Screlting, or Please Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Vol. 2

This blog is a part of www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com. Don’t sing just any song. Sing something new!

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I seem to have hit a nerve with this screlting thing. We have never had more views or comments on a blog post than we did last week (read last week’s blog post here). In pointing a finger at the writers, I argued that one can create a contemporary sound without putting a performer in peril. Why do we see bi-monthly casting calls for certain Broadway shows? The answer, in part: the writing is irresponsible. I don’t mean this across the board. Some writers know exactly how to balance the technical demands of a song with the emotional drive of a character.

The most vocal (pardon the pun) proponents of last week’s blog were the voice teachers, many of whom seem to be shaking their fists at contemporary musical theatre writers and performers alike. I’m glad there’s a lot of energy around this subject, because it means there’s hope for change. There have always been songs and shows that are not responsibly written and there will always be singers who refuse to recognize the boundaries of their voice (That holds true both in classical and contemporary singing, by the way. How many opera singers have hung up their pipes early because they did rep that was too big for them?). But an awareness of a problem is always a step forward in the right direction.

What is not constructive, however, is an us vs. them mentality. Reading some of the feedback on last week’s post, I felt like people were going to their barns to get stakes and pitchforks. We must never lump everyone into a neat category out of convenience. As I said, there are many writers who know how to write for the voice (Seriously. Without sounding like a paid advertisement, you should visit our website – you’ll find a ton of them.). And there are scores of smart singers who know how to perform vocally challenging material in a healthy way. The “What’s a matter with kids today?!” approach will fail us.

Instead, as with last week, I hope to point out the issues while offering some practical thoughts on how we can move beyond them. And with that…

This week, it’s the singer’s turn in the dunk tank. How many of us have spent hours listening to YouTube videos of people screaming their lungs out to the relative tune of their favorite musical theatre song? *Guilty* Why do singers sometimes think screlting is OK and what hand do they have in creating this pandemic?

Why Singers Are Sometimes to Blame

I think (I am Lindsay Mendez), therefore I am. 

When students or clients first come to my voice studio, their largest over-arching problem is they don’t know their own voice. I have to say to them, “Your name is not Lindsay Mendez” or “Gavin Creel.” God bless Lindsay and Gavin – they’re both breathtaking performers – but they’re doing what they do and not everyone can (or should) do that.

My job as a voice teacher and coach is to help a singer find their authentic sound and give them a wide away of repertoire that supports their gifts. Yes, this sometimes means they’ll sing “It Might As Well Me Spring” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s STATE FAIR instead of “Pretty Funny” from DOGFIGHT (a show I really admire). As long as the singing is healthy and they’re learning to communicate in a variety of styles, I feel I’ve done my job.

The louder I sing, the more impressive I am.

This is a major myth I combat with many young singers. They mistake a loud dynamic with emotional power (Sound familiar? See last week’s blog post.), which often results in them singing from the neck up. In tandem with this is a self-centeredness: the song becomes about them and their “work” as a singer, not about communicating something to an audience. Beyond being uninteresting, it’s unintentionally insulting to writer(s) and music itself.

I believe the emotional underbelly of a song is rooted in the breath, not the dynamic. Everything must emanate from the breath. I make my students sing louder sections as a lullaby first, finding a quiet intensity they can then build upon as they crescendo. This often results in a more supported sound, better placement and a richer inner life for the character.

Just as writers must vary their palette of colors when composing a new song, so too must singers find diverse ways of communicating a piece. A good writer will build peaks and valleys into the song; It is our job as singers to find and gently deliver them.

Duty of Care

After sharing a draft of this blog with my dear friend and colleague, Belinda McMahon, she brought up “duty of care”: the question of who is responsible for the singer’s health.

There’s a certain show on Broadway right now that has a history of going through casts like cheap tequila at a Mexican restaurant (I’m sure there’s more than one, but…). Why is this? Because, as I see and hear it, the casts are having vocal issues and need to get out of the show. They might have given a great audition and call-back(s) (Five call-backs for a show? Really?! But I digress…), but somewhere down the road the musical director, casting director or producer failed to ask themselves if the singer would be able to sustain that performance. Or, worse, they didn’t care, knowing in six months they’d probably hire someone new anyway.

Yes, this sounds horribly cynical. I wish it weren’t true, but often times it is. True, some musical directors really know the voice and can help singers when they’re having difficulties. Some casting directors will recommend not hiring someone for a part if they hear a vocal problem. But commercial theatre is commercial theatre. Many industry folks do not have vocal health listed as the first criteria for casting someone. If they did, we probably wouldn’t be hearing so much vocal damage on Broadway.

I will soon be launching a series of blog posts entitled “Vocal Health on Broadway & Beyond,” which includes interviews with various industry people about whose responsibility it is to make sure the performer isn’t hurting themselves during a show’s run. Read the preamble here.

