|This week I shared a Vocal Coach Reaction video of Sierra Boggess singing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Isn’t it a great performance?!|
As the associate coach on the Broadway production of PHANTOM, I have a bit of an inside scoop on how the music team likes that song to be sung. But if you think there is only one correct way to do it- you are wrong! There are as many ways to interpret a song as there are voices in the world.
Think of all the women who have played Christine in productions of PHANTOM across the world. Sarah Brightman is vastly different than Sierra Boggess and Sierra is vastly different from Ali Ewoldt, etc etc.
This is true for all musical interpretation. Listen to classical pianist Lang Lang’s recording of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Now listen to amateur pianist Matt’s recording of the same piece. Totally different tempos and interpretations. Is there a right way or a wrong way? Chopin famously said “Put all your soul into it, play the way you feel!”
Particularly with musical theatre repertoire, there are some songs that are expected to be sung a certain way. For example, on a scale from one to ten, one being “legit classical singing” and ten being “heavy belting,” “Glitter and Be Gay” from CANDIDE lands somewhere around a one and “Defying Gravity” from WICKED is somewhere around a nine.
The thing I want to encourage my students to think about is this: what is the optimal placement/interpretation for your voice? Where and how does your voice live, soar, and come alive the most?
It’s truly not worth your time to try to interpret a song the exact same, cookie cutter way you heard your favorite performer sing it. Be inspired by them? Sure! Take some cues from their vocal choices? Absolutely.
But your instrument is NOT the same, and your optimal voice may feel and sound differently from theirs. In a voice lesson, find what feels the best and let your voice teacher be your ears- trust their feedback!
Find your optimal balanced voice and you’ll be on your way to vocal freedom.
|Have you ever heard one of these? There’s a lot of misconceptions about singing out there, particularly in how a singer “should” be trained. If you want a clue about the difference between classical and contemporary singing, look for my resource at the end of this post.|
But first, have you ever heard (or believed!) one of these myths?
1. “If you’re classically trained, you can sing anything!”
That’s like saying if you studied the violin, you can play any stringed instrument. Not true! You might have a general understanding of how other stringed instruments work, but you’re going to have to learn the technique and styles that work for other instruments just like everyone else.
“Classical training” is now a very vague, watered down term in the singing world. So whatever style you want to pursue, make sure you find a teacher who can help you accomplish very concrete technical goals like finding chest and head voice, navigating through your registers with a smooth, even tone, and eliminating breathiness or strain. Whether they call themselves a “classically trained” teacher means very little 🤷♀️
2. “Whatever genre of music you want to pursue, a music degree with a classical teacher will prepare you for it.”
Again, that’s like saying that if you want to be an animator for Disney, you should get trained in Renaissance painting techniques. Sure, there are artistic principles that may apply to both mediums but it is not going to directly train you to do the thing you want!
To be frank, I’ve heard from many singers who studied classically in college with hopes to pursue a singer/songwriter or musical theatre path afterward… only to realize that their undergrad taught them to sing classical music, classically, with little exploration elsewhere.
If a career in opera or classical music is not for you, there’s no need to go that route. But if opera is your dream- then a music degree studying classical music is the perfect path- go for it!!
3. Classical singing is boring.
What? What performances have you been listening to?! Have you heard Pavarotti wail on a high B in “Nessun Dorma”? Have you delighted in the insane agility and range that is the Doll’s Aria?
Classical singing is thrilling, difficult, and when done well- spine tingling-ly good! Mad props to the singers who train years (decades) to sing this material.
So what’s the big difference between classical and contemporary singing? My friend and colleague Annie Little breaks it all down here.
My student Caroline and I have been having lessons together for going on four years now. She’s one of those students turned friends and honestly, we’ve been through a lot together!
One of my greatest joys of working with long-time students is getting to witness their progress over long stretches of time.
Sure, you should be making improvements in your first lesson with a new teacher (yeah- you should!!), but the lasting change and real work is developing stamina and technique over months and years of work.
