Why do I need to learn to sing in a foreign language if I want to major in Musical Theatre?

This questions comes up a lot from young performers and the only answer I can come up with is tradition. It has been the tradition in this country that classical voice training will prepare you to sing in any style. That may have been true when the major Broadway shows were Golden Age (Camelot, Oklahoma, Carousel) or modern legit (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera). But in a world where the four nominees for a Tony Award for Best Musical were all pop/rock/world music (Fela, Million Dollar Quartet, Memphis, and American Idiot) there are few if any arguments that make sense for having students sing in any other language than English. In classical singing characteristics such as vibrato, unified vowels, and loud operatic resonance are necessary to have a career. In Golden Age and Modern Legit musicals, these musical qualities are useful. However, in shows like American Idiot, Fela, Memphis, and Million Dollar Quartet, these traits are useless, detrimental, and can keep you from getting cast. No one wants to hear rock with perfect diction, operatic projection, and legato. They want to hear rhythmically driven songs with driving vocals that are bright and edgy, not warm and fluffy. There are some excellent classical teachers who teach an “Italian Technique” which values bright forward sounds and a balance of chest and head registers. Students of those teachers can often make the transition to contemporary sounds because of their technique, but if a student is taught to never use their chest voice, they will have a hard time crossing over to modern repertoire and find it very hard to get hired after graduation.  If you are currently with a classical only teacher, do not fear, you will be fine and well prepared for college, but its something you should consider as you pursue professional musical theatre.

So as you begin auditioning for musical theatre schools, be sure to ask how much classical music you will be asked to sing and if you’re a female, what type of training you will receive for the belt voice (keep an eye out for a future article entitled “Everyone can belt”). Even if you mainly see yourself as a legit singer, you need to be familiar with at least the basics of belting and contemporary singing to be competitive. Making sure your education includes this training will help make your prospects for landing a job much better post graduation.

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