Vocal Technique & Dramatic Intent: The Double-Swinging Door

I help adjudicate auditions by prospective freshmen and transfer students for Marymount Manhattan College’s BFA, BA and musical theatre programs. It’s incredibly informative watching young artists audition for us. Every song, monologue and acting choice is a calling card for the student’s personal experiences.

Marymount has a unique way of auditioning prospective students. With the full knowledge that students are auditioning us as much as we are them, we do classroom-style auditions, meaning a group of students watch each other audition. We often give the students feedback or adjustments, then offer them an opportunity to try their song or monologue again. It’s great to see light bulbs go off when they and their colleagues realize what an adjustment has done for them. We then ask them to articulate what’s changed so they have something tangible to take with them, regardless of where they decide to pursue their degree. It gives them a real taste of how we work at Marymount and gives us a better sense of whether or not they’d be a good fit for our program.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of my wonderful colleagues at these auditions: Pat Simon, the head of our musical theatre program, Kevin Connell, Michael Montel, Ellen Orenstein… each person brought something new to the prospective student’s experience.

A couple weeks ago, I teamed up with David Mold, Chair of the Division of Fine & Performing Arts, to audition a group of 25 students. As David and I worked with them, something I had known for quite some time came to life for me in a deeper way. When I gave a musical theatre student a simple technical exercise to open them up, they invariably started making stronger acting choices. Likewise, when David Mold gave the student a particular direction or intention, suddenly their voice began to shake loose from its previous technical hold.

It reminded me that, while working on technique is important, at times it can be just as effective to talk to a student about their acting choices. What are they fighting for? What happens if they get it? Suddenly, the breath starts to flow and the voice seemingly knows where to go. Now, this doesn’t mean it will be be perfect, but I find it gets the student out if their own way long enough to make a released sound that can then be refined.

My dear friend Lara Hirner is a voice specialist in Boston, helping patients with swallowing disorders. About a month ago over dinner, she told me about some research she had done on the vagus nerve. There is a right and left nerve that innervate the right and left vocal folds, respectively.  Both traverse the thorax before reaching their final destination, but the nerve connecting to the left vocal fold takes a more circuitous than you would imagine. It actually wraps itself around the aorta before coming back up to the vocal fold.

When she told me this I couldn’t help but weep at the dinner table. What miraculous design! In order to make a sound we have to involve our brain and our heart.

A healthy technique is essential in singing, but when we help our students get their hearts involved by making active choices as a singing actor, I believe we can help them find a more organic way of using their instrument.

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