What, like singing is hard?!
This week in our lesson, Caroline revisited Eva Cassidy’s arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
During our lesson Caroline said, “When I had tried to sing this before, it was in my singing for actors class in college. I remember, I was probably just trying to belt the whole thing and I thought, ‘why is this so hard?'”
Have you ever come back to a song you sang years ago, to be pleasantly surprised at how much easier it is for you to sing today?
Caroline elaborated on the process that led to today’s feeling of ease:
“It makes me realize whether it’s singing or acting or anything, putting the time in and repetition of doing it and doing it, developing a skill and craft and technique is the key. Then even on days when I don’t feel 100% vocally, I’m still amazed at how much I can do things, even if I mentally think i can’t do it right now. I realize, ‘oh, i can sing this, even when it’s not 100%.'”
“Even if it’s just ten minutes and I run through some vocal exercises in the car, just to do it like using a muscle… then when it comes time for the event you just know it’s going to be there even if something is amiss.”
This! This is why we work on technique
Not for a week or a month, but over years! High level singing on any level (middle-school choir competitions? That’s high level!) requires singers to rely on technique built up over time when sickness, fatigue, or injury inevitably occur.
Caroline concluded: “…Where my voice is now, I can now just enjoy singing [the song] and focus on the artistry and where I’m going to breathe, instead of ‘how am I going to do this and not hurt myself?'”
Do you want to feel that same vocal freedom? With the right training and some time put into it, it’s possible!
This week has brought a lot of change. Here in the US, we have a new president! God Bless Lady Gaga who brought us the National Anthem at the inauguration (my reaction here).
And earlier this week, my husband Jordan and I found out what the next two years has in store for us. After a long process of him applying to specialty programs, we finally have a plan- and it includes a BIG move (read that news here).
With all this going on, I’ve been thinking about change and opportunity.
Have you ever felt…?
Have you ever felt stressed out of your mind trying to make a decision, not really having all the information needed or any options laid out in front of you yet? Have you ever ran through every possible scenario in your mind, well before the choice could even be made?
That’s how I had been feeling lately.
My Uncle Ralph would say, “You can’t make a decision until you can make a decision!”
Until the opportunities present themselves, there’s actually nothing to decide.
I think our job as artists (and human beings, honestly) is to put ourselves out there for the opportunities we want.
Submit for that audition, send in a self-tape, work on your voice now to prepare for the future, apply to a lot of schools and cast a wide net, etc.
After we’ve done all that we can do, the opportunities start to present themselves.
But if you never put yourself out there, there’s nothing to choose from. It’s not your job to take yourself out of the running.
Jordan and I had hoped this next chapter of our lives would include a move back to New York City. That’s not what ended up happening, but we’re not upset. We’ve spend the past 9 months throwing all sorts of things out into the universe and are now seeing what opportunities come back to us.
I hope the same for your and your artistry- try a lot! See what sticks! See what comes of your efforts. Then pursue those things wholeheartedly and with an open mind.
My friend Stephanie asked me to record a video performance of me singing any song of my choice for a virtual fall benefit program. I’m a mentor in her awesome organization, Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative (womensali.org), and I was honored she asked me to perform.
I chose a song I’ve sung a lot in the past, “How Could I Ever Know” from THE SECRET GARDEN (a musical composed by two women, so it seemed fitting). The day Jordan and I were set to record the song (wow ya’ll, the perks of being married to a killer accompanist), I thoroughly warmed up and we rehearsed it a few times before hitting the record button.
In the past, I’ve spent hours on a self-tape project like this. It’s so easy to be hyper-critical of every sound and expression and want to record take after take in hopes of reaching perfection!
In my experience- perfection is never reached. Instead, what you get is diminishing returns. After a few good takes, each one after that gets a little worse as your voice wears out and your energy wanes.
In the case of my “How Could I Ever Know” self-tape- we ended up doing only two takes. And… we kept and submitted the first one.
