Summer musical theater opportunities for kids and teens

It's never too soon to start thinking about summer musical theater opportunities. Below are some options in the Philadelphia region that I recommend to my students. Please note: There are many other programs around, but these are few that I recommend based on many factors, including: my knowledge of the programs, their instructors, or reputation; my students' experiences; or my own experience as an acting student.

Barley Sheaf Players (Lionville, PA)
Barley Sheaf is a community theater that produces a full season of shows during the year and runs two shows - one for teens, one for kids - during the summer. This year's teen show is Addams Family. Teens are strongly encouraged to attend the Teen Show Audition Workshop to help them prepare. The kids' show will be announced at a later date. Please note that Barley Sheaf's summer programs are practically free (participants pay a small fee of about $25), but acceptance is quite competitive.

West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts (West Chester, PA)
Director Therese Walden-Murphy has acted on Broadway and in L.A., and she is an excellent teacher of acting and musical theater. Sign up early, as sessions fill up quickly! 

West Chester Summer Stage (West Chester, PA) 
WCSS gives students the experience of performing in a high-quality musical theater production. (I have attend several excellent performances there.) However, my impression is that the program is quite large and doesn't offer a lot of individual attention to each student. Also, opportunities tend to go to kids who have been longtime participants.

Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia, PA)
As Philadelphia's center for professional musical theater productions, the Walnut offers excellent programs for kids, teens, and adults. Offerings range from beginning acting to advanced musical theater, with additional classes in storytelling, auditioning, and on-camera technique. Some classes may require auditions.

Upper Darby Summer Stage (Upper Darby, PA) 
UDSS has an wonderful reputation as a NY-style theater camp. (Tina Fey is a graduate.) Previous seasons have included six children’s theater shows and a mainstage production of a Broadway musical.

Vocal health: managing post-nasal drip

Post-nasal drip can be a singer's nightmare. I have recently sent several students to ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) doctors for allergies issues, which I suspected were causing vocal problems. In both cases, their throats were so swollen from post-nasal drip that their vocal cords couldn't fully close! Below are a few tips on combatting symptoms. 

Use a nasal rinse

Many singers use neti pots, but I recently discovered two options that I like even better:  

Each of these kits comes with squeeze bottle and small packets of salt mixed with soothing aloe. You dissolve the salt in warm distilled water, squirt it up one nostril, and it flows out the other. Repeat on the opposite side.

As with a neti pot, the saline rinse cleans out the nasal passages by loosening and removing debris, allergens, and mucus. However, unlike a neti pot, the bottles gently squirt a stream of solution into the nostril allowing it to pass through quickly. If you hate the feeling of salt water up your nose, you'll want to trade in your neti pot! These kits do the job better and get it done more quickly!

nasalcare81ybLjEZdRL._SL1500_.jpg

Use a nasal spray

Your physician may prescribe a steroid nasal spray like Flonase or Nasonex (prescription only) or Nasacort (over-the-counter). Steroid sprays work by reducing inflammation in the nose. They are safe for the vocal cords, as they are non-drying.

If you'd prefer a natural alternative, I like Pretz Nasal Spray. It will help thin out nasal mucus, although it will not flush out the nasal passages as well as a nasal rinse can. However, I consider it a good alternative for people who strongly dislike nasal rinses.

Avoid antihistamines

Antihistamines are generally considered a first line treatment for allergies, and they are used in many allergy pills and nasal sprays. (In sprays, they are sometimes combined with corticosteroids.) However, antihistamines are drying and can therefore pose problem for singers. (Dry vocal cords are particularly prone to injury.) For that reason, singers may be better off using steroid sprays or getting allergy shots. 

Seek treatment

If you are having vocal trouble and you think you may have allergies, seek advice from an ENT who can examine your vocal cords and see how allergies may be affecting them. (See my post on finding a voice doctor.)

Please do not assume that allergies will resolve on their own, and do not attempt to sing through them if they affect the quality of your sound. It may simply not be possible for you to improve your voice until your allergies are under control. If your throat or your vocal cords are swollen, you may end up straining to produce sound. These bad habits can be difficult to correct even after your voice is healthy. So get your allergies treated before bad habits set in!

Disclaimer: This blog post does not constitute medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or services. It simply provides general information for educational purposes only. This information is not a substitute for medical or professional care, and you should not consider it a substitute for a consultation with a physician or other healthcare provider.

Going pro: A guide for the parents of young actors

As a voice teacher in the Philadelphia region, I am lucky to have several young students who do professional work as singers and actors. New students and their parents often ask me about going pro. Here are some thoughts and resources to get you started. 

Vocal health: tips and resources for keeping your voice healthy

I recently had several students come to me who I suspected might have vocal nodules. With fall allergies on the rise and flu season around the corner, I thought now would be a good time to revisit some thoughts on keeping the voice healthy. 

vocal health tips

Drink plenty of water. Aim for 64 ounces (or eight 8-ounce glasses) daily. Caffeinated beverages do not count towards this total, but the following beverages do: juice; decaffeinated coffee, soda, and tea; herbal tea; and milk. 

Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. We tend to fall back on bad habits when we’re tired. Getting enough rest will keep your body energized so that it can properly support your voice. 

Practice nasal irrigation: use saline drops or a neti pot. This is especially important if you are prone to allergies or sinus infections. 

