Summer musical theater opportunities for kids and teens

It's never too soon to start thinking about summer musical theater opportunities. Below are some options in the Philadelphia region that I recommend to my students. Please note: There are many other programs around, but these are few that I recommend based on many factors, including: my knowledge of the programs, their instructors, or reputation; my students' experiences; or my own experience as an acting student.

Barley Sheaf Players (Lionville, PA)
Barley Sheaf is a community theater that produces a full season of shows during the year and runs two shows - one for teens, one for kids - during the summer. This year's teen show is Addams Family. Teens are strongly encouraged to attend the Teen Show Audition Workshop to help them prepare. The kids' show will be announced at a later date. Please note that Barley Sheaf's summer programs are practically free (participants pay a small fee of about $25), but acceptance is quite competitive.

West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts (West Chester, PA)
Director Therese Walden-Murphy has acted on Broadway and in L.A., and she is an excellent teacher of acting and musical theater. Sign up early, as sessions fill up quickly! 

West Chester Summer Stage (West Chester, PA) 
WCSS gives students the experience of performing in a high-quality musical theater production. (I have attend several excellent performances there.) However, my impression is that the program is quite large and doesn't offer a lot of individual attention to each student. Also, opportunities tend to go to kids who have been longtime participants.

Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia, PA)
As Philadelphia's center for professional musical theater productions, the Walnut offers excellent programs for kids, teens, and adults. Offerings range from beginning acting to advanced musical theater, with additional classes in storytelling, auditioning, and on-camera technique. Some classes may require auditions.

Upper Darby Summer Stage (Upper Darby, PA) 
UDSS has an wonderful reputation as a NY-style theater camp. (Tina Fey is a graduate.) Previous seasons have included six children’s theater shows and a mainstage production of a Broadway musical.

Learning to sing: How to find a voice teacher

I wrote in my previous post that finding the right voice teacher is the most important decision an aspiring singer can make. I included some ideas on what to look for in a teacher. But how do you go about finding that person? Here are a few ideas.

  • Ask singers you admire: Not all teachers advertise their studios, so word of mouth is probably the best way to find a voice teacher. If you go to a concert or club where a local singer performs, ask if the singer gives lessons. If not, maybe the singer can recommend a friend who teaches or even put you in contact with her or his own teacher.
  • Ask a musician: These people can probably recommend someone: your school choir/band/orchestra director or music teacher, the music director or cantor at your church or place of worship, your piano teacher, or your friend’s piano teacher.
  • Find a community music school: There are thousands of community arts schools (nonprofit, non-degree granting, community-based institutions) in the United States. Many of their teachers are experienced performers with multiple degrees and years of teaching experience. Prices are often on the low end. Find a school near you at www.nationalguild.org.
  • Contact your local college or university: Many professors supplement their salaries by giving private lessons. You can also inquire whether any advanced students teach voice. (If cost is a concern, keep in mind that students will certainly charge less their professors do.) Ask for a graduate student, an advanced undergrad, or someone who has taken classes in vocal pedagogy or music education. (“Vocal pedagogy” means the study of teaching singing.) The downside to studying with a college student is that he or she could leave the area after graduation.
  • Ask friends and family: You never know who’s taken singing lessons until you ask.
  • Check Craigslist: Teachers who need to fill spots in their studios often post on Craigslist. You might not find much information on the teacher’s experience, but you can always ask questions by phone or email.
  • Call your local music store: Many stores offer lessons onsite. Others keep a list of area music teachers on hand.
  • Visit www.nats.org: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) has strict requirements for its members. Teachers need to have a college degree or equivalent experience and must abide by a Code of Ethics. The NATS website allows you to search for members in your state or hometown.
  • Visit www.classicalsinger.com: Classical Singer magazine is a great source for anyone who wants to sing classical music or opera. You can search the site for a teacher in your area.
  • Visit www.mtna.org: The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a professional organization for music teachers who are employed by a school or who teach privately. You can find members at www.mtna.org. Keep in mind, though, that MTNA doesn’t screen its members. However, teachers can choose to go through the group’s thorough certification process.
  • Visit other websites. Two popular websites list music teachers: www.musicstaff.com and www.privatelessons.com. In my experience, however, there aren’t many voice teachers on the sites, and those that are listed seem somewhat underqualified.
  • Ask a voice doctor: This may seem like an odd source, but laryngologists (voice doctors) often work closely with voice teachers to help singers who’ve had vocal trouble. A teacher with experience in vocal rehabilitation is a great choice if you suspect something might be wrong with your vocal cords. See my previous post on finding a voice doctor.

