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A Cautionary Tale

In my very first group of students at AMDA NY was a young woman, “Martha”, with a huge, high belt voice. Not surprisingly, she had no real head voice to speak of and unfortunately, as I discovered over our time together, she had no interest whatsoever in developing it. Being a teenager and seemingly vocally invincible, she didn’t see the point in it and I, being a new, oh so naïve twenty-five year old voice teacher, was unsuccessful in making her see the value in it.  At the time, I didn’t really understand the perils that could befall a young voice in the Musical Theatre business and I didn’t have the teaching chops to insist on much of anything. (Oh, how things have changed!)

Because she was very talented, Martha got into the ensemble of a major Broadway National Tour right after graduating. Six months later, around ten o’clock at night, my phone rang. It was Martha. She explained that she was on the road with the tour and had lost her voice and what could she do about it? I asked follow-up questions: What are your symptoms and how long have you had them? Have you been to a doctor? No, she hadn’t been to a doctor. Her voice had been slowly deteriorating for awhile. It turns out she had been doing everything wrong: she had been going out with the cast every night after the show (drinking, partying), NEVER warming up with her head voice, or warming up at all for that matter, and singing on a tired and damaged throat show after show. I could tell she was suffering just from her newly raspy speaking voice. I told her she needed to stop singing immediately and go see an ENT! I can’t do that, she said, or I’ll get fired from the tour. That’s all I could offer her at this stage of the problem. She could try doing some of the vocal exercises we did in our lessons, but I had a feeling that the damage was beyond what even excellent vocalizes can solve. I strongly urged her to see a doctor ASAP and told her to keep me informed. She never called again, and since this was a time before social media, I never knew what became of her.

Obviously Martha’s situation upset me a great deal and I vowed to do whatever I could to never let it happen to anyone else ever again. As the years passed and I became an infinitely better, stronger, wiser teacher, I started to tell Martha’s story as a cautionary tale of the importance of taking care of one’s voice. Vocal health is everything; without it, careers are ended, or never begun. I’m not suggesting that singers become antisocial tea-totaling recluses, but a little caution, common sense and some simple, preventative measures go a long way.

But despite my growing expertise and finesse in teaching this particular lesson, some students still did not seem to heed it. One such young lady came along many years after Martha. “Betty” had a problematic voice from the get-go with a prominent ‘hiss’ in her voice from mixed registration and, again, she was a belter with very little head voice and also uninterested in its importance for achieving and maintaining a healthy singing voice. Unlike Martha, Betty was quite obstinate about it. She hated doing the vocal exercises, and resented learning the ‘classical’ song that everyone had to sing for the very purpose of developing said head voice. We had an uneasy relationship for the entire four semesters for this very reason. But I persevered because I knew how important it all was and hoped that someday she might thank me for it.

At our very last lesson before she graduated, Betty announced that she had just been cast as the first cover for a lead role in the National Tour of Rent. As excited as I was for her, I knew that the musical Rent is a notorious voice killer and I felt I had not completely succeeded in convincing her of the importance of taking care of her voice. So, when she asked me if I would record some vocal exercises for her to take on tour with her, I took the opportunity to give one last, strongly worded lecture on the importance of vocal health, of warming up with her head voice and the potential dangers of not doing so, combined with the story of Martha’s disastrous experience on tour. I could tell she was more than a little annoyed with me and my tempered enthusiasm for her new adventure, but I needed to pull out all the stops one last time to try and save her from Martha’s fate.

A year later, to my surprise, Betty called me for a lesson. We started to sing and I was thrilled to hear that her voice was in great shape. I told her how happy that made me. Betty replied, “When I left for the tour, I was pissed because you had not been as enthusiastic about the job as I thought you should be. But then I started to use that warm-up recording before every show, and every time I turned it on, there you were, warning me about what might happen if I didn’t take care of myself and my voice. And then I noticed that everyone else in the cast had to call out at least once a month because they were not taking care of their voices. I never had to call out, and being the first cover, I went on as one of the leads on a regular basis. I really came here today to thank you for your help and good advice.”

Good thing I was sitting down. But seriously, I was so happy and relieved.

And so I tell these stories to all my students to reinforce the importance of developing their head voice and maintaining vocal health.

You and you alone are responsible for the precious gift that is your singing voice. Protect and treasure it.


See also:

Teaching Philosophy

7 Things I Learned Teaching at AMDA NY




3 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale”

  • This is a great “tale” to hear today. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and expertise with your students.

  • It happened to me all those years ago when I was on the road with a show! I didn’t have an attitude problem, I just didn’t have training! After doing 8 shows a week for 11 months, I burst a blood vessel on my vocal chord!. Fortunately a friend who was also on tour recommended a wonderful doctor and he scared me sufficiently, so that I sang VERY LIGHTLY till my contract was up (2 weeks) and then was silent for oh-2 months or so? I went back to square one and completely re-learned how to sing. Yikes.

    • I don’t think you ever told me that! But I have my own cautionary tale like that about choral singing- maybe I should write about that too. Thanks for sharing your experience. Sad that we have to suffer in order to learn.

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