Voice teacher Peter Strobl on coaching, technique and working with Van Halen

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August 28, 2012 at 8:47 pm Quote #18702



Voice teacher Peter Strobl on coaching, technique and working with Van Halen
August 27, 2012
By: Alison Richter

Van Halen 2012
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The human voice is our most widely used instrument, and one we don’t often care for properly. From public speaking to fronting a band, voices take abuse on a daily basis, and with neglect, the damage may become irreparable.

Voice teacher Peter Strobl knows this, not only as an instructor, but also as a student who once damaged his voice under improper tutelage. Strobl was fortunate to be able to rebuild what he had lost, and since then, he has dedicated himself to teaching others the proper techniques to use and protect their voices.

His journey to becoming an esteemed voice teacher is a fascinating one, filled with art, culture, European influences and a lot of rock and roll. Additionally, Strobl is a musician, luthier and producer, and his talents have taken him around the world. He’s also the teacher behind those spot-on background vocals you hear on Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth and onstage.

Peter Strobl
Photo credit: Courtesy of Peter Strobl

In this interview, Strobl offers detailed information about proper voice training, dispels common myths, retraces the process and techniques that prepared Wolfgang Van Halen for studio and stage, and explains why onstage temperature is critical for the best possible performances.

Q: When did you relocate from Salzburg to California?

A: My dad’s family is Austrian going back centuries. My mom was Yugoslavian and ended up in Salzburg after the war. We came here when I was 3 and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, on a street that was as European as the one we had left in Europe. There was my uncle, my grandmother, a great uncle, and hardly anybody on the street spoke English. I didn’t speak English at all when I started school. We didn’t speak English at home until I was in high school and friends started coming over. We had a smokehouse in my great uncle’s garage, we made wine in my grandmother’s basement, and so I grew up in a fairly European environment. We came to California when I was 13, and when I was 15, I went back to Austria to visit my grandparents. That’s when I really started leaning toward classical music. I sat on a bench outside the Mozartaeum in the Mirabell Garden and listened to rehearsals and decided that’s really what I wanted to do.

Q: How influential was your European background in shaping your love for music and the arts?

A: Oh, it was huge. The first music that I recall hearing in the house was orchestral music and opera. My only uncle is a retired furniture builder who now builds harpsichords for fun. My dad played an old Silvertone guitar, and my folks would stand in the kitchen singing folk songs while my mom cooked. We had a pretty simple record player, and the records we had were German folk music, polka and classical music. When I was in junior high and first starting to get together with the guys in the neighborhood and playing electric guitars, I was sitting in my room and trying to figure out the melodies to Mozart arias from The Magic Flute and how to mash that into “Shapes Of Things” by the Yardbirds. I was always sitting on that fence. Then there was sports and basketball. My dad was a pretty good soccer player in Europe, so athletics also played a big part in my life. After I got more seriously involved in music, I was always torn between classical and the freedom of playing in a rock and roll band.

Q: When did you begin to play guitar and bass and understand voice and what it meant?

A: I started playing my dad’s old Silvertone in the house pretty young, 8 or 9 years old, and I didn’t know what I was doing. My dad used to play one-finger chords. By the time we got to California, I begged my parents for an electric guitar. For my birthday I got a Japanese guitar and a 65 Fender Champ amp, which I still have. It still sounds like brand new, amazingly so. Nothing else sounds like that. I was playing guitar, but nobody wanted to play bass, so I started playing and I really liked it. My feeling about the bass is there’s nobody else down there, so you’re playing solo all night long. Nobody’s in your way, so you don’t have to compete with anything, really. It became enjoyable to me to do that thing at the bottom.

When I was in high school, I had to do a district transfer to play basketball. The high school across town had a better basketball program, and the only way I could transfer was to take classes that weren’t offered at the high school I was supposed to attend. Those classes turned out to be music classes, so here I was, a 15-year-old jock, and I was required by the terms of the transfer to audition for this singing group. You had to read music, and I went to the audition, looked at the music, stood there and said, “I have no idea what to do with this crap,” threw it on the piano and went back to basketball practice. The next day, my name was on the list because the music teacher was a sports freak. He had gone to college as a football player, broke his collarbone and ended up in the music department. He became my mentor. He demonstrated to me that it was cool to be a jock and be involved with music, so I dived in, and two years later I was teaching music theory classes in summer school. By my senior year I was really singing well, so I put the guitar down for a while. I got the attention of a well-known teacher at a university who took me under his wing and gave me voice lessons. Working with him, while it boosted my ego, absolutely fried my voice. I was singing way beyond my years and doing things that 40-year-old guys should be doing. I was over-singing and the strain did me in. I couldn’t make a sound for six months. I went on to college, where my high school mentor was now the head of the vocal department, and he put me on a path to restoring my voice. It took a lot of hours per day, but we put the whole thing back together again and I never looked back. One of the cornerstones of the way I teach now is how I got back what I thought was gone forever.

