In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
In a given week, Julie Miles can be working with a hundred different voices, instructing singers on how not just to sing, but how to dazzle an audience with stage presence and snag trophies in talent competitions.
But for the last couple of months, the UK-based Miles has been coaching singers — who range from amateur artists to The Voice contestants to established performers — over a screen from her home in Newcastle, England. She’s also busy designing a workshop with Roy Hamilton III, a songwriter and producer who’s worked with Michael Jackson, in addition to running her coaching company, Vocal Ovation. Miles spoke with Rolling Stone about her proudest moments as a vocal coach, her unexpected journey into the role, and how she’s able to work with a mélange of voices over Zoom and Skype.
What’s your favorite thing about the job?
The longer I’ve been doing this and the higher level I get to, the more interesting. My success completely comes from the success of my students. The better they’re doing, the more the inquiries I get. I work with Courtney Hadwin, who got America’s Got Talent‘s “golden buzzer” last year. And I think everybody has those “golden buzzer” moments, like when someone just realizes that they are singing in tune for a full phrase for the first time.
Can you walk me through what a typical day looks like for you?
In normal times I have a studio at home — it’s a separate building and really great studio space. I see about six students a day who are coming for help with technique, performance, everything that involves becoming a singer. Generally most of my work is face-to-face. I’ve got a really big studio out in the middle of nowhere with a full PA system — this is a chance for the students I work with not only to hone in on technique but actually perform. Vocal coaches tend to train singers for performances but if they’re just working in a very small room it’s very hard for the singer to know how they’re going to feel on stage.
And how’s that changed with quarantine and remote work?
I made a decision less than a week before officially put into lockdown, “This is starting to feel the wrong thing to do, seeing people face-to-face.” So I went completely online and thought I’d get to catch up on other work. But that didn’t happen at all because my face-to-face students started wanting to work online with me and a lot of my waiting list people — I was able to slot them in. I started earlier, had less of a break time at lunch, and finished earlier, because so many people were available throughout the day. I’m teaching people around the world. Japan, Canada, Chicago.
I tend to have about 120 students registered but not all of them can be active every week, so I’m not seeing 120 people every week.
How did you get into vocal coaching? Was it always the plan?
I started singing and dancing at school. As soon as I finished the course I dived straight into a working career as a singer for about 12 years. But I’d say half that time, I was balancing singing with another job as well, just because singing wasn’t paying enough. I hadn’t really gotten into it in terms of thinking I’d be famous — it was more cabaret entertainment. But because I’d had other jobs as well in things like sales, I ended up getting into a corporate job working my way up from sales to a senior manager for the sales and services department of a Fortune 500 company. By then singing was definitely something I wasn’t thinking I’d make a career of.
My husband booked me a surprise singing lesson with one of the top UK vocal coaches, David Grant. He said, have you ever thought about being a vocal coach? I was like, really? I have no qualifications! And I’m sure singing teachers only charge 10 pounds an hour or something. But the lesson with David was absolutely amazing, and I started traveling to London every month to train with him.
I opened a studio probably about 10 months later, did a few free lessons, and that was it. I built my student base up from literally zero to this massive waiting list. And that first lesson with David was was August 8th, 11 years ago.
Has your attitude to your work changed in those 11 years? How do you approach students then versus now?
Every student will bring something different to a degree, but everyone will also bring something very similar. Working with someone’s voice — everyone’s voice should function the exactly the same way. It’s the same function as talking. When I first started teaching, I probably knew 10% of what I know now. You’ve got a feel and intuition but you learn something constantly about people’s voices and the same thing in one voice can happen later in another person’s.
I used to feel that I could be more enthusiastic than my students. If they weren’t enthusiastic, that would make me work harder to fill the gap. I find I do that less now, because I don’t want to be the vibiest person in the room — I want the singer to come in and do that. I work with an amazing 18-year-old singer with a voice that’s so emotive and does something to my heart. But I said something to him today: “I cannot want this for you more than you do.” He doesn’t live and breathe it and I can’t force him to want that.
How much time does it take for you to see improvement in a singer you take on?
The techniques that I use, the way I work — the singer will hear and feel results in that first lesson. But then you tend to start noticing things in the second lesson that maybe aren’t quite as good as you thought. There tends to be this three-lesson thing where all of a sudden something will click for them and, particularly if they’re not very experienced, that third lesson seems to start making everything make sense.
It’s about creating new habits and muscle memory. That feeling of “I’ve never done these exercises before and now I feel I know what I’m doing more!” The frustration is that I can literally build your voice in an hour and make the song sound amazing for you, but if you go away and do nothing for two weeks, we’re going to keep doing this cycle.
