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Over the last couple weeks, we’ve talked about screlting – the growing pandemic of scream-belting a (usually contemporary) song. If you’re just joining in, it might be best to take a look at Part I and Part II before reading this final post in the series.
Just for the record, I didn’t coin this term, which seems to be new to many of our readers. I’m just talking smack about it.
Everyone seems to be in agreement: “Screlting is bad.” What has amazed me, though, is the vitriol with which people have been going after writers, as if they are solely to blame for the phenomenon. That simply isn’t true. Sometimes they are the problem, yes, but not across the board. Several writers we know are also singers and, therefore, are very much attuned to the plight of contemporary singers.
Last week, I promised to stop pointing fingers and look at some songs and singers who, in my opinion, are getting it right. Laura Josepher and I chose the below four songs, which we feel represent a contemporary sound while also understanding what a healthily voice can do. All four songs can be found on our website.
Without further delay…
Beautiful to MeMusic & Lyrics: Bradford Proctor Performed by: Hannah Elless
David: This is a great song for mezzo. It epitomizes the casual talkiness of a contemporary song with a wonderfully lyrical chorus. The range of this song matches the meekness of the character singing, with a little riff up to an Eb toward the end. The range of this song is incredibly reasonable and the accompaniment never obscures the vocal line (note the beautiful orchestrations). Hannah beautifully delivers these lyrics and never presses vocally to achieve emotional depth. It’s refreshing to see a singer trust their instrument.
Laura: I love this song for its contrast: simplicity of melody but complexity of emotion. The chorus is so plaintive and pleading but written in a very reasonable place giving the performer ample room to be expressive without needing to push vocally. This performance really draws you in and it’s a great lesson in how to make an audience come to you.
Blue HorizonMusic: Michael Kooman Lyrics:Christopher Dimond Performed by: Elizabeth Stanley
David: As I mentioned last week, good songwriters build peaks and valleys into their songs. Kooman & Dimond are excellent songwriters. This song never vocally gets away from a smart performer because its constructed to build in such a healthy way. The top belt note is D (considered high belt/mix), but it’s done at the end of the bridge – the most dramatic moment in the piece – on a great vowel. Elizabeth Stanley brings a fully supported belt mix to the song. Again, there’s such great delivery of text here. Sidebar: Elizabeth learned this song at the very last minute for our launch concert in January, 2013. We opened the concert with this great song and her electric performance.
Laura: There is something so satisfying about how Kooman and Dimond set the words ‘blue horizon’ the first few times they’re sung in this song. Instead of reaching up vocally, they made the “goal” for this character — the blue horizon — go down lower. To me this makes her choice to leave town so definitive and much more dramatic without being vocally taxing. And when she sings “moving on” at the end of the bridge it soars and opens up. Elizabeth nailed the tension and excitement of the song by balancing restraint and jubilation. Gorgeous performance.
Highway MilesMusic & Lyrics: Peter Mills Performed by: Gavin Creel
David: This song requires a smart contemporary singer, but is written with a high level of craft and complete understanding of the voice. What I would call the “vocal pacing” of the song is excellent. Most of the song is written in the tenor’s mid-range, so the high notes really mean something. Also, notice the vowels on which the top notes are placed. Notice, too, that because the accompaniment is specific to each new section, the singer doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. Both the accompaniment and the vocal line tell the story. Gavin Creel, who is enjoying a major career on Broadway and in the West End, has great control of the high notes without a lot of manipulation. It’s an honest, clean sound that is perfectly suited to the character’s voice.
Laura: To me this is good example of how a smart singer tackles a song that I can easily see being screlted (have we used this word in past tense yet?) by a less experienced singer. To quote casting director, Michael Cassara, “Storytelling over money notes.” As a director, that’s always more interesting to me.
Melt with YouMusic: Kenneth Kacmar Lyrics: Joe Miloscia Performed by: Shayna Steele
David: I love the R&B flavor of the song. Like the other songs above, it builds gradually, giving the performer an opportunity to show great vocal and emotional range. How exciting it is to hear a voice like Shayna’s starting so simply in beautiful alignment and slowly blossom. In the wrong hands, this song could be a screamfest, but Shayna knows how to honor the style of the song while not letting it overwhelm her technique. The riffs at the end aren’t riddled with great manipulation, but are instead breath-based. As a result, I hear the song and not her effort singing it. That’s what mature performing artists do.
Laura: This song has a beautiful blend of words and lyrics. And though it does have a high, belted section at the end it is honestly built throughout the song — lyrically and musically. As a director I always encourage singers to look at a song from its dramatic arc. What is happening in the song? The character starts in a place of vulnerability and reflection and builds to revelation and exhalation.
You may or may not agree with our opinions. That’s OK, we can take it. Tell us why. We hope you’ll do so with the respect due the creative and performing artists above.
In every genre of music, there are writers who unnecessarily push the boundaries of the voice. Some of those writers are currently represented on Broadway. Others are featured in opera houses around the world. Also in every genre, there are performers who are willing to go for broke to create a lasting impression. Sometimes they do so at the risk of their careers, whether it be a soprano who has delved into repertoire too heavy for her fach or a high belt/mixer who doesn’t have a solid technique.
Being an active part of the musical theatre community, we feel it’s important to talk about matters of vocal health from both sides of the coin. We believe writers have a responsibility to intelligently write for the voice. We also believe singers have a responsibility to bring a healthy technique to a song so they may sing it for years to come.
Both will sometimes fail. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. Pointing fingers will never solve the problem. Engaging our community in a conversation about it, however, will. We hope this blog is a step in that direction.
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