This is the newest instalment of this month’s Stagey Guide to Singing. Bat Out of Hell month may be over but the Bat fun isn’t over as this week we have stories, advice and information from the three leading ladies of the Steinman musical: Sharon Sexton, Christina Bennington and Danielle Steers…
What has your vocal journey been like?
Sharon Sexton (Sloane): “I have been singing for as long as I can remember and was always told I had a “good voice” though no one in my family was a performer. I sang in school and my mum enrolled me in a youth music group when I was five and I lived for my weekly class. I learned all sorts of material and fell in love with musical theatre. I went to a couple of different local singing teachers and joined the school choir as a first soprano, though I always remember being jealous of the altos and wanting to learn their lines because I thought their lines were more challenging and I found harmonies fascinating.
There was nowhere in Ireland that taught the musical style I wanted to sing so I studied what video footage I could find of the greats like Bernadette Peters, Doris Day, Elaine Paige and Lea Salonga; studying their mouth shapes and imitating them. The same with Whitney and Mariah. I finessed all the riffs and set myself challenges in completing them. I ended up training classically in the Conservatory of Music in Dublin, which gave me a really solid foundation and understanding of my instrument, but all I wanted to do was sing contemporary musical theatre and belt. So I went through a host of singing teachers and robbed bits from everyone until I developed a technique that worked for me.
My voice has definitely changed over time. I try and keep my top C soprano in check but like anything- when you don’t use it that often, it gets rusty and I’ve accepted I shall probably now never be Christine in Phantom, I’m much more of a mezzo these days.”
Danielle Steers (Zahara): “I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I went to an amateur dramatics group from around the age of 10 and still go back there now to help out and put on shows etc… My voice has definitely changed over the years. I couldn’t belt until I went to college at 16 and only learnt how to twang and other techniques from my first few jobs. I have always had a low voice though, people always thought I was a lot older than my years due to the maturity of my voice.
Christina Bennington (Raven): It’s been a long and exciting one. I began singing at school at the age of 7 and was in very high standard choirs for my entire school life at Methodist College Belfast. We rehearsed every day and it’s where I learnt the disciplines of sight singing, vocal maintenance and musicality. I took classical lessons and was convinced I wanted to be an opera singer until I fell in love with musical theatre.
I started training in earnest at the Guildford School of Acting with Steven Luke Walker. Together we pushed my voice to extremes in every style so that I felt comfortable approaching anything. He’s a genuine wonder and I owe a lot of my jobs to his skill and teaching. I still see him when I have a new job or auditions because there’s always more to learn.
What/who got you into music? Sharon: I can’t ever say I remember my life without being completely obsessed with music. My dad had an amazing vinyl collection and I could sit for hours with headphones just getting lost in the music.
Danielle: I actually have no idea, I didn’t grow up in a particularly musical house. I just loved singing; it was how I expressed my emotions. I remember watching all the old MGM movies on TV and thinking how wonderful they were and wanting to be in them!
Christina: My house was always filled with music and I still thank my Dad for a lot of my musical taste. He had carefully curated car CDs and amazing records he would play on his HiFi. My family are involved in amateur theatre in Northern Ireland so I got involved in pantomimes as a child. I’ve seen home videos of me imitating rockstars and opera singers from the age of two so I think it was always in me!
Your voice is so smooth but strong at the same time. What are your tips for conveying the emotion of songs whilst maintaining power? Danielle: Why thank you, luckily the songs I sing in the show sit very well with an altos range, meaning I don’t need to think too much about technique and I can just let rip with my emotions.
I think power comes with emotion and even if you don’t have the most powerful voice you can still make a song powerful by meaning every single word you sing and telling the story through the song.
Bat Out Of Hell is a tough sing, during rehearsals how did you adapt to the vocal challenges it presents? Sharon: The tricky thing with Steinman’s music is that it is so passionate and it reaches such great heights both musically and emotionally. The most difficult thing for me was finding a way to keep the passion and make the rock sound, but finding a technique to do it safely 8 shows a week, without losing that grit. I do a lot of belting and growling in the show, which I had to sing in to muscle memory and which I continuously have to keep in check.
At the beginning of rehearsals the sing for Sloane seemed almost overwhelming, and I felt I was pushing myself to my limits, especially when we started moving keys up, but I was in rehearsals with Rob Fowler who is a vocal gymnast genius! And just when I felt I was getting to grips with my vocals, we would be working with the musical supervisor and Rob would ask “can I try something here?” and then sing and incredible riff and then go “Shazza could then sing that up a third no? or maybe you could octave that, or you could jump up and do a waaaaah there?” and I would clear my throat and go “uh uh, nope” and he said – “try it and if you can do it once, you’ll find a way to do it 8 shows a week”. I didn’t know him very well at the time – but I was damned if I was going to be shown up! He pushed me to give so much vocally and believed in my ability to match him on stage, more than I ever did. All my numbers are duets with Rob so having that support and belief in a vocal partner on stage really gave me confidence to build the role vocally. And I think when you’re on stage, yes technique is important but sometimes a lot of what comes out of your mouth, depends on the belief you have in your head.
