A very exciting announcement for the studio… I am SO thrilled to introduce a wonderful associate voice teacher. My student Chris D’Amico is a passionate and gifted voice teacher, killer singer/actor, and an all-around amazing human being, and he has completed teacher training to join “the team” at MRVS!

Chris received his Bachelor of Music, summa cum laude from Ithaca College in Vocal Performance in Combination with Acting. This specialized, devised degree required additional coursework in acting technique, literature, and movement, in addition to the complete curriculum needed to receive a performance degree. He has also studied extensively at the Michael Howard Studios and the Barrow Group in New York City.

Check him out online at: http://www.chris-damico.com/voice-studio

Vocal hemorrhage: stigma and prevention

BY Mike September 29, 2015

In the wake of artists like Meghan Trainor and Sam Smith canceling tours, I was asked by the Voice Foundation (www.voicefoundation.org) to write on the topic of the dreaded vocal hemorrhage! If you’re not familiar, a vocal hemorrhage occurs when blood collects within the layers of the vocal fold after a blood vessel bursts (much like a bruise). They can be small and rather insignificant, or they can be very serious and career-altering! One generally notices a very sudden change in voice quality, usually resulting in breathiness and hoarseness. I thought I would share the article I wrote for the Voice Foundation on this much misunderstood topic:

One of the joys of my work is the opportunity to work with a variety of performing artists in a variety of settings: primarily, as a vocal technician, working closely with ENTs and SLPs as part of a rehab team; but also, currently, as a conductor of a Broadway musical. And while it often means that my schedule looks like a game of Jenga, this duality has afforded me an invaluable and intimate perspective on the lives of my clients, and the perfect storm in which vocal pathologies (like hemorrhage) may occur.
The demands on professional performers are extraordinary; not only vocal demands, but also the constraints upon their lives, their relationships, and their sense of self and emotional well-being. And while performers can and do suffer vocal hemorrhage due to inadequate technique, in my experience, the underlying cause is generally more complex and multifaceted than that. From ordinary experiences like excessive stress, throat clearing, coughing, weightlifting, childbirth, or hormonal changes, to more atypical causalities like bulimia or circulatory system anomalies, vascular changes to the folds can originate under a multitude of conditions. Notably, Patti LuPone shared in her memoirs that she suffered a vocal hemorrhage while hiking!
Acknowledging and sharing this information within the industry and the general public will allow the stigmatization of hemorrhage (and other pathologies) to diminish. And the stigma is very real. I was recently in a casting session in which a wonderfully talented actress was being considered for a principal role. The team was mostly in favor of her until someone shared that, years ago, “she had to be replaced in a role due to a vocal hemorrhage”. The unspoken assumption in the room was that technique was to blame. These sorts of casting discussions occur with frequency, and help to explain why actors and singers are terrified to be labeled “unreliable” or “injured”. Even a small and quickly resolving hemorrhage could do great damage to a career if it became common knowledge.
When technical deficiencies are to blame, they often stem from the overwhelming expectations of a particular role or, for a recording artist, living up to the fans’ expectations from their album. Take the infamous role of Elphaba in the megahit “Wicked”: an actress sought rehabilitation because she had suffered a hemorrhage due, in part, to pressed phonation and hyperfunction. As we revisited Elphaba’s songs, we uncovered that her subtext onstage had become “to belt” or “to impress” rather than “to call” or “to celebrate/rage/keen”. The expectations of an audience and producers who knew every word, every recording, every YouTube clip etc. had overwhelmed her ability to tell a story with fidelity.
In terms of prevention, I urge all clients to have a baseline stroboscopy and repeat scopings prior to lengthy runs or major performances. Here, the ENT may be able to catch ectasias and varices before they hemorrhage. If a hemorrhage should occur, establishing a collaborative voice care team is key to provide guidance and prevention of potential recurrences.
For performing artists, the voice is so much a part of who they are and what they do. Consequently, pathologies like hemorrhage can be exceptionally traumatic and emotional. During rehabilitation, I encourage clients to take a close look at their self-talk in these circumstances. As they think about their condition or circumstance, are they compassionate or are they judgmental in their point of view? For the recovery process, both vocal and psychological, it is imperative that they not view themselves as “damaged goods”, but embrace the experience as a catalyst for growth.

