Chelsea Wilson, Broadway Coach and founder of The Balanced Singer joins us to talk about “mix”
Jordan:Thank you so much for joining us today, Chelsea.
Chelsea:It’s my pleasure.
Jordan:We’re extremely excited to have you on the show. Tell us about your story, what brought you to where you are today and what is it you’re doing
Chelsea:Great! Yes, so I live and work in New York City. I’m a voice teacher and a vocal coach. I run a private studio of my own students and I also coach on a few Broadway shows. I’m the vocal coach on “School of Rock” the musical and “Phantom of the Opera”- two very, very different shows. Um, and it’s been quite a journey to be, to be where I am now. I moved to New York six and a half years ago and, my intention was really to, to be an actor and to support myself as an actor. I was going to teach voice lessons. So I guess back up a little bit further, when I was a senior in high school, I had been studying with this most phenomenal voice teacher, Jeffrey Skousen in Las Vegas and at the time he was with an organization called speech level singing, which is a contemporary voice technique led by Seth Riggs, a celebrity vocal coach and they certified and trained teachers all around the world.
Chelsea:And I was like, wow, I love this. I really love this kind of contemporary pedagogy and this would be awesome if I could teach voice lessons, you know, when I’m older one day. And so I signed up with the program and went through that training for the next several years in 2014…or 2013 most all of our teachers started a new organization called Institute for Vocal Advancement. And I made that change at that time as well. And I’m still pursuing, you know, continuing education through that organization. And now, you know, 10 plus years later I get to do teacher training and mentor teachers all around the world with that organization. So then back to moving to New York City in 2012, I was auditioning and you know, pursuing a performance career and few years into that I just really found my passion teaching and really found that to be, you know, what I felt I was called to do and, and working with individuals and getting them from point a to point b to point c was just so exciting and thrilling to be able to bring my expertise and really make a difference in singers’ lives. And so that’s my full time gig. I’m teaching full time and again, like I said, with my private studio as well as coaching on these shows and it’s just, it’s such a thrill to be on the other side of it and to be able to support actors and singers and artists on their journey at whatever point they are at.
Austin:That’s wonderful. I’m really curious, what is a day to day look like for you? What is your, uh, description for how you work with other singers and how do you help them? What would you do in a given even a given week?
Chelsea:Each week, I’m at the studio, I rent studio space in midtown Manhattan and I’m in the studio maybe five or even sometimes six days a week, and teach afternoons and early evenings and my private students come into see me and again, it’s a real range from professional theater artists to aspiring professional theater artists to singer-songwriters,and total amateur singers just wanting to improve. And, I guess the, my goals for all of my students, no matter where they’re at on that amateur to professional scale, is that they are able to sing through their whole voice, their whole range with connection and balance. So connection meaning there’s no weird flips or breaks. There are certainly transitions, right? We’re transitioning from one register to the next, but we want that to be as smooth as possible and balanced, meaning no part of the voice feels more squeezed or more breathy.
Chelsea:We’re able to find that, that balanced clear sound from bottom to top. And once we can find that balance within one’s voice and then again it’s going to feel and sound different in each different person because we all have our unique instruments. But once we find that balance, we can then lean to a more belt sound, or we can lean towards a more legit sound, but we’re trying to find that perfect balance to begin with because once you have that, you really can do anything you want stylistically. And that’s what’s so thrilling about coaching and being a teacher is that you really get to… I get to lead and guide people through that process and help them kind of put together their voice in ways that they haven’t experienced it before.
Chelsea:The most common thing that I see, especially with musical theater females is that they’ve treated their voice as two instruments, right? They’ve got a head voice and that’s where they sing. They’re legit soprano stuff and they’ve got their chest voice and that’s where they do their belty musical theater and never the Twain shall meet. And that’s really such an issue because in contemporary musical theater and just contemporary music in general, pop/rock, you’re constantly singing through that middle part of the voice. Men and women, right? You’re constantly singing through that first passagio, second passagio, and it’s crucial that the voice is put together without it. You just. You’re left with very little options and so everything that you’re doing is a technical necessity and not because you stylistically chose for it to be that way. So I find that being able to help put these, put singers’ voices together and give them more technique, better technique just means more options for their artistry.
