The Zen of Singing: An interview with Wendy P.

This week we're featuring Wendy P., a voice teacher and singer in the Chicago area. Originally from Atchison Kansas, Wendy began performing early in life and eventually went on to earn her bachelor's degree in music from University of Kansas, and later earned a master's at Columbia College in Chicago. Though classically trained, Wendy as an eclectic interest in various styles of singing including rock, jazz, and musical theater. An accomplished performer, she was a founding member of The Red Apples, who she performed with for 10 years. As an educator Wendy also does workshops, and hosts a bi-weekly Singer's Salon open mic at 3160-Chicago's Piano & Cabaret. Wendy was kind enough to spend some time with us talking shop. You can check out her voice teacher profile here.

Encore: What was your earliest experience with music?

Wendy: I was singing when I was really young. My mother sang and she brought me up singing. I was seriously singing in grade school. When I was 10 I organized this thing with a friend of mine where we did a play, which we adapted from a story, and we directed and starred in it, and I sang in it. And I was also in a choir - I was singing and performing even though I was shy. And believe it or not I think that's partly why I was attracted to it too.

E: You were attracted to it because you were shy?

W: I think so, partly - it was a pretend world where it was ok to be "out there". It appealed to my imagination.

E: Probably a lot of musicians are shy like that.

W: Yeah there are two different kinds I think - the extroverted ones and the introverted ones, and I was definitely one of the introverted ones.

E: Where did you grow up?

W: I grew up in Atchison, Kansas. It was a really small town.

E: And when did you move to the Chicago area?

W: After I graduated from college. I went to University of Kansas, and I had roommates that were from the Chicago area. I knew I wanted to go somewhere more "happening". Chicago was actually getting a lot of attention for the theater scene, which was really starting to pop in the 80's, and that's when I came out here, and pretty much stayed here, although I didn't think I would.

The main thing that makes practice drudgery is when your just doing repetitive things without being present, or mindful. But if you become present in what you're doing, it becomes interesting - it's the Zen of singing.

E: So you started out with Musical theater being your thing?

W: It was mixed - when I first started I was a composition major because I write music also, and then I switched to performance, so I was doing voice and theater, but it was kind of separate back in those days because it was a new major, believe it or not. So I really studied classical music and opera and all that. But when I came to Chicago I thought "ok I'm not really going to pursue all that". So musical theater, and also some original stuff that I was doing with some people.

E: What kind of original music?

W: Well I started off with this project - it was kind of an odd project. I would call it across between art song and cabaret song in the European tradition. You know, more of a Brecht/Weil type thing, with this Polish composer friend of mine. And then later I got into singing with "The Red Apples" which is the band I had with my husband up until recently, which we did for 10 years. That was more of a roots-rock/blues/contemporary music - anything roots related. I've been all over the board in terms of singing different stuff.

Everyone's mind wanders sometimes, but the key is to gently bring yourself back to the present, without judging yourself, because if you do then you set up this negative practice cycle. That's not helpful - it just makes you feel bad!

E: What's your favorite style to teach?

W: I don't know if I have a favorite. I do enjoy musical theater but I really like contemporary styles too. I guess my most favorite would be jazz standards, which I'm getting more into singing again. I think I just love those songs more than anything, and that's sort of a crossover with musical theater because that's where it comes from - Gershwin and Cole Porter and those great songwriters.

E: What's your favorite kind of gig to do?

W: I think my favorite kind of crowd to perform for is one that already loves me (laughs), because you're in that comfort zone. I do have people who come hear me perform, and I perform alot in the more intimate clubs. In a way that's scarier because everyone is right in front of you, and they can really see everything. Lately I've been doing a lot of scaled down acoustic stuff, and you're more revealed there then when singing with a full band. So in some ways it's more challenging, but it's also more intimate and connected with the audience. It's harder to connect with a big huge crowd. But that is fun too-it's a totally different experience.

E: So you play in a lot of small clubs then?

W: I actually have a Singer's Salon that I host once a month. It's like an open mic for singers specifically. It's in a cabaret bar with a piano - it's a very intimate setting. It's very cool, it's a lot of fun, and people come and sing. They can bring something to be sight read, or they can come with something prepared, or they can accompany themselves. We also have a guitarist who was a former band member, who comes in and plays with people too. It's really been growing and it's a lot of fun. We do all genres - anything from opera, to country, to rock and roll, even metal!

I've had students who just need to talk to me for an hour - maybe they're worried about a recording session that isn't going well, or maybe they're nervous about a show coming up. That's all part of the deal too.

E: What's your general approach to working with a new student?

W: I usually talk to them a little at first, just to put them at ease and also to find out more about what kind of music they like, what their goals are. I do think it's good to know what you're trying to accomplish. Sometimes people are just beginners and they don't really know, which is fine also. I usually introduce them to a few warm up things to help loosen them up. I explain to them what my lessons are like, and I usually do some basic scales and warm ups to start to get to know their voice. I try to assess their voice and what their issues might be. Also it's a chance for them to assess me and see if I'm going to be a good fit, because that's just as much a question for them as it is for me. I try to make them feel comfortable and give them a sense of my style of teaching.

