Today, you get to read about an exclusive master class done by a wonderful amazing singer and colleague and just a wonderful person in general, Natalie Ballenger.
I met Natalie when we did Ohio Light Opera together. It was really fun, and it was a crazy summer. Since then, Natalie has done amazing things and I’m really, really proud of all the hard work that she has done and I’m really excited to share some of her thoughts with you.
We started off with a Q&A to introduce Natalie at the beginning of the master class, and then we had six wonderful students demo for her and she gave her thoughts about their singing. We did this all via Zoom. And then at the end, she gives her insightful answers to some questions from our students.
You can read about Natalie’s thoughts on singing, belting, performer’s mindset and her experience going on world tours for Broadway below. Or if you prefer to listen to the podcast, you can also do so below. Enjoy!
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Introduction to Natalie Ballenger
Chelsea: Welcome everybody to master class with Natalie! We’re super excited. So if you don’t know Natalie, she is an amazing singer and an amazing performer. She is one of the kindest and most down-to-earth people that I’ve ever met.
She has performed in world tours in Broadway. The thing that I think you guys will find the most interesting about her is that she was Maria in West Side Story.
So without any further ado, I’m gonna take it over to Natalie. Natalie, for people who don’t know you very well, if you want to introduce yourself to everybody and say a few things about yourself and your journey.
Natalie: Cool! Hi, everybody. It all started in Santa Cruz, California, where I was born and raised. My grandmother was an actress, me and my cousin who’s the same age as me were both thrust into the theater world. Which we were not complaining, because it’s an amazing world to be in. And then I lived close to San Jose and San Francisco and had lovely, supportive parents who would drive me there.
So I started performing professionally around age 11. Hank, the ugly duckling, was my first professional show. I was one of the duckling’s siblings. It’s a cute, adorable show. There’s some very good music there.
And then it kind of went from there. I did musicals, but then I went to college to get a master’s degree for Opera. During that time, I went to the Ohio Light Opera, where I met Chelsea. We performed a lot of things together.
And then just kept performing. After my master’s, I moved to New York City where I still live today. World Tours for Beauty and the Beast, West Side Story… I did New York City Opera. So I’m still keeping that opera side of me alive. Just keeping my toes in as many things as possible because that’s how we make the careers nowadays.
Chelsea: And what would you say your experience has been like auditioning and doing some of these higher-level things, what are auditions like? And are they different from how you were trained to audition? What has that experience been like for you?
Natalie: So there’s multiple versions of an audition. There’s the open calls or ECCs or EPAs, which stand for Equity Course Calls and Equity Principal Auditions. Basically, they’re the same audition: you can still get hired for a lead if you go to the course call and vice versa. It’s just different preparations.
ECCs, you do 8 to 16 bars of a cut. And then EPAs, you get two minutes in the room with your equity, which is the after’s union. So it’s just slightly different preparations.
And then there are appointments—which are the ones you wanna get—where they generally send you sides, scenes, songs for a character ensemble that you’re going in for, to sing for the team and the casting director. Either singing or dancing first. Generally, I go for singing first because it’s stronger.
Chelsea: Tell us a little bit about when you were on tour. What life was like then, and what kind of expectations did they have for you, and your everyday life.
Natalie: So both of my tours were international. So that was a whole different scale, because you’re trying to balance performing with exploring life and learning.
Beauty and the Beast, I could do a lot more exploring because of the way my track was set up in that show. No matter what I did, I could always get up the next day and still sing.
West Side Story was different because it was much more vocally-taxing that I would have to be much more careful. I had no night activities. After show, I just stopped talking and steamed.
Also West Side Story was a little more rigid because we all had to be at the theater two hours before the show. Because there was mandatory dance classes and group vocal warmups to keep the dancers bodies’ in the best shape as possible to get through eight shows a week doing the crazy, original choreography that Jerome Robbins put forward. I mean amazing, but it definitely takes a toll on the body.
So it was definitely finding the perfect balance of what your day-to-day looked like. Which was hard, because the shortest stay in a place was a week and the longest was five weeks.
