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June 2005

Vocal Coach Debra Byrd

Debra Byrd with George HuffMy passion has always been voices - speaking, cartoon characters, singing. What people do with their voice fascinates me. Because I sing, this passion started with my asking, How can I make my voice better?

I have never known anything but music. Growing up in Cleveland, I took piano and voice lessons and sang in church and school choirs. I studied opera for eight years, sang lead for an R&B band, and later was a musical director for the Karamu House theater. I've been part of Barry Manilow's musical family for years, and I've also done stints on Broadway, like Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in' Da Funk. You can hear my voice on commercials and the Sister Act 2 sound track. Opera, gospel, pop, rock, musical theater, I've done it all.

"Amercian Idol" is my destiny gig. I use my all-purpose voice to help others. I've worked on four Idols shows. Each week I coarrange the song the contestants choose, and I sing background on the musical tracks they perform to onstage. I help them shape their song vocally and emotionally and break bad habits: Some focus their eyes in the wrong directions, and I'll say 'No, honey. The camera is over here.' I try to show them how to care for their voices under stress. I work with contestants individually for two hours a week. My biggest frustration is that I don't get enough time to teach them technique because of their frantic schedule-shoots, commercials, shopping.

One contestant called me a life coach. I get their anxiety, the tears from their mistakes in front of millions. I may hold their hand, but I don't coddle.' I'm not your mother,' I say. 'I'm here to make you a better singer, a better performer, a better recording artist. Period.' If they're fabulous, I tell them. If they're not, I say, 'You decided to do this. Whatcha got? Let's go to work.'

I'm writing Vocal Help Now!, which I was inspired to write when I did Noise. The show was vocally demanding, but my voice endured. My colleagues noticed and would seek my advice. I include their experiences as well as some I've had with "American Idol". I love imparting what I've learned. I want to give information that will continue to help singers from now until they're in a nursing home.

-Hope Wright

(Photo: Byrd pictured with George Huff/Courtesy of FOX)

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