Friday, 30 September 2016

Farewell, Ann Emery. Au revoir, Hortense.

Very sad this morning to hear of the passing of Ann Emery. What a legend she was to me.

I sat in the front row of the New London Theatre aged 9, having learnt every word of Gumbie Cat at home on cassette, and sat enthralled watching my first ever musical - she (as Gumbie) spotted me singing along and during her number nudged one of the dancers and pointed this little 9 year old, singing her heart out, to her fellow performer as they tapped and sang.

At the end of the show I sat and sobbed, wishing I could find the words to express to my Mum that I wasn't upset that Griz had died but it was because I had realised in those two hours that I deeply wanted to do what I'd seen her and the rest of the amazing cast do but couldn't imagine that I would ever get to do that and be in a musical and inside I was almost inconsolable.

I never forgot her face, and 12 years later I was able to tell her this story as we sat together in the rehearsal room of Martin Guerre and I got to thank her for being part of what inspired me to fulfill my dream. I then had the pleasure (and frequent herniated hysterics) of working with her for a year and enjoying her 'Hortense'. What a joy she was.

Later, when I co-directed and choreographed a BYT production of Billy Elliot, her essence, her delightful comedy was again inspiring me and it was one of the Grandma scenes that was seen by the West End creative team that lead to our cast being chosen to perform in the West End Gala performance of Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace in 2011.

Photo credit - Alistair Muir
I'm so sad to hear news of her passing yet so happy for the amazing women and performer she was. How she continued working to such an age in Billy Elliot, playing Grandma, the role she created and played for a decade until she was 85 is quite extraordinary.

She was a one off. She was marmalade. She was velvet. She was nuts. And in my eyes could have been Dame Ann Emery.

Thank you Ann. It's definitely pasties for tea tonight. xxx

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Happy 30th Birthday Les Miserables!

We shall not be 'glum' tonight! 30 years ago this evening, the world's longest running musical opened at the Barbican and tonight we will be celebrating it's success with a special performance. As a member of the Original London Cast, the show has had a huge impact on my life...

I was 10 years old, a part-time pupil at Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to audition for a new musical. I learnt 'Castle On A Cloud' and over a few months attended 7 auditions at various London theatres for Trevor Nunn, John Caird and at one of the recalls I also remember singing for Sir Peter Hall. I remember this because I always wore some brightly coloured curly ribbons in my hair to auditions, in the hope that Director's might remember me and as I walked onto the stage he said "Ah, yes, Juliette. I remember you because of your lovely ribbons in your hair" - mission accomplished thought my 10 year old self - (though on reflection perhaps my performance should have superseded my hair do!).

It was a thrill to be auditioning for the RSC. It was a thrill to sing on the stage at the New London Theatre where I had seen my first musical Cats and cried at the end, not because I was sad about Grizabella dying, but because I had desperately wanted to be good enough to be in a show like that one day and didn't know if I ever would be.

Without my knowing, at around that time I had been offered a scholarship to attend Redroofs full time by the Principal and Agent June Rose, who believed I had talent and didn't want to let our financial situation prevent me from being able to train. It had taken my poor Mum an anxiety ridden year to decide whether or not she would let me go or insist that I attend main stream education to achieve an academic degree which for some reason she thought I was bright enough to achieve (!). She was a Primary School Teacher and for her it was a tough call. Would I resent her years later for putting a stop to my dreams? Or would I resent her years later for sending me off to be a 'twirly' with little to show for it? She had seen my passion grow and grow, walked back and forth to the record player countless times a day to restart the (now considered old style) 45 records we had so that I could choreograph dances to Elton John and Kiki Dee's 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart',  she had witnessed my envy of the pupils who got to dance and sing all day in the TV series Fame, and she had realised my heart was so deeply in it that she had decided to take a leap of faith and trust that it was the right thing to do. She was to let me go to theatre school and I was in heaven.

