How to be a great singer: Devon voice coach shares her secrets
- Credit: Archant
She’s the talented tutor whose work is displayed on some of the grandest stages – yet remains unseen. But Sandra Smith also revels in her work on a more local level, as Alexis Bowater discovers
It's the professional prerogative of anyone working with some of the country's top singing stars to maintain a zip-tight-lipped confidentiality on clients' identity but I know for sure that I have been to the concerts of at least two of Sandra Smith's - and they definitely hit the right note if you can excuse the pun.
From her home in Buckfastleigh Sandra welcomes a range of pupils: the experienced, the aspiring, the famous and the unknowns, the broken-voiced and those lacking in confidence, fixes their broken wings and teaches them to fly.
She has the undoubted professional capacity to be advising some of the UK's most well-known faces but it's to Devon's enormous benefit that she's chosen to stay here, and help everyone from the grassroots upwards.
Her skill is in finding and breaking down the barriers, both physical and emotional, that trap a voice within: her gift an extraordinary talent, driven by a combination of passion and insight, which sees every single person as a whole 'instrument' capable of wonderful things.
Not only can she mend broken voices, but she can 'find' a voice in someone who often doesn't know that they can really sing.
"Where I come alive is in one to one teaching and group workshops - I love it," she explains. As an extremely talented performer and singer herself she came to Devon via Birmingham and London and a degree in Performing Arts where she met her mentor Jennifer Caron.
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Through meeting Jennifer, Sandra the artist became Sandra the teacher as it dawned on her that her true passion lay in helping other people.
"You have to learn the trade of teaching but I think the more teaching I did the more I realised that was what I wanted to do. You just kind of know how a voice works and I could hear it," she says.
And it was a dramatic moment that could have been career-wrecking for a young singer that put her on her path to miraculously fixing others.
"I lost my voice at university with Jennie because I had a fall on my neck and from that injury we had to put my voice back in and from that I understand what it is to lose your voice," she explains.
"That has been really important in my teaching because I can see where the voice falters and I know what it means to put it back into position and what it means for a singer too - because it involves incredible trust.
"Singers who move an audience are being 'real' - they are singing who they are. It can be quite a vulnerable but also a powerful place to be. A singer's job is to remind an audience to reconnect, to stay in touch with themselves and a good singer can make a simple scale sound like a whole story - just through tone, expression and intent."
Skilled singing stars, beaten down by the gruelling life on the road, come to Sandra to have their voices revived. But it's not only the A list who are inspired by her. Her choir The Lost Sound have a growing reputation of their own. Just back from the Brandenburg Choral Festival in London and from supporting folk superstars Show Of Hands, they are building on their reputation as an astonishing acapella group capable of leaving audiences on their feet or in tears of emotion.
"Music and harmony in community - it's a big message for now isn't it?" she says. "And the thing I like about our choir is that there is no cliqueyness, they are a really warm, nice bunch of people from all levels of society."
This month (January) they will be holding open auditions for more choir members. But be warned, Sandra may be warm, approachable, funny, kind, full of laughter and imbued with an inspirational empathy but she's also a hard task mistress.
"I do give them a tough time," she says, suddenly very serious. "I do. I know what they can achieve. And I am so proud of what they have accomplished already. I'm not sure they knew they could do it. I listen to how they are singing, what they are starting to bring out, and I develop that. I aim to develop what they bring me, not what I impose on them. And it all changes when we get new singers, it is a continuous journey."
It will be life-changing, joining this choir, I can pretty much guarantee you - for Sandra Smith has the ability to do that. And even if you think you can't sing, think again, because her musical alchemy will find a voice, wherever it is in you, reach inside and draw it out in the end.
Sandra's top tips for singing and voice care
1. Good breathing is the key to great singing. If you are getting light headed or out of breath when you are singing, then you are probably breathing too much and too high in your chest. If singing feels like a lot of effort - relax and find out how little breath you need to take in, instead of how much! Learn more in one of my workshops.
