Artist of the Month — Rachael Thoms – April 2017
Rachael is one of a new breed of truly versatile and gifted singers
Do you know what first drew you to singing?
I honestly don’t recall ever not singing. I was so fortunate to grow up in a musical family and as part of a musical community. It was just a thing we always did. I don’t recall ever having a moment of clarity that led me to decide to sing. I’ve never wanted to do anything else with my life. I wish I had a more interesting tale to tell but the truth is it’s pretty boring!
I’ve never faced any opposition to the notion of making music my profession. No one has ever really questioned or doubted that this was the path that I would follow. Upon reflection, I would have to say I’m very lucky in that respect, and I’ve probably taken a lot for granted along the way.
It could be that my father was the original draw card. He was my first singing teacher and we were often on stage together in my youth as members of the local theatre company. Dad doesn’t sing much these days but he should have been a household name. He possesses a rich and agile high baritone/tenor voice, with a rarefied tone similar to that of the late, great Luciano Pavarotti. I’m sure I was his most painful, cheeky and frustrating student, but looking back I realise how lucky I was to have his guidance in those early years.
What do you feel connects Jazz and Classical music?
I think there’s a lot of common ground between these two styles. Bach swings his arse off! Many of Poulenc’s mélodies make total sense to me as jazz tunes. George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (to name a few) were all clearly inspired by the great classical composers. Both styles draw on rich harmonic, melodic and rhythmic material to evocative ends.
And then, of course, there’s improvisation. There’s not so much practice of improvisation in classical circles today as there once was, and it seems to me that this skill has dropped out of the classical musician’s training at some point. The musicians I know that specialise in ‘early music’ are such great improvisers! Improvisation is, of course, imperative and at the heart of the jazz musician’s training and skill-set.
What is your vocal range and does it alter between classical and jazz music?
There is a slight difference in my working range between the two styles. As a jazz singer, I’d say I tend to live between G3 and Eb5 most of the time. I can go down to E3 on a ‘good’ day, but my voice tends to lose it’s cut and shine if I sit in a lower tessitura. In classical terms, I’m classed as a lyric coloratura soprano, and the best part of my voice is between F5 and Bb5. When I was completing my Masters and directly after when I was in Europe and the UK for professional development I developed my upper register and was managing Eb6 with ease.
I’m mostly focusing on jazz these days so it would probably take a good six months to reach those giddy heights again! Some of the arias in my classical repertoire required me to sing down as low as an A3 and up to a top C (C6) in the one aria but mostly I wouldn’t go below middle C. The set up for the two styles is quite different so although I have called upon my extreme upper register for improvisation in jazz, I don’t typically access that part of my range when singing jazz.
Do you have a dream performance? Bayreuth, La Scala, Carnegie Hall?
The Sydney Opera House and Angel Place Recital Hall have always been on the list. La Scala is way too scary… some people have never recovered after a good booing at this legendary Italian opera house. Bennetts Lane is now sadly off the cards.
The Village Vanguard NYC or Ronnie Scott’s UK would be amazing. For now, I’ve set my sights on Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre. The annual jazz and blues festival in ‘Wang’ is a mecca for Aussie jazz musos and I’d love to get a show on the bill there someday soon!
How do you protect your voice?
I’m hyper vigilant about vocal health. I avoid sick people, drink about three litres of water every day, try to get 7-9 hours sleep every night, and do my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I am choosy about socialising… noisy bars and wild parties are pretty much off the cards.
I also try to be careful about how I use my voice between sets on gigs. I make sure I always have good fold back (performer-facing loudspeakers) and I tend to work with people who are good at playing quietly and sensitively… it takes great skill and mastery to play this way, so I feel very blessed to be surrounded with such amazing musicians and great mates.
I’m also a total voice science nerd and have spent a lot of time researching and learning about vocal anatomy and physiology to maximise my knowledge and skill, both as a vocal performer and singing voice specialist teacher. I think it’s crucial for singers to understand their instrument and how to operate it safely and efficiently. I could ramble on about this for eternity!
When do you feel you perform best? Happy, sad, after exercise, with others?
Interesting question. I guess I feel that no matter what my mood, I’m always in a better place during and after singing. Singing is so good for you! Singing is truly transformative and has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety and elevate endorphins. So, on the rare occasion that I turn up to a gig and I’m not feeling 100%, I always go home in a much better place.
Having said that, I think it’s vital that singers can access a myriad of emotions when performing to do justice to the song and the story we are telling. However, you simply can’t ‘feel’ all the feelings when you’re singing. You must become a prism through which the emotion can freely flow and refract outwards for others to experience.
I try to give myself plenty of time to get ready for a performance and aim to be as prepared as possible so that I’m not feeling rushed, pressured or anxious. This approach generally reaps the most satisfying performance outcome.
Do you think your voice is a natural ability?
I think some of us are physiologically predisposed to make a beautiful noise in the same way that others are born with a knack for playing sports. Some of us have a physical/mechanical advantage for sprinting while others are better suited to long-distance running etc.
I think I was blessed to be born into a musical family and surrounded by music from a very young age. I believe that this meant that certain things came naturally to me and I was also encouraged and supported in my musical pursuits. However, from a very young age, I received formal music training in voice and piano. I have most certainly hit that a magical number of 10,000 hours of practice on my instrument and I have been afforded so many wonderful opportunities to hone my craft.
My university studies were a real turning point for me regarding my knowledge and commitment. I think if I hadn’t pursued formal training and qualifications I would still basically make a ‘nice’ sound.
I think my training has given me access to more efficient and healthy ways of producing voice, ensuring longevity and stamina. My training has also broadened my palate of ideas and creative options so I can draw from a more nuanced source of ideas and there are less physical, technical and musical limitations to grapple with as a result. Having said that, I believe some of the most beautiful, expressive and inspiring music is also the simplest.
Is there a musical period that inspires you most?
AHHHHHHH! This is so hard! I think the thing that defines musical inspiration for me is the quality of the music rather than a particular period. When I think of the music that gets my ‘juices flowing’ things like Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’, Handel’s ‘Alcina’, Bach’s ‘St John Passion’, pretty much anything by Mozart or Puccini, and Strauss’ ‘Vier letzte Lieder’ immediately come to mind. So, we’re talking about everything from the Baroque through to Late-Romantic periods.
When it comes to jazz I’d say the 1920s-1950s was the richest period for beautiful songs, but there are so many great young composers and performers on the scene now that are constantly redefining and stretching the genre. At the end of the day, good music is good music regardless of when it was written.
Do you still practice breathing, sounds, and scales?
Absolutely! Breathing is an everyday thing. I practice Accent Method breathing and also teach this to all of my students, so I end up doing about 30 hours of focused work on this each week. Correct postural alignment is central to the efficiency of the singer’s breath management system so this is something I’m also very conscious of and I consult a physiotherapist on a regular basis.
I work on scales, modes, guide tones, arpeggios, licks and transcriptions all the time, but would like to do more. Vocal quality is something I also practice, think about and teach on an almost daily basis. Vocal quality refers to a particular set up that results in a tone quality or setting that provides a mechanical advantage for achieving a particular sound, like Belt, Twang, Opera etc.
Can you envisage a career after singing?
Not really. I think I will always do something voice-related. I love teaching. It’s almost more rewarding than performance in some respects. I have been toying with the idea of completing a Masters in Language and Speech Pathology. I enjoy the challenge of working as part of a team of specialists to diagnose and remediate damaged voices.