Teaching the World to Sing

Vocal coaches help superstars scale new heights.

by Jillian Bailey


They are the unsung heroes of singing, the wizards behind the stage curtain. Drowned out by the same voices they’ve helped create, the top vocal teachers in the biz survive by their media silence, because they know the only praises sung should be for their famous students.

Nonetheless, almost every singer form every genre of music has used vocal coaches. Some vocalists may just need a quick tune up, but scores of overhauls have been performed on prominent vocalists whose careers were made or saved by their teachers.

“Most every artist we hear on CD or onstage seems wonderful. They appear whole,” says Lis Lewis, whose own client list has included No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani and Michel’le. “They’re creating a myth that doesn’t have to do with what their own particular little vocal problems are.”

And problems they do have. Even the strongest voice can turn into an artist’s worst enemy at the most inopportune moments, giving out mid-tour or missing pitches just as the recording session starts.

For many artists, particularly alternative types who pride themselves on their untrained styles and who fear lessons would squelch their individuality, submitting to a vocal teacher can be a bitter but necessary pill to swallow, says Lewis. “If you have a career, and you’re touring the world – and you have the tour manager, the band, the promoter of the club, the road crew and everybody making their living off your singing or shouting or whatever – and you can’t do it, you’ve got to do something,” she says.

What they do is go see Lewis or one of the many other vocal teachers whose mission is to help artists create a voice they can rely on. “I’m like a piano builder; you come to me, and I build all 88 keys of the piano. How we play the piano is a different issue,” says vocal teacher Roger Love.

At 40, Love has already dedicated more than half his life to helping everyone from the Beach Boys to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins build and tune their own custom instruments.

His rate matches his experience and reputation ranging from $175 an hour in his office to a day rate of $1,500 to $2,000 if he comes to you.

A platinum-certified vocal producer, Love’s name is in heavy rotation in producers’ and managers’ Rolodexes on both coasts, so the distress call he received from Mercury Records’ senior vice president of A&R Steve Greenberg last year was no surprise. It seems Mercury had a new trio of young brothers cutting their debut album, but boys being boys, the middle one’s voice began to change halfway into recording what was to be the first single.

That squeaky singer was Taylor Hanson, the megahit, “MMMbop.” “They didn’t want to re-record ‘MMMbop’, because the record company believed that the success of Hanson was in [Taylor] sounding like this high boy soprano,” says Love. “But guess what?” He didn’t sound like a boy soprano anymore.”

Love could not reverse the effects of puberty, but he could help Taylor Hanson bridge the gap in his vocals by teaching him the singing technique that has made Love’s studio famous for the “middle voice”. Love explains that the middle voice is a mixture of the low “chest” voice and the high “head” voice that can help the 14-year old (or any other singer) overcome that disconcerting but common break that occurs while moving up or down the vocal range. “The singers who can do that become huge stars,” he says, pointing to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion as two who have mastered the middle. While admittedly unable to get Taylor into that league during just one session at the recording studio, Love says, “That night, he was able to completely finish all of the rest of the song, “MMMbop’. It worked so well that they hired me to vocal-produce the whole album.

Vocal teacher Gloria Bennett sings another tune entirely, teaching what she calls “basic technique”, which holds that the voice is a wind instrument controlled by air being pressed up from the diaphragm, vibrating against the vocal chords and resonating in the sinuses.

With snow-white hair and a classical background, Bennett seems an unlikely mentor for rockers like Motley Crue’s Vince Neil, but she has managed to translate the training she received at the knee of Metropolitan Opera soprano Queen Mario, including the Italian Marchesi studies for direction and solfeggi exercises for pitch, into a method she says works for all genres.

“I’m an opera singer. If I would give them a style, they would be singing opera, but notice my studio is filled with rock and rollers and all kinds of styles,” she says, pointing to the photographs of students Dexter Holland of Offspring and blues singer Kep’Mo’ that decorate her home studio walls. “What they learn is basic control so that they’re vocally free to sing any style they wish,” she says.

While she charges far less than Love (her students typically pay $40 per half-hour lesson in her home studio, and she also teaches nominal-fee night classes at UCLA), in some cases, that small investment has turned a handsome profit. Behind her baby grand piano hangs the platinum record Axl Rose presented her for Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction.

“Axl had a beautiful voice when he came to me,” remembers Bennett fondly. “He had gone to another teacher who teaches screaming. He took one lesson with her, and she had him open up the window and scream obscene language. He went back to Geffen and said, ‘Get me a singing teacher’, and they called me.” After that recording session, however, Bennett says Rose defected to another unnamed teacher charging upwards of $200 an hour. “His voice has never been the same,” she says.

But having a beautiful voice, according to Lewis, isn’t the most important element of being a great singer. Lewis also drills her students in attitude assignments, asking them to describe the qualities of singers they admire and apply the same scrutiny to themselves. In other instances, she’ll work with artists on lyrical content, instrumentation and even clothing choices, to help ensure the client’s true emotions come through the song. “You have to take those attributes, bring them out and make them something that people are going to say, “That’s just how I feel,” she says.

Another approach comes from Warren Barigian, who rescued Meat Loaf’s voice when Pavarotti’s voice coach, psychiatrists and even hypnotists had failed to restore it. Barigian’s Vocal Bio Matrix is an unconventional methos that, according to Barigian, unifies brain function and frees psychopomatic blockages that keep the “real voice” from coming through. Rather than formal artistic instruction, Barigian’s intuitive, hands-on bodywork type of technique, explained in detail at www.realvoice.com, has worked for singers like Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler and Jackson Browne.

Whatever their differences, these vocal coaches agree that the voice is a deeply personal instrument. Their advice: choose carefully when selecting a voice teacher. Avoid a chronically hoarse teacher, says Bennett. Ask prospective coaches to sing from the bottom of their range to the top and listen for breaks, recommends Love. Look for spontaneity and inspirational quality in their approach Barigian advises. But above all, says Lewis, find someone who believes in you and your voice. “That’s so important, because you have to trust them with it,” she says.

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