Do you have any personal/random techniques for maintaining vocal health? Christina: I’m afraid the secret for me isn’t very rock and roll! Sleep, hydration and avoiding too much stress and tension. Looking after myself is the best way to deliver a consistently strong 8-show week. It’s easy to be focused on that for a job that I love so much. My top tip is not to do a crazy vocal warm up. You don’t need to belt or push yourself there – it should be about activating the right things and setting up your voice for what the show requires – not a singing competition!
Vocal health is obviously so important but do you have any coping techniques for the mental side of performing such as when you lose your voice or feel unmotivated? Danielle: I think a lot of the time when you “lose your voice” it can be a mental state. Sometimes if I know I have a big event coming up or new opening I “lose my voice” but it’s all in my head. You just have to trust that it will work, even maybe change your technique to get out certain notes.
Steaming is a massive factor, drinking lots of water, I also like to keep my voice lubricated by having two Jakemans per show. When you feel unmotivated it’s hard, especially with a show like Bat where you cannot give it any less that 100%! All I try to remember is why I’m doing what I’m doing, that people have paid good money to come see the show; the audiences reaction always helps us perform like it’s the first time every time.
Steinman’s songs have some crazy belting so vowel modification must be important to make everything clear and safe to sing. Is that something you do naturally when learning music or do you change depending on the mood/style of the piece? Christina: Vowel modification is necessary to keep the sound safe and consistent the higher you sing. Steven has always taught me ways to make it subtle and to make the song work for my voice. It comes naturally now but it’s most useful if we have a week with lots of other vocal commitments outside the show. Technique is most useful when you’re tired. It enables you to modify safely and thin the sound down to help get back to full strength without compromising the sound of the show.
Not only do you sing flawlessly in the show, but you’re also very humorous in the role, how do you bring that humour, comedic timing and lightness to your voice whilst still maintaining its power?
Sharon: For me if I try and think “I have to be funny here” I will never make you laugh. I just commit 100% to the thought process of the character and believe in the truth of the moment. I find if you hunt for a laugh, you won’t get it. So a lot of it is about storytelling and when I am in my head acting wise, the right noises just come out of my mouth… I hope…
You dance as lot as well as singing in the show, what are your tips for doing both at once? Danielle: Gosh this is a hard one, this is something you go through every day at college. It’s super hard especially if you’re singing a different rhythm to what you’re dancing, which happens a lot in Bat. The best thing to do is to sing along from the start of learning the choreography so you can get it into your head right from the go, then you can also work out where is best to breath. It’s hard work!
You’ve been doing the show for a while now so there must be a lot of muscle memory involved but are there any moments which are difficult or that you have to think about whilst performing?
Sharon: My body is well oiled in the machine of the show now and my chords know what is expected of them, so yes it is actually getting easier to sing the role, the longer I play it, but on tired or ill days I do completely rely on my technique and have to step out of my character’s head. ‘All Coming Back To Me’ can be tricky because of the blocking, I’m walking, in heels, on a raked stage, filled with track marks that like to eat my stiletto heels and it is highly emotional, so I have to play the feelings but I sometimes have to really concentrate on my breath and placement of that long “Now” note for 14 counts. I have to move the placement around to sustain it sometimes. There is no greater feeling that the days where my voice is on top form and I can just get lost in the emotion in that song.
I also ironically find the last three lines of the show that I sing, really sneak up on me sometimes. It’s the very end of Anything For Love. Myself, Danielle (Zahara) and Christina (Raven) sing a little trio “I would do anything for love” to close the show and I have done a huge amount of belting and growling and crying and think it’s all over and then go “oh gosh, this bit” and I have to take the high harmony in a very soft angelic voice which is very unlike any other part of the show for me, so I suddenly have to replace everything into my mix!
Danielle: Sometimes you can go into auto pilot, it does happen, but I always have to be careful during “two out of three” it’s such an exposing song and everyone knows the words so I feel I really have to concentrate, also if you don’t you end up not putting the emotion across. I also have to think about Tinks death scene, again, if you just go into auto pilot there’s no emotion there. ONE MORE…. DANCING DEAD RINGER IN THOSE HEELS!! Really have to concentrate in those haha!