Avoid speaking over background noise. We easily learn to “tune out” background noise, but speaking over other sounds can fatigue the voice. Common examples of background noise include talking at parties or restaurants and traveling by car. 

Maintain proper humidity. If the humidity levels in your home or office fall below 40 percent, consider using a humidifier, especially at night. (It is important to use a humidifier that can easily be cleaned, as the bacteria build-up can make you sick.)

Practice healthy and efficient speaking habits.

Avoid clearing your throat. 

Get acid reflux treated. Stomach acid can literally burn the vocal cords. See a doctor if you experience reflux several times a week.

Rest your voice when it feels fatigued. Listen to your body. Warm up your voice before speaking extensively or before singing.

Avoid excessive use of Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Advil, Ibuprofin, Motrin, Anaprox, Naproxin, etc.) 

Practice relaxation techniques if you tend to experience physical tension. Examples include meditation, yoga, visualization, and hypnosis.

Keep your body strong and flexible and maintain optimal posture. There are many physical disciplines that can help: yoga, Pilates, tai chi, Alexander technique, dance, etc.)

Seek medical attention. See a doctor if you are experiencing vocal problems and are not otherwise ill. (Read more information on the reverse page.)

vocal health resources

when to see a voice doctor

Vocal problems can develop at any time, but they most often occur following an illness or after times of extended voice use. However, the voice generally recovers on its own within a week or two. See doctor if you are experiencing the following symptoms and are not otherwise ill:

• change in vocal quality, such as hoarsness, breathiness, vocal fatigue, loss of volume, or decreased vocal range (high or low)

• throat pain or discomfort

• recurring voice loss (full or partial)

finding a voice doctor

Look for a doctor with experience working with “professional voice users.” Other specialists - even ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors - may not fully understand voice use or vocal problems common to people who speak or sing frequently. If you’re looking for a voice doctor, or are curious about problems related to the voice, I highly recommend www.voiceproblem.org. 

voice doctors in the Philadelphia region

These two highly-experienced teams of ENTs and speech therapists specialize in treating professional voice users.

Joseph Spiegel Thomas Jefferson University
925 Chestnut Street, 6th floor Philadelphia, PA 19107 215-955-6760

Philadelphia Ear, Nose and Throat Associates
www.phillyent.com 219 N Broad St, 10th Fl Philadelphia PA 19107 215-762-5531

CHOP operates a world-class voice clinic for children. The staff is sensitive to the needs of children who perform at avocational and professional levels.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - Voice Clinic
www.chop.edu 215-590-1000 • 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard Philadelphia, PA 19104

This large group practice treats a broad range of ENT issues, including voice problems of children and adults. 

Ear, Nose and Throat Associates of Chester County
www.entacc.com 610-363-2532 • offices in Exton, Coatesville, West Chester, and Kennet Square

other professionals

A voice doctor may recommend that you work with a speech and language therapist (SLP) as part of your recovery. Like ENTs, SLPs often specialize in various areas of their field. You will want an SLP who specializes in voice. If you are a singer, you may need a singing (or voice) teacher. Look for someone who has experience with injured voices and who teaches the vocal style you wish to sing.

Download this handout as a PDF.

Disclaimer: This blog post does not constitute medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or services. It simply provides general information for educational purposes only. This information is not a substitute for medical or professional care, and you should not consider it a substitute for a consultation with a physician or other healthcare provider.

How to get background work in Philadelphia and NYC

Me as a background actor on the NBC pilot “Do No Harm” filmed in Philadelphia in March 2012.

Originally published Mon, Apr 16, 2012. Revised Mon, Dec 17, 2012 and Wed, Feb 22, 2017.

Several people have asked me lately for information on how to get background (“extra”) work in TV and film. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this out, so I’m happy to share what’s worked for me. Please keep in mind that these guidelines are drawn from my limited experience on three television sets (one in Philadelphia and two New York) and one commercial shoot in NYC. 

About Background Work

“Extras” are generally called background (or BG) actors. (You may also hear the term “atmosphere.”) The word “extra” seems to be used by the general population but not in the industry. BG actors are generally uncredited. They are often unidentifiable, as they are usually shown at a distance and out of focus. 

Casting Agencies and Sources

  • Casting Networks (www.castingnetworks.com): This is the place to go if you’re looking for BG work in NYC. Several large agencies (Central Casting, Grant Wilfley, Sylvia Fay/Lee Genick, Barbara McNamara) that hire a lot of BG actors list gigs here. I have gotten work on Pan Am and 30 Rock using the site, and I’ve been offered gigs that I had to turn down on Law and Order: SVU, The Good Wife, and the latest Batman movie. However, I have not seen much, if any, Philadelphia work listed here. The site is free to join, but it costs ($5/month) to submit yourself for gigs.
  • Heery Casting (www.heerycasting.com): As far as I know, Heery is the only Philadelphia-based agency that handles background casting. They sometimes hold open calls, but generally all you need to do is respond to listings found on their website or Facebook page. They are currently handling background casting for After Earth (an M. Night Shyamalan movie starring Will Smith) and Political Animals (a series starring Sigourney Weaver). I got a background gig through them on an NBC pilot, a hospital drama called Do No Harm.
  • Greater Philadelphia Film Office (www.film.org/Philadelphia/public/gpfo/whatsshooting): The Film Office provides listings of film shoots that will take place in the region. Their website is a great source of info on independent and student films, which are ideal projects for less-experienced actors. (Just don't expect pay.)