In my second year of college, I went to Europe and sang with the Concentus Musicus, which was a ten-voice group made up of singers from the United States combined with ten instrumentalists from Europe. The European classical musicians that I hung out with were a lot of fun. They weren’t wandering around conducting to themselves with furrowed brows. They had a much looser approach to music than what I was experiencing in school. I started really having fun over there and I thought, I’m done with this school bit. I want to go on the road. I want to play rock and roll.

Q: This is proof of how critical it is to find the right teacher — one that knows what he or she is doing.

A: The voice teaching business in particular is so full of buffoons. I remember when aerobics got to be big. People would go to an aerobics class, and three classes later they were teaching aerobics in their living room and people were going home on crutches. Or people go to a yoga class and think, This would be fun to teach, but they don’t know the first thing about what’s behind it. Well, voice teaching is absolutely the worst. When I look at some of the videos on the Internet, I have to laugh out loud at some of the ridiculous, nonsensical techniques that are taught out there. It can be so much simpler than what these people think it is, but you really have to know what you’re doing; otherwise, you can hurt somebody.

Q: The Internet has created these experts.

A: That’s the thing. The Internet has democratized the ability to get information out there. What has happened, however, is that the filters are gone, so in the case of homemade music, the record industry is in shambles in large part because anybody and everybody with a resonant bathroom and a computer can make a record. It used to be that you heard on the radio what A&R guys decided was worth investing in — “Oh, we can sell this, so let’s put money into this and put it out there.” I think it’s great that there’s an artist in all of us, and everybody should be able to express themselves, but having the ability to inflict it on others is a dicey situation at best!

When you’re under the badge of authority in some way, or if you’re hawking DVD sets of how to do this or how to do that … I could look at a DVD of how to build a birdhouse, and if I’m not careful I could still cut my thumb off with the table saw if the guy who’s teaching me isn’t saying, “Wait a minute. Don’t turn the saw on before you move your hand.” You don’t have the interaction. You can see from a video that you put your fingers here and hit the string there and this note comes out, that’s all fine and good. But when it comes to what has to happen in order to make a musical sound with your face, there are so many ways to do things ineffectively. A teacher on the other side of the DVD has no idea what kind of screeching noises you might be making, and you can’t correct those things, so that’s just a moneymaker and it has nothing to do with education. Those DVDs are most effective if you get those wire things and hang them behind the lights on a Christmas tree and they look really good. I’ve often been asked to do lessons on Skype, but I just don’t want to. First, I feel guilty taking your money, because you’re not going to get the benefit, and second, it’s too frustrating because you’re not going to get a worthwhile result.

Q: When we hear the term voice teacher, the image that comes to mind is the instructor seated at the grand piano, the student standing beside him, and the repetition of scales, with possibly some knuckle rapping. Let’s clarify how it really works.

A: I draw a distinction in that I teach voice on the one hand, which is working with singers in building their instrument, in building a vocal pedagogy, in culturing their voice to produce the most efficient and pleasing sound that they can make with their instrument. That’s one thing. On the other hand, vocal coaching has to do with, “How do I sing a song?” Two different things. Vocal coaching has to do with working with singers. Vocal teaching has to do with working with people who wish to be singers. Building a voice is one thing. Learning what to do with it is another phase. For example, years ago I worked with Stephen Bishop for a short time when he was getting ready to do a tour and he was losing his voice. He was already a great singer, beautiful voice, great songwriter, and we worked on how to get through thirty gigs in forty nights. If you work with a noted singer with a characteristic voice, you can’t change the way they sound or you should be shot. You have to come up with ways that they can do what they do and sound like who they are and who the audience expects them to sound like. You can’t mess with that. You have to come up with a routine that they can do between gigs that gives them back what they left on the stage, so that they can start at ground zero at the next gig instead of on negative ground. It’s rehabilitation to get back to where they started.

