Third of three pic blogs documenting the amazing ride that was Jesus Christ Superstar in Gloucester Cathedral, March 2014. What a privilege! Thanks again to Jerry Lane Ltd who produced the show in such fine style, to Voices Unlimited for being unbelievably brilliant / easy to work with / supportive / dedicated as an ensemble (what a sound!), to Paul O'Neill of The Roving Crows for being my behind-the-scenes rock throughout, and to the glorious Dan Haslam and Jon Moses who made the experience one I'll never ever want (or be able) to forget. Could we start again, please?
(The copyright in these pictures belongs to Cordelia Lewis of Streamline Design. If you would like to purchase copies, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you).
This second of three picture blogs comprises shots from Acts 1 & 2, across several nights. I can't begin to tell you how much fun we had, how completely draining it was, or how much we never wanted it to end! The response from the audiences was absolutely extraordinary. I can't remember how many times I was told that this was someone's "favourite ever" production of JCS. I couldn't possibly comment - all I know is, we had a ball, the orchestra had a ball, and the audiences went ballistic :-) All pictures copyright Cordelia Lewis at Streamline Design. Reproduced here with permission. If you would like to purchase copies of any of these shots, please contact email@example.com
I had the privilege of directing and appearing in an ENORMOUS production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Gloucester Cathedral in March 2014. This is the first of three picture blogs documenting the final week. It was a fabulous experience, with a cast of 130, and a 70-piece orchestra in the most glorious of settings. We were fortunate enough to sell out, and receive complete standing ovations every night.
For me, one of the great joys was working with two uber-talented leading men - Jon Moses (he of ITV's "Superstar" and possessor of the most glorious of voices) playing Jesus, and my stunning 52nd Street bandmate and good friend Daniel Haslam playing Judas. I honestly don't think I could have asked for more - they're both incredible singer / actors, and many adventures were had along the way. (Also, an inordinate amount of wine was drunk, mainly by myself and The Moses, but that's a tale for another time)! Thanks to Jerry Lane Productions for the opportunity - it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now here are some shots from the final rehearsals and tech! (In the second and third blogs, I'll take you through the show)! Pics copyright Cordelia Lewis for Streamline Design. Reproduced here with permission. (Anyone wanting to purchase copies of any of these images can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org).
In common with many professional performers, I've been known to have the occasional disparaging word to say about amateurs - especially that particular breed of amateurs who believe with all their hearts that, had life been different, they too could have made a living treading the boards, dancing, singing or whatever-it-is. I might have been heard expressing the opinion that there are amateurs, and then there are bloody amateurs. I stand by this. Not all amateurs are created equal, and not all have that insufferable habit of wafting about, behaving in the way that they think think professionals do, but I came to that understanding only in recent years...
To be clear, I am not confusing trained with professional. I know lots of very gifted professional performers who are largely self-taught. Professional and trained are not interchangeable words. Professional is a lifestyle and an attitude, trained or not. Amateurs can be trained and might be very talented, but that doesn't mean they'd make it in the professional world. (In truth you've got to be more or less certifiable to want to live in the professional world). But I digress...
I discovered the difference between amateurs (tick, VG) and bloody amateurs (deduct a million house points) when I co-founded The VU Sound in 2008. VU is a huge contemporary choir based in Worcester, and it represents my first-ever excursion into the world of working with amateurs. I have to tell you, the first 18 months weren't easy. I went home after every rehearsal swearing that I was never going to do it again. I didn't understand why the choir members didn't think, look or act like professionals, and it drove me mad. I questioned why I was doing the job when I got no real satisfaction out of it. Then one day after a show, several of the ladies of the choir came up to me in tears, and what they said changed my perspective and my oh-so-superior professional opinion. What they said was "Thank you so much for letting me be in VU, it has completely changed my life".
You see, I thought that the choir members were just coming along to sing songs each week, perhaps meet some new friends and then go home and forget about it until the following week. That turned out not to be true. Certainly, new friendships were formed. Marriages were saved. Illnesses were recovered from. Lives were transformed, and a truly amazing camaraderie was established. In the intervening years I have learned to change my approach when working with this particular group of amateurs. I no longer expect them to behave or think like professionals, but I teach them as best I can not only how to sing expressively and with good technique but also how to conduct themselves like professionals in performance and rehearsal situations. I set the bar very high and I expect them to jump over it - with assistance. I make demands on them in terms of commitment, and those demands are always met. To the very best of their ability, this wonderful group of people delivers. They rarely complain, they never consider giving less than their best, or not doing everything that is asked of them. They don't make excuses, they have an incredible work ethic, and best of all they don't believe for one second that they are or could have been professionals. And that's a good thing. Their amateur status should be accepted for what it is and celebrated. But there will be no wafting about being pretentious. Not on my watch.
