Berklee Today

Berklee Beat: The Voices of Experience

Over the past six years, Berklee's Voice Department has expanded in size and scope to such an extent that voice principals are now tied with percussionists as the third largest group at the college. The number of vocal students has grown from 280 in 1993 to 450 who enrolled this fall. Similarly, the number of students signing up for the department's many vocal labs has shot up from 350 to 700.

Voice Department Chair Jan Shapiro and Performance Division Dean Matt Marvuglio have worked together to position Berklee's Voice Department at the cutting edge of contemporary vocal education through unique and stylized course offerings and by maintaining an outstanding faculty. They increased the ranks of the voice faculty to 29--double the number in 1995.

Current Voice Department faculty members include seasoned professionals from Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles. "Traditionally, college voice departments employ artist/teachers who have received recognition in the classical idiom," says Shapiro. "In a way, we are doing the same thing with artist/teachers from contemporary idioms."

One of the newest voice faculty additions is Catherine Russell, who joined Berklee this fall. A graduate of New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Russell has sung on numerous national commercials and has toured and recorded with Steely Dan, Madonna, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. Also experienced in musical theater, Russell performed on Broadway in Big River.

Coming from a different direction is Cheryl Bentyne (of Manhattan Transfer fame) who joined the faculty last year. She teaches private lessons and classes such as Practice Skills for the Live Backup Vocalist and Performance Skills for the Self-accompanied Singer.

Associate Professor Gabrielle Goodman, a JMT/Polygram recording artist, came on board a year ago. A sought-after backup singer who has performed with Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, and Nancy Wilson, Goodman was named ASCAP's R&B Songwriter of the Year for the hit "You Can Make the Story Right," which she cowrote with Chaka Khan.

Associate Professor Lisa Thorson, who joined the faculty in 1997, brings yet another inspiring set of experiences to the table. Thorson's story of recovering her voice after losing it through a spinal cord injury was the subject of the PBS documentary "Key Changes: A Portrait of Lisa Thorson." Her subsequent readjustment involved shifting her focus from musical theater to singing jazz. These days, she performs nationally with her quintet, and Gunther Schuller produced her highly acclaimed album Resonance this past spring. Besides teaching private lessons, improvisation, and jazz/blues vocal labs, Thorson conducts a stage performance workshop for jazz singers.

Grammy Award nominee and Associate Professor Donna McElroy is another seasoned veteran. She has appeared on the "Tonight Show," "Arsenio Hall," and the Grammy Awards, and has sung on national commercials and gold and platinum recordings by Amy Grant, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, John Tesh, and Wynonna.

Armsted Christian specializes in r&b styles. He is the leader of the group Peaceful Flight and a member of the Will Downing and the Gerald Albright groups, and has performed with Patti Austin, Regina Carter, Diana Ross, and Special EFX. He is also a songwriter, who has contributed to Will Downing's album Moods and Najee's Just an Illusion and Share My World albums.

In his private lessons and labs, singer-songwriter Marlon Saunders helps his students to integrate traditional vocal technique with r&b, gospel, pop, and jazz styles and improvisation. He has worked with Bobby McFerrin, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Phoebe Snow, Shania Twain, Patti Austin, Diane Reeves, and others. Saunders was a founding member of Bluemoon/Atlantic recording artists Hazzhole. He has also sung on numerous jingle sessions.

DiDi Stewart is the department's rock specialist and teaches private lessons and pop, rock, and country style labs. A seasoned performer and songwriter, Stewart has released two albums of original songs and has won two Boston Music Awards for Best Female Rock Vocalist and the Encore Award for Best New Cabaret Performer.

"You can't learn from a book what an experienced professional can share about touring, recording, or singing background vocals," says Shapiro. "Berklee's Voice Department is larger than most, so we are lucky to be able have as many artist-teachers as we do."

The department's comprehensive curriculum currently includes performance labs in jazz, pop, rock, country, r&b, and gospel; microphone techniques; improvisation; studio singing; and practice skills for lead and background vocalists. Says Shapiro, "I feel it is really important for our students to take the background vocal lab courses. So many of our alumni are making a living using those skills in the studios and with big-name touring acts. It is so different from being the lead singer. To many, it is a new experience to learn about phrasing and blending with other singers.

"One of my goals has been to ensure that our Voice Department offers education and training relevant to today's contemporary music business. My second goal--equally important--is making sure our singers leave here as solid musicians."

Note: Berklee holds Voice Week events each November. Alumni are invited to attend. Call (617) 747-2265 for information.