Good luck in your search for a voice teacher! And remember - always ask about a teacher’s credentials before you sign up for lessons!

How to find a voice doctor

My journey as a singer with vocal problems has been emotionally (and vocally) exhausting. One of the many lessons I’ve learned is the importance of seeking out qualified specialists.


Finding a voice doctor

It’s not that I didn’t try. But for years the doctors and voice teachers I went to never recognized what was going on. I realize now that most doctors (even ENTs) don’t have the experience it takes to treat singers. This may seem ignorant to anyone who has spent years training the voice, but think about it this way. ENTs treat disorders of the ears, nose, head, neck, and throat. Many choose one or more specializations like:

  • pediatric otolaryngology (children)
  • otology/neurotology (ears, balance, and tinnitus)
  • allergy
  • facial plastic and reconstructive surgery
  • head and neck
  • rhinology (nose)
  • sleep
  • laryngology (throat)

Even laryngologists may choose specialties, such as swallowing disorders or throat cancer, that focus on more than the voice. Singers will want to find a doctor who specializes in treating professional voice users. He or she will understand, for example, that a little breathiness can be a big deal. Or that losing the very top of your vocal range (notes most people don’t know the human voice is capable of) is a tragedy. Or that vocal fatigue can be an occupational hazard.

If you’re shopping for a voice doctor, or if you’re just curious about the voice, I highly recommend www.VoiceProblem.org.


Finding a teacher who rehabilitates voices

It’s understandable that not all doctors are sensitive to the needs of singers, but surely voice teachers should be able to recognize vocal problems, right? Yes … in an ideal world. But the reality is that most voice teachers have little to no experience with vocal disorders. They are typically trained first as singers, and may or may not receive training in vocal pedagogy (the art of teaching singing), much less vocal pathology (disorders of the voice) or vocal rehabilitation.

Today I feel very lucky to have found an excellent teacher who specializes in rehabilitating damaged voices. If you suspect you’ve had vocal damage, look for a teacher who has similar experience. Wondering where to start? Call up the nearest ENT who specializes in treating professional voice users.

Photo: bcostin

Why every singer should get a voice exam

I recently made my very first appointment with an otolaryngologist (also known as an ear-nose-throat doctor, or ENT), and it’s something I think every singer should do.

Even if you aren’t sick or aren’t experiencing vocal problems, having your vocal cords examined is still a good idea. Here’s why:

1) It gives you a baseline from which to measure any future vocal health problems. Identifying the source of vocal problems can be a long and circuitous process. It can only help to know what your vocal cords look like and how they function when your voice sounds healthy.

2) It could identify issues you aren’t aware of. Just because you’re not aware of having vocal problems doesn’t mean you don’t have them. Acid reflux can burn the vocal cords, even without noticeable symptoms.

3) It could identify causes for problems you thought had a different source. So many things affect the voice: lifestyle, weather, allergies, medications, hormonal fluctuations, food, exercise (or lack of it), almost any illness, and – of course – a person’s vocal technique. For years, I – and the voice teachers I worked with – thought I simply had poor technique. But my current teacher, who is a specialist in vocal rehabilitation, suspects that the problems were caused paresis (partial paralysis) of the vocal cords due to a virus. If something seems off, consult a specialist right away.

Not sure where to find a voice doctor? Look for my next post, or visit www.VocalProblem.org.


RESOURCES

www.VocalProblem.org - You can’t trust everything you read on the web, but this site is a trustworthy resource by top vocal physicians. The guide to finding a vocal physician is especially helpful. (The site is run on a volunteer basis and is sometimes unavailable. If you experience problems, check back later. It’s worth the wait.)

www.ENT.org - This is an excellent resource for anyone looking for more information on what to expect when visiting an ENT. The site includes detailed fact sheets about a variety of vocal disorders.

