Musical Theatre Educators Alliance Conference and some thoughts on Music Theatre voice pedagogy

One of my favourite places, the MTEA conference in New York, with great MT educators sharing and connecting. I’m there with a hot pink scarf around my neck!

I am half way through my amazing trip to the USA working as a Visiting Research Scholar at Shenandoah Conservatory while I collect my research data for my PhD through the University of Southern Queensland looking at how voice is taught to music theatre students here in the USA. It has been an astonishing journey, connecting with colleagues and learning from the experience. My favourite thing about being here in the States is the experiencing the collegial atmosphere of many training institutions, and of course, being at my favourite conference in New York, the Music Theatre Educator’s Alliance International, at NYU Steinhardt this past weekend. Stacey Alley and Meg Bussert did an incredible job co-ordinating this event where I got to meet colleagues, new and old, and share ideas. There were casting directors, and music theatre educators from all over the US and the world sharing their knowledge and expertise. Simon Ward, from Nomiz in Sydney, was a standout presenter on the brain and teaching. I also loved watching  Gwen Walker workshopping Contemporary Alexander Technique and a highlight, Lynn Ahrens discussing her writing process. There were actually too many things I loved to mention, to be fair to any of the presenters – it was all great! I also saw The Ferryman, The Waverly Gallery and Head Over Heels. Seeing Jason Robert Brown and Betsy Wolfe at Subculture on Friday night was unforgettable. Being there with my friends and colleagues made it even better.

Lynn Ahrens was the guest keynote speaker at the recent MTEA conference at NYU Steinhardt.

I am so grateful to my US colleagues for their support and friendship. Music Theatre education is our shared passion, and as Matt Edwards said to me last semester, it takes a village to raise a music theatre performer. A village, a tribe, whatever this group of wonderful people is, I am glad I belong. I leave refreshed and excited for my research and for the future of those we teach. The care and attention paid to employability, to the mental health of students, to the standards required for employment within the industry, to trying to nut out solutions to difficult questions – all of it matters to this group of educators.

I was so excited to be part of a new group of Music Theatre voice teachers (thank you Raymond Sage  for the conversation and for hoisting the flag) who want to start a voice pedagogy discussion based on what is happening NOW, what students need now, not what was happening and being taught thirty years ago in music theatre. Music theatre singing (and other Contemporary Commercial Music singing styles) is as important, and as highly skilled in its own way as classical singing and deserves it’s own recognition. Just as I would never pretend to teach the application of classical voice, with my small amount of experience in classical voice singing training (I send students to a classical specialist – there are LOTS of them!), it is exciting to see that singing teachers who are specialists in the field of music theatre, and other CCM styles, are beginning to be recognised for their expertise, and this expertise comes from years of working with students, working in the field and understanding the nuances, just as classical teachers must train and work formally for years to understand the nuances in their fields.  Whilst I love the various contemporary voice training courses around and available to us, and have taken many of them, and I recommend them to colleagues and students all the time, no one would expect to be considered an expert in classical voice training after a nine or ten day course.  They are excellent, with highly skilled presenters and very very valuable to us as pedagogues. They are a starting point. Short courses are a launch pad, an exciting and wonderful launch pad. As are conference presentations and workshops and ideas we glean from masterclasses. Valuable and useful, all of them. I believe we need longer training and mentoring programs available to those voice teachers wishing to move into CCM and Music Theatre voice training. The skills needing to teach Music Theatre voice application (and pop/rock/ country/ R&B/ and all other CCM styles) are specific and different to classical voice training – even the American Academy of Teachers of Singing believes this, and I look forward to this new group unpacking the pedagogy into the future and being a part of this important conversation. I was fortunate to do my Masters in voice pedagogy specialising in CCM (including music theatre) styles, and I didn’t realise how rare a thing this was until I came here and realised how many classical courses there are, and how few (although they are starting to sprout!) graduate level programs are available to voice teachers wishing to specialise in this field.

Some of my closest friends and colleagues were at NYU this weekend across all the Music Theatre disciplines and I am grateful to have these people in my life. Now, back to the data analysis, remembering why I am doing this crazy huge project, then I am going to sing today. Because joy! I am filled with joy and gratitude after the weekend in NY with friends.

January is not a holiday month!

Dale with Elizabeth Benson and Auburn Music Theatre students.

I have been having the most magnificent time in the United States and thought it might be update time. As I write this I am sitting in Starbucks at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after watching a “Vocal Athlete” class with the incredible Wendy LeBorgne. I am staying with Wendy in her beautiful home for the next few days and shadowing her (lucky me – right!) at work. For those who don’t know, Wendy, along with the wonderful Marci Rosenberg, authored The Vocal Athlete, which is a fabulous pedagogical text for contemporary voice teachers. Seeing her in action with sophomores applying the principles of exercise physiology and motor learning in practical and specific ways to ensure triple threats voices are not compromised by the incredibly physical work they do onstage in music theatre was such a privilege.

I arrived in an extremely cold New York on the 28th December and proceeded to do a music theatre binge – 7 shows in 7 days. Three of those days had no performances – so it was intense! I saw Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Hello Dolly, Hamilton, Spongebob: The Musical, The Band’s Visit, and Once on This Island. A truly diverse range of productions with incredible performers. I am so fortunate. There is nothing like seeing these shows live. Every performance I attend changes me just a little bit and informs my ideas about what the marketplace is doing, what singers are sounding like.

I was hit by the massive snowstorm and was stuck in New York and extra night but managed to arrive in Orlando at Central Florida University for the magnificent Music Theatre Educators Alliance (MTEA) conference. Amazing educators, information from Broadway producers, artists, and a fantastic panel from the cruise ship industry discussing what it takes to get employed! I was lucky enough to present on the final day, after some shifting around (my presentation was originally designed for the first day), and I have made new connections and friends from this great event.

My flight to Orlando was not without drama and I arrived in Savannah with a full blown chesty cough and cold. I worked from Savannah (which had snow on the ground – a rare event) then visited family in North Carolina who promptly tucked me into bed until I was well enough to continue on!

Next to North Greenville University where I conducted a masterclass for contemporary and worship students. Voice teachers Luke Browder, Seth Killen, Mark Eshenbaugh and Cheryl Greene (Head of Department) were so welcoming, and it was great to work with their talented singers.  My next day was to include speaking with the pedagogy class and another lecture in the afternoon but a snow fall meant roads were impassable and my day was cancelled. I soldiered on, getting to Auburn in two days – allowing for ice on the roads (very scary!).

Elizabeth Benson, Mary Sandage and Dale in the Auburn voice lab!

Once in Auburn I was lucky enough to visit with Mary Sandage, amazing voice scientist working out of Auburn University. Then it was off to the music theatre department with friend and colleague Elizabeth Benson who heads up MT Voice. I lectured and masterclasses with students, as well as observing Elizabeth in the studio. It was a wonderful couple of days.

And so, here I am at CCM. For those in Australia who don’t know , this is a very big prestigious school. The graduates experience extraordinarily high placement rates upon graduation, either on Broadway or in touring productions. I’m looking forward to an afternoon observing classes, and I am very grateful to the wonderful Wendy LeBorgne, and her husband Ed, for their hospitality. Lets hope we can get Wendy in Australia someday – she is a powerhouse!

And now for the practical. I’m back in Australia early February, lessons will start either Friday 9th / Saturday 10th, depending on my recovery after the flight. I’m SO keen to get back to teaching. And study – of course – the doctoral work is never far away! Please contact me email if you need to speak before I get home – I have had some texts come through, but the time difference means that these might be coming in at awkward times! Thanks!