In Tune With Lis Lewis
L.A.-based Vocal Coach Would Like to Teach the World To Sing
By Simon Glickman
L.A.-based vocal coach Lis Lewis demands a lot from her charges, whether they’re superstars, up-and-comers or mere tots. But she gets results, largely by being what she calls a “diagnostician” of each singer’s physical approach. With a Master’s in Theater and Music, not to mention a solid grounding in most facets of the biz, she has the tools to tutor aspiring artists in career matters as well as nailing the high notes. As founder of the Singers Workshop, she’s also served as a patron saint of area vocalists, providing networking and technical resources for the community. It?s a testament to her patience that she once got HITS own Simon “He’s No Garfunkel” Glickman singing scales, who repays her with this somewhat off-key interview.
You’ve expanded your client roster quite a bit recently.
Yes, it’s been spectacular. The most high-profile is Britney Spears, probably the world’s most famous pop star. That’s been very exciting and time-consuming. She’s a hard worker and a remarkable person and very focused for someone so young. I’m sure she will continue to evolve. I worked with Gwen Stefani after the first record and before the second. She’s really remarkable: a sweet, generous, open, interested, hard-working person. I worked with all the members of Linkin Park except the lead singer; they’re an amazingly interesting, musically complicated band… And Jack Black, who’s awesome. He came in and absorbed so much in an hour that I was wiped out when he left. He’s a sponge, a brilliant guy. And he has such an R&B sensibility, which you don’t really get to hear in Tenacious D. I also worked with a young girl group, No Secrets, who are all over the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Do you have to approach your methods differently when working with young kids?
No. I figure they have to rise to the competition, regardless of age. It’s slightly different because the material is different. But they have to be completely in tune. They have to work on their pitch. They have to have great tone. They have to be expressive, with great personalities and great range, just like anybody else. I’m just very demanding with everybody.
Why should a manager or A&R exec bring their acts to you?
When I work with an artist, I’m extremely focused. I look only at the person who’s in front of me; I don’t apply a set of rules to each individual. I pay attention to the person’s body and voice, what style they want to accomplish and what their parameters are. There is a level of quality they all have to have: pitch, obviously, and technique. But if you’re singing hard-rock or acoustic folk, it’s totally different. And how each singer uses his or her body is different – where they’re tense, where they’re loose, the sound of their voice, their tone. That’s what we want. You don’t want them all to sound beautiful; some people shouldn’t. Some people have a rasp or some other particular quality, and you don’t want to lose that. I like to think I specialize in helping each person bring out who they are. I hate to talk about marketing, but that’s what it’s about – having a concept that you can present to the public that they’ll recognize.
When an artist who’s achieved a certain measure of success comes to you, what do they generally want?
Most of the time they’ve hit some kind of boundaries. They want more range, or stamina. A lot of people who go out on tour, especially after a first record, are singing constantly, and when they come back, they have no voice. Or they’re lowering keys. Then they come back and have six months of vocal rest. So they want to strengthen, and figure out what they’re doing wrong. Their voices sound great when they’re singing, but after that, they’re exhausted and their voice starts to deteriorate. They know that even though they have a good voice, they’re doing some little thing wrong, and they need to correct it. That’s my job – diagnostician. I dig in there and find the problem. It’s like the tennis player who goes from amateur to pro, and has some little hitch in his shoulder that’s killing him because he’s playing all the time. The pressure is on his body in a much greater way than it was before. The same is true for singers; it’s very athletic.
What are the most common mistakes singers make?
The most common thing singers do wrong is not warm up. The second is that they’re using too much tension, so they fight themselves – the body tenses against, for instance, the air pressure. Because they want more. They want to be big and exciting and full of life and entertaining. So they overdrive and tense against that extra air pressure. That’s very wearing.
What are some of your methods for helping people get their voices big?
Most people like to blast their voice at the top end of their chest, their natural speaking voice. That’s the most wearing thing. So what you have to learn to do is keep that tone and energy, but learn to add in some of the upper voice, so there’s a gradual shift from one voice to the other that nobody can hear. Chaka Khan and Celine Dion are masters of this. Freddie Mercury did it really well. You never hear any shift, and they aren’t yelling.
So even a hard rock singer who screams a lot can do that in a healthier way?
It depends, but yes. There are certainly people who scream and lose their voices. But there are ways. Every single person can improve.
Tell us a bit about the Singers Workshop.
When I first came here over 30 years ago from San Francisco, I felt the singers were all in competition and didn’t share any information with each other. There was all this info that could be shared and make everyone’s life easier, but everybody was very protective. That’s why I started the Singers Workshop – as a way of trying to network between singers. If someone needed a backup singer, my God, I’ve got a huge list of singers. We started sharing info about auditions, too. The Workshop formerly included a newsletter called the Angel City Voice, which was mailed out to members, but is now online. It’s all the things that I would like to make available to singers. If your throat is dry, what do you do? There’s problem-solving.
Yeah! Tech support for singers. I also wrote a book, The Singer’s First Aid Kit, which was published by Hal Leonard, and it’s mainly for mid-level people who are seriously trying to move their careers forward. It comes with warm-up CD, one for men and one for women. I wrote a second book for the same publisher; it’s for beginners called The Pop Singer’s Warm-Up Kit. It’s just warm-up for pop singers who’ve never had a voice lesson. There?s also a lot of other merchandise that I didn’t write or make, but that I think is awesome. There’s a throat spray and some other great books. I just have to love it.
You’ve also lectured abroad.
I was hired by Paul McCartney’s school in England, The Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, which is a remarkable place. It’s multi-disciplinary; you can’t go in just one field. They want someone who can come in and be willing to work with a filmmaker and the dance department, and do all these different things. But they also have the most amazing, state-of-the-art recording studios, open 24 hours a day. It’s the most energizing place! I taught there for a week as an artist-in-residence. They wanted to know a lot about the American music business, and about developing a unique personality as an artist, which is a lot of what I do in my work. We talked about songwriting, too. I did a workshop on performance, a bunch of voice classes. I think I worked 16 hours a day for the seven days I was there.