Today, so much vocal coaching is involved with teaching people how to be note-hitters as opposed to teaching people how to be singers. You hear people talk all the time about, “So-and-so has a two-octave range,” and people go, “That’s no big deal. So-and-so has a four-octave range.” For anyone who’s got any brains at all, two octaves is a lot. It covers a lot of real estate. The national anthem is difficult to sing. You hear a lot of people crash and burn when they sing it. They either start too high and die in the end or they start too low and they can’t grunt out the low notes. And that thing is considerably less than two octaves. So when someone says, “So-and-so has a three-octave range,” who cares, because name me a pop song where you need that. No songwriter in his right mind is going to write anything more than maybe over an octave, unless you’re writing for Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand, people who are ridiculously gifted singers. Madonna’s records, for example — and this is not a judgment call, just an example — are made to be sung along with. The average person walking into a karaoke bar doesn’t have a two-octave range, so why would you write a song to put them off? It’s not going to sell any records. It’s not going to be popular because no one can sing along with it. The hook of a song is sometimes within four or five notes.

Q: What are some of the techniques and methods you use and how do they vary from, let’s say, Wolfgang Van Halen, who is a rock musician, versus an opera singer, versus someone who solos in the church choir?

A: Great question. I first started working with Wolfie previous to the 2007 tour. I initially started working with Ed and Wolfie on their background vocals. Wolfie was 16 or 17, a young guy, a blank slate. Going back into teaching the mechanics of singing, we started at the very beginning with him, like, “Let’s make a sound.” Fortunately, he’s a really, really hard worker. We worked as hard as he could physically pull off in an hour-long session and built and built that voice. I’ve got to say, it’s like a case study. It really worked. Nobody would question the fact that he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But when those doors open, you better bring the good stuff, because if you walk in empty-handed, there’s a door out just like there’s a door in. You can be associated with whoever you’re associated with, but if you don’t have the goods, a guy like Ed is not going to have somebody onstage that isn’t cutting it. That isn’t going to happen. Regardless of what anyone thinks, it’s just not going to happen.

By comparison, a soloist with the church choir has limitations in that they’ve built a host of bad habits that aren’t conducive to disciplined singing, because they’re physically not helping themselves every day. It’s like a weekend warrior who goes to Venice Beach, plays basketball with the guys, gets the shit knocked out of him, and puts himself together again so that he can play next Saturday. He nurses whatever he broke that day and goes back and takes it again. A guy like that has no business doing warm-up drills with the Los Angeles Lakers.

An opera singer has a cultured pedagogy and well-defined approach to how they do things. At my Mozartaeum workshops, I worked with classical singers in the opera program who also wanted to sing pop songs. I had a soprano singing “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it’s so difficult not to fall into that caricature of Pavarotti singing U2 songs. It just doesn’t work very well, because with pop songs you have to pay attention to what you’re singing, not how you’re singing it. You have to unlearn and take your technique off the pedestal and think more about communicating. Singing is like talking, but with art involved. You’re artistically communicating an idea. If somebody can’t accept the song because they can’t connect with your way of singing, or the self-absorbed way of hooking into all those years of voice lessons you took, then you’re not accomplishing anything. Ultimately, you have to connect with your audience, and if your audience is saying, “My, what masterful breath control,” or “I love the way she approached the fricative consonant on the sixth degree of the scale,” then you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do. The only thing they should walk away with is, “God, I love that song! Oh, that was so beautiful.” That’s when you know a singer has really done their job.

Studio singers who sing background are a whole other deal. More often than not, background singers are technically better than the people they’re singing behind, because they have to sing in tune and they have to sing on time. They’re expected to do it right the first time, where a lead singer has leeway because you’re talking about personality.

In the case of a total beginner, a clean slate, I always start with mechanics. And my first pitch goes something like: “This is going to be really intensive, it’s going to take a long time, a lot of hard work, and there is no shortcut. You’re not going to be singing a high C at 3:30 this afternoon or on Wednesday or two weeks down the road, if you’re not able to do that right now. But I can tell you that three months down the road, if you do what we decide you should do, possibly you’re going to be a lot closer. If you don’t cheat yourself and you work hard as hell every day, then six months down the road you’re going to have something worth talking about that you couldn’t have had any other way.” I mean, I can manipulate you into thinking you can hit a high note right now, but that’s not going to turn you into a singer. So when you’re talking about the guy at the piano doing repetitive vocal drills, I did a lot of that with Wolfgang, hour after hour after hour, because the physical repetition of doing that builds the habit so you don’t have to think about it. When you’re onstage and you’re singing in front of 20,000 people, you can’t be thinking about, Do I have my mouth open enough, did I take in enough air, is my uvula arching correctly, did I drop my jaw, am I resonating in my sinuses? That’s the furthest thing from your mind. You’re thinking about singing the lyrics to your songs so that people drive home singing the hooks to these songs and going, “Damn, man, they rocked!” You can’t be mentally involved with the technique. You’ve got to do that early. It’s like the great [UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden. He didn’t do a lot of coaching during games. He did his coaching in practice, where he busted those guys’ cookies and made them the fastest, quickest-thinking athletes they could possibly be, so that when they hit the court, he could just sit back and enjoy the game. He knew that his guys knew what to do because they had worked their asses off.

