What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty?”
I help performers to prepare for whatever singing situation they might face, in almost any musical style (or combination of styles) imaginable. My students range from experienced Broadway singers to young people just starting on their singing journey. My teaching focuses on the specific needs of my students, including vocal exercises, audition preparation, learning a musical theatre role, transpositions, arrangements, recordings, etc.
How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?
I started piano lessons when I was five years old. Eventually, I began accompanying my mother, who was a former nightclub singer. She was largely self-taught, so her rhythms and tempi were pretty inconsistent. However, this was a gift in disguise, as I quickly learned how to follow a singer in performance.
After my first job as a musical director at the wise old age of 14, I began getting requests from cast members to help them prepare for college auditions. Since I was already a working professional, it seemed somewhat predestined to enter college as a music major. However, my interest in musical theatre pulled me towards the drama department, where I happily accompanied almost every class, singer, and musical production.
Sadly, this was back in the days when there was a great divide between musical and dramatic training in the United States, and in conservatories, music came in two “flavors” — classical and jazz. Neither one of those really encompassed what I did, so I ended up withdrawing after my second year. I did end up finally returning to college to complete my degree, this time in speech pathology. I wanted to learn more about the anatomy and physiology of the singing voice, phonetics, acoustics, and so much more. It turned out to be useful knowledge that I have used every day for the last forty years, very similar to what vocal pedagogy students cover today as part of their curricula.
What do you love the most about your work?
It’s an amazing feeling to help someone improve their singing, and to achieve a finished performance, whether that be in a school play or on a Broadway stage. Honestly, I really don’t view what I do as “work.” I look forward to new and different challenges every single day. It is a very fulfilling experience.
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
I treat every student as a professional and try to remain encouraging, supportive, empathic, and flexible with them. Listening is an important part of a vocal pedagogue’s occupation; this includes listening not only to what students sing but also to what they say. Establishing a comfortable rapport with a new student is incredibly important, as little progress can be made in an adversarial environment.
Familiarity with a wide variety of musical styles and repertoire is certainly helpful, as is keeping on top of contemporary performance requirements. It is equally important to have knowledge of anatomy, physiology, acoustics, and even phonetics. I also think that any coach or singing teacher who is trusted with the development of young voices must be very conscious of vocal hygiene.
Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?
I owe everything to those mentors who believed in me and generously gave me their time, knowledge, experience, and encouragement. As I started in the music industry at such a young age, I sought out professionals who had the wisdom I lacked. I don’t know if these specific names will have any meaning to you, but I need to acknowledge some of them. I must start with Beverly Ron, who directed a local production of Damn Yankees and took a chance on a 14-year-old novice musical director who demonstrated natural ability.
The legendary performance teacher and author David Craig allowed me to audit his “Singing Onstage” performance classes and became a friend as well as an advisor. The great producer/director/professor, Edward Greenberg, also had the faith to hire an unproven college student to assume the position of Associate Conductor of the Muny Opera in St. Louis, Missouri, which is the largest outdoor theatre in the United States. Muny Musical Director Donald Chan gracefully tolerated my lack of experience and guided me along the way.
I’d also have to give a thank-you to the pianist, orchestrator, and Broadway conductor Arnie Gross, who really mentored me from high school through today, and is still my sounding board and good friend. His father was my high school’s music department chairman who connected us, and we’ve been friends for more than half a century! Joseph Schwartz, my high school English teacher allowed me to assume the position of musical director of his school repertory theatre group.
Significantly, the late Martin Charnin, lyricist and director of Annie, included me in his projects wherever he could. Ragtime legend Max Morath was gracious enough to accept a phone call from an unknown teenaged piano player who was infatuated with that style of music. I’m proud that in later years, Max and I worked on several stage projects together. I also need to acknowledge my friend Ethan Winer, who facilitated the digitalization of my studio, as well as Nancy Carson (agent and author of Raising a Star) for our 40-plus years of friendship. I’m particularly grateful to Nancy for entrusting me with the responsibility of teaching her clients all this time.
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
My late friend and colleague, voice teacher Elizabeth Howell, simplified singers’ breathing into three words: “Move your ribs.” She even had that phrase on a needlepoint hanging on her studio wall. Breathing is something that singers must deal with constantly and correctly. I usually begin more with when you breathe rather than how you breathe. Unlike our day-to-day inhalation and exhalation, while singing, breath management is very important. You don’t want to run out of air in the middle of a thought — or worse, in the middle of a word!
Beginners often tell me they know they have been taught to “breathe through the diaphragm,” which you and I know is anatomically impossible. The diaphragm is a muscle of inhalation; you can’t sing “through” it. Similarly, they are often told to sing “with their diaphragm,” which is also paradoxical, as the diaphragm muscle is actually passive during phonation. Often, it’s confused with the abdominal or intercostal (between the ribs) muscles.