It didn't take long for a small sign to appear that she had perhaps made the right decision. A letter fell on our doorstep. We read it and I wept with excitement. I had landed my first professional job, it was with the RSC and my poor Mother could breath a brief sigh of relief.

Offer letter from the RSC - 12th July 1985

£7 per rehearsal and £10 per performance would be my pay and I was to be cast as 'Young Eponine', who didn't actually sing (though I would have to cover Cosette) but that was fine by me - I was nervous enough. It was an honour to be part of the production, to be part of the development of such an exciting production and to actually tread the boards of a professional London stage.

Rehearsals at the Barbican were thrilling and to watch the company in action was awe inspiring. I witnessed scenes being rehearsed for hours and hours that never even made it to the final production, closely observing some of UK's finest performers being directed by the genius co-directing team of John Caird (Left) and Trevor Nunn, who together were realising a genre of production that had never been seen before.

Local Press - 1986

The show opened and we felt we had something very special but the critics were less than favourable and despite the ovational audience response we were all nervous as to the future of our beloved production. Would we close? Or would we transfer to the West End?

Princess Diana attended a special Royal Gala performance and we had the pleasure of meeting her at a special reception after the show. She took time to ask us all sorts of questions about being children in a theatre production and how we coped with the late nights etc. She was luminous. I had met a real life Princess. Once she had left, champagne started to be handed out and the cast and crew were looking around, wondering why Diana hadn't been able to enjoy any with us. And then Cameron (Mackintosh), gathered us all, and I can still remember as clear as day how he told us;
"As we know, the critics have given us terrible reviews and our show's future has really been in the balance. But I am delighted to tell you that the great British public LOVE our show and it is the great British public who have decided that this show will not be closing and we will be transferring to the Palace Theatre and Les Miserables will be opening in the West End.". We applauded, we cheered, we embraced and we cried. The future of 'The Glums' was set and not even the critics could stop it.

Barbican Dressing Room
Unlike the children who are now in the show who get whizzed in for rehearsals with the Resident Director and barely know the cast save for the few moments shared on stage, myself and the other 7 kids playing the roles of Cosette, Eponine and Gavroche were really included as part of the family and we have always felt incredibly lucky for that.

Jayne & I in costume at the Palace Theatre

Our chaperone, Ann Koska, went on to become my surrogate Mother and a dear friend to this day as we travelled the world for several years afterwards making films and my Cosette, who I had to push around every night, the very lovely Jayne O'Mahoney, also became a life long friend and was also notably the first person to play both young and adult Cosette roles.

Night after night, watching the incredible talents of Frances Ruffelle, Rebecca Caine, Alun Armstrong, Sue-Jane Tanner, Colm Wilkinson made me realise, I really wanted this more than anything and vowed to work as hard as I could at my full time training so that one day, maybe, I might be able to play a lead role in a West End Musical, just like them.

With Iain Glen in Martin Guere
The incredible aspect to this story is that is exactly what happened. But not just in any old musical. A decade later I was cast in the Original London Cast in the role of Bertrande in Martin Guerre and this production was also to be produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

Not only that... it was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (pictured left) - the same writing team as Les Mis.

Not only that...Bob West (known in the industry as Uncle Bob) was also to be our company manager.

Not only that... Paul Leonard (pictured on the far right) as a Convict in Les Mis was to play the Judge.

And finally, on the first day of rehearsals, who should walk up the stairs into the rehearsal room but Sue-Jane Tanner, my Les Mis Mummy, saying "I'm playing your bloody Mother again!".

I could not believe that the very dream I had set my heart on and worked so hard towards, had come true - I had quite literally 'Dreamed A Dream' and it had all started with Les Mis. The synchronicity felt incredible.

