Interview with Leontine Hass – Vocal Coach on BBC’s The Voice, Drama School Principal and Voice Expert

Leontine HassLeontine has a thriving private practice comprising professional singers across all genres. Her students have won major TV talent competitions, Mojo awards and performed as leads and ensemble in numerous acclaimed West End and National tours of musical theatre productions. Leontine coaches members of The Swingle Singers, Collabro, The Magnets, and classical singers with ENO, Welsh National Opera and ROH, as well as Pop/Rock/Jazz singers. Leontine is also a vocal consultant to various music management and production companies and has acted as vocal consultant for ITV, BBC2 and ‘The Voice’ for BBC TV.

Teaching workshops and lectures internationally on singing, voice and performance, Leontine rehabilitates voices after surgery, or as surgery prevention and has taught at leading music and drama schools including GSA Conservatoire, the Oxford School of Drama, Mountview, The Brit School, La Salle (Singapore), the Queensland Conservatorium, Centre Stage and The VCA (Melbourne). She is a regular columnist at voicecouncil.com and The Stage newspaper, a contributor to ‘The Singer’s Complete Guide to Vocal Health’ (Oxford Uni. Press), and advisor/contributor to ‘The Ultimate Guide to Singing’ published by TC Helicon in 2014.

Leontine is also the CEO/Founding Principal of Associated Studios (founded in 2007) in West London, which provides full/part-time training and professional development in musical theatre and opera. The Board of Directors includes Rory Bremner (Chair), Patrick Lawrence QC and Dr. Christopher Stewardson. Patrons include Sir Tim Rice, Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Herrin, Timothy West and Scott Alan.

Having originally trained as a classical singer (BA, Melb. Uni, BMus. Kings College London, Dip. RAM), Leontine has performed as a singer and actress in concert, theatre and TV.

You originally trained and worked as an actress and singer yourself. What prompted you to become a teacher and move to London from Australia?

I am actually German originally and we immigrated to Australia when I was 11. I was completely obsessed with opera and theatre as a child but ended up majoring in English Literature and History at Melbourne University. I was supposed to go on to an Honours year but I won a singing competition judged by the Conductor of the Australian Opera who recommended I study with Dame Joan Hammond. Dame Joan was an amazing person. Perhaps not the best technical teacher, but a great artist. She had been the women’s world golf champion as well as one of Australia’s most famous opera singers. Then I auditioned at the Victorian College of the Arts to study classical singing. After two years there I went to London and decided to finish my studies at King’s College and the Royal Academy of Music.

I worked as a performer for quite a few years. I had quite a few technical problems as a singer as I had some misinformed teaching and undiagnosed asthma. The Royal Academy of Music is very advanced in teaching technique based on a sound understanding of anatomy, physiology and research. This is partly because they are so closely connected to the British Voice Association. I was fascinated by voices and how they worked.

After I had children I did not want to work in the evenings as I wanted to be there for them growing up and after school. I had so much pleasure in teaching as my fascination with learning about how voices worked coupled with some very good singing teachers in the latter part of my journey, allowed me to fix vocal problems. I still relish this part of the work. I am also very keen on helping singers with so much more than technique. Repertoire choices, career management, management of self, confidence, life skills – we spend time on all of this in lessons. I will always be and do many things, and being a performer will never leave me.

What is the difference between pop, musical theatre and classical singing? Do you have to train differently for each type?

Yes you do. Training in musical theatre is the most versatile as it is such a large umbrella. Many people claim to hate musical theatre but to me this is a non-statement as the art form ranges from pop/rock to soul to jazz to classical. Many jazz musicians say they hate musical theatre and yet most jazz standards come from 30’s and 40’s shows. Summertime for example is from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, My Funny Valentine comes from the 1937 show Babes in Arms by Rogers and Hart. The list goes on.

I would argue that all voices, no matter which style they sing in, need to train in a way that establishes a solid ‘head voice’. Pop and rock is much more lyrical than it sounds and also much harder to sing than people realize. I challenge those who say it is easy to sing pop, to try singing a Beyonce/Christina Aguilera or Whitney Houston song. There are singer/songwriters who write songs with great lyrics. What they do is not about the vocal athleticism. Bob Dylan or Nick Cave for example. These people are not great singers. But they make you think and feel.
On the whole the classical singing technique demands a lower larynx. It is a bit like turning from a piccolo into a flute. If you lower your larynx a little your tube is longer and that, combined with a good lifted soft palate makes for a more resonant and rounded sound.

Apart from many technical differences in the way voices handle these styles, there are also many musical differences. For example in pop there are sections where a singer might ‘decay’ on a note or sing breathily. This would never happen in classical music or even in a ‘legit’ musical.

