In this episode, Dr Elizabeth Benson offers us a rare insight into her professional career highlights as a singer who performed across multi genres from classical art song to musical theatre and pop/rock. She describes the training regime that helped her manage the vocal demands of each style, how she built vocal stamina and created the requisite style elements across the spectrum of sounds.

Elizabeth discusses the training program at Auburn University and how this boutique program is designed to ensure that students are offered every opportunity for success by not only learning the practical skills required to be a triple threat in the industry, but also how they can build other necessary skills such as resilience.

Elizabeth shares her core values, inspiration for her book, and her personal mission now is for social justice and reform in the voice community in areas such as gender equality, equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. There is so much more in this episode and I am sure you are going to love it!

In this episode

01:08 – Introducing Dr Elizabeth Benson

04:47 – Dealing with the pandemic

09:04 – Elizabeth’s early singing days

12:42 – Performing at Carnegie Hall

15:54 – Writing a cabaret

20:32 – Transitioning to voice teaching

25:25 – Auburn University programs

32:54 – Covid’s impact on current students

37:33 – Dr Elizabeths new book

45:00 – The belting chapter

48:42 – Resources within the book

49:39 – What’s next for Dr Elizabeth

55:46 – Equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging

Visit Benson Music Studios online

Purchase Dr Elizabeth Benson’s NEW Book

Email Dr Elizabeth Benson

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST

Episode Transcription

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  00:10

Hey, it’s Dr. Marisa Lee Naismith here and I’m so honoured to be sharing today’s interview round episode with you, listen and you will be inspired by amazing healthcare practitioners, voice teachers, and music industry professionals who will share their stories, knowledge and experiences within their specialised fields to help you live your best life every day. As singers our whole body is our instrument and our instrument echoes how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally. So don’t wait any longer. Take charge and optimise your instrument now. Remember that to sing is more than just learning about how to use the voice. It’s about A Voice and Beyond. So without further ado, let’s go to today’s episode.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  01:08

In this episode, Dr. Elizabeth Benson offers us a rare insight into her professional career highlights, as a singer who performed across multiple genres from classical art song to musical theatre, and pop rock. She describes the training regime that helped her manage the vocal demands of each style, how she built vocal stamina and created the requisite style elements across the spectrum of sounds. Elizabeth discusses the training programme at Auburn University and how this boutique programme is designed to ensure that students are offered every opportunity for success not only by learning the practical skills required to be a triple threat in the industry, but also how they can build other necessary skills such as resilience. Elizabeth shares her core values inspiration for her book, and her personal mission now is for social justice and reform in the singing voice community in areas such as gender equality, equity, cultural diversity, inclusion and belonging. There is so much more in this episode, and I’m sure you’re going to love it. Dr. Elizabeth Benson is currently an associate professor and music theatre singing specialist for Auburn University, and she also maintains Benson Music Studios, her private voice studio, where Elizabeth offers online training for music theatre, popular and contemporary singers, as well as online one to one voice teaching training. In 2020, her book training contemporary commercial singers was published. And this book was the result of interviews with internationally acclaimed pedagogues who are specialists in the field of training singers across contemporary commercial music styles. She has her research work published in American music teacher, the Journal of singing and the voice and speech review. In 2021, Elizabeth was guest speaker for the Recording Academy Grammy Awards musicares webinar series. She is also a frequent presenter at conferences for the voice Foundation, National Association of teachers of singing, music theatres educators Alliance and for the Association for popular music education.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  03:50

Hi, everybody, and I’d like to welcome Elizabeth Benson, our guest today. Hi, Elizabeth, how you going? 

Dr Elizabeth Benson  03:57

I’m great. Thanks. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  03:59

That’s good. Now you and I, we met online, which sounds almost creepy. We met because Elizabeth and I we both presented at CPV last year, on the same topic of contemporary voice and the training of singers across those styles and the status quo in the industry. And Elizabeth reached out to me we became friends instantly via messenger. And we’ve had a little bit to do with one another recently working on a couple of collaborations. And if it wasn’t for the pandemic we probably may never have met or if we did it wouldn’t have been now. So how has the pandemic treated you and what is what in what way has your life changed since the pandemic?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  04:56

