Interview: Amanda Flynn

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Amanda Flynn for coffee in midtown. We previously met, having traveled similar circles as voice teachers in New York City. What immediately becomes apparent when talking to Amanda is her knowledge, paired with her passion and charm. At the time of our first meeting, Amanda was beginning her work as a vocal coach with TheatreworksUSA. She is now the vocal coach for Be More Chill, which recently opened on Broadway. She was generous to share her time and insights with us.

Your particular journey as a performer led you to focus on a career in vocal health. Can you share that with us?

stacks-image-e6c905bAbsolutely! I moved to NYC to perform and was lucky enough to work pretty steadily, including two Broadway sit down productions: Mamma Mia in Las Vegas and the original LA cast of Wicked. When I was in LA with Wicked, I started having some voice problems. My voice was inconsistent and I was struggling to sing both my track and the track I understudied. I was incredibly frustrated and scared. I saw two ENT’s and a voice therapist, none of which provided any reasons for my struggles, nor did they offer any real solutions. I was told I had “bad technique” and that I “just didn’t know how to sing well.” I felt a slew of emotions. I was sad, angry, and ashamed.

Once I moved back to NYC, I was fortunate to assemble a great voice team who diagnosed me immediately, then set me on the path to recovery. Turns out that my inhalers (I have asthma) were causing fungal infections on my vocal folds that made my voice inconsistent. No doctor had caught this in LA. A round of antifungal medicine along with a change of my inhaler solved the problem. It was that simple. I worked on fixing the bad habits that had developed when my voice wasn’t working fully, but once I did that, my voice returned to full function and I haven’t had issues since. My mind was pretty blown by how easy of  a solution there was.

I was also shocked through this ordeal that there were no resources in place to help a performer with their voice. My production team didn’t know how to help me, and there was certainly nothing in place from the union. I felt so alone and angry that I was dealing with something that felt so traumatic, yet turned out to be so trivial. This was a huge turning point for me. I continued to perform after this ordeal, but my interest in the voice grew into something that eventually took over my life. When I started teaching, my goal was to to work with injured singers and to work on productions. I wanted to prevent performers from going through what I went through. So far, I’m making both of these things happen, and I couldn’t be happier with where I am.

You are a self-proclaimed voice nerd. Can you talk about how you bring your knowledge to actors who may not understand the voice in the intricate ways you do?

My nerdiness abounds! I love learning and I spend much of my time reading and diving into as many areas of the voice as I can. One thing I love about being an educator is playing detective: figuring out how best to work with the person in front of me. When someone comes for a session, it’s fun to get to know their personality, their learning style, and their relationship to their voice. Finding ways to explain things differently to each person is a fun, creative challenge for my brain. It keeps me on my toes.

I always focus on function. I want my singers to understand what they are doing to produce certain sounds. My approach is to first make adjustments. Then, once they feel a difference, we can discuss what actually changed physiologically.  Most singers like when I’ve explained something to them in approachable anatomical or scientific terms. It demystifies the process. Performers are smart people – they like knowing what’s happening or knowing why certain positive changes took place. When singers know how things work, they have a much better time problem solving on their own. I can’t be with every singer I work with at every audition or on every contract, so I want to give them tools to troubleshoot on their own. The idea that singers will be hindered if they know too much information has never proven to be true in my work.

Not many Broadway productions have vocal coaches. How did you come to be the vocal coach for Be More Chill?

This is such an excellent question that does not have one direct answer. There are a lot of factors that added up to my working on the show. The first, is that I am a long-time collaborator with Joe Iconis. He’s one of my dearest friends. He sang in my wedding. My husband sang in his. We’ve been making music and surviving life together for a long time. So even though I’ve never officially been part of the earlier incarnations of Be More Chill, I’ve been part of Joe’s life throughout the show’s journey. Many people involved with the show have been friends and collaborators for several years. We truly are a family.

During the Off-Broadway run, there were a few instances of illness and minor voice issues in the cast. A few of the actors reached out to me for some help navigating illness and fatigue (my friends know how nerdy I am about the voice). I helped get them into good medical hands and helped them work through their vocal fatigue with singing and hands-on work so they could get through the run as easily as possible.

The Be More Chill producers and management team are incredible humans who take the health of their actors seriously. My friend Jennifer Ashley Tepper, one of the lead producers, is a champion of her friends and knew about my work in the voice world. When the actors that I helped Off-Broadway made a push for my being involved in the Broadway run, Jen (along with Jerry Goehring and Lisa Dozier-King) decided to bring me onboard in an official capacity. It’s a tight-knit family and working on a Broadway show with some of your best friends is very special and wonderful.

“Vocal coach” is one of those terms that can mean a lot of different things in different situations. Can you explain what your title means in the context of this particular production? What are your responsibilities?

