Q&A session with voice teacher and author, Philippe Parent – Part 1

  • Author:Angie Arsenault

Last month, I met with Philippe Parent, author and voice teacher of 40 years. Before we begin the interview, Parent asks if I have read the latest “Journal of Singing” from the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS). I respond that I have indeed read it and so he goes on to talk about the article called “What’s Going On On Broadway” by Robert Edwin and how nowadays, singers need to be able to sing in many different genres in order to get work… and then we begin:

Angie: First of all, could you share with us a little about yourself?

Philippe: Well, …I was born one day, didn’t know why…

Angie: (laughs)

Philippe:… and I was fascinated with the arts. But later on, I had to make up my mind to work in a bank. So I did that for about 9 months, and became so weak that the doctors said: I don’t think he’s going to last ‘til 21 (I was 19 at the time)!. They encouraged me to go in the arts, and that is when my real life began; I was reborn.

I became a professional photographer in my early twenties (portraits), then I turned to hairdressing (hair cutting and coloring where you deal with lines, curves, angles, color,…) and theatre. I was encouraged to go to the stage, to help others, to play piano, to work at set décor – which is fantastic as it builds a situation; you can see a room, a place, and all that provoked me to want to know more about what we see, and what we hear at the same time. I was very curious. With 2 eyes, 2 ears (the eyes sleep at night, but not the ears!). I took lessons in everything creative, attended many concerts (pop, classical, ethnic, …) and took dancing lessons as well.

Angie: That’s a lot for one lifetime!

Philippe: And that was all before the age of 35. My voice did not come out until the age of 36 when I decided to go to Rome where I took 17 lessons in 17 days with a voice teacher there. I love the (speaks with bright Italian accent) “Hey! Bravo, Bravo!”. The Italians have that built in – they don’t realize they have it; they just throw their voices around like… like olives and tomatoes! Whatever they love; it’s all integrated in their temperament and I like that. I went for 17 days, had 17 lessons with a voice teacher there. I learned everything from the covered voice (the classical approach) to the opened voice (the popular approach); from shadow to light! Then, my curiosity took me to New York city. The Julliard School of Music has all sorts of sessions and weekly classes all about the voice: the Broadway sound, opera, and theatre. Somehow, Broadway is a genre that we love to have separate from the opera but for me, all sounds are good, in respect to their peculiarity.

Angie: So the classical community has looked down on the Broadway style?

Philippe: Well… some, yes. They said “it’s a bit showy or broadwayesque”… and blah blah blah. But, then they said “Oh,… they (Broadway singers) can do all that?” Curious people (singers and ENT doctors mostly) decided to investigate into the health department of singing, and it has been said that Broadway singers don’t have any more problems than classical singers do.

Angie: That’s interesting.

Philippe: If you push the volume and tighten up the throat, it will hurt. Any athlete knows this. Warming up to deliver is the thing – and this is practiced even when they don’t have to perform! The same goes for singers and dancers.

There was more to the Broadway singing with the big productions which needed more of what we can call voice “crossovers”, meaning you could sing classical and then in the next phrase turn it into a more “showy” type of sound like you hear on Broadway now. There is less vibrato with a bright or metallic color in the voice.

Angie: Closer to the spoken voice as well.

Philippe: Ah, much closer. And when you have this combination of the two systems, you find singer actors who say “Yeah, that’s what we do!” Ok, so you actors, learn to sing like that, with that in mind, and then we will teach you la crème de la crème (classical) on top of it – which is a fantastic road to take. The reverse can happen as well, where you have a classically trained singer who wonders what to do about “this” (imitates classical approach with speaking voice). Well, you have to bring it “down” (in a rather bright, natural and playful voice)! For singers in the States, that type of sound (bright, strong, raw, a bit nasal) is very easy to produce because it is natural, whereas in Europe they don’t do that yet. When Europe sends pop singers here, they do not “mix” the voice: The mixed voice is blending the two: from the head voice (a precious or childish type of sound) down to the chest register and up again. If you do not blend the 2, what you have is a crack at one point in the vocal range.

To my ears, the Italians have the best resonance with bright vowels and syllables ending on vowels. Their speaking is like singing. In fact, centuries ago, they developed a method to teach singing and today, all the machines that can analyse vocal sounds, show how the Italians had it all perfect: ear, posture, breath, resonance, style, passion,… They stress syllables in a manner that has the accent on the strong elements in a phrase, giving a sense of rhythm to it and keeping the interest of the audience. All languages have different stress accents.

Coming back to singer actors, they vary their technical and stylistic approach right in the middle of a scene as stage directors ask for all sorts of demands in sound colors to benefit a character role.

