Crossover Corner: Musical Theatre Techniques

Crossover singing can be an intimidating process for classical singers. Learn more about ways to make technical progress on musical theatre techniques.

 

After working with dozens of classical singers who want to learn to belt, I have noticed a few challenges that seem to consistently turn up in their musical theatre voice lessons. 

First, you need to learn to relax your inhalations. There is no need to access your lowest, fullest breath. Phrasing for musical theatre repertoire is much shorter than in classical repertoire and, because this music is text driven and rarely melismatic, singers can usually breathe about every 2 or 3 measures. Also, the amount of sound output is significantly less and therefore calls for less breath. Lastly, the physiological function of mix/belt requires less breath flow through the vocal folds, and if you are using your classical breath while trying to access mix/belt functions, you will be unsuccessful and find these functions to be elusive and unstable while experiencing a lot of cracking, or unwanted register shifts into the head voice or mode 2 function. 

This relaxation of the inhalation is not new to you or your body. This is how you breathe when you speak. You now just need to connect this to singing and be able to let go of default habits of preparing to sing with a long slow inhalation. This may be difficult, as you may have had a classical voice teacher who has spent hours teaching you how to breathe for classical singing. 

You don’t have to let go of the practice entirely—you still need it for your classical singing. But singers who can let go of this instinct when approaching musical theatre singing will be more successful in their crossover endeavors. It may be helpful to think of your musical theatre lessons less like singing lessons and more like the speech and voice work actors do. This will not only help you find the right breath functions but will also help you connect to the conversational style and the speech mix function (also called chest mix or belt). 

Secondly, if you want to access mix/belt functions, you need to be able to release your larynx from a low stabilized position. Singers who try to maintain the ideal classical position of the larynx will really struggle to access any mix/belt function of the voice mechanism. Keeping the larynx grounded in a low position while trying to make sounds in a chest-dominant mix will create tension in the tongue base and jaw and will again result in cracking and finding it very difficult to sing in a mode 1 or chest dominant function. 

This is also what makes the attempt to mix/belt seem dangerous or unhealthy or impossible. But I assure you that once the larynx is released and allowed to lift slightly and tilt forward, these sounds are easily made and very sustainable. If you find the release of your larynx to be elusive, practice yodeling. Sing scalar intervals while yodeling on the way up, and then reverse and yodel on the descent. 

 Third, classical singers need to be able to think of their speech as singing. Trust that it is enough and that you can actually use a speech function on the pitches that have been written in the repertoire. This means that you don’t need to think about registration because we don’t think about registration when speaking. We don’t think about if we’re going to say the next sentence in head voice or chest voice, or where in the next sentence we should switch into head voice. We are not thinking about pitches or where to resonate a certain word, and we are not thinking when or how to inflect our phrase up or down. 

And all of this is truer than you would think when using our voices in musical theatre functions and repertoire. If you are speaking in a connected or chest-dominant speech, you can mix and belt with ease, health, and sustainability. And you will be stylizing this genre appropriately.

You can use various exercises to explore a more conversational approach to the musical theatre repertoire. For example, experiment with different kinds of “character voices.” Try using accents and speaking in heightened or melodramatic ways. One of my favorites is the snobby British person voice that says things like “Mother, it’s time for tea.” Using a standard British accent helps me use my voice in a higher pitch range. 

There are an infinite number character voices and dialects that you can explore that will help you use your speaking voice in more dynamic ways and prepare you to sing with speech-influenced function. 

You may also want to “monologue” the lyrics—but rather than using normal speech inflections, let the melody influence how you inflect the phrases. So, if the notes go up, take your speech up—but don’t worry about landing on the right pitches yet or holding out the long notes. 

You can also try out your character voices while using the melody-influenced pitch inflections. Also, explore what musical theatre voice teachers use as a basis for a chest-dominant mix or belt, which is “calling out.” Use phrases that you would use in normal life when talking to people far away, such as “Hey, friends! Wait for me!” or “That’s my phone!” Just explore what kinds of sounds your speaking voice can make in a variety of pitch ranges and dynamics.

Lastly, do the character work before you even attempt to do any singing. Remember that mix/belt function and repertoire are emotionally motivated. The technique and kinesthetic experiences will come together much faster if you are connecting them to the feelings and experiences of a character. 

Approach this work as an actor rather than a singer. I have found that this makes classical singers feel very vulnerable. It is hard to let go of wanting to have the voice all lined up before opening ourselves to the vulnerability of a character’s feelings, especially when this type of singing feels very new and unfamiliar. This is when those trained instincts of taking deep breaths and grounding the larynx will kick in the most, and yet those techniques will not help this. 

If you have difficulty, consider doing some more acting training that is not associated with singing. Take a straight acting class, audition for a straight play, or work with an acting coach on monologues. The more you can lean into your actor self and away from your singer self, the more accessible musical theatre singing will be for you.

Still, even in light of all of these helpful suggestions, the most important is to give yourself time. Don’t expect immediate results. Find a qualified musical theatre voice teacher to help you. Give yourself a safe space to explore new things where mistakes, cracks, barking, or otherwise primal sounds are not only welcome but a crucial part of the learning process. 

You didn’t learn to be a great classical singer in a year or a few voice lessons. The same will be true of your journey as a musical theatre singer—and yet, with the right guidance and hard work, it can be a beautiful and fulfilling journey.

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.