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Singing Lessons and Vocal Exercises: Interview with Jeannie Deva

singing lessons with Jeannie Deva

ArtistWorks: When did you first learn how to sing and who taught you?

Jeannie: I was blessed to grow up in a family of professional artists, actors and musicians. I was surrounded by all manners of amazing and well-known musicians from Classical to Blues, Jazz, Folk, World Music and Gospel. So with those influences and without any vocal training, I began singing and performing at a very early age.

My professional singing career began when I was 12 years old in New York City where, along with Janis Ian, I opened for Richie Havens. I had a powerful but small vocal range. Even though I couldn’t do everything that I wanted to do with my voice, for many years I was afraid of going to a vocal coach. I didn’t want my individuality as a singer to be taken away and had heard too many instances of that happening to non-classical singers.

By the time I was about 20, I decided to focus on music (I had also been performing as a dancer and an actress). I really wanted to be a complete professional. I decided that meant I needed to be totally confident with my voice and able to sing anything and any way I wanted, with ease. So a friend of my family referred me to Barbara Streisand’s voice teacher. I studied with her in New York City for a couple of summers in 1970-71.

Following that, while in Boston I took some singing lessons with another teacher. He was teaching all the big Rock acts coming out of the Boston area. Though he was an Opera singer, he called himself a Rock and Pop voice teacher. During my time in Boston in the early ‘70s I also tried a few other teachers for a lesson or two.

Truthfully, many of the directions I was given were contradictory from one teacher to the next. I ended up not knowing what was right or wrong and had no clue how to resolve my confusion. Singing became more complicated and less joyful. While there were definitely some things I learned from the two main teachers I studied with, it wasn’t until I did my own original research on the physiology of singing - how the body works to make sound – that I was finally able to fully discover the simplicity of how to sing and how to tap into and bring out my full potential as a singer.

From my research I was able to figure out and develop a new approach, one that provides automatic breath management and vocal exercises that expand the capabilities of the voice and freedom of expression.  

This approach developed my voice in ways I had barely allowed myself to dream of.  And for the first time, I learned how to sing with a strong multi-octave range and with complete ease and confidence, and I was able to regain the passion in my singing.

AW: What did you learn in your first singing lessons?

Jeannie: I learned that vowels have a lot to do with singing. I also learned that there’s a lot of conflicting directions given from teacher to teacher and that there’s a lot of opinion guiding many of the directions rather than facts. I learned that I had to research the physiology of the voice so that I could be certain about what I was doing; that having uncertainties about singing in fact reduced my ability. This in turn, taught me that to excel in singing it takes understanding how the vocal instrument is designed to create sound, then having vocal exercises that work with and fully develop that natural process. From there it takes discipline of practice to get the fullest results.

vocal exercises with jeannie deva

AW: How long did it take you to develop your voice?

Jeannie: My voice got a bit better from the vocal lessons I took. But once I completed my initial research on the physiology of the voice and then began applying my breath management method and vocal exercises to myself, within the first month I began having big vocal breakthroughs. I’d have to say the first year of practicing with my still forming method of voice training was particularly important to my vocal development. During the second year of continued research and method development I had many more core breakthroughs. Singing became increasingly simple, with greater freedom of expression and flexibility.

But I find that my voice just keeps developing. There are things I can do now, tonal qualities I can produce now that I couldn’t even do last year. It’s a wonderful, joyous and ongoing process.

Watch Jeannie's Free Vocal Lessons

AW: How long have you been teaching singing lessons?

Jeannie: I’ve been giving singing lessons for 37 years. I’ve taught tens of thousands of singers around the world, including singers singing in at least ten different languages including: French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Greek and Russian. Additionally, I’ve been training and certifying voice teachers to teach my Deva Method® of voice training for the past 25 years. Also, for the past 25 years I’ve been a recording studio vocal coach and vocal producer. I work with singers in pretty much all genres and styles: Rock, Pop, Blues, Soul and Gospel, Folk and ethnic music, Bluegrass and Country, Metal, and some Classical. I’ve even worked with a number of rappers including Tam Tam, a very early female rap recording artist as well as the female voice of the rap group Bone Thugs n’ Harmony.

My method of singing lessons does not force a singer into a style. Instead it develops and strengthens the voice, freeing the singer to use it in the style(s) of their choosing while keeping it healthy.

AW: What made you want to teach people how to sing?

Jeannie: The results I achieved with my own voice as I applied my research discoveries to myself were so incredible, so freeing and so simple, I had to share them with my fellow singers.

