SMB Talk To... Jai Ramage, Vocal Coach
Jai Ramage is a renowned vocal coach. She works on ‘The Voice’ and ‘The Voice Kids’ for the BBC and ITV, coaches leading West End performers as well as numerous international pop stars. We caught up with Jai to find out more about her work, her advice for singers to improve and preserve their voices and to discover what she considers the markers of a truly great vocal performance.
Hi Jai! Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us. You’ve had an incredible career in vocal coaching. What do you love most about your work and what would you consider your career highlights so far? I love that my work is varied and that all singers are different - no two days at work are ever the same. The job involves creativity, physiology and psychology in varying degrees depending on the singer and the project. Basically, I work in music, (which is my passion), I’m a science nerd (my teenage self would never have predicted this!) and I deal with peoples’ psyche (which is my fascination). My role is to enable singers to achieve their goals and when they do there is no better feeling. I especially love it when they achieve things that surpass even their own expectations of themselves. A career highlight for me was the first time I had a singer perform at the O2. It was his first gig at the venue supporting a massive A-lister, so the pressure was on and he was feeling it, to the point that I don’t think he even wanted to do it! After some pre-show prep I watched him nail his performance from out front and was immensely proud of him. That was a highlight for me. I think it is about how big the transformation is. But actually, every time I get a message from any of my singers telling me of a success they have just achieved, however big or small, it is very satisfying. What advice do you have for a professional singer to preserve their voice? Get a vocal coach! I coach a lot of professionals and I get to know their voices inside and out. I know what makes them tired, how much they can sing in a day and when they should rest. I monitor their voice use and tailor a regime to suit. Singers are not always able to recognise or control these things themselves. It is comforting for them to know someone is championing their best interests. As an artist manager, I’ve seen the strain that can be put on a voice whilst touring. What can singers do during those intensive periods to sustain strong vocal performances? All the natural things are the things that get neglected, yet they are so important. Sleep, hydration and healthy eating are essential. Warming up the voice can prevent injury and cooling down after a gig can speed up recovery. It’s all well and good being ‘rock and roll’ and not doing these things but no one wants to cancel gigs through voice loss. I also find the extra promo bits put an incredible strain on the voice. Artists are flown somewhere, get off the plane, dehydrated from the air conditioning, and go straight to several interviews where they are using their voices without warming up (they should warm up in the taxi if need be, even if they are only speaking) and then shipped over to the venue for soundcheck. These extra activities involve some serious voice use and that is not sustainable without some care. Could you explain how a vocal coach can support and improve a vocalists’ performance? For example, what would one of your vocal coaching sessions include? I would do a few warm-up exercises, unless I know them well enough to trust they will do the right things before they see me. The session would then be bespoke depending on what they are preparing for or what their goal is. It may be that they are getting ready for an audition, recording session or tour so the session may focus on details in stylistics, vocal techniques, stamina and/or confidence. Singers are emotionally connected to their music and their voices are part of their identity. They need encouragement and positive support which is why I approach everything with a strength-based focus. No singer needs criticism to trigger self-doubt. I’ve been one, so I understand how vulnerable they can feel. I will always start with ‘what do YOU want to improve?’ so they feel a sense of ownership. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so a session would be different for everyone, tailored to what they need. What pieces of vocal advice do you wish every new singer knew? When I was singing I hadn’t learnt that the functionality of the larynx is affected by nerves. Pre-show/gig/audition nerves may trigger the sympathetic nervous system into the ‘fight or flight’ response and, annoying as this, it's a perfectly normal reaction. I always thought there was something wrong with me and I couldn’t understand why I could manage that song in rehearsal but not when it really mattered under pressure. I wish I had known back then that my body was responding to the situation as it should and that I just needed some tools and strategies for my mind and body to counteract it. On a general level, I think we have this notion that being a ‘natural’ singer is good and that if you have coaching then you are not a ‘natural’. I can assure you that the successful singers I know think about what they are doing in detail. They prepare and practice so they inhabit their songs and believe in their vocal choices. Singers who don’t do this, fall down at some point either physically or mentally. So that’s what I advise - think, prepare and believe. It seems obvious but you’d be surprised how many people don’t. I'm always interested in what industry professionals consider a ‘great voice’. For me it’s the ability to translate the emotion of a lyric into a vocal delivery with personality. What do you consider a great voice? And who are the great voices of today that you respect and admire? I totally agree with you they have to be emotionally connected with what they are singing. All the high notes and vocal gymnastics don’t mean anything if the performance is not moving in some way. A lot of singers find it difficult to deliver an emotional vocal performance in the recording studio when they feel under pressure to do so; to capture that one amazing take. I’ve developed strategies to help singers with this but a lot of enabling an emotional performance comes down to how comfortable the singer feels to express themselves without judgement. This can be dependent on the relationship the singer has with the producer, engineer, vocal producer or anyone else who may be in the session. Being emotional can make singers feel vulnerable and exposed if they are not at ease. Singing is a very ‘human’ act. I love voices that are distinctive and unique, when the singer can be identified by their voice alone. Historically, I think people are drawn to singers with a strong vocal identity, take Nina Simone, Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush, Frank Sinatra, Bjork, Mick Jagger and Amy Winehouse as examples. Often the beauty is in the imperfection, for singing to be emotional it has to be authentic and emotion is not always pretty or perfect. These singers seem to encapsulate authenticity. These days I am drawn to male voices, I think because I can listen without comparing it with how it feels in my own voice. It gives me a separation from it. I love singers like Passenger and Hozier. I love that honest folk influence. I hugely admire Brendan Urie for his exceptional technical skill. There is a singer called Robinson who didn’t really have the success I think he should have had. Look up his ‘England’s Bleeding’ album on YouTube. I adore his voice, it is so raw and passionate. He moves me!
Find out more about Jai's work at: http://www.jairamagevoice.com/