Semantics are challenging. Traditionally, the musical theatre world uses titles in the same way as the classical world; your “voice teacher” is your technique teacher and your “voice coach” is your repertoire and music specialist. There is always crossover between the jobs, but the main focus of each is different. However, in the recording-artist world, “vocal coach” is the name for your technique person. Your vocal coach is the one keeping your voice healthy and strong, and also helping you with style. What the words mean vary from demographic to demographic. I used to focus a lot on these semantics, but I’m less concerned about them now. They’re just labels that can mean different things in different contexts (or even on different continents). I do, however, make sure that all my musical theatre clients have an excellent repertoire person they see regularly in addition to myself. They understand that we are voice building, and that their repertoire person is book building.

As for Be More Chill, I have the official title of “Vocal Coach” for the production, which feels very apropos. My responsibilities thus far have included: being a vocal health resource (helping actors navigate vocal and general health with laryngologists, voice therapists, laryngeal massage therapists, physical therapists, etc), working with the actors in traditional voice lessons, warming the actors up before shows, creating specific warm ups for the actors, doing hands-on-voice-work, and watching the show to learn the actors’ voices and habits. I work equally with their singing and their speaking. Just as the actors get physical therapy each week, they also get an hour of my time each week, should they choose to use it.

I’ve recently taken to calling myself a voice trainer because that is what I feel like most of the time in my private studio and definitely in the context of the show. I feel more like a teacher in my university where I am following the curriculum I’ve laid out and am building a voice over four years. In the show, I feel like a trainer or a coach. I am there to support the actors and give them advice and the tools to do their job well. When I watch the show, I literally feel like a coach on the sidelines rooting for my athlete to play well.

Can you give a specific example of a common interaction between you and the other departments that work on the show (i.e. – music, sound, etc…)?

This is where being friends with so many of the people on the team comes in handy. I’ve worked with our director Stephen Brackett before on the The Lightning Thief, and he has always been a breeze to collaborate with. Communicating with Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz (who wrote the The Lightning Thief with my husband Rob Rokicki) is simple and easy. Jen Tepper is a phone call away when I need her. Jerry Goehring is our lead producer and great to talk to about anything that needs his attention. Bertie Michaels, our PSM, is always a text away when I need to communicate with her. Our entire music team (Emily Marshall, Geoffrey Ko, Charlie Rosen, Danielle Gimbal, and Joe Iconis) have been incredible at listening to me communicate our actor’s vocal needs to them. Even communicating about cast recording schedules for the album with Ian Kagey (our sound engineer) and Greg Brunswick at Ghostlight has been easy. We’ve truly surrounded ourselves with good people over at Be More Chill. It’s amazing to be on a team that respects everyone’s ability to do their job and takes the time to listen to what everyone has to say.

You have the challenging task of helping actors find a healthy vocal approach to a role while honoring the vision of the creative team. How do you negotiate the two realities?

I keep myself distanced from the creative decisions. My job is to help the actors have a full voice available to them so they can make the creative choices they want to make, or that they are being asked to make from the creative team. I truly believe that any sound can be made in a sustainable fashion, so I work to help the actors find ways of making the sounds they want. I try to help them find multiple ways of making sounds so they understand what their options are. I want them to know where they can pull back if they’re tired and where they can let go a bit when they’re feeling really strong.

When I watch the show, I take extensive notes about the actors voices, what happens when they’re tired vocally, spots in the show that might be tricky vocally, etc. These notes are just for me. I don’t give the actors notes like creative team members do. My notes help me get to know the actors voices better and help me know what to work on when the actors comes in for a voice session. I only give the actors notes if they’ve asked me for feedback after we’ve been working on specific things together.

In what ways has working on a pop/rock musical differed from other productions you’ve similarly supported?

To be honest, there’s nothing really different about my approach here than other shows I’ve worked on. It’s all about helping the actors find sustainable ways of making the sounds they want. That’s the same in a pop/rock show on Broadway as it is in a TheatreworksUSA children’s show. Extended vocalisms tend to be the most challenging things to work on with actors. These include screaming, character voices, growls, fight noises, etc. These things exist in children’s theatre and they exist on Broadway, so the job doesn’t really change between the venue. Luckily, all our actors in Be More Chill have a great facility with pop/rock material, so there hasn’t been much need to work on that aspect of vocalization. It’s much more about the overall picture of voice use and how to make it as efficient as possible.

This particular run of the show (Be More Chill 3.0 as we call it) is about sustainability. The actors that have done this show in the past have only had short runs. There has been a lot of adjusting things for an open-ended Broadway run, which is different than knowing you only have 6-8 weeks of shows. There is a different physical, mental, and vocal approach to the show when it’s open-ended. That’s been the biggest difference in this production from others that I’ve worked on.

