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I am currently musically directing a community theater production of Sweeney Todd.

We have cast a female to play the part of Toby, and in the song "Not While I'm Around", she is not able to achieve sufficient volume on the opening notes of the number.

The song starts on an Eb, moves to F, then Eb, Ab, and Bb. She has a great tenor timber to her voice, and once she gets up to the Ab, she sounds great. We have 16 days until the show opens, and my question is twofold.

First, are there any good exercises that a singer can do in order to improve the volume on the low end of their range?

Second, if it comes close to performance time, what does music theory have to say about these two choices:

  1. changing the melody to something like Ab, Gb, Ab, Ab, Bb, or

  2. having her begin the song an octave higher, and then on the third line of the song change back to the original octave?

I personally do not like how the second choice sounds, as it seems to bring about a very drastic change, but I am wondering if there is precedence for something like this, or if conventional musical theory has anything to say.

Here is the first two bars, which is repeated in the next two bars: Not While I'm Around

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    I suppose arranging the song in a more comfortable register for her is out of the question? – Faelkle Sep 25 '13 at 13:16
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    I didn't really consider that. It is a duet, so a key change would affect the other singer as well, although the song does change keys 4 times, so maybe there is the possibility of transposing parts of the song and not others? Not really sure. – Michael Blaustein Sep 25 '13 at 13:25
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    Does the theatre production have a vocal coach? If so, your singer could work with them to extend their range by a note or two - 16 days of diligent practice could allow those lower notes to speak. However, it would be a good idea to explore changing the melody for the opening. Transposition is an option, but you could also just have them sing different chord tones as well. We could make musical / melodic suggestions if you were able to post a pic of the opening of the number. Transposition is also another viable and often-used option as well, you'd just have to find a key that works for both. – jjmusicnotes Sep 25 '13 at 14:05
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Not knowing the song, but assuming the beginning is too low, and the key changes are all upwards, which is usual, I'd start in maybe the 2nd key, and either lose a key change, or go up another time, if the duetter can cope.

Changing key for a song is, as jjmusicnotes points out, very common - I did it all the while when playing for choirs, often to get a better sound from them, instead of having them screaming at the top of their range, or grunting in their boots.

Seeing the total song may give other options. The above options may also not be good for accompanying musicians.

Since the start comes straight after some narrative (I'm guessing), the easiest would be to speak the first bit, before bursting into song, maybe on the second or third line.

  • I like the idea of speak in the opening. Specially if the problem area is only in this very first line of the piece. Maybe sing the notes on "harm you", and then speak "Not while" and then sing "I'm around". When speak, it should be kind of melodious, although not exact notes. More like proclaiming. Be sure to lead into the right notes when the singing comes in. – awe Sep 26 '13 at 5:25
  • Given that the production opens in 2 weeks, I took your advice of having her try speak the first two notes, in this case "Nothing", and then have her sing the rest, even if the volume is a bit low. I didn't want the first bit to be lost, and have the audience asking "What's gonna harm her?", and I feel the rest can be taken in context. Thank you for your response. – Michael Blaustein Sep 27 '13 at 15:42
  • Especially liked the suggestion re: speaking the first bit, as this feels like a very appropriate option for this genre when there are just a couple of notes that are out of the singers' range. – Mich Sampson Jul 30 '16 at 20:19
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As some commenters mentioned, rearranging the music to fit a key more appropriate for the singer is typically what would be done for professional productions (both with the licensing and resources to do so). I'm guessing you don't want to have to transpose all the music for your pit band (and have them learn it) in two weeks.

I can't offer too much in terms of advice about vocal technique to enhance those notes, except the standard fundamentals: more breath support, and high soft palate in order to enhance the higher frequencies of the vocal timbre, allowing more projection.

What I would probably do in your position is indeed to change the vocal line to avoid notes lower than Ab. As someone who knows the song but doesn't have a score in front of him, I believe if you stay diatonic to Ab major you should be fine (so no Gb's, use G instead), but I wouldn't take the entire phrase up an octave.

In terms of changing the line, you should avoid repeating notes even if that means changing more than what's out of range. So, for the very first strain, instead of doing:

Ab G Ab Ab | Bb - C -

I would do:

Ab Bb Ab C | Bb - C -, or Ab Bb C Ab | Bb - C -

Or perhaps:

Bb Ab G Ab | Bb - C - | Bb Ab Db C Bb - | -- to keep the motif the same at the beginning of each strain.

Play around with it over the chords in the piano part and you should be able to find something that works well and will be easy to remember!

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    Great answer -- I agree that changing the key is the best solution. But if you have to, you can use those notes or others. The notes that I liked best were "Ab Bb G Ab | Bb - C - | Ab Bb Db C Bb - |" which preserves the contour of the line, which is what untrained listeners focus most on. – Michael Scott Cuthbert Sep 26 '13 at 2:33
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    These are some great suggestions though I courteously disagree with some of the pitch choices. If any instrument in the pit is doubling the original melody at the unison, using the proposed pitches will sound like organum - probably not something the original composer had in mind. :P Honestly, it's just an Abmaj7(9) chord, so you could just have the vocalist sing the first four pitches on Ab almost like a recitative. Alternatively, the first two pitches on Ab, the third on G, and the 4th remains as written - you really only need to change the first three notes. – jjmusicnotes Sep 26 '13 at 3:40
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    Ah, indeed I would suggest changing the melody in the pit anywhere it is doubled as well -- that should be easy to accomplish. I decided to specifically avoid repeated notes for a few reasons: - It is easier for young children to sing moving lines than to match pitch on a single note. - Sondheim's melody completely avoids them in the entirety of this song, so I think it's not unreasonable to say he did that for musical reasons; hence to be truer to his music, I avoided repeated notes. – NReilingh Sep 26 '13 at 16:33
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Lower range extensions of a somewhat trained voice takes a lot of time and effort. And in this case, you are not actually asking for range but volume. Female rib cages and general air paths tend to be quite smaller than that of adult males unless we are talking about drastic size changes. If you take a look at convincing bass singers, a very common feature is length, particularly of the upper body.

You say "musical theatre": are you using microphones? Because those are a total game changer with regard to how to achieve convincing depth. If you are working with microphones, you need a mixture of microphone technique and/or someone at the volume controls (and likely other controls like a subtle bit of reverb and/or chorus) and a completely different vocal approach focusing more on the robustness than the volume of the sound. In that case, you might be getting somewhere in the short remaining time (the singer will need to train using the microphone properly on more than this passage, though).

Purely vocally, however, we are talking about much longer time frames and very slow improvements. A vocal coach will make a difference, but in that time frame is unlikely to be a game changer.

In that case your best bet is to take her out partying and talking over the din a lot the day before. However, what this adds to the bottom of the chest register, it shaves off its top in triplicate. This may work when she has a huge overlap of registers to start with (or no high notes at all), but that's a rather unlikely bet. Of course, it's also unreliable and if the dosage turns out to be too much, you have a real problem. Also not overly healthy.

So I'd probably try going for the spoken starting line suggested in another answer if transposing the production upwards a bit is not a good option (and a community orchestra will not just transpose on a whim even given a suitably changed score). Particularly if you say that the range fits her well on the upper end, that's probably going to lose you more than it buys you.

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