An accomplished Singer, Dancer, Actor, Songwriter, Composer, Choreographer and Performing Arts Educator from Montreal, the categorically talented and impossibly delightful SHEENA BERNETT is our first featured guest as part of our new “Theatre Talk” Series here at the Hub. The local multidisciplinary artist holds many notable credentials and qualifications to her name, but we sat down with her earlier this week to specifically discuss her current stream of work as a voice coach and to pick her brain on singing technique and all things related to vocal performance for the theatre.
Interview held on September 5th, 2016
Montreal Theatre Hub (Camila Fitzgibbon): Your academic background, training, and professional résumé are incredibly impressive. How did you get into becoming an educator and what is it that you teach?
Sheena Bernett: Once I finished going to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, I moved back to Montreal and began writing my own music. I really wanted to focus on songwriting, but I soon realized that I needed to make a living and so I started giving vocal lessons to artists in bands. I eventually got really interested in teaching and decided to get a Bachelor’s degree at Concordia in Music Composition and Classical Voice; after that I went to Scotland to complete an M.A. in Musical Theatre. When I returned once again to Montreal is when I really started my business in vocal coaching.
Today, as a Performing and Creative Arts Coach, I mainly teach singing/vocal technique, but I also use lessons to help students work on their repertoire, acting, dancing, and composition/songwriting – everything that has to do with performing and auditioning.
MTH: What should students be looking for in a vocal teacher, ideally?
Sheena: I strongly believe that the most important thing is choosing a teacher that’s right for you as a human being. It’s not so much about getting a coach that teaches a specific genre; my opinion is that voice teachers should be able to teach all music styles. It’s all one instrument and one voice and coaches and students alike should be versatile in their approach. You need that in this industry – especially in musical theatre where you have to be able to sing R&B, jazz, classical, rock, and so on. Obviously you want someone who is qualified, but what you really should be looking for after that is a connection to that person. When you feel understood and supported, it’s so much easier to get your work done and to see improvement.
MTH: Do you believe anyone can learn how to sing?
Sheena: Absolutely, but it does take a lot of patience. What happens in people that “don’t know how to sing” is that they simply aren’t used to producing certain sounds and don’t know how to readily access them. It all has to do with muscle memory and literally letting it sink into your body. I’ve had students come to me and say “I’m basically tone deaf” or “I can’t match a pitch” and over time with training they’re able to figure it out. It’s exactly like learning how to play an instrument such as the violin. Is everyone going be an amazing violinist? Realistically not, but everyone can sing and everyone should sing. I really believe in singing as this amazing way to connect to your body. To feel those vibrations go through you is incredibly therapeutic and freeing.
Also, the basis of singing is breathing. If you don’t know how to connect to your breath, that’s where it all begins. First you learn how to take in the breath and how to actually use it. Your body can produce all of these different colours of sound, and you blend and match these colours depending on what style of singing you’re going for. That’s what mixing is – combining the different sounds you get from different resonators. These are all things that anyone can learn how to do and that we as vocal instructors work to help you with.
MTH: What is the first thing you do when starting out with a new student?
Sheena: I’ll have a conversation with them beforehand and ask “What are your goals and what is it precisely that you want to work on?”; then, together we create a plan. A lot of the time, people actually don’t really know what they want or need. They’ll have a bigger picture goal in mind, but they don’t realize what the specific objective is, and it’s my job to figure that out. Usually people come to me because they say they have an audition or they want to work on their performance skills because they have a show coming up. Occasionally, though, I get students who are in it for the long run, and that’s when it really gets interesting. Learning how to perform is a long-term process and it’s amazing and rewarding to watch someone grow and change over time.
MTH: What do you find is the biggest mistake that theatre performers make, especially amateur singers or those that are still developing their skills?
Sheena: People are really concerned with wanting to sound beautiful, and that’s not the most important thing when it comes to theatre. It’s all about the acting. If you really connect to the music, to the scene, and to what you’re saying, that’s what’s going to draw people in. As an audience member, you want to feel something, and you want it to be genuine. That’s the biggest misconception with people who are starting up in musical theatre – wanting to sound good. They’re caught up in the performance aspect of things and they’re not as introspective about their work and connecting to their character. Yes, it’s important to get your vocal technique down and to sound really solid, but that’s only a tool to help you communicate a story. People that get cast in interesting roles and that win audiences over are the ones that can carry a storyline.
MTH: We know that many people overthink singing, but in the early stages of learning and even among experienced performers, isn’t it necessary to self-monitor and have that awareness of technique to some extent?
Sheena: You have to kind of go in and out of it. In musical theatre, you want to be able to get into character but you also have to be sure you’re hitting your marks. You can’t be completely absorbed in the acting. It’s the same thing with singing… you want to give it freedom to take over and grow and flourish but you also have to be aware of what you’re doing for sure. If you’re doing something performance-wise and it works well, for example, you want to be able to recreate that, so if you’re not watching yourself to some degree, then you won’t know how to tap into that again later on. The trick is to marry the two states of mind where you’re totally in flow and analyzing. Finding that balance is the biggest challenge alone in becoming a singer and a performer of any capacity.
MTH: What is the most important thing someone can do outside of class to rehearse and improve?