Q: Let’s back up. You coached father and son?

A: I worked with Ed for a while. He would sit on the piano bench next to me and we’d work on relaxing, breathing properly, chilling out and letting the words come out, rather than looking up and trying to scream them out. He’s written so much of that stuff, it’s his music, so it shouldn’t be difficult for him to do, but when you’re trying to step out of yourself, it can be daunting. When Ed is standing on a stage and playing with reckless abandon and smiling, he’s such a pleasure to watch work that I don’t even want to call it work. The whole singing thing should come easy to somebody like that, so if you apply a few techniques to make it even easier, then your audience is going to have a treat. If the singer is laboring, the audience picks it up and they’re laboring with you. No matter what is happening on the stage, most of the audience relates most empathetically with the singer. If he’s breathing in uncomfortable places, the audience will breath along with him and they’ll be just as uncomfortable. They won’t have any idea why, but they won’t enjoy the experience.

For example, a guitar soloist doesn’t have to breathe. They just play as long and fast as they can, and that kind of stuff is harder to listen to than a guitar player who plays phrases that he breathes, because the audiences gets to breathe with those phrases and it makes it a more pleasant experience. With singers, it’s absolutely critical that they breathe in logical places so that the audience breathes with them, and nobody passes out while they’re trying to finish a difficult line.

With Wolfgang, knowing that a singer is going to be playing an instrument while they’re singing, I think it’s very helpful to put the instrument in that person’s hand and have them play the vocal exercises. Pretty early on I’d say, “Go grab a bass and learn the sequences and play along while you’re singing,” because it brings rhythmic integrity into the picture. It ties in what you’re doing with both of your hands at the same time that you’re using your face and your breathing muscles. You can build vocally all you want, but the minute you put an instrument in your hands, all bets are off because now you’re doing two things at once.

This is something I discovered years ago. I had moved into a new apartment and my piano was completely out of tune. I had students coming in that week and I couldn’t use the piano, so I used a bass and played the vocal exercises. Think of what this will do for intonation when you learn to relate to the dominant note in any instrument group, which is the bottom end, the bass. If you’re not relating to that, you’re just floating around and hoping you get the pitch, but if you relate to that, it makes you a much more accurate singer. Sure, you can bend notes, there are reasons to drift occasionally. But knowing that you’re drifting is better than drifting because you don’t know any better. So for guitar players and bass players, I think it’s really important to play the exercises as you do them, because then, when you’re backstage and warming up, you don’t need to have Schleply Shlemazel at 500 bucks an hour from Studio City to warm you up. You can sit in the dressing room, put headphones on, plug in your guitar and warm up. By the same token, I teach guitar and bass as well, and when students want to learn to solo, I don’t let them throw their fingers around. I make them sing every note they’re playing, because that makes them play it more as if they were singing it. All of a sudden, some of them go, “I didn’t even know I could sing.” It ties it all together.

Q: You trained Wolfgang for the road. For an artist who sings in the studio, onstage and on tour, do you use the same techniques for each medium or are they different? On the road, the temperature is controlled for you, you change venues every night, you live in hotels and on a bus, you’re in and out of airports and airplanes, sleep is disrupted and so forth.

A: Getting ready for the tour was a pretty daunting task because it’s not like you’re ramping up by playing clubs for ten years. All of a sudden, bam, there’s 20,000 people who paid a lot of money — sing! It’s a really big deal. So it was the fast track. The first thing we worked on instantly was posture, standing in a way that somebody isn’t going to be able to knock you over, standing in a way that, when you’ve got your instrument on, you’re able to physically do the things you need to do to make those sounds project into the microphone. Immediately, we had to shift even the position of the microphone because they were singing with the microphone pointed down. They were singing with their chins reaching up into the microphone. I don’t know what the thought process was. I’ve seen other people do that, thinking that if you look up, you can hit high notes, which is erroneous. So we were immediately figuring out how to work within the environment that the tour was going to entail: standing onstage with a microphone in your face, as opposed to just building a voice. We had to do two things at once.

