Drama school vocal training out of tune with industry needs, claim experts

Daniel Evans. Photo: Craig Fleming Daniel Evans said "Mariah and Christina have a lot to answer for". Photo: Craig Fleming
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Vocal experts have warned that the way singing is taught in drama schools is limiting the range of styles they can perform.

It follows a column for The Stage by Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Daniel Evans, in which he remarked that many young performers are often unable to sing a song written before the 1960s “without giving it a full pop riff”.

His comments have been echoed by leading vocal coach Mary Hammond, who said the onus was on singing teachers to study composers from different eras so that they could teach students a range of styles.

In his column, Evans said: “It seems to me, Mariah [Carey] and Christina [Aguilera] have a lot to answer for. It’s all well and good in the privacy of one’s own bathroom or even if you’re auditioning for Hamilton, but not Fiddler on the Roof.

“I find myself wondering how often drama schools discuss ‘style’ these days.”

Hammond, who teaches musical theatre singing among other styles, said: “You need teachers who are experienced in many different musical genres, I think they should spend time personally exploring different composers from different eras.

“It is not enough to only be aware of the needs of long-running musicals – the teachers themselves need to study.”

She added: “Students come in wanting to be in Les Mis, Wicked, and Mamma Mia!. They arrive not having any knowledge of the styles of music, and it is up to the teacher to teach them.

“If you take kids coming in at 18, you have to take them back to an era they don’t know. To have an awareness of style you have to know other eras before 1960.”

Hammond said the quality of teaching in drama schools was varied, saying: “There are simply not enough teachers with the musical and vocal knowledge to go around the huge numbers of courses that have sprung up”.

Fellow vocal coach James Grimsey, who teaches musical theatre singing, agreed that there was a “very varied standard of teaching” in the UK.

He added: “As a voice expert I listen for a consistency of teaching within drama schools. In any institution it is imperative to have a joined up approach for voice teaching.”

Grimsey also questioned the terminology used by some teachers in drama schools.

In a letter to LAMDA, which he shared with The Stage, he wrote: “I recently attended an update to the LAMDA musical theatre exams seminar.

“While generally useful, I found one particular update deeply concerning. At a relatively low grade, students are now being asked by LAMDA to explain the difference between ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’.”

Grimsey described the choice of language as “troubling”, adding: “The truth in my opinion is that the terms ‘chest voice’ and ‘head voice’ are completely subjective as they do not mean the same thing from one person to the next. This makes them very unreliable to use in a teaching and learning setting as they are neither consistent nor measurable.”

He said that the notion of ‘chest voice’ being the alternative to ‘head voice’ also carried a significant risk to singers who might misunderstand that all loud sounds were ‘chest voice’.

Grimsey added: “In contemporary musical theatre, belting is now an essential part of the vocal toolkit, but it requires a different physiological position to that of a speech-like ‘chest voice’. The problems connected with taking the chest voice up to the higher areas bring all kinds of potential issues.

“I am frankly quite appalled that in 2016 – the information age in which we have so much widely available knowledge of vocal function and how we can train great singing voices – that we would cling on to out-of-date, misinformed terms. Organisations such as LAMDA have a responsibility to young performers to make sure they are taking the current thinking and applying it to their syllabus.”

Casting director Danielle Tarento said that the quality of vocal training across drama schools “varies widely from exceptional to ‘I wonder if they were better before they trained’”.

She added: “It seems to me that the leaning is towards a contemporary sound as that is, I assume, what the majority of their work will require if you take a straw poll of the West End.

“Having said that, every time we have produced a classic musical, we have not struggled to find extraordinary talent with properly trained, legit technique.”