The Power of the Voice- Interview with Spencer Welch- Master Vocal Instructor

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Where were you born and brought up?

I was born in Ferney, in the Kootenays, BC. A year later, we moved to Calgary. And when I was five, we moved to Mexico.

Oh, that’s how you know Spanish.

Yeah. I grew up in Mexico in a small little city of two million people called Puebla. It’s about two hours outside of Mexico City. I lived there from age five to sixteen.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

Well, sort of. My grandpa and grandma on my dad’s side both played instruments and sang. And my dad sings beautifully and plays the piano and guitar all by ear. He has no idea which notes he is playing. He can only play the piano in about four or five keys. And they’re actually the really difficult keys. From very early on, my dad would bring a bunch of vinyl records home and would play all this music for me. He had a stereo with huge speakers and he would crank it as loud as he could. The windows would start shaking from the trumpets and the canons going off.

Haha! That is awesome.

Yeah, so it wasn’t like there were highly trained musicians in the family surrounding me. But there was all of this music in the house. Also, my friends that I was surrounded by were very good musicians. I remember being in bands from when I was 9 or 10 years old.

What instrument did you first start playing?

My first instrument was actually the accordion. We didn’t have a piano. We just couldn’t afford one. I took some accordion lessons but I wasn’t that into it. Then I got into guitar and I learned that by ear. I started teaching myself piano by ear after that. I got so deep into piano that I basically begged my parents for lessons. That started in Mexico.

And you started training your voice more in Canada?

When I came to Canada, I continued taking more theory and piano. And it wasn’t until I got into college that I started taking voice lessons. I always sang, and I started to perform professionally by the time I was about sixteen. I was getting hired by bands to play keyboard and sing back-up vocals. But at that time, I was just all self-taught. I had no vocal training. But I had lots of instinct built up. The majority of my formal training was when I went to college in Canada and studied jazz theory and composition, as well as piano and voice lessons. I did a little bit of Royal Conservatory before then too.

Spencer20I was introduced to the book The Talent Code through you and one of the other instructors at the Spencer Welch Vocal Studio– Rebecca Lam. What are your thoughts about the premise behind it- that talent is not born but learned?

I was afforded the opportunity from a very young age to be musical and to explore music. It was modelled for me in my dad and in my friends around me. And I didn’t have parents that looked down on music or singing as if it was somehow unimportant to explore that.

When I was five years old, I’d get pushed on stage at church and I’d be playing my ukulele and singing. I also went to a really small international school in Mexico where there were always big roles in every musical, and I very often got to be the lead. I think I was no more talented than the next person. It was just that I had lots of opportunities to express my musicality.

So I can relate to the premise behind the Talent Code in that way. The combination of all that was around me made singing, being on stage, and playing music seem natural. It was made to feel like a normal part of my life from a very early age. The talent was grown and nurtured, not necessarily something that I was just born with.

That must help you nurture that in your students. I think people often underestimate what it takes to be a good teacher. What do you think makes a good teacher?

I think one of the best qualities of a teacher is empathy- the ability to put yourself in your student’s shoes- to understand why certain skills would possibly be hard to do at their level. For example, I might need to consider why it would be hard for a student to sing and match pitch when I’ve done that my whole life.

I think a teacher is always putting themselves in situations where they have to be learners. They have to be newbies in order to keep empathizing with their students and not let frustration come in. I need to find some kind of conduit between my experience as a teacher and their experience as a student. It is important to have a bridge between us that we can connect to, and for me to point out the best tools to help us come across that bridge.

Spencer16Beautifully put. This reminds me of one of my favorite parts of teaching – learning from students.  Are there any examples of students who have taught you something you didn’t expect to learn?

One of my students, who has studied with me for over twelve years now, is in his early fifties. He came into singing later in life, but very motivated to improve. He is always pushing me to set goals for him. I learned how to help students think long term and think more in the arc of their development because of him. He helped remind me that if we’re chasing a goal, we have to break that down into small actionable steps to be able to measure if we are getting anywhere.

What were his goals?

Well, that’s the thing. I just thought he wanted to sing better. But one day, after a really good session where he had a breakthrough with his voice, he opened up to me in a way I never expected. He told me that growing up, he wanted to sing and loved music, but he didn’t pursue it because his parents looked down upon it. He said something like, “It was this innate thing inside of me that I really wanted to do, but that was dead for all that time. And here I am now, at fifty, doing this. And I just want to tell you how much this means to me.”

