I’ve had a long, adventurous career in the music business; one that has taken me on an exciting, glamorous, fabulous, and many times, frustrating journey. What I’d like you to know in this particular segment is how my career was almost wrecked by bad voice teachers, then blessedly salvaged by one great maestro.
Coming from this place of experience, I have built my reputation on the premise of correct and healthy vocal technique. I want everyone to know the joy of singing without strain or discomfort, without the fear of damaging his or her delicate instrument. I know the pitfalls firsthand, and can identify destructive vocal habits immediately. Even better, having been there myself, I know how to give you the skills to change those bad habits in an instant; sometimes freeing you from unhealthy habits that have been plaguing you for years.
I’ll be as brief as possible with this vocal history story, as a lifetime of singing could be quite a lengthy book! I’ll chronicle my ‘life as a singer’ in those early years of my career, by giving examples of the teachers (the bad ones will remain nameless as a matter of professionalism) that hurt me; the teacher who saved me; and how The Lawrence Vocal System™ was developed, thanks to all of them.
The important thing to remember here is: if it doesn’t feel good, it probably isn’t!
I was in High School when I was cast in my first musical. Above all else, the message drilled into all of us thespians was “project!” For my thin, little soprano, this was a challenge, and by the time we approached dress rehearsal, I was hoarse. Talk about discomfort!
I would learn that ‘projecting’ was an ongoing theme that caused me lots of anguish, not to mention voice problems in those early years.
Voice Teacher #1
When I first took voice lessons from Teacher #1, he was concerned that my mouth was very small, so in an attempt to get me to open my mouth, he actually gave me a cork from a bottle and had me hold my mouth open with the cork stuck between my teeth as I sang! All that did was stretch my jaw wider than was normal, which was not only horribly uncomfortable, but caused terrible tension from forcing my mouth open in an unnatural position for long periods of time. Who wants to sing when it doesn’t feel good?
I’ve learned that most people suffer under some kind of tension or discomfort when they sing, and it shouldn’t be that way.
My job as a teacher is to help you identify and release all those tensions that keep singing from being the joyous experience it should be.
I went on to California Institute of the Arts, a great school, but as in most learning institutions, the vocal department was a strictly classically based curriculum. So, here I was, studying to be a singer at an opera school; feeling tight; insecure, and wondering how these people sang with such huge voices. On top of that, teacher #2 went crazy when he found out I was singing in a jazz group on campus, and forbade me to sing anything other than classical and opera. The thought came back to me over and over, why do I have to be locked into singing one style only?? If I’m singing correctly, why can’t I sing everything I want??
With my Lawrence Vocal System™ it’s possible to sing whatever you want and always be singing correctly and easily.
If only I’d been taught the correct technique early on at Cal Arts I would have saved myself several years of vocal problems.
First Professional Gig!
After a year at Cal Arts I auditioned for Kids of the Kingdom, a College group sort of like a grown up Mickey Mouse Club, with 6 girls and six guys. I was accepted, and went to Disneyworld in Orlando for my first professional gig! But in the months leading up to the summer gig, I also took the lead role in a small new musical playing at a theater in Studio City, California. We had no mics, so I had to belt all the songs in addition to projecting dialog six nights a week. As soon as that run was over, I was cast in a regional production of Godspell which was running in Santa Barbara, 90 miles from Northridge where I was now living and taking music classes at Cal State Northridge. Crazy as it seems, I was driving back and forth from the show in Santa Barbara, going to school and holding down a waitress job besides!
By the time I got to Orlando that summer I was exhausted, literally, although the excitement of working in a live show each night; rehearsing with directors and choreographers, and being on stage with a live band was enough to make me feel energized. I was still having vocal problems and having to push to get my sound out. I thought my voice was just tired from the two shows I had just finished.
I began to notice that there was a section of my voice, my upper middle to be exact, around D and E above middle C, where the sound got very airy and I had to really force the notes out.
About half way through the summer I was doing my solo in the show, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, when I was singing ‘ha-le-LUUUU- ya’, and nothing came out on the ‘LUUU’! Just sort of a squeak of air! My voice had also been increasingly gruff and raspy (completely uncommon for my perfectly clear voice) with that annoying and uncontrollable squeak that would just pop out at the oddest times.
Unsure of what was happening, I tried to sing through the problems until I just couldn’t control my voice or produce a clean, reliable sound.
Out of desperation I went to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist in the Orlando area. He asked me to sing up and down the scale as he looked at my vocal cords with a long, silver instrument.
The prognosis was not good. I had a nodule on my right vocal cord, or as they’re commonly called, nodes.
My physical condition wasn’t a help, either, he noted. When your body is exhausted, everything suffers. I was just shot, and this emotional blow didn’t help.
I was devastated, because I knew that nodes were bad news. So what was I to do? I didn’t want to have surgery, which seemed too dangerous. I wouldn’t want to risk permanent damage to my voice. The alternative?? Complete vocal rest, the doctor said. What does that mean? I’m a singer! I do four shows a night! What it meant, he informed me, was not singing for at least a month or two.
