We’ve talked all about our favorite singers and the way that their voices shape the music industry, but these voices would be nothing without someone like renowned vocal therapist Mark Baxter to shape them. Baxter’s experience and insight about the human voice has helped thousands of singers, from superstars to up-and-coming singer-songwriters, attain the voices they desire. And now he’s been kind enough to share some of that insight with us. Check out what he had to say!
OS: How did you decide to become a vocal coach? What sort of training did you undergo in order to be qualified?
MB: It was a very gradual progression from performer to vocal therapist. I took voice lesons from several different teachers over the course of many years. I became curious and started asking doctors and sports therapists about physiology. As my voice improved other singers in my circuit took notice and asked for tips.
I continue to study all aspects of the voice through self-study and courses at the Harvard Medical School’s Continuing Education Program. I am also fortunate to have Dr. Steven Zeitels, who is an elite Otolaryngologist, as a mentor. I have found the medical community the best source for un-biased information about the physiology of the voice but my lengthy stage experience is what really qualifies me to work with other performing singers.
OS: Let’s say you’re meeting with a client for the first time. Can you give us a typical run-down of how you evaluate his/her voice?
MB: I have a seven-page form I have people complete before I meet with them. The form details heath and physiological issues. I also ask for any recent recordings they may have. So when I finally meet with someone I am already familiar with his or her history. This allows me to quickly assess what I hear during the first lesson. I have people produce very simple sounds and listen to the underlying mechanics of their singing. From there we move into exercises that are specific to whatever issues I’m observing. My job is to help singers build an instrument that is strong and reliable and reflective of their artistic whims.
OS: What were some of your biggest challenges when you started working with singers?
MB: The biggest challenge is always trying to convince singers that it’s okay to sound bad while exploring new behaviors. Our culture has a double standard that we are either blessed to sing, or shouldn’t attempt it. All other musicians are allowed to stink on their instruments while they develop. Anyone who sounds bad trying to sing is encouraged to stop. That puts a horrible learning environment in place. You can’t get to “great” by hanging around “decent”. Allowing yourself to sound bad in process is the shortcut to great singing.
OS: How long does it take for you to hear an improvement in a singers’ voice?
MB: It’s just like the gym. You will feel different immediately but noticeable change takes a month or two of solid work. From there I tell people to assess themselves every three months to monitor progress. It’s easy to get stuck on a plateau.
OS: I’ve heard many things singers “should” or “shouldn’t” do before performing. What are practices YOU suggest singers avoid?
MB: There is not one shred of scientific evidence for any of the typical singer’s phobias—but that doesn’t stop them from affecting singers. There is plenty of psychological evidence that placebos and rituals are very powerful performance enhancers. Great singing means you’re vulnerable. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a boost of confidence by thinking a certain ritual will ensure success. The only thing I suggest is that you make your needs as a singer as simple as possible.
Since every singer has a different constitution, there is no one routine other than warming up the voice that I recommend for everyone. If you discover something is disagreeable to you, you’re allowed one bad gig. That’s how you learn. However, if you repeat the same mistake and cost the band a second bad gig there are other issues at play.
OS: What is the most rewarding part of the job?
MB: By far the best part is watching people connect with their passion. I play the role of the Wizard of Oz, meaning I simply allow people to see what was inside them all along. It doesn’t matter if it’s a superstar or a soccer mom. It never gets old for me.
OS: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
MB: Singing came before speech. Humans are instinctively wired to send and receive melodic passages of emotional statements. It’s only in the last five hundred years that there is such a thing as a non-singer on our planet. If someone said they were a non-laugher or a non-cryer you would immediately think they were blocked emotionally. The exact same thing is true for singing. Laughing, crying, singing—they all come from the same emotional center of the brain. I think people need to do more of all three!
Want to hear more of what Mark Baxter has to say? Check out his site here!