Will you have an ongoing relationship with the production now that the show is open?

Yep! The actors have me as long as they’re in the show. I’m their 24/7 vocal resource for as long as the show is running, which I hope is a long, long time. In fact, my phone just rang as I was writing this because one of the actors had a vocal health question they wanted to ask me. I am officially married to Rob Rokicki AND Be More Chill 3.0.

As I mentioned, that this production has you as a resource is somewhat of an anomaly – it’s certainly not an industry standard. Do you foresee that changing?

It’s not industry standard, although we see it a lot more now. My friend Chris York was the Children’s Vocal Coach for both School of Rock and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as the Vocal Coach for Paramour. My friend Chelsea Wilson was the Vocal Coach for School of Rock and is now the Vocal Coach for Phantom of the Opera. And of course Liz Caplan has a long standing relationship working as Vocal Coach and Vocal Supervisor on numerous Broadway Shows.

Often when shows hire a voice person, they are hiring them for the leads or for the children in the show. I don’t know of another production that has hired a vocal coach for the entire cast. We only have 16 cast members, so it’s more manageable, but it’s definitely an anomaly to offer the same voice service to your off-stage swings as you offer your leads.

My dream for the future is that producers start offering voice work for their actors in the same way they offer physical therapy. I want what I’m doing over at the Lyceum to become commonplace in the industry. At some point, producers realized that offering PT each week helps prevent physical injuries, so I’m hoping they start to realize that having a voice specialist on staff helps prevent vocal injuries.

Broadway performers are a special breed of athlete, and no athlete can perform without a team of people keeping them healthy and functioning. My brother played in the NFL for about 9 seasons, and the amount of coaches and trainers he had on his support team was remarkable. They were all there to make sure that he could play his game to the best of his ability. We talk a lot about Broadway performers being vocal athletes, but we don’t talk as much about providing athletic-like resources to our high-level performers. If we expect them to perform vocal gymnastics 8 times a week, we have to provide resources to take care of their voices. The idea that you only get a vocal injury if you “don’t know how to sing,” if you have “bad technique,” or if you “don’t take care of yourself” is false. Overuse, extreme vocal demands, and illness are almost always the situations that lead to injuries. We can’t always prevent vocal injuries in the same way that players in the NFL still get injured in the game, despite their abundance of resources. However, providing voice work to performers in long-running shows can only help keep voices strong, help keep the actors in the show eight times a week, and hopefully help prevent some injuries along the way. This is something I’m really passionate about and can talk about for literally hours so I’ll stop here before I hijack this interview!

Congratulations on recently receiving the Van Lawrence Scholarship for continued research. Can you talk about what you’re currently working on?

Thank you so much! I’m still kind of in shock that I won the fellowship. I’ve seen so many prestigious researchers and educators win the award the past few years, and it’s an amazing honor to join their ranks.

The fellowship is going to provide funding for the second phase of a belt study that my research partners and I began a few years back. Jared Trudeau of Boston Conservatory, Dr. Aaron Johnson of the NYU Voice Center, and I completed an acoustic study of elite belters, and our paper is currently in press with the Journal of Voice. We had ten women who played belt roles on Broadway within the last ten years come in and sing a snippet of Defying Gravity from Wicked and You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun from Annie Get Your Gun. We did an acoustic comparison between singer and between the varying belt ranges of the songs. We wanted to know how belting was different between the higher and lower ranges, at least in regards to acoustics and perception. The study was enlightening and we learned that not only do the acoustics of belting change from lower to higher ranges, they change between each individual singer as well. There was no uniform pattern as to how or why each singer would use each acoustic strategy. It was a pretty cool finding, although it led to more questions.

The second phase of the study is going to use elite belters with similar credentials, but we are going to use MRI and high-speed endoscopy. The MRI will help us look at laryngeal position, jaw opening, and soft palate position. The high-speed endoscopy will give us information about closed quotient, hopefully leading to some answers about registration in varying belt ranges. I’ve been fortunate to have Jared and Aaron as research partners. They are not only amazing humans, but are excellent research partners. We’re all thrilled to have the Van Lawrence money to keep forging ahead with belting research. The more we know about what’s happening, the better educators we can all be.

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One thought on “Interview: Amanda Flynn

  1. Thank you Contemporary Music and Amanda Flynn for posting this. I wish more secondary schools that have theatre/ musical “clubs” would understand and support the physical aspects of what needs to happen on stage. So many times one sees the result of good “lines memory” all dressed up in a voice that gets as far as the second row at 50 mph, being carried in a body that doesn’t “know who it is”.
    The models, of course, are you all. Thank you for the insight into just what it takes to get that fantastically “make-believe” so viscerally believable every night night after night. If it is athletic, it is the apex of olympian.

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