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In conversation with vocal alchemist, Tim Smith

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Today we speak to the multi talented and highly passionate Tim Smith who has put his stamp on the Australian musical theatre scene and now on his own label and online singing brand VOCAL ALCHEMY.

Tim SmithTim Smith has over 20 years experience in the entertainment industry.

As Artistic Director of Vocal Alchemy, Tim has recently completed two Australian and one European workshop/master class tours. He was the Musical Director during the recent Australian tour of MAMMA MIA!, Assistant MD for Billy Elliot in Australia, spent 18 months as Assistant Conductor/Vocal Coach on The Lion King in Australia and China and was the Founding Head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Recent work as a vocal coach has been for the Australian professional productions of A Chorus Line, Grey Gardens and pre-production coaching for Legally Blonde. He is proud of the many students he has who continue expanding their professional performing careers in Australia and around the world.

What has driven you to forge a path in theatre – be it in musical direction, composition or vocal coaching?

I love the theatre and I love music – what they can do when combined. I’ve been involved in musical theatre since I was 16 and my journey has taken many steps along a varied path. Indeed I think anyone in the performing arts need to constantly expand their skill set to keep expanding their career.

Whilst working as a secondary Music and English teacher, I did amateur theatre in Melbourne. LOTS of it! Sometimes I musically directed 5 shows a year! I loved it all; auditioning casts, taking rehearsals and assembling and conducting the band and I did it all for barely a penny!

My first professional job was a keyboard player and I worked from there. I’ve missed out on jobs I’ve gone for and I’ve had jobs offered to me I didn’t even know about. As I’ve gone along, I’ve been lucky to be able to ALWAYS expand my skills in an integrated way. Playing piano and singing led to conducting and MD’ing and then to arranging and composition and then vocal coaching and teaching. My current area of enquiry is into what we call ‘mix’ voice and is the staple of contemporary musical theatre, especially for women.

A day does not pass where I am not further refining and researching the best and fastest way to teach people this often-elusive vocal technique. It’s that sound of ‘attack’ and ‘release’ at the same time that can only really be authentically created with literally a mixture of contemporary and classical vocal technique.

You have worked in the industry in so many capacities – did you set out to work in all of these areas, or is this something that evolved over the years?

"But it’s funny how things happen for a reason and really everything I’ve done during my life continues to influence and inform my professional work"

Music Theatre was where I was headed after realising my aspirations to be a world-famous international classical conductor/Rock Star were not going to come true!

But it’s funny how things happen for a reason and really everything I’ve done during my life continues to influence and inform my professional work as both a musician/conductor and a vocal coach/teacher.

At no point have I ever limited myself in terms of what I could achieve. Like all of us, some things have come to me easier than others, but I’ve tried to be honest with myself and where I knew I had weaknesses, I have attempted to ‘plug the gaps’. There is always a first time for everything and it’s important to realise the difference between talent and skill. I believe that all of us have different talents in different areas, but the key to success is to continually evolve our skills. It is THROUGH our skills, that the world can witness our talent.

Your singing studios have been running for many years, but only recently Vocal Alchemy made it’s way on to the internet, what have been the highlights of having such an innovative singing course launch on line?

Working with hundreds of singers and teachers around the world already and we’ve only been in operation for fifteen months. And I’ve learnt so much!

We have had so much positive feedback about the online lessons and the live workshops from around Australia and overseas. We’ve had people re-new their online subscriptions and sign up for a second year, which to us is a clear sign that people are beginning to realise the value of the online lessons we’ve created at Vocal Alchemy. We’ve had singers purchase the online lessons AND attend live workshops AND book in for private sessions! (Really I thought they’d be sick of me by then!) Singers are coming for private lessons from interstate and now there are even singers from New Zealand – who email me months in advance – hoping that during their visit, they might be able to have ‘one or two’ private coaching sessions. All terribly exciting!

You’ve worked on various tours and musical projects, what been your favorite project to work on and why?

I loved working on The Lion King as a conductor and vocal coach. Who wouldn’t! Fantastic music and astounding vocals. But Billy Elliot for the love of theatre.

I think that Billy Elliot is a music theatre masterpiece. It’s a show with multiple story lines the structure of which takes the audience on a roller-coaster ride for the entire show. Throw in the extraordinary, multi-discipline talent of the child leads and you’ve got something that Broadway, the West End and Australia had never before seen. I thought the film was great, but to see these young performers delivering the goods show after show, LIVE (with no film editing) was truly astounding. AND their performances were completely based on advanced artistic process not copy-cat line readings so their performances were always honest and credible. It was an enormous privilege to be part of this creative process and especially to work with some ridiculously talented performers from the next generation. Really, I think that the young talent we have in this country is awe-inspiring and of course you may know that some of them even made it to the Broadway production. For a performer of any age, that has to be a life-changing event.

