Maybe it's more than obvious that singing is a form of musical expression, just like fiddling, horn playing or guitar shredding. But perhaps less obvious is the fact that the throat itself is a musical instrument, which needs to be tuned, adjusted and maintained just like a violin, saxophone or guitar.
A professional guitarist might turn to a varied support team to keep his or her chops and instrument in shape — a teacher for technique, a luthier for custom repairs and a guitar tech for regular maintenance. On the other hand, a singer looks to find everything from tips on technique and voice care to personal confidence-boosting from a crucial one-person support team: the vocal coach.
Viewers of such singing competition TV shows as "American Idol" and "The Voice" may be aware that the role of "vocal coach" exists, but the work a vocal coach actually does with a singer — from fresh-faced beginners to seasoned pros — isn't always understood outside of vocal studios.
"You can't look at celebrity judges' comments as 'coaching,'" says Roger Love, a highly regarded coach whose clients have ranged from Wilson Phillips and Carly Rae Jepsen to Maroon 5 and Iggy Pop. "The TV audience hears judges offer some performance coaching, but real vocal coaching is something else entirely."
Love works with new talent, veteran acts and public speakers, and is also called in frequently by movie studios to help actors learn enough vocal technique to play musicians on screen. Love helped Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon become a believable Johnny Cash and June Carter, respectively, in the 2005 film Walk The Line. For Love, certain basics of coaching remain the same, regardless of the student.
"In general, you're trying to facilitate a singer going from the lowest note in their range to the highest without any straining or pressure," says Love. "And once you can sing all your notes without killing yourself, then it's possible to address elements of style — how to make the transition from just doing exercises to being able to deliver a song emotionally so that you move whoever your audience is. If someone doesn't have a style, I can help them create one. But if someone's already sold millions of records, my job is not to change their style. My job is simply to make it easier for them to sing the way they want to sing."
Atlanta-based coach Jan "Mama J" Smith works with clients ranging from unsigned artists to "American Idol" contestants and superstars such as Usher, Rob Thomas and Justin Bieber. Her work and reputation have earned her a veritable all-access pass to the music industry's hottest events, but she maintains that the nuts and bolts of coaching are not necessarily glamorous.
"I'm the troubleshooter who's called in because somebody needs help with one part of a song at a recording session, or somebody needs help making it through a long tour, or somebody has some lifestyle issues that are affecting their voice," says Smith. "There are as many different vocal problems as there are singers and songs, and I've become accustomed to assessing very quickly what needs to go down and then making it happen. It's real work, whether you have years to work with somebody or only enough time to put a Band-Aid on a dam."
Vocal coaches tend to cherish the chance to develop career-long relationships with singers, and the feeling is often mutual — Love and Smith have been gratefully acknowledged by many pro-level clients, and Smith even has a personal performance by GRAMMY winner India.Arie written into her will.
In the faster-paced, heated environment of television singing competitions, the relationship between the coach and singer is an especially tricky mix of technical advice and emotional support.
"The essence of my philosophy is that when I listen to someone sing, I have to create a safe space for them," says Trelawny Rose, a former student of Love's who now works with contestants on "The Voice." "I notice their pitch and their tone and their breath control and their phrasing, and I take note of what I need to work on with them. But at the heart of the matter, if they don't feel safe and supported, they're not going to perform well. You want to push someone to what their capable of, but if you push too hard they can feel broken down rather than inspired. It's a difficult line to walk. You have to balance a little push with a little love."
When that balance is just right, the payoff can be tremendous.
"Whether you're with a young singer who's just mastered a technique, or a person who's sold millions of records who just solved a problem that they thought was going to affect their career, it gets very emotional," says Smith. "People burst into tears when they realize what they can do with their voice, and helping them get there is just awesome."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)