1) The all-inclusive. They describe themselves as BOTH voice teacher and vocal coach. The term vocal coaching should apply strictly to acting work/audition cuts/repertoire/presentation/etc. – basically, everything but technique. It’s very important that we are explicit in our terminology, because, as numerous clients have said to me: “I paid for an hour with a technician, to discover that I was with a vocal coach!” (Or vice-versa.) Best-case scenario, the “all-inclusive” teacher does one of the two things very well. Most commonly, both are mediocre. Being a first-rate vocal coach or a first-rate voice teacher requires amazing DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, and SPECIFICITY, and staying current with what’s happening in your discipline. To be a first-rate vocal coach AND vocal technician is simply not possible in the same human being. And singers pursuing a career at THIS level should most certainly be seeking out the best coach and the best teacher, not pursuing a passable 2-for-1.
2) The imagery-based. Instead of offering specific guidance, poetic imagery is used: “Picture an egg in the back of your mouth”, “breathe in a color”, “sing to the sky”, etc. There is a time and place for imagery, but it should be used infrequently.
3) The guru/mystic. Described as “hippy-dippy” perhaps. They cultivate an aura of mystique and talk in vague generalities (see #2). Like a faith healer or psychic surgeon, they’d love for you to believe that simply being in their presence is making you a better singer. If progress is made, you won’t really know why or how to replicate it on your own. Often, their discussion in the studio centers on energy work, involving chi and/or Reiki. If you’re interested in exploring these philosophies, you should absolutely do so with a specialist outside of your valuable voice lesson.
4) The show-off. There are two varieties to watch out for and they’re equally common. First, the teacher who sings more than you do in a lesson. They most frequently sing the phrase or song to demonstrate how it should be done instead of guiding you. Usually a retired and/or frustrated performer, they need you to be an audience. The other variety is the teacher who talks non-stop about what they know. Some of it will be applicable to you, most of it is general lecturing to impress you and overwhelm you with how much they know. Again, they need you to be a duly-impressed audience.
5) The “anti-technician”. This is the teacher who, deep down, is self-aware that they don’t have a lot of tools to help you. To mask this, you’ll hear them say “People overcomplicate singing” or “you need to find the placement that feels good” or “I don’t want to crowd your head with information”. Actually, you’re paying to have information imparted to you in a way that makes sense and guides you toward your goals. Frequently, you’ll hear “if you’re in the moment and acting, the technique will follow”. I agree, IF THE TECHNIQUE IS ALREADY IN PLACE. The anti-technician does not stay up-to-date on vocal research/science, and doesn’t seek out new information and opportunities for growth.
6) The performer. The performer is a fantastic singer, but really doesn’t know how to verbalize what they’re doing onstage. They are frequently “anti-technicians”, as a result. Most problematically, they will leave you in the lurch for months at a time when a gig comes along. They frequently look down on teachers who have not had extensive singing careers. In my experience… the very gifted and most effective voice teachers did not have extensive and long singing careers. And they may not have had extraordinary voices! As a result, they worked and studied hard to be as good as they could possibly be, and so they have the fruits of their labor to benefit YOU.
7) The mother/father figure. This one is the trickiest and possibly the most destructive because there is an insidious manipulation occurring bit by bit. Most frequently, this teacher is also either #2 or #3 simultaneously. This is the teacher whose primary goal is to form an emotional bond with you so that you cannot leave them. Consequently, they are more of a counselor/therapist than a teacher. If you should leave their studio to find more effective training, you can expect drama of some variety!

Mindful Mastery Mondays #5: Knees?!?

BY Mike July 30, 2013

The more I teach, the more I marvel at the intricacy of the body and, specifically, the way in which the voice is influenced (for better or worse) by EVERY part of the body. Indeed, as my students know, when I refer to the “instrument”, I am truly referencing the entire body, from head to toe.

This week, I’d like to talk about the role your knees play in free and expressive singing. Yes, the knees! In fact, I’d like to ask you to do a little experiment… Standing, begin by putting one hand just below your belly button, and the other hand along the small of your back. With a little give (or release) in your knees, simply observe your breath. Hopefully, it’s abdominal and you can feel the low release of the abs on the inhalation into both hands. (Remember that, contrary to what People magazine might have you think, the abs wrap all the way around to the spine in back forming what is called the abdominal girdle.) Just observe that breath for a moment, and if you’re feeling fancy, sing a tricky passage from your repertoire.

Now, lock the knees back and repeat the experiment. You’ll notice immediately (under both hands) that the abs have to compensate and grip to hold you upright. While the breath may still be abdominal, it has been compromised and constrained by the new work the abs have taken on. Where, before, it was easy to feel the breath into the pelvic floor, now that feeling is absent. The lumbar spine (below your hand in back) undoubtedly stiffened and “held”. You may also have noticed that the passage you chose to sing was incrementally trickier and you experienced less control.

Simply put, when we lock the knees, we effectively turn our legs into a fixed pedestal for the torso. Not good! This immediately and negatively affects the breath and spine simultaneously, and depending on the singer, you will experience any number of compensatory tensions present throughout the body, none of which will be helpful to you as a singer!

So it should come as no surprise that my most frequently offered advice to singers is simply: “Release the knees and tell the story.”

Recently a Broadway performer sought me out because she was experiencing something unsettling in performance. In her solo numbers, she would randomly feel/hear an intermittent “rattle” or “click” with the power to interrupt her vibrato and even create a momentary dip in pitch! She knew it was a result of “gunk” on her cords, but was completely confused as to why it was there and why it made such random appearances. Trips to ENTs for scoping had yielded no answers. On advice from colleagues, she had tried everything, including eliminating dairy from her diet, homeopathic remedies, and upping her hydration levels. Nothing seemed to make a dent in the phlegm phenomenon.