Christina: There’s definitely a degree of muscle memory but I’m never happy with what I’m doing. There’s always more to learn. I concentrate on different parts of the score for every week and explore making them bigger, stronger or smoothing transitions. The most difficult section for me is the ‘tuck jump chorus’ of For Crying Out Loud. Belting on almost one note as I jump with Andrew across the stage takes a lot of physical energy which needs to be balanced with not throwing too much breath at the sound.
We know by now that I’m your breath control’s number one fan. Are there any particular exercises you do/have done to help with supporting? Christina: Haha thank you! You’re too kind. Breath control is an interesting one. I think a lot of people assume you need a big breath for a long phrase. As with a lot of singing, the rules aren’t one size fits all. In this style of music it’s often not the case. For a clear belt, I take a small high breath and support by resisting the breath in my rib cage. This can often lasts me many lines eg. the passage in Heaven Can Wait that I know you’re a fan of!
For me, a lot of ‘breath control’ throughout the show is really about recovery breathing and fitness. I do as much interval sprinting and high intensity training as I can to ensure that I have the stamina for songs like ‘For Crying Out Loud’. If your body is strong and ready your voice will be too.
Who would your dream duet partner be? Sharon: Male – I’m already singing with him 8 shows a week….
Female – Stevie Nicks
Danielle: In terms of the show I’d have to say Rob Fowler, but in life Shirley Bassey 100%
Christina: Andrew Polec of course! I’m beyond lucky to get to duet with him every night. Our voices fit well together. He is so resonant with so much weight in the sound which really gives me permission to use the full depth of mine.
There are a lot of women I would love to duet with who I admire greatly. Hmmm. Amy Lee from Evanescence, Louise Dearman, Gina Beck, Laura Michelle Kelly, Rosalie Craig. I guess I’ve been inspired by all of them in different ways. Actually I did sing ‘At the Ballet’ in a concert with Louise so I suppose that’s sort of one already achieved!
What is your pre-show warm up like? Sharon: So important to me. I think it’s important mentally and physically as when I start I can feel my brain sending all the signals to my voice going “ok, it’s that time of the day again” and it begins to anticipate what is expected of it. It’s like starting the engine of a car before a long journey. I try not to use an awful lot of vocal energy during warm up. I keep it very light and subtle. A lot of closed mouth sirens, quiet humming, lip trills, slowly and focused so that I can just check in gently on every note. I’ll also do a neck massage and loosen up my tongue muscles. I always do some amount of physical warm up but on days where my voice feels dry or tired I will really push myself with the dancers warm up, just to get my blood pumping in my muscles, which is so important to make my voice work.
Danielle: We start with a physical warm up so I like to make sure my back and legs are super warm because of what is required of me, also the neck for head banging purposes! Then we do a vocal warm up which is super important as we sing loads! Then we do fight call which is so everyone can make sure their fights are all good and safe before the show.
Christina: I love our full company physical with our dance captain Courtney. It gets my body woken up and prepped for the marathon that is Bat Out Of Hell. Then I take it easy in the company vocal. It depends what I need each day.
What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring performers in terms of finding and maintaining your voice? Sharon: Know your limits. Accept them.
Slowly and carefully continue to try work around them but remember your voice is unique, so embrace what you can do and let go of what you can’t.
If it hurts, stop. It should never be painful.
Sometimes less is more – in terms of effort and support. A lot of people have the misconception that you must support and push and be tense on the big high belt notes when in fact the opposite can be so much more effective.
Listen to your body when it’s telling you that you need a rest. You only have one voice and if you are a performer – it is your life insurance, so never compromise it for anyone or anything or any production. It needs you to be smart to take care of it. When you need a show off, take it, because if you sing on a tired voice in a long run, it always, always catches up on you. Vocal massages are little gifts from heaven! Find a good therapist!
Danielle: Always try new things, I didn’t find my voice until I was about 18. Before then I had a very limited range and wouldn’t have even dreamed of being able to sing the songs I can now. I still have a long way to go and I’m always trying to better my voice. It’s a case of playing around with different genres as well to see what fits well, rock, pop, jazz, musical theatre, legit? So much to choose from. Also…. don’t smoke!!!
Christina: I would say don’t compare your voice to anyone else. Yours is unique and wonderful! Absorb as much knowledge as you can and decide what works for you. Be disciplined in looking after your instrument and practise!
Sending a massive thank you to Sharon, Christina and Danielle for giving us all their inside information of all things singing! Join us next Sunday for a tips from someone with All That Jazz!
Bat Out of Hell is currently at the Dominion Theatre until 27th October 2018
Post by Editor, Olivia Mitchell
Photo credit: Specular, Christina Bennington, Danielle Steers