It might be hard to believe but it was way back in 1983 when the New York Singing Teachers’ Association presented the first workshop on Broadway and Popular Singing: How To Sing Without Hurting Your Voice at Donnell Library (which is long gone) to a sell out crowd. Two weeks later, because this event was highly successful, half of the Board of Directors resigned in protest because we (the Music Theater Committee, of which I was a founding member) were “dragging the organization down into the gutter” with that “awful music”. Fortunately, I was able to coax them all to stay, but it was a daunting experience, to be maligned for doing something that was a big hit. I should have known then that it was only the beginning of a long, not very nice battle.
In spite of the fact that most universities are now very interested in offering music theater programs, the vast majority of the singing teachers being asked to teach MT styles are classically trained. Since most universities ask for a master’s degree or even a doctorate, it is nearly impossible to arrive at a job interview with the proper training for pop, rock, jazz, folk, country, gospel or rap music since there are no degree programs in these styles. There are a few music theater master’s degrees in the USA, but I believe that most of them are offered through drama departments, not music departments. That means they may have little or no formal vocal music training in the degree. ALL the doctoral programs are classical and will likely continue to be until this generation gets to be in the leadership positions of departments and that will take a couple more decades.
The universities understand that there is money to be made by offering music theater. Some schools have a music theater “emphasis”, some actually have a degree in music theater, and some have a classical degree that allows for a little music theater (usually legit) as part of that degree. The system, country-wide, is in a state of flux, maybe even chaos, and no one seems to know how to proceed.
The universities rely on the faculty to have higher degrees in order to be sure they are well trained, but if they are well trained in something they do not teach, what’s the point? The saddest thing is that neither parents nor students understand this situation until a student is already enrolled in a program. You could be assigned to a teacher who has literally no clue about belting or rock style but who is going to teach you anyway, or you could be assigned to a teacher who actually has a very good idea of what’s needed and has a way to give you what you should be getting. It’s typically just a role of the dice.
For my money, if I was a student, I would feel pretty bad about those odds. I would like to know that the person with whom I entrust my voice actually had the skills to teach me what I was paying to learn. It seems reasonable to me to expect that out of a college degree program.
And, if the university is big enough, you can have a drama department and a voice department and never the two shall meet. The drama students might have to study with the classical teachers in the voice department and the voice students might have to take acting lessons in the drama department, or not. Again, a roll of the dice. If the two departments do interact, the two approaches to singing are so different, there is frequently discord between them. The classical teachers are interested in resonance, legato line, even vibrato, beautiful tone, musical accuracy, and, of course, good breath support. The drama department people are interested in authentic delivery of the lyrics with a good understanding of their depth and implication, with emotional intensity, clarity of diction and connectedness to the physical expression of the music and text as a whole. Guess they don’t see eye to eye or hear ear to ear. Who suffers from this? (Are you thinking — the students?) Who gets blamed when things don’t work? (Are you thinking the same thing?) Good.
Many decades have elapsed since 1983 and the NY Singing Teachers’ Association now considers music theater an important ingredient in what it addresses in its activities. There are no arguments about its being “awful”. The National Association of Teachers of Singing now devotes a good deal of its time in its national conferences to music theater, at least in its somewhat straightforward traditional styles. That’s progress. The organization still favors classical “training”as a basis to sing anything, but sooner or later the wisdom of that assumption will be seen for what it is, which is silly. It can help, but it can also get in the way or even cause trouble. Since there are no standards for voice teachers, “classical training” can mean anything to anyone at any time.
The idea that America should be the home of excellent training for whatever style of singing a person wants to sing, no matter what it entails, is still a dream that is just beginning to emerge into reality. 1983 was a long time ago, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.