Les Miserables is undoubtedly special to millions of people the world over. The reason why Les Mis is so special to me is because it inspired my training. It changed my world. And over the years it has been the seed of so many magical memories, experiences and relationships. The 25th celebration at the 02 last year was incredibly humbling to be part of, re-united as a company 25 years later. Tonight's performance and celebrations will be just as special. I'm taking my dear Mum. 30 years ago she supported me - and tonight, as we sing One Day More, I shall be singing it for her, to say thank you to her, one more time...

With Ian & Jayne
With Oliver & Jayne

With Rebecca Caine (Original Cosette)
With Patti LuPone (Original Fantine)

Happy Birthday Les Miserables!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Some common Estill myths…a conversation starter...

My understanding of the voice came initially from the voice training method which I now use in my private studio and with my theatre school pupils called the Estill Voice Training System. When I came across it in 2002 it changed my world, as in simplistic terms it gave me a practical physiological way of understanding of how my voice worked and how I could use it and control it better. Until then I was floundering around somewhere between instinct, musicality and emotion - none of which can help when you don't know why you are making the sound you are making or how to change it. 

In 2007 I qualified as a Certified Master Teacher in Estill Voice Training and have since continued my enquiry into the voice to include an expanding and varied understanding of other techniques and tools available to us as singers and coaches.

In this post I am interested in addressing a few myths which have taken my interest recently, for those of you with an interest in voice, singing, and Estill. 

Common Myths about the Estill Voice Training System. 

“The Estill Technique doesn’t teach breath use.”
Untrue. There is, by way of example, an 8 x hour full day workshop which is taught by an Estill Vanguard Teacher, held regularly at the Royal Academy of Music, which looks at breath use alone! (That is not a system that doesn’t deal with breath!) Any teacher not teaching breath use should not be working with the voice. One of the things the Estill work emphasises is that one breath does not fit all sounds. What is the breath meeting at the level of the true vocal folds? Can you adapt your breath use for your phrase length, your voice quality, your pitch, your dynamic? Can you be flexible? – Or do you just chuck a load of air at the folds, squeeze it out and expect the vocal folds to cope with it and do what you want them to do?  

“Estill isn’t for classical singers” - (I love this one)
Jo Estill was a classical singer! GO FIGURE! She wasn’t Ethel Merman! (Yet from her research Jo sure as hell learnt to belt like Ethel! Just because Jo defined the Belt ‘recipe’ doesn’t mean she didn’t understand, train in, sing, research or develop techniques for classical voice use. Jo Estill’s work is based on sound voice science, the principles of the human body as a dynamic system and has no aesthetic bias.  The model is for ANY kind of voice use; Jo’s aim was to understand, using voice science, how the voice functions whether it’s singing Rock, Pop, Jazz, MT, Folk, Gospel or Opera – the larynx is the larynx, the breath is the breath, what happens when the human body makes these sounds? Those are the questions her work aimed to answer and we continue to answer them through progressive research and study. 

“You can’t make a classical sound if you Belt and vice versa”
The larynx can. We don’t get dished out a rock larynx at birth! We all have the same apparatus. What is a given is our personal / natural aptitude for a preferred style or genre and what is hopefully constantly growing and changing is what we achieve through our training and experiences. 

And some people can make both a classical and contemporary sound exceptionally well. Here's an example:

 And two further points sometimes made, which I can particularly appreciate:

"Young people get frightened" versus Knowledge is Power:
I teach young singers who sometimes come to me terrified about singing or not knowing if they can rely upon their instrument in performance because they have not previously understood what it is they are doing to make that sound and when they DO learn the knowledge it empowers, liberates and relaxes them. I’ve never found it to scare them. Yes, the amount there is to learn might overwhelm them for a short time. Learning any new skill does seem frightening at some point when there is a lot to take in. Tough. Practise. Or go and do something else for a living. Not knowing what you are doing EVER is far more frightening than having to get your head around what is actually going on. And once people do practise and do gain control– they are in control. Try getting cast in a West End musical before anyone has ever told you how the hell to actually use your instrument – THAT’s frightening!

