Having a Healthy Voice in Musical Theatre  

By Jamie Read, Co-Director of READ College


here are so many myths surrounding healthy voice use for today’s Musical Theatre singers that it can be difficult to know what to believe. The constant worry about damaging your voice, and the stigma often unfairly placed on singers who sustain a vocal injury, can lead to self-imposed limits on a performer’s abilities.

Before the late 90’s, there was really only one accepted way of training the singing voice, and that was classically. If you could belt out a Broadway tune then good for you, but nobody thought of it as a technique or even something worthy of teaching. However, thanks to a more rigorous understanding of how the Musical Theatre singer’s voice functions, and an integration of voice science with artistic training, it is now possible to properly prepare a singer for the industry that lies ahead of them, and to give them the skills to be as employable as possible.

The biggest issue facing those in the contemporary Musical Theatre world is the sheer scope of the musical styles we have to be able to perform. A quick scan across the West End shows you that classical, legit, rock, pop, rap, and more ‘old school’ Broadway-belt styles are commonplace in the industry, and if singers are to make a living then they have to feel secure in as many genres as possible.

How do you keep the voice healthy and stable in these circumstances? One way is through so-called ‘cross training’ for the voice. It’s well documented that athletes achieve their best when training more than one set of muscles and skills at a time, and the same proves to be true for singers. Singing is essentially a muscular activity, and various studies have shown that using a range of muscles and making your voice as flexible as possible is key to a solid training.

For example, an experienced classical singer may choose to take up additional lessons with a contemporary/belt teacher alongside their classical training. Not only would we expect their contemporary singing to develop, but it has also been shown that their classical voice will develop as well, because of the new muscular work from singing a different style. There are many documented examples of this, with professional Musical Theatre performers reporting that they are able to belt in a more sustained way because they have been working on their classical soprano, or classical singers finding better control of their coloratura because of engaging with their inner Ethel Merman!

Part of Musical Theatre training is that we must recognise that the techniques required for various singing styles are different and often at odds with each other. This is a huge change from my own training when we were presented with a right and wrong, black and white understanding of what constituted ‘good’ breathing or ‘proper’ tone. Every aspect of the system, from posture and breathing, through to tone and aesthetic, must be appropriate to the vocal task, and each style will need a different approach. High or low breath, belting or operatic… neither setup is wrong, and neither is unsafe – they’re just different, and create a different end product.

Engaging with natural sounds can help to experience these different setups. Take a moment to call someone’s name across a room quite loudly, and you’ll notice you take in a short, high breath but create a strong belt-like sound. Hold yourself on the edge of sobbing and then let out a ‘musical moan’ and the breath will be lower, the sound gentler and the tone darker. You can already make these sounds, so listen to your body and do what’s natural!

Another important factor to consider for Musical Theatre performers is lifestyle. It is widely understood in this day and age that smoking is very harmful to the voice, affecting not just the breath but also the vocal cords themselves and consequently the quality of the voice. However, there are plenty of other things to take into consideration that may be less obvious.

Theatre performers tend, for example, to finish work late in the evening and then grab a bite to eat before bed. Eating less than 3 hours before you go to sleep has been shown to increase your chances of suffering with reflux, which can affect the voice very quickly. Silent reflux, or LPR (laryngopharyngeal reflux), often doesn’t include the symptom of heartburn and singers may not realise that they have it at all, other than losing their upper register and feeling like they constantly need to clear their throat.

Equally important is hydration. Plenty of water, regular steaming, and cutting back on caffeine, sugary drinks and alcohol, are all great ways of preserving the health of your voice.

Finally, don’t underestimate rest! An 8-show week is a huge vocal demand, and there is often pressure for singers to be able to deliver time after time like a machine, without taking into account the fact that we are all human. You only get one voice – have fun with it, make beautiful and playful sounds with it, but show it some love too!

Jamie Read is Co-Founder and Faculty Director at READ College, and also runs a busy private voice practice in London. He is a Certified Master Teacher of the Estill Voice Training model and is currently undertaking Post Graduate research into Vocal Pedagogy in Musical Theatre, through Voice Workshop and Cardiff Metropolitan University.