Singers: in lieu of someone else taking responsibility for your well-being, it’s YOUR job! Don’t solely rely on others to ensure your vocal health, even if it’s a voice teacher or coach (though, if they’re worth their salt, they should have good opinions on the subject, which you should value). It’s not fair for them to be the “bad guys/gals” all the time, telling you not to perform a song or role (which, by the way, was the top rant I got from voice teachers).

In our heart of hearts, we know what our voice can (and can’t) do. There comes a time when each of us has to stop and say, “I can screlt and have a great career for about 5-10 years, or I can take more responsible roles and have a solid career for over 40 years.” It’s really that simple.

Out of necessity, I’ve chosen longevity. I have a very light baritone voice. I used to hate that I didn’t have the vocal heft others had, but now I realize what a blessing it is. My voice won’t tolerate heavy belt. I’ve had to learn how to be what I call a “lean singer,” which has served me very well as I get (ahem) older.

What kind of singer are you going to be? How long do you want to have a career as a performing artist? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a classical or contemporary singer. The duty of care for the singer is, in the end, the singer’s responsibility.

And voice teachers: the same goes for us. If someone comes in to my studio and says, “I want to sound like so-and-so.” I have and will continue to say, “I’m not the right teacher for you.” Do I lose money that way? Yes, I do. But I have my conscience and, over the years, I’ve attracted the right kind of student. We can’t simply point fingers and the student (and their parents) and say, “They made me do it.” We have to be able to say “no” too.

Product vs. Process.

I’ve blogged on this topic quite a bit in the last couple years (you can read my most recent post here), but the same still holds true: we live in society that honors product over process. As a result, we have sometimes get students who don’t understand the amount of work it takes to be an effective artist. And once they realize how much work it is, they often decide they don’t want to do it. It’s too vulnerable for them.

You know what I really blame (besides the insta-gratifying smartphone)? Manipulative television like American Idol. It has created a legion of singers who expect everyone to stand to their feet in thunderous applause every time they open their mouths.

Remember when standing ovations were earned? I’m dating myself…

Shows like American Idol rely more on raw emotion and talent than anything sustainable. One would think that, with the slew of pop artists who have undergone procedures because they’ve developed nodes, singers would be more skeptical, but by in large they aren’t.

I had a student who left my studio after telling me he felt “artistically dead inside” because we were working on technique. The student was making great progress, but couldn’t see that their ego was getting in the way of embracing the sometimes cumbersome process of learning to sing with freedom. It’s too bad, because what they failed to realize was they were becoming much more expressive, given the choices they had through a healthy production.

In my opinion, we either choose to do the work now, or further tie ourselves up in knots and take a longer time to do it later. McArt like American Idol doesn’t interest me. I’ll take the long and winding road, thank you – it’s much more artistically satisfying.

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So, there you have it: my thoughts on why singers are sometimes to blame for  screlting.

Given the negative feelings around this subject, I’ve decided not to end this series here. There are writers and performers who get what I’m talking about and are doing great work. And we want to share some of them with you.

Check back next week for a dose of hope, looking at writers and performers who know how to balance craft with honest storytelling.

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2 thoughts on “Screlting, or Please Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Vol. 2

  1. I’m a voice teacher. I used to be a big ol’ opera singer who doesn’t like to sing opera. At all. I learned to belt initially from Jo Estill. I threw in some technique from Renee Grant Williams along the way, and now occasionally coach with Linda Eder, whose approach to belting is pretty interesting. I digress. I can, and occasionally do, “screlt.” It’s fun, but I don’t do it often. Do I teach it? No. Most of my students are high school age, and I don’t think they should be pushing to do it at such a young age. I DO teach them a healthy belt, when they are ready. Proper breathing, support, placement… you know, TECHNIQUE… is the MOST important thing. If they tell me they want to sound like a specific singer, I ask them why they want to be a copy rather than an original. That usually makes them think.

    I wish many of the contemporary composers understood that you don’t just have to modulate 42 times in one song to build intensity. Unfortunately, that’s what they do, and in order to get the gig, you must be able to do that. But it’s equally as important to sing a legit piece as well. You wanna play Eponine? Fine. But you should also be able to play Cosette.

    So I think it’s a Catch 22 – aspiring actors need to know how to belt and even screlt in the most healthy way possible. That means that we, as voice. teachers, should also learn, if we haven’t. I understand the aversion to it. But perhaps students would be more receptive to the classics if we didn’t fight them on the contemporary stuff. Just my $.02

    1. Hi Susan – thanks for sharing. If you haven’t already, do read Part I of this series, which does talk about the writer’s part in this issue. Still, as I said, we have to be very careful not to lump everyone into one category. Next week, we’ll be highlighting some songs and singers we feel represent good contemporary writing and singing. I hope you’ll check back! Best, David

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