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Review York, England

Association of Teachers of Singing (AOTOS)

National Conference

This neat, pretty American in a smart red suit had travelled from California to give us an introduction to her Vocal Power teaching method. It did not surprise me when she said she had won the “Ms. Senior California of Long Beach” Pageant and will advance to the Ms. Senior California State Pageant singing, Violetta's aria, "Sempre Libera," from "La Traviata." Her classical training at the Juilliard School was as a coloratura soprano with subsequent coaching from such notables as James Levine and Darius Milhaud.

Admirably, as a teacher, she has confronted popular singing which is where many of her students will earn their living, and learned to identify and understand the various styles. She has analyzed the variety of sounds which popular singers of today use to colour their singing and named these sounds for easy reference. She stressed that she continues to listen and learn. Her enthusiasm was infectious and inspiring and I feel I have been given a “way in” to pop singing through her excellent analysis.

Her approach to breathing was the same for pop or classical, i.e. the “coughing/sneezing” muscles in the abdomen should engage when singing. She uses lip and tongue rolls to monitor the even breath emission. Her students do about half-an-hour of technique each lesson which will warm up the voice and strengthen it as well as familiarize the singer with its capabilities.

She gave us some exercises for power and projection in “chest” and “head” voice (falsetto in the male voice) which begin on a glottal (ow! in chest voice and ee! in head voice) and then for “mixed” voice. She considers that one can rise to F 5 in “belt-mix” if it is anchored in the mask and has steady lower back support. She constantly referred us to singers and songs where these aspects could be heard and she played short excerpts throughout.

There was a vocal colour exercise to move from chest colour to mouth colour to nasal and then head colour. Elisabeth also identified "special effects" in pop singing which she describes as “the back ‘L’” where the larynx is depressed using the tongue in a kind of ‘L’ at the back of the mouth. She also allowed us to hear examples of “the creaky door”, “the throat cry” and the “throat laugh”. Elisabeth gave us exercises for vibrato and dealt with the different kinds; vocal fold flutter (as with Edith Piaf), throat vibrato (Elvis), shimmery vibrato (jazz scatting and fast notes in classical singing), and diaphragmatic vibrato on the breath which has a slower pulse. Delayed vibrato is often used in pop but is also stylish in in Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Needless to say, Elisabeth only had time to give us a tantalizing brief introduction. She was hoping to deal with different scales, pop coloratura, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz styles and how they apply in modern Musical Theatre. If we were minded, she pointed us to her book “Sing” with 4 CD’s and a DVD which covers her initiative, the “Vocal Power method” comprehensively.

Having introduced us to music and sounds on the Friday which were, for me at least, rather out of my comfort zone, it was with some relief that the singers chose more familiar songs and styles for Elisabeth to work with. Here we could experience her excellent analytical skills in terms of style, interpretation and vocal production.

Debbie Lamley sang Strauss’ ”Allerseelen”, which obviously had great resonances for Elisabeth as we witnessed a tear in the eye as she explained the richness of the text to Debbie. It was certainly almost a word for word, note for note masterclass in expressing the text fully, using the throat sob and throat cry to colour certain phrases, and delayed vibrato on the long notes.

Many of the techniques Elisabeth talked about in relation to this piece were spoken about in relation to the subsequent songs. She recommended the use of the Alexander technique for singing students and told us that she often worked in tandem with an Alexander teacher. Elisabeth is convinced that for expression in popular and classical singing we use many of the same techniques.

She stressed the importance of knowing the translation of each word and the pronunciation of the double consonants in Italian and German and the use of glottal onsets in German. She pointed out to all the students that initial consonants should take place before the beat. I particularly liked the way she brought the picture of the room and the dead lover to life. Her phrase was, “You have to use all five senses” and she reminded us of the importance of “smell” in remembering a loved one. I also liked her phrase, “Don’t compromise the lungs”. There was almost too much information and insight in a short space of time for a young student to absorb but Debbie responded well and began to “feel” the song more and enrich her interpretation.

Sharon Plummer chose “The Flagmaker” from Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown. Again Elisabeth asked Sharon to set herself in a scene; who was she addressing, where was she, what was she doing. Then she asked her how she felt about the war and to express this emotion. She pointed out the importance of alliteration in the text and pointing it in one’s singing. Evidently when there are words like BLack, CLenching and GLaring, the American pronunciation requires Bulack, Culenching and Gularing. She also reminded us that the letters “l, d, b and m & n” should be sung on the pitch. For the alliteration “wise woman” Elisabeth suggested that Sharon sing the “w” as a vowel “oo”. She commended Sharon on her professional sound and approach.

Laura Currie sang “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess in Gershwin’s original high key. Laura was again asked to “see” her baby and think what she meant by the words. For words beginning with vowels like “easy” to be comprehensible and interpreted, Elisabeth was keen not to slur them, sometimes putting in a glottal for effect. She noticed a lack of adequate breathing space before the initial entry and pointed out that the sultry, lazy feeling of the song required a slower breath intake and a clear pitch preparation for the first note.

Elisabeth was impressed with Annabelle Pepper’s explanation of the story of Orfeo but again impressed on her the importance of understanding each word of the text of “Che faro” of Gluck. The Italian language often uses the rolled “r” but she pointed out that the “r” in faro is merely flicked because it is between two vowels. She felt that Annabelle was only using “half” her voice and worked with her to release some chest resonance. She used a low pitched exercise with glottal onset and asked Annabelle to release her tongue forward.

She described the feeling as “leaning into one’s chest”. She then mixed this sound with a resonance further in the mask and Annabelle emitted, and we experienced, a richer and very beautiful first phrase before we unfortunately ran out of time.