rhyme, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc.?
  • How did the composer respond to the lyrics musically? What rhythms are prevalent? 
  • If the composer/lyricist chose words with plosives consonants, what might that indicate, or vice versa, with fluid consonants? 
  • Is the composer sensitive to setting the text with the singer’s passaggio and vowel modification needs in mind? Observe and respond accordingly.

MISTAKE #5. If the performance is with orchestra, ignoring instrumentation.

Tools-of-the-Tune: Research what is happening in the orchestral accompaniment to your songs.

  • For example: singing with only strings or with brass and percussion should inform your interpretation of the music.
  • Is the orchestra commenting on the drama or underscoring the character’s emotion?
  • Singers often forget that the piano/orchestra is a collaborator in your creating art. Listen to more than just the vocal line. 
  • This is made more difficult by the singer librettos that have no accompaniment part. You will often have to go to a library to find this information. Listening to the recording, and listening specifically to the orchestra can provide valuable information.

MISTAKE #6: Singing and acting with the recording without practicing first.

If you are copying, you are probably not taking the time to get the technique into your voice. You are memorizing bad technical habits by not working on breath line, passaggio issues, any vowel modifications needed, consistent resonance, vibrato or straight tone issues, registration issues, tongue, neck and jaw functionality issues, etc. 

Tools-of-the-Tune: Looking ahead in the music for places in the music that will need extra work.

  • Finding those vowels that give your issues before you sing through the song.
  • Are there any consonants, or consonant cluster that create tensions for you?
  • Are there particular long phrases that need extra attention?
  • Are there any melismas/runs that need slow practice before attempting them at full speed?
  • Are there any places where a cadenza or riffs are expected?
  • Pinpoint and work out where the registration switches work best for YOU!

Why copy when you can create? The Tools-of-the-Tune ARE the artistry and will make you stand out at an audition. You are a COLLABORATOR with composer, lyricist, and pianist or orchestra. When you work together, the music leaps off the page and becomes a living thing.  This work makes magic of the dots and words on the page. Make magic!

For more great advice about singing musical theatre, try Skills You Need for a Musical Theatre Program!

Courtney Crouse

Dr. Courtney Crouse is an Associate Professor of Voice at the Wanda L. Bass School of Music teaching advanced vocal pedagogy, vocal performance, opera, and musical theater majors. Crouse received her DM and MM from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and her BA from Texas Wesleyan University. She is also an active performer of operatic, musical theater, and jazz repertoire.