So it’s constantly changing that schedule and figuring it out in each new place. Germany may have one type of food, and then Asia’s gonna be a completely different aspect. So it’s figuring out what works for you as healthily and happily as possible.
Chelsea: Yes, for sure. And what kind of expectations did they have from you? Say, from the moment that you got the role, were you expected to come to the first rehearsal completely off-book? What was expected of you on a day-to-day or rehearsal basis?
Natalie: That’s kind of changed with each show. I personally always want to go as much memorized as possible. Of course, collaborate with the directors and music directors, getting their input as well. But for me, if I put in the work before I get there, the more work I’ve done in preparation, the easier it is for me to explore within the rehearsal spaces.
Some places like Beauty and the Beast, they did teach us notes. Just like at Ohio Light Opera, they have the first rehearsal days where we’re figuring out who’s singing what and making sure we got the notes. But I always try to be as memorized as possible.
Chelsea: Awesome. If you could go back in time to when you were in middle school or high school, what things would you differently? What would you not do at all, what would you do more of?
Natalie: Definitely more dance classes.
Broadway has been changing for the last 10 to 15 years. Back in the day, there used to be the dance ensemble and the singing ensemble. You didn’t have to be good at the other. You were good at what you were good at and that’s all you had to do.
Now, they’re cutting cast sizes down. I think to keep us as profitable as possible. So you’re kind of expected to know everything (within reason). I always have a fun game when I see a new Broadway show that I haven’t seen before. I always spy the singer tracks, which is not the front line or second line dancers, but the third line dancers. They do less than the amazing and fierce dancers. And what extent of dancing do they need to be able to do. Generally the singer tracks are the ones covering leads. Like in Mean Girls, the standbys offstage. Figuring out and finding those people and what exactly you need to do to be on that show.
I’m also happy my parents kept me in piano, because musicianship skills have served me tenfold.
There are auditions where they will hand you a song that you may or may not know before. And they’ll be like, “Will you sight-read this for us?” And being able to do that…
It’s okay if you’re not able to do that, it happens. But you always get on the music director’s side very quickly if you can. They’re good people to have on your side.
Chelsea: For sure, for sure. That’s awesome. Would you talk a little bit about belting, mixing and head voice. What’s really expected? When you’re on tour, as opposed to maybe when you would do a concert. Your ideas and your opinions about what’s best and how to go about all of that?
Natalie: So I think everybody at least has to be slightly knowledgeable in all the different styles. There’s not 20 revivals of classical musical theaters and then 20 pure pop musicals. They’re all kind of a mixture and they’re playing within the lines.
The newest revival of Oklahoma is a great example of that. They definitely blur the lines between where the classical music idea of legit singing and this new contemporary style. They kind of mix together to make a really amazing show.
That being said, everybody’s belts and mixes does not need to be exactly the same. There are the girls that are gonna be the Elphabas and the Regina Georges, and then there are those that are gonna be the Cattys. Taylor Lauderman and Erica Henningsen are both belters, but they’re completely different belters.
I am of the camp that everyone finds their cocktail mixture of your pure chest, as people call it, kind of like nasality. My favorite example of what we think is a crazy belt role is Elphaba. Most people are familiar with the song “The Wizard and I”. She truly only pure belts two notes in that entire song. The last little section in the bridge going, “And I stand there with the wizard” and the last “I”. That’s it, that’s the only belt you have to do in the entire song.
Because you wouldn’t be able to go heavy chest through that whole song and get through that entire show and all eight shows of the week. It would just be too heavy and cause vocal problems.
It’s really finding what mixture works best for you, and finding performers that have similar voice types.
I am not an Elphaba, but I had to sing The Wizard and I for something. So I looked through the roster for Elphaba and was like, “Who am I close enough to that I can learn from and get through this?”
People like Lindsay Mendez and Jessica Vosk, they’re not super heavy beltresses—they are not super heavy beltresses.
Jessica Vosk is amazing and she interviews about how she pretty much mixed that role. She’s one of the Elphabas, I think, ever. Figuring out what they did and what made it work for them and apply it to yourself, with help from wonderful teachers.
