Innocent voices


Young performers are a delight: they are fresh and energetic, don't have to work at looking great, and they tend to bring audiences to shows in the form of mum and dad. They generally lack experience, so they don't challenge directors or refuse to do things. 

I am concerned by the recent drive to license modern rock musicals for schools. At a recent conference on health and well-being for musicians  (thanks Naomi!) I talked at length with a teacher colleague who shared this concern. I have had the experience of a wonderful 12-year-old singer's grade 4 performance being seriously compromised by the demands of a school show - a week's run performing the low-pitched female lead in the Disney Beauty and the Beast, with additional daytime performances to students, and the rehearsal demands of non-specialist teachers - at age 12! Singing Bernstein's 'I feel Pretty' in an exam just a few days after the show was not going to happen! I was horrified to hear my colleague's experience with a 13-year-old  who was close to needing surgery for nodules. We compared notes and agreed on the most problematic shows. They were all written for adult professionals and licensed for school use with no adjustments in consideration of younger voices. 

Musical lead rôles are written for mature, developed, adult voices. More recent shows follow the fashion for a full, belting sound in the female roles. It's obvious in Disney songs: just compare the range, tessitura and registration of Some Day my Prince will Come (Snow White, 1937), Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas, 1995) and Let it go (Frozen, 2013). When most teenagers attempt this material, they find they do not have the vocal resources - even the potential for chest voice generally develops later. Same problem with much contemporary pop - kids end up bellowing: it's ugly and can be damaging to their voices. 

The human voice is quickly tired, especially in teenagers. That rapid physical growth takes time to adjust to. Teenagers cannot have had much time to develop their vocal technique: they are vocally innocent and vulnerable. When a youngster has a passion for musical theatre, they throw themselves in and spend hours practising. I often prescribe rest to such students. When the material selected for them to sing is blatantly unsuitable and even potentially dangerous, it's a much more difficult situation. At the recent conference, some  vocal injuries were described as 'potentially-career-ending' with calm precision. What I'm concerned about is such damage being incurred before a student has even had a chance to train, let alone have a career!

A recent Economist article entitled 'Who will sing Aida?' discussed the pressures on young opera singers to commit to big roles in the big Italian repertoire that requires huge voice, strength and stamina. Yes, I'm talking Verdi here. And Puccini. The opera audience wants their Rigolettos, Calàfs, Mimìs and Aidas. The directors like a fresh young face and a big contract is hard to refuse. Fair enough. It's given rise to some interesting comments  but it's a very old problem. I've already discussed the balance of youthful freshness opposed to experienced maturity in The False Fountain of Youth below. What's new is school provision of potentially-voice-wrecking performance opportunities, often overseen by enthusiastic teachers who simply do not realise the damage that can be caused. 

What's the solution? In the short term, make adjustments, transpositions, encourage your principals to use marking (quiet, gentle singing) in rehearsals. In the long term,  different material! Composers - there is a need for musical theatre pieces in contemporary style specifically written for young voices. There are lots of well-written 'school shows' available but they tend to be aimed at primary schools or, sorry, lack the marketing/publicity/glamour to grab attention. Please, someone - there's an opportunity here!

April 2020