Generally, it’s a matter of students feeling more grounded and connected to their bodies, so they can simply tap into the same muscular patterns they’ve used for their entire lives. I strongly recommend the reference book The Vocal Athlete by Drs. Wendy D. LeBorgne and Marci Rosenberg, who remind singers to think of singing just like any other somatic behavior.
When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I don’t want my singers to get too wrapped up in trying to make specific laryngeal adjustments. Often, that just adds unwanted tension to the larynx (and, after all — do we think about the larynx when emoting ourselves in other areas of our lives?). My aim is that the singer’s larynx remains free and flexible, moving up and down smoothly.
Depending on the vowel and the quality of sound desired, the exact position will vary, and often entails some surprisingly straightforward adjustments. Often, though, a student simply needs to practice singing in certain registers to develop the necessary coordination. Once they learn to trust the mechanism, a lot of that auxiliary tension tends to disappear on its own.
When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The vocal folds are quite delicate, and can easily be injured. I advise my students against abusive phonation in both singing and speaking. In fact, I find that many vocal fold injuries are the result of everything they’re doing when not singing, like talking for hours after a long rehearsal, allowing themselves to become very dehydrated, singing an eight-show week with little or no sleep, etc.
That said, I do discourage pressed vocal production and want the vocal folds relaxed and able to easily transition between vocal registers. Again, this tends to happen pretty naturally when musical keys are appropriate, and when the singer isn’t trying to force their sound to do something louder, longer, or higher than what they’re conditioned for.
When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The advent of microphones, especially wireless ones, has fundamentally altered the landscape of non-classical singing. Being heard over the orchestra is no longer much of a consideration, and quiet singing, sometimes referred to as “crooning” is now routinely part of Broadway musicals and cabaret performances.
Because of all of this potential variation, there is simply no one resonance technique that is ideal for every singer, and experimenting, receiving guidance, and maintaining good vocal health are of paramount importance. My role as a teacher is to guide my students in making logical and appropriate choices with their voices and to work with them to discover where their strengths lie. Some styles require more breathiness, others more clarity, some a darker, warmer tone, and some a brighter, “pingier” sound. Just like a modern Broadway dancer, we want singers to be able to pivot between a broad array of styles (though to be careful about stating on their resume that they are an expert if they don’t have the skill set to back up the claim).
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I would tell students to work on learning how to avoid awkward breaks (at least, when not intended, like when yodeling), and how to seamlessly transition from one register to another by tuning vowels and other adjustments to the resonators. They shouldn’t worry about volume at the early stages of learning a song and aim for relaxed, easy vocal production. Mixing registers with no breaks is the goal.
When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Hydration is essential. Keeping the throat moist will help minimize coughing and throat clearing by thinning out the mucus covering your vocal folds. Also, singers should perform frequent vocal warm-ups, and establish a connection to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) who specializes in the care of the voices, particularly singers’ voices.
Singers should also try to maintain a healthy diet. If they suffer from acid reflux, they ought to consider seeing a doctor to learn what options might work for them. If reflux is left untreated, it can have serious implications for your voice.
And most importantly, pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. Health care is always difficult in the United States, but even patients with insurance often need to be assertive in making sure that their general practitioner refers them to specialists who really know how to work with voice.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I recommend that my students constantly look, listen, and learn. We have so much media available to us now that we have no excuse for failing to familiarize ourselves with the styles of the past. Learn from watching examples of performances of every decade. Also, see as many live performances as possible. However, “style” is an individual thing, and as you go through life, you’ll develop your own. As Oscar Wilde said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I advise my students to stand straight and tall and keep their feet about the same width as their hips. Yoga, Alexander Technique, or Feldenkrais® are very beneficial to some singers, but I think it’s more of an individual preference as to what works. The key to these different schools of training is really about establishing a degree of mindful connection with the body.
When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I never tell my students that I have all the answers, only that my decades of experience have given me the ability to hypothesize some potentially successful choices. Every individual learns in a unique manner, and I believe my responsibility is to find the best method of conveying information. Should the need arise, I am always prepared to refer my student to another professional. Furthermore, some people need to hear the same message from more than one person before it fully sinks in.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?
There are a lot of strong egos in this business, and I’m afraid that some of them have implicitly suggested that to be a performer or a master teacher, it’s necessary to be something of a diva. I think effective singing and education is about allowing the students to lead you; you’re merely a sounding board with a few extra tools in your toolbox, with the goal of having them develop the self-awareness to function independently.
Please note that Bob Marks is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!