Chelsea: I love that. Can you talk a little bit about the performer’s mindset that you have to have in doing all of that?
Natalie: I’ve talked about this before with students of mine, but it comes down to what I call the 3 P’s.
Patience—I still struggle with this, but patience. Because everything comes at a time when it’s supposed to. We want to rush. In terms of practicing, the first time we get a new piece, we always think we should be able to sing it once, instead of putting in that slow work to make it there. I’m very guilty of this.
Persistence—it is a very hard career and you’re gonna hear no a lot. But it’s such an amazing, worthwhile thing that the more you keep persisting in putting yourself out there, the better off you’ll be.
Practice—practice, practice, practice. So much. There’s so many extremely talented people. There will be a thousand different reasons why you don’t get a role. Your pinky might be too long for them, or too short. You might be too tall, your hair might be too long, too short… there might be a million reasons but never let it be because you didn’t show up prepared. Always practice. Never give them a reason to cut you.
There will be a thousand different reasons why you don’t get a role. Your pinky might be too long for them, or too short. You might be too tall, your hair might be too long, too short… there might be a million reasons but never let it be because you didn’t show up prepared. Always practice. Never give them a reason to cut you.
Chelsea: I love that. And how have you worked through all of the rejection? I think sometimes students, especially in middle school and high school. They might not know how much rejection is really out there because they might just be living in a smaller town and have more opportunities to do things as they’re going through. And it’s kind of like a shot in the face when they experience that.
Natalie: It gets easier as time goes on. I remember myself when I was a kid and I wouldn’t get something and it was rough. But somebody, when I was a kid, gave me the advice of you can give yourself an hour or two hours to cry, be mad, eat all the ice cream, watch all the Netflix, do whatever you need to do for those two hours to then put it away after.
My parents will ask about auditions all the time, and if I’m not far enough in the callback process, I’m like, “I’m not gonna tell you until there’s an opportunity that I might actually get this, because I don’t want you to start planning a vacation that will never happen.”
Really just figuring out your self-care routine to get you through the minor, “Aww bummer, I wish I got that,” Or those ones that you get so close you can taste it, and then somebody just as wonderful just beats you off for whatever reason.
I have had friends get down to a final callback of a very big show, and they literally brought out a pair of pants and said, “Whoever fits in these best is going to get this part.”
It’s not ever your talent. Always remember, it’s never the talent level why or why not you didn’t get it. It’s just the puzzle piece of a show, especially replacing in a show that’s already running. A million reasons that doesn’t have to do with who you are, so you have to remember that.
Chelsea: I love that. And what would you say, is there a point where… Because you hear the term a lot, especially younger students, wanting to “make it”, and what is “it” for them, and do you have a feeling like that? Do you have a different idea of it, and what is the “it” for you?
Natalie: Ideally, we’d all love to be an Angela Lansbury who’s done this her entire life. We have to remind ourselves that no two journeys will be the same. We look at the Audra McDonalds, those big people and think, “I want to be them”, but you have to remind yourself of the little steps along the way. Every next level you get to, there was a time that you wished you were there before.
There’s a lot of times I feel like I haven’t done enough, those times, then I will sit there and remember, “Wow, but remember five years ago, two years ago, one month ago,” when you didn’t have what you have now. A lot of that.
Whenever I need inspiration, I always turn on old Tony Award videos or Kennedy Center Honors just to get inspired by seeing such amazing, creative work that starts a fire underneath you to keep pushing ahead to get to those Sutton Foster places, the Laura Osnes. And just keep putting it out there.
“Making it” is so relative. You can “make it”, and be the best teacher in elementary school.
As long as you’re making somebody happy and inspiring somebody, you’ve kind of “made it”. Because you’ve made it in their eyes. We just sometimes don’t see it ourselves.
My friend told me this great quote that I always remind myself, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
So we can’t look at Audra McDonald and be like, “I want those 7 Tony’s.”
Do I? Yes.
