Booking It! Broadway, Film and Recording Industry Go-To Vocal Coach Liz Caplan
By Adam Hetrick
Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with Liz Caplan, the veteran vocal coach and teacher who has guided her students to Tony Award-winning success.
Caplan has been a vocal coach in New York City for over 30 years and lectures around the world. She is the vocal supervisor of the Broadway and touring productions of the Tony-winning musicals Once and The Book of Mormon, as well as American Idiot, Rock of Ages and Jason Robert Brown's 13. She is also the vocal consultant on such productions as Wicked, Motown the Musical, Disney's Aladdin, The Last Goodbye, In the Heights and Next to Normal, as well as the "White House Salute to Burt Bacharach." This season she serves as the vocal supervisor on Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Her students range from Tony Award-winning Broadway actors Nikki M. James (Book of Mormon), Steve Kazee (Once) and Patina Miller (Pippin), to stars of the recording industry, including Sara Bareilles, James Blunt, Natasha Bedingfield, Eric Hutchinson, Empire of the Sun, Lily Allen, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Darkness, among others.
Caplan provided coaching on camera and played piano for Carey Mulligan in the 2011 Steve McQueen film "Shame"; and was vocal coach for the Golden Globe-winning film adaptation of Les Misérables, in support of Amanda Seyfried and others. She is also the vocal coach for Stephen Colbert of the "Colbert Report."
A frequent commentator for CNN and Reuters, her affiliations include The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, The Drama League, and National Association of Teachers of Singing, where she has been a speaker, panelist and workshop facilitator. She is also on the faculty of the Voice Foundation in Philadelphia and is a member of the New York Singing Teachers' Association, as well as a member of the Voice and Speech Therapists Association.
When you find yourself getting sick, or in danger of losing your voice - and still have to audition or perform - what are the best ways to prepare and to take care of your voice?
Besides these immune boosting supplements and remedies, one can vocalize slowly and gently in order to get muscles supple. If the sinuses are congested, I have specific vocal exercises that bulldoze through them in order to feel oxygen moving through the sinus passages. This is to ensure the singer does not succumb to using compensatory muscles (which create excess laryngeal pressure) in lieu of nasal resonance.
It's important to keep the sinuses and throat moisturized. I recommend having either Ayr or Ocean Saline mists standing by for sinuses and Entertainer's Secret Throat Relief for the larynx. These sprays (homeopathic and over the counter) will also keep any bacteria from getting deeper into the upper respiratory cavities.
For performers who may identify as a soprano, or alto, etc., how important is versatility? Should singers work to develop different parts of their voice in order to get cast, or focus on their strong point?
Singing every note one is capable of vocalizing goes against every tenet of "old school" training. When voice majors leave university training having only worked within their tessitura, they will find themselves challenged when asked to sing in a different register with an unfamiliar timbre. This becomes problematic when the singer tries to push to compensate for lack of muscle support in untrained areas of the voice. Vocal damage could ensue.
I have always liked to work the voice's middle registers first in order to strengthen the part of the voice that people often refer to as the "hole" in their instrument. This hole happens when you bear down too heavily in an unfamiliar and untrained register. One ends up with a lower register that's super beefy, an upper register that sounds somewhat breathy, and then a non-existent middle register. Once the middle voice has some suppleness, strength and volume, it becomes easier to distribute that same timbre below and above the middle. Because there is finally balance amongst the registers, belting per se might never be necessary. And don't we all desire a seamless instrument?
What are some common mistakes you see performers make that can strain or damage the voice?
Training the voice and keeping it healthy is much like training for the Olympics. One must train constantly, and not just last minute. I think at one time or another we have taken a short cut and "crammed" vocalizing in when you haven't been on top of doing so. You realize quickly how the muscles are smarter than you, and are not so willing to perform on command. So ongoing vocal work is so much more fulfilling when the part for which you are perfect finally comes around and you are prepared.
Other common mistakes are realizing that food allergies, alcohol and smoking might not agree with your voice and help your cause. I'm not trying to be a stick in the mud, but if your voice does not respond after a night of wine with friends or sitting around a hookah, you might want to time those magic moments more thoughtfully. I can truly state with certainty that the people with whom I work who have reached performance milestones (Tony Awards, Grammy Awards) are generally quite disciplined about what chemical, no matter how organic, enters their bodies when they have auditions and production schedules ahead of them.