Casting Process

Agencies hire background actors through open calls or via email submissions. My impression is that agencies hold open calls about 6-8 weeks prior to a large production like a mainstream movie. For smaller scenes or TV shoots, they tend to rely on last-minute postings (on their own websites or on casting networks), and actors submit themselves via email. These gigs are generally posted online a few days prior to the shoot. 

Booking Process

BG work generally requires a flexible schedule with weekday availability and the ability to book shoots on a moment’s notice. However, really big shoots that require hundreds of extras (Batman, for example) often take place on the weekends. 

Any time I’ve received a call from a casting agency, they wanted an immediate answer about a shoot that would take place in the next few days. (I have had times when I saw a listing, submitted myself, the agency called me, and I reported to set all within 24 hours.) When you accept a gig, you generally know only the date, approximate location, and pay rate. Full details about a shoot are available after the previous day’s shoot has wrapped. If you accept a gig, be prepared to arrive early and stay on set the entire day. (I’ve had call times as early as 430 AM and wraps as late as 1130 PM.) If you’re doing several back-to-back days of shooting, plan to spend the night nearby. You might wrap late and be expected back on set before sunrise the next morning.

When you do finally get the details about the shoot, you should expect to receive the following information:

  • Address: This will take you to the background holding location (the place where background actors wait until they are called to set).
  • Call time (the time you arrive to check in at the holding location)
  • Wardrobe (the clothes you need to wear or bring): Background actors generally wear their own clothes unless it’s a period shoot or requires special attire (for example, a hospital scene in which nurses wear scrubs). The instructions might include details such as “upscale casual,” winter jackets/hats/gloves, business attire, etc. Actors are encouraged to bring a variety of options. (For example, if wardrobe calls for business attire, I might bring a pant suit, a skirt suit, plus a blouse, a sweater set and several pairs of shoes.) Also, period shows are likely to specify size limitations due to the small sizes of the costumes. (For example, women who wish to work on Pan Am need to have a waist size of 29 inches or less. If they wish to portray stewardesses, the limit is even lower, as the airline actually required the women to weigh 130 pounds or less.)

On Set

When you arrive on set, you check in at a table staffed by production assistants (or PAs). (Be nice to them. They work very hard and can make or break your day!) You show identification and fill out a voucher (tax and payment forms). You may need to change into your wardrobe or show your clothing options to the wardrobe department. You may also need to be checked by the hair and makeup department. Then you go back to the holding area and wait. Eventually, a PA will come in and choose a few people to take to set.

If you are chosen, you’ll be shown where to stand, where to walk, or what to do. You might be asked to mime conversation with another BG actor or be told to walk from points A to B. The cast and crew will rehearse the scene a few times. Once things are running smoothly, they will start filming. When your scene is finished, the PA will send or escort you back to holding. He or she will often then choose different BG actors for the next scene.

In my experience, PAs function as liaisons between the background actors and the people on set (director, assistant director, etc.). The director tells the PA what he/she needs for a scene (example, 3 nurses, a doctor, and some hospital patients), but it is the PA who chooses which specific background actors to bring to set. If a director wants to use a background actor as a stand-in or add a small speaking part, the PA will choose which actors to present to the director. (As I said earlier, be nice to the PAs!)

At the end of the day, the PA tells the background actors when they are finished working. This may happen in shifts (for example, union may be let go before or after non-union) or all at once.  

Rules

  • Arrive early.
  • Be prepared to wait. Bring reading materials, but leave expensive mobile devices at home. (You’ll need to leave your belongings in holding when you’re on set.)  
  • Be quiet. As a BG actor, you are expected to be seen (at a distance) and not heard. Don’t talk to stars or the director unless they speak to you.
  • Respect privacy. Don’t take pictures on set (except perhaps in holding), and don’t post information about the shoot on Facebook or Twitter until after it’s over. 
  • Don’t whine. You chose to do this. Appreciate it for what it is and make the most of the experience. 
  • Get advice. If you have a question or don’t understand what’s going on, talk to your fellow BG actors. Every set, every show, every union, and every city has its own culture. Experienced background actors will be in tune to the surroundings and are generally happy to guide newcomers. However, if they can’t help you, ask a PA. 

Pay and Other Rewards

Non-union background actors on a union shoot can expect to make around $80-$200 a day. (Non-union shoots will pay less or nothing at all.) Also, be careful about how you list BG work on your resume. Some people say BG work doesn’t belong on an acting resume at all. My impression is that it’s fine to list it, especially if that’s the only on-set experience you have. But don’t try to pass off BG work as more than it is. 

For me, one of the best rewards of background work is talking to the other BG actors. You’ll find that a lot of people who do BG work are highly accomplished actors, while others are just regular people looking for an exciting experience. You may not earn much money or attain eternal fame and glory, but you will get to hang out on a film or TV set, meet likeminded people, and earn major bragging rights among your friends!

Photos from the set of "Pan Am"

I promise that later I will provise more details about my two days (November 14 & 15, 2011) on the set of ABC’s new drama Pan Am. For now, photos will have to suffice.

