Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Lisa Popeil

Voice Teacher, Creator of the Voiceworks® Method & the “Total Singer”

Intro Video

Lisa P.
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Biography

Lisa Popeil, MFA in Voice, has studied voice for 60 years and has taught professionally in all styles of singing for over 40 years. Based in Los Angeles, Lisa is the creator of the Voiceworks® Method, the Total Singer DVD and the Total Singer Workshop.

Lisa is a contributor on commercial vocal genres for the ‘Oxford Handbook of Singing’ and ‘Oxford Handbook of Music Education’ . She has conducted voice research at international labs (Japan, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Nashville, Wisconsin, Czech Republic) with Drs. Johan Sundberg, Nathalie Henrich, Jack Jiang, Tom Cleveland, Ken-Ichi Sakakibara, Jan Svec, and Matthias Echternach resulting in papers presented at international voice conferences. Her research results have been published in ‘Journal of Voice’ and the ‘Journal of Singing’ on the physiology and acoustics of classical and commercial styles, belting, and absolute range in singers.

A member of NATS (N’tl Association of Teachers of Singing), Ms. Popeil is also on the Advisory Board of the Voice Foundation, an invited member of BVA (British Voice Association), PAVA (Pan-American Vocology Association), is a voting member of NARAS (N’tl Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences – Grammys), ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) and is a member of the union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)

Ms. Popeil is a frequent presenter at international conferences such as British Voice Association, PAVA, Physiology and Acoustics of the Singing Voice (PAS), Pacific Voice & Speech Foundation (PVSF), Pan-European Voice Conferences (PEVOC), International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT), Union of European Phoniatricians (UEP), European Association of Phoniatricians (EAP) and presents at numerous conferences held in Shanghai and Beijing, China.

A skilled pianist, voice-over artist, songwriter, composer, and recording engineer, Lisa has co-authored the book ‘Sing Anything: Mastering Vocal Styles’ and produced the ‘Daily Vocal Workout for Pop Singers’ CD. She has recorded and performed in a variety of genres including opera, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, country, Bulgarian and Bollywood. In addition to performing and recording with Frank Zappa, and singing on multiple ‘Weird Al’ albums, her 1984 self-titled album was a Billboard ‘Top Album Pick’.

In 2019, Lisa joined ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic on his sold-out North American summer tour as a back-up singer, performing 67 shows to over 250,000 ‘Weird Al’ fans.

Lisa brings her passion to singers by offering Zoom lessons to a global clientele in styles as varied as classical, musical theater legit and belting, rock, pop, R&B, country and jazz. For more information: www.popeil.com

Interview with
Lisa Popeil

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?

If I had to pick one specialty, I’d have to say it would be the analysis of differences between Western classical and commercial singing styles. And then, to dig down deeper, to further discern the ingredients of opera, operetta, legit musical theater, pop, rock, R&B, jazz, and country. Then the goal was to attempt to master these styles as a singer and be able to teach them as well.

How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?

When I was 6, I began lessons in musical theater singing, experienced hoarseness, then studied classical singing at age 7. But then, when I wanted to be able to sound like singers on the radio, my teacher became very distressed. I instinctively knew that pop singing could be done safely and spent the next decades trying to figure out how to do that without losing everything I had worked for up to that point.

What do you love the most about your work?

I love so many things about teaching singing and speech! I adore that there’s always room for improvement, and it’s a thrill to constantly learn about how to make different sounds and how to use them in a creative way. Plus teaching voice is what I call being in the “happiness business”. Students can experience such joy in the process of improving their voices and reaching their vocal goals. It’s just so much fun!

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

Being a great pedagogue, in my opinion, requires sensitivity to the individual student’s personality and needs and the ability to produce the sounds requested of the students. I’ve had too many teachers who would not sing or could not sing well enough for me to know what the desired sound was being asked of me. Also, the more tools in a teacher’s tool kit to get results, the better. Knowing 10 warm-up exercises and calling it a voice lesson does not a great pedagogue make!

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?

My first mentor was Gisela Goettling who reluctantly took me on as a student when I was seven years old. Through her I entered a world of art through singing that touched on history, physicality, psychology, languages and emotional expression. Plus, I was inspired by the fact that Mrs. Goettling had created a business for herself as an independent woman in the 1960s. Later on, great singers in different styles became my unwitting mentors. “Steal from the greats” is what I like to say!

Building Blocks – Questions about ten key areas of voice

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The biggest insight I’ve had about the term “breathing” is that the term is often conflated with “support” and how that can cause confusion for students. For the purposes of singing, I use the term “breathing” to mean the task of taking in air. As singers, we want a breathing method which fulfills certain goals: Air should be able to enter the lungs quickly, quietly, and invisibly (unless there’s some artistic reason to choose a slower, noisier or visible intake). I’ve researched air intake to see which method produced the most air intake and interestingly found that raising the chest and shoulders wins. However, this method is not desirable for singing since it raises the larynx, creates tension in the neck, and disables abdominal support muscles for optimal singing.

