Peter Casey and Bev Kennedy share some tips and advice.
By Vanessa Ronan-Pearce of Dance Informa.
One of the hardest things a well-trained and talented dancer ever has to do when they hit the musical theatre audition circuit is to open their mouth and sing. Even if they are going for a dance role in the ensemble of a musical, they will still be expected to prepare a song.
In order to make this feat a little less daunting, two of Australia’s leading music directors took the time to share their insights and advice for dancers wanting to improve their singing skills.
Firstly, let me introduce these incredibly talented and experienced experts, Peter Casey and Bev Kennedy.
Peter Casey is one of Australia’s most versatile musical directors, having established a career spanning the genres of musical theatre, arena presentations, symphonic concerts, orchestration, television and recording. In his career, Casey has been musical director for many major music theatre productions, including Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Cabaret, Evita, Cats, The Pajama Game, 42nd Street and Annie The Musical, to name just a few. He is currently the musical director for the 2014 Gordon Frost Organisation/Opera Australia co-production of The King and I starring Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes.
On the other hand, Bev Kennedy is also regarded as one of Australia’s leading musical directors and accompanists, having worked on over 20 professional productions. Shows she has worked on include Billy Elliot, Mamma Mia!, The Producers, We Will Rock You, The Lion King, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Chicago and the concert version of Sunset Boulevard with Judi Conelli. Kennedy was assistant musical director for Simon Gallaher’s Pirates of Penzance, which is the highest selling video of a musical in Australian history and also won an Aria Award for “Best Soundtrack.” Over the last few years, Kennedy worked on the shows Wicked and Avenue Q, was nominated for a Green Room Award for her work as musical director on Gutenberg the Musical, and was the associate musical director on Jersey Boys.
Here, Dance Informa asks Casey and Kennedy for their insights on how to improve and work on becoming a triple threat.
How important is musical ability for dancers who want to improve their singing?
“It is very important for dancers to have musical understanding. I suggest they go and listen to an orchestra, big band or jazz combo, and imagine that they are the musician. From this perspective, they can really consider the music, analyse the tempo and timings, and start to develop their musical sensitivity. This will then transpose to understanding the connection between movement and music building a stronger connection between the two.
I remember many years ago, back in 1985, working with Gillian Lynne and Trevor Nunn on Cats. I spent much of my time going through the rhythms with the dancers. I decided to bring all the dancers into the orchestra pit to connect with the musicians to really help them feel the music. It made a massive difference. In Cats, there are many dancers who have to sing a very challenging score. Jellical Ball has music that moves from classical to rock with many styles in between.”
“I agree with Peter – it’s vitally important. One of the things I have encountered is that there is this overwhelming terror when dancers have to sing. I teach dancers that it is really a sideways step. No matter what the medium is, we are all there to tell the story. It’s about really connecting to what you are trying to say. I love to remind dancers of the fact that they are already very in-tune with their bodies, they understand the medium, they have the discipline and they already have core strength. All singing is then, is an extension of the skills they have already developed. Making what they already know accessible and stripping away the fear.
Currently, I am working one day at week at Lee Academy with Margie de Ferranti on the Central Coast. This studio recognises that performers need a fantastic work ethic. They want to expand work opportunities for their students so have introduced a music theatre certificate. Each week, I work with three different classes, which include students who have never sung before. When they first began, the students were asked to get up and sing Mary Had A Little Lamb. Many couldn’t even get up and sing in front of their peers. Eight weeks of lessons later and they were all able to sing confidently in three-part harmony and dance simultaneously. The biggest hurdle is overcoming the fear.”
What makes a good all-round performer?
“An all rounder requires an understanding of the text and lyrics, the story behind the dance or movement, not just a knowledge of the steps. They must become a good storyteller in both dance and song, as the melody and movement flows once the intention is strong. I can’t teach the dots and notes first. Dancers must understand the intention and structure first. Everything else comes after.”
“Greatness comes from the work ethic, being open to embracing all disciplines within performing. With that openness comes another crucial trait, a deep level of humility. A great performer is prepared to acknowledge their weaknesses and work on them. If you know you aren’t a strong singer or actor, then you must be prepared to put in the hard yards, and not let the fear of looking stupid stop you from learning and growing.
Although there aren’t always big shows available to first-timers, there are now smaller theatres that are allowing younger performers the chance to experience the craft at the ground level. Places like The Hayes Theatre in Sydney is generating quite a buzz after it’s first two big shows and it’s cabaret side shows.
Dancers starting out can look to some very well-known performers who were originally known as dancers but have honed their skills to show they are much more. Performers such as Caroline O’Connor, Kelley Abbey, Chloe Dalimore and Leonie Page.”
What key things should a dancer who wants to improve their singing and musical understanding work on?
“Great singing comes from great technique and it’s well worth looking into earlier techniques of jazz and classical singing. Similar to being a great dancer with a strong technique coming from the foundations of classical ballet, so to with singing. Spend time with a classical singing teacher to open up the sound of your voice, to expand and extend your vocal breathing, which only classical and operatic singing can do. Then, once mastered, you can take this understanding into jazz, rock and RNB singing. Well, into any style really.
Currently, I’m working on the Rodgers & Hammerstein show The King & I. The performers learn classical technique during rehearsals, which they can then use as grounding for their next show.”
“The thing I find with dancers is that, first and foremost, they need to let go of their fear. They must also not be afraid of making an ugly noise. When starting out, you have to remember you are not going to sound like Marina Pryor in your first couple of lessons. Make sure you have a really good singing teacher. Train with someone who can play a keyboard as it’s the only way to truly train your ears. The instrument of the human voice is so linked to the ears and being able to listen.
If you are going to be serious you have to practice scales. Just like a warm up in dance class, scales are essential. Practice 5-10 minutes everyday. And, just like stretching for dancers, some days your body is loose and some days tight. Your voice is the same but you have to do a little bit everyday.
Dancers also need to learn to be loose and let go a little more. You need to learn to relax and push down, keeping the core strong. Learn to not pull up, which is what dancers are trained to do and is more natural; they have to drop down while still engaging their core.”
What are the biggest challenges you have encountered when auditioning dancers for roles that require singing?
“Auditions are the biggest challenges for dancers. When they come into sing they need to enter with the same energy and pride they enter with when they go into dance. If you turn it around and ask the singers to do a dance routine, they will tell you they feel the same way. My aim at auditions is to make dancers more comfortable by talking through their song and helping them feel at ease.
Remember to go through the door and be as confidant as you can. The creative team wants you to be right for the show and for you to be in the show. We are not the enemy. We want you to be good and for you to do your best. We are there to serve you and encourage you, as we need you in the world, in our shows.”
“Fear… Deer in the headlights! Generally, producers are aware that it’s often new territory for dancers to come in and sing. I have often worked with great musical directors who really relax the dancers and even just ask them to sing Happy Birthday. Believe it or not, this song ticks so many boxes. It’s a familiar song, you start to feel relaxed, and it actually covers all the intervals.”
Last piece of advice?
“Aim to make singing joyful and fun. Find a teacher who does things like tongue twisters and games and don’t worry about looking silly.”
“It’s always about telling the story. Don’t be afraid of ugly, as long as you get the point across, as it’s always about the story.”
Photo (top): Peter Casey with Lisa McCune, who is currently starring in The King and I, for which Casey is the Musical Director. All photos courtesy of Peter Casey and Bev Kennedy.