Insider Training

Get insight into the music business from the perspective of a pro vocal coach
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I had no intentions whatsoever of becoming a vocal coach/producer. Most of my life had been spent pursuing my own artist career, and that was what I believed my path to be. About 20 years ago, I was approached by a guy who ran a rock ‘n’ roll guitar school and asked if I could help one of his students who was struggling vocally. I thought I probably could, so I took on the task. At that time, nobody was really catering to the needs of rock or urban vocalists, so I became the go-to girl for that. And 20 years later, here we are!

You have worked with seasoned vocalists such as Usher, but even the pros need work. You call yourself a “personal trainer for today's greatest vocal athletes.” How do you get them in shape?

It all depends on what they need. That's the real skill of being what I would consider a great personal trainer. All singers are not the same, and while certain basic principles might apply to everyone, the fine-tuning is what separates the great from the good. My job is to constantly evaluate and critique where artists are functioning, where they want to be functioning and how to get them there. I have to meet people where they are and be the bridge that gets them where they want to be.

For example, obviously Usher was already a good singer and a vocal artist with a thumbprint of his own. However, where most singers fall short is on technique. On the album 8701, Usher performed many great riffs and runs, but if you break them down, not all of them were accurate — fast perhaps, but not correct. In helping him to understand some basic theory, he gained an understanding of the accurate notes that belonged in particular scale beds that accompanied the keys he was singing in. If you listen to the difference it made on his album Confessions, I think you'll get the idea.

After years of teaching 50 voice students a week, what have you learned is most important in developing a singer, as well as an artist's career?

Developing an artist is about making someone the best they can be at what they do. Singing is a physiological function really, and helping people to understand that is a huge part of helping them to learn how to have control of that function. The whole artist development and marketing thing is a totally different ball game, and it's about business. Most artists don't know anything about business, which is why so many of them are not successful in that sense. In the end, we all wanna say it's about the music and the art — which it really is — but if commerce weren't attached to it, not so many people would be clamoring to be part of it. Artists need to learn how to cover their assets and understand the business that makes successful careers have staying power.

When labels hire you to work with an artist, what are their goals? And what kinds of problems arise in the process?

Labels have finally gotten to the point where they realize that if the artist's voice goes down, the whole show stops. They're putting an awful lot of expectation and demand on those two little strips of fiber that sit in someone's neck. Enter the voice consultant. Labels have at least begun to understand that we are the folks who help their artists persevere under the demands of the lifestyle of being a touring artist. They basically expect me to be a miracle worker, which I am not, but I do deliver results and can do so under fire. You have to — it's the nature of the beast.

With your production partner, Huston Singletary, you develop talent and discover artists. What does an artist or band have to do to grab your attention?

I'm really more concerned with great art versus marketing. As a consumer, and a very critical one, I want to hear great singers, not the flavor of the week. I want to hear ridiculous songs that become the soundtrack of my life — for example, Dolly Parton's version of “I Will Always Love You” and “Purple Rain” by Prince — not the hook or beat of the month. I want to watch incredible entertainers onstage, not mediocre talent who got lucky and got a deal because of something that is totally not related to music. That's what gets my attention.

As a songwriter and “middle man” between a major label's need for a hit and an artist's desire to write creatively from the heart, how do you bridge the gap and hopefully make both parties happy?

A good song is a good song. A hit song is defined by sales. Nobody sits down and writes what they know is a hit song. The public decides what a “hit” is. If it sells 2.5 million copies, it's a hit! If it tanks, it ain't a hit. That doesn't mean it's not a good or well-written song. I help my artists write good songs — well constructed, well thought out, musically and lyrically sound and relevant to that artist. The rest of it ain't up to me. Not every song — nor every artist — is destined for greatness.

What are some mistakes you've seen artists make that have negatively affected their progress and success?

They quit. Greatness doesn't stop. Do you think that Beethoven ever got sick of writing music? Probably, but he was obsessed and never quit. He couldn't. People call themselves artists, but they're really not. They're captivated by popular culture — what they see and want and think they deserve, but that's not being an artist. An artist is a person who works at their craft every day they live and breathe because they don't know another way to live. Why am I successful? I have done nothing but eat, breathe and sleep vocals my entire life. If that is what makes others seek me out for my advice and counsel, then so be it. But even if they didn't, and even when they didn't, I was still eating, breathing and sleeping vocals. And when they stop coming? I'll still be singing and raising the bar on what I did yesterday. There are all kinds of ways for me to make money, but I can't imagine living without music and singing.