This leads to the topic of support, on which I could write a very long chapter! I use the term “support” specifically for the task required to provide the vocal folds with steady pressure and steady airflow. Like posture, support is foundational to easy, controlled, and reliable singing in any style. After decades of trying to decode the gobbledygook such as “sing from your core”, “use your diaphragm”, and “engage your abdominals”, I experimented and compared a multitude of support methods taught historically and internationally, including the “don’t even think of supporting” approach. In that process, I clarified a method which seems to work for anyone in any style. There are of course, a variety of methods which work for talented individuals, or work for 5 out of 10 singers, or may work for one style, but my goal was to find a method which could produce instant improvement in vocal sound and comfort while singing in any style. It is as follows: keep chest comfortably high; keep side and back ribs slightly expanded; upper belly (just below sternum aka “the upper belly ‘magic spot’”) gently firmed OUT for entire sung phrase, relax it for breathing; lower belly (navel and just below) gradually clutches IN for singing, relax it for breathing. There’s more to it of course, but at least it’s an attempt at being precise. So, in a nutshell, we breathe when we’re not singing (by relaxing the upper and lower bellies) and support when we are singing!

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?

Regarding the larynx, I’m super interested in how the thyroid and cricoid cartilages may interact in terms of angling especially in different belting styles. My theory is that in the “tilted belting” sound, the thyroid cartilage tilts down and forward. This would be the result of less vocalis muscle contraction, therefore a thinner vocal fold and produces a ringier sound, a belting substyle I call “ringy belt”. However, I suspect that in the more common “speech-like belt” substyle, the thyroid cartilage may be held in a more horizontal position and actually be pulled forward very slightly as a result of the hyoid bone pulling forward and bringing the thyroid cartilage along for the ride.

Even though I’ve been investigating this for over 20 years using video-fluoroscopy, CT scans, ultrasound, and MRIs, I still haven’t proven this. Yet I haven’t given up yet on this conjecture and teach this as a maneuver to help singers produce a naturalistic calling sound typical of modern belting.

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?

Ah, the vocal folds…aren’t they amazing?! True vocal nerds can never tire of seeing them move. I have three insights I’d like to share regarding our little friends. First, that squeezing them too firmly (what I call “pressing”) creates swelling and should be avoided.

The ability of control vocal fold adduction is easily learned and I teach 10 permutations so singers can hear and feel their choices and which to avoid. Second, most singers (but not all) can learn to “feel” their vocal folds. This may result from sensory neurons within the muscle spindles of the vocalis and also from laryngeal mucosa mechanoreceptors which can sense pressure. What I suspect is that between that input and the brain’s ability to fill in information that’s missing, singers can reliably have the sense that they can “feel” their folds. This ability is important in helping to protect vocal health during periods of intense use. Third, I found a “vocal hack” which can work amazingly well to help thin vocal folds without changing register. This is simple hand maneuver, too detailed to outline here, helps singers take a “chest voice’ sound much higher without needing to increase volume and without raising the larynx.

Sometimes, the right vocal hack can fix long-standing vocal challenges in the blink of an eye.

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?

I think it’s important to separate resonance from sensation of vibration. By that I mean, that resonance as a filtering of vocal fold emission is very different than where a singer may feel vibration in their mouth, chest, head, etc. I like to call resonators “color controllers” – seems like an easier way to describe them. I separate ring, from nasality, from brightness, show how each are made, and ask for more or less of each for style authenticity and building emotion in a song. I also like to demonstrate how laryngeal height and hypo-pharynx widths affect resonance.

I’m currently researching different types of buzzy sounds (my current fave is the superior pharyngeal constrictor!) and to what extent they are related to nasality. I also champion that the concept that resonance can be controlled separately from vocal register. That way I can “color” my sound whether I’m in chest or head voice depending on style or emotion, so we can access a much larger color palette.

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The big can of worms here…I’ve been thinking about and exploring the topic of registers for over 60 years and am still in its thrall. My current thinking is that vocal registers can be isolated as vocal fold vibrational patterns, that chest voice (aka M1) can be produced on all or almost all notes of one’s phonatable range and that head voice (aka M2) can be produced on all notes of one’s range. My most recent large research project from the Czech Republic with Dr. Jan Svec and Hugo Lehoux (in Journal of Voice) showed, at least in me, that M1 and M2 had visually unique characteristics and uniform closing speed differences regardless of pitch. It’s surprisingly easy to make these sounds and I hope this new model might modernize our understanding of vocal registers as separate from volume and resonance, not just based on the hegemony of classical voice model which states M1 one is for low pitches and M2 is for high pitches. Currently I’ve got a project in the works to further investigate this phenomenon with college-aged singers.

