Author: Berg, Gregory
Date published: January 1, 2011
Bel Canto-Can Belto: Teaching Women to Sing Musical Theatre-Mary Saunders on Belting and the Mixed Middle Voice. (Penn State Public Broadcasting 7004; 143:00)
More and more voice teachers across the country are finding themselves confronted by new teaching opportunities and challenges that are wrenching them from the cozy and familiar confines of their own classically grounded training and depositing them in what might seem like an utterly alien landscape. At least, that is how it feels for a fair number of teachers who choose or feel compelled to begin teaching students who either come from or aspire to be part of the world of music theater and popular song. It is not a transition to be taken for granted, and those teachers who blithely assume otherwise and elect to bluff their way through the task are doing both themselves and their students a terrible disservice. Classically trained voice teachers who are serious about becoming astute pedagogues of popular singing would do well to follow the example of Norman Spivey, voice professor at Penn State University and occasional contributor to the Journal of Singing. Readers may recall a fascinating and inspiring article he penned in 2005 for Robert Edwin's "Popular Song and Music Theater" column, which column, incidentally, is a tremendously helpful resource for anyone seeking guidance in this type of pedagogy. Spivey's article, "Teaching Music Theater Singing: One Teacher's Journey," outlined the tremendous effort he made to ground himself in what was for him a largely unfamiliar discipline. Spivey moved heaven and earth to access as much expertise as he possibly could, and he went so far as to become a private voice student again for the expressed purpose of learning this style for himself. His is a sterling example of how such a pedagogic transition is best accomplished.
In that article, Spivey made mention (but not specifically by name) of a music theater voice specialist who had recently been hired by Penn State and become a marvelous addition to their program. That specialist was none other than Mary Saunders, who is without doubt one of the most articulate and effective voices in this rapidly emerging and still evolving field. She is Associate Professor of Music and Head of Voice Instruction for the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theater at Penn State, but has also maintained a busy studio in Manhattan, where she works with a plethora of Broadway singers. Moreover, she is an accomplished performer herself, with an impressive resumé that encompasses work on stage and in both film and television. But what really enables Saunders to be so effective in sharing this emerging pedagogy with more classically grounded teachers is her own classical background, which even included voice study with the great Pierre Bernac in Paris. Saunders has extensive experience and expertise on both sides of the proverbial aisle, and the fact that she is so conversant in both worlds ideally equips her for the task of formalizing this new pedagogy and explaining it to the uninitiated who are anxious to better understand it.
Toward that end, Mary Saunders has created the DVD Bel Canto-Can Belto, which takes its title from the presentations that she has given all across the country. She is quick to point out that she does not intend this to be a comprehensive dissertation, but rather what she calls "a dynamic tool." That being said, Saunders does a commendable job of approaching the topic from several different angles and perspectives, and she is engaging and articulate every moment she is onscreen. The disk is sensibly balanced between lecture and demonstration, with a few minutes even devoted to such questions as whether or not classical training is important or beneficial to the aspiring music theater specialist. On this important question, Saunders is adamant. She firmly believes that music theater vocal technique should first be built on the same fundamentals as one finds in classical singing. Only when that technique is firmly in place and understood does it make sense to introduce concepts of mixing and belting. (This is the main reason why she coined "Bel Canto-Can Belto" in the first place, in order to underscore the importance of both techniques.) In her opinion, any music theater singer who neglects classical technique to focus exclusively on belting is missing out on all kinds of potential colors and expressive possibilities, in her words, "singing with only half of their voice." This is a recurring theme in the DVD and clearly a hallmark of the approach to which Saunders subscribes.
Anyone who has seen a Mary Saunders presentation in person surely knows about her patented Vocal Arc, which she developed as a way to clarify the various sounds that are made in music theater singing: chest, speaking mix, soprano mix, head, and belt. One point of potential confusion is that she does not want the vocal arc to be thought of only in pitch-specific fashion; she believes that a skilled music theater singer should be able to summon up any of these sounds on practically any pitch within the singer's range. She then goes on to delineate the specifics of the arc in pitch-specific fashion, which may leave some viewers uncertain of exactly how the arc is to be used without being pitch specific. Clarifying that would have been time well spent. It would also have been helpful if Saunders had spent more time explaining exactly how she is using the term "belt." She defines it as "the apex of a spoken crescendo in a mixed speaking voice," but that definition is likely to leave at least some neophytes a bit bewildered. She goes on to explain how a belt begins above a woman's primary passaggio and how belting cannot occur in her head voice. In the midst of explanation, she acknowledges anxiety that this particular topic can cause among some voice teachers, which just underscores how quickly she moves through what is the real heart of the matter. Her extraordinary expertise in this complex topic is not in question; nor is her exceptional articulateness. One only wishes that she were taking even more time with this portion of her presentation, for the sake of those viewers for whom belting is still an alien and worrisome concept.
