Interview: Vocal Rehabilitation Specialist Dane Chalfin

By on Monday, 12th December 2011 at 12:00 pm

It has been years since I sang in what I consider reasonably professional circumstances: school choir. In the years I was a lead alto, choir was where I got out all my frustrations of the feelings that I didn’t measure up, to parents that had set incredibly high standards for my brother and me, to a society where I never fit in. It was where I could disappear into music and feel, through the vibrations of my vocal cords, a song come out from a sad and difficult place. For many reasons I won’t go into here, I left behind what my choir teacher thought was a promising future in voice at some music conservatory and went down the path of science instead. I really thought, after so long, that my voice was irreparably damaged, that I’d never get back that indescribable feeling of a song well sung ever again.

But earlier this month I took the leap when I was in Manchester and met with Dane Chalfin, a vocal rehabilitation specialist (read: voice coach and fixer-upper of strained/hurt voices and therapist to those who have them) who I found out about by his popular music-assisting pedigree (he’s worked with West End singers and the likes of Hurts, Everything Everything and Delphic to keep their voices in tip top shape even in rigourous touring conditions). (We asked him the TGTF Quickfire Questions in early November and his answers are here.) But I was more impressed by his CV: several days during the week he is Principal Lecturer at Leeds College of Music, quite possibly molding the brains and voices of the future voice sensations of Britain, he runs what he calls “quite an international clinic” in Manchester one day a week and travels around Britain if and when his services are needed (such as an emergency situation at a West End musical down in London, for example). Somehow he also manages to be a director of the British Voice Association in whatever spare time he has left. Obviously, Dane’s many hours and work ethic attests to the love he has for his work, just like the love for music that many of the bands we’ve profiled and spoken with on this blog. I appeared at Blueprint Studios (yes, THAT Blueprint Studios, where a little local band called Elbow recorded ‘build a rocket, boys!’) a couple minutes early for my appointment, even after a cab driver got completely lost trying to deliver me to an industrial street in Salford.

Most music teachers scare me. (This, I’m sure, has something to do with my scary high school choir teacher who ran our class like a drill sergeant and struck fear into all of us, saying eating anything within an hour before an important concert would surely ruin our voices.) Upon meeting Dane, I could just tell that I wasn’t going feel 2 inches tall around him. He was quick off the mark to dispel some myths. “Voice is not a mystery anymore. People will lie to you and tell you that it is. And they will make it nebulous and imagery-based, and give you a guru mentality that ‘you must come to me for the answer!’” I felt somewhat relieved when he told me, “it’s not rocket science”.

In case you’ve never looked into voice lessons, I can tell you that voice lessons don’t come cheap, and this man was going to tell me straight up what he could do for my voice, which should be a relief to anyone worried about retaining the (pricey) services of a charlatan. He was going to blow the lid off years of dusty dos and don’ts from my childhood. Further, he explained that because everyone learns differently, there is no ‘one right’ way to learn how to sing and how to improve your voice, his job – and that of other vocal teachers – is to leave his student with a concrete plan on how to improve his/her voice and a framework to allow the student to be able to troubleshoot issues along the way. Okay, good.

Somewhat eerily, Dane was able to figure out a couple key things about me and my wonky voice just by hearing me talk to him in my normal speaking voice and then what I looked like to him when he asked me to stand up from my chair. (But hey, he gets paid to do this, right? And let’s just say the hours I spend in front of the computer for my job and for all this blogging haven’t been kind to my body, and neither has some medication I’ve been on for years for a chronic illness.) He walked me through some visualisation, posture and breathing exercises that seem like common sense to me now but I never would have considered doing without him pointing them out.

I can tell you from simply trying out some of these exercises on my own, they’ve already made a world of difference in how my voice feels when it’s coming out of my body and what strength I now have in what I call the “attack mode”, when you get to a sweeping chorus and have to pull out all the stops. I don’t feel my shoulders tighten or my throat straining to hold a note. This is incredibly freeing after years of thinking that the booming voice I had at age 14, much admired and applauded at the time, would never come back to me.

My weight has fluctuated over the years (and often in a way out of my control), so I asked if there was a connection between weight and the strength of singer’s voice. I brought up Luciano Pavarotti as the stereotypically large, ungainly opera star. “No…[it’s about] general fitness. Pavarotti was a big guy…but [he was] very muscular, where he needed to be. Did he suffer later on as he became morbidly obese, did his voice suffer? Yes, absolutely, because your whole body suffers. You put so much pressure on your energy stores and reserves, you can’t carry that amount of weight around. If you’re a normal, healthy size, you’re fine.” Phew. “Conversely, if you’re too skinny…I mean, I get my girls from Hollyoaks and soaps who come in and say, ‘I have to do a charity event and I can’t sing the song’. I go, ‘when did you eat last?’ You know, how are you going to generate…you need fuel to work muscles, how do you generate the muscle effort you need to sing Whitney Houston, if all you eat is salad leaves and green tea?” Good news for us who eat normal amounts of food, then.

Inevitably, our conversation turns to Adele, who has become the poster child for overworked, overextended and exhausted touring singers. For the nicotine addicts out there, I asked what smoking does to the human voice and maybe the bad effects indicate that singers should stop smoking? “It inflames the tissue, it creates sticky mucous, it encourages reflux. Do I know a lot of singers who smoke? Yeah. Do they have successful careers and maintain smoking? Yes. Did Adele have a vocal cord hemorrhage because she smokes? No.” I point to overuse of her voice, which Dane added, “overuse, psychological issues, the whole thing, yeah. Psychology, emotion, tension, overuse. And then [she was] being told, don’t socialise, don’t speak, don’t drink, don’t smoke, sit in your your hotel room while the world goes past you. And *only* come out when it’s time for you to sing. Performing monkey. How do you think that makes a young girl feel? Very, very poor advice.“

This made me take a step back. I’ve never been entirely fond of Adele’s music and privately, I give her a lot of grief on how the masses lap it up in droves. But she is a singer, just like me (although in stark contrast, she is an entirely successful pop singer). And deep down, the business, this machine that has made her a household name, has irreparably changed her relationship with music forever, and that’s something that makes me really sad. Dane is regretful that he himself wasn’t able to help: “It makes me mad that I didn’t get my hands on someone like her before all of this shit happened. People like her need support, from people who have a sense of perspective, underpinned by a real understanding of what is going on, neurologically, psychologically.” XL Recordings, if you’re listening, hire this man in an instant!

“I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t sing,” he admits, after I briefly explain what has been going on with my body for the last 10 years and why I was so scared to come in and see him, simply because I was afraid he was going to say there was absolutely nothing he could do for me. Not at all. He tapped into the fact that for me, it was an emotional issue and getting my voice back, even if it wasn’t for true professional reasons like some of his more famous clients, meant a lot to my quality of life. As to what he thought of my voice and where I could take it, he said, “you have a lot of voice in there, it’s absolutely fine.” You have no idea what kind of relief hearing that was. He likened singing to turning on a faucet and how finding the control on the tap, and how riding on the waves of water that came out was the key to successful singing.

So I asked him, how did he become a vocal rehabilitation specialist? “I had voice trouble. And I spent a lot of money with a lot of idiots. I’ve been on *that* side of the piano for many years.” Hearing that from Dane and knowing that he’s been a client, he can come in with a perspective that cannot be matched by most other vocal teachers. Come 2012 I will be signing myself up for more sessions with Dane and not with anyone else. Why? He gave me back a little of something very important that I thought I’d lost. Thanks very much, Dane.

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