BWW Blog: Bob Marks - Healthy Vocal Production at any Age

By: Jun. 17, 2016

As one of the pianists for the original Broadway production of Annie, many of my voice teacher colleagues were horrified at the thought of little girls being asked to belt out songs such as "Tomorrow" and "Hard Knock Life." And yet, many of these teachers refused to accept those young girls as students! At that time, many voice teachers would not agree to teach students who had unchanged, prepubescent voices. They were under the impression that voice lessons could permanently damage a child's voice, which remained a widely accepted belief for many years.

I didn't agree. Even then, my feeling was that if children were going to sing at auditions and performances, why not have them do it in healthiest way possible? Why wait for puberty to learn good singing habits? How could proper breathing, minimizing throat tension, and putting songs in appropriate keys be bad for singers, regardless of how old they were?

It's true that children's voices can be deceptively hardy, and in some cases require a bit of policing to make sure that vocal roughhousing - whether it be on the sports field, cheerleading practice, or play rehearsal - is kept within very manageable limits. However, as long as we are teaching them healthy production habits, and keeping an eye out for any indication of doing too much, too soon, children often delight in singing on stage. Similarly, aging singers can often find new and captivating expressive assets in their instruments if they embrace their changing voices.

As their bodies change, both boys and girls endure a fairly major vocal overhaul, although the female voice change is typically not as acute. Male vocal folds may increase by over two times that of the female, resulting in a singing voice a full octave lower than prior to the voice change. In both cases, changes in coordination, like sudden inability to match certain pitches, might emerge, and singing might temporarily become much more difficult. Obviously, it makes sense that any voice professional would use extreme caution when working with a child singer.

A newer issue that has gained more attention in recent years is the question of how to best support aging voices through transitions that parallel adolescence in scope and intensity. Pregnancy, menopause, major weight changes, medication changes and endocrine conditions are examples of hormonal changes that can reap havoc in adults' voices, and adults who are unwilling to change the approach to singing they've had for decades can be just as prone to potential injury as small children.

Nowadays, there are many qualified teachers and coaches helping their students develop healthy, contemporary singing techniques in all vocal registers, at all ages. These specialists have a great deal of experience with and respect for the limitations of both young and aging voices. Only nature determines how quickly the voice changes, and compensatory key adjustments to songs may need to be made to repertoire as the vocal range morphs.

A teacher or coach should help you to sound as good as possible. I treat all of my clients with the same honesty and respect regardless of their chronological age, while continuing to stress healthy vocal production. Over the years, I've taught students of all ages, and welcome the diversity, but vocal health is always the main emphasis. As the physician's Hippocratic Oath states, "First, do no harm," a promise that is vital in any teaching situation.

Noted vocal coach Bob Marks specializes in helping singers showcase their talents to their best possible advantage. He is in the process of writing a new book (with Elizabeth Gerbi) about auditioning for musical theatre. Until the book is published, is pleased to offer weekly bits of audition advice. Please feel free to submit any specific questions you'd like to have answered in these blogs.

Bob Marks maintains a busy vocal studio in New York City, working with performers of all ages and levels of experience. He also teaches performance workshops throughout the US and Europe. He was a pianist with the original Broadway production of Annie, and spent two seasons as the Associate Conductor of the St. Louis Muny Opera. For several years, he was the host and musical director of the acclaimed Youngstars performances of professional children in New York City. His well-known clients have included cast members of almost every current musical on Broadway, and stars such as Ariana Grande, Lea Michele, Natalie Portman, Laura Bell Bundy, Constantine Maroules, Britney Spears, Ashley Tisdale, Debbie Gibson, and Sarah Jessica Parker. He holds a degree in speech pathology, and has taught at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, the Professional Development Program for the New York Singing Teachers' Association, and at Nashville's Belmont University as a special guest artist. As a vocal coach, his clientele ranges from beginners to Broadway cast members, as well as singers of cabaret and pop music. He is an expert in helping performers present themselves to their best advantage in auditions and onstage.

Elizabeth Gerbi, currently a Visiting Lecturer of Music Theater at American University in Washington D.C., is well known across the Northeast as a singing teacher, voice coach, choral conductor, and music director/pianist (150+ productions). As a singer-actor, she has appeared in regional productions ranging from Annie Get Your Gun to I Pagliacci to The Kenny Rogers Christmas Tour. Recent projects include musical directing The Chris Betz Show at Rose's Turn and The Sage Theatre in NYC, Side Show and Tommy at Westchester Broadway Theatre, The Sound of Music at the Wagon Wheel Theatre of Warsaw, Indiana, conducting Dreamgirls and Seussical at Debaun Auditorium in Hoboken, NJ, adapting Starmites 2000 with Broadway composer Barry Keating, and accompanying master classes for Broadway veterans Ken Jennings, Lindsay Mendez, and Lisa Howard. She is also a former consultant for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library, and currently serves as a both New York State School Music Association Solo Adjudicator and a respondent for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She attended Ithaca College (Bachelor's of Music in Voice Performance and Music Education) is a Level-III graduate in Somatic Voicework: The LoVetri Method™, and completed a Master's in Music Education from Boston University.

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