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Acting in Plays, Singing/Can your voice dissipate even with good technique?


QUESTION: I was wondering if you could tell me about Ethel Merman and why her voice expired near the end of her career. Merman was a powerful singer with seemingly very healthy technique. She muscled her way through 8 shows a week, for years and years on end. So what caused her vocal decline? On the other hand, you look at Patti LuPone, who's been belting her face off on Broadway forever, and she's still going pretty strong.

I am a 20 year old belter living in NYC and have studied voice my whole life. (I stopped lessons a few years ago when my longtime coach moved away) While I think I have pretty good technique and have never once injured or lost my voice, I often wonder what would happen if I got into a situation where my voice really gave out. What will happen when I'm singing in 8 shows a week? How do some people, like Patti LuPone, do it over and over again and sound great into their sixties, and others like Merman lose it?

ANSWER: Hi, Evie --

Thank you for the question.

When it comes to Ethel Merman and her voice, there is no simple or absolute answer. But there are a lot of astonishing facts that surround her story.

You are wise to fear a truth known to many ambitious young singers. When put to the Test, that being, finally landing a legitimate Broadway and Equity job and doing eight shows a week, maybe on tour -- their so-called “technique” failed them. Even to the point of developing nodes within a very short span of time. And that is a problem that is just going to get worse and require a lot of sudden decisions, adjustments and expense -- one way or the other.

My job as a professional vocal coach and singing teacher is to expand and strengthen your range and to develop your performance chops. Stopping your lessons / your training a few years ago translates to you being 17 at the time. That’s not good. Especially when professional auditions require that you compete against other individuals who may have a list of performance credits, including professional, as long as your arm. In other words, they know and the producers can hear that their vocal chops endured not only four to six weeks of rehearsal, but the run of the show as well. You haven’t yet had your skills tested to the max.

Ethel Merman’s voice never “gave out”.
She and It just got old.
And, just like now, the popular Music Industry isn’t exactly promoting women in their seventies.

Patti Lupone will be an official Senior Citizen come next April.
Patti and her most devoted fans know that her voice is not the same as it was just thirty-four years ago at the Opening Night performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita”.

Ethel was seven years older than Patti is right now when her last recording, “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” was released in 1979. It was amazingly popular at the time. I will explain its popularity some other time. But the record made money, Ethel appeared on TV with it, the tracks were played in the hottest Discos, and it’s still making money today.

It is not fair to say that Ethel Merman's voice gave out.

I am a vocal coach to working singers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I'm also a music critic for – and – When you want to make an appointment, contact me at:

Below are links to my recent articles and interviews:

A Conversation with Soprano Alexandra Silber – This week at Feinstein’s, 10/11-12

SF Jazz Center Goes Baroque - A Conversation with Countertenor David Daniels

Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne—A Daring World Premiere at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera Opens 2013 Season with Boito’s “Mephistopheles”

Audra McDonald joins San Francisco Symphony in Opening Night Gala

Introducing Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber as San Francisco Symphony’s Tony & Maria in “West Side Story”

THE GERSHWINS AND ME – A Conversation with Michael Feinstein

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On ‘Billy Budd’—A Trio from Merola: Alex DeSocio, Thomas Richards, Robert Watson

Lawrence Brownlee—On ‘Carmina Burana’, with the SFSymphony—Tuesday, July 30th

On “The Joyless Street” at the Silent Film Festival—An Interview with Matti Bye

Nathan Gunn Is ‘Yeshua’ in San Francisco Opera’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene”

Natalie Dessay on ‘Becoming Traviata’—French Soprano bids ‘Adieu’ to opera stage

‘Tales of Hoffmann’ Fizzles at San Francisco Opera

‘A Grand Romance’—A Spectacular CD from pianist Jeffrey Biegel

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Nicole Henry redefines the '70s with her latest CD, 'So Good, So Right'

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A conversation with Joshua Bell, featured guest artist at opening of SF Symphony, 9/19

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Tom Judson Is Making It Big In San Francisco

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RICHARD WINSOR – An Interview With the Star of 'Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake in 3D'

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ZUILL BAILEY – A Conversation

Best regards,
Sean Martinfield

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QUESTION: That's not the only example though. Darlene Love, Patti LaBelle (who is known for pushy, explosive vocals), Carolee Carmello and Lillias White are all pretty old, and do sound literally the exact same as they did 30-40 years ago. Carolee and Lillias are real Broadway belters, too, and constantly sing powerful notes at the tops of their ranges. What I meant was, what is it that they do that allows them to maintain their voices for so long? Is it possible for me to do the same?