“Really,” he said, “the only way to get rid of that node in a reasonable amount of time is to stop talking.”
Stop talking. Stop singing. The words rang in my head like a gong. How can I do that??? I was going to get fired, sent home.
My career was finished before I’d even started!
Our Director was very nice as I tearfully explained my plight. In fact, I don’t think the Director ever spilled the beans to upper management. And so we devised a clever plan to keep me working. After I’d had two-week rest in bed, which I really needed, I came back to the show and lip-synced as others sang my solos! For an entire month, I didn’t utter a word! I bought one of those kid’s pads that you write on, and then lift the top sheet up and it erases what you’ve just written. It was a very enlightening exercise. It not only taught me to be exceptionally concise with my words, but also taught me that we chatter rather needlessly and misuse our voices without even recognizing it. While I couldn’t talk I really had the chance to notice how much others yell, scream and abuse their voices.
Wow, the vocal cords are a magnificent set of muscles, and it takes a lot of misuse to truly damage them like I had.
Knowing my limits
Once I’d completely rested my voice, I started singing again, but very consciously. I didn’t allow myself to get overly tired, either physically or vocally.
I spoke carefully; didn’t yell, laugh loudly or push my voice as hard as I had been doing.
I decided that there was a limit to what I could expect from myself. It’s a good lesson: know your limits and stick to them.
Gringa In Paradise
While performing in Kids of the Kingdom at Disneyworld, I met the group Tabasco that was performing on the stage at Tomorrowland Terrace. They were a seven-piece show group from Mexico City, and were fantastic.
During the summer they approached me about joining the group when my gig was over with ‘Kids’. They were going to Disneyland in Anaheim when the summer ended, so after a month off, I moved to Anaheim to start rehearsals. Was it exciting!
We worked almost a year at Disneyland, which was a thrill. We had a year of really exciting gigs all over the country and Canada once we left Disneyland, then went on to do a Latin tour starting in Puerto Rico, Panama, Acapulco then on to Mexico City.
It was an enriching experience and one that helped me grow as a person.
I was a gringa in paradise, but felt it was time to move on. I said ‘adios’ to the exotic, glamorous, exciting life I had known with Tabasco.
Thankfully, my voice held up beautifully and got stronger.
L.A. Session Work
Back in L.A. after three years with Tabasco found me doing studio-recording work for songwriters and music publishers. I had also gotten my Actor’s Equity card and was doing professional theater. I remember one very memorable audition that shows what I was up against in the world of musical theater. I was up next, and as I waited, I could hear the girl from way down the hall singing in a huge, belting voice! I shrank down in my seat, knowing that my little voice wouldn’t even carry past the door. ‘Project!’ rang in my head.
So I did what I thought I had to; I pushed my voice to be big and loud, getting hoarse and discouraged.
I didn’t get the part.
I know now that you can belt in a healthy way, and teach my students how to have a big musical theater voice without effort.
Teacher #3 and Nodes #2
I had heard of a teacher in North Hollywood who taught a new, trendy technique called the Seth Riggs method. It was really popular with R&B singers, and I was doing a lot of that music at the time. I began taking weekly lessons with Teacher #3. She had me directing a lot of my sound into my ‘mask’, creating a very forward directed, edgy sound. It seemed to be working, and with the ‘edginess’ came more power and volume. In fact, I was singing lots of really high-powered rock/pop music, and was happy with my voice.
After several months I started getting that familiar ‘skip’ in my voice, but kept on singing, pushing harder to get the sound out in my upper middle range.
Finally, my voice was just too raspy, and with too big a skip to be able to control my sound in the studio. This was really serious, because I was making my sole living from singing.
Again I went to a specialist, and again, I had nodes. I was devastated. How could this have happened? I was taking voice lessons.
I thought I was singing correctly. I was very careful about my voice. Still, I got nodes! So I stopped singing for a month, and barely spoke. I stopped taking voice lessons and tried to conserve my money while I wondered what I was doing wrong with my voice, or more likely, what voice lessons were doing to my voice.
After a month my node had shrunk and wasn’t causing any problems. But I felt like I was ‘talking on eggshells’, I was so afraid to use my voice. But I went back to singing because that’s what my passion was. I’d do session work during the day, then sing and write in the evenings. So I was using my voice a lot. When you’re in the recording studio, everything has to be perfect.
I was always known for my beautifully clear voice, so when that little raggedy rasp started to creep into my sound again, I panicked. I couldn’t possibly be getting nodes again??
I was singing like I was taught to sing, so how could this be happening? But it did happen. I could understand this happening if I was an all-night rocker who ravaged my voice by screaming, but I was a very controlled, trained singer who had studied for years. Unfortunately, I was still using a lot of force to get my sound out. How could I have a singing career, if I’d have to stop singing every eight months or so? I couldn’t bear the thought of not being in music; of giving up singing. I loved it, and I was really good at it. But
I couldn’t continue wrecking my voice like this; I had failed. This time, I truly felt that my young career was over.