Sheena: I really believe that people should come up with their own strategies for practicing. No one knows you better than you do. Taking the time to figure out how to effectively practice in a way that works for you will spare you years of training and frustration. A lot of singers think, “well, if I practice an hour every day of the week, I’ll become amazing”. That’s not at all the case for most people. Sometimes all you need is just 10 minutes a day. If you spend those 10 minutes doing 2 exercises with quality, precision, and focus and you don’t let yourself go back into bad habits, that’s going to be way more effective in the long run than if you sing for an hour in your old, harmful ways. What we want to do in vocal training is essentially try to dismantle all of these habits that don’t serve you that you’ve developed, so if you keep reinforcing them for hours on end you’re really just working against yourself. So yes, when it comes to practicing, it’s all about distilling it down. You have to take the time to understand what works for you physically, emotionally, and psychologically and build your strategy from there.
MTH: What is the most damaging thing a singer can do do their voice?
Sheena: Push. A lot of singers equate energy and support to pushing, and this can be extremely damaging to your voice. You only have one instrument and you can’t replace it. Singing is about understanding the different parts of your register and learning how to direct the sounds to these different areas. I mean, we can talk forever, right? We can speak for at least eight hours a day and not have any vocal problems, so the issue isn’t us making sound, it’s how we’re producing sound. You almost have to think about the throat area as if it were a hollow tube and that nothing’s there – even though we know that’s where our vocal cords are. That image helps you relax your neck. If you’re creating tension anywhere, that’s when you start getting nodes and injuries. Even with things like character voices where we manipulate our sound in certain ways, it should still be stress-free, otherwise you can’t repeat your performance and be clear. Sing with ease, that is the mantra. If it hurts or feels uncomfortable, stop.
MTH: What advice do you have for singers that find themselves discouraged by the process of learning vocal technique and theory? (As a personal example, too many menial, repetitive exercises and thinking about technique can seriously take away the joy of singing for me).
Sheena: The first thing that person needs to do is talk to their vocal coach, and if the coach can’t accommodate that, they may still be an amazing teacher but they’re just likely not the right fit for the student. There are many singers out there who want to do just that: run and get right in there and throw themselves into the deep end. I’m the opposite: I like to understand everything, break it down, and do my analysis to make sure I feel perfectly prepared. You have to be patient and just try to keep the bigger goal in mind; you can’t cut out technique entirely or you’ll likely end up hurting yourself.
The thing is, we all have different personalities, and your teacher has to adapt to that. It’s like those kids who are told they have ADHD but really all it is is that people learn differently; some of us have to move in order to assimilate things. For example, instead of doing half an hour of technical work, maybe 15-20 minutes is sufficient and then you go right away into incorporating what you worked on into the song. You then use the song as the exercise and you keep it intriguing by having the acting happen at the same time. A lot of the time people think you should work on technique and acting separately; that actually doesn’t work for many artists. Sometimes, you have to rehearse all of the elements simultaneously, otherwise it feels unnatural when you try to slap it together later.
Essentially, you just have to communicate and stand up for yourself and say what it is that you want to work on. For example, if you have a piece that you want to perform that your teacher thinks you’re not ready to tackle, you have every right to disagree and say “that’s what I’m here for.” We all have these pieces we want to do and you have to start working on them right away – even if it’s a few bars at a time–- because if you don’t, you may never get around to it. There’s never going to be a perfect time to do it. It’s important to challenge yourself and keep it exciting. It’s hard to accept that “this is where I’m at in my journey, and I’m going to share that journey with other people. Even in moments I don’t appreciate it, other people will.”
MTH: Any words of wisdom to impart on those that have struggled or are currently struggling with vocal issues?
Sheena: You have to really take care of yourself. Instead of letting yourself spiral out of control, you have to become your guardian and say “Okay, I’ve damaged myself, so now I’m going to have to keep things simple and slowly build from that”. It takes a lot of dedication and spirit, but you have no choice; you have to work slowly, otherwise you become even more self-destructive.
Also, when it comes to healing and letting go of stress in general, you have to quiet the mind and find the joy of singing again. Let the music sort of carry you away. When you’re singing, don’t focus on yourself. Listen to the pianist, pay attention to the other singers you’re singing with, hear the nuances in the score, and think about the story you want to tell. Connect to your body and what’s happening around you.
MTH: What is the most rewarding part of your work as a teacher?
Sheena: The most rewarding part to me is the sense of contribution. Also, you know that feeling of getting lost in yourself when you’re performing? I get that when I’m teaching as well because I’m so focused on the other person and fascinated with what’s going on inside them. It also has to do with this basic need that I have to want to understand and analyze others. I remember that the teachers I used to have that were empaths were the ones that I connected to the most.
Check out some of Sheena’s upcoming workshops:
Musical Theatre Audition Workshop
Presented in association with the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society
(In preparation for their Little Shop of Horrors auditions on Oct 28/29)
Date: Thursday, October 20 from 6 PM – 9 PM
Location: 5801 Cavendish Blvd, Cote-St-Luc
Price: $40 in advance and $50 at the event
Full details HERE
Musical Theatre Performance Workshop ~ Acting Through Song
Date: Friday, January 27th, 2017 from 2 PM – 6 PM
Location: Concordia University, Music Department
(1450 Guy Street, MB Building, 8th Floor, Room MB 8.265)
Full details HERE
For more information:
To contact and inquire about private and group lessons in voice, acting, ballet and songwriting/composition: