Yeager Recital Hall was filled with energy and excitement as 14 of Elon University’s music theater students practiced riffing with Broadway actress and YouTube star Natalie Weiss.
The workshop, from Sept. 3-5, was part of a three-day master class series led by Weiss and Broadway stars Sean Michael Murray, known for “American Idiot” and the revival of “RENT,” and Rachel Potter, who played Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family.”
In addition to performing in the Big Apple, the actors have been involved in the music industry — Murray was a finalist on VH1’s “Making the Band,” and Potter, who has been featured on “The X Factor,” is currently working as a singer/songwriter in Nashville.
The music theater students chosen to participate in the workshop with these professional performers prepared a 32 bar cut, or fragment of a song, for their audition. Once chosen, they could perform for the guest artist hosting the workshop.
Elon’s music theater department offers several master classes throughout the year to help students develop new vocal techniques and acting skills they can use to pursue a career either on Broadway or in Hollywood. This particular workshop included both music theater and music production, including everything from how to put on a concert to crafting original songs.
This semester’s master class also focused on teaching students about the contemporary and pop-rock side of singing over classical musical theater. Junior Emily Fallon said although musical theater is the main focus of her training, it is also important to learn different vocal techniques.
“Singing is such a big realm, sometimes we have to venture away from theater to get a job and learn how to perform pop songs,” she said.
Kurt Robinson, assistant professor of music theater, suggested the modern guest artists for the workshop since he teaches the contemporary vocal class, “Mastering your Mix.” Robinson has worked with recording artists for Def Jam Recordings, Atlantic Records and Nickelodeon and held workshops with the performers, including “Top 10 Challenges and Issues for Today’s Singing Artist.”
Junior Auston Henderson said Robinson’s contemporary vocal class helps students learn a variety of styles, including pop, country and rock.
“Musicals are becoming much more contemporary, so we need to learn the skills to act a pop song and take our musical theater technique into a Beyonce song,” he said.
Last year, Broadway actress Eden Espinosa, who played Elphaba in “Wicked,” led a workshop with Broadway composer Craig Carnelia. Carnelia stood out to Fallon especially during last year’s master class.
“Craig delved so deeply into why you are signing each line of the song and what message it gives,” Fallon said. “He helped us use what we have learned through our classes and bring it all together in a performance.”
This year in the workshop, Weiss taught her famous “breaking down the riff” technique. She said the technique evolved from her explaining to friends if you break down a riff into simple parts, it becomes less intimidating and easier to sing.
During the class, she pointed to eager students to try out the riff, giving feedback and commentary to individual students’ vocal techniques.
During Murray’s class, “Rock/Pop Stage Performance, Rock n’ Roll for the Broadway Stage,” students learned about microphone technique and “stage real estate,” which involves filling up and moving around the stage.
Murray also emphasized interaction and creating moments with audience members. Four singers sang pop songs for Murray, and he led singing exercises to get them to feel comfortable and less stiff onstage by asking them to run around the theater to help them interact with the audience and connect to the song.
For the students who attended, the classes provided valuable skills and allowed them to learn how these performers became successful.
Henderson, in particular, recognized the benefit the workshop provided.
He felt he was already familiar with a more contemporary voice because growing up, he listened to music genres like R&B, soul and hip-hop. By listening to these types of music, he repeated what he heard and began to develop a modern sound.
But later, when Henderson sang in his school choir, his vocal technique became more classical and technical.
During his sophomore year, he made the decision to pursue his dream of becoming a recording artist. He said this year’s songwriting master class was important for him as an aspiring recording artist because he’s improved on how to structure and write music.
“I couldn’t think of a more perfect master class to help me learn how to put on a show,” Henderson said. “I have learned how to connect to the music, involve the audience during a performance and how to own and rock the stage.”