British Voice Association - Singers in the UK will find information on finding a UK voice clinic. Singers everywhere can read the BVA’s voice care tips and browse the article archive.

National Center for Voice and Speech - NCVS’s website is a wonderful place to begin exploring the science behind vocal technique. Check out the list of 200 commonly prescribed medications and how they affect the voice.

GET A FREE VOICE EXAM!

In honor of World Voice Day, the Voice and Swallowing Institute of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary is offering free voice screenings for professional singers. A full voice work-up can run over $1,000, so this is an incredible offer. Call 212-245-7840 or inquire by email.

Yoga for your face

So I’ve taken my love for yoga (which I’ve blogged about before) to a new level. My inspiration is a book I got for Chrstimas: The Yoga Face: Eliminate Wrinkles with the Ultimate Natural Facelift by Annelise Hagen. Of course, I didn’t get it to zap wrinkles, but to warm up my face for singing.

The author is a yoga instructor and teaches a class called Yoga Face at the New York Health and Raquet Club. See her class in action on this video clip from NBC Today. Her book is full of specific exercises for toning and relaxing the facial muscles. Many of them teach you how to isolate tiny muscles that we don’t usually activate alone, a skill singers can use for refining vocal technique and for building a wider range of facial expressions.

One of the things that sets this book apart is that it’s not entirely focused on the face. Unlike a lot of similar works, Yoga Face also includes basic exercises that are generally relaxing, including a lot of inverted poses and poses that free up the breath. This is ideal for singers, who can turn to it to warm up body, mind, and breath. Plus, the emphasis on basic postures makes the book accessible to beginners and advanced yogis alike.

If you’re interested in facial exercises, here’s a list of additional resources, including books, website, and YouTube clips.

A guide to "Creating a Successful Career in Music"

In music and in the movies, we’re often more aware of the glamorous lives of the biggest stars than of the hard work it took them to get there. And we may know next to nothing about the career of the musician who plays in a small town symphony or the actor who performs at a local dinner theater.

For anyone who wants to know more about the many variations of musical careers, I highly recommend Angela Myles Beeching’s book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.

I have never encountered a more thorough or realistic book on creating a musical career.  Ms. Beeching covers everything, from how to get an agent to how to create your own performing opportunities to what to wear for an audition.  Her advice includes tips on marketing, finances, fundraising, and time management.

My favorite aspect of the book, however, is its emphasis on a varied, even shifting, idea of success.  Many of us establish career dreams early on, like playing in a major orchestra, singing at the Met, or making a professional recording; but everyone encounters rejection at some point. 

Ms. Beeching cautions wisely that each musician must define - and constantly refine - his or her own vision of success.

"The Song of the Lark," a classic novel about artistic growth

Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark is a book I return to every few years.  The somewhat autobiographical story follows the life of a fictional opera singer, Thea Kronborg, as she develops her musical and interpretive gifts.  

Thea is not an entirely lovable character, but I deeply identify with her passion, ambition, and – most of all – her fierce struggle to protect and nurture her talent.

Throughout the work, Cather brings up questions about what it means to be an artist and how the process of becoming one affects the artist herself and those around her. And singers will appreciate her accurate descriptions of the intense work it takes to train the voice.

I also enjoyed the depiction of musical training in 19th-century America. No symphony orchestras on the prairie? Only one decent voice teacher in the Midwest? How far we’ve come since then!

If you aren’t familiar with Cather’s work, I highly recommend them. She is best known for My Antonia, O Pioneers, and her volumes of short stories.

The themes of friendship, perseverance, and the joys of music run throughout Cather’s works. She expresses a love for all things cultural and artistic - in a world where such things were hard to find. (The book’s title is taken from the name of an 1884 painting by Jules Bréton, pictured above.) And her language is beautifully descriptive, especially when she writes about the land - the vast, untamed American Midwest - often both a metaphor and a character in its own right.