Then it was building endurance, because singing “Somebody get me a doctor” forty times in three minutes takes a lot out of you, even if you were just standing there. But you’ve got a bass on and you’ve got to walk around and connect and everything else. The first thing we approached was breathing exercises, phonating, creating a sound. Then I looked at what he was being asked to sing, and how do you start these consonants at the beginning of these words and start them in a way that’s going to efficiently make that happen? What’s the difference between saying the word and singing the word up really high where he’s got to do it? How do you approach that and come up with exercises? “Running With The Devil” starts with the American letter R, which is a killer because it has pitch, “er,” so how do you go “er-unning with the devil” without ramping that up? As a background singer, you have to be there first. You have to make that R on the same pitch as the “unning.” So it was coming up with exercises where you do five or ten R’s in a row repetitively so that your tongue, and the muscles in the back of your throat, and your brain all know what to do without you having to remember, “Don’t scoop every time you open your mouth, every time you step up to the microphone.” That’s where repetition comes into it. And there is no shortcut.

Q: Scoop?

A: Scoop is going from one pitch to the next — “running,” even when I say it, the “er” is down here and the “unning” is up there, so when you say it on a pitch, the R has to be thought on that top pitch because your diaphragm and your breath are not engaging fast enough. You’re not starting singing while you’re doing the R. You’re starting singing after you’ve done the R, which is too late. There are a ton of consonants like that — M, D, B — so you have to do exercises that highlight those consonants and the right vowel of what it is you’re going to be singing, specifically make those repetitive, and hammer them home so that you don’t have to think about them anymore. When they come up in a song, your technique has to be evolved to the point that it just happens, rather than, “Oh, I’d better think about this.” That’s just too late.

What type of schedule does the student undertake in order to do this?

In Wolfgang’s case, I worked in their environment. I went to them and worked with him in his comfort zone. We worked three and sometimes four or five days a week in a row, whenever they were rehearsing. When they were rehearsing for the album, they rehearsed like crazy. When they were doing the writing sessions and rehearsing, I would go in on rehearsal days, two hours before the rehearsal, and work, work, work, and then he’d be tuned up and ready to rehearse. When they moved to Henson, I would still meet them at 5150 and work there before. He’d go from there to the recording studio. He was really intense. If everybody, everywhere, worked that hard, they’d all be good at what they do. Wolf is no joke. There’s a reason why he’s doing as well as he does — because he works really hard. It was really intense before recording. We were working three or four days a week. When you train for the studio, you train for specific situations. What are the songs you’re singing, what are the words you’re singing in those songs, and then you get really specific. Getting ready to go on tour, you can be a little bit more general about it because you want to build stamina, you want to build good habits, and you also want to build the ability to spit out the best you’ve got and be able to do it night after night.

In the studio, if you get it that one time and you really kill it and it’s there forever, then you’ve got to come up with a way to do it every time. Everybody goes, “That was amazing,” which is a blessing and a curse because you might only have one of those in you and then you end up chasing that forever. When you get ready to go out on tour with that, you have to do that over and over again. Years ago, I was musical director for Gary Puckett for six and a half or seven years. Gary is an amazing singer, he made some incredible records, and as a vocalist he was at the top of his game when he made those records. But can you imagine having a zillion-selling record and having to sing that hit song over and over and over again and having to sing it the way you recorded it? Unless you like to wear the same T-shirt and shorts every day, you want to do things a little bit differently and be creative, and it’s difficult to do if your song is a classic iconic performance. You have to do it exactly the same. It can get to be boring, but you can’t let it.

Q: How does the artist continue his work?

A: It really depends on the level of the artist. I like to think that people who work with me, in addition to knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, end up with a confidence level that is conducive to being an ass kicker as opposed to being an ass kickee. I think the world is divided into those two kinds of people. You reach a point where you might say, “I need to see Pete about this,” or “That work I did with Pete gives me the ability to figure this out myself.” It could work either way. Some people are more comfortable with seeing my face, but I’m just as happy with someone who has learned to be an ass kicker and faces things head on, although I’m always happy to get together and see where the problems are, because there are always ways to improve — always.

Q: How does the artist practice on the road? Regardless of the stereotypes, it is a grueling lifestyle, much more so than most people realize.