Oh, big question. Big question. I actually think it was the voice foundation conference in 2020, that you presented at, I did not present in that particular year. But your presentation was so compelling that I felt the need to reach out to you and to connect on some of the topics that you had covered in your presentation. Because I was really interested in exploring them further. And then I had a similar, similar presentation from that, that I was doing that your honour that was coming up, yeah, yes. So, but I was, you know, it was because of the voice foundation conference was virtual that year, and it kind of went virtual kind of at the last minute because of the pandemic. And, and so I really made an extra effort to reach out to folks who were presenting and to give, you know, give feedback and make connections the way that you would in a real life conference. Yeah. Because, you know, everyone went to the effort of making those videos, and they just went out into the void. And, and so I just felt it was important to, you know, support and connect with my colleagues, especially those doing really interesting work, like, like yours. So, I it was, you know, because of the pandemic, I had time to do that. And I thought to do that. And so that led to us having some really interesting conversations over zoom. And it has, you know, grown from there. So, you know, the pandemic has certainly affected me the way most voice teachers in the United States in particular is that we’ve, you know, moved everything online. And I did so over the spring break of 2020. In March, I think my university told us on Friday, before we were coming back, that Monday, we would be all virtual. And so you know, the last couple days of my spring break, I scrambled, you know, as everyone else did to, to make that, that shift. And, you know, Lucky lucky for me as as is true for many of our teachers, our work that we do, because it’s one on one, and it’s already customised and tailored. For the individual in front of us, we were able to transition fairly smoothly, my students kept their same lesson schedule, we just met on the computer instead, and continued working on their repertoire. Going forward, there were some limitations that we had to get used to. And certainly the first couple months were not very smooth, but over the summer, recalibrated, got some new equipment, I got a grant for really high quality USB microphones for all of our students. So that that improves things drastically. And, and, you know, and really was conscious about designing my online classes in a way that I hadn’t been before, when when we’ve met in person. So so I was able to sort of start in the fall, I teach a group singing class in the fall, and I was able to teach that completely online and adapt the content and the students had a really good experience. And, you know, it’s been a lot of a lot of adjusting a lot of planning a lot of feedback, a lot of asking people for their Frank and forthright opinions on things. Yes. And and then, you know, and then modifying as needed as we went along. So, so yeah, so I’ve been completely online and my private studio as well moved online in March of 2020. And it’s been there ever since.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  08:14

And we are really lucky because there are a lot of people that have lost their jobs in other industries. And we’re in an industry where with a little bit of upgrading our skill set, we’ve been able to transition our teaching online and keep our jobs and definitely from 2020. I would like to back, back though. So, I see that smile. So I know from from our chats and our discussions that you perform, and you sing and you train across a variety of styles. So you from anything from classical art song, to musical theatre, to cabaret to pop rock, just to name a few. Now, when you were a child, though, what music did you learn what inspired you to start singing?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  09:15

Oh, well, according to my mother I sang before I could even talk I would compose in the backseat with nonsense syllables. So so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing and dancing. I would do little dances around the house to I think it was just in my DNA. We listened to a lot of music when I was growing up a lot of different styles were played in the house. Everything from jazz to musical theatre to Mozart to the Beatles, to and so on. Peter, Paul and Mary, I mean everything. So it was it was a musical household. Both my parents, you know, sang for fun. Nobody Nobody did it seriously or professionally but um, but it was a tremendously important value in my household. So when I showed aptitude and interest, my parents, you know, jumped right in and you know, piano lessons and clarinet lessons and tap classes and ballet and all the things that I was interested in doing and eventually put me in theatre, musical theatre, where I could do all of those things and voice lessons and, and then I ended up studying it in college, and they continue to be just incredible champions and supporters.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  10:28

So was your training specifically in classical music styles?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  10:34

Um everything? Well, you know, the musical theatre that I did in high school was certainly not, but all of my formal training from college all the way through my master’s degree. And my doctorate was all in classical vocal performance, you know, three, three degrees.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  10:52

Wow. And do you remember your very first gig? The one that you got the paycheck!