Angie: So today, there is much more pressure on singers to have all of these different colors of sound or vocal possibilities?

Philippe: Exactly. There is a bigger audience; the whole world in fact! The classical approach was built by the elite. Now, the people want something closer to home. “We speak like this (in a normal speaking voice), so why should we sing like that (in a classical sounding head resonance)? Somewhere in between is correct for most people. Directors would say “yes but, this is a person who comes from the country, so give me something with that color”.

Angie: As we are on the subject of Broadway styles, how would you explain the differences between the terms “legit”, “belt”, and “mix” singing styles?

Philippe: For people who don’t study too much and are not familiar with these terms, they will likely hear a Broadway style singer and just think “wow, what a voice! It’s so bright, so loud,… “. Belting is “singing from the belt”, singing from the belly, where the breathing muscles are pushed down and the floating ribs are opened sideways by the diaphragm with its flatted dome, plus the abdominals tightened slightly between two extremes: flatted in (dancers) and pushed out (opera singers).

In opera, the diaphragm is pushed down and out (stomach and belly out) – often creating an imbalance in the spine, which is then compensated by a forward tilt of the neck. Then there is a struggle between their beautiful and powerful voices and the physical aspects. Many of these singers say that each time they sing, they have to go to the chiropractor or the doctor right after, for the pain in the back or even in the legs and knees.

If you want to sing and dance on Broadway, you can’t have that kind of posture; you will only look funny – there are funny roles of course! At one point, the opera singers ended up making a living in the states, and they loved it there. California, New York and so on, and people would say, “well, at your age, you will either get tired of singing opera, or you will want to try something else… so why not accept a role in musical theatre?”.

Now, I believe we are far from the question you asked!

Ok, if we talk about legit, which comes from “legitimate”, some have not taken any singing lessons for that. You find some young individuals who sing like that (with natural voices) and a little polish would do no harm, but they are soon cast in movies and so on. Then we hear “I want to sing like that”! So as teachers, we have to teach that. If you use the Italian classical technique, which is practically the only one used in schools, the student may respond saying “well, that’s not really what I want…”. Ok, well, we then compensate a bit, we “mix” a bit going from a sweeter sound and then a brighter sound with a darker sound… Now, 50 years later, everybody does it. Most people will say “Oh, I don’t touch this stuff (belt or mix approach), it’s much too dangerous!”. I can answer that the “danger” is not to try something else; stretch your possibilities.

Angie: That reminds me of the many “natural” singers out there who are considering taking voice lessons but hesitate because they are afraid of losing their individual sound and style which may be replaced by an exaggerated classical sound.

Philippe: Yes; a mould. You pay for a mould and then you get it!

The best example today is Renee Fleming who was singing with a very country sound and then turned to classical and it is just beautiful…. and she paid for her classical lessons by singing jazz in clubs! She said she had no high notes, but then she found that little hole in the back of the throat from the top and it was plain sailing from there. Andrea Bocelli is a very good example of “crossover” singing.

Society is evolving very fast; dancers experience this all the time. They have to adapt to the demands and dance styles that they have not been trained in (referring to the widely popular television show “So you think you can dance”). They do all this in one week – and get it perfect! For singing, technique is slow (years), because we don’t always see the muscles that are involved.

Angie: Do you think that schools are now opening up to this kind of philosophy and try to cover more than one approach? Or do you feel it is still slowly coming to that?

Philippe: Most schools tend to move at a slower pace. It’s like the government; very big changes take much time. Private teachers are more independent; “You want it? We’ll try it!”. They don’t have a boss hanging over their shoulders saying “we did not hire you to teach that style! “.

Angie: As a private teacher, you can answer the requests of the students directly, without having to give another kind of result with a specific approach – and before a certain time!

Philippe: Well, the programs or curriculums in schools are often a part of a machine, and before you can move from top to bottom or bottom to top, it has been months maybe…so what do you do? Anywhere in the world, you can find a very exciting and curious person who just may say “I would like to try it!”.

Angie: It all starts there.

Philippe: Exactly. Scientists thrive on that. Doctors, architects, engineers, composers, sports athletes,… they all get better or move forward by trying.

Along with his studies in music at the Université de Montréal, Québec (Canada), Philippe Parent has also studied:

Voice for over 40 years, in a variety of different techniques: classical, folk, jazz, blues, rock, Broadway, and the harmonic overtone singing of the Tibetan monks, Tuva, etc…

  • Musical theater
  • Piano
  • Composition
  • Musical arrangements
  • Counterpoint
  • Photography
  • Painting
  • Pantomime
  • Dance (classical, flamenco, tap, Irish jig)
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