Jordan:Right. Would you say that it’s more challenging to help females with that? With mix in particular because they have that idea that it’s so separate the head voice in the chest voice then if you’re working with a male student, is that more challenging or is it just different?
Chelsea:I think it’s sometimes. I think it’s actually more challenging with men because I think a lot of men have a real preconceived notion of, oh well my head voice is I. I’m never going to sing in my head voice or people who are crazy tenors. “That all sounds like one voice to me, so it must just be bringing up chest voice.” So honestly it’s, it’s, I mean, I think every individual is different certainly, but so many men just think the only way to belt higher is just to drag their chest voice up. But this concept of, of mix, that’s when the light bulbs go off when they really understand like, oh, this isn’t what I thought it was. So maybe we should talk about what that is.
Austin:Yeah. What does that, what does that mean?
Jordan:You know, the focus of this episode is mix voice, so yes, please give us your definition of what a mixed voices.
Chelsea:Yeah, absolutely. So defining what a mix is to keep it as simple as possible. I define it as the blending of the registers. So I think that most voice professionals can acknowledge the existence of at least two registers, right? Chest voice and head voice. And in female singers, a middle register as well.
Jordan:Would you mind demonstrating real quick what those sound like for our listeners?
Chelsea:Absolutely. Yeah. So we’re, we’re acknowledging there’s at least two registers, so chest voice that spoken place or that place that, you know, if you’ve got a normal healthy voice is where you’re speaking and head voice, that lighter, hootier place. And in female voices we also have a more of a middle register than men do. So we’re acknowledging that we’ve got these different rooms in our voices and to avoid sounding like we’re flipping or yodeling our way through. We really have to learn how to blend them. They have to start to blend together and that’s mixing! Being able to gradually change or adjust from chest, register into head register and keep it as smooth as possible. I also like to think about it sometimes as a spectrum of color. Like if chest choices a deep red and had voices white, there’s every shade of pink in between, right? It’s not like a light switch. We’re not just all of a sudden red and now we’re white. It’s every color of pink in between every shade, so we can find that connection. You know, as smooth as possible from bottom to top and back down again.
Austin:So when you’re working with your students, are you mainly trying to bring, especially with the males when they have that chest dominated issue, when they start off singing, is your goal more to bring the top down and battle that chest up issue that they’re dealing with? Is that more kind of your approach?
Chelsea:Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think we do have to acknowledge, first of all that we have to sing in multiple registers to begin with. Right? You don’t just get to choose one. Women don’t just get to sing exclusively in their head voice and men can’t sing exclusively in their chest voice or vice versa. Um, and so I think again, each individual is different and everyone comes in to the studio or you know, into voice lessons with a certain tendency. And certainly many men, especially musical theater men, tend to sing very heavy, meaning they’re dragging that chest voice up as high as they can.
Chelsea:I tend to go flat on the top their vowels get super wide and splatty. They lose a lot of overtones, that ring and ping in the voice, just kind of goes away. Um, and so with them, it’s about acknowledging, okay, we need to find some stretch in the vocal folds, right? If you think about your voice like a rubber band, which in some ways it kind of is. They stretch those vocal folds, stretch and thin as we ascend in pitch. It’s the only way we ever get to high notes. Um, and so without that feeling of, stretching into some of that head voice experience, um, you know, the range stays very limited because you are only saying in, in chest voice. So for me, with a student like that maybe who’s tending quite heavy. It’s introducing them to their head voice, here’s what that feels like, get comfortable with it, acknowledge that transition. You might flip and crack a ton and, but we’ve just got to acknowledge you’ve got to get from one place to the other and then we can start to smooth that out. Then we can start to feel that even an easy stretch from chest into blending in a bit more head voice.
Jordan:Could you talk about how you help your students find out what mix voice is, like what are a few exercises you use to help them discover that?
Chelsea:So for a lot of people trying to find that head voice experience, just asking them to do that. Really hooty “hooo hooo.”
