Audra versus Carrie

Anyone who viewed The Sound of Money (sorry, I mean The Sound of Music) on TV recently got to see Audra McDonald juxtaposed alongside Carrie Underwood. If we are to believe that the public doesn’t care, then we must also believe that they did not hear a difference between Audra’s sound and Carrie’s sound.

It’s all singing, you know? Isn’t it just that Carrie had more “oomph”? Aren’t all voices the same?

Both vocalists are good at what they do. Audra is a consommate artist who has a “legit” voice but also has a really solid mix that is borderline belty on lower pitches when necessary. Whether or not she thinks about any of that, I have no idea. I imagine she is a well-trained classical vocalist who has learned to sing throughout her range with a full sound, always in service to the performance overall. Carrie, however, is a belter, and has no change in vocal quality whatsoever as she rises in pitch. You cannot hear a shift to a lighter sound and that has to mean that she has no choice but to stay where she is. Since her belt is powerful and she takes it up pretty high, that would make her typical of today’s young female pop belters. They don’t know about acting, they only know “performance”. They are not the same.

My argument over the last few weeks in this blog has been that the business itself across all styles (including Broadway, although the NBC version of TSOM could be argued to be a network TV phenomenon only) is losing interest in keeping track of who sings what. The sound that is disappearing the fastest is the “legit” sound which is supposed to be classical, but, as was pointed out in a recent comment, is now considered more or less “Disney”. To back this up, go listen to  Sierra Boggess’ version of Belle to hear belt, mix and legit in one vocalist. Here is the YouTube clip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RdrQy0j39E). She went on to sing classically in “Master Class” with Tyne Daly and did a decent job (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdfHks9klz0. Go nearly to the end of this clip). Please note — Sierra is not singing with a “low larynx” position, the currently favored classical vocal production, nor is she singing with modified vowels.  You may not be old enough to know that all of the early Disney movie leads were sung by light lyric sopranos, so it hasn’t changed all that much, perhaps it is just the stylistic influences that make the singing more “present moment”.

If, however, you think that there is no need for specialized training, this is not correct. It is because there is no specific training AVAILABLE that many singers end up with a hodge-podge of vocal production. That is because there has been no clear, easy, available way to maintain accurate vocal production in any given style and sing in it with authenticity. In fact, classical teachers who teach from a generic knowledge of vocal production (and many of them have only that as a basis for their classical teaching) end up teaching generic singing. That is in fact a common scenario and an unfortunate one for both the students and the audience.

If Carrie gets to sing Mother Abbess when she gets older, they will just lower the key and let her belt away. By that time, “legit” singing will be a relic of the past alongside the music of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and people will only see and hear it on recordings. Richard Rodgers isn’t around to object. His heirs probably don’t care what happens to his music, as long as they are paid.

If you are a singer or a teacher of singing, pay attention. The times we are living in are shifting vocal values as rapidly as you can imagine (although not necessarily in the universities). This shift is enormous and you can watch it happen as long as you know that it’s there.

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5 thoughts on “Audra versus Carrie”

  1. I was not blown away by the Sound of Music on NBC, but I was happy that a live musical in prime time on a major network had big enough ratings that a similar event is reported to happen again next year. I did hear a fair amount of head voice sound coming from Miss Underwood, however, something most of her Facebook detractors seem to have missed. I’m not saying she was great in the role, or that she can act at all, but I think a lot of the criticism in the vocal department she received may have been somewhat unwarranted.

    All the other points in your blog are, as usual, right on, and consistent with what I know of your teaching.

    1. Mark, There was only one brief moment where she was in head register. You would have to point out to me specific instances where that wasn’t true, as all I heard was chest dominant singing at softer or louder volumes.

  2. I know you said that no one mentioned the difference in vocal production between Underwood and MacDonald, and when I searched for the reviews myself, I saw that you were absolutely correct. Most of the reviewers praised Underwood’s singing, which was crazy to me. (My sticking point: “FAE–as in apple. Don’t know how to type the IPA character on my Mac keyboard–a long, long way to go!” Incomprehensible. Did no one think that in British English “far” sounds like /fa/? Sorry, I digress.)

    However, almost all the reviewers said that Underwood’s acting was as horrendous as MacDonald’s was outstanding. When I read your initial review of the Sound of Music, you pointed out that the problem with Underwood’s belting was not aesthetic, it was about character. So I wonder whether the audience in preferring MacDonald’s character overall to Underwood’s, was not not making a similar judgment. Though most couldn’t hear the difference in vocal production, I wonder if they could perceive it and its lack of fit on some level.

  3. “By that time, “legit” singing will be a relic of the past…” I call BS. While this may be your desire, you have no crystal ball.

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