Has the experience changed my mind about amateurs in general? Nope. Do I want ever to work with amateurs again? Not really, and especially not if they come in the "Coulda been a contender" mould. But this particular group of people have been a joy to work with and have taught me many things, for which I thank them. So if you come to see the production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Gloucester Cathedral which features VU as a 100-strong acting / singing chorus, what you will see is 100 unpaid performers being honest, passionate and committed to the job at hand. Not wannabes. Not fake professionals. And certainly not bloody amateurs.
I've had a recent influx of ladies into the teaching studio, worried because as they enter their late 40s or early 50s, their voices appear to be losing range, power, control and precision. The question they usually ask me is "Is it my age? Is my singing career over?"
Well, once obvious things like vocal damage and the effects of the menopause have been ruled out, the answer is very rarely "yes it's your age". It's usually more to do with bad habits which have become ingrained over the years, and which can be reversed with good training.
The problem for professional singers who gig regularly is that bad habits are easy to form, and they form under the radar so that the singer doesn't realise what trouble is being stored up. The voice "suddenly" starts misbehaving and the singer doesn't know why.
It takes an experienced teacher to be able to diagnose which of the singer's habits is causing the problem: is the mouth-shape on that EE vowel slightly too wide? Is the larynx too high on those top notes? Are you belting everything and forgetting that are are other ways to make an impact? Are you singing in keys which are being dictated to you by the band, instead of in keys which actually work for your voice? Have you lost tonicity in the spine over the years? Is your tongue pulled back? Is your head pushing forward? Are you yelling through your bridges instead of, y'know, bridging?
There are all kinds of things which can and do lead to vocal fatigue but if you're suffering, don't assume that your career is over. Go and see a good teacher and get your voice back on track before it really is too late!
I'm doing a lot of exciting stuff this year, but it's hard to beat the buzz of singing with a 100-piece contemporary choir!
The show is a celebration of 70s music and along with The Mighty VU, I'll be sharing the stage with my great mate Givvi Flynn, who has recently be seen gracing stage and studio with the likes of The Wildhearts, Jackdaw 4 and Wolfsbane. She's nothing if not versatile!
Also joining us is fab Elvis tribute Kevin Paul. Anyone who knows me knows I'm an Elvis fan, so I'm a bit picky about tribute acts... this guy's fab!
Come in yer best 70s clobber and we pretty much reckon you'll be swingin' your flares in the aisles by the end of the night.
Booking details below! It'd be great to see you there - join me, Givvi and Elvis for a drink in the bar afterwards. Uh huh huh.
I've been to a couple of great gigs this weekend. Both featured clients of mine, doing their very cool thing. In posts elsewhere, I have already given them a big shout-out, so that other people can enjoy their music too. In none of those posts did I say "oh by the way these people are MY clients who I trained and I am therefore responsible for their awesomeness. Because frankly, that attitude sucks.
Singing teachers are no more responsible for their very talented students' successes than they are responsible for the shortcomings of the less able. Our job is to teach people how to make the most of their voices, to guide them, to show them the best techniques known to us at any given moment, and then to celebrate whatever successes and achievements come their way. Our job is not to use those successes as cheap advertising...
The fact is, if you're good at what you do as a teacher, there should be no need to shout about it. Advertise, sure; have a decent marketing strategy, certainly; network and make people aware of the services that you offer, by all means. But when your advertising and marketing strategy involves rubbishing your competitors or industry colleagues, or publishing endless videos of your top students, or endless videos of yourself in all your awesomeness, it's all gone a bit too far, for me.
The simple fact is, if you feel the need to shout from the rooftops on constant repeat about how awesome you are, then you're not. If you're really great, others will do your shouting for you.
I was working with someone recently who was telling me about her performance history, and in the course of the conversation she used the expression "just a backing singer". Being a polite sort (usually!) I didn't say anything, but actually, I was horrified...
What do we mean when we say 'backing singer'? (Or what my American friends would call 'background vocalists'). Well, what my colleague meant was 'someone who isn't "good enough" to sing lead, and who wails a bit when harmonies are called for.' That isn't a backing singer. Trust me.