Chelsea:let’s just see what’s even there. Right. And then in terms of connecting the two, you know, a variety of exercises with a lot of men. I like to do a lot of nastier pharyngeal sounds
Chelsea:“Nay. Nah nah nah.”
Chelsea:keeping it really ugly. Really funny. That really helps to kind of thin out the vocal folds so that they’re able to stretch up into the top. Right. As opposed to, you know, something heavier on a different vowel. The thing I see, especially with women who are coming from a classical background is acknowledged, having them acknowledge their chest voice, having them acknowledge that real spoken place and you know, thankfully we all talk all day long and so most women can get there by by encouraging them to work on just kind of spoken, spoken sounds. “No, no, no.” And then putting that on a five tone: ” No, no, no, no, no. Mum, mum, mum, mum, mum”
Chelsea:Okay. Once you kind of find that chest voice, once you kind of find that feeling, hold onto that. Let’s put it on a longer scale. Maybe an octave that’s going through the passaggio and just feel what it feels like to to start in chest voice and then have to transition out and come back down to it.
Chelsea:Come back down instead of:
Chelsea:Right? Once you’re in that head voice register, we just…we’d love to stay there. So many women would love to stay there, but we’ve got to acknowledge we’ve got to come back down to chest voice. I’d love to hear from you Jordan, what has been your understanding of what mixing is like? Is that something that never entered the classical world and it only exists in musical theater or does it only exists for women? What’s been your experience with that?
Jordan:That’s what’s interesting to me is mix is all I’ve been doing as a tenor. Baritones mix of course too, but especially once I started transitioning to tenor, I realized how much head voice I’ve had to mix into my sound. We just don’t call it mix voice really in classical training. I haven’t seen that as much. They talk about using head voice and making it heady, but we don’t use this term mix that’s so prevalent in musical theater instruction, but that’s totally what it is. Like if we were tenors, you know, trying to do stuff with just their chest voice would not sound very appealing.
Austin:Yeah, absolutely not. No.
Chelsea:Yeah. I never really thought about that. Jordan. There was just not. Yeah. I really don’t hear the word mix a lot classically. It’s a really good point.
Chelsea:Yeah, and I’d say, you know, especially in working with classical females who come in, they had, they had this thing of like, oh, is this whole other technique and you know, I really like to explain to my students like, no, that’s just the technique that just is technique. Good technique is just the ability to get through your whole range and blend it in a smooth way and then there’s the stylistic things that we can add on top of that, but it’s not like this whole other thing, but although I guess sometimes it really is for other people, they’ve really been exclusively trained. I only use my chest voice or I only use my head voice and therefore this idea of one voice is so new. I guess often people have understood the term mix as almost like an alternative to belting. Right. Again, mix as a term doesn’t necessarily exist so much in classical music, but it’s a, it’s a term we use a lot when we are talking about a, like a belt kind of a sound. So could I ask again maybe what does belt mean to you guys? What kind of connotations you have when you think about belting versus mixing or just belting on its own?
Austin:Can I be honest as a naive classical singer, can I tell you what I think that means? I think belting means a stuck, no vibrato, uh, and then maybe a little bit of shimmer at the end. I know that that’s not the truth and I want to learn what it does mean!
Chelsea:Yeah. And Jordan, what would you say about that?
Jordan:I think of it as being more chest dominant. That’s what I hear in belting is a more chesty sound than say a, um, a high coloratura soprano riffing, in her head voice. I hear a lot more thyroarytenoid work, which is that chest voice.
Chelsea:Yeah, sure. Okay, cool. Awesome. So I, I like to kind of redefine this for my students, but it’s always so much easier if we’re on the same page, right? Yeah. So old school belting or old school kind of thoughts or notions about what belting is, is to think about, you know, a belt technique and in the olden days, in the olden days, as early as recently as like 15, 20 years ago, um, that was essentially just dragging your chest voice up as high as you could. Right. And so that’s where this gets just this ugly connotation in the vocal community is like, oh, belting is so bad for you. Well, yeah, yelling in your chest voice is very bad for you. But um, musical theater and pop music, the melodies have just gotten so much higher and higher and higher than demands have had gotten so much higher.