Dr Elizabeth Benson  11:08

I believe that it was a church job, which is the bread and butter of a lot of classical singers. Yes. And I think they hired me to do a, like an Easter festival. And so I came in and sang a couple of Arias, maybe the Messiah or something like that, and sang some choral pieces, and got a paycheck. So that I do remember that.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  11:33

And when you reflect back on that, was that like a cringe worthy moment, did you think, Oh, I was so green, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I was just happy and loving life and I got paid for it.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  11:46

I was very, very excited to be there. I do remember that, I wasn’t at all worried about the music, the music. I you know, I felt like for sure I could show up and sing this thing well, but I remember being terrified because I had I sang the processional. That’s when you know, when you’re walking in the church, and we were wearing this big, long choir robes, and I could barely see my feet. And I had to sing a solo while processing into the church. And there were steps and there was a pattern on the carpet. And I was just terrified, I was gonna fall down in the middle of singing and walking. So it’s a bit like chewing gum and walking at the same time only this was processing in a robe and singing at the same time that I found the most challenging. But But afterwards, I thought, well, I nailed that I actually walked and sang at the same time that is managed it all.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  12:36

That takes coordination. It was this tricky. It was tricky. And since then, you’ve actually had some amazing performance experiences. You’ve performed at Carnegie Hall and you received an award was the the winner of the American prize for the Chicago Music Theatre award. So tell us about some of those experiences and how they came about.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  13:05

Sure. Well the Carnegie Hall gig was certainly, you know, a career highlight. And that came as a result of working with a living composer in New York, Tom Cipullo. So I had done my dissertation research on his art songs. I was a big fan of his music, and, you know, sang a lot of songs and really obsessed over them for many, many years. And got to know him really well did a lot of interviews. He was just an incredibly generous person, really excited that I was excited about his music. And, and so he decided to write a one act opera called Lucy, for me. And so he wrote it, it’s for soprano and bass baritone, and Michael Anthony McGee premiered it with me. And it was a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of music. It’s subsequently it’s been recorded now. And it’s it’s it’s premiered at several other you know, larger venues. But we did the premiere at vile Recital Hall. And it was, it was, you know, tremendous. It was a wonderful experience. And there’s nothing quite like someone writing something for you. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  14:14

That’s incredible, that’s very unique thing, isn’t it and to and to do your best and to honour that music is is quite a big deal as well, isn’t it? That’s a lot of pressure, in one sense to as much as you’re very privileged. There’s that sense of I have to make sure that I do a good job of this.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  14:38

No, it definitely was a big big day. But I was I was really pleased with it. I really trusted my collaborators. You know, I had great folks on stage with me and you know, we had prepared really well. So yeah, it was that was wonderful. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  14:52

And you’ve had like in your performance career, you’ve done a variety of gigs. So I see that you’ve done Musical Theatre, you’ve done cabaret. You that there’s quite a, you know, some contemporary pop rock. So from a vocal standpoint, how did you manage all those different music styles and deliver them with authenticity? How did you set yourself up for that?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  15:24

Yeah, well, you know, the the venture into musical theatre from classical was not a big step. For me that was very similar, especially as I’m, you know, a soprano ingenue, that’s what I look like. And that’s what I sound like. And so it was very easy for me to slip into a big chunk of the Golden Age material, and then learn just a few new skills so that I could be competitive with some of the more contemporary roles as well and in terms of the cabaret, the cover, the cabaret that I did, I wrote a cabaret in 2018 and performed it. And that that was the most probably stylistically versatile show I had ever been in where, you know, you’re singing back to back very different styles. Usually, if you do, you know, a show or something, you’re doing an entire show in one style. You know, that’s, that’s a different story. But this, this, this show, I purposely wanted there to be a spectrum of styles. So I sort of started and ended with classical pieces. And then everything in between was, you know, sort of ran the gamut. And, you know, the, the narrative sort of lined it all together, it was a, it was a first person story about my life. And so all of those genres made sense, within the context of the entire show, it didn’t seem kind of like, you know, we were jumping all over. But, but, um, vocally, it was certainly the most demanding singing I’ve ever done. Because Because I had to, you know, belt and rock style at the same time that I was been singing, you know, head voice in a classical sound much higher. So, yes. So it was, I had to practice a lot. That was probably I was very methodical in my preparation, I felt that a lot of exercise science principles, I ran the show every day for two months, you know, unless I was unless I was sick, or, you know, there are some major interference, you know, just to make sure that I had not only the endurance built up, but but that I was maintaining the stylistic versatility, plus endurance, because that was not the same as just sort of having my classical chops feeling really good for a while or having my belting chops feel really good for a while, but this is having everything working, like clockwork. By but, but but, you know, it went well. And by the time we got to the performance, I felt like very comfortable, you know, I had I had done it enough times, you know, and prepared really well. So, yes, I was happy with, with how it turned out.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  17:56

