The King of Pop reaches out to all singers with some important vocal lessons. Leontine Hass explains…
He has the starring role of the young Michael Jackson in London’s West End hit show Thriller Live.
14 year-old Jean Mikhael Baque has learned that a singer can’t be this kind of star without being completely serious about vocal work.
We’ve asked his vocal coach, Leontine Hass, Director of London’s Associated Studios, to reveal the challenges behind developing the kind of voice that “thrills” audiences worldwide.
Did you ever think you’d be teaching ‘Michael Jackson’ how to sing?
One of the joys of this business is that you never know what is going to happen! Jean Mikhael comes from a tough London School; his music teacher was captivated by his voice and became his champion. They applied for a local council grant so that he could receive the opportunity to study singing with me and attend the Advanced Performers Studio, as its youngest participant. About two years on, I noticed that Debbie O’Brien was casting Thriller, so I put him up for it. That’s when the vocal coaching really intensified.
What is most challenging about singing for this part?
I don’t think I have ever taught anything more difficult! To play the part of the young Michael Jackson you have to have extraordinary vocal stamina – I mean, you have to constantly change vocal qualities, from belt to head-voice to fast riffs and falsetto, and reach up to high G’s and A’s. Jean Mikhael is a truly gifted singer – but even the most gifted singer can be seriously challenged by these demands and needs to make sure their technique is solid.
Has training Jean Mikhael given you a window into the talent of Michael Jackson?
I’ve always thought that Michael Jackson was an absolute genius but this experience has certainly shown me that he was a genius on every level. He pushed his voice – even at a young age—as far as it could go. Coaching a young singer to replicate the vocal gymnastics he was capable of was quite an eye opener.
From a coaching point of view, what was it that made Michael’s singing so magical?
He was able to combine, as no one had before, an incredible range and vocal athleticism – with vocal runs that parallel opera greats – and an intuitive feeling for shifting vocal qualities within a single song.
Is some of this magic available to all vocalists?
Yes. For Michael what came first was his connection to the text and emotion of a song. His voice served to express his passions and beliefs. He could shift from a low, velvety tone to a high falsetto or high belt in an instant whilst retaining the musical phrase and the integrity of his expression. Riffs and ornaments were used to serve the emotion he was trying to convey, they were not used to simply “show off”, and he sang simple, beautiful phrases as well as exciting ornamental ones. Any singer can learn and improve on these qualities but with Michael it was a gift. Jean Mikhael has this gift as well.
Your student is only 14 years old – has he been up to this massive job?
The short answer is: Yes! The longer answer is that there have also been times when he entered my studio with a tired and worn voice. Just think of it: he has at least 3 shows a week late at night where he is pushing his voice as hard as it can go –and then 2 more where he may have to cover at a moment’s notice. However, Jean Mikhael has such a positive and professional attitude that he finds a way to overcome any challenge.
Can you reveal to our readers the vocal challenges that have come up?
There have been times when Jean Mikhael has struggled with the required vocal range as he was simply vocally and mentally tired – and that is not to mention the issues related to his voice beginning to break due to adolescence!
I’m sure all gigging vocalists will want to hear more about vocal fatigue…
People may think that once you have landed large gigs, it’s all clear sailing— but that is simply not the case. Most performers will, at some point, need an emergency fix in a voice lesson in between performances. The singers I teach who are in professional engagements have many moments of vocal panic and it is a good attitude and professional diligence that gets them through.
Take us behind the scenes: what do you do when his voice is worn out?
Many musical directors are wonderful musicians but may not fully understand the voice. In shows there can be a tendency to push singers beyond what is normal and healthy and often the belt register is not properly warmed up. For Jean Mikhael the main vocal challenge has come from constant high belting – which is the vocal equivalent to heavy weight lifting – and one would never recommend a child to become an expert at heavy weight lifting!
How are you attempting to deal with this vocal challenge?
When you are belting, your vocal folds are closed for 60-70% of the cycle. This means that it is essential to develop proper support. In practical terms, this means using the abdominal muscles and back muscles to anchor. At the same time one must employ correct breathing technique (a low, silent, retracted or “open” breath) to hold back the air pressure from the vocal folds.
What are the real vocal dangers of belting without this support?
Trying to push air through a belt is disastrous, as the vocal folds are mostly closed, and provide the only orifice through which the air can pass out of the lungs. A blast of air would blow the vocal folds apart, which to the listener sounds as if the singer has “cracked” on a note. Singers also belt away and forget to stretch out their vocal folds after the show. The folds start thickening and the belt becomes harder to execute–there is often a loss of range.
What is the remedy for thick vocal folds?
A thickening of the vocal folds can certainly disable a performance; but it can also be easily dealt with. The voice, after all, is a resilient mechanism as long as it is kept flexible. The vocalist has to take the time to warm up and cool down in their head-voice or “thin folds”. If you don’t do this, the danger is that the folds start thickening, causing a lack of clarity and a loss of range. Furthermore the stress of having to perform several times a week can cause all sorts of tensions that also do not help. Tongue root tension, jaw tension and a stiff neck and upper back are some of the worst offenders.
Does this warm-up/cool-down therapy apply to all vocalists?
Certainly! Pop and Rock singers often report losing range – just look at many of the questions and posts on VoiceCouncil Magazine. I suspect this is because they are not working their head voice. There is an added danger: vocalists like Jean Mikhael are often singing in shows late at night; they go home, eat and then tumble into bed. Acid reflux then becomes a real possibility. Here’s my prescription: don’t get blasé when you have landed performances. Keep up your lessons, your warm ups and your cool-downs. This is essential for any performing vocalist—even for the young Michael Jackson.
Leontine Hass is one of London’s premier vocal coaches and Director of Associated Studios and The Word and Music Company. She has worked as a professional singer and actress and now specialises in teaching Musical Theatre/Rock/Pop/Jazz Singers and Recording Artists. She invites serious singers to audition for The Advanced Performers Studio, which offers many opportunities for professional development for singers, including weekly Singers’ Performance Workshops with eminent industry professionals from London’s West End and Broadway, as well as regular masterclasses and courses. For a list of the prestigious 2010 coaching team, see this page.
The Advanced Performers Studio is running a 6-day Summer School in Musical Theatre from 26 July – 31 July 2010, and also runs a 3-month intensive musical theatre course for 12 talented singer/actors twice a year, commencing in September and January. To audition please e-mail your CV and photo to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 82371080