The ninth episode (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”) was shot at an old mansion near Oyster Bay on Long Island, NY. The episode is scheduled to air on Sunday, December 4, 2011, 10/9c. They included me in a bunch of scenes, but the most prominent one involves the characters Laura and Ted and a fire alarm in a London hotel. Look for me in a bath robe with a blue scarf around my head! 

We arrived on location at about 5:15 AM, received instructions, and ate a delicious breakfast. Around 7:00 AM, the hair stylist put my hair in rollers; when she took them out, she teased my hair to give it some ’60s pouf. However, my first scene was shot around 1 PM and the curl didn’t hold that long. So the stylist restyled my hair into a beehive!

On set, the hair stylist noticed that my poufy hair had fallen, so she restyled it into a beehive. It took so long that I missed the first scene involving extras.

 

I wore my own jewelry - a vintage Monet necklace and vintage gold-tone earrings - with approval from the wardrobe department.

I never knew my hair could stay up like this, but I now realize that hairspray makes anything possible!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tweed shift dress and jacket, the purse, and the gloves were provided by the production company. I wore my own shoes and jewelry

Guidelines for voice work

Teaching has taught me a lot about the average person’s conception of vocal training. Beginning students expect a teacher to talk about breathing, tone, and projection. Yet many of them - even those who have had vocal training before - are surprised by certain aspects of my classes.

They don’t expect me to ask questions about their health, talk about relaxation, inquire about their earliest vocal memories, or assign yoga exercises. Many are surprised that they feel uncomfortable talking about or exploring their voices. Others only want a few simple tips they can use on their own to suddenly bring their vocal skills from an amateur to a professional level.

As I have learned more about the expectations of my students, I have slowly developed some guidelines for beginners.

Guidelines for Voice Work

  • The voice is deeply personal. Along with our physical appearance, our voice is one of the primary ways in which we express ourselves to the world. Our voices reflect our upbringing, social influences, and self-image.
  • Voice work involves releasing tension and engaging the breath. Most voice problems are caused when some muscles are too tense and others are not working hard enough. Voice training can help you retrain your muscles, relaxing some and engaging others.
  • Voice work takes time. Be patient with yourself, and do not expect a quick fix. Poor vocal habits may take years to develop, and they will not disappear overnight.
  • Voice work involves replacing habit with choice. This requires 1) knowledge 2) attention 3) change and 4) repetition.
  • Voice work requires regular practice. You will get the most out of vocal training if you practice regularly. It is more effective to practice for 10-20 minutes several times a day than to practice for one hour once a week.

Download my Guidelines for Voice Work as a PDF.

Top 10 ways to begin your vocal warm up - without making a sound!

Sometimes the best vocal warm-ups don’t even involve the vocal cords. Here are my favorite ways to kick-start a practice session without waking the neighbors.

 

  1. Eat breakfast - Breakfast is a great way for morning practicers (like myself) to get started. The actions of chewing and swallowing warm up the face, jaw, and tongue muscles and trigger the salivary glands that moisten the throat. Here are some great breakfast ideas from Zen Habits, one of my favorite blogs.
  2. Take a shower - There’s nothing like warm water to open the sinuses, relax the body and mind, and prep your muscles for action. I recommend showers over baths since showers tend to steam up the bathroom (and hydrate the vocal cords) more quickly.
  3. Drink water - Most singers already know how essential proper hydration is, but just the act of swallowing is beneficial, too.
  4. Drink hot tea - For allergy sufferers like me, tea can help to wash down phlegm and clear the nasal passages. Other hot drinks will also work, but watch out for too much caffeine - it can dry the vocal cords. Besides, tea has additional health benefits (it’s loaded with antioxidants) and half the caffeine (or less) of coffee.
  5. Yawn - Yawning is the ultimate throat and palette stretch!
  6. Stretch - Singing involves the whole body, and unnecessary tension anywhere can have a negative effect on the voice. I find that a good side stretch helps open up the ribcage and free up my breath.
  7. Exercise - Yoga is my favorite because it combines stretching and breathing, but opera star Renee Fleming swears by Pilates and Thomas Hampson uses weights to tone his core support muscles.
  8. Meditate - Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing the mind, usually by observing the breath and disengaging from thoughts. It’s a great way to calm anxious nerves and tame self-criticism.
  9. Make faces - Like yawning, making funny faces is a great stretch for the face and jaw, as well as a wonderful way to practice improvisation. For inspiration, visit my post on “gurning” and watch a video of a face-making competition!
  10. Practice in your head - Studies have shown that mental practice can be as effective as an actual practice session. So go ahead …

Give yourself a head start on your warm-up without making a sound. You might discover something new - and your neighbors will thank you!

Photo: mikeautry1

Taking voice problems seriously

US News & World Report recently published an article on common causes of hoarseness. They include:

  • a cold
  • allergies
  • acid reflux (which, by the way, can actually burn the vocal cords!)
  • cancer of the larynx, thyroid, or lungs

The article gives five tips for dealing with a hoarse voice:

  • Talk to your doctor about getting a larygeal exam.
  • Protect your voice by drinking enough water, avoiding smoke, and not clearing your throat, coughing, shouting or yelling. 
  • Avoid decongestants, which can dry out the vocal cords.
  • Remember that the degree of hoarseness doesn’t correlate with the seriousness of the problem.  Don’t assume a really hoarse voice indicates cancer or that a little hoarseness isn’t an issue. 
  • Get voice training. If your speaking voice fatigues easily, you may be unintentionally misusing it. Just a few sessions with a speech and language pathologist can teach you how to use your voice more effectively. And your health insurance may pick up the bill. If you fatigue quickly while singing, look for a voice teacher with experience in working with injured voices.

