Do any singers or actors know how to reach the back row?

Back in the ancient days when tiny little distracting wearable boom mikes weren’t in existence, we were taught to project to the back row. I wasn’t in drama, but I sang in choruses for years, and whether we were singing as a group or in a solo, the goal was that person in the farthest corner of the auditorium. I know the drama students were taught the same, because no matter where I sat for a school play, I could hear them.

Last night, my daughter and I went to a high school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Of the entire cast, only one, Lucy, had the power behind her voice to fill the room, and it wasn’t that big a theater. Most of the others had those silly little booms along their jawlines, and at least one of them regularly blasted hers into the overdrive zone - it was not a pleasant sound.

So, any of you who did the chorus/drama thing in school more recently than the 60s or 70s, what are they teaching? Has technology replaced technique?

To a large extent, yes - the technology is readily available and it’s a much easier fix than working on vocal projection. Never mind that I can tell you exactly when recess begins in the schoolyard across the street from me. Just because kids will naturally project their voices 50 - 100 yards on the baseball diamond doesn’t mean that they can do that onstage…

Once upon a time, it would be a rarity to have an amplified instrument in the pit for a high school show. Now, the digital keyboard is the standard; the old upright in the gym has long been given away because it was too expensive to maintain it. (I mean, $100. a year for tuning it is too much? To this we have come?) For many music teachers/conductors in schools, once that arms’ race gets started, there’s no end to it. Now we have to amplify the singers so they can be heard over the amps in the pit…

It would be worse if the students were told to push and generated a harsh, throaty sound in an attempt to fill the theatre.

It would be far better, though, if the students were taught the idea that it is natural to sing with a column of air which is supported all the way down to the diaphragm. It’s better for your speaking voice and for your singing voice. You can still have a sound man, and you can still use mikes, but the timbre of the voice is so much better for musical theatre.

Barbara Cook used to do at least one number per concert where she’d ask the sound man to turn off the PA altogether and everybody would play acoustically with her singing over top. She’d sing a Cole Porter or a Gershwin and say “That’s the way it sounded when they wrote it.”

I was thinking of Ethel Merman belting one out - they just don’t make 'em like that any more.

And I know what you mean about the amplified accompaniment. That was a big annoyance at the show last night - it was difficult to hear the singers over the music, and I don’t think they heard it all that well, considering they were often off-key and off-beat.

Technology is fine and dandy, but it’ll never replace talent.

I recall an interview with Juice Newton (“Queen Of Hearts,” “Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me”) when she commented on this. She said, that her voice is not the best but is very strong, 'cause she started singing at county fairs and the amplification was poor and you had to sing loud and strong to be heard over the cows and pigs.

And Juice does have a really strong voice, not the greatest quality but it is powerful.

In the age of microphones that isn’t as needed. Janet Jackson is a great example of someone who has a weak voice in terms of power.

Tony Bennett does the same thing in his concerts.

Yes, there are still a lot of belters out there. One place that talent is still prized is in Black churches, particularly the older ones that haven’t invested in wireless microphones. Reaching the back row is just as important now as it ever was.

A true crooner like Bing Crosby would use the microphone like his instrument. The subtle control over the voice doesn’t translate if you belt. That type of singing isn’t going to fill an auditorium without amplification. That’s not what’s happening most of the time, though. Mics are just enloudening weak voices.

Sometimes I’m shocked at how soft some people are. When they try to, say, gather a group or speak to a croud, they just don’t raise their voice.

Also, singing loudly requires a good lung capacity. Even with practice with breathing techniques, developing that capacity takes a long time.

I graduated high school in 1992, from a school with a very good choral/musical theater program, and we were taught to project. For musicals, we used a few floor mikes, and the leads and long solos had lavs, but the rest of us had to be heard over the band unaided, even for short solos. That is, when I played Aunt Em in The Wiz, I rated a mike for my solo number, but when I was Chorus Girl #3 in* South Pacific*, I had to belt out my solo lines in “Wash That Man” just like good ol’ Ethyl. Or straight (non-musical) shows were always unplugged for every actor. Projection was required.

I think I shared this before, but my most awesomest moment watching live theater was a production of Les Mis in Chicago where Valjean’s mike went out just at the beginning of “Bring Him Home.” For those living under a rock, it’s a tender sweet sad ballad, sung mostly in a haunting falsetto. There was a crackle, a pop and then no sound at all. The singer (Og help me, I don’t remember who it was) quickly realized what was happening, readjusted himself, and suddenly you could hear him - unamplified - all the way back in our cheap student nosebleed balcony seats. Let me tell you - that’s an amazing song under any conditions, but unamplified by an obvious master of singing technique…awesome, in the most literal sense of the word.

So *some *people can still do it.

My acting training was primarily for on-camera work; we did a lot of vocal work, but it wasn’t about “projecting” or using the diaphragm (those still sound to me like ideas that lead to straining one’s voice). A well-trained voice is still important for sounding good when there’s a boom mic a foot above your head and for good acting in general. When I was finally instructed how to “reach the back row”, it took me a matter of minutes to learn how.