“You Have To Bake The Cake Before You Can Frost It”
Notes from a vocal masterclass
David Phelps/Jeff Alani Stanfill
Good morning all you beautiful singers/teachers of singing! Do you remember the line from the Carpenters song “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down”? Well it’s Monday and it’s pouring here in the north east, and I’m not down by any means, but “Good Lawdy have mercy”, I think we’ve seen enough precipitation to get us threw a few months. Jeez!!
So I was sitting at my desk, planning and scheduling lessons, lining up studio space at the New York City location, when I decided to procrastinate for a few minutes and watch some YouTube video...always entertaining! A video popped up from the latest episode of American Idol with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. I don’t know if you guys are watching this re-installment of the Idol franchise but I have been delighted by the level of talent they have found, and most especially by the three celebrity judges. Each of them brings their own unique judging style, and so far, not an overzealous amount of “Oh my gosh you are amazing” or “You are going to be a star” which was so prominent in the last season of Idol.
What prompted me to write this article was when the youngest singer of the top 24 contestants sang a moving rendition of “Run To You”, a very difficult song made famous by the late Whitney Houston. In previous episodes this young singer had shown her rocker side with raw vocals, hair flips and lots of movement, which was quite different from this more toned down version she was presenting with the Whitney song. All three judges were very complimentary of the young singer, but Katy Perry’s comments really struck a chord with me. She praised her for taking a more laid back approach to the song and showing her real voice without all the bells and whistles, and stating that this really let America know who she was. Katy then said “You have to bake the cake before you can frost it”.
That line took me right back to September 23rd, 2017, the day of the vocal masterclass I taught with internationally acclaimed gospel singer David Phelps. Towards the end of the class there was a question and answer section, and one of the participants asked David Phelps how he was able to produce his unique, sometimes breathy tone in many of his songs without damaging his voice? David replied that he had worked with voice teachers that encouraged him to develop his voice in a classical style because he had a natural facility for it, but he wanted to develop a sound, especially in the middle voice, that was more conversational and less classical sounding. He made it clear that the classical training gave him a solid foundation to build a more contemporary, commercial sound on, and without it, he would likely have damaged his voice. He said “You have to know the rules before you can break them”.
I love that line! To me it says everything about the necessity of building a solid vocal technique while you are developing your own vocal style. I truly believe every singer has a unique sound that can be enhanced with a solid, technical approach to their voice.
I think some singers are afraid of vocal training, especially if they have a really good natural sound. They may be worried that a vocal coach will make them sound like an opera singer or worse, a carbon copy of the teacher (I’ve had both!). But an experienced vocal coach will give the singer the tools that will allow the singer to:
A. Increase breath capacity and the ability to support the voice
B. Increase the range both on the top and the bottom of the voice
C. Smooth register transitions so there are no noticeable breaks
D. Develop a tone that is pleasing to the ear no matter what the style
E. Be able to get out of vocal trouble when they are not able to see their coach
F. Sing with power and conviction without losing the voice
G. Sing for long periods of time without vocal fatigue
I. Develop a voice that will last a lifetime
Everyday that I walk into one of my studios to teach singers from all walks of life, I realize how lucky I am to get to do this job. Singers are some of the most interesting people on the planet in my opinion. Every singer has an innate need to express themselves with this amazing instrument called the voice, and it’s a desire that is unbelievably strong in most vocalists. Personally I don’t know what I would do without my voice. Sure there are days when it doesn’t seem to want to do what I need it to do, but solid vocal technique has given me the ability to get my voice up and running well enough so that no one throws tomatoes at me, even on the worst days. My teachers, especially Maestro David L. Jones and the late Leona Mathews gave me the tools to develop a long lasting voice.
My mission in life began on April 16th, 1999 in the very last lesson I had with Leona Mathews. In that lesson she said to me “You are going to be a voice teacher. You must carry these things that I have taught you into the world. You must share this information with every singer you meet. The world needs good voice teacher and you are going to be one of them”.
I must admit that I wasn’t so sure about Leona’s prophecy regarding my future career as a voice teacher. At the time I was still busy trying to be a successful singer, and teaching voice was only something I gave a passing thought to. But after her death my life would change even more when I met my next voice teacher Maestro Jones. I was only a few lessons in with the maestro when he said to me “I bet you make a really good voice teacher!” I had not mentioned to David that Leona told me the exact same thing only a few months earlier but I knew at this point that God was speaking to me loud and clear!
I never regretted for even one single minute the decision to become a full time vocal coach. It is a job that gives me much joy and fulfilment, and every lesson with every singer is a new, challenging and rewarding experience.
By the way, today is World Voice Day! How appropriate for this post.
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Keep singing and let your voice soar!