More than 150 people were involved in every performance of BILLY and most of us said that we had never worked so hard! From child chaperones to ballet girls to musicians, performers, stage crew and even our permanent in-house school teacher(!) it was a HUGE undertaking. To be an ongoing part of that team was a wonderful experience and one that will forever remain a deeply special and rewarding part of my professional life.

You worked with many singers from Africa during The Lion King. What were the main lessons you learned from their style of singing that you have been able to apply to Vocal Alchemy?

My African friends taught me to sing from Mother Earth and share my soul! Amazing. So different from much of the European/American inspired vocal approaches that ‘require’ a certain sound and especially if it’s classically-based, can end up being tight and squeezed and really just awful!

For 18 months I had the privilege of listening to these singers 8 shows a week and then working with them during ongoing rehearsals and vocal coaching service. As Vocal Coach, I was allowed to schedule vocal calls with ANY member of the company as I saw fit. That was wonderful for me because I was able to respond to even the tiniest vocal problem that I heard and work towards preventing it becoming an issue for the performer or the show. In the course of this work, I was constantly exposed to a variety of vocal techniques and styles. Probably the most profound of these was what I came to call ‘The Howl’. It was Buyisile Zama who taught me this.

Many of you would have seen her in the role of Rafiki, the baboon who leads the opening song Circle of Life. Buyi and I spent ten minutes doing a private vocal warm-up before every performance and it was during this time that I gradually analysed and dissected Buyi’s vocal technique. For a voice specialist like me, it was like being a pig in mud! (If you want to know more about ‘The Howl’, then you’ll need to subscribe to Vocal Alchemy or come to one of our workshops!…but basically it’s TWANG and BREATH and SOUL and MOTHER EARTH all rolled into one…with a little bit of special soft palate and pharynx shaping.)

In your courses, you explain these challenging vocal techniques in such an effortless way that makes so much sense for the participants. How did you develop your pedagogy for teaching these techniques? 

"So really if I do have insights about singing now, they were borne form my own weaknesses"

Vocal Alchemy is built on the multi-modal techniques, diagrams, stories, understandings, realisations and facts that I have learnt during my entire musical journey. I teach things now I learnt when I was six, and I teach things today that I learnt this morning!

When I was at school, I was made to sing too high for my voice type. Consequently I ended up with a VERY tight voice that could sing high, but not with the best of tone. It was almost the worst singing voice I had ever heard, and it was mine!

Then I set about trying to find a singing teacher who could help me fix this. What a minefield that was! I must have been to more than 10 different teachers who taught me what they knew, but my problems lay in different areas so I remained frustrated despite spending years having lessons. My voice still felt tight and sounded awful! Then I found a teacher who said to me ‘you can learn about the physiology of the voice’ and once I was given that key I was un-stoppable!

For about ten years I ate, drank, read, slept and listened to EVERYTHING I could about singing! All types and styles of singing because I wanted to understand everything I heard people sing in the hope that I would work out what it was that I was doing so terribly badly in my own singing. Because I had been involved in music all my life, I knew what ‘good’ was. My own desire was that vocally, I wanted to be able to sing whatever I wanted, in any way I chose. So really if I do have insights about singing now, they were borne form my own weaknesses.

Just recently I was in Adelaide working with a member of the South Australian Opera and after 1 hour and a few tears this singer had a brand new way to move forward and address vocal challenges that she admitted wrestling with for ten years. What I did with here was explore one of the little ‘secrets’ I discovered whilst fixing my own voice. So now I’m confident I can fix 100% of problems in 99% of singers because if you’re doing it badly, there was a time in my life where I was doing it much worse! (In Adelaide, I explored the importance of something called ‘the recurrent laryngeal nerve’ if you’re interested!)

Are people born singers or can you learn to sing? You have been working with singers for over 20 years has there ever been a student that you could not teach to sing or sound good?

"99 percent of people can learn to sound ‘good’. Singing is such a simple yet hugely complex thing. Fascinating, though, however you look at it"

99 percent of people can learn to sound ‘good’. Singing is such a simple yet hugely complex thing. Fascinating, though, however you look at it.

Singing in tune is a phenomenal thing in itself. Your ears hear a pitch and turn that into electrical impulses which travel to the brain. Then the brain sends OUT another set of impulses to the vocal mechanism –some 264 muscles, tendons and ligaments that then are driven by your emotional heart combined you’re your intellectual brain and all driven by the unique artist that you are amidst the 7.2 billion ‘artists’ there are on the planet- and then with a little practice and some talent, you may become quite a good singer!

But then we add the idea of musical or vocal style and the world explodes again, almost like the sudden discovery of aliens on another planet who use their voice in a completely different way and don’t sound anything like us at all!

So if you’re at all like I was, when you sing you may feel you’re from another planet…in a completely different galaxy! But rest assured, help is at hand! There are those of us who have visited the outer reaches of singing galaxy and have somehow managed to find our way home!


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Rebecca has written 35 articles on AussieTheatre
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