Vocal training for dancers
All dancers aspiring to a career in musical theatre need to be able to sing. Even if music theatre is not your ambition,having a good voice will make you a more versatile performer and enhance your employment prospects. However, the discipline to be a great singer is very similar to the discipline required to become a great dancer – you need to study with a good teacher and focus on the physiological and technical aspects of the craft while building your voice.
Leontine Hass is a vocal and performance coach and the founding principal and CEO of Associated Studios Australia and London. In that role she has worked with dancers in most of the large West End shows and many Australian shows. She has also worked on The Voice UK for many years and in vocal rehabilitation for singers.
“Things have changed in the world of musical theatre,” she says. “These days dance calls are often first. Many performing arts academies train excellent dancers with limited singing and acting abilities. The problem is that to work consistently in this industry performers need to be ‘triple threats’. The ones who are, never stop working.”
Many dancers, she says, completely underestimate both their ability and their potential as singers. “They also underestimate their ability to take charge of their singing and substantially progress it. In my experience many dancers regard singing as an unattainable skill. However, singing is like dancing with your voice. Singing is a physical skill. Great singers are great vocal athletes. . . if you stick at it and practise consistently and intelligently, voices are able to improve beyond recognition.”
Dancers already have an advantage in that they are disciplined and naturally musical. However, they do also have some particular challenges compared with the average population – one of these being their athletic physiques (!)
“Almost every vocal coach will tell you that dancers tend to have very tight abdominal muscles,” Hass says. “This is challenging, as breathing and support for singing is like the ‘ebb and the tide of the sea’. While inhaling it is important to release the tongue, the jaw, the larynx and the lower abdominal muscles all the way down to the pelvic floor. This ‘ripple release’ and ‘recoil’ allows the lungs to expand downwards and sideways; it allows the singer to re-engage the core stability muscles without tension building; it allows a split second of release before everything has to be back in place for optimal vocalisation.
“Dancers tend to be very held. This means that their breath will tend to be higher in the lungs and it means that tension can build. It is a little like a weight lifter constantly holding a weight up. The body needs a moment of release in order to maintain strength and balance. Teaching a dancer to release tends to be challenging.'
Hass has to teach dancers to lower their effort levels, so they don't overly engage their muscles.
“Recently I was lucky enough to work with Shakira. As an incredible singer /dancer she is a fiercely hard worker and I had to remind her to monitor how hard she works and develop the discipline to stop and rest in between. Dancer/singers at a high level are usually complete workaholics.”
Dancers also have to learn to lose the tension in sternocleidomastoids, the two muscles running in a V shape from under the ear to the clavicles. “When these muscles are tight, this can inhibit the free movement of the larynx and tends to promote a high laryngeal position. As our pharynx is our resonator, if the larynx sits too high, it can reduce resonance and also reduce a singer’s easy access to high and low notes.
“Dancers need to learn that when the singing voice does not work efficiently, it is often related to tension in the body, rather than necessarily indicating a problem with the voice.”
Hass points out that about 60 per cent of musical theatre auditions require a pop song, and says it pays to have a repertoire of up to eight songs up your sleeve. Choosing the right song for the right audition is crucial.
Anthony Barnhill is the Associate Musical Director of Opera Australia's production of West Side Story, which is currently touring Australia. Having been involved in hundreds of vocal auditions, “I’ve come to believe so much of a strong audition is the result of choices made before even walking into the room,” he says. “If you’re asked to sing an ‘own choice’ song, it’s so critical to get this right.”
Sometimes, however, the creative team will want to hear how excerpts from the show being auditioned. For WSS, the auditionees were taught taught the show material in a group, and then were asked to perform the vocal excerpts individually. “Bernstein’s score is very specific,” Barnhill explains. “For the Jet boys there are some particularly low notes in the ‘Tonight quintet’, but also a relatively high note at the end of ‘Jet Song’.
“Often contemporary musical theatre songs are catchy and have a rhythmic speech-like quality – but they might not actually demonstrate a great deal in terms of singing ability or range, which is usually what MDs are trying to see. Generally, I’d say strong audition songs have a sense of musical phrase and allow you to show some different colours in your voice. Bringing in sheet music that is illegible, a poor edition found online, or with cuts incorrectly marked, are all surprisingly common mistakes that are easily avoidable.”
How do dancers deal with singing and dancing at the same time? Hass agrees this is “very challenging”.”I tend to teach dancers that muscle memory in singing is every bit as important as muscle memory in dance. Dancers need to isolate sections of songs they find difficult, figure out how to overcome the technical challenges presented and then practice correctly and repeat many times. Dancers need to understand that being alive to the ‘feeling’ of singing and how it feels when it is right, is as important as their sense of physical body connection in dance. Dancers need to build a solid and reliable technique, so that their singing is not too affected whilst moving and breathing hard. I also advise dancers to practice dancing and singing simultaneously once the song has been learned. I know that Beyoncé practices singing whilst on a running machine, just to increase her stamina.”
This article was first published in the Oct/Nov issue of Dance Australia.