Chelsea:It’s nearly impossible to, to stay in your chest voice exclusively. Right? So that doesn’t work. Um, so I like to define belt as a style that we can layer on top of what we’re doing technically. So again, if you found that balance in your voice, you found that perfect mix of that perfect blend from bottom to top; then from there, let’s choose to lean into a belt sound. Let’s use thicker vocal folds and maybe a little bit more compression to get that powerful sound. And that’s what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to belt our mix. We’re going to belt a blend opposed to belting chest voice and you can really hear this shift over the years in the great musical theater belters. A couple examples of chest voice belters- women who just leaned into their chest voices- you know, that’s Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone a lot of the time and Idina Menzel like, she’s a pretty chesty belter, you know, versus Sutton Foster or Cynthia Erivo, Lindsay Mendez, Sherie Rene Scott, Taylor Louderman currently in “Mean Girls.”
Chelsea:I mean these, these women are belting their faces off, but they’re belting mixes, they’re belting a blend. They’re not belting out chest voice. And the distinction and the difference orally is immense. You get all of those overtones, you get all that ring and the ping it cuts in a way that’s so exciting as opposed to stopping two feet in front of them and not carrying over an orchestra. It’s such a thrilling sound when, when women and and men are able to lean into their voice, get a little bit more compression in those upper registers of their voice. Um, and it sounds like Gabel, I mean, that’s, that is what they’re doing, or do you think about that?
Jordan:I love that. And something that I was just thinking about is how fascinating it is. How sounds change over time. You know, you said it’s really like chest dominant belting earlier on maybe, and then went on into this mix. And same thing with classical voice. You know, we, we started singing in these, halls and there were, there were no microphones. That’s why classical voice is producing a certain way. It’s meant to fill a certain space. And now with the invention of the microphone and these intimate spaces and the sound systems getting better and better, I feel like a mixed voice makes a lot of sense. You can cover this whole range in sound like one seamless voice and you don’t have to worry about getting that huge sound over an orchestra with maybe like belting really low chesty stuff.
Austin:And I love that you both talked about kind of the evolution of the musical theater belt because I think especially with the introduction of the of the microphone, you’re allowed to be more intimate than classical music could ever allow and so the fact that you’re talking about how mix has, has really truly defined what this belt means nowadays. You can use those subtleties for. Because the microphone is there for you. You know, that’s. It’s beautiful.
Chelsea:Yeah. I mean “Les Mis” was one of the first shows that really placed so much music on the female passaggio, you know, Eponine and Fantine- those roles in that show.- they’re just singing right through that passaggio, but they also, they have microphones and then “Cats” Betty Buckley singing “Memory” and she’s like belting Ds, like she had microphones and that was a real shift in the mid to late eighties of what belting became, what it became in a contemporary sense because yes, we did have microphones. We, we didn’t have to just just blast chest voice anymore and we’ve really got a lot more interesting and exciting sounds when we were able to get up into that second, that next register in the female voice.
Jordan:I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see that “Wicked” special on NBC recently.
Chelsea:Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jordan:It was fascinating listening to Idina Menzel’s voice in particular and just some of the differences from when she started on Broadway to what she was doing then.
Chelsea:Well, what did you hear differently? I’m curious.
Jordan:Yeah, I actually heard a little bit more head voice being mixed in.
Chelsea:Yeah, I thought, yeah, I kind of agree. I think part of it’s like getting older and just realizing like I have to take care of my voice and everyone. I mean, I don’t know. I didn’t even though I can’t speak for her whatsoever, but I think absolutely. I think part of it is just like I can’t get away with what I got away with when I did “Rent” in 1996, you know, it’s, it has to adjust if you want that longevity,
Jordan:Right? She’s being a really conscientious singer and I’m really excited to see where that takes her.
Chelsea:Yeah, so I think you can, you can call it thin or thick cords, heavy or light, chest voice or head voice, you can call whatever you want, but once you find that blend from bottom to top, you can choose how much to press in. How much thicker cords you’re going to use, or how much you’re going to release, how much thinner cords you’re going to use, how much more air flow you’re going to use. You then get to choose whether you’re going to be singing in a belt style or a legit style and mixing is what allows you to find that sound.