Read the US News article here!

Finally, keep in mind that issues that affect the speaking voice often show up more dramatically when we sing. Even if you’re a casual singer, look for a doctor with experience in dealing with “professional voice users.” Any other specialist probably won’t understand the singing process and how problems that seem minor to a speaker can really hinder a singer. Read this previous post on how to find a qualified voice doctor.

My laryngoscopy (updated)

I recently completed a major rite of passage as a singer: I had my very first laryngoscopy (March 2009). In case that sounds like Greek to you (which, actually, it is) a laryngoscopy is an examination of the interior of the larynx. It allows a doctor - and the patient - to see the vocal cords in action. I went to the doctor because I was seeking answers to vocal problems that began when I was a high school senior:

  • vocal fatigue
  • difficulty projecting the voice
  • breathiness
  • sensations of tightness in the throat
  • loss of upper range
  • Increased warm-up time
  • increased vocal effort
  • occasional choking on liquids

This is the video monitor where I was able to view my vocal cords in action.

The process was less uncomfortable than I had expected and every bit as fascinating as I had hoped. The office I visited - Philadelphia Ear, Nose and Throat Associates - has a reputation for restoring damaged voices. The practice has two locations: one in an old brownstone (whose walls are lined with autographed photos of famous singers) and the other in a generic looking medical building.

My appointment was in the generic medical building. I remembered to bring my “homework” - a 10-page questionnaire about my medical and vocal history. A medical assistant met with me to go over the history and ask additional questions. He even wrote down my vocal range - in musical notation! The doctor met with me and asked more questions, then sent the assistant back to do the actual procedure.

The vocal exam

They sprayed some kind of numbing medicine up my nose. Then the assistant inserted a long, black tube with a strobe light on the end into my left nostril. It hurt a bit going in, but once it was there it wasn’t that bad. He had me sing a series of exercises, plus “Happy Birthday” and a few lines from an aria I’ve been working on.

Then he removed the tube and had me stick out my tongue. He held my tongue and put a telescope tube into my mouth. (This allows for a closer view of the vocal cords.) He had me say “eeeeeeee” - not an easy or comfortable task when someone is literally holding your tongue!

I couldn’t see the video screen during the exam - probably so the sight of my vocal cords wouldn’t distract me. When it was over, the doctor came in to review the video footage with me. It was amazing to watch my vocal cords in action. The pictures look incredibly clinical, and yet for me there’s so much emotion associated with my voice. I’ve invested so much time, energy, hope, and money in those tiny bands of tissue, but I’d never actually seen them before. I almost felt like a mother viewing a sonogram of her unborn child.

My vocal cords: the left cord is slow to meet up with the right, due to a slightly weakened superior laryngeal nerve.

Diagnosis

So what did we see? The right vocal cord looks fine (it’s active and moves quickly), but the left one is slow. It moves, and it even meets the right cord, but it’s sluggish. As my voice teacher suspected, I probably have paresis (partial paralysis) of my left vocal cord.

The next step is to have a laryngeal electromyography (LEMG), a medical procedure that will measure the nerve input to the muscles that control the vocal cords. The results will tell the doctor which nerves - there are two, the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) and the superior laryngeal nerve (SLN) - may have been damaged and to what degree. At that point, my doctor will be able to give a more complete diagnosis.

The treatment will most likely involve more of what I’ve already been doing - voice therapy (my voice teacher specializes in vocal rehab) along with yoga and other relaxation techniques. (People with vocal weakness often develop a lot of unhelpful laryngeal tension to compensate for the muscles that aren’t working properly.)

For now, I feel relieved to have some answers and grateful to have found a doctor who takes my voice as seriously as I do.

UPDATE: I had my laryngeal electromyography (LEMG) in June 2009. The doctor told me that my recurrent laryngeal nerve is fine, but that the superior laryngeal nerve (SLN) has only 80% function. (I guess that explains why I lost an octave off the top of my vocal range.) The results were not surprising, and I am lucky to have made wonderful progress with voice therapy. 

There's no way to know what weakened my SLN, but viruses are a common culprit, and my vocal symptoms began after I got the flu several times during my senior year of high school. Additionally, I strongly suspect that I am genetically prone to these issues. My father, who is not a singer, does a fair amount of public speaking and has similar issues with his speaking voice.

What it takes to teach voice

Scott Barnes in conversation with singers Elizabeth Batton, Krysty Swann, and Dolora Zajick (Photo: © Dario Acosta 2007)I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to be a great voice teacher, so I was excited to see that the latest issue of Opera News focuses on education. It includes a great piece by vocal coach and frequent Opera News contributor Scott Barnes. Here’s my favorite quote from the article.

Ultimately, the path to being a good singing teacher is not so different from the one that leads to being a good psychotherapist – empathy, an avid interest in process as well as product, the flexibility to adjust vocabulary in order to achieve understanding, technical as well as instinctive knowledge, and driving curiosity.

