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.

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.

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!

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.

Yoga for your face

So I’ve taken my love for yoga (which I’ve blogged about before) to a new level. My inspiration is a book I got for Chrstimas: The Yoga Face: Eliminate Wrinkles with the Ultimate Natural Facelift by Annelise Hagen. Of course, I didn’t get it to zap wrinkles, but to warm up my face for singing.

The author is a yoga instructor and teaches a class called Yoga Face at the New York Health and Raquet Club. See her class in action on this video clip from NBC Today. Her book is full of specific exercises for toning and relaxing the facial muscles. Many of them teach you how to isolate tiny muscles that we don’t usually activate alone, a skill singers can use for refining vocal technique and for building a wider range of facial expressions.

One of the things that sets this book apart is that it’s not entirely focused on the face. Unlike a lot of similar works, Yoga Face also includes basic exercises that are generally relaxing, including a lot of inverted poses and poses that free up the breath. This is ideal for singers, who can turn to it to warm up body, mind, and breath. Plus, the emphasis on basic postures makes the book accessible to beginners and advanced yogis alike.

If you’re interested in facial exercises, here’s a list of additional resources, including books, website, and YouTube clips.

A guide to "Creating a Successful Career in Music"

In music and in the movies, we’re often more aware of the glamorous lives of the biggest stars than of the hard work it took them to get there. And we may know next to nothing about the career of the musician who plays in a small town symphony or the actor who performs at a local dinner theater.

For anyone who wants to know more about the many variations of musical careers, I highly recommend Angela Myles Beeching’s book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.

I have never encountered a more thorough or realistic book on creating a musical career.  Ms. Beeching covers everything, from how to get an agent to how to create your own performing opportunities to what to wear for an audition.  Her advice includes tips on marketing, finances, fundraising, and time management.

My favorite aspect of the book, however, is its emphasis on a varied, even shifting, idea of success.  Many of us establish career dreams early on, like playing in a major orchestra, singing at the Met, or making a professional recording; but everyone encounters rejection at some point. 

Ms. Beeching cautions wisely that each musician must define - and constantly refine - his or her own vision of success.