Jennifer Peers, currently performing in Fiddler on the Roof, is in demand both as a musical theatre performer and teacher. She has performed in many Australian musicals including City of Angels, Loving Repeating, and the Australian tours of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and appeared on the West End in Shoes and Master Class. Along with performing herself, Jen teaches a number of aspiring performers and working professionals in the musical theatre industry. We caught up with Jen to talk about all things vocal health, teaching and performing.
Hi, I’m Jen Peers and I’m currently performing in Fiddler on the Roof. I also teach voice for the Diploma of Musical Theatre at NIDA and Brent St and run a private voice studio in Sydney.
When did you know you wanted to perform?
I saw Jill Perryman in Hello Dolly! when I was 13, and was instantly hooked. I was sitting at the front and when Dolly Levi throws her calling cards out into the audience I kept them. Years later, after I graduated from WAAPA, I did a concert with Jill and she signed them for me and I have them framed on my wall!
What inspired you to become a teacher?
There’s also no better way to clarify your own understanding than having to teach it to someone else. To teach is to learn twice.
What is your training background in performing and how has that informed your approach to teaching?
I did a Bachelor of Music in classical voice at the Queensland Conservatorium before going to WAAPA to study musical theatre. I come from a classical foundation, but now I mostly work in musical theatre.
How would you describe the vocal requirements for Australian musical theatre performers today?
If you take a look at what is playing in Sydney right now, we go from Fiddler on the Roof (legit) to Ghost (pop) to We Will Rock You (rock) to Georgy Girl (folk). In order to be employable, you need to be versatile and able to move between styles easily. Musical theatre singers are also encountering an increasing vocal load. We really are the long-distance athletes of the performing world.
What are the first things you look for when a student comes to you?
I look for efficiency. Then I look at how we can make things easier by identifying which muscles are working too hard or which need to work harder. We work on the technical foundations, but always with the aim of connecting the mechanics with their artistry.
What role does voice science (anatomy and physiology) play in your work with students?
I think it’s vital that teachers have a strong understanding of how the voice works. I will always talk about basic anatomy and physiology. Beyond that, it really depends on the student and how they learn best – some like to know the anatomical specifics and others work better with a more image-based approach. For most, it’s a combination.
What are the biggest misconceptions or myths surrounding the voice that you need to dispel in students?
I see a lot of crazy-making around vocal health – pills, potions and remedies that in my opinion are mostly expensive placebos. Use your common sense, and remember that none of these things are touching your vocal folds; they’re going down the other pipe!
What are your best tips for vocal health, particularly when performing 8 shows a week – like you are, now, in Fiddler on the Roof?
Warm up/down, make time for rest and relaxation, hydrate and laugh a lot! I also think it’s important to do something for your mind and body. For me, it’s a regular yoga and mindfulness practice.
How do you approach the sensitive topic of possible vocal health issues in students?
It can be very stressful when people feel their livelihood is under threat. Don’t underestimate the effect that has on the voice, so firstly it’s important to manage the anxiety. If I suspect a significant issue, I always suggest going to the ENT [Ear Nose Throat specialist] to have a look with a scope. In my opinion, a good ENT is part of the team you need as a professional singer.
You’re both a performer and a teacher – how do you balance the two professions?
I think the two complement each other nicely, as I stay industry current and I think my students appreciate that I’m practicing what I preach.
Who’s your biggest inspiration as a performer?
I’m a die-hard Audra McDonald fan.
Who’s been the most influential teacher in your life – and why?
Neil Semer, who I still work with, has been my mentor not just as a singer, but also as a teacher for the last 10 years. We have worked in New York (where he is based), London, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and over Skype.
What excites you about the Australian performing arts industry?
I think we have world-class training and performers here. I worked in London for two years, and Australian performers are so well respected there. We may have a smaller industry here, but the quality is something we can be really proud of.
What do you think is most challenging about being a performer?
Touring and being away from home for extended periods of time can be hard – sometimes you have to miss weddings, birthdays and other important life events… Yep, hard.
Are there any books/resources you would recommend to performers?
For repertoire, The Singers Musical Theatre Anthologies are a gold mine (there are now 6 volumes for each voice type) and scribd.com is a subscription service with a huge range of books and sheet music.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring singers or musical theatre performers?
Stop trying to figure out what you think other people want you to be and be your authentic self. My audition mantra is “This is who I am, this is what I do, this what I love.”
Where and when can audiences see you in Fiddler On The Roof?
The Capitol Theatre in Sydney – final week – must close Sunday 8 May.