E: Do you have certain books or methods you like to use?

W: Really it's totally varied - it depends on the person. I don't stick with one book, all though I have some favorites. I think a lot of my teaching is gleaned from my own personal experience. I had classical Bel Canto training originally, and I also have musical theater training. I re-trained myself to sing more in more contemporary styles, because it's a different sound. I also am influenced by Kristin Linklater’s basic voice production exercises. So it's pretty eclectic. I also include alternate things like meditation - but that really depends on the student - probably not something I'd do with a younger student. It can really help with adults who have trained their own voices badly (laughs), or who have really negative self-talk. We all have that, but you have to get out of that mind set.

E: And how do you do that?

W: Well, certainly meditation is one thing that helps. Another thing is to work directly with the voices that are judging you and confront them. That's getting more into the therapy realm. And honestly I've had students who just need to talk to me for an hour - maybe they're worried about a recording session that isn't going well, or maybe they're nervous about a show coming up. That's all part of the deal too.

This life journey is beautiful, and if it takes you to the pot of gold, great, and if it takes you in some other direction it's not all for naught, because it's a great learning experience, and a great living experience.

E: Do you ever get stage fright or performance anxiety?

W: I used to have crippling stage fright, and it probably took more than half of my life to get over that. Singing with the band in the last ten years was probably the thing that helped the most, because we played constantly. I think it also helped me become more confident as a person. I'm extremely comfortable performing now, which is so much more fun. I definitely address that in lessons and workshops, and that's really what the Singer's Salon is about more than anything. People can be terrified to get up and sing, even if they’re good! So it's not about talent. The point of the Singer's Salon is it's a group energy, where people are there to support each other, which is really what makes it different than an "open-mic". It's a way to improve because you don't feel like you're going to get “torn up”. People aren't going to say "ugh that person was awful". I mean they might, but they won't do it there because if they do I'll kick them out (laughs).

If you are openly and actively curious about what your experience is, you've opened a world of possibilities - and that's what learning is!

E: And as a singer I imagine the anxiety is worse than as an instrumentalist.

W: Yeah - and your breathing is the first thing to go when you're nervous. So there you go- if you're a singer you're in trouble if you can't breath.

E: Often people ask "how long will it take me to get good?" How do you respond to that?

It's not just a matter of going to a few lessons and becoming a great singer. If you're really interested in singing, it can become your life.

W: Well, I tell them it's an individual thing, and I also let them know that even professional singers study off and on their entire lives. It's not just a matter of going to a few lessons and becoming a great singer. If you're really interested in singing, it can become your life. Now, if it's a hobby and you want to improve your singing, then hopefully you will enjoy the process. I try to turn it into a more process oriented discussion, because that's what it is. I also try to explain to students that it's more like training to run a marathon than it is like learning French. It's not an intellectual activity, it's a physical one. You're going to definitely want to invest some time in it. I mean you should start seeing improvement within a few weeks to a month or so. It just depends on how much improvement you want!

E: What do you generally tell your students regarding practice. How often should they be doing it?

W: Again it depends on the student, but I say that even if you can only fit in 10-15 minutes a day, that's a minimum to me, but that consistency is better than doing nothing. Obviously if you can do more, it's better. I try to help people incorporate practice into their life. For instance, with kids I sometimes advise them to do it when they need to take a break from homework. Because it's better to look at it that way, as a discipline that you do, like anything else.

E: How do you keep it from becoming boring though?

W: The main thing that makes practice drudgery is when you’re just doing repetitive things without being present, or mindful. If you become present in what you're doing, it becomes interesting - it's the Zen of singing (laughs). You have to be fully engaged, and then it's not only beneficial, but it becomes fascinating. Then you're really singing. Everyone's mind wanders sometimes, but the key is to gently bring yourself back to the present, without judging yourself, because if you do then you set up this negative practice cycle. That's not helpful - it just makes you feel bad! So that's no good, but if you can be gentle with yourself and say "okay, what am I doing here?" If you are openly and actively curious about what your experience is, you've opened a world of possibilities - and that's what learning is!

E: What is your advice to people who are starting out and want to have a career in singing?

W: Firstly, I would say to singers; build a really solid technique, so that your voice doesn’t fall apart on you when you need it. Secondly, you should find out who you are as an artist and become that individual. I really try to encourage people to bring out their own uniqueness, because if you don't have that, you won't be successful. Don’t try to be somebody else. Practically speaking, it seems that the people who do well in the business are people who are confident, who believe in themselves, and who have something to say. So you have to connect to the artist inside you - and it's not easy. It's not a magic pill you can just take - it's your life's work. This is an exciting journey no matter where you end up. You shouldn't just be trying to get to that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, because the rainbow is the good part. This life journey is beautiful, and if it takes you to the pot of gold great, and if it takes you in some other direction it's not all for naught, because it's a great learning experience, and a great living experience.