A: First of all, I don’t think that the average person has any idea what touring takes out of you and what these people do for a living. They don’t have any idea the level of the physical demands that it puts on you. Eating strange food, sleeping in a strange bed, traveling all the time — it adds up to potential disaster looking for a place to happen. For most of the people I work with, I record the exercises and they walk away with a CD or a USB flash drive. They load it into their iPod and they’ve got a routine of 15 or 20 minutes, maybe a half hour, that they can do as many times a day as they want, because there’s nothing there that’s going to hurt them. It’s all geared toward building. If there are specific lyric issues, we’ll address those and put a routine together. In Wolfie’s case, he’s able to play whatever he needs to, so I would hope that he takes a little bit of time every day and works on whatever weaknesses might come up. The last time we walked out of the rehearsal studio he was in great shape, and at his age I would expect him to just get better. The tenor voice, which is the high male voice, doesn’t really mature until you’re close to 40. That’s when it starts hitting on all eight cylinders, so if you’re not killing yourself, you’re going to keep getting better as long as you’re doing things properly and in a way that is conducive to building the voice rather than tearing it down.

Q: Is there a pre-show warm-up, and if so, what should it entail?

A: I would hope so. When I was working in bands, we would sing through all the background vocals together in the dressing room. How long is that going to take? Just run through them. You have to get your head together, you have to get your voice together, you have to get rid of whatever is hanging on to you from whatever happened the night before, because it’s the real world. So I think running through songs is definitely helpful from a mental standpoint. From a physical standpoint, I think it’s important to do support exercises, I think it’s important to do resonating exercises, and I think it’s important to run through whatever specific problem areas you might have, but those problem areas get to be less and less the more proficient you are.

My opinion is that singers are normally the least qualified people in a band because they can get by with wearing spandex and owning a good microphone. They can just walk in and do their thing. Even drummers, whom everybody makes fun of, have coordination and can usually read rudimentary notes. Singers can get by without having to know anything. It’s true! If singers would consider themselves for a moment to be musicians as well, and not want to be pointed at and laughed at by the musicians in the room, if they shouldered the responsibility of learning how to read simple rhythms, at least be able to point at notes so they can follow along or whatever, just any little thing they can do to be better, I think it would be fantastic. For a singer to shoulder the responsibility of not having to go up to a microphone and clearing their throat and going, “Oh, I’m a little husky today” — screw that! Nobody’s paying to see that. Sing the damn song! Could you imagine a boxing match where the fighter comes in without warming up? Three seconds later the guy is flat on his back and out cold, and the crowd wants their money back.

I always try and sneak in a little bit of music theory and some anatomy when I teach. Singers come to me that have studied with someone else, sometimes famous, notable people, and I’ll say, “What do you know about support?” They say, “I’m supposed to sing from my diaphragm.” “Where is your diaphragm?” “Well, it’s … it’s … like … right …” Just answer the question and say, “I don’t know!” The only way you can learn is to know what you don’t know and to admit you don’t know it. Let’s start there. Knowing that if you drop your jaw a certain level, that your jaw works as a hinge that goes down and in and not down and out, so you don’t jut your jaw out and create unneeded tension in your throat. Or knowing that your neck muscles are made to hold your head up and not out in front of you like a cantilevered flying buttress on Notre Dame, because that makes your head weigh about 30 percent more and adds more stress to your neck. All the vocal architecture — how is your body built, and how can you most effectively use it to get the point across so that people aren’t looking at you thinking, “God, he looks like he’s suffering.”

Q: You mentioned support exercises and resonating exercises. Please explain.

A: You breathe for two reasons: to stay alive and to create a sound. If you breathe too often, you end up with bad air in your lungs because the oxygen’s been used up already and you either hyperventilate or starve yourself for oxygen. One way or the other, you end up having to clear your lungs before you can take another lung of air. So I do exercises using H’s and consonants that use a lot of air that are fast and repetitive so that your body learns to meter. It’s like your breathing apparatus for singing needs to have a zero balance at the end of the phrase because you have to clear it all out before you can take another breath. I urge my students to use air and to use it up. Don’t try and conserve it, because when you’re done with it, you get more. It’s free. When you breathe too shallow, you end up getting nervous and edgy, and then you breathe shallow again, so it develops a vicious circle. Initially, I really work to isolate the muscles that are used correctly for singing, and use them in a repetitive way so that the singer subconsciously starts hooking into, “This is what I should be feeling all the time.” Everybody is different. I start from the same place, but I tailor things to what works best.

