In this article, we meet Leah, who recently took her ARSM Diploma in Singing for Musical Theatre. She shares her experiences of the process of building her programme and submitting her performance for a Performance Grade.
Hi, my name is Leah and I am passionate about musical theatre – I saw my first show at the age of 7 (Cats, of course!) and have been in love with it ever since! Around the same time, I began to learn the piano, and within my teens I also took singing lessons. As a performer and musician, I still try to learn and progress within my craft as best I can; even when reaching Grade 8 and beyond, I believe continuous development is very important. I decided to take the Singing for Musical Theatre ARSM to push myself and the boundaries of what I can do, whilst still staying in the exam room setting that I am familiar with. It was a definite learning curve, and whilst difficult, I am so pleased with the way that my preparation and the exam itself went.
Upon beginning my research for the ARSM, I knew that the first stage would to be studying the repertoire list, and seeing what songs would work best for me. I am a mezzo-soprano with more of a legit tone in my upper range from E5 onwards, so I knew that I didn’t want to overload the programme with big, belty songs - I wouldn’t have been able to sustain my voice and wouldn’t have been playing to my strengths. I drew up an initial list of possibilities – there were 8 to begin with – and whittled these down through looking more closely at the songs, their respective shows and their content. This is very much unique to Singing for Musical Theatre – choosing pieces that suit you as a performer and your personality is so important. For example, as a young female, I knew I didn’t want to sing anything by the character Sweeney Todd, who is an older gentleman and a baritone! Whilst all songs in the Singing for Musical Theatre ARSM can be sung by any voice or gender, I felt it was crucial to my success to use songs that played to my strengths, and reflected who I am as a person.
Bearing this in mind, I started with choosing a song I know exceptionally well – ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s Frozen. I am a big Disney fan and could probably sing this song in my sleep! This almost felt like an ‘easy win’ for me, in a way, although I knew I would have to still work in order to get it sounding like I absolutely wanted. I am also incredibly familiar with ‘Wicked’ the musical and decided on ‘The Wizard and I’, which is a big song but also quite long, adding to the programme time. I had to bear the overall length in mind throughout the entire process.
I then realised that both of the above songs are similar in their nature; so much so that the actress Idina Menzel sings both of them on their respective cast recordings. To add variety, I then chose ‘No One Else’, a ballad from the musical ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’. The composer of this show describes it as an ‘electropop opera’, but the song in question displays more legit, soprano qualities in its writing and provided a perfect contrast to the material that I already had.
My final ARSM song was ‘The Flagmaker’ from ‘Songs for a New World’ by Jason Robert Brown. This was by far the most difficult, ambitious song that I chose for my programme, but in the end it was the most rewarding to learn. Jason Robert Brown’s music is very difficult both vocally and for pianists – there are all sorts of funky rhythms, time signatures, and it very much relies on both the performer and accompanist being completely certain of their abilities to work together.
I balanced out my programme with two Grade 8 own-choice pieces. Both of these songs are ones I have sung previously in concerts, but are very character driven, so a good way for me to showcase that side of my voice rather than the musical technicalities of the ARSM songs – after all, Singing for Musical Theatre does rely on the acting side too for a performance!
The main focus of putting together my ARSM programme was to make sure that it flowed well, and that it had a narrative. I was certain I wanted to put ‘Disneyland’ at the start, knowing that this was a song I had sung previously in concerts and that I was comfortable with – it's always a good idea to put a familiar song at the start of your repertoire, as it definitely helps settle nerves! This then followed by an idea to put ‘Let it Go’ straight afterwards – both songs relating to Disney! I then decided to go with ‘The Wizard and I’, as both that and ‘The Flagmaker’ are what’s known in musical theatre as ’11 o’clock numbers’; the big song that happens just before the show ends. Slotting ‘Me and The Sky’ in the middle of these two gave me the perfect chance for a slight reprise, mainly vocally, but also in its character and the fact that it is slightly ‘lighter’ in its musical content.
I was fortunate to have a wonderful accompanist for my ARSM exam, someone who I work with and know is absolutely exceptional at what she does. However, she is more ‘classically based’ and therefore the musical theatre style of playing was also a learning experience for her. We pieced together the programme one song at a time, rehearsing the ones I already knew first and building up to the ones that were a bit on the more difficult side and ones I wasn’t so familiar with. The main challenge I found was stamina throughout – not only in rehearsals, but in putting together the entire exam. I knew that I would need to make the most of the break time that ARSM candidates are given, and so I decided to place this into the middle of my programme, to evenly split it in two and be able to rest and recharge briefly before the latter half of the exam. I am a first-study pianist and hadn’t sung ‘properly’ in a long time, and so getting the stamina back to sing for half an hour straight was something I really had to work on. One piece of advice I would give to ARSM candidates is not to do too much too soon. In musical theatre we would call it ‘placing’ – singing the notes to pitch and time but not singing them at full pelt, veering more towards the head voice. This enables you to conserve some of that important energy and gives your vocal cords a rest!
I also found it really beneficial to keep a log of where we were at in terms of what we had rehearsed, what went well and what didn’t. I did this through video recordings - I recorded my initial rehearsal for the exam, singing ‘Let it Go’ with a backing track that I’d found online – and kept doing this throughout. It was so interesting to see the changes that had been made months later, and how much I had improved in that period of time. Plus, it meant that I had something to refer back to after rehearsal, so I would know what to work on. I found it difficult to not get carried away with singing the songs that I already knew – I shied away from ‘The Flagmaker’ for a long time, as I really struggled with learning the words, despite knowing that it was going to be the final song in my programme and therefore needed to learn an impact. The more I worked on this song alone – taking a break from the others for a little while – I realised that it just needed a bit of extra attention. Once I had started to feel more comfortable with it in my mind, my voice followed!
When recording the exam, I knew I didn’t want to do it more than once. There can be a tendency with Performance Grades for candidates to record multiple takes, but I knew with my voice and my vocal health that I would not be able to sustain this. Mentally, I decided that my best on the day was going to be good enough, regardless of whatever happened. When I took my Grade 8 Piano as a Practical face-to-face exam, this was the case – so I found it really helpful to think of a digital exam in the same way as well.
Overall, whilst I found preparing for the ARSM a challenge, it is a challenge that I’m so glad to have undertaken. I have learnt so much about myself, my voice, and re-visiting the exam process after quite a bit of time away! If I were to do the process again, I would give myself much more time. I would’ve liked to have more of a chance to refine the material, which is so important for a high-level exam. This being said, the feeling of happiness and relief post-exam can’t be beaten – and on a personal level with this exam, the sense of accomplishment and pride that I felt far outweighed any level of stress that I’d had! I’m pleased to report that I did indeed pass the exam, and I will now be looking towards learning some more of the ARSM songs, with an aim to broaden my musical theatre repertoire into different genres and styles.
If you'd like to listen to Leah's repertoire choices for her Performance Grade, you can find a spotify playlist of her choices below