What a breeze!
Don’t get me wrong- this is largely because I’ve spent years training, practicing and performing– even performing this exact piece. Without that kind of experience, I may not have had such a confident go of it right out of the gate.
But also – and here’s the point – I’ve learned to let go of my idea of perfection.
Should we always strive to do our best? Yes!
Doing your best is not reaching perfection. It’s doing your best in this moment under these circumstances. It’s not worth it to play the comparison game, particularly when you’re comparing yourself to a standard that doesn’t exist.
As a side note- I thought my performance was better in the second take, but the audio recording didn’t turn out as good. And to that I say, c’est la vie!
My friend Carolyn is a gifted actor. She’s incredibly passionate about theatre (particularly Shakespeare) and continuing education. I’ve watched from afar (largely through social media) as she’s made career shifts as an actor and director, and as she’s auditioned for graduate acting programs for the past seven years. That’s right – seven!
Carolyn isn’t a student of mine, but she shared her story on Facebook this week and I just knew you needed to hear it (don’t worry, I asked if I could share her post here!).
“Seven and a half years ago I first started applying for graduate acting schools.
Over that time I was: rejected, gave up acting, found myself and the courage to start acting again, earned more rejections, started taking Shakespeare acting intensives at some of the best schools in the world, was hired for my first Equity Contracts, earned more rejections, gave up on graduate school and refocused on just acting professionally, had a personal awakening and realized how important graduate Shakespeare training was for me, earned even more rejections, received more Equity Contracts, continued to arrange more training with some of the best Shakespeare coaches in the world….
And then…. in March 2020 I was offered a place to train on the “MA in Classical Acting for the Professional Theatre” at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
It doesn’t make any logical sense to start a training program I’ve worked years to find in the middle of a pandemic, with upheavals at all levels of education and training, but I am where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes you’re given a glimpse in life, showing you exactly where you need to be, when you need to be there. I’ve learned that IF I’m given the gift of a glimpse, I’d better trust it…even if it doesn’t make sense. So here’s to faith in the future and a wonderful, years worked for, year of training at LAMDA.” – Carolyn H.
Sometimes, the timing of things just doesn’t make sense.
When it comes to working towards a long held goal, there are often so many factors at play, many of which are completely out of our control.
But what is in control are our choices– do we keep pursuing? Do we take a break? Seek more training, knowledge, and skill development? Pause on one goal to work towards another?
Just because you don’t have something you really want (or have worked for, or feel like you deserve) right NOW, doesn’t mean it’s not coming.
Is it worth it to you to keep working until it does?
You’ve arrived at the climax of the song- this is it! Here come the big, exciting notes everyone is waiting for! And…! You completely run out of steam, breath, or vocal stamina and you crack, gasp for air, or pass out (ok, hopefully not that last one).
Here’s a three-step process to give your best performance without blowing out your voice.
You have to learn the concept of saving and spending. This is an idea I teach to my professional (and aspiring professional!) singers, particularly those that are singing an athletic, acrobatic song.
These kinds of songs require a singer to decide when to spend and when to save. Their voices, I mean.
Imagine that you are singing “Waving Through A Window” from DEAR EVAN HANSEN. You only have $1 of vocal energy to spend on that song, and once you’ve spent it- you’re done! You cannot keep singing!
First off, identify which notes are the “big spender” notes or phrases.
Probably that final “Waving! Waving! Whoa-oah!!” section is a 25 cent phrase, and that’s just the last 10 seconds of the song. What other notes or passages throughout the song require an extra dose of energy, power, stamina, or stylistic effort? Identify those passages right off the bat.
Second, be judicious on where you can save.
What are the penny notes or phrases? Not every word, phrase, or melody is equally important in your storytelling or your technical effort. So, find the places in the song where you can hold back a bit.
Lastly, sing through the whole piece and adjust your budget as necessary.
You may find that once you put the whole song together, your interpretation of the song requires certain phrases to be highlighted with more (or less) volume, power, or effort than you initially planned.