“Estill is everywhere! All the voices are becoming the same!”
Estill is now taught in all of the major musical theatre colleges and voice conservatoires because it has been recognised by those establishments that it works, they believe it is a valuable technique to give their students and it is 'wholistic' (intentional mis-spelling there) in that it can be applied to any music genre or vocal style. 

What makes voices the same, particularly in the musical theatre genre, though we do see this in the pop world too, is certainly not the fact we might teach people how their voice system functions using a particular model – there is no aesthetic or sound bias or preference or pre-determined destination in the Estill model. “Everyone can sing!” “Your voice is unique!” - two of Jo’s messages. 

What DOES make voices similar is the relentless imitation that happens through watching youtube performances, cast recordings, hero-worshipping artists and the imitation of them. 

Combine this with the similarity in writing style in the music available to sing within new writing in musical theatre and you get music that sounds similar. 

Furthermore, it’s the musicals that are cast for thirty years with carbon copies who must look and sound exactly like Rebecca Caine's Cosette or Frances Rufelle's Eponine to get the job in the re-cast. Resident Directors employed to make sure the carbon is copied in every move and eyebrow arch. It’s a formula. It’s what sells. The students all know it happens so they start practising young just to try and survive the highly competitive industry where they know jobs will be like gold dust.  The moment a new musical comes out young singers are all studying and replicating it. No wonder they all sound the same! There are thousands of bedrooms filled with young things belting out the Frozen soundtrack RIGHT NOW and they are all trying to sound the same! But it’s not a voice technique that does it. It’s what the singers DO with their technique, (no matter what technique or combinations of techniques they use) and the artistic choices they make. 

The question is - aswell as addressing these myths, how can we better encourage young singers to develop and honour their own sound and uniqueness whilst also preparing and training them for the musical theatre industry as it is? 

Friday, 27 April 2012

Getting in on the ACT!

Here is a link to the article I have written for the new Berkshire Woman & Family Magazine about children taking performing arts classes drawn from my experiences running School Of The Arts (SOTA).

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Power of Pitch

I was interviewed by Andrew Peach on Radio Berkshire this morning about how the pitch of your voice can affect how successful or attractive you are perceived to be.This story was relating to new research on voice pitch and it's impact on our perception.

Research of a similar nature was reported in USA Today last year and raises some interesting points.

In my work as a Voice Coach, pitch is something that I work very closely with in the spoken voice and the impact of it's effects are huge. Without even realising it we come to all sorts of conclusions and judgements about someone from the pitch of their voice. (I should point out to those of you with a cynical nature that I'm not talking about whether you are flat or sharp here...I'm talking about deep voices and high pitched voices!).

I work on this issue when I am coaching my students in characterisation at my theatre school, and in one to one sessions with actors, presenters, executives and personalities. I have also had the privileged experience of working with individuals going through Transexual Sex re-assignment, where surgery is not possible on the larynx and therefore we have to find healthy, safe solutions to the problem of needing to change the pitch of the voice on a day to day basis - a huge shift in voice pitch.

What I find interesting about this article in USA Today is that it is discussing how the research shows that higher-pitched female voices were rated as more attractive (and more likely to be promiscuous). Hmmm, I wouldn't coach an actress who needed a sexier voice quality to raise her pitch. Quite the reverse. But perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that this research was carried out using male and female participants who were aged between18 and19 years old? Perhaps to that age group a lower pitched female voice indicates a women 'of a certain age' who they perceive to be less attractive?

Perhaps we also have a conflict between conscious 'perception', Darwinian 'sex selection' and what this research says it is proving?

Our social, media fuelled, stereo typed perception is that female voices which are deep and often husky are more attractive.

However Darwinian 'sex selection' asserts that we will choose our partners by being attracted to what will most successfully continue our gene line. Comparatively large quantities of oestrogen in some women indicate higher fertility rates and more reproductive capability. Higher voices are considered to be an indicator of this, and therefore occur to men as more attractive. Which is also what this research seems to be suggesting.

