10 Years of Vocal Education

This weekend I found out that I PASSED my Mentor Level/Level 5 panel test!

Great! So what does that mean . . . ?

I began my vocal instruction education in 2007 with a voice teaching organization called Speech Level Singing. At that point, I already knew I wanted to teach someday — either part-time to support my other artistic dreams, or full-time if the time came that I felt teaching was more my path. My mentor and teacher, Jeffrey Skouson, encouraged me to consider starting my teacher training before I had even started college. So with his blessing and my parent’s support I started what has been a TEN year process of education, conferences, reading and study, private lessons, yearly testing, and so much more.

Ten years later, I’ve achieved the highest level of certification possible with the Institute for Vocal Advancement. This past month, Jeffrey and the other Master Teachers in our organization watched and assessed as I taught a 20 minute lesson in front of them (a ‘panel test’). It was not unlike the other annual tests I’ve been taking for the past ten years, but this time the entire panel of Master Teachers adjudicated. And I passed! With flying colors!

I am thankful to my teachers and peers who push me and our entire teaching organization to become the best voice teachers possible. I am thankful that at 17 years old, Jeffrey saw something in me that he believed would make a great teacher one day. I am thankful that my parents encouraged me to continue, and I’m grateful for the passion I’ve had to pursue this dream. What 17-year-old sets out to reach very specific goal, which will take a decade or more, and actually achieves it? I recognize that I’m extremely fortunate to have had the support and opportunities necessary to accomplish this long-time goal.

My education is far from over, and thankfully my training will continue with IVA. However, having reached this milestone- there are no more tests in my future! Whew!

I can’t speak highly enough of the community of teachers I am a part of. If teaching voice has ever been something you’ve considered, I encourage you to think about investing in that education and skill set. I’d love to talk to you about how to make that happen for yourself.

All worthwhile endeavors take time and practice! For me, it’s been ten years of time and practice and practice and practice, and I am thrilled to have reached this milestone.

 


A bit about the Institute for Vocal Advancement:

At IVA, we strive to continually develop our program with the latest research in vocal science to address these and other questions. We educate and produce the finest voice instructors in the world who develop, promote, and maintain the highest standards for the teaching of singing.

As a Certified Instructor, you have access to our yearly teacher conference, IVACON, teacher-trainings, master classes and workshops right in your area, as well as online training in the form of webinars. Our education will help you to understand how the voice works and how you can continually improve your teaching in order to quickly diagnose and fix problems in any voice, and also how to develop voices of a professional calibre that can meet the demands of modern careers in singing.

more than singing

I got to talk with Renee about this very topic while we were both at IVACON this past week. I agree, singing is transformational! And it’s a blessing we as teachers get to be part of.

The Lunch Break Diaries

I’m currently at a conference in San Diego put together by the fine folks at the Institute of Vocal Advancement (IVA). Every year, IVA vocal instructors such as myself gather from all over the world to learn more about the craft of singing and the highly nuanced art of teaching vocal technique. We’re basically kept in windowless rooms 10 hours a day for five days and we cram our brains full of knowledge until we feel like pulp on the inside. It’s awesome.

On our second day in the conference, I was interviewed for an upcoming episode of the IVA podcast. One of the questions they asked me was “What is it about teaching that you find most fulfilling?” It prompted me to reflect on what this profession means to me now after all these years.

When I started out as a vocal instructor, I was excited about the idea…

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Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

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.

 

I’m Sick! Should I Cancel My lesson?

Last week I jumped on Facebook live to chat about what to do if you’re under the weather and feel like you should cancel your lesson. Hop on over to my Facebook page to see that in full. And we’ve already talked about sickness and singing here on the blog.

Just here for the highlights? Here’s what you need to remember if you’re thinking about cancelling your lesson.

  1. Know the cancellation policy and be prepared to pay for the lesson. For me and my studio, I send out my studio policies after your very first lesson- which includes my cancellation policy:

    For in-person lessons, if you make a cancellation within 48 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the cost of the studio rental fee, which varies from $17 to $22 an hour. This also applies to re-scheduling.

    If you make a cancellation within 24 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the total cost of the lesson.