The DVD includes a small booklet that contains many vocalises which Saunders uses in her studio. She wisely advises that the vocalises be used according to where a given student is in her personal development as a singer. Some of the exercises, especially those for accessing head voice, are sung, while many designed to achieve the spoken mix are, not surprisingly, spoken rather than sung. It may be a bit disconcerting for "old school" classical teachers as they first watch this portion of the DVD and find themselves asked to yell phrases like "Never, Never, No!" "Wowee!" and "Damn Cat!" Actually, the matter of yelling versus not yelling never quite gets addressed, at least in so many words. The teacher who is new to all this may be uncertain as to whether or not there is a right way and a wrong way to loudly declare "Damn Cat!" Is it possible to let fly with some of these phrases in a way that would be harmful to the singer and to the voice? If so, it would be good to have that explored or, at the very least, acknowledged. Otherwise, this section of the DVD is clear and enlightening, as well as tremendously entertaining.
Finally, we hear from a variety of Penn State students who put all of this to use with spectacular results. An early sequence in the film features a number of seniors who are seen belting out the climax of their respective songs. The power and solidity of their voices is astounding, and one can't help but notice that a rock solid technique frees them up to be thrillingly expressive. There could be no greater endorsement for Saunders's teaching than these astonishing performances by some of her finest students. Later in the disk is a series of three master classes or workshop sessions during which Saunders works with singers who are younger and/or rather inexperienced with this style of singing. We see and hear some unsettled vocalism as these singers work through problems of one kind or another, but there is impressive improvement demonstrated by all three of them. Saunders is a master teacher with an exceptionally discerning ear, relentless focus, and an unfailingly positive spirit. For whatever doubts these singers may have about this new style of singing or their own abilities to be proficient in it, they appear to trust Saunders wholeheartedly-with good reason. One question that may arise from watching these master classes is whether or not there is any potential pitfall in doing so much vocal modeling. Saunders tells us that she uses it because it works so efficiently, but some teachers would argue that such a method might teach a given student to be a parrot rather than an intelligent singer. There is probably no simple or definitive answer to the question, but it is one with which we often wrestle.
It may be that the single most valuable benefit of this DVD is how it helps all of us to broaden our sense of what beautiful singing is or can be. If you are someone has never been able to embrace the notion that something other than the classic pear-shaped tone can be beautiful, this program is for you. But Saunders may be guilty of some oversimplification as she discusses this very point. She contends that music theater singing is distinct from classical singing because, in her words, it is "an art form anchored in drama . . . where dramatic intention is the governing force behind all that is said or sung onstage." She goes on to say that music theater singers are actors first, and not bound by preconceived ideals of tonal beauty. She is not exactly incorrect, and yet one wonders if it makes sense or is even entirely fair to draw such broad distinctions between classical and music theater singing. Surely she would have to acknowledge that dramatic intention is of supreme importance in Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" or the Marschallin's poignant act one monologue from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. And isn't the world of music theater full of works in which one expects and even needs to hear beautiful sounds in the most customary sense of the word? The distinction she draws has merit, but it needs to be drawn with the greatest care, not passed over nearly as quickly as it is here.
None of the concerns or questions raised in this review in any way negate the tremendous potential of this DVD as a teaching resource. And to whatever extent it may ruffle feathers or challenge some long-held beliefs about singing, it is living up to its billing as a dynamic tool designed to stimulate thinking about a tremendously exciting field and an emerging pedagogy. Mary Saunders is to be commended for her superlative work in the genre and for putting this DVD together with such evident thought and care. For any anxious voice teacher who needs to be introduced to the world of music theater singing, this is a marvelous place to begin.