Vocal prodigy ILana Martin began her professional career singing for musicals when she was eight years old. By age 13, she had performed in seven musicals. Her fascination with the human voice began as a child working with her own vocal coach in Los Angeles.
“I love the human voice so much; I love to listen to the sound of a person’s voice–their true voice, the potential voice—I’m fascinated by it,” she says. “I love tone, I love melody, I love story, I love the interplay between what is on the page and what the student decides to sing.”
At age 16 the homeschooled Martin began studying Berklee College of Music, where she gave voice lessons to nonvocal majors—guitarists and songwriters using the Vocal Awareness technique she’d learned from her mentor, Arthur Joseph. Upon graduating at 19 she launched her singing career. “I toured with Barry White, Patti Labelle, Stevie Wonder, and a lot of Motown artists,” she explains. “I got to go to 19 countries.”
About eight years into touring, tired of the party scene and the travel, she was ready to give up that lifestyle. “I hung up my celebrity shoes and said I would persevere with what I also love: teaching,” she says.
When she opened her school in Vocal Workout Singing School in New York City she wasn’t sure it would be successful, but it didn’t take long for her to find out. “From the moment I opened the doors I couldn’t sign people up fast enough,” she says. “Some of those early students stayed with me for at least 12 years.”
Sixteen years into running her own studio, Martin couldn’t be happier to get up each morning to do what she loves. She gladly shared a few tips and insights into her methods with Making Music.
Making Music: You website says you are a holistic singing coach, what does this mean?
Martin: Holistic means “according to natural law.” We sing more acoustically than traditional methods. My methodology is based on the teaching of the original gospel church that sang relevant acoustic information during slavery times in order to survive. I apply current acoustic knowledge to that and get this beautiful blend of technical savvy and an old time soul sound. It’s super fun.
MM: What are some of the classic vocal mistakes that singers who never had any kind of coaching might make?
Martin: One classic mistake is holding notes too long. They are making syrup out of the singing by holding the notes way too long and it doesn’t allow them to feel the pulse and feel the backing music and it doesn’t allow for the heartbeat of the story. Another mistake is to over-pronounce the ends of your words.
MM: What is vocal workout technique?
Martin: Vocal workout technique is a series of stackable mind-body-spirit warm-ups, methods, and strategies that remake a voice from talented to masterful. Mastery could be described as knobs on a radio control for your voice—you can turn your voice loud anytime, soft anytime, you can sing high, you can sing low, sing fast, sing slow, weave the voice, keep the voice straight, [sing with] vibrato, medium vibrato, how much vibrato would you like? It’s complete control over your voice at all times, in all situations.
MM: How can singers develop their own style? What types of characteristics do you look for to help them bring out style and individuality?
Martin: The way that I look at my job is that I’ve got three things to work on with people. I need to work on technique, which is that control we talked about. The second piece is style, and I call style “vocal DNA.” I have an entire methodology around the concept of style. I think of it like you are niching yourself. So it’s a predictable thing when you sing a fast song that you should shout and scream near the end, or maybe you’ll get quiet and intimate near the end, whatever your style is. Let’s say you buy a ticket to a Cher concert, and she sings like Celine Dion all night. You would want your money back. The third thing is improvisation.
MM: What is the best way to warm up for a performance?
Martin: Doing trills is the best way. Trills are used universally by vocal teachers. But, you do it several ways—staccato, legato, and then on a melody, and then you do a series of hums. A hum is the center of every tone. So underneath a-h-h-h-h- is h-m-m-m-m. You want to hum in your very high range in the same energy that you will be using on stage. So, if you are going to do a jazz concert, hum in a jazz energy. If you are about to do an R&B or gospel concert, you want to hum in that energy. Hum in your medium range, low range, and very high range. Then improv sing on one of your most difficult songs, repeating the chorus line with improvisational flexibility. The humming is different than what other vocal teachers might teach.
MM: How important is vocal rest between performances?
Martin: Rest is so very important. Your voice is the last thing that the body repairs before you wake up in the morning—the last priority. So if you get a half-hour less sleep, you didn’t get to it yet; you are singing with yesterday’s voice. Also, don’t clear your throat because it is very violent to the larynx, and don’t whisper—that is also bad. Don’t speak too much and don’t to be at all tired on the days of really challenging singing.
MM: Is there any way recover if you are feeling like you are not rested before your show?
Martin: I’ve found a way to do mini vocal rests. You can do it lying down on a yoga mat or a towel in your hotel room, in the back of your van, or standing up in the bathroom or the green room behind the stage, but it’s ideal to do it lying down. What you want to do is inhale and exhale through the mouth in a diaphragmatic breath. Imagine perfect love, or zen, and every 30 seconds switch to something else. So you are breathing for 30 seconds and then maybe move your hands straight up to the ceiling and you breathe in short breaths.
Then, you come back and breathe with any vowel—h-e-e-e, h-a-a-a, h-i-i-i, or h-o-o-o—moving your legs. You might want to jackknife your legs in the air. That brings the control of the air and the flow of the air into the bigger muscles. The bigger muscles are air pumps of muscles, which are surrounding the diaphragm. Those muscles support the lungs to maintain the steadiness of your air production. And you begin to open up all of those muscles and take all of the energy and the pressure off the throat. We want the throat area to maintain a Zen. So it’s like having a powerful boost for your voice because rest is really renewal. Rest isn’t so much nothing, but it is a repair or renewal time for our bodies. It’s almost like breath yoga; you re-inhabit your body as your full night’s sleep would have. It is kind of a staggered rest. It’s really powerful.
MM: How important is posture? Could you describe correct singing posture?
Martin: It is essential. Good posture is to stand with conviction, keeping the knees soft and the body bottom-heavy. We want the feet to be rooted. There are two fabulous performers who I think had/have amazing posture. Marvin Gaye had one of the best postures ever, and in the current day, Beyoncé. If you watch her on YouTube you will see what I mean.
MM: Is there anything a singer can do to increase vocal range or is it fixed?
Martin: Every single vocalist that I work, without exception, increases their range one octave at both ends—an extra low octave and an extra high octave. Range can be developed and stretched