–Scott Barnes, Opera News, July 2009

Learning to sing: How to find a voice teacher

I wrote in my previous post that finding the right voice teacher is the most important decision an aspiring singer can make. I included some ideas on what to look for in a teacher. But how do you go about finding that person? Here are a few ideas.

  • Ask singers you admire: Not all teachers advertise their studios, so word of mouth is probably the best way to find a voice teacher. If you go to a concert or club where a local singer performs, ask if the singer gives lessons. If not, maybe the singer can recommend a friend who teaches or even put you in contact with her or his own teacher.
  • Ask a musician: These people can probably recommend someone: your school choir/band/orchestra director or music teacher, the music director or cantor at your church or place of worship, your piano teacher, or your friend’s piano teacher.
  • Find a community music school: There are thousands of community arts schools (nonprofit, non-degree granting, community-based institutions) in the United States. Many of their teachers are experienced performers with multiple degrees and years of teaching experience. Prices are often on the low end. Find a school near you at www.nationalguild.org.
  • Contact your local college or university: Many professors supplement their salaries by giving private lessons. You can also inquire whether any advanced students teach voice. (If cost is a concern, keep in mind that students will certainly charge less their professors do.) Ask for a graduate student, an advanced undergrad, or someone who has taken classes in vocal pedagogy or music education. (“Vocal pedagogy” means the study of teaching singing.) The downside to studying with a college student is that he or she could leave the area after graduation.
  • Ask friends and family: You never know who’s taken singing lessons until you ask.
  • Check Craigslist: Teachers who need to fill spots in their studios often post on Craigslist. You might not find much information on the teacher’s experience, but you can always ask questions by phone or email.
  • Call your local music store: Many stores offer lessons onsite. Others keep a list of area music teachers on hand.
  • Visit www.nats.org: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) has strict requirements for its members. Teachers need to have a college degree or equivalent experience and must abide by a Code of Ethics. The NATS website allows you to search for members in your state or hometown.
  • Visit www.classicalsinger.com: Classical Singer magazine is a great source for anyone who wants to sing classical music or opera. You can search the site for a teacher in your area.
  • Visit www.mtna.org: The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a professional organization for music teachers who are employed by a school or who teach privately. You can find members at www.mtna.org. Keep in mind, though, that MTNA doesn’t screen its members. However, teachers can choose to go through the group’s thorough certification process.
  • Visit other websites. Two popular websites list music teachers: www.musicstaff.com and www.privatelessons.com. In my experience, however, there aren’t many voice teachers on the sites, and those that are listed seem somewhat underqualified.
  • Ask a voice doctor: This may seem like an odd source, but laryngologists (voice doctors) often work closely with voice teachers to help singers who’ve had vocal trouble. A teacher with experience in vocal rehabilitation is a great choice if you suspect something might be wrong with your vocal cords. See my previous post on finding a voice doctor.

Good luck in your search for a voice teacher! And remember - always ask about a teacher’s credentials before you sign up for lessons!

Learning to sing: What to look for in a voice teacher

This is part two in my “Learning to Sing” series.

Finding the right voice teacher is the most important choice an aspiring singer can make. Your teacher will guide you through the process of exploring, developing, and training your voice. The right teacher will help you grow in a nurturing yet challenging environment. The wrong teacher can harm your self-esteem, dash your hopes (or inflate them with false promises) and even damage your vocal cords!

Some fields have formal training or evaluation processes to determine whether a person is qualified to practice that profession. Singing does not. That means anyone can call herself a voice teacher as long as someone is willing to pay her for lessons. It’s up to you – the student – to decide whether a teacher has what it takes to teach you.

So what should you look for in a voice teacher?

  • Training – This is usually the first thing people look at when evaluating a voice teacher. You’ll want to know that your teacher has received thorough training in areas such as music theory, music history, vocal literature (songs, opera, musicals, etc.), languages (if you want to sing classical/opera), and vocal technique. Look for a B.A. or B.M. in music or vocal performance. Many teachers will have master’s degrees in voice or music education and may also have certification in some form of bodywork (usually yoga, Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais method, or Fitzmaurice Voicework). While training is essential, keep in mind that degrees from top schools don’t automatically make someone a great teacher. The best singers and teachers learn from a combination of formal education, private study, personal experience, professional development, and trial and error.
  • Performing experience – Many teachers are also active performers. Others have given up performing to focus on teaching. Both types can be excellent teachers. Singers stop performing for a number of reasons: finances, health, family, lifestyle, etc. Often a singer will discover that his or her personality is better suited to the teaching studio than to the stage. Ideally, a teacher will have at least some performing experience. As with degrees, however, keep in mind that performing credentials alone don’t guarantee great teaching. An opera singer with international performing credits may be better at communicating with a large audience than describing vocal concepts to a beginning singer.
  • Teaching success – The number one question you’ll want to ask about a potential teacher is whether that person’s students are successful. Do the teacher’s students win competitions, get accepted into good music schools, have performing careers, or become respected teachers? Whatever your immediate goals are as a singer, make sure your teacher has helped other singers achieve similar success.
  • Singing style – Before you commit to a teacher, find out if he or she teaches the singing style you want to learn. If you want to sing pop, don’t study with someone who only teaches opera singers. If your dream is to sing on Broadway, find someone whose students are successful in musical theater. Some teachers successfully teach a wide variety of singing styles. (I know of a voice teacher in NYC who has famous students in pop, musical theater, and opera.) Others prefer to specialize in one style. Be sure to ask about a teacher’s experience with the style you love best. Or, if you’re not sure what style you prefer, find a teacher who’s comfortable with multiple styles.
  • Specialties – Many teachers end up specializing in one or more areas, while others prefer to teach a variety of students and voice types. For example, some teachers prefer beginning students and others only teach professionals. Voice teachers with training in speech or voice pathology may work exclusively with singers who have a history of vocal trouble. Some teachers may even choose to only teach students of their gender or voice type. Singers also have similar preferences. Some sopranos, for example, only want to study with other sopranos.
  • Personality – Maybe personality isn’t essential for everyone. (I suppose if you’re open minded, you can learn from anyone.) But I find it much easier to trust, connect with, and learn from someone I like, admire, and want to please. I’ve had several teachers who I never really connected with personally, and I didn’t make great progress with them. Several times, I’ve declined to study with successful teachers I didn’t connect with.