But she’s however many years older, she’s had a different career. It’s not saying I won’t have those, but they will come in due time.
Learn More about our guest speaker, Natalie Ballenger
Natalie Ballenger recently returned to NYC after traveling abroad in the Centennial World Tour of West Side Story as MARIA. Previously she was seen performing as Maria Alt/Rosalia/Somewhere Solo with the Centennial World Tour of West Side Story, and performing with the International Tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast!
Natalie made her New York City Opera Debut in the double bill of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at Lincoln Center. Natalie was previously seen at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center as a Soloist with the National Chorale under the baton of Dr. Everett McCorvey…
Post-master class Q&A
Sidney: I want to go into musical theater for a career. Where should I be? Where is the best place to have the most opportunities?
Natalie: Totally! Honestly, you can find a career in musical theater anyway. Of course, New York City is such a hub because you’ve got a lot of TV, film, a lot of regional theaters come and audition here, and of course, Broadway. But really, you truly can make a career anywhere.
Chelsea and I performed with this person named Lisa Matthews. But she was in Philadelphia and she just works in the regional theaters of Philadelphia. And she’s never stopped working and she’s created an amazing career for herself with a family, kids, and house in a totally happy and fulfilling way. So there’s not one specific place that is right for everyone.
New York is its own beast. I love it.
It is definitely missing the magic right now with Broadway shut down. But when it comes back (which it will), New York is an amazing place. There is just so many opportunities.
But that being said, you can have an amazing performing career in San Francisco, Chicago… Cleveland, Ohio—they have a great playhouse there.
It really just depends on your goals and what your whole life wants to look like. And you can have a fulfilling huge career never moving to New York or Los Angeles. None of the big cities.
I have many friends who continuously work in San Francisco and are the happiest people of all time. Or in Ohio or Indiana and they’ve figured a career for themselves.
Chelsea: I have a question. So you were talking about one of your experiences onstage. Do you have a most embarrassing moment or the craziest thing that has ever happened to you in a performance?
And also the other part of that is, do you get nervous still? And how do you work through thoughts or feelings and everything like that?
Natalie: I still get nervous all the time. Nerves are great, because it means we care.
But the more I prepare for something, then I know even on my worst day I will still remember this. I’ve put in the work, so it should be okay. Anytime I have those breath-ins of “I have no idea what to say next,” my brain just has these, like, “It’s fine, you’ve done the work. Just breathe out and it will be fine.” And 99% of the time, my brain is correct.
I’ve definitely had a lot of embarrassing moments. I mean, word flubs.
I was doing the Fantastics, and I had one of those moments when I didn’t know what I’m singing next. And I was like, “It’s fine, just trust yourself, you got this.” and I just made a completely weird “blagh” noise instead of a word.
And my scene partner and I just immediately started giggling, which actually worked out to be really wonderful and created a whole new version of that song that was specific. Because they’re playing pretend. Pretending to make a castle together.
So maybe the audience had no idea that I completely flubbed that line and made a weird noise. And it just created something new and special, in that way. So in our big mistakes, we can kind of curate some amazing moments.
I saw a Nathan Lane in a play, and one of the characters definitely broke, and then they all broke together. And it just made the scene even funnier than it was already.
That’s the magic of live theaters: crazy things happen all the time. I’ve fallen down stairs on the regular—I don’t know why I don’t think on my feet.
But we just do these crazy things, or trip. In West Side, there were these mannequins in the bridal shop. And one time, they accidentally came onstage during Dance at the Gym, and all of us were just dying of laughter. Thank God our mics were turned off during that because it was just so ridiculous.
But again, created such a new reviving energy onstage that it was just amazing.
Paul: I have a quick question for you about what you do for vocal health. I don’t know if you’ve ever had any contracts that you just absolutely had to sing and your throat just felt raw…
Natalie: Yeah. I definitely… I can remember one orchestra gig that I woke up that morning and could not make a sound. And I went “Oh my gosh, what is happening.” Of course, there’s a point, especially if you’re in an eight-show, week-show, but a contract is not worth your career.