For example, I started out with a really small range of about one octave. As I practiced with my method and the vocal exercises I was creating, within just a few months, I was singing over four octaves of in-control, sounds good, “oh my goodness!” sound. Songs I always wished I could sing were suddenly well within my grasp. I didn’t stop performing (I still do perform), I just added voice teaching. Though teaching has been my livelihood for a long time, making money is not my motivation. I teach singers how to sing because I found a ground-breaking approach and believe that it’s my responsibility to share this with others.

AW: What vocal exercises do you recommend for beginners? What about vocal exercises for more experienced singers?

Jeannie: With all the singers I’ve now taught and all the styles and levels of experience, interestingly, in my method everyone starts with the same vocal exercises and progress forward from there. The vocal exercises my students start with soon turn into their vocal warm-ups. But at first there are certain new aspects of development and self-discovery that these beginning vocal exercises provide. And, they are very simple. Simple can be difficult. It’s important to peel away the effort of singing and awaken the inner muscle movements so that they work automatically FOR the singer. My vocal exercises develop the intrinsic muscle energy of the voice - which means that my vocal exercises awaken the natural muscle functions of the voice. As this occurs the singer learns they can trust their voice. This takes some getting used to. And it has a tremendous impact on song performance. It also permits each singer to discover their voice and develop their own signature sound and style.

AW: How's it been going with your online singing lessons?  What's the age range on your students?

Jeannie: It’s going fantastically. I’ve been receiving so many success stories from my students as they work with my online vocal lessons – it’s very humbling. And I love working with them.

Here are a couple of testimonials from students:

  • “I can tell you that already my voice has changed in a positive significant way just from doing [your warm-ups]. I know you are really looking at things the right way and going inside the body and mind to really use the tools we have in the right way. I have complete trust in your method and I hope to make you proud of my progress as I move through your program.” – MM


  • “I am soooooooooooooooooo beyond excited and thankful to be a part of your school. It was an answer to prayer. I truly feel honored to be a part of your school and it your lessons are so wonderful.”  - A.

The age range in my ArtistWorks online vocal school is from 8 years old up to 80. The 8 year olds (there are two currently) have dedicated parents and these children have already been singing and performing so it’s appropriate for them to be taking singing lessons. We’re all having a really good time working together and a world community of singers within my vocal school is being formed.

singing lessonsAW: Are there any common issues you notice in the videos your students send you?

Jeannie: The most common issue has to do with breath management problems (pushing out too much air) when singing. Many singers think they need to do push in their stomachs when singing. Some have been taught to do so. The result is they push out too much air. That can create throat tension and so limit their vocal flexibility, ease of singing and freedom of expression.

This is one of the first things my singing lessons and vocal exercises help them understand, sort out and, improve: it’s a vocal method that permits natural and automatic breath management whereby the singer does not need to think about breathing and instead can devote their energy to singing their songs.

AW: If a child is interested in learning how to sing, what's the earliest age they should start taking singing lessons?

Jeannie: I’d say usually between twelve and fourteen. However, there are some children who even at the age of 4 or 5 are very focused: they know that they are singers and have a voice to prove it. I think they bring the skill with them from a past life. But because their bodies are still forming, prior to puberty there are certain vocal exercises and physical exercises that are part of my method which I would not do with them.

AW: Who are your favorite singers of all time?

Jeannie: There are many singers I admire and are my favorites for various reasons. I want a singer to move me; to keep me in the moment of the song from start to finish. Even after the song has ended, I want to still feel the enveloped in the experience the singer has created for me. There are singers I love because of their phrasing, (Luther Vandross and Billie Holiday) their musicality, expertise and believability (Sara Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Christina Aguilera, Bobby McFerrin, Michael McDonald, Sammy Davis Jr.), their styling, passion and emotional impact (Jennifer Holliday – Dream Girls: “And I’m Telling You”, Bonnie Raitt, Laura Pausini, Lara Fabian, Whitney Houston, Nina Simon, Tina Turner, Siedah Garrett (writer of the Michael Jackson hit: “Man in the Mirror”), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Geoff Tate (Queensryche), Corey Glover (Living Color), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Dave Mathews, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), and Janis Joplin). I listen to so many styles of music so I have a long list of favorite singers of all time. But those are some of the artists that immediately come to mind.

AW: Who do think has the best voice in the music industry right now?