When you’re a singer there has to be an element of ego involved. So for me, as soon as somebody walks into my studio for a lesson — it might be the first or hundredth time — it is not about me, it is about them, full stop. That is the difference between being someone who can help someone sing and somebody who is definitely a vocal coach with integrity that you’re going to stay with for a long time. I’m very proud of that: that so many of my singers stay with me for years. They say, “I know I need Julie to help me with this.”
How exactly do you train a new singer? Do you focus on their pitch, their range…?
I am constantly encouraging people to find their own voices and be creative. If you’re going to do covers, absolutely fine, but do something creative with that.
There’s vocal coaches and then singing teachers. For me a singing teacher is teaching you something you need to know but a vocal coach is taking a more holistic approach. It’s about what’s going on with them that’s stopping their function working, or their motivation, or their inhibition. It can be — you’re just about to go for an audition with The Voice or whatever and it’s about the song choice making sense and the voice matching. Does the image all make sense? If I close my eyes and listen to you sing, am I going to open them and see what I expect? That is what it takes to become a proper artist.
I’m very focused on technique but for me I am bored senseless if I hear someone with a perfect voice who’s doing all the range and all the big notes but they literally don’t connect to the song, they just leave me going “That’s good.”
And don’t just sing a song because it is a belter! Sing something that makes you feel comfortable and authentic. The difference between a singer who’s just really comfortable in their own skin and someone who’s not enjoying themselves — it puts the audience on edge. If you feel not prepared, the audience is going to feel that.
Do singers have to perform differently on a livestream show?
A lot of the students I work with are fairly comfortable in their own skin. While there can be awkward moments, you’ve got to have the personality to be able to fill in the awkward moments and say something that’s going to make the situation light-hearted. The thing with livestreams is that often they are recorded in history so for singers it is a bit like having to go into a recording studio but actually not getting the chance to do any takes. Singers need to feel they are ready.
You mentioned that there are some issues in singers that come up again and again.
The one thing I tend to notice with people I haven’t worked with before — I wonder whether the voice they’re singing with is actually their voice. Singers have these affectations in their voice. Sometimes that’s a bit of an accident but it just becomes your thing. And if you’re trying to steal those affectations from other singers, that can start causing issues in terms of the balance of your voice and how it’s functioning. So the first thing I try to do is find out, is that really your voice?
I say, do you know how your voice works? How it functions? They know vocal cords and air but in some cases they don’t actually know it’s the same function as speaking. I like to try and find the true authentic voice. And that makes it so much easier for them if the starting point is a really strong foundation that can actually encompass that speaking voice. You’ve got a home base to start adding certain effects and style and emotion. You can’t put walls on a house with no foundation.
Trying to unravel a lot of bad habits can be challenging. Particularly if there are vocal issues and they are still working and singing the same songs with the same habits.
What do you mean by habits to unravel?
One is really throaty singing. If you’re talking into your throat and you can hear it, it completely changes. It’s something intrinsic that’s actually causing it — like tongue tension. It can be like trying to get blood from a stone.
Who’s an example of a student you’re particularly proud of?
I mentioned earlier Courtney Hadwin from AGT. She is 16 and undoubtedly going to be an absolute superstar. We started working together when she was 11 and she had a remarkable voice, but a very strange voice. To the point where — when she used to sing, it was like she was possessed, it was like someone had entered her body and taken her voice and these facial expressions were coming out that in some cases made her look quite demonic! I was forever pointing this out. This strangeness definitely wasn’t her own voice — it was a voice not functioning freely and correctly, and in terms of an audience watching her on stage, the whole facial thing and sound thing was very distracting. She was like marmite: People either really loved her or were like “What on earth?”
So I really had to unravel that bit by bit. I remember us working on the song “At Last” by Etta James and she got to the part where it was “And I had a dream that I could speak to, I had a thrill I could call my own…” which is all about being in love. But she was literally almost snarling. I stopped her and said do you know what this song is about? She said no. I said, I know you’re too young, but it’s about love. She didn’t k now. This journey continued through all the lessons until we started with techniques and breakthroughs. And then this phenomenal voice started being built, bit by bit, and that’s when I said to her, at 12 years old — you’re like a little Janis Joplin. And she went, who’s she?
She went home and I showed her singing Janis singing “Cry Baby,” and at 9 p.m. that night her mom posted a video of her singing “Cry Baby.” Her audition was Number Four of America’s Got Talent auditions going viral.