As a vocal coach it is not only about knowing how to train voices, but also about being able to teach the historical and stylistic traditions of different repertoire.

There seems to be a general feel in the industry currently that many musical theatre voices sound the same as they have been trained in one way now focusing on modern high belt, etc. What are your views on this?

I disagree. High belt was expected in certain repertoire a few years back. We have started to explore what we call ‘mix’ in the last years. Mix is essentially a strong head voice with a fairly high larynx and not too much vibrato. Great musical theatre singers change the voice quality according to the emotional content of the text, the demands of the music and the style. Very few musical theatre singers would ‘belt’ their way through an entire song. There are also many well known musical theatre singers who sing most repertoire in head voice. Frankly, the distinctions we impose on voice qualities are a touch misleading. It is really a matter of the vocal folds vibrating on a thicker or thinner fold mass and a whole manner of other minute physiological changes which are all much closer than we think.

There is also a huge comeback of old fashioned shows and belting these would be almost impossible. That being said, Belt is not a negative. It can be a very exciting sound. If you look at the performances of any of the great current musical theatre performers it is hugely varied and driven by a connection to the text.

What makes Associated Studios different from other drama schools?

I founded Associated Studios as I wanted to find a place to work on my skills whilst in between jobs. We started out as a place of professional development for actors and singers. However as we expanded we found that many singers needed more time to train. So now we are offering part-time and 1 year programmes in opera and musical theatre. We are also in the process of university accreditation for a Degree and Masters programme in both disciplines.

I think Associated Studios is very much a place where performers are supported and nurtured rather than broken down. We are still a relatively small organisation. Coming to us is like going to the local family store which sells the best mozzarella and ciabatta, rather than going to Tesco. We are very hands on with our performers and we try to treat them as artists, not so much as students. Behaving like a student is never a positive for a performer as they need to remember that they are artists and need to have fun and explore and dare to fail many times over. We have very small class sizes, which means that singers all get to sing individually each day of the course. At many conservatoires there are classes of 40 so only a handful get to sing. With us we have class sizes around 12 to 16 on average. This means the performers get a huge amount of attention. We are not a huge machine and we are very closely connected to the industry.

As a vocal coach I am constantly asked for singers for professional work. Obviously this is useful, as I often pass on our students. All our coaches are working theatre practitioners. Many are extremely well known. We also have a huge amount of support from our patrons and even our admin staff tend to be working in the industry when not with as opera agents, running actors advice surgeries, etc. So I guess Associated Studios is a bit like a family.

Do you have to be born to sing or can you come a long way with teaching and the right technique? Can you change your vocal type from alto to mezzo, to soprano etc.? What destroys a healthy voice?

Goodness the answers to the above could literally fill a book so I will try to respond in brief.

Can all people who are generally healthy sing and improve their singing? Yes they can. Can all people become world class singers with time and technique? No. It is the same as for athletes. We can all improve our fitness but we cannot all end up in the Olympics.

Vocal types. I don’t think God woke up one day and said;’ Now I am going to make sopranos, mezzos and altos, tenors, baritones and basses.’ This categorisation of voices has been imposed by us. However, these categories have come into being for very good reasons. Voices tend to ‘lie’ in a certain place. Many voices fall fairly neatly into these categories and with experience one can mostly tell what sort of range a voice will end up with once trained. However there are voices which do not quite as neatly fall into these categories. There are sopranos who could be mezzos. There are baritones who can sing tenor notes. It is frankly too complex to go into in detail here as it is not just a question of range but a question of how weighty and rich a voice sounds in a certain range.

A healthy voice is fairly hard to destroy. Voices heal quickly. However bad technique over a long period of time with lots of singing certainly will not help. Acid reflux coupled with heavy vocalizing is also dangerous. And there are other odd things which can go wrong including botched surgery. And the worst thing of course is smoking. I have sat in voice clinics where people have had their tongues removed because of a smoking related tumour or had a tracheotomy. And then rather than give up, they stick their cigarette straight in the hole in their throat. It is quite revolting and basically slow suicide.

What age should/can you start singing lessons and what is the most difficult part of teaching singing in terms of the psychological/emotional aspect, breaking barriers down, etc?

You can start having fun with singing as early as you can sing. The most important thing is to have a good teacher. Bad teachers can introduce the wrong technical set up and this can take ages to unpick later in life.

The most difficult psychological aspect with singing is lack of confidence. However my take on that is that confidence is overrated. I wrote an article about this in The Stage Newspaper recently. Most people who are any good at anything lack confidence. The trick is to get on with it anyway. Allowing yourself to fail is vital for any performer. And if we accept that we might not feel confident but that we can be prepared, we can practice, we can have a sense of humor and we can keep going, then that is a good starting point.