As you search for a voice teacher, here are some thoughts on several types of teachers to avoid:

  • Anyone who makes unrealistic promises. “Become a star in 6 weeks!” “Sing like a pro in one month!” “Guaranteed to increase your vocal range!” An honest teacher will tell you that learning to sing takes time. And no one can make promises about your voice without hearing you first. If it sounds too good to be true, it is!
  • Anyone who only teaches online. Online lessons are fine in some circumstances, but I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner – or for the beginning of a new singer/teacher relationship. Some might call me old-fashioned, but it’s essential that your teacher see you sing and hear your voice without distortion. Plus, you’ll get to know each other better and establish a stronger rapport by meeting in person.
  • Anyone who’s all about the money. Watch out for teachers who are overly keen on selling you their products (singing books, CDs, DVDs, pricey seminars, etc.). Everyone needs to make a living, but a committed teacher will put your interests ahead of merchandise sales.

A few years ago, a friend suggested that I consider studying with a well-known opera singer. This singer had sung major roles all over the world, he took students at my level, he found performance opportunities for many of his students, and several of his protégés were embarking on successful careers. His students spoke highly of him, and encouraged me to join his studio. I spoke to him on the phone, met him in person, and went to a master class he taught. I decided that he would have a lot to offer me. There was only one problem: I just didn’t like him.

As much as I respected his experience as a singer and his commitment to teaching, there were other things about him that turned me off: his loud humor, his disorganized manner, his rambling anecdotes, and his rather forceful personality. I felt that my quieter demeanor would be overwhelmed by this man’s larger-than-life persona. I decided to keep looking for a teacher, and I eventually found just the right person.

In your search for a teacher, remember to listen to your instincts. Never let anyone (or their impressive credentials) pressure you into studying with someone who doesn’t feel right for you. If you begin studies with a teacher and decide the relationship isn’t working, don’t be shy about ending it. It’s your money, your time, and your voice!

Learning to sing: Why you need a voice teacher

A lot of people come to my blog looking for information on how to sing. So far, my posts have focused more on my journey as a singer or on tips for people who are already singers or students of singing. Look for that focus to change somewhat in the coming months.

“Learning to Sing” series

I’ve written before that one of my goals is to eventually teach singing. I’ve taught voice lessons before (though not recently), so it seems like a natural topic to writing about here. After all, this is a site about finding the singing voice - not having it, not showing it off, not becoming famous for it. It’s a site about the process of improving as a singer. So why not start at the very beginning?

Why you need a voice teacher

I’ll give specific singing tips in later posts. For now, you should know that the best way to learn to sing is with a teacher. Yes, you can pick up some knowledge online, watch American Idol, listen to recordings, and sing along to your favorite songs. But here are a few reasons why you should consider finding a teacher if you’re serious about singing.

  • A voice teacher can hear things you can’t. It’s tempting to think that nobody knows your voice as well as you do, but it’s actually not true. Your vocal cords are located in your throat, and the sounds they make resonate in your throat, mouth, head, and chest. Your body is a musical instrument, and your ears are attached to it. That means they can’t possibly hear your voice like others do. They’re too close! Singers have to learn the sensations of good singing and rely on the expert ears of a teacher.
  • A voice teacher can see you sing. No, a teacher can’t see your vocal cords, but he or she can see a lot of your vocal instrument: your face, jaw, tongue, neck, ribcage, and abdomen. Good posture is essential for singing. A teacher can also spot signs of physical tension that can affect your sound. Another common problem teachers catch are distracting movements or “tics” like rocking back and forth while singing, clenching your hands, or standing on your toes for high notes.
  • A voice teacher can guide your learning process. You could read a thousand books on singing and never improve as a singer, but a teacher can guide you in a way that knowledge can’t. A teacher, a book, or a DVD can all tell you how to breathe, but only a teacher can tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Also, a teacher will tailor lessons to your specific needs. Is your breathing fine, but your neck is tense? Do you have a huge vocal range, but places where the voice breaks? A wise teacher will determine what you need to work on and in what order and will match his or her teaching to your learning style.
  • A voice teacher can help you work towards your goals. Do you want to join a choir, audition for a musical, become a pop star, or sing opera? Or maybe you just like singing and want to improve your voice. Whatever your goals are, a teacher can help you move in the right direction. He or she can also give you feedback on whether your goals are realistic. If they aren’t, your teacher can help you set new goals that are within your reach.
  • A voice teacher can open up a whole new world! A lot of people start singing lessons without knowing quite what to expect. Singing seems simple enough, but it connects so many other areas. The best singers and teachers draw on knowledge from so many fields besides music: anatomy, bodywork (like yoga), health, psychology, speech and language, history, poetry, acting, theater, etc. You might get into singing for one reason, only to discover a new passion.

Have a question about singing? Send me an email.

Look for more posts in the “Learning to Sing” series on topics such as:

Saint Francis de Sales: "Do not lose courage."

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them - every day begin the task anew.

—Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Roman Catholic saint

 

I find it all too easy to lose courage as a singer. I’m naturally impatient, and as a singer with vocal weakness progress for me is especially slow. I constantly have to remind myself that as long as I’m working, I will improve.

This sounds cliched, but it’s true. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Living in the moment, not regretting the past or obsessing about the future.

How to find a voice doctor

My journey as a singer with vocal problems has been emotionally (and vocally) exhausting. One of the many lessons I’ve learned is the importance of seeking out qualified specialists.


Finding a voice doctor

It’s not that I didn’t try. But for years the doctors and voice teachers I went to never recognized what was going on. I realize now that most doctors (even ENTs) don’t have the experience it takes to treat singers. This may seem ignorant to anyone who has spent years training the voice, but think about it this way. ENTs treat disorders of the ears, nose, head, neck, and throat. Many choose one or more specializations like:

  • pediatric otolaryngology (children)
  • otology/neurotology (ears, balance, and tinnitus)
  • allergy
  • facial plastic and reconstructive surgery
  • head and neck
  • rhinology (nose)
  • sleep
  • laryngology (throat)

Even laryngologists may choose specialties, such as swallowing disorders or throat cancer, that focus on more than the voice. Singers will want to find a doctor who specializes in treating professional voice users. He or she will understand, for example, that a little breathiness can be a big deal. Or that losing the very top of your vocal range (notes most people don’t know the human voice is capable of) is a tragedy. Or that vocal fatigue can be an occupational hazard.

If you’re shopping for a voice doctor, or if you’re just curious about the voice, I highly recommend www.VoiceProblem.org.


Finding a teacher who rehabilitates voices

It’s understandable that not all doctors are sensitive to the needs of singers, but surely voice teachers should be able to recognize vocal problems, right? Yes … in an ideal world. But the reality is that most voice teachers have little to no experience with vocal disorders. They are typically trained first as singers, and may or may not receive training in vocal pedagogy (the art of teaching singing), much less vocal pathology (disorders of the voice) or vocal rehabilitation.

Today I feel very lucky to have found an excellent teacher who specializes in rehabilitating damaged voices. If you suspect you’ve had vocal damage, look for a teacher who has similar experience. Wondering where to start? Call up the nearest ENT who specializes in treating professional voice users.

Photo: bcostin

Why every singer should get a voice exam

I recently made my very first appointment with an otolaryngologist (also known as an ear-nose-throat doctor, or ENT), and it’s something I think every singer should do.

Even if you aren’t sick or aren’t experiencing vocal problems, having your vocal cords examined is still a good idea. Here’s why:

1) It gives you a baseline from which to measure any future vocal health problems. Identifying the source of vocal problems can be a long and circuitous process. It can only help to know what your vocal cords look like and how they function when your voice sounds healthy.

2) It could identify issues you aren’t aware of. Just because you’re not aware of having vocal problems doesn’t mean you don’t have them. Acid reflux can burn the vocal cords, even without noticeable symptoms.

3) It could identify causes for problems you thought had a different source. So many things affect the voice: lifestyle, weather, allergies, medications, hormonal fluctuations, food, exercise (or lack of it), almost any illness, and – of course – a person’s vocal technique. For years, I – and the voice teachers I worked with – thought I simply had poor technique. But my current teacher, who is a specialist in vocal rehabilitation, suspects that the problems were caused paresis (partial paralysis) of the vocal cords due to a virus. If something seems off, consult a specialist right away.

Not sure where to find a voice doctor? Look for my next post, or visit www.VocalProblem.org.


RESOURCES

www.VocalProblem.org - You can’t trust everything you read on the web, but this site is a trustworthy resource by top vocal physicians. The guide to finding a vocal physician is especially helpful. (The site is run on a volunteer basis and is sometimes unavailable. If you experience problems, check back later. It’s worth the wait.)

www.ENT.org - This is an excellent resource for anyone looking for more information on what to expect when visiting an ENT. The site includes detailed fact sheets about a variety of vocal disorders.

British Voice Association - Singers in the UK will find information on finding a UK voice clinic. Singers everywhere can read the BVA’s voice care tips and browse the article archive.

National Center for Voice and Speech - NCVS’s website is a wonderful place to begin exploring the science behind vocal technique. Check out the list of 200 commonly prescribed medications and how they affect the voice.

GET A FREE VOICE EXAM!

In honor of World Voice Day, the Voice and Swallowing Institute of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary is offering free voice screenings for professional singers. A full voice work-up can run over $1,000, so this is an incredible offer. Call 212-245-7840 or inquire by email.