Pop goddess Idina Menzel joined the Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve gang in Times Square last week to sing “Let It Go,” her signature smash from the animated film Frozen. Listeners didn’t care for her performance of the climactic high note and took to Twitter for some harsh criticism, which then proliferated via snarky columns in the news media: “Idina Menzel botches high note in New Year’s performance of ‘Frozen’ classic — Twitter can’t let it go.”
Many of my colleagues in the singing and theatre communities rallied to support her, pointing out that everyone blows the occasional high note and a strenuous eight-show-per-week gig can often leave a performer frayed (Menzel is currently starring in the Broadway musical If/Then). It is unreasonable to expect perfection from a singer who adds to this arduous schedule by agreeing to sing outdoors for a huge crowd after waiting for hours in the cold.
As a voice teacher, however, I am concerned by the way singers’ voices sometimes decline at the very moment when they should be entering the prime of their careers. I was curious: was Menzel really just having a bad night, or are there some vocal issues that need to be addressed?
I’ll share my analysis, but first listen to her performance of “Let It Go” from the Frozen soundtrack and contrast it with her live New Year’s Eve rendition.
A high belt requires a great deal of skill. A starring role on Broadway puts that skill to the test.
Consider what is required to perform with a healthy high belt. Classical singing requires optimal development of range, balanced resonance and registration, and consistent vibrancy, but most other styles of singing exploit particular parts of the range, emphasize some qualities of resonance over others, show a preference for heavy or light registration, and value vibrato as a color choice rather than as a consistent default. In other words, while classical singing requires a comprehensive and balanced approach to technique – you wouldn’t be able to project unamplified over an orchestra in a large hall otherwise – most other styles un-balance the voice in a variety of ways to achieve a desirable style or effect. I point this out not because I consider classical singing superior but to explain why other styles can be even more difficult to master and sustain over the course of a career.
A high belt emphasizes:
- Low and middle range over high (usually tops out near the top of the passaggio – a soprano opera aria will extend at least a fifth higher than the top E-flat in “Let It Go”)
- Heavy registration over light
- Bright, forward “mask” resonance over dark
- Straight tone over vibrant tone
There are healthy ways to achieve all of these qualities. Unfortunately, they can also be achieved in ways that put a great deal of stress on the voice. The healthy way is usually neither the most instinctive or expedient. This is because if you want to skillfully un-balance the voice for the purpose of achieving a particular sound or effect, you must first establish a balanced technique.
Emphasizing Low and Middle Range over High
If you want your voice to perform freely and consistently in any part of your range, you must consistently vocalize all of your range even if your repertoire specialty only rarely calls for your highest available pitches. Free singing calls for a balance of phonation and airflow. Singing above the staff is only possible through proper use of the breath. If a singer develops their airflow well enough to perform free high notes, they gain the added benefit of being able to apply this skill throughout their range; however, if they’re never required to sing that high, they may never figure out how to use their breath properly and will not notice until years of stress begin to cause strain and injury.
Emphasizing Heavy Registration over Light
Matthew Edwards offers this description of registration in his book So You Want to Sing Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Guide for Professionals:
There are two primary muscles that control registration— the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle, which is the main body of the vocal folds, and the cricothyroid (CT) muscle, which acts upon the main body of the vocal folds to stretch them thus raising the pitch. When the TA muscle is dominant, the vocal folds are thick and the resulting quality is called “chest voice” or chest register. When the CT muscle is dominant, the vocal folds are stretched and thin and the resulting quality is called “head voice” or head register.
Balanced vocal registration progresses gradually and seamlessly from heavy at the bottom of the range to light at the top. Heavy registration is characterized by a relative thickness of the vocal folds, and in classical vocal technique they thin out to create lighter registration as the pitch ascends. A high belt requires that you employ a heavier registration throughout the middle voice and into the passaggio – the vocal folds will retain a greater thickness as the pitch ascends than they would in more “legit” singing. While voice teachers may differ on how to achieve this, you have to find a means that keeps the voice free of strain and discomfort and still promotes a seamless progression of registration all the way to the top of the range you’re using, without a discernable break into lighter registration.
Instinctive but incorrect ways to pull this off include holding the vocal folds in a fixed position of heavy registration by over-adducting them, tightening the constrictor muscles, and/or retracting and depressing the tongue.
The way I teach this is to vocalize wide intervals low to high on glissandi, emphasizing good breath management (no pushing), clear vowel definition, and permitting my students to keep the registration only as heavy as they can while keeping everything else free.
Emphasizing Bright Resonance over Dark
Resonance is the word we use to describe the shape of the internal space we create to enhance and amplify the vibration of our vocal folds. This space is highly malleable, which is why we are capable of producing such a vast array of vowel sounds and vocal colors. Classical singing is characterized by a balance between “point” (forward, bright resonance) and “bloom” (dark, cavernous back resonance); many pop and musical theatre styles emphasize point over bloom. Voice teachers often use the term “placement” to encourage singers to elicit physical sensation in the area of the skull most commonly associated with the resonance they wish to elicit. However, eliciting a sensation of forward placement doesn’t necessarily mean that a singer is actually accessing the desired resonance, or accessing it in the right way.