What I mean when I say 'backing singer' is something else entirely. See that picture on the left? Do you know who these people are? Let's take the one in the middle. Her name's Portia and I had the privilege of singing alongside her (and the other two!) on tour in 2005. So what's she ever done to write home to mother about? You may well ask. Let's have a look at a list of some of the people for whom she's been "just a backing singer":
k d lang
Hall & Oates
Need I go on? Oh and the other two? Hmm, well that would be Estelle Brown and Myrna Smith. They have CVs that would make your eyes water. Those backup vocals on Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl"? That would be them. And they sang with an artist throughout the early 70s about 1100 times, and on all of his major hits of the time. His name was Elvis Presley, you may have heard of him.
So what's my point?
Simply, that backing singers - those people usually wearing black and positioned behind the 'name' that you've rocked up to watch - are often as skilled as, and sometimes considerably more skilled than that 'name'. A great backing singer, one who knows his or her craft, has huge musicality, the ability to mimic, harmonise and blend, the capacity to sing in a wide range of styles, massive performance chops, can often sight-read AND could step up to the lead mic and blow your head off with their skill if asked to.
So next time you think that someone is "just a backing singer", you might stop to wonder who they are and exactly how much skill is being put into standing behind someone else and making them look good.
I spend my whole life teaching singers technique, researching technique, practising technique, discussing technique. This probably makes me boring in the extreme, but sometimes, all that know-how comes in handy.
I believe in building a good instrument before you learn to play it, and as I am now older than some buildings (as my good friend Givvi Flynn is inclined to tell me) my instrument was built many years ago. It's pretty solid, and I can more or less do anything I want with it, under fair-to-middling conditions.
I usually think of technique as being two-part: firstly, it is what we use to develop a great vocal instrument, and secondly it is what helps us to achieve athletic vocal performances and the kind of fireworks that Joe Public seems to like. Sometimes, though, there's a third purpose, and that's to get us out of trouble when things go wrong, which they did last in spectacular fashion at Worcester Cathedral during a concert.
This particular concert was always going to be tricky: it was with VU, who usually work to track, but this time we were working with a single pianist, and the acoustics in the Cathedral - which is the size of a small country - are notoriously unhelpful unless you're standing right in the sweet spot, which we weren't (that had been reserved for the orchestra who had flown in from Germany - fair enough). I'd constructed a nice set, including a solo spot for me, backed by VU, just to offer the audience a different colour. After all, most people love chocolate, but that doesn't mean you're going to say no to a sherbet lemon ;-)
The solo that I picked was one that I did in a concert this Summer and which went down particularly well. It's a song called "Immortal", and was composed by the late great Eric Wolfson of The Alan Parsons Project. The song was originally sung by Steve Balsamo, better than anyone else ever will, and is a big and technical sing, to say the least of it. The bridges in the song (in the key that I sing it in, anyway) are particularly tricky, and rely on a lot of subtlety and control which can only be achieved on the mic. In other words, if I'd intended to sing the song un-mic'd, the key would have been completely different. Imagine my joy, therefore, when the PA went down just as I picked up the mic to start singing...
I had no choice, I had to sing it unamplified. No problem for the section of the song which was just me and the piano, but when a 90-strong chorus kicks in at full pelt, even my big mouth isn't enough to be heard over them. Bless 'em all they did their bit, pulled back from their usual tumultuous blast and gave me some room, but even so it was a big, big ask.
I did my job and got from one end of the song to the other - although not in the form that I would have liked - and spent 4 minutes 30 (yes, it had to be a long song, of course) summoning The Force, calling upon the help of all the gods who were going to get me struck by lighting in that venerable building and using every single ounce of technique that I have.
It was only afterwards that I remembered to be grateful that I could switch from amplified technique to un-amplified, because if I didn't know what I was doing and relied instead on opening my mouth and hoping for the best, as so many singers do, I would've been sunk.
Now, I don't want you to think that I'm saying that technique is everything. It isn't. Artistry is equally important, and most of the time, technique can be something we consign to the practise room, but when the chips are down onstage, it becomes the centre of the universe.
All of which is to lead to the question: how secure is your technique?
Well here I am on another birthday, and it's been an eventful year! This time last year I was in Dorset celebrating with family and friends. The sun was out (it was t-shirt weather, amazingly!), and a great time and much booze was being had by all. That very happy weekend set the tone for more or less the whole of the year - I've had some extraordinary experiences this year.