2. Never save your breath for a long phrase. Holding your breath back only serves to close your throat. Try it and see! It increases tension in your throat, chest and abdominals and has a detrimental effect on your tone.
3. Warm-up before you sing your songs. Give yourself space to tune into your instrument both vocally and physically, before you take it for a marathon run! Start gently and gradually extend your range, gauging how relaxed you can stay.
4. Good posture supports good breathing that supports great singing. In order to access the power you want, look to your body for support rather than pushing more on your voice box.
5. If you lose your voice or find that you are hoarse after singing, do pay attention to it. If this is a recurring problem, go to your doctor and get checked out. Constriction is a muscular vocal habit and can be changed.
Sandra's top tens she loves about Devon
1. Living near Dartmoor - I love living on the edge of this wonderful place, looking out of my door and seeing the weather coming in from Dartmoor towards Buckfastleigh.
2. Walking on Dartmoor - every season is amazing up there, as it is so changeable. It can be deserted (if you know where to go) in the middle of summer. I can walk for miles and not meet anyone. I have fallen in love with the area around Avon Dam and Venford reservoir this summer.
3. Local food - A lot of our vegetables have zero miles, as it's grown by Buckfastleigh people who sell through our local community shop at The Seed. I can walk to our local farm shop, in Dean, for meat that is all locally reared.
4. I love Buckfastleigh - it is a feisty town - it stands up for itself. Our community action is positive and effective.
5. Community - It takes about 40 minutes to pop to the shops that are only five minutes away! People stop and chat and you get to know people's lives. Knowing everyone from babies to pensioners is wonderful.
6. Coming over Haldon Hill on the way home - I can feel everything relax after a long journey, as home is 15 minutes away.
7. We have wonderful, mad, creative people putting on wonderful community events. Nourish Food Festival in Bovey Tracy is a fantastic mix of glorious food, fabulous arts and crafts and extraordinary concerts. The atmosphere in town is really inclusive and very much worth a visit each autumn. Glas-Denbury summer music festival is a well-kept secret for local people (oops -not any more!) Everything from choirs to singer-songwriters to big rock bands. Very family friendly and so well organised. We love it! Devon is full of crazy people who go with their crazy ideas!
8. Pub food in Devon - means decent portions! Devon isn't mean about how much you eat!
9. I love that I can be on the moor in seven minutes, on a coastal walk in 40 minutes and on a woodland walk in five minutes. Devon has the best of all walks - you can still walk lanes that aren't too busy with traffic. I can walk out of my front door and into the best countryside in England.
10. Devon has something for everyone - Remoteness, busy city life, all kinds of arts, seaside, and so much more - I can't imagine living anywhere else!
Ten things you don't know about Sandra
1. I like to walk with lots of dogs - three or four is great. Seeing a dog running fast lights me up. Having dogs makes me more adventurous on my walks. We are prone to going 'off piste' and exploring.
2. I lock myself out a lot - leaving without my key is an occupational hazard!
3. I love having friends who are visually artistic. I get a lot of pleasure seeing people use colour artistically to decorate their homes or to make beautiful things. I was not blessed with the ability to be crafty, although I am great at making a Christmas swag. Strange
4. I am untidy. I try very hard not to be, but I am. If I tidy up I can't find anything. I suspect that tidiness is a gene and I don't have it!
5. I am also in awe of builders. I have learnt to do many DIY jobs over the years and I even built a stone wall and leant to mix the cement. These days it is best to leave it to those that know!
6. I am truly blessed to have such great, hard-working singers in The Lost Sound. We are often deeply moved in rehearsal. As a choir we have a synchronised acknowledgement of when our singing is authentic and true. We know then, that we have 'found the song'
7. I am a bit of a perfectionist with the choir (There, I admit it!).
8. I love my job. Teaching singing is an amazing way to earn a living. I am very privileged to be able to do it and it still teaches me and opens up new challenges and adventures after all this time.
9. After all the singing sounds, walking in silence is my balance and my release.
10. I have a ten-minute warning for when I need food!
For more information on The Lost Sound or on Sandra Smith's singing courses visit singingandbreathing.co.uk