Jeannie: Due to the many musical styles there are, this is a difficult question to answer. Also, I don’t believe there’s just one “best voice” today. Here’s a few that stand out to me: Christina Aguilera, Lara Fabian, Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill, Andrea Bocelli, Sara Brightman and Josh Groban. Also I must add to this list Judith Hill, currently a finalist on NBC's The Voice, as well as the three singing leads in NBC's TV serial “Smash:” Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty and Jeremy Jordan.

AW: Do you think anyone can learn how to sing, and if so, why? What would you say to someone who says "I just can't sing; I have a terrible voice"?

Jeannie: I think that anyone can learn how to sing mechanically. The voice is the body and given the right steps put in the correct sequence for the individual, the physical action of singing can be developed. But singing is not just mechanical. The voice must be motivated by the desire of the spirit. The degree of musicality and expression is a large part of it. Some say that this is impossible or difficult to teach. But when someone really loves music and really wants to sing, there’s a much better possibility of having a better voice with voice lessons. It can be a matter of discovering how to unblock a person’s passion and help them to let go and express themselves with their singing voice.

Everyone has a starting point. Those that started early are already further along. So the person who’s older when they’re first starting to learn to sing needs to give themselves an emotional break and give themselves the license to enjoy the process. And it’s OK to make mistakes. No one can learn and grow without experimenting. We all need room to breathe in order to grow, no matter what point of development we have achieved. 

What I would say to the person who says they can’t sing and they have a terrible voice is – well, would you like to sing? If the answer is yes, then maybe you can. There are most likely some things you don’t know about singing. If you knew these things; if you knew what to do to improve and did them, then maybe you’d think differently about your voice. You might not be the next vocal sensation, but you might be able to sing.

AW: Is there any hope for the tone deaf?

Jeannie: Yes. But such a person is not really “tone deaf.” Rather, they are not oriented to pitch differentiation and the connection between mind and body in singing distinct note relationships.

Shortly after I first began to teach I was sent a student who could not sing on pitch. Instead of turning her away, I did some research into this. I discovered what was going on that causes people to have this problem and created a way to take such a person and step-by-step help them to the point of singing on pitch.

Though this is not something I focus on within my training method and professional life, I’ve had success helping a number of people with the desire to sing on pitch. This is not something I teach in my online school because it must be done one-on-one. Over the past few years there have been a few other teachers that I know of in the USA who do specialize in this achievement with success.

how to audition for the voiceAW: What advice would you give to someone who wants to audition for The Voice or American Idol?  What vocal exercises should they focus on?

Jeannie: To audition for The Voice or American Idol, X-Factor or America’s Got Talent (or the comparable show of the person’s country), begin preparation way early. Too many singers wait until one or two weeks prior and simply don’t have enough time to work on all of what they need to perfect to then make it past the first one or two audition rounds.

Your vocal technique including pitch accuracy both need to be really good. Song selection has to be the exact right audition song for your particular voice, style and ability. You need to be able to connect with the story and emotion of the song to a level of complete believability and know how to arrange it with a “Wow Factor” that will knock the socks off of the judges. This takes a lot of preparation.

There are three main areas that vocal exercise should focus on and help the preparing singer develop:

  1. Range: higher notes used in a song will bring it to a climax and make it exciting. But straining to sing higher creates the reverse reaction.

  2. Tonal qualities: You need to be able to sing with emotional dynamics and nuances while staying in control of the melody and pitch accuracy.

  3. Sustain and Vibrato: Not all songs require really long sustained notes. On the other hand, there will usually be some notes that require this skill. When sustaining a note, your vocal quality needs to continue to convey the emotion of the song; your pitch must stay right on and not waver. Vibrato, if used, should usually come in artfully at the end of a sustained note.

AW: How can someone develop confidence to sing in public, especially if they are an introvert?

Jeannie: Self-confidence raises when you know that you can trust yourself; your decisions and your actions. If a singer is uncertain about their voice, if, when they try to sing their voice doesn’t do what they want it to do and sound the way they want it to sound, this would badly affect their confidence to sing in public. Also, singing is a social activity. You have to like people and know how to effectively communicate with others to be able then to stand before others and confidently communicate as a singer.

I’ve found that raising a singer’s understanding and certainty of singing helps enormously. Furthermore, when a singer achieves a voice they can count on, is sure of what they want to express in a song and practices doing so, they are more confident to sing in public:

It is a craft like anything else and requires know-how and tools. Along with vocal technique, I’ve developed performance exercises that help a singer’s confidence, ability to take control of their singing performance and their ability to connect with and move their audience. Stage fright disappears and is replaced by confidence to sing in public.


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