While many schools have moved up their start time to August, September will always be the month that comes to mind when you think of giving an apple to the teacher and starting a new year of education. That’s why this month we’re focusing on four women who teach what they know when it comes to music be it the flute or piano, or in the case of this week’s educator, Lisa Popeil. With 40 years under her belt coaching voices and teaching singers, she is what I’d like to consider an expert in her field. So I am very honored she took the time to share her past, advice and more with us…
Kendra: Piano at four and vocal lessons at six, did you know early on that music was going to be your overall career?
Lisa Popeil: I’ve always had a great love for languages and in high school, I was planning to go to Stanford and study Linguistics! After a disappointing experience studying languages in Europe, I decided to put that plan on hold and instead attended Prescott College in Arizona and studied Humanistic Psychology for a couple of years while still making music and writing songs.
Kendra: Did you ever entertain the idea of majoring in anything else when you went to CalArts or did you enter with your eye on the Masters in Voice?
Lisa: At the end of my second year at Prescott College, my mentor said, “It’s time for you to go to music school.” He even drove with me from Arizona to audition at CalArts in Santa Clarita, California. Since I didn’t have a clear direction and had multiple interests, I aimed for a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, a performance degree) in General Music. That degree allowed me to do classical voice, piano and composition equally. When it came time to get my MFA, I had to pick one, so I picked Voice.
Kendra: In the line of work you do, being based in LA has to be a blessing but did you ever think of relocating to New York City perhaps?
Lisa: I grew up in Chicago and moved to Southern California when I was 15. How can one beat our beautiful weather, mountains, beaches, and flowers year-round? So no, an occasional visit and workshop in New York City is just perfect.
Kendra: Maybe you don’t need to since you offer Skype lessons. Other than that, have any other technology advances helped your teaching career since you started?
Lisa: I love Skype…it works surprisingly well and I have students on all continents. Knowing how to write songs, record and engineer demos has been a great boom to my teaching career. I encourage other teachers, whether they play piano or not, to hunker down and learn how to create quality recordings for their students. There’s a lot of demand for that service.
Kendra: You’ve got some four decades of teaching experience. In all those years, what is still the number one thing students have trouble with when they first come to you for voice lessons?
Lisa: Traditionally, the #1 vocal problem is “how to sing high notes.” It turns out that what is intuitive in singing high notes is exactly the wrong line of approach. So I teach what works, and the techniques work right away but they’re counter-intuitive. These days, I work with a lot of classically trained singers and voice teachers who want to learn about the commercial styles and their #1 goal is how to take a “chest voice” up high in a safe, attractive and comfortable way. Not everyone who comes to lessons have vocal problems that they know about. Some just love to sing and want to see how good they can get!
Kendra: Did Frank Zappa and/or Weird Al have those troubles as well? But really, when you get a celebrity student, are they given the same lesson plan as everyone else?
Lisa: I never got the sense that Frank Zappa had vocal worries- he just did what he did and the singing was part of that. Al has quite an amazing, flexible voice and just needed a few tips on how to maintain his vocal health during a tour. He amazes me with his stamina and he only seems to get better and better vocally!
As a teacher, I consider myself a partner in helping singers (celebrity or not) achieve their personal goals. So I don’t have a rote method. Having said that, there are certain skills or knowledge that I think every singer, from beginner to professional, should know about so at some point I do like to teach those concepts. They include posture, support, vocal fold closures, controlling resonance and vibrato, and knowing what one’s absolute vocal range is. All basic, all important.
Kendra: In terms of the business, anything new coming as we round out 2016?
Lisa: In 2016, I’ve been working more with artist development and my partner Bill Montei and I have been creating music videos for many of my clients. We also do artist development with a great manager-consultant who provides singers with writing collaborators, producers and showcase creation. This year has been an exciting year for me too as I’m traveling internationally to present workshops – living the dream!
Kendra: There are so many great singers out there, but most of us choose based on personal preference. You’re a pro though when it comes to vocals. With that, if you had to make a mixtape consisting of amazing vocal performances, what five songs would have to be on it?