Cindy Says: Keep ‘em Healthy….yes, those beautiful voices!

Cindy Says: Keep ‘em Healthy….yes, those beautiful voices!

By Cindy Ripley on March 17, 2020

I am currently in an Uber leaving one of our NYC schools that participate in the NYCDOE/Schubert Foundation/MTI Broadway JR initiative for schools developing musical theatre programs. The word rewarding doesn't really come close to describing the expression on students' faces when they finally have the tools to express themselves creatively for the very first time. Is it challenging? You bet. Is it fulfilling? You bet. While on this ride through Brooklyn, I was thinking about the bustle in the MTI office where my day began - the long-awaited Matilda JR. was released today. I know how teachers have been frantically logging into their myMTI accounts to get this show on their season line-ups now!

The parallel from 25 years ago comes back to me in a flash. I was working on the prototype for the first Director's Guide to Annie JR., and the challenges of pushing the adolescent voice beyond its limits (especially "It's A Hard Knock Life") was looming. Many a music teacher listened to Andrea McArdle and said, "not my kids". Unlike our inner city students in the DOE/Schubert/MTI program, the answer is "of course not, not without the tools to do it!"

The infectious "Revolting Children" from Matilda JR. presents a similar challenge - students crave the energy, message, and chance to be naughty in one show-stopping number. Many of you know my hard and fast Vocal Toolbox, so I reached out to Sarah Patterson, the music director and managing director from Inspiration Stage in Sugarland, Texas. She and artistic director Mandy Seymore-Sensat mounted the pilot of Matilda JR. featured at JTF20 in Atlanta. Sarah has some timeless tools she used with her kids to create a safe and sustainable "Matilda authenticity" for adolescent voices.

Four themes framed Sarah's approach to this work - air, space, dynamics, and story.


Are singers' breaths slow and low from the diaphragm or high and harsh from the chest? Are they tightening their throats to suck the air in, or relaxing those muscles to allow for natural air replacement? She used breath exercises focused on the diaphragm-repeating staccato consonants like "k, k, k" and "t, t, t" that use controlled puffs of air to generate sound. "Deflating the balloon" with a "ssss" re-centers the core and helps students take more focused breaths.


Sarah refers to the size and shape of the mouth as she approaches each lyric. A glorious feature of Matilda is British accents- tall, open vowels and precise diction. Softened "r's" in a British accent allow students to open up and elongate our vowels even more than usual. An open vowel (Space) supported by controlled breath (Air) are key to vocal stamina in a demanding show like Matilda JR.


Ms. Patterson claims after students cover Air and Space, dynamics take the performance to the next level - the key to great storytelling. The challenge of some Matilda JR. songs is finding ways to vocally convey emotions like frustration and anger without simply shouting through the music. She uses a 1-5 rating system using her fingers to guide volume levels and dynamic shifts. Ultimately, Dynamics are about control.


Story takes what singers have learned in technique and musicality (Air, Space, Dynamics) and gives it purpose. For "School Song" and "Revolting Children" specifically, Sarah guided students to look for other ways to demonstrate fierce intensity and frustration vocally rather than yelling. One approach was to channel vocal and physical energy into perfecting diction in the delivery. "Chewing" the lyrics: like you're taking a big bite of each word, speaking the words before singing helps to solidify the narrative of the story and emphasize lyrics naturally. Challenge students to focus their energy on hitting each alphabet letter sound with a punch.

Remember that your first job is to tell the Story. Protecting the vocal health of students by encouraging good technique and providing them with simple tools like how to work with Air & Space to help refocus their energy and Dynamics to control the delivery.

Sarah, your approach has paved a vocally healthy way for many that are ready to launch into the world of Matilda JR.! Kudos to you and your students for committing the time to perfect technique for this age level!

No matter what show you select, with your encouragement and reinforcement, your students' voices will soar. It's worth the time. CR

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