    Sickness comes up, and I try to be as understanding as possible with my students as sickness arises. However, I hold all my students to this policy and appreciate their understanding of it. After all, they’ve known about it since day one!

  2. Feel something coming on? Cancel while you can. Back to the above- if you feel something coming on, chances are that stuffy nose will get worse before it gets better. Cancel before 48 hours and ensure you don’t have to pay any lesson fees. Be in communication with me- I want you to take care of yourself and get well!
  3. Have a show tonight? Audition tomorrow? Maybe don’t cancel. If you absolutely have to go on stage tonight or have an audition tomorrow that cannot be rescheduled, it may be useful for you to keep your lesson. I work with under the weather professionals often- it is valuable to learn how to warm up and cool down your voice specifically for when you are sick, and also how to get through a piece with congestion or slight swelling in your cords. *This is NOT a long term solution! Overusing your voice when you are not well can cause long term vocal damage. Some rare times, however, you may need to know how to sing when you are not at your best.
  4. There are other things we can do in a lesson besides sing! Come in and listen to and find new repertoire for your audition book. Let’s do a listening lesson, where we can analyze and assess other singer’s voices and find application for yourself. If you’ve already paid for the lesson, there are other valuable things we can do.
  5. You know your body- make the call for yourself. You are responsible for you and your voice- period! If you know you need time to rest and recover, please do. Be prepared to pay the full lesson fee if this is the case. If you have a stuffy nose, but your voice is unaffected, come on in and sing. It is your call and your voice! You only get one, so take care of it.

 

Stop Looking Sideways, or How I Embraced My Own Path

I am a University of Michigan Musical Theatre grad and I wear my Maize and Blue proud. Being a U of M grad in the world of musical theatre has given me opportunities that never would have been open to me otherwise, and dear friends and a network of professional artists that I am blessed to have. It’s like having a golden ticket- a degree from Michigan is a privilege, an honor, and a great accomplishment.

It’s also a burden to bear.

You graduated from U of M? Wow! You must be so talented! Are you on Broadway? Have you been on Broadway? How many Broadway shows have you done? Are you friends with Gavin Creel?

The answers are no, no, none, and no- although we do live in the same neighborhood and I smile at him when I see him walking his dog.

What no one tells you in your four years of preparation to enter this crazy field is that there is no guarantee of success. And what’s more, the expectations we have for ourselves as graduates of such a program can be too much to handle.

I graduated in 2012 thinking I would make it ‘big’ right away. Every week my classmates and I would hear the awesome news of friends of ours in previous classes making their Broadway debut (or second or third appearance) or getting a tour, or even a TV gig. It was Broadway or bust for all 24 of my classmates and I. We saw the standard of excellence for Michigan grads and we were chomping at the bit to have our chance at success.

Things did not play out how I imagined. I finished showcase, didn’t sign with an agent, and set out on a year and a half of auditions where nothing really came to fruition. I was called back for Broadway shows and tours, I performed in small things here and there, but there was no “I’ve made it in New York” moment for me. It was discouraging to say the least.

But what my real mistake was, and the whole point of me writing this, was… I was looking sideways the whole time.

You know Mr. Wagner’s line? Something like, you can’t go forward if you’re looking sideways? That was me. And that was so many of my friends. And that is so many of my talented, incredible, hard working students now. I was absolutely comparing my life and my success to people on completely different paths. I kept happiness at arm’s length because my life looked different from theirs.

My life started to look more and more like this: spending time in the studio teaching voice lessons to people who valued my skills and whose energy brought light to my life, pursuing a relationship with my now husband and then planning a wedding, growing my teaching business, pursuing continued vocal education, pouring energy into my friendships and family and getting back the same.

I always knew I wanted to be a full time voice teacher one day, I just didn’t imagine it meaning so much to me so quickly. In fact, I’ve been teaching, training and re-certifying as an instructor every year for the past ten years, with what is now the Institute for Vocal Advancement. What was initially going to help me avoid waiting tables has become my real passion and the thing that I am most fulfilled by.