Resonating has to do with opening up the hollow areas in your head that should be ringing while you’re singing. I like to focus on the forehead being the sweet spot, rather than your mouth, because it’s all about trying to make something very specific happen on a physical level, using parts of the body over which you really have very little direct control. You can’t say sing from your head. It’s like saying, “Sing from your diaphragm.” What does that mean? It gets used so much. Let’s get specific. What does it mean? Then there’s the actual act of phonation, which is making a sound, and how did that happen? The vocal cords are just a small valve that happen to make sound. Their primary purpose is to keep things from falling into your lungs so you don’t asphyxiate when you eat. There are other things that help that; the epiglottis and the uvula that close things off and help move things in the direction they’re supposed to go. When you sing, after you inhale, the air goes in reverse and the airflow goes past your vocal cords, which open up as you inhale. As the air comes out, the airflow goes through the glottis, the opening between the vocal folds, and the airflow pulls them in toward each other. They want to relax and go back, but the airflow continues to pull them toward each other. When that coming together and relaxing apart happens 440 times in one second, you’ve got the note A. It’s that cycle, that vibration, that happens at whatever number per second to create whatever note happens.

It goes really fast, so when you’re abusing your vocal cords, you’re doing it a number of times per second and you’re really asking for problems. If you look at slow-motion film of the vocal folds as they’re vibrating, whatever is between them gets vibrated to the edges. It’s like dropping a rock into a pool and the circles go outward, so just by singing and making a pitch, you’re helping to clear what’s in your throat. I’ve had singers who had troubling throat situations and had to sing. I warmed them up and got them through by doing it slowly and patiently. You can’t just push a button. You can’t just go, “Do this, lift your arm, jump up and down three times and click your heels.” That’s not how it works. You have to know how it works and how to make it work efficiently and also know that it might not happen. So the correct phonation is absolutely critical.

Every guitar player in the world knows how to change his strings on a guitar. They know how to tune the guitar. They know when a wire’s off. How many singers have any idea what’s going on inside their instrument? They don’t know. I do a lot of work with mirrors and make them look at themselves. A singer will lean his head forward or reach out with their chin and cause all sorts of tension. You have to problem-solve, because if somebody doesn’t get it, it’s on me to get them to understand what the problem is and come up with solutions. A lot of it has to do with posture. Someone who sits at the piano and sings is different from someone who plays guitar and sings or someone who stands at a microphone. Every case is different and they all have to be approached. The problem with classical teaching in many instances is that the practical applications aren’t specific enough. It’s militaristic and stuck in “This is the way I learned, this is the way I teach.” For 35 years I’ve been adjusting to knowing what needs to happen, and making it happen in the world of the person that’s asking me to help them, as opposed to, “You have to do it my way.” Yes, you’re going to do it my way, but you’re going to think it’s your way and it is, because you’re the only one who has to do what you have to do.

Q: What about diet, exercise, caring for the voice on the road? This isn’t an instrument that you pack away for the night when the show is over.

A: Correct. Wow, that’s huge, especially in the world of rock and roll, because your voice is constantly being abused. You’re in a bar, you’re at a party, you’re doing whatever. The hardest thing on your voice is speaking, because you’re not thinking about all the correct things you need to do in order to sing. Your posture is bad, you’re not supporting, your throat gets tired and you talk right through it and it’s the worst thing in the world. I’ve had attorneys and teachers take lessons with me because they can’t get through the day without getting a sore throat. If the exercises that I send somebody away with are done on a repetitive basis, then the things you lose from cold air or a crappy diet or not enough rest or talking too much — all those things should be alleviated.

People sometimes have a tendency to listen to music too loudly. Say you’ve got ringing in your ears. The average person thinks, Let me rest my ears and sit in silence. The ringing gets louder because there’s no other sound in there. It would be better to put headphones on and listen to classical music at a really low volume. Your ear readjusts and starts seeking out all those little sounds and you get rid of the ringing. It’s the same thing with singing. If you feel damaged, rather than just shut up — if you’ve really injured it, you’ve got to shut up for a couple of weeks — but if you’re working every night and you make small noises in a falsetto to just make things move, it promotes healing because the movement brings blood to the areas where it needs to go. It brings oxygen and healing to damaged tissue. You have to do something, but you have to do something that’s gentle and rehabilitative rather than forcing your way through.

Q: What about food, diet, drinking certain teas, avoiding dairy, and every other thing that singers claim will do the trick?