Other musical mistakes would be singing the wrong piece of music for your voice and type. Imagine yourself being on the other side of the table. What would you want to hear yourself sing based on your vocal capabilities and physical type? Being realistic about what's in your wheelhouse is important. You want to come to an audition ready to inhabit a character with solid choices, tell a story and be your most-relaxed self. We all truly want you to have a positive experience.
The Broadway musical landscape is so varied today. What are some of the best ways for singers to be prepared to compete in an industry that includes musicals like Rock of Ages, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd and Legally Blonde?
I would teach significantly different exercises for rock and pop shows to help the vocal muscles meet the demands than I would for traditional musicals. The larynx will be lower but flexible in the anchored position for rock and pop material. The breath has to be grounded and the base of the tongue has to be tamed. Liz Caplan Vocal Studios have apps that have specific exercises for all vocal genres and addresses issues that might come up on a regular basis.
Contemporary musical theatre is full of rangy power ballads. When auditioning for a piece that asks to show your range, where is the line between finding a song that is rangy, yet appropriate?
How do you feel about riffing/vocal embellishments during an audition? Is it more impressive to show off your vocal tricks or your control/simplicity?
What takes priority in an audition — vocal technique, story telling, hitting the high note?
There are exceptions here. I find that when coaching a student on a song and we hit a wall, I have them speak the lyrics, find out what they mean in this moment. We discuss why the composer might have put these words with this melody and then discover how we can make it the students' own; it does usually mitigate the initial vocal crisis. The way to work is what is best with that particular student in that particular moment.
How do you advise singers on finding new material for his/her book? Where should they begin?
Songs should be chosen because you feel as though you had written them yourself. The lyrics should feel like you'd speak them. The songs that get people work are the ones that they can inhabit fully with their spirit and their personality.
Speaking of a performer's book, how wide-ranging should a singer go? Is it preferred to have a bigger or smaller selection of songs?
Do you find certain songs to be overdone? If so, are they still okay to use in your audition if you sing and perform them well?
Let's talk vocal damage. How does one keep active in the community and audition scene if they are experiencing trouble with their vocal cords? What do you recommend for reaching and maintaining vocal health?
How are you feeling?
Then one must find what combination of all of the above works for them. Diet, exercise, sleep, hydration are all important factors in staying at the top of your game. I suggest that you find an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor who can support you when you need help. I have my favorites in New York, but most actors ask their closest friends whom they trust.
Part of this business is networking and socializing. How does one maintain proper vocal health, while out and about? Any tips?
Say something important, stay for 45 minutes max, and then go home, drink hot tea, take a bath, bring your energy back to center. Do some gentle neck rolls and don't forget to breathe. A state of chaos does not generally support a successful career in any aspect of show business.
How often should a performer attend voice lessons? What do you recommend for performers on a tight budget?
You can also ask if the teacher of your choice, if [they are] too cost prohibitive, has associates or people who teach the same technique. I have associates who are licensed to teach my technique. They are highly trained by me and can offer lessons at a more affordable rate. This is generally done by referral.
The relationship with your voice teacher/coach is sacred. Singing is so personal, so exposed. It's important to feel a sense of trust, both with your voice and your personage with your chosen teacher. You want to find a teacher who has excellent qualifications and an equally stellar reputation. Always ask around the community.
If an actor is fortunate enough to find a great teacher/mentor early in his or her career, the rewards are fruitful and so fulfilling. I've had the pleasure of nurturing careers for decades. It continues to be a thrill when a student gets a callback, books a job and ultimately wins a Tony Award.
Take care of yourselves. Take it seriously. Be sure to enjoy the process.
I will look forward to hearing about your callback, you nailing the audition and your Tony Award!
Learn more about Liz Caplan at Lizcaplanvocalstudios.com.
(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com, as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillAdamH).
Send questions and comments to the Webmaster
Copyright © 2014 Playbill, Inc. All Rights Reserved.