It was hard to admit this to myself, let alone my friends, a few of whom were making huge strides in their acting careers right about this time. It was honestly embarrassing for me to say things like, “It doesn’t seem like now is the right time for me in this business. But you know what I might like even more? This whole teaching thing.”

Did people think I was “giving up?” My professors and family expect more from me, am I letting them down? Am I letting myself down? Isn’t acting what I was “supposed” to do?

I just found this “journal” entry in a forgotten notebook tonight. It’s from the day before last year’s incredible Maize and Blue on Broadway concert in honor of Brent Wagner. I wrote,

“I am sad not to be important enough to to be in the Maize and Blue concert. Not to not be in it, but to be of so little consequence in this field, I’m useless… I’m afraid to feel fat, unimportant, untalented by my friends and colleagues at the concert tomorrow. I feel like nothing I’ve accomplished matters, especially in the Michigan MT context.”

Have you ever felt this way?

Here’s what I’ve learned. My path is not the same as yours, and yours is different from the next person’s. When I have let success be defined as just one narrow outcome in a world FULL of opportunity, I have absolutely let myself be miserable. When I measure myself against my friends with Broadway credits or Broadway bodies, I keep happiness at arm’s length.

If this is your dream, do it! Do it with all your heart, mind, and strength! If it’s taking longer than you expected, that’s ok. Breathe, relax, and keep working. And if it turns out this funny business of show isn’t where your heart lies, then give yourself permission to follow it elsewhere. I admire my friends and colleagues who have found themselves in law school, behind a casting table, teaching children’s dance classes, writing Oscar winning songs, directing commercials, starring in their own plays, becoming parents, launching a community theatre, and going to med school.

The world is wide enough. You are important just the way you are, and Broadway credits or not, that will not change. We each have inherent value, and this life is too short to not find out what your unique contribution to the world will be.

Today, seeing my best friends’ names in the playbill is a thrill. I genuinely rejoice in the success of those around me, and I’ve allowed others to celebrate mine as well. To my fellow Wolverines and all dreamers out there- I can’t wait to see what you create. Keep looking forward, because I promise you don’t want to miss the beautiful path you are on.

Photo credit to Lauren Hartman

Chord or Cord? Which is Witch?

Here’s your essential grammar lesson from me, ‘Chord’ or ‘Cord’? Which word describes the two little vibrating masses in your throat?

Your vocal CORDS are two tiny lengths of tissue whose edges vibrate in the air stream to produce the voice. In fact, to be a bit more anatomically correct, a lot of us vocal professionals refer to them as vocal FOLDS.

Are my vocal cords muscles? Kinda, but actually no. There are teeny tiny muscles within your vocal cords, but the part of the fold that vibrates against each other to create sound is a thin layer of jelly-like tissue. This tissue is incredibly fragile and needs to be treated with care! Why else do you think good vocal technique is so important?

In order to sing well, we can learn to control some of the larger (but still super small!) muscles in our larynx (aka ‘voice box’) and somewhat indirectly the teeny tiny muscles in our vocal cords.

And just to clarify, a CHORD is a group of notes (usually three or more) that form the basis of harmony. We strum chords on the guitar, play chords on the piano, and we sing chords in group vocal arrangements.

And now you know!

My TOP TWO Tips for Audition Preparation

Ready, Set, Audition Season!

Here are my TOP TWO most important tips for the weeks leading up to all your big auditions! Your confidence, preparation, and talent will score you parts and acceptance letters- but these two crucial self-care tips will play a big part in your performance at these critical auditions!

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Imagine your voice is a potted plant, resting on your windowsill. You’re supposed to water it every day, right?  However, If you haven’t, by the time your plant is wilting and turning brown it is TOO LATE to water it! You may try, and the plant may be revived eventually, but it’s not going to perk up until DAYS after that first watering.

The lesson? Excessively water/hydrate yourself in the 3-5 days leading up to an audition! In fact, get in the habit of excessively hydrating yourself every day as your responsibility as a serious vocalist. All the water you drink on audition day won’t do a thing to hydrate and plump your vocal cords, so drink up days beforehand!

Avoid caffeine. I’m serious! AVOID it! Caffeine will dry out your voice, pretty much counteracting all the awesome hydrating you’re doing.