A: If anything you eat ever gets near your vocal cords, you’re going to choke, because your vocal cords are in your air passage. Ice cream doesn’t get anywhere near your vocal cords. If it did, you’d be dead. Now, if ice cream causes a general mucus reaction in your body, then it’s probably not the best thing to do. Enrico Caruso smoked two packs of Egyptian cigarettes a day. He died at 48, August 3, 1921, but he didn’t die from cigarettes. He died because he had an infection of his pleural cavity and he allowed this Italian doctor to examine him, and he examined him with a dirty probe and he got an infection and croaked. Very sad. But people do what people do. There are things that probably aren’t good for you. I don’t think smoking has ever made anybody a better singer, but listen to the Beatles’ best records and they’re all smoking like chimneys. They smoked and drank and partied and sang their asses off — but they were also in their 20s, so that goes a long way. Genes go a long way. Age goes a long way. A singer with great technique can eat a ham sandwich with double cheese and sing circles around someone who’s got an atomizer and an assistant with water from the damned iceberg and a blanket and a wool this and a that and no technique. It’s all about your body knowing what to do and how to do it. Someone who’s got great technique and takes care of their body is going to kick ass for a longer time and have a longer career. That goes without saying.

Q: How does onstage temperature affect the voice?

A: Cold air is always not too great because your body is trying to stay warm, but dryness is a lot more difficult to deal with than cold temperature. I think air conditioning and fans and moving air are really difficult because that tends to dry things out. I would rather sing in a humid, muggy atmosphere than in either a hot or cold dry atmosphere. I think it’s really hard on your voice. All you have to do is have a wind machine aimed at you for five minutes and you realize you have no voice left. You’re just fried. A lot of recording studios are kept fairly cold because of the equipment, so there’s always been that balance of how do you keep the studio at the right temperature for the equipment, and air moving past all the heat syncs and equipment vents, but still have it be comfortable for a singer to do what they need to do. That’s a consideration, and singers need to address that. They need to find their sweet spot. If it’s a vocal booth that’s separate from the equipment, a lot of engineers will keep it cold to take care of the microphone. The singer has to have the nuts to say, “That microphone, no matter how nice it is, isn’t going to sound like much if I can’t sing. You have to meet me halfway and give me what I need so that I can give your microphone what you need.”

Q: In an arena with 20,000 people, where the temperature is dropped to keep the audience comfortable, can that cold air be detrimental to the musicians?

A: That’s a really difficult situation because you’re dealing with a big space and you can’t do the same thing for every square inch of the room. It’s a big deal to create an environment on the stage that’s different from the environment that exists in the seats. I don’t know if anybody has ever really addressed that. Because the minute you start moving a lot of air, that’s when things get dry, so maybe you could move air and have humidifiers going at the stations. Then again, humidifiers are bad for metal parts and electronics. I don’t know if anyone’s ever gotten it right. But absolutely, air makes a huge amount of difference. And the audio conditions, the sound conditions — nowadays you’ve got in-ear monitors and they really help, but at the same time they’re awfully close to your eardrum, so you’ve got to be really careful and know what you’re doing so that you don’t do yourself damage down the road. I don’t think music was meant to be done in arenas, but it is, so you have to deal with it.

Q: Not all musicians can afford a voice teacher. Any tips or suggestions?

A: That’s tough. It’s possible to find people that aren’t that expensive, and an hour with somebody like that, if it’s the right person, is better than a weekly lesson with a charlatan, because obviously, people who do this for a living have to keep you hanging on, keep you coming back, keep working with you. I would like to think that everyone I’ve ever worked with eventually finds me totally irrelevant, that they can do it all on their own. It’s always nice to see them again, but the job is to become irrelevant. If you’re a singer, you should shoulder the responsibility of becoming a better musician and understanding your instrument, whether that’s through reading or watching videos or whatever. But if you’re going to do that, you can’t attach yourself to any one thing too quickly. If you’re not going to get guidance from someone who really knows what they’re doing, then you have to look at it from as many different angles as you can to be able to detect where you might be going wrong. Because if you go wrong, you could go horribly wrong. One thing to keep in mind is that there’s a huge difference between being a note-hitter and a singer of songs. I had a guitar student come in, a teenager, and he played me the fastest shit I’ve ever heard in my life, this wide, sweeping thing he learned from YouTube. I put a metronome on at 60 beats a minute and I said, “Play the same thing you just played at that tempo.” He couldn’t do it. He didn’t know the notes he was playing. So we started there. Let’s start at the point at which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about and start chipping away at those things first before you try to impress anybody or baffle them with bulls–t. Because the people that really know, really know.

Learn more about Peter Strobl at http://www.petestrobl.com/

Special thanks to photographer Shawn Cooper for providing the Van Halen 2012 concert images that accompany this interview.

August 28, 2012 at 10:35 pm Quote #18711


Very interesting ! I wonder if he has ever worked with Dave ?

When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?

August 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm Quote #18720


Very interesting !I wonder if he has ever worked with Dave ?

He should be, if he isn’t.

The poor folks play for keeps down here…They’re the living dead. Nobody rules these streets at night like Van Halen!!


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