What does being a vocal consultant on The Voice involve and what are the biggest challenges? For example, how do you prepare talented but inexperienced singers to perform on live TV?

My work on The Voice involves being a part of the audition tours where we hear hundreds of people audition throughout the country. There is always a vocal coach and a producer in the room. It is the job of the vocal coach to spot whether there might be some simple technical tricks to improve a singer who might have a lot of potential if they were just pointed in the right direction, as well as to spot talent. The vocal coaches involved in The Voice are truly some of the top vocal coaches in the country. It is a very exciting team to be a part of as they are all real experts and I consider it to be a huge privilege to be asked. People can be very cynical about reality TV talent shows. However my own experience of The Voice is that it is a very genuine process and all the ‘staff’ for The Voice genuinely care about the singers and want them to be at their best. It can be a hugely emotional process for everyone involved and I think many people would be surprised by how much work and effort and heart and soul actually goes into it.

The Voice team prepare singers who are through to the televised rounds by giving them band rehearsals, sending them to a psychologist, a vocal coach and just being there ready to give advice. Then there are all the people behind the scenes. I have a couple of students who have gone through to the televised rounds of the Voice this year and they are receiving tremendous support.

Who is your favourite singer and why?

All my students. Because I know them and we have worked and laughed and cried and gone through the tough times and the successes together.

What are your future aspirations – career/personal?

I want to watch more good TV. Because I never watch any and I need to relax. I want to learn how to cook Crème Brule, a good Paella and a Blackforest cake. I love to cook but there are some things I have never made. I want to read more. I want to do more charity work. I volunteered for Crisis last Christmas and it was an amazingly rewarding experience. I want to do more performing, acting and singing myself again and produce some shows. I want to go to Cuba with my two amazing children, both girls. I want to get back to throwing pots on the wheel as I was actually a professional potter as a student. It earned me my airfare to London. I want Associated Studios to be one of the top academies in the world. I want to learn about plants. I want to learn how to play drum kit and mouth organ. I want to have lots of fun with my friends and family and be silly together. I want to learn not to get too stressed and to enjoy each and every moment of this crazy life.

Who is your inspiration and what do you believe makes an inspiring woman?

Many people inspire me. Anyone who strives for things, works hard, thinks outside the box and tries to improve as a human being inspires me. I think on the whole it is the same traits that make an inspiring woman as an inspiring man. I do not think it is always the heroic qualities that make a great person. Some people are great people in a very non-public and quiet way. I think the qualities which are traditionally regarded as ‘female’ such as gentleness, being nurturing, self-effacing and striving for peace and harmony are qualities we should all strive for. The world would be a better place if we were less power and status hungry. Women are amazing. I love women. I love men too.

I think it is a shame if women feel they have to strive for qualities we traditionally associate with maleness in order to be treated as equals. If a woman is naturally very assertive and domineering then there is nothing wrong with that, However there are many successful woman who have quietly carved out an amazing life. I think mothers and housewives who devote themselves to their families are incredible. I also think career woman who manage a family and a job are remarkable. And to all those single mums out there doing it all yourselves and earning the money, like me, well I am biased…but you are all bloody awesome! Women need to continue to stand up for each other, let their voices be heard. We have to rewrite history, make more interesting films about women, and we need to change the way we speak. There are so many pejorative phrases built into our language to do with being female. People constantly say things like ‘he’s behaving like an old woman’ or ‘don’t be such a girl’. Old women are fabulous on the whole. Women get better and better as they age. Of course there are exceptions, but women tend to keep growing mentally and in terms of their psychological strength.

My new little habit is that I have changed the old ‘grow a pair of balls’ phrase to ‘grow a pair of tits’!

For further information about Leontine, please see www.leontinehass.com and www.associatedstudios.co.uk

Jennifer Reischel
About the author

Jennifer Reischel is the Business Development and Communications Manager for Entertainment Media Group, which includes the St. James Theatre in Victoria. Completing a theatre degree at Mountview Academy Jennifer first pursued a career as an actor performing on stage and screen. Migrating into writing and penning the award-nominated guide book “So you want to tread the boards”, Jennifer became a theatre critic and feature contributor for The Stage, as well as launching the global video audition website The Stage Castings. Additionally, Jennifer has acted as a judge for the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Competition of the Year, cast plays for Soho Theatre and hosted industry events workshops in the West End and at the Edinburgh Festival. Twitter: @jenreischel. Website: www.performingarts-auditionguide.com

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