I had no idea what he had gone through. And this was ten years into his lessons with me!  He is actually in two bands now, the shows are getting good reviews, and he is living out his dreams! He has the vision and the tenacity to stick it through. This reminded me what this can be- that what I’m doing is so much bigger than just teaching someone how to sing their favorite songs.

That is amazing. This reminds me of a powerful post you put up recently about making friends with your voice.  Why do you think singing and developing a relationship with our voice is important?

There’s a huge connection in literature, spirituality and just life in general, between our voice and our soul. Something about us being able to express our spirit with the voice is unique. What’s one of the first things that we do? We learn to speak. We have this innate ability built into our DNA to want to learn language and to want to be able to express it. To me, that’s one of the reasons why the voice is special- because it’s the one instrument that we carry around inside of us. This is why our attention often goes straight to the singer in a music stage performance. Not all of us are trumpet players, not all of us are drummers, but all of us have a voice, and so we connect to that.

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“The voice being the one instrument we carry inside of us- Wow! I never really thought about it that way.   

Yes, so if you’re in voice training, you’re building that instrument and you’re also expressing with that instrument that is inside of you at the same time.

This was an idea that Rebecca Lam talked about. A luthier builds the guitar, and then a guitar player plays that guitar. But as singers, we are the luthier and the player simultaneously, which is fabulous and wonderful. But it can also be highly frustrating, scary, and can make a lot of people quit along the way because they want to just get to the playing part of it. But often, the instrument isn’t even built enough, the glue’s not even dry, the strings haven’t even been put on yet to be able to start expressing something on it. And that’s where patience comes in.

This must add so many layers not just to learning singing, but to teaching it.

Yes, because with our voice being inside of us, it’s much easier to get a lot of complexes about your voice and to get a lot of tension in your voice from other psychological and life experience factors- the baggage that we can drag along with us.

As a voice teacher, I’ve heard hundreds of things that parents have said to children about their singing that have scarred them and made them shut up. And then we have to try and unpack that twenty, thirty, forty years later because those students have gone through their whole life without feeling like their voice is a part of their expression.

And as an instructor, can you pick up on this sometimes, by the way someone sings?

Yes, but not just in the way they sing. I think this carries over into every other means of communication as well. Because if a student’s voice is shut down, then I can even see when he or she speaks, that there is tension that they are carrying in their instrument. I might not know the story behind it, but I can see that they are either holding things in or holding things back. Or they just try to push things out, forcing their voice to be as loud as possible. They haven’t made friends with their voice and seen their voice as a wonderful gift that they can nurture. There’s no resonance or freedom in their voice as a result of that.

So other factors in our life play a role in the development and functioning of our voice?

Absolutely. Your psychological and spiritual state can very much affect your voice. And then the flip side of that is that as we start to free up the voice in voice lessons, often people will cry. This can come about because as the chains are being taken off of their voice, we also start to hit particular trigger points. These are points where tension shows up in their voice as a result of something that goes a lot deeper. But through singing, this can often be allowed to finally release.

I always said that when you go to singing lessons you get a vocal coach and a therapist all at the same time! (smiles)

It’s so true (smiles). That’s why it’s fascinating to me as a voice teacher. I don’t see my job as being a psychologist or anything. But sometimes, the larger questions that might be hanging over that singer could unleash or free up their voice possibly just as much, if not more, than the technique side.

Singing is still so mental, so emotional, and so spiritual that we can’t just get into the minutiae of the physical and pretend like nothing has to be happening anywhere else.

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I guess this can really impact a person’s stage performance then, their thoughts and emotions?

Yes. Because someone can be super prepared technically to sing a song, and sing it brilliantly in the green room. But if they stand in front of that crowd and there’s a sense of fear of failure, or some kind of self-critique in their mind, like I’m not worthy to be here, then those thoughts and those tensions travel quickly. And their whole body, the whole instrument, can shut down.

We need to recognize that the voice is not just in the throat or in our vocal cords. To really sing- as in to do something artistic, expressive, and even technically free, pure, and moving- has to involve more than just motor skills.  We need to recognize that the voice is a part of our whole being.

To find out more about the Spencer Welch Vocal Studio, or to book lessons click here: 

https://www.spencerwelch.com/lessons/book-now/

 

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