I also don’t believe in “mix”. I’ve amassed 12 meanings so far, with the list growing all the time, of how the term is being used in the voice community. When a term means everything, then it means nothing, right? I teach that when one sings on a held note, it’s in EITHER register, not in a combination of the two. Registers should be produced as a creative choice, not because of one’s technical limitations. I also believe that each register can be produced with at least some control over adduction, vocal tract shaping, volume, and pitch, IF you accept that a register is a vocal fold and laryngeal mechanism, which is definitely not yet the norm.

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?

At the risk of getting myself in trouble, I’m a proponent of “save it for the stage”. By this I mean, that if a professional singer knows HOW to sing, it’s rather like driving a car. You get in, turn the key and the car starts. When I coach touring singers, whether rock or musical theater, their need to warm up is greatly diminished. They’re often already warmed up, so I encourage them to “check” their voices before performing. Doing a lengthy, loud warm-up when one’s voice is being used so often and so much, can result in unnecessary vocal wear and tear. That’s what I mean by “save it for the stage”.

I’m a big proponent of full body stretching as a key warm-up which does not tire the voice. Having said that…I like very light lip trills, sirens, articulation exercises and a few of my special belting exercises as my go-to warm-up suggestions. For straw phonation, I prefer the larger size, such as LaxVox . I find that the smaller straws seem to create quite a bit of back-up pressure which doesn’t feel as comfortable as the larger size straw. I also suggest cool nebulized saline steam which I prefer to hot steam, especially for heavy voice users and recommend VocalMist since it’s so portable and really helps with moisturizing and cooling overheated tissue.

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The goal of singers is to get the audience to feel emotion or to feel transported. In the studio, I learned early on that feeling real emotion just resulted in choking! To remedy this, I studied respected, expressive singers and discovered that their “emotion” was more theatrical than in real life. So I started to “go big” expressively to illicit emotion more effectively in the listener.

When trying to master different genres, I’ve always aimed to sound authentic in that genre. Sorry to say, I’ve heard many female classical singers sing jazz in head voice with some slidy phrasing and call it jazz. Likewise, belting for rock or musical theater in head voice isn’t belting.

I share with my students that mastering a variety of vocal styles will take real listening, imitating, and immersion in the culture of that style and requires quite a time commitment and passion. There should be no shame in mastering just one style to an elite level – that alone can take a lifetime!

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Posture is absolutely foundational for easy, controlled, artistic singing. If there’s anything at all off in one’s posture, the singer may experience some kind of vocal technique challenge, whether it be running out air, having difficulty singing easy high notes, or experiencing compensatory tension in neck, jaw or tongue.

When I teach posture, I make sure the student’s back of the neck is lengthened, that the chest is comfortably high, that the back and side ribs are gently expanded, that the upper and lower bellies are soft and that the shoulders are soft and forward, not pulled down and back. Also, it’s important that, when seen at profile, the shoulders should be directly above the hip bone, in a vertical line. Then we go from there!

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?

One goal as a private teacher has been to be able to simplify complex ideas so that anyone can at least get a grasp and feel successful. I wanted to communicate so that even a 7-year old could get results.

Since I’m a visual person, I have many illustrations ready to go to show students which help many say “Ah ha! I get it now”. And even though I enjoy sharing my research videos and photos with certain students, I’ve found they don’t help students sing better. It’s important to show students exactly “what to do” to solve vocal issues and have Plan A- Plan Z in my tool kit.

Also, since imitation has been the way singers have learned from teachers since time immemorial, I think it’s important that I make the sound clearly and well so they don’t have to guess at the desired vocal goal. Hearing and imitating are more powerful and effective in voice training than watching sound waves on the computer screen or watching research videos (as fascinating as they may be!)

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?

At the risk of sounding like I’m tooting my own horn, I’ve created a number of products over the years. In 1996, I came out with my ‘Total Singer” program which included a 90-minute video on the basic skills of singing and tips on singing 8 different vocal styles. The “deluxe set” includes 60 minutes of vocal training exercises (30 minutes of classical and 30 minutes of pop) as well as 48-page booklet. The Total Singer still sells well in the DVD/CD/ booklet format as well as downloadable and the accompanying booklet is now in its 5th edition!

Since then, I’ve written the book “Sing at the Top of Your Game” published by Sindaptive, co-wrote a book with Gina Latimerlo called ‘Sing Anything: – Mastering Vocal Styles’, the ‘Daily Vocal Workout for Pop Singers’ CD and mp3, and ‘How to Speak Beautifully’ CD/downlaod. On my YouTube channel, I have many short instructional videos, workshops and livestreams. Next year may see the Voiceworks® Teacher-Training program come to fruition!

 

Please note that Lisa Popeil is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!

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