Hello, Evie -

Here is what they do to “sound the same” as they did thirty or forty years ago. They work in studios or high-end performing venues with magical state-of-the-art microphones that suit each of their voices in particular and with world class engineers who process that captured sound until it as smooth and seemingly flawless as the cover of a top fashion magazine.

Put each of those singers into a simple un-amplified practice room -- such as those at a college or music conservatory -- and you will hear the naked truth.

No one in their fifties, sixties, seventies or -- like Tony Bennett, in his eighties and nominated for a 2013 Soul Train award -- sounds like they did or has the energy they did back in their twenties or thirties. The goal of technology (and lighting) is to create that illusion.

Singing careers are built on opportunities and your personal market appeal -- at the beginning and at the end -- however long that period of time may be for any artist. As you progress through the building stages of your own career and as you mature along the way, you will be challenged by all kinds of advances and setbacks, along with personal and financial matters that will impact you in ways you never anticipated. And there will always be someone younger and perhaps more marketable standing behind you or -- as every Broadway Lead knows -- waiting in the wings to replace you.

Of course it is possible for you to do the same.

But you won’t know what that “same” is, i.e., the thing / the product you can get paid to do -- until you start doing it and then get hired to do IT or some variation of IT again and again, etc. etc. In between these paid gigs are bound to be dry spells. Only you will find the impetus and motivation to keep yourself in Marketable Shape until the next job comes along or which you produce with your own capital.

My job as your personal vocal coach is to keep your voice in the best shape possible as you journey through all the hormonal changes between your twenties and thirties and forties and fifties and sixties and seventies and -- who knows?

Best regards,
Sean Martinfield

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Sean Martinfield


I am a professional vocal coach in San Francisco. I have published over 3300 responses related to vocal training - particularly as it relates to Musical Theatre, Pop/Standard, and Opera. I have 30 years of experience as a personal trainer to working singers and actors in the San Francisco Bay Area. I sang professionally for 20 years and know what it means to live the life of a musician. I can determine your voice category, i.e., Tenor, Baritone, Bass, Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, Alto Belter, etc., and how to broaden and strengthen your range. Need an audition song for a Broadway Musical? I can assist you with your song selections and help you build an audition portfolio that demonstrates your vocal category and meets the requirements specified in the audition notice. I have created a vocal methodology, "The Belter`s Method". It will enable those in Cabaret and Musical Theatre to practice more efficiently because it focuses on the vocal demands of professional performers and will keep you performance-ready. If what you want is a better voice and more control over your career moves and choices, contact me at: I am also a music and cultural critic for and I interview internationally recognized musicians, singers, dancers, and recording artists -- particularly those who are now appearing or scheduled to perform in San Francisco.


As a vocal coach, I work primarily with singers and actors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. My students range from absolute beginners to working professionals, from kids to senior citizens. The vast majority of my clients come to me through recommendation. I know how to identify any singer's vocal category, i.e., soprano, tenor, alto, baritone, etc. I know how to muscle-up every singer's vocal range and to expand it beyond conventional definitions. I have developed a vocal methodology for those who want to know how to belt, THE BELTER'S METHOD. There are a number of major components to my work as a vocal coach. The first is to identify the client's vocal category and to strengthen and maximize the vocal range accordingly. Then it's about teaching a reliable vocal workout that will enable the client to gain better control of their musicianship. That includes scale work to expand the vocal range and to improve placement, breath control, and diction. Then we work on material for the audition portfolio, the immediate job or assignment, a recording session, etc. My task to is to better equip singers and actors who are hoping to or relying upon their performance skills and vocal endurance to maintain a career in the Performing Arts. My clients regularly appear in cabarets and musical productions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Some have worked in New York and gone on National Tours. For more information, Contact me at:


San Francisco State University – BA in Theatre Arts; graduate work in Theatre, Philosophy, and Comparative Reiligion. Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley – Graduate work in Ethics

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