About this time I met a singer who was in Beatlemania, a show that was at the Pantages Theater in L.A. I marveled at how this guy could do eight shows a week and still have a healthy, clean voice. He told me his secret: Giuseppe Balestrieri. He’d been studying with Giuseppe for several months and said that his voice never got tired or hoarse. “But I’ve been taking voice, too, and my voice is wrecked!” I protested. What could it be any different?
But here was living proof that you could work your voice hard, and not damage it. How? “Take from Giuseppe,” he said.
So with much trepidation, I booked a session.
Maestro Giuseppe Balestrieri
I arrived at Giuseppe’s slightly dingy studio above Sunset Boulevard. There was just an upright piano, a couch and a chair in this expansive, old studio with floor to ceiling windows. My friend had told me a bit about my new teacher, who was definitely ‘old school’, but I wasn’t quite prepared for his curt, get-right-to-business style. Giuseppe was a 92 year old, retired Italian opera singer. And he really was Italian! He had an accent and rather gruff approach.
I began explaining my vocal problems, which he dismissed with a wave of his hand! He completely discounted my battle with nodes, shrugging it off with a “don’t worry about it.” What???
This was my life he was dismissing; my soul, my livelihood! But with that we dove into vocal exercises in mezzo voce, as though he wasn’t a bit concerned about hurting my voice! I was terrified, and told him so. He barked out “you’re a big girl, sing with your big voice!” Nervously, I got through the half hour, and actually did quite well with the vocal exercises that were completely different from the Seth Riggs method.
In fact, everything Giuseppe told me in that first lesson was opposite what I had ever been taught!
I realized that singing out like he wanted me to would damage my voice even further, and politely told Giuseppe that I didn’t feel good about what we were doing.
He explained that my voice was damaged from singing incorrectly, and that when I began to sing correctly my voice problems would disappear.
I tried to protest, but he confidently said, “Give me four lessons.” Something about his bravado assured me, and so I reluctantly agreed.
Ninety two year old Giuseppe Balestrieri was about to change my life.
So began my journey of vocal rehabilitation, and the salvaging of my budding career. With each lesson I took with Giuseppe, I gained confidence. His method was based in Bel Canto, a very old Italian opera technique, that couldn’t have been more opposite what I had been studying for years. After my fourth lesson, I got it!
As he had predicted, Giuseppe’s Bel Canto method clicked in, and I found my voice opening up with a power and warmth I had never experienced before. It was a miracle!
I’m proud to say that my own students now experience this same miracle when they study with me.
It’s extremely gratifying to know that I can change my student’s lives, just as Giuseppe changed mine.
Bel Canto is all about releasing the natural voice.
All my life I had been trying to ‘project’, to be loud. What that did was create constriction and tension as I ‘pushed’ my voice, damaging my vocal chords with force and compression. With Giuseppe, I learned to sing with my body, not with my throat, using my breathing mechanism in a relaxed way to affect volume and intensity. I learned about opening vowel sounds; about keeping air out of the tone; opening the throat and getting out of the way of the natural voice. My voice became warm, open, relaxed, and powerful.
For the first time in my life it was a joy to sing! My throat wasn’t tight, tense or tired.
It’s like the difference between a tightly clenched fist, and an open, relaxed hand.
I studied with Giuseppe for several years, and I must say that from the day I took my very first lesson with him, Ihave never had one vocal problem!We’re talking about years of singing, night after night, sometimes six hours a night! Not one problem! That is testimony to the success of this method!
I am living proof that there is hope for damaged voices; for singers who have vocal challenges; for performers who have studied for years and still can’t master their voices.
I have taken the basis of Bel Canto and added elements that create a holistic approach to voice. After all, singing comes from mental, emotional, even spiritual levels, as well as the physical. When we communicate with song, we are really communicating on a soul level. I teach that it’s not all about technique; it’s not all about perfection; it’s not all in your head. In order to touch your audience when you share a song, you have to come from your heart, revealing your open, authentic self.
When you finally feel comfortable with your voice, you can stop obsessing about technique and just sing, as we were born to do.
If you can identify with any part of my story, then you owe it to yourself to give me four lessons that can change your life.
Or, please find a teacher, a mentor, a maestro who can help you find your voice. If your singing isn’t easy and joyful; if you don’t have full control of your voice; if you’re singing from your head instead of your heart; if you’re in discomfort when you sing; then let me give you the gift of joyful singing. I have seen this miracle happen over and over again.
It is so inspiring to give students the simple skills needed for a healthy, powerful, expressive voice.
I love developing the brilliance in others! I bless the day I found Giuseppe Balestrieri. He literally changed my life. I am so honored when my students experience the same life enhancing change in their lives.
If you’ve been struggling with your own vocal challenges, know that there is hope and help available.
Trust your voice. Honor your voice. Celebrate the power of your full expression!