Yesterday, I was having lunch with a friend who is a singing-teacher-in-training, and we were talking about the power of words. Everyone says "actions speak louder" but as a teacher, that's not always true. Words carry great weight, and I tend to come down on the side of people who think that the pen is mightier than the sword. For example, you can get over cuts, bruises and broken bones, but often, we carry 'that thing that someone once said' with us our whole lives. My greatest experience this year came down to two words, but I'll come back to that. The point of yesterday's chat was that, as a teacher, you can make or ruin someone's whole day - sometimes completely inadvertently - with a single sentence. A student singer's whole experience and future development can come down to a few words. That's a scary thought, but try as we might - and hopefully, most of us do try! - we can't always know for sure what effect we're having on our students. In education, and speaking from personal experience, my world was changed when I was 14. Up to that point I'd always done pretty well at school in all subjects. I was hard working (I learned that bit early on, ha ha!) and got good grades most of the time. Then along came algebra. I didn't get it, and still don't. I realised that I didn't get it, and that this was unusual, so one day I asked the teacher to go over something again. Her response was "I've told you once!" So I was still none the wiser. Later that week, she told me that I was stupid and unteachable. I went on to fail my Maths O Level (as it was then), and I blame her entirely - she convinced me that I couldn't do it, and so I couldn't. The end. I passed all of the others, but my Dad's response, on receipt of The Dreaded Envelope, wasn't "well done for passing all of those other subjects" but "Why have you failed that one? You must re-take it." Harsh, I thought at the time, but I did re-take it and passed the second time. Different teacher, y'see. Bear with me, this will all tie together in minute :-)
So, back in birthday year 2011-12, I'm doing the typical review-of-the-year / what-have-I-done-in-the-last-12-months thing that I guess we all do, and the following things stand out:
Laat October, I met a man who has since become Patron of my college VIDLA, and more importantly, a friend. That meeting with the lovely Steve Balsamo was full of good humour, voice-geekery, 'metaphysical ponderings' as he puts it, and the playing of top-trumps-favourite-singers. Having been a fan of his since 1996, I was quite afraid that I was going to say "I carried a watermelon" on meeting him, but I managed to avoid that pitfall, mainly because he was so utterly charming. I defy anyone not to be at ease in his company.
The next highlight was in December, when another of my favourite vocalists, the awesome John Owen Jones also agreed to be a Patron of the college. I couldn't believe my luck! Two of the greatest vocalists on earth lending their names to VIDLA was more than I could ever have hoped for, and I am so grateful to both of them for their faith in me and what we do at the Academy.
In April there were two cool things to remember. The first was appearing in concert with lovely Steve Maitland and his Big Band, with VU. How we all got on the stage I have absolutely no idea. The second was a sound healing workshop with Steve Balsamo. I took a couple of friends with me, one of whom didn't really get it, and the other of whom had a life-changing experience. Again, with the teaching, you never can tell how people are going to respond! Anyway, I've blogged about that before on the VIDLA Blog, so I won't repeat it here.
June saw this year's huge VU show at The Swan Theatre in Worcester. I had the pleasure of singing alongside three great vocalists: Dan Haslam, Paul Hutton and Dean Bayliss. There's a 3-minute video of highlights from the show, which had a musical theatre vibe this year, on the VU website. It was this show that brought the biggest highlight of the year, and the thing which brings me back to the power of words in our world. I've mentioned two of my great vocal heroes, Steve Balsamo and John Owen Jones, already. The third is the great P.J. Proby. I've sung with P.J. many, many times, having toured with him extensively, but this time, he was coming to see my show, and that's a different bowl of bananas, I can tell you! It struck me as odd that my 'pantheon of vocal gods' had all made themselves present in my life in quite a major way all in the same year - synchronicity at work. It also makes me laugh that within that pantheon of gods, we have God on High (John), Jesus Christ Superstar (Steve) and The Devil Himself (P.J. ha ha! - not really - he's a fun, fun guy and great company)! Anyway, back to the point. Focus, Keen! So, P.J. has figured strongly in my life since I was a little girl. Both parents are huge fans, so I was listening to his records from a very, very young age, and one of my earliest memories is my dad bringing home a copy of the new single "Maria" and asking me if I could learn to sing it. It was from listening to P.J. that I learned subconsciously that there ain't no such thing as a note you can't hit or a style you can't emulate. The man's a genius vocalist.
So here I am, a million years later, and I'm about to go onstage and sing, and he's right there in the middle of the audience, watching a show that I've not only produced and am singing in, but for which I've arranged all the music. No pressure! You'd think that this in itself would be enough to count as the 'highlight' (and it was!) but the big thing was something much more simple. While I was waiting to go on, I dropped a text to my Dad. I thought it would amuse him to hear that P.J. was in the audience. I said "Who would have thought, when I was a little girl, that one day he'd be coming to watch me sing?!"
The reply was two words:
And there's your highlight. Because words are charged. Words are powerful. And those two tiny words made my whole year.
my castle, my game, my rules
My occasional thoughts, rants, updates and perspectives various. Definitely not the opinions of the BBC.