As we began to work together, however, it became clear that the phlegm was anything but random. Her “money notes”, while exciting, were more effortful and pressed than necessary. And a phrase or two later, the sound of mucus would appear right on cue! No one was more surprised than she to learn that SHE was the cause of her “rattle”. Once we addressed her technical issues, eased her effort levels, and routed a map through those treacherous passages, the gunk was gone for good.

It’s true. Effortful singing or speaking (pressed phonation) may be the cause of that phlegm! As we explored last week, the larynx produces additional mucus in an attempt to lubricate and protect the cords when they become irritated. Yet another reason that your primary goal is always to keep your effort (at the level of the folds) as easy as possible. I promise, with the right tools, even the most aggressive rock sounds can be produced with impunity!

Mindful Mastery Mondays #3:

BY Mike July 30, 2013

Chalk it up to allergy season or your torrid love affair with cheese, but phlegm/mucus has been the major topic of conversation in the studio this week! Think of mucus as the oil in your vocal machinery… a little bit, kept thin and slick, will protect the moving parts and keep you running like clockwork. In this ideal state, you’re not even aware of the mucus doing its job; you won’t hear or feel it. When you become dehydrated (even minimally) or the immune system is activated, the body’s mucus production goes into overdrive and you become all-too aware of its presence. It becomes viscous (don’t you hate that word?!?) and interferes intermittently with the vibration of the vocal folds. 

And so you are tempted to clear your throat… DON’T! This is an act of aggression against your poor, vulnerable cords which, essentially, grinds them noisily against one another. Ironically, it’s so unkind to the cords that it generally results in the production of even more protective mucus!

So what CAN you do instead? Here’s a fantastic alternative: When you have the urge to clear your throat, exhale forcefully three times (think of a cat coughing up a hairball) and then swallow immediately. The rush of air will generally clear the mucus and the saliva will combat any resulting dryness in the pharynx. If that doesn’t clear the phlegm, then your job is to sing through it, with even greater attention given to your resonance. (For those who study with me, “the beam” would be a choice tool on such an occasion.)

Next Monday… part two of “The Sound of Mucus”. We’ll explore how the way you speak/sing may be to blame for that disruptive phlegm!

Mindful Mastery Mondays #2:

BY Mike July 30, 2013

Being fully marketable in our industry requires that you have immediate access to many well-defined “colors” on your “vocal palette”! Let me give you an example… being able to belt is great, but can you modify the quality of your belt to suit the genre? Have you internalized the specifics of a traditional belt (Ethel Merman) vs. a contemporary belt (Stephanie J. Block) vs. a pop belt (Linda Eder) vs. a rock belt (Amy Spanger) vs. a “mix-belt” (Kerry Butler) vs. a gospel belt (Capathia Jenkins)… etc. And, perhaps more importantly, could you execute these qualities 8 shows a week without fatigue?? Food for thought: Men, can you assign male counterparts to the female belters I named? What sub-categories of “legit” singing could we identify?

Mindful Mastery Mondays…

BY Mike July 06, 2013

By popular request, each Monday I will be posting a “thought of the week” regarding the voice. Think of them as tidbits of technique, morsels of mindful mastery, hors d’oeurves of healthy habits, amuse-bouche of artistic-betterment.
I give you… Mindful Mastery Mondays. Mmmmm…

Mindful Mastery Mondays #1: Your vocal tension (be it tongue/jaw/occipital/etc.) exists for a reason! The body is wise and it’s telling you in no uncertain terms that there IS work to be done. Unfortunately, the work is being done in the wrong place(s)! Consciously give that tension over to stabilizing muscles that CAN help you, and the tongue/jaw/occiput/etc. will release and allow you to access your real potential. Food for thought: What muscles ARE appropriate for stabilizing the voice? How do we engage them?

“We’ll take Manhattan…”

BY Mike February 17, 2012

The studio has expanded beyond my wildest dreams, thanks to all you incredible singers who beat a path to my door every day. Consequently, no one is more thrilled than I to announce that my voice studio has permanently relocated to midtown! You’ll find me right in the heart of the Theatre District on 54th Street and 9th Avenue. (Next door to Music Theatre International!) Bare and echo-y though it may be at the present time, a crew of interior designers is working around the clock to transform the space into a haven for wayward singers. ;-)

“Wilkommen…”

BY Mike September 21, 2010

Hello singers! Thanks for visiting my website. This blog space will be constantly updated with new/current info regarding the studio and, more importantly, the voice in a holistic sense. I’ll be using this blog as a means to connect my clients across the globe with the latest pertinent information regarding vocal hygiene, health, longevity and other concerns of the professional voice user. Also, watch for reading and listening recommendations to round out our in-studio discussions.

I look forward to working with you soon!

M.