Fascinating stuff. I'd be interested to know whether you think high or low pitched women's voices are more attractive.

This afternoon I was also interviewed by Bill Buckley, again on BBC Radio, but this time directly regarding the study which shows that we are more likely to vote for a political candidate who has a deep voice. Cue Margaret Thatcher impressions.

So how do you change the pitch of your voice and can it be done safely? And at this point, I should like to confirm that I am not intimating here that all the men reading this should try and deepen their voices to make themselves perceptively more attractive nor should the women desperate for children run around squeaking.

As an actress, aged 18, I had to radically lower the pitch of my voice for the TV Series Cadfael (starring Derek Jacobi) , in which I played Godith who was disguising herself as Godric, a young male monk. I did my best with it, but 20 years ago we did not yet have the voice science that lead to the technical knowledge we now have of how the voice works and therefore my voice technique at this point in my career was not sufficient enough to do a job I can look back and say I am proud of.  Judge for yourselves...

Changing the pitch of the voice can be a complicated issue and safe practise requires excellent control of the height of the larynx (which raises and lowers to facilitate pitch change), the false vocal folds (which will naturally want to constrict and tighten dangerously over the top of the true vocal folds as we raise the larynx when voicing) and our use of the true vocal folds which can thicken, thin and stiffen. These three main components are in turn affected by all sorts of other things such as breath, the soft palate, the tongue, the jaw which are all units of a complex and dynamic system that affect each other.

Which is why, if you are interested in learning more about how you can safely change the pitch of your voice, whether it be to play a part or to add seniority to your voice for the world of business, you should seek the advice and guidance of an experienced and qualified voice coach.

And by experienced and qualified I do not mean someone who did a music degree, likes to sing in their local am dram society and thinks that this is enough to call themselves a singing teacher.

Alternatively you could come on one of my Sing!Sing!Sing! Courses...

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

If Adele was my singing pupil...

Tonight as I watched Adele give her first live UK performance since the cancellation of her tour last year due to a hemorrhaged vocal fold and subsequent surgery, I couldn't have been more relieved for her. Under-going surgery to the vocal folds is incredibly risky. The main risk being if the surgery is carried out on the part of the vocal fold that connects with it's opposite there is a risk that the tissue can heal in a way that renders phonation (let alone singing) impossible. Think of how differently scar tissue can look when it heals. The fact that Adele has regained the use of her voice since surgery and is sounding so clear is enormously fortunate and incredibly lucky.

However, with my Voice Coach hat on, I would also say that to my ear, her breathing was a little noisy, which indicates to me that she is slightly constricted (tight) in her throat. When you can hear the breath as you inhale, you are hearing the False Vocal Folds getting in the way and causing turbulence in the airflow.

The False Vocal Folds are nothing to do with singing and all to do with closing over the top of the True Vocal Folds when you swallow to prevent food or saliva getting down your airway. If you are constricted enough to cause noisy inhalation, you may be constricted enough to annoy the True Vocal Folds, which are sat beneath the False Vocal Folds trying to vibrate hundreds of times a second to create a pitch.

Singers have to learn to 'Retract' (widen) the False Vocal Folds out of the way to prevent them from interrupting the vibratory cycle of the True Folds. Your breath intake should be silent. The sensation in your throat should be wide, like that of a hard silent laugh, or the beginning of a yawn, or a silent gasp of surprise - any experience that gives you the sensation of width in the throat. Perpetual constriction when you are singing or speaking will result in vocal fatigue and may lead to vocal trauma and long term vocal fold damage.

It was wonderful to hear Adele's stunning voice again tonight. But the voice professionals around her will need to spot what was going on tonight and support her in keeping her voice use as healthy as possible. After her triumphant Grammy & Brit wins, she's got a lot to sing about...