Letter to the Editor, NATS Journal

National Association of Theatre Letter to the Editor


Hello, Robert:

I have enjoyed your columns over the years, being a fellow teacher to both classical and popular singers, and I had intended to introduce myself to you long before this. Your last two columns in the NATS Journal gave me the incentive to take the time to say “hello.” I am one of the founders of the musical theater division at the Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC, where I have been teaching singing technique, repertoire development and song interpretation since 1980. At the same time, I have also maintained a busy private studio in the Lincoln Center area, where I have been working with classical and Broadway performers as well as pop singers of every description.

As a thirty-year NATS member, I have appreciated the way the organization has grown and adapted to change. I think one of the organization’s biggest accomplishments is the way it has embraced the revolution in technology that has affected research in all areas related to the voice. Although there has been resistance, the result has been increasingly sophisticated Journal articles and a more well-informed membership. When the Journal expanded to include your column on popular singing, however, my reaction was to be at once amused, pleased and a little concerned. As a singing teacher who’s father (Vern Reed) was classically trained at the Eastman School of Music and went on to have a career as the tenor in the Buffalo Bills Barbershop Quartet (The Music Man— Broadway and the Hollywood film– major radio and TV credits, countless concerts), I grew up learning to love all kinds of vocal music and styles of singing. I also learned to appreciate the aesthetics of each style and to have a keen sense of what aspects of the human experience each best expressed. When NATS began to show an interest in theatrical and popular singing styles and techniques, I was glad that the kind of singing most Americans enjoy was finally going to be supported by the teaching profession, but I was concerned that theatrical and pop singers and their teachers would be considered the unsophisticated “country cousins” and not be given the full attention and respect of a world class professional organization that they deserve.

I am afraid that my concerns were well founded, and a revisit of your columns over the years bears that out. I have privately cheered you on as you have labored to bring some dignity to the worlds of theatrical and popular singing and to address the needs and problems of teachers who work with pop singers, but after many years, you are still battling an institutionalized prejudice against belting and the aesthetics of theatrical and pop singing. Columns about uninformed and prejudiced judges, NATS sponsored workshops on belting where the clinician has a complete misconception of what belting is, teachers and coaches who encourage students to sing Broadway songs in a classical style, and colleagues who accuse theatrical and pop singing teacher of ruining voices because of the very nature of belting, are a testament to what I think is a quixotic undertaking. Every summer at the Circle in the Square Theatre School summer intensive, I am faced with classes of young theatrical singers from colleges and universities around the country, who have been warned with a religious fervor by their well intentioned but uninformed singing teachers─ all NATS members─not to belt. If a theatrical singer can’t belt, their prospects for participating in musical theater are severely limited. Despite NATS’ best intentions, I don’t believe   it will ever be able to give Broadway and popular singing the full support they deserve as unique and important American art forms without making significant changes. For that reason, I would like propose that a separate wing be created under the NATS umbrella for the support and encouragement of theatrical and popular singing.

A quick look at other professional organizations may provide a blueprint for a revised relationship between the theatrical/pop and classical singing disciplines within NATS. In the world of ice skating there are figure skaters, ice dancers, short and long track speed skaters and hockey players. They all wear skates and skate on a rink, but they have their separate associations. It is not reasonable to think the figure skaters would want to be judged by a hockey referee. The competitive riding world includes hunter/jumpers, the dressage events, barrel racing, harness racing and thoroughbred racing. It is difficult to picture the dressage crowd and the barrel racers agreeing on the aesthetics of horseback riding. They are two different ways of relating to the horse. The medical profession also provides some insight. They have an umbrella organization (AMA) under which information is shared throughout the profession as a whole, but each specialty has its own separate association. This is a paradigm that I think would be a great benefit to the singing profession in general and NATS in particular.

Frankly, I think NATS has its hands full preserving the integrity of the great tradition of Western classical singing. Handing down to each new generation of classical singers the history, technique and pedagogy, science, repertoire and performance practices of Western classical singing is a huge mandate and responsibility. With the teaching of proper diction, the learning of foreign languages, the encouragement and support of composers and the development of new works, the training of teachers and the huge effort, time and money that goes into the development of young professionals, NATS has a clear and important mission. To diffuse its energies by including theatrical and popular singing within its mandate is to endanger the primary goal of preserving and encouraging the growth and development of Western classical singing without giving a total commitment to the world of theatrical and popular singing.

In their own ways, theatrical and popular singing styles are as complex and demanding as classical singing. Musical theater, for instance, is a form of story telling that requires performers to be actors and dancers as well as singers, and they often have to do all three at the same time. To have a NATS competition for theatrical singers that does not also involve acting and movement with judges who are qualified to assess the performer’s proficiency in all three disciplines, would be like having a classical competition where the singers performed their arias on “ah” and were judged by Simon Cowell and company. In addition, theatrical singers are called upon to use a number of voice qualities, often within the same show or even a single song. A classically trained singer who auditions for a Broadway show with pear shaped tones and senior recital deportment has about as much chance of getting cast as a ballet dancer at a hip hop audition. Musical theater is a world unto itself with its own history and tradition. Colleges and universities with musical theater programs, to be fair to their students, have to employ theatrical singing teachers who are specialists in the voice qualities used in musical theater.

During my visits to college and university musical theater programs to give workshops, in my work with young performers at the Circle in the Square Theatre School and in my private studios, I have talked to countless students who are starving for effective vocal training for musical theater and popular singing styles. It is unconscionable to take tens of thousand of dollars in tuition from a young hopeful musical theater undergraduate, and then send them to the classical music department where teachers are unprepared and unwilling to train them in the Broadway style. When jazz was added to the curriculum of music schools, jazz musicians, often without a degree, were brought in to teach. Classical music teachers did not presume to teach jazz without the required knowledge and skills. A separate division of NATS completely dedicated to theatrical and popular singing is the only way institutions of higher learning are going to recruit, encourage and train specialists in theatrical and popular singing pedagogy to meet the needs of young performers.

When I told my teacher Oren Brown at Juilliard that I had accepted an appointment teaching actors how to sing at the Circle in the Square Theatre School nearly thirty years ago, he warned me that I would ruin a promising teaching career. In some ways he was right. Despite the success of the musical theatre program at Circle in the Square, the Tony Award winners I have produced and worked with and the hundreds of Broadway shows my students have performed in, I find, when confronted with choral directors and singing teachers who are NATS members, that I often have to defend, explain, excuse and apologize for the ways in which theatrical and popular singing styles are different from classical singing. On the other hand, teaching actors to sing and singers to act was the road less traveled for me, and I continue to have an amazing career working with people who are stunningly talented, truly interesting and alive.

I remember one of your columns in which you talked about the idea of forming the National Association of Teachers of Theatrical Singing. NATS has so much to offer theatrical and pop singing teachers through its well established infrastructure and access to research. A new organization could not hope to replicate such an institution within a reasonable period of time. But a separate wing for non-classical singing under the umbrella of NATS would give much needed freedom to each branch of the art form, while preserving the ways in which they can benefit each other. The NATS leadership could begin by issuing a statement declaring that the organization supports the skilled teaching of belting and Broadway legit singing to singers of all ages in the manner that the American Academy of teachers of Singing supports the teaching of singing to children. I love classical music. Great classical singers have always been my heroes. Most Americans who seek vocal training, however, want to sing Broadway and pop music. Let’s honor these singers and the great tradition of Broadway and pop singing by creating a separate wing within NATS. I would welcome any further discussion on this matter. Sometimes the best harmony is written in two separate parts.


Sincerely yours,

Bill Reed