Know that nothing you drink is actually touching your vocal cords (if it did, our lungs would fill with fluid every time you drank something!). If you want the biggest bang for your buck in a pinch, steam. Take a long hot shower, lean over a boiling pot of water and inhale, or get yourself a fancy steamer like this one. Again, start this regiment days and weeks prior to your actual audition(s).

A student of mine just told me about this sweet app, Plant Nanny, that gives you reminders throughout the day to drink up! For iPhone and Android.

VOCALIZE

I don’t know many runners who have had much success starting their training the day before a marathon. The same goes for singers. If you’re not already stretching, exercising, and balancing your voice through purposeful, daily vocalizing (the kind of meaningful exercises I do with you in each of our voice lessons), then you will not be in peak condition on audition day!

Sure, you can vocalize just that morning and your voice may feel warmed up. But with daily practice (much more than just singing your songs!) days and weeks in advance of the audition, you will gain range, flexibility, and balance. And who doesn’t want more of all that on the big day?

Get into a daily regimen of vocalizing. Again, who would skip track practice the week before a big meet? NO ONE.simple-yoga-stretches-for-relieving-chronic-sciatica-pain

Start to think of yourself as the professional you aim to be, and get responsible for your voice! You are quite literally the only one who can give it what it needs—you can’t send it into the shop to be ‘tuned up’—you get to do that!

Why Should I Warm Up My Voice?

Singing is a physical activity, so why do so many singers not take the time to warm up properly before an audition, rehearsal, or performance?

I don’t know the answer to that. But to encourage you to get into your own warm-up routine, here are my TOP TWO reasons why you should take the time to warm up.

Avoid injury

Every single athlete takes the time to warm up their body before practice or competition. Our bodies need to prepare in order to perform our best. This is the same with our voices! You know how you feel in the morning when you first get out of bed? Do you really want to walk on stage sounding like that?

I didn’t think so.

Imagine a Usain Bolt rolling out of bed a few minutes before one of his Olympic sprints. He doesn’t take the time to stretch, work out his muscles, or mentally “get in the zone” for the race. Chances are, no matter how talented of an athlete he may be, he could incur an injury. Cold muscles= risk for injury.

It takes 5-20 minutes to warm up your voice. It can take days, weeks, or months to recover from a vocal injury. Do the math and do your warm-ups!

Find Vocal Balance

I was recently invited to sing four songs in a concert my friend Elisabeth was putting on. Two were duets, two were solos, and all four had a very different stylistic feel to them. Within these four pieces I needed to make a wide variety of sounds.

Warming up with intentional vocal exercises can help you find “home base,” or vocal balance. With my voice in good working order, I could springboard from one style to another because I took the time to find connection and balance. Without first finding vocal balance, your voice may feel squeezed, pushed, or overly breathy, none of which are feelings that will lead to a successful performance!  Find vocal balance and sing anything.

What is your warm up routine? If you don’t usually warm up, I’m curious- why not?

A Gift For You- What Will You Be in 2017?

Let’s face it, this first week in January is just a transition week. Week two of the new year, now that’s when it’s time to get serious!

To help you with all the dreams, ideas, and goals you’ve got floating around in your imagination, I’ve created a little worksheet to get them on paper and into reality. Writing is a huge help to me- suddenly my thoughts are made real with pen and paper.

I challenge you to take five, ten, or fifty minutes to write down your goals for 2017 and how you’re going to go about meeting them. Will you learn a new song a week? Will you get into a good practice routine? Will you write a song? Record an album? Play your music for real live people? Will you embrace the unknown and go after what truly inspires you?

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just for you, 2017 goals worksheet pages

Whether your goals are musical or not, get them on paper and amaze yourself with your potential this year.

 DOWNLOAD MY 2017 GOALS WORKSHEET HERE

Voice Teacher or Vocal Coach?

You’re looking for a voice teacher/singing teacher/vocal coach/performance coach/accompanist/piano player. Are these all the same person? Are they different? Does it matter? To help me answer this question, I asked two of my friends and colleagues to help me out with this post.