Jordan:Great. I would love to ask you, what would you say is different from mix from contemporary musical theater to more of a rock style and you’re teaching at “Phantom of the Opera,” doing vocal coaching for Phantom of the Opera” and “School of Rock” almost say “Schoolhouse Rock” every time.
Chelsea:I wish, that’d be fab. Yeah,
Jordan:but yeah, I’d love to hear in your opinion, how mix changes when you’re doing a more of a rock style versus contemporary?
Chelsea:Yeah, so again, I think in rock music, whether it’s rock style, musical theater, or just straight up rock music, all the technical principles have got to be the same. Right? What what these guys are doing in “School of Rock” is so vocally demanding. It’s really athletic. I’m not just vocally athletic, but like they’re literally, you know, these lead guys who play the Jack Black character Dewey Finn are running around and running around the stage and climbing onto set pieces and playing the guitar all at the same time and jumping off of set pieces. Like, it’s insane. It’s really a demanding thing, but I work with these guys in the same way that I do all of my singers. Again, we’ve just got to be able to blend. We’ve got to find the middle. We’ve got to find perfect balance.
Chelsea:What does the middle sound like in your voice in this particular instrument? And then we just acknowledged that, okay, when you go out on stage, um, whether that’s for your five times a week Broadway performance or whether it’s your, you know, I’m playing with my band tonight, or I’m recording in the studio today, or you know, whatever the case may be in these kinds of rock/pop situations. We acknowledged like you’re going to go out there and you’re going to bend the rules. A perfect balance is 12 on a clock, you’re going to lean to 10 or nine or eight or seven, you know, in, in making extreme sounds. But the fact of the matter is, is, but we just always need to come back to balance. We have to find balance, do a little cool down afterwards, making sure you’re thoroughly warming up in a any proper and balanced way before you go out and do that aggressive singing. Yeah. We have to have that foundation knowing that these extreme styles are gonna call for extreme sounds. And that’s okay. You just have to come back to what balance is for you.
Austin:It’s like vocal pyrotechnics. That show is insane.
Chelsea:Yeah, it’s, it’s really insane. It’s really, really high. The guys, the men are singing right around that second passage that A flat, A, B flat like incessantly. With what sounds like full chest voice.
Jordan:So you would say that they are different, the mix for musical theater and pop, but really what you have to do as a singer is find what your balanced voice is in the middle so you can apply that to any situation you end up.
Jordan:I would love to talk about one of these extremes. There’s, a lot of people trying to cross over from classical to more musical theater styles and you know, you can end up with an operatic sounding “Memory” from “Cats.” So I would love to talk about that and just show us some examples of a classical singer using mix. But not in a musical theater style, and then getting your opinion on what’s that singer would need to do in order to just transfer that straight to a contemporary musical theater show.
Chelsea:Great. What a fun game.
Jordan:Yeah. Lawrence Brownlee. Who this is. This is taken from is NPR, tiny desk concert recording and he does help us out a little in this. It’s a, spiritual that he’s singing, so it’s getting closer to the musical theater style.
Jordan:So here’s the first clip and this is him in complete head voice so we can hear that, difference between his head voice and when he’s mixing.
Recording:[Lawrence Brownlee singing]
Chelsea:So there’s his head voice that’s to a C5 and he’s about to do some mix action up to a C#5.
Recording:[Lawrence Brownlee singing]
Chelsea:Wow, that’s a great sound.
Jordan:Yeah, I would love to hear what your thoughts are on what his mix voice sounds like and what he would have to do to make that a more contemporary style. What needs to shift.
Chelsea:What our good friend Laurence here is doing is fantastic and I think it’s just about adjusting vowels so it might not be quite as tall of a sound [singing], instead of thinking of it as an “ah” vowel, thinking of it like “uh.” [singing]
Chelsea:You know, it’s straight tone. Just shaping and playing with those vowels, but it’s a really phenomenal blend from bottom to top. That’s great.