That being said, we can figure out tricks to get ourselves into that healthy place. I mean, gargling with warm water and salt is my cure-all if I’m feeling clammy or whatever. That saved me. My new one, that I’m obsessed with, is humming into water in a straw. It gives you kind of like a laryngeal massage. So if there’s any light inflammation, doing that for about ten minutes—light warmups into a straw into a tube of water just gives you enough of a laryngeal massage to help the light inflammation.
It’s a great cool-down too, after shows. We forget about cooling down. I always forgot. Because you’re like, “The show’s done. Whew, thank goodness.” But then you’re like, “I need to cool down my voice, I need to steam.”
Drink lots of water. Water is our best friend.
Apples and apple juice also help because there’s an enzyme in apples that is the same as mucus. So if you’re even super phlegmy, eat an apple and it will help take care of it more than just water will.
Be careful of throat lozenges with menthol in it, because that numbs the throat. And we end up potentially creating more damage because like with throat numbing sprays, we don’t know how hard we’re singing on our voice so the next day might be hard.
Lots of hydration. And vocal rest.
Vocal rest is the unsung hero of, if it hurts and you don’t have to sing, just take a day off. I think it takes technically 24-36 hours for the voice to recover any slight damage. Granted, if you have an eight-show week, you don’t necessarily always get that luxury.
Ben Platt is a great example. During Dear Evan Hansen, he lived his life on complete vocal rest because that role was just so vocally-taxing.
He would do his warmups, do his show and immediately go back on the vocal rest. So it’s figuring out the demands of the concert or show and contouring your life around it. But it’s worth it!
Mary Julia: I have a question. Say that you’re wearing a restricting costume, you can’t really breathe properly. How do you still support the breath? Say you’re wearing a really tight corset.
Natalie: Definite first piece of advice—I mean it shouldn’t just be because you want something—but always make friends with crew, including costume designers. So when you have these moments of like, “I really can’t get a great breath,” they will help figure out the way around.
But if you can’t… I wore a corset for something and all of the clothes over it were baggy. Sometimes it’s just what life throws at us. It’s just really telling yourself to keep dropping into the breath. Mental power is more than we know. There’s a lot of power in just telling yourself to lower the breath and breathe.
And if you know ahead of time that you’re gonna get a corset, ask to rehearse in it. There’s specific things like that, you usually can get hooks into it so you can just get your body used to it before you’re in front of a paying audience.
It’s just like anything. It’s just like, that first time you do a dance rehearsal and you’re so sore. And you go, “how will I ever do this?”
But by the second week, you’re like “Oh, I got this. I can do this and still sing.”
And then by the third week, you’re like, “I was stressing about that?”
It’s just getting used to it and practicing it. And if it really becomes a problem, being kind and lovely to the costume team and backstage crew so that they can help you. You can catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
Kenzi: What would you advise someone who isn’t 100% sure which industry to focus on, whether it’s film or TV or performing onstage?
Natalie: The best thing about the performing industry is that especially now, you don’t have to choose. We are really seeing that right now during the pandemic. There are so many different paths that you can go into. People get TV shows because they were in Broadway. The opportunities right now that we have it kind of gives a sense of the world is truly your oyster.
In terms of studying, like if you’re planning on college and trying to figure out in what area you want to study in, I would go with the one that gives you the best basis in technique that you can pull into other things.
I’ve studied opera with a really good program for techniques that I can then use for musical theater and other stuff. Other people did a musical theater program, some people I know just did commercial dance and now they’re doing musicals.
If your program doesn’t offer some of those things that really feed your soul, there are ways that you can still study them outside of the program should you have time and should you have the funds.
You don’t really have to pick, just keep doing what you love, and let life lay it out for you. There’s no one right journey for anybody in this business, so it’s just figuring out what serves you and kind of make it together.
Chelsea: Okay, wow. Thank you so much, Natalie. That was awesome. We are so, so grateful for Natalie and her giving us her afternoon today and all of the wonderful feedback and thoughts that she had. Thank you all so, so much. Thank you, Natalie, again, and we hope you have a wonderful day!