So that music was then in your body mean, we were feeling it. And because I was going to ask you, that would have taken a lot of preparation to perform all those styles. And if you weren’t prepared, you would have really been vocally fatigued, very easily. Yes, absolutely. And the consequently to you may not have been able to deliver all those styles with authenticity. And do all the heavy duty lifting, it sounded like it was a vocal marathon.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  18:29

It was a bit it wasn’t yet. But I very wisely, you know, structured, you know, the monologues, you know, in to be a little bit longer in some places. And I also had a recently graduated student, Logan pace, who was a great singer and guitar player and I brought him in to sing, sing a duet with me, and then sync back up on a couple of the songs. So it sort of changed the the texture of things and took took the load off of me for a little bit. In the duet, I also played the piano in one song. So it’s sort of you know, we kept it varied enough. So it wasn’t just like me front and centre full on, you know, all the time.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  19:10

So you wouldn’t have been able to do a show like that if you didn’t have the training that you’d had. Because you would have had to really understand your voice, your instrument, the styles, knowing when to take those moments of, I need to step away for the next song, let someone else sing, or I’m going to play the piano. Unless you knew those. You had the knowledge, not only the skill, but the knowledge, you wouldn’t have been able to do that successfully.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  19:41

Yeah, I think, I think I was just the right amount of ambitious with the programme. So you know, and I did, and I did make changes, you know, like I said, because I wrote it, you know, I had another I had an aria in there like an opera Aria. And as I was working on it, I thought this is not working. So it needs to go. So as much as I wanted to sing it, I just couldn’t balance it with the rest of the programme. And so, you know, I was able to sort of recognise what my limits were and where I was going to be able to excel and make sure that I was operating within those reasonable boundaries.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  20:16

Yes. That, that sounds like you’re really trying to push the boundaries. All right, throughout that process, but why am I not surprised with you, Elizabeth? You’re pushing the boundaries girl. Yeah. So what inspired you to become a singing teacher? And when did that happen? And was it something that you plan to become? Or did you fall into it? Like a lot of us did?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  20:41

I did not plan to become a voice teacher at first. But I but I was a teacher, I actually had been a dance teacher when I was in high school returning at about age 14,

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  20:52

I did not know that.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  20:55

Yes. Wow. So I was apprentice to a modern dance company, Pamela tra canskate dance workshop in Davis, California. I was in the company for a year. And I decided that it was too hard to be a full time high school student and be in a dance company. And so I let Pamela know that I was going to be stepping back from the company. And she was sad to see me go. But she said, Hey, I need someone who can stop for me when I’m in, in the theatre with the company. So, so let’s get you teaching. And so she took me under her wing, and she made me into a tremendously confident teenage teacher. And, um, I covered for her for you know, for several years, while she was with the, with the company when I was 16, I got my own classes, and had been teaching dance for a couple of years when I went to college. And so so I think I always loved it. And I always knew that that was something I could fall back on, if I if I wanted to. And so I went forward, you know, in pursuing my singing career, I went all the way through, you know, to the end of my doctorate I had, I was add all but deserted. And I had a baby, I got married and had a baby and decided we needed to leave New York because having a very small child in New York was not my idea of fun. Yeah. And so I knew that that meant, you know, and I knew that, that having a baby would mean my, my performance career was not going to go exactly on the track that I had intended. So so I knew we were going to need to sort of recalibrate that a little bit. So we decided to move to Colorado and Colorado how to a great emerging artist, landscape. There’s a lot of opportunities for classical singers in the Denver boulder area. really wonderful community of people there. And so, you know, I that’s when I, that’s when I did a lot of my work and musicals and in with opera on tap, which is this great organisation that, you know, you sing arias at a bar wearing jeans holding on here. And that is that was my jam!

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  22:56

That’s, that’s my kind of classical.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  22:59

Exactly. And that’s what it was meant to take out all the formality of the opera Hall and bring opera to the people. And that was I had a wonderful time with that group actually still perform with them. Last year I did quite a bit, especially during the first part of the pandemic because they moved all their shows online. So I was able to go back and work with them again, which was wonderful. But I had to get out of the house. You know, I had a very young child, we lived in the suburbs, I didn’t know people and I was just losing my mind a little and so I answered an ad in Craigslist for a voice teacher at a community music school and and I got the job. So I started working in a suburb of Boulder called Lewisville at Dana v music and they it was a it was a music studio, like a community music school. So it was all AF mostly after school. But because the music programmes are so big in the public schools, there was just a huge demand. So when they brought me on, I think I was the fifth voice teacher or fourth voice teacher. And by the time I left they they had, you know, grown exponentially. And I started working in the middle of the recession in February of 2009. And I had something like three students when I started and by the end of 2009, I had 20 students or just that more than I wanted.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  24:17