Austin:Yeah, it’s amazing. And, and you kind of have been touching on this topic of vowel modifying for it to be perceived as vowel integrity. Definitely in classical music, the sound of the integrity of the vowel never stays the same when it goes up past, into, and passed the passagio for a lot of singers. And so is that something transferable in the music theater, world, for both males and females? What’s your experience with that?
Chelsea:Yeah, absolutely. A great thing that the teachers have taught me was, you know, we narrow in the passages and we open in the spaces. Or you know, we open in the registers. And that really proves to be pretty true. Like if you want to be able to get through that passage-passaggio, transition- then you’re going to have to narrow the vowel somewhat in order to make it through without flipping, right.
Chelsea:That “ah” can go to “uh” and then we can open back up to on the other side of that transition. Right. So absolutely vowel modification and, and adjustments is a huge part of the work that I do with singers because you’re exactly right. Honestly, not shifting a vowel as you’re ascending in pitch makes the bottom and top match way less as opposed to adjusting the vowel. So in your mind you’re like, oh wait, but it’s actually a different vowel on top than it is a bottom. But they end up sounding so much more similar, you know, and so it’s just understanding what adjustments need to be made as you go through the different parts of the voice. So that’s absolutely something that we find in musical theater, whether it’s singing legit or belting.
Jordan:Chelsea, can you tell us a little bit about The Balanced Singer, this new project you’re working on?
Chelsea:Yes. I’m so excited to be bringing a new resource to the world. I’m working with a handful of colleagues of mine. We’re creating a company, an organization called the balanced a singer. So right now we’re on social media and coming soon will be our website full of online courses and recommended instructors- voice teachers who specialize in balanced singing and mix that you can study with online via Skype or perhaps even in your own city. Online webinars, lots of free content, lots of free video tips, lots of motivation and education, lots of free stuff on our social media. And I’m more in depth courses and education on our website to come. So you can find us on Instagram. We are @thebalancedsinger and we are launching on December First. www.thebalancedsinger.com
Austin:We will be shouting you out as much as we can on ours as well.
Jordan:Well, just a last question for you, I would love to know what advice you’d have for aspiring musical theater artists that might be listening today.
Chelsea:What a great question
Jordan:And what a general question, right?
Chelsea:What a general question [haha]. Yeah. I just say, you know, wherever you end up and whatever stage you’re on, that is where you are meant to be and that is a beautiful place to be. And you can’t compare your journey to somebody else’s. The comparison is, is not going to get you anywhere. You’re on your own path. You’re on your own performance journey. The other advice I’d give is really invest in your education and your training. Musical theater and especially a professional career in musical theater is so demanding on your body, on your voice, on your time. You know, it’s late nights and early mornings. It’s long days of rehearsal. It’s, you know, getting in line for auditions at 5:00 AM and being in the cold and five hour dance classes. It’s really demanding and you really want to be, be prepared, prepare your body, prepare your mind for that kind of rigorous environment. Um, and if this is something that you love then you’re going to put that time in, you’re going to invest in your training, you’re going to invest in your craft, and you will see those, those investments pay off.
Chelsea:Well good. Awesome. Thank you guys so much for having me. This was really fun. I love to get to talk about singing. It’s my favorite thing to do!
Austin:Yeah, you’re pretty good at it!
Chelsea:Oh, and if people want to find me, my website is just chelseawilsonvocalstudio.com. I teach privately here in New York City as well as many clients around the world via Skype. So check me out online.
Jordan:I have taken I think just one or two lessons from you myself and they were very helpful so stamp of approval from one of the cohosts.
Austin:And I think she’s great too. So stamp of approval from the other cohost.
Chelsea:Thanks gentlemen. Ok!
Chelsea:Absolutely. Thank you! Bye bye.
Jordan:Thanks so much for joining us today on The Holistic Voice. We loved having Chelsea on the show. Please check out the Balanced Singer when it’s released. It should be released at the same time as this episode and please leave us a review on iTunes if you have not yet, and be looking for our Patreon page. It should be coming up real soon.
Austin:Thanks again and we will see you next episode.