This concept also applies to entire roles you might play in a show, or your band set or concert tour.
If you are playing Evan in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, tell yourself you only have $10 to spend on the entire show! Which songs and scenes get allotted what amount of your total vocal energy?
As singers, there will always be songs, roles, or performances that require a LOT of our energy, and even for us to leave “vocal balance” for a time in order for our interpretation and stylistic choices to come through how we want. That’s ok! By allotting a vocal ‘budget’ to each song you perform, you can save your voice and stay stylistically true to the music.
Charlie Puth, Voicenotes. You heard it here (definitely not) first. Charlie Puth is this year’s King of Pop. My Fave tracks include “Boy,” “Empty Cups.”
Punch Brothers, All Ashore. Punch Brothers make an album = it makes my best-of list. Fave tracks include “Just Look at This Mess,” and “It’s All Part of the Plan.”
Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes. If Charlie is the king, then maybe Shawn is the prince. As my friend Renee put it, Shawn is my age inappropriate crush. Fave tracks include “Lost in Japan,” “Where Were You in the Morning.”
Third Story, Cold Heart. Three-part male harmony and expertly crafted songs that makes me weak in the knees. Soulful, folk-y, pop rock, these guys don’t bother with playing the genre game and instead showcase their killer songwriting and breathtaking vocals. Fave tracks include “Searching for a Feeling,” “Still In Love,” “Only Love.”
I’m With Her, See You Around. These three insanely talented solo artists came together for this female supergroup. Three-part harmonies (do you sense a theme here?) and stringed instruments make for endless combinations of bluegrass bliss. Fave tracks include “See You Around,” “Pangea” “Game to Lose.”
Tori Kelly, Hiding Place. The gospel album the world needed. I got to see her play Riverside Church this fall and the SPIRIT WAS FELT! Fave tracks include “Psalm 42,” and “Never Alone.”
Mumford and Sons, Delta. A late in the year release and a surprising favorite. I feel like Mumford is back in the musical zeitgeist with the arena pop/rock production on this album. Fave tracks include “42,” “Guiding Light,” “Rose of Sharon.”
Panic! At The Disco, Pray For The Wicked. Been belting it out with Brendan Urie since 2005 and I’m not going to quit now. Fave tracks include “High Hopes,” “Hey Look Ma I Made It,” “Dying in LA.”
Jess Glynne, Always in Between. A boppy pop fest with (IMO) some questionable feminist messages (looking at you, “No One.”) Overall Jess brings her funky soul vibe to pick-me-up positive Brit-Pop and I am here for it. Fave tracks include “Never Let Me Go.” “All I Am,” “I’ll Be There.”
Robyn, Honey. Long awaited and really worth it. The first time I heard the title track, I cried. Pathetic? Perhaps. Fave tracks include “Honey,” “Missing U,” “Ever Again.”
What were your favorite albums of 2018? Happy listening in the new year!
Listen to my favorite tracks from my favorite albums here:
The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
The best feeling in the world is feeling completely limitless when singing a song- no obstacle in your way, no note out of reach, no melody too tricky to master. The worst is feeling like you’re barely scraping by in the piece, unable to make choices regarding interpretation or style because you are limited by what your voice can physically produce.
Mastering vocal technique gives you options, it gives you choices. It expands the realm of what is possible. Working on technique does not mean you lose that original sound only you are blessed with- it expands what your God-given voice is capable of!
Developing good technique is understanding what variables took you from point A to point Z.
Good technique is the sum of so many small things- the shape of your vowels, the looseness of your jaw, the relaxation or engagement of certain muscles, the balance of air flow and vocal fold resistance. What allowed you to get the full, released sound on the word “Love” on a high F? Can you identify the small choices that got you there? Eventually, it becomes intuitive.
Work to technically improve your voice, like a ballerina or basketball player might improve their body and game. You’ll find a world of possibility open to you!
I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.
Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:
“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”
I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.
If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.