The expedient but unhealthy way to emphasize forward resonance is to maintain open nasal passages by dropping the soft palate and elevating the larynx to create a more shallow resonating space.
The way I teach forward resonance employs humming vocalises to create a sensation of buzz in the cheekbones, then transitioning to vowel sounds (with the soft palate up) without diminishing that sensation, all while keeping the throat relaxed and the larynx settled.
Emphasizing Straight Tone over Vibrant Tone
Above, I described healthy vocal technique as a balance of phonation and airflow. This must also be supported by good alignment and skillful breath management. The best and most comfortable way to create a straight tone involves emphasizing phonation and breath management while de-emphasizing airflow. Musical theatre style often calls for warming up the sound with some vibrancy at the end of sustained notes, so once you have established a free straight tone all you need to do to warm it up is to adjust the balance in favor of airflow.
If a singer has not developed an organic vibrato in the first place, then they are singing with imbalances and tensions that will eventually create limitations and problems, but they may not realize this if the repertoire they sing calls for a consistent straight tone.
I addressed straight tone technique in greater detail in an earlier blog post.
Analyzing Idina’s Performances
Idina Menzel is an absolute treasure of an artist. Her distinctive sound, dramatic commitment, and facile musicianship have endeared her to millions of fans and enabled her to inspire the creation of enduring compositions.
In the original Broadway soundtrack performance of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, Menzel spectacularly belts a couple of sustained high F’s and frequently visits the E-flat that is the top note in “Let It Go.” On the Frozen soundtrack, her final sustained E-flat in “Let It Go” is clear and penetrating; she launches it with a free straight tone and then opens up to a more vibrant sound. Note that she sings this pitch many times over the course of the song – it’s just more dramatic at the end because she sustains it for a while. On all vowels and in every context, this note is free, in tune, and well-supported.
Do these recordings give evidence of a great high-belt vocal technique? For the most part, I’d call it a very strong and highly functional vocal technique. The way Menzel regulates her range, resonance, and vibrancy is exemplary. To my ear, however, the way she regulates her registration is not ideal. It sounds to me like she is retracting and depressing the base of her tongue to help create heavier registration, and she is also using this tension to stabilize her larynx and control her melodic ornamentation. As she does this very skillfully and consistently, it has only the most minimal impact on her performance. Her tone and artistry are so compelling that no one would likely notice or care; however, this approach to controlling registration can become fatiguing, especially in the context of an arduous performance schedule.
Everyone has the occasional bad night, and reasonable allowance must be made for the fact that she is currently singing eight shows weekly in If/Then on Broadway. But when I compare Menzel’s New Year’s Eve performance with these recordings, it is clear that some things about her approach to singing and the responsiveness of her voice have changed.
To reference Matthew Edwards’s terminology, in this performance Menzel sings exclusively in chest register. Edwards points out that “Most [female] singers will carry a chest belt no higher than A4 before beginning to mix [i.e. activate the cricothyroid to incorporate some head register quality]” but Menzel tries to maintain the weight of her registration all the way up to the E-flat a tritone higher than A4. As in the earlier recordings, she is maintaining the weightiness at least in part by retracting the base of her tongue, and the increased extent to which she is doing this is causing her larynx to elevate to the point where she can no longer access adequate resonance. To compensate, I believe she drops her soft palate to achieve her characteristic bright, incisive tone – something she was not doing at all in her recordings, as far as I can tell.
So while fans raised objections only to Menzel’s final sustained high note, I found her vocal quality throughout her performance strained, weighty, and shallow in comparison with the sound we have come to expect from her. She is a strong enough singer and a committed enough musician to muscle through and get away with it for most of the song, but sustained high notes can be pretty unforgiving of any vocal tension, and the approach she is using was not adequate to make a professional quality sound on the final E-flat.
I do not know how to account for these changes. It is challenging to comment on a singer’s technique without actually working with them and impossible to understand changes to their singing without knowing a great deal about how their habits and activities have evolved over time. My best guess is that the tongue tension that has been a component of her technique from the beginning has increased as the result of her current grueling performance schedule, causing ongoing fatigue and tension and making her voice generally less responsive. The resulting tension has made it difficult or impossible to access her high range and resonance with the same strategies that worked for her before. Rather than subtly modulating her registration as the pitch ascends, she is getting stuck in “chest register”; rather than placing her resonance properly, she is dropping her soft palate.
Healthy vocal technique requires continuous cultivation over the course of a career, and I am concerned that Menzel is not taking the changes in her voice to heart. In her response to her Twitter critics, she referred to an earlier interview in which she stated, “There are about 3 million notes in a two-and-a-half-hour musical; being a perfectionist, it took me a long time to realise that if I’m hitting 75 percent of them, I’m succeeding… You can’t get it all right all the time, but you can try your best. If you’ve done that, all that’s left is to accept your shortcomings and have the courage to try to overcome them.” I cannot dispute the spirit of her statement, and I condemn the cruelty of those who attacked this dedicated, gifted artist online, but I believe that the problems on display in her New Year’s Eve performance are, in fact, serious ones. I also believe that it is possible to address them. I truly hope that she takes the necessary steps to do so.