Jess: Today, I’m talking to Mark Baxter. His were some of the first resources on the market for popular music singers, starting with The Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer’s Survival Manual in 1990. His clients include Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Gary Cherone (Van Halen), Vampire Weekend, Jonny Lang, cast members of RENT, Steven Augeri (Journey), John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), Vertical Horizon, The Dresden Dolls, Aimee Mann, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and on and on. He’s currently on the Advisory Board of International Voice Teachers of Mix.
I personally love Mark’s videos, which explain singing so simply and clearly. Great for singers and teachers alike. Thanks for sharing with us today, Mark.
Mark: It’s my pleasure.
Jess: What drew you to work as a voice teacher in popular music?
Mark: Basically – it’s the music that moves me the most. And working with singers incorporates every one of my passions: music, singing, songwriting, performing, acoustics, anatomy, physiology, psychology, neurology and sociology. It’s such a natural fit for me – I don’t feel like I have a job, or even a career – it’s just my life. The irony is that I swore when I was a young performer that I would never become a teacher. That seemed so un-Rock-n-Roll! So it took me a while to admit how much I love it.
Jess: As far as I can tell, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer’s Survival Manual was one of the first resources on how to sing this music that wasn’t telling singers they needed to learn Bel Canto technique. In addition to your own experience as a singer, how did you piece together the information you needed to do this work?
Mark: I asked a million questions. It never made sense to me that someone had to first make sounds that were not a part of their art in order to sing contemporary music. My singing professors in college didn’t appreciate this curiosity; they kept repeating that if I didn’t adhere to the Bel Canto technique I would destroy my voice by the time I was thirty years old. It turns out that was just a musical bias. That same musical bias also preached about the dangers of singing with a high larynx. If that was inherently harmful, I wondered why every traditional Asian singer didn’t have multiple pathologies. So I dropped out of college and made a living as a singer for the next fifteen years. I sang well over three thousand shows during that period. And even though I never suffered any vocal issues, I still wanted to improve my skills. I was fortunate to study with two great teachers: Katie Agresta in New York and Eugene Rabine from West Germany. Neither sing contemporary music but both teach a functional approach to singing rather than a specific genre. After those lessons my next mentor was the renowned otolaryngologist Dr. Steven Zeitels in Boston. He encouraged me to audit many of his courses at Harvard Medical School and that’s where I gained a deeper understanding of the physiology of the voice and the true line between use and abuse. The combination of years of performing, various singing teachers and hands on medical courses allowed me to separate the facts from the phobias regarding singing.
Jess: What was it like to be one of few voice teachers who worked outside of the classical music world when you started?
Mark: It was easy in terms of attracting clients and building a studio because there wasn’t much competition. Before the Internet – and particularly YouTube – there were only classical instruction books and in-person lessons. So I was able to build a successful base on word-of-mouth alone. That was thirty-two years ago! Respect, however, from my classical teaching peers was very slow in coming. That’s OK. The constant challenges to my approach (and mental health!) made me double check my knowledge and refine my language until it was empirical. Swimming against the cultural current made me a much stronger teacher.
Jess: What are your favorite things about teaching in these genres and working with these communities?
Mark: Contemporary music is all about identity. It’s all-inclusive. Some singers are all about their vocal chops and some are all about their story. Either way, I’m down with aiding the journey of any artist. Improving vocal skills requires you shine a light on every aspect of your life. So whether or not someone becomes a household name is not a concern of mine. Whether they see themselves in the best light is my entire focus. If you’re courageous enough to look inward and ask for change then I will stand with you until you have arrived – wherever that may be.
Jess: What are the biggest struggles you face when teaching in these genres?
Mark: There is only one struggle when teaching – and that is the struggle within the student. Every vocal issue boils down to a lack of trust within the singer. My goal is to get the student to trust him or herself. That may take some people years and others a single lesson. It certainly took me a long time to trust myself so I am eternally patient with those that take the scenic route.
Jess: What are some of your go-to vocal pedagogy resources?
Mark: The best tool for teaching singing is the teacher’s own voice. So I am constantly giving examples of various vocal behaviors. The next best tool is language – particularly adjectives. Describing sounds in adjectives like warm, bright, brittle, metallic rather than behavioral references like chest, head, mix and belt – provides more wiggle room in a singer’s brain to find the most efficient path to create that sound. Metaphors, analogies and similes are how the brain learns – so it’s vital that you relate and reinforce successful behaviors with examples that a student has already experienced. For example: Floating through the passagio is no different then floating in the deep end of the pool. Yes – you are emotionally more vulnerable but that act of floating is exactly the same no matter what’s beneath you.
Jess: You have great resources of your own out for singers. Your blog and YouTube channel are chock full of great tips, and in addition to The Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer’s Survival Manual, you have The Singer’s Toolbox, and an audio series called Sing Like an Idol. What are some ways that voice teachers and their singers can utilize your resources in their studios?
Mark: Sing Like an Idol is great resource for beginners. The Singer’s Toolbox is focused on vocal health and maintenance for performing singers. And The Rock-N-Roll Singer’s Survival Manual is an in-depth overview of all things singing. It’s really not focused on rock. But just as I had to extract what I needed from classical books I figured I would turn the tables on classical singers!
I now have well over a hundred tutorial videos on my website (divided into Skills and Mindset) and hundreds of FAQ’s. If someone can’t find a solution there I welcome any teacher or aspiring singer to reach out to me directly with questions or issues. Email is the best way to reach me (email@example.com). It’s not that I have all the answers, it’s that sometimes a simple alternate perspective is all it takes to have an “a-ha” moment. I wholly embrace the variety of approaches out there today. I am very proud of the many former students of mine who are now teaching their own methods. The only downside to all the advice offered is that it can be overwhelming to someone starting out. YouTube, for instance, has thousands of great singing tutorials but so many seem contradictory. But just as the teachings of many religions seem contradictory until you understand their core principles, all singing methods ultimately strive to achieve the same thing: vocal comfort and control. I like to help people find that core no matter what style they sing.
Jess: What skills outside of singing and pedagogy do you use most often in your studio?
Mark: Comedy! Inhibition is to singing what winter is to swimming. Laughter breaks the ice and warms the waters.
Jess: What classes, activities, and experiences do you most hope to see included in future training options for contemporary voice teachers?
Mark: Respect of the genre. There is so much incredibly detailed information available these days regarding the physiology of singing. But I still see so much personal bias when relating that information. Any style or genre is simply a chosen spectrum of timbres. The only real enemies of the voice are friction and infection. A singer can produce a clear sound and still be irritating the tissues within the larynx and some aggressive sounds can be produced with very little friction. So it is always necessary to delve deeper then the presented sound to ensure a singer is employing the minimal effort to produce his or her chosen sound.
Jess: There are many readers who originally trained in classical music, but are looking to expand their knowledge base and experience to better serve contemporary singers. What advice would you give them?
Mark: Don’t teach down.
Jess: Wow. What a way to end! Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Mark, and thanks for all of the work you’ve done to further this field.
Readers, you can check out Mark’s work at voicelesson.com.
What pedagogues would you like to hear from in the future? What questions would you like to ask? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.