Here’s a secret for you: I’m not a great pianist! My students already know this about me. If there aren’t chord symbols in their sheet music (I’m a top notch pop music faker!), we’ll use an instrumental track or I’ll play the melody line. But fortunately for me, and for them, this doesn’t limit my ability to teach rock solid vocal technique, play through all of our exercises, and get through most all of the music we look at in lessons.

What should a voice teacher do?

As a singing/voice teacher, my primary goal is to improve my client’s actual singing ability, or their vocal technique. This means that in lessons we are working to increase range, stamina, strength, and quality of tone. We go through exercises and then apply that technique to music. While this often includes artistry and interpretation, audition preparation, and learning new music, the first focus is always on proper singing technique.

However, if a client of mine has a lot of new music they need to simply learn, or sheet music cuts to prepare for an upcoming audition next week (or tomorrow), I send them to one of my friends, Jeremiah Ginn or Bronwyn Tarboton.

Jeremiah and Bronwyn are both talented accompanists and vocal coaches, along with being talented actors and singers themselves. This, combined with their musicianship and piano playing ability make them excellent vocal coaches. “As a vocal coach I usually work with people to prepare for specific upcoming auditions…. I make sure they are as prepped as possible for all aspects of the audition including teaching them their music, getting them familiar with the accompaniment, cutting and marking their music, communicating with the pianist, interpreting the music and lyrics, and bringing out different vocal styles etc.” says Bronwyn.

What makes a good vocal coach?

So, what makes a great vocal coach? Jeremiah suggests: “You need to be great musician first and foremost. Since my primary job is to help you learn music, the ability to sight read, to have great piano technique… Apart from that I think you also need experience as a teacher, and as a storyteller. Other than helping you musically, I’m there to help you tell a story with your music. So it’s important to be trained in acting, and hopefully have some experience on stage.”

Bronwyn adds, “Instead of working on new vocal skills, it’s about taking the skills and abilities they [singers] already have and honing them for a certain audition. In a day or even a couple days there isn’t much time to develop new abilities, but I can help them showcase their strengths and highlight what they have to offer in the audition.”

I asked each of them when they might recommend that their clients work with a voice teacher. Brownyn said, “In order to actually become a better singer it’s important to work with a voice teacher and have time to practice and internalize new concepts, so that by the time you get to the coach or audition, the things you worked on with your voice teacher are second nature.” 

Jeremiah agrees. He states “a voice teacher is there to be a technician. The voice teacher should be able to help the student master their vocal technique, solve problems with their voice, and help them to become the best singer they can be. I think that the vocal coach then comes in after the work with the vocal teacher has been done to refine and polish the performance. But without the solid base in technique, the vocal coach cannot do their job.” 

Can a teacher be both?

Some voice teachers happen to be great coaches and pianists, and some coaches have enough vocal technique experience to be good voice teachers. However, this is the exception and not the rule. In my experience, a person is almost always more suited to one thing or another. I’ve had a few young singers begin lessons with me recently who have been amazed at the significant difference in their voices, even after just one or two lessons. If a voice teacher is able to implement correct vocal technique, students should be able to immediately recognize significant vocal progress. And not just audible progress, but they should physically feel the difference. They’ve often said something like, “I realize now that the lessons I was having with my previous teacher were mostly about learning new music. We didn’t actually work on any vocal technique.” It is an unfortunate circumstance when teachers with some singing experience and the ability to play piano claim to be voice teachers, and their students don’t know that they aren’t reaping the full benefits they would receive by working with an actual vocal technician.

How can you work with both a coach and teacher?

How can you reap the benefits of working with both a coach and a teacher? Recently, Jeremiah has been joining me in lessons with one of my current students who is preparing for a tricky role in Sondheim’s COMPANY. With both of us working together, the singer gets immediate vocal direction from me, and musical and performance direction from Jeremiah, who also provides full accompaniment as we go along.

Whether they call themselves a voice teacher, singing teacher, vocal coach, or accompanist, now you know the difference! Do your research when looking for a voice teacher, as well as when working with a vocal coach.  In order to truly improve your singing ability, make sure you’re working with an actual voice teacher who can make a real difference in your voice, and a vocal coach who is skilled at teaching music and getting a great performance out of you.