The Early Days
I have been lucky in my professional life – both as a singer/singing teacher and vocal coach – to have had a huge variety of influences and experiences. I feel this informs my teaching, so I thought it might be useful to tell you what I have been doing!
After my training at the Royal Academy of Music in both Singing and Piano I had my first professional job on the end of Southend pier. All my contemporaries were off to Stuttgard, Glyndebourne, concert tours etc but I was interested in other kinds of singing: and it was more akin to my personality(!) Well, I learnt a lot. We weren’t trained in those times to do anything other than walk on stage with our heads held high – so a baptism of fire. My second job was Principal Boy in pantomime – this time on Plymouth Hoe (maybe a theme developing here) – only allowed to sing when nearly out to sea!
Most of our careers happen by chance and by a set of lucky circumstances. My next professional work was a TV series which involved singing in many styles from “light”music to opera: backing well know singers from all genres
My Career as a Session Singer
Lucky for me I am a quick sight reader with perfect pitch and a trained musician which is useful. I found adapting to different styles quite instinctive and enjoyed the variety and challenge.
For many years I was part of the John McCarthy singers, Ambrosian Singers and later The Nigel Brooks singers. We sang on “Friday Night is Music Night” most weeks, and also did concerts with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Big Band. Singing in concerts at the Festival Hall, QEH Albert Hall and regional theatres, many times working alongside the Major London Orchestras. Truly a sound-bank of musical memories to draw on.
In retrospect I realize how lucky we were at that time (70s/80s early 90s) to be involved in so much TV and recordings. Listening live (and being paid) in close contact with such greats as Pavarotti. Domingo, Monserrat Cabellè, Titto Gobbi, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Joan Sutherland…the list goes on AND fantastic conductors for example Riccardo Mutti and Claudio Abbado.
This also was the time of many TV specials and shows such as Top of the Pops. As backing singers we worked with many of the top recording artists of that time.
Most recordings were done in London during this time, including film scores and commercial recordings and we were around so many artists (memorable event- Frank Zappas 200 Motels—I still don’t understand it! Rick Wakeman’s extravagant pop productions – dinosaurs appearing from the Crystal Palace lake, makes the 02 look tame!!). Another vivid memory ii George Martin coming round each microphone to see who wasn’t blending, on a Paul McCartney wings album.
Teaching: The Beginning
Towards the end of this time I started to explore more teaching. I had always “taught”, even at school, filling in for the music teacher and often helped my friends to learn music. It was a natural progression for me to work one day a week in a Drama School (with groups initially). A great job on two count. I could put a dep in if I couldn’t make it BUT most importantly I watched a lot of plays and found a real love and hunger for theatre. I watched a lot of plays and classes and began to think how acting exercises and ways of thinking could join with my subjec. I was able to try out ideas with open-minded students as I began to apply what I was realising, that these subjects can co-exist: singing AND acting. Yeah!!
Luck was on my side as I was around at the beginning of that explosion of new Musical Theatre writing in London beginning with Les Miserables. I was one of the first vocal coaches. Subsequently, Miss Siagon, Witches of Eastwick, most of the new shows: read the list at the end of the Musical Theatre page! If I count West End shows, RSC, RNT, International and Repertory shows: more than over a hundred to date when I have been either vocal coaching or advising.
One of the most important influences was being around really good directors and watching them work.
I was relatively young when I began working on Les Miserables and felt a real sense of responsibility. It was with relief that at a singing teacher conference we were shown vocal folds (chords), the vocal tract and I began to see there were tangible answers to what we were trying to achieve This was not a way of understanding voice in the UK at the time.
The new through sung musicals – now the norm – demanded an actor’s subtlety of descriptive text and the singing voice to be able to convey that a myriad of colours much more subtle than only either singing lyrically or belting.
Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London
It was about this time that I was invited to set up the one year postgraduate course in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London: the first of its kind in a major Music College. It was an opportunity to put into practice all the new ideas that were being added to our understanding of voice and the linking of all the disciplines-singing, acting, movement etc. As I was given the freedom to invite who I wanted to teach on it, there was/and is the opportunity to share ideas with a number of bright intelligent minds! Again, lucky me!
The British Voice Association
So began my personal journey with voice beginning more than 25 years ago with what is now called The British Voice Association. This is formed from people interested (indeed passionate) about voice and includes ENT, speech therapists, osteopaths, physios, spoken word and singing teachers, researchers etc always evolving and sharing information. Fantastic!
The Science of the voice is a relatively unexplored area as it is not funded and has to be done in researchers spare time. One of the first researcher to explore more contemporary sounds was Jo Estill. I saw her research in the USA at a conference – showing on video – and remember thinking what I am looking at is what it feels like to make those sounds.
So we brought her over to the UK with the BVA’s and Cameron Mackintosh trusts help.
Jo Estill showed videos of the vocal tract and explained how sounds that we wouldn’t label “classical ” were physically achieved to make different voice qualities. Her work has been hugely important at understanding how to make contemporary sounds. These were initially very new ideas for the group of us who were there at the beginning. I had sung on a lot of recordings with pop and rock singers so found it easy to accept aurally but we had to learn to put it into practice physically. It seems easy now,and words such as “twang” “belt” “tilt” for example are normal vocabulary. It took time to make these new ideas part of teaching and to link with other traditional ideas. I know we have successfully passed on Jo’s work and it is now widely taught.
This has helped with all Genres of Music that I teach – contemporary pop and rock, musical theatre and classical – all as necessary for the style of music. I find both the vocal and performance teaching crosses from one genre to the other and each gives you fresh contemporary ever changing sounds to enjoy and explore.
Jo had studied classically for a number of years but wanted tangible answers to vocal problems which initiated her research. Having looked at her research-and many others I find it links happily with great teachers such as Garcia and Marchesi, I enjoy using many different ideas to develop voice. A healthy flexible resonant voice facilitates vocal gymnastics according to the needs of the music! I believe if you develop the whole voice you can choose how you use it in many different ways.
Vocal Health, and stamina, surviving long tours/runs both musical theatre and pop have become real interests of mine. I have worked-and am currently working-with hugely talented people in all genres.
Within all the training ideas – keeping the individuality of voice and personality is paramount.
What voices do I like? Someone I want to listen to and what they have to say. I can’t qualify that it’s never just a beautiful sound, it must convey some truth.
Music is a great social leveller.
From a state school education and subsequent government financial help to help with my education, I have had a wealth of opportunity beyond my imagination As I haven’t kept a diary I have been wracking my brain to remember so many special moments in my career as a teacher and coach
Being part of the explosion of musical theatre starting with Les Miserables.
Meeting different Asian families during the 10 years I worked on the original Miss Saigon and learning about their culture-often sharing celebrations new to me.
Watching talented directors and learning from them.
Setting up the Post Graduate course at the Royal Academy of Music
Helping set up and judging the BBC Radio “Voice of Musical Theatre”subsequently sitting on many panels for different shows
Meeting like-minded people fascinated by all aspects of voice training at the British Voice Association
Visits to do workshops and/or coaching in England Scotland.Ireland,Wales,Denmark.Holland Germany France China,USA Canada
Many TV appearances as a coach working with artists appearances on shows
Watching artists and groups develop and seeing how the industry “works”
Helping with Coldplay at the Paralympics final and being on the periphery of that special event
Happily these opportunities continue – and YES! I have been “lucky”