Performing Pop Rock in Musical Theatre: 4 Misconceptions!

auditioning vocal technique Jan 16, 2024

Written By: Chelsea & Cynthia

A lot of musical theater singers we know get overwhelmed and confused with pop/rock music. Maybe you've been told that you sound a little too musical theater when you've tried singing pop/rock music and you don't know how to fix it.

Or maybe you've just heard a lot of conflicting advice!

Good thing we have a resident pop/rock expert on staff (hint: it's Cynthia 😉). She's worked on over a dozen Broadway shows and national tours that were pop/rock shows. She's developed a handful of new shows with some rock legends (Graham Russell from Air Supply being one of them!) and was so honored to get to do the last project that Glenn Frey of the Eagles ever did, developing a new musical called Hotel California. 

All that to say, the bulk of her career has been doing pop/rock shows, despite coming from a very classical background. When she moved to New York, she had to learn how to play, music direct, conduct, and vocal coach singers in that style.

Today, Cynthia will take her years of hard-earned pop/rock wisdom and debunk the four most common MYTHS about pop/rock in musical theatre! 

Myth #1: Never Use Vibrato 

Why is this a myth? Well, first of all, a lot of famous performers in pop/rock music use vibrato! If you've ever heard Beyoncé sing, she sings practically everything with vibrato! Whitney Houston often used lots of vibrato!  Honestly, name a singer and chances are you're going to hear some vibrato. Oftentimes musical theatre singers shy away from pop/rock music because of this idea of straight tone, and it's hard for them to do because they've been trained to have that spin all the time. But that rule of never using vibrato is simply untrue. That being said, do we want to use it strategically? Absolutely. 

I like to think of vibrato in a couple of different ways:

  • Straight Tone: No vibrato! Great for adding a little dramatic tension, or yearning to your sound. Also helpful when trying to find a more breathy quality, or when you want your mix to sound a little beltier!

  • Straight Tone to Vibrato: Gives a feeling of tension and release—always exciting! Bonus points for adding in the vibrato on a downbeat!

  • Forced Vibrato: Make your vibrato purposefully a little extra-intense to add some additional power and emotional intention!

Myth #2: You Shouldn't Enunciate At All

I think it can be true in some instances and here's the rule of thumb I like to use. I think of enunciation in inverse proportion to the amount of breathiness in your tone. So if you are utilizing a breathy quality to your sound, you might need more enunciation. However, if your tone is belty and bright, you might need a little less enunciation for pop/rock. (Otherwise you might start to sound like Ethel Merman!) Pop/rock rules are in many ways meant to be broken, but these are my general rules of thumb.

The other reason enunciation can get tricky in pop/rock music is that it’s filled with slant rhymes, which are different than the perfect rhymes we tend to hear in musical theater.  So if you’ve got lyric like “We were just kids when we fell in love, not knowing what it was”, your job is to make sure that “love” and “was” sound like a rhyme even though they aren’t perfect rhymes. And you can do that by not enunciating the final consonant as clearly as you would in musical theatre music. Instead you’ll lean into the vowel of those two words! That way it’ll sound like a rhyme and be more stylistically authentic.  

Myth #3: Don't "Act" Your Song, Just Groove and Feel It!

I wanted to play jazz so badly for so many years of my life and I finally had the guts to take a jazz course in college thinking I'm going to learn the steps needed to play jazz. But literally, all I got in that class was, "You just have to feel it". What?! What does that mean?! 

I am committed to never using the word "just" in my teaching and if I do, I try to slap my hand over it because I know that what I said probably wasn't helpful.

I don't have a quick tip or fix, but here's one of the simplest places to start. Look at your lyrics and determine whether your lyrics are literal and conversational or whether they're more poetic, metaphorical, symbolic or simply super repetitive. Because if your lyrics are literal, you can probably  interpret that song like you would a musical theater song. Think about the moment before, who are you talking to, what is the battle that you're facing? Make up your own story, just like you might for some of your musical theater audition cuts, and tell that story the way you would a musical theater song.

If you've got a lyric that's more poetic, we might need a more emotional or presentational interpretation. And we will want to think about some different physicality.

If you are a musical theater singer who's not super-comfortable with pop/rock music, then find yourself a song that has literal lyrics so that you don't have to worry about whether you should be step-touching and grooving!  You can simply tell the story.

Myth #4: You Must Be Able to Riff

This is absolutely untrue!  You do NOT need to be able to riff to be successful pop/rock singer. I mean look at Taylor Swift! She might do a tasty 3-note riff here and there, but for the most part, she isn't doing long, elaborate riffs!  And she’s doing just fine!  😆

Here's an analogy I like to use when thinking about riffing in pop/rock music. My son is on the rowing team at school, and as a precaution, you have to take a swimming test. You don't have to be a perfect swimmer, you just have to prove you won't drown if the boat tips because the real job is being an excellent rower.

And I think that's the same for auditions with pop/rock music. Do you have to prove you are the world's best riffer or the world's best rock and roll singer?


We don't need you to be Freddie Mercury. We don't need you to prove that you can do a twenty-note riff, especially when you're going in for ensemble roles. We need a storyteller who understands the style.

Honestly, I would continue that swimming analogy to talk about singing pop/rock music as a whole. Anybody can learn to swim, and anybody can learn to sing pop/rock music.

Are you going to become the next Michael Phelps? Maybe not and that's okay.

But can you learn to swim and enjoy being in a pool? Absolutely.

I think anyone can learn how to sing pop/rock music in a credible and fun way that shows you understand what the style is so that you can get cast in these shows!

Keep an eye out for the release of Cynthia's online Pop/Rock Course later this year! In the meantime, you can join BVC Masterclass to gain access to Cynthia's monthly Pop/Rock Masterclass, which you can attend live or rewatch the recording. Click here to learn more about the all-new BVC Masterclass subscription.

If you're interested in diving deeper into this interview or exploring other interesting musical theatre conversations, check out the Broadway Vocal Coach podcast! Or check us out on Instagram, and get involved in the conversation! 

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