That’s great. Yes. That’s incredible. Yeah, yes. And now you’re teaching at Auburn University in Alabama. So you’re an associate professor in music theatre and the music theatre programme. And that’s correct. You were describing that programme to me and it sounded to me that this programme actually really does some amazing work in preparing students for the real world and what are some of the challenges and for the industry itself. So let us start. Here is some of those those programmes And some of those trainings that the students are receiving.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  25:04

Sure. Well, you know, I’m fortunate to work with really brilliant colleagues and the programme was designed, the curriculum was designed, you know, before I came on, but, but we’ve certainly made some additions and modifications and we’re always sort of tinkering with things to make it better in response to the industry, which is always changing as well. So our musical theatre programme is undergraduate only we actually our entire theatre programme is undergraduate only. So we spend a lot of time and attention on our students, which is really important. We have about 100 majors total in the theatre department about 2423 ish in the music theatre programme. And that’s across all four years. So it’s really a boutique programme, and we pride ourselves on on giving that attention and opportunity. Students are in shows every semester, there’s a lot of stage opportunities. And we also work really hard to bridge the training to the profession. Yeah, we do. Yeah, do a showcase in Atlanta, which is our nearest metropolitan area, film and television and theatre in Atlanta is huge. So there’s a lot of opportunities there. For our students, we bring in guest artists. We are also situated within a College of Liberal Arts. And that is very unique. As far as you know, there’s only one other university that’s like that. So we have a BFA, a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. And that BFA professional training programme is within the College of Liberal Arts. So liberal arts curriculum is broad based creative thinking entrepreneurial citizen artists, who are thinking outside the box and looking to use theatre, perhaps as a vehicle for social justice. And so in that sounds like a lot,

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  26:53

that the sound time a lot, yes.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  26:56

But at the same time, they’re learning their triple, Triple Threat skill sets of singing, dancing and acting. Yeah, and one of the components I brought in was the pop rock unit as part of vocal training from day one, so starting freshmen start learning pop rock styles, when they walk in the door, and it’s brand new for a lot of them. But by the time they get to senior year, they they really know how to prepare and they are ready for those, you know, 60 or 70% of auditions in New York that call for pop rock.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  27:25

Yes. It sounds like an incredible programme. And in terms of the auditioning process, is that really difficult to get into that programme?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  27:36

That mean, that’s hard to say it’s because it’s not a conservatory, you know, we that’s not our model. We are really looking for trainability we’re looking for potential not perfection. Yes. And we also are really aware of how privilege determines the resources that folks have access to, especially in public school in high school. So if you’ve had access to voice lessons and dance training and acting classes, and a lot of, you know, thriving community theatre opportunities, you’re going to walk into an audition much more polished. But if you haven’t had access to those things, you still might be insanely talented, expand and hungry to learn and work hard. And so it’s really important to us that we we look at all of the factors that the students bring in when they come to the audition, not just do they reach a certain benchmark in their skills.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  28:32

Yes. And it’s so important, what the the kind of instruction that you’re delivering in the training that you’re delivering there. It is really helping them in not only being able to enter the music industry in terms of musical theatre, but also to being able to sustain that kind of career as well. Do you know what kind of conversion rate there is with that programme? Like do a lot of those students end up in the music theatre career?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  29:12

We don’t have statistics on it. But you know, anecdotally, I can say that, you know, those folks who want to go right into a performance career, they go out and try. And there are a number of folks who will finish a BFA in musical theatre performance and decide that a music theatre traditional performance career is not in fact what they want. Maybe they want to go to graduate school, maybe they want to become theatre teachers, maybe they want to become casting directors or even costume designers, they sometimes end up deciding to go in a different direction still within the field of theatre. And so, you know, those those students, you know, we really what I would say is we really customise so if it’s looking like maybe towards your third or fourth year that you’re looking to go into different direction and not the sort of traditional performance path, we will help you to cultivate the training and the resources and the connections that you need to enter the field in the way you choose. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  30:15

I just know, in Australia, there are a lot of mainly private programmes, where they take all the kids, it doesn’t matter how good or bad they are, they audition, they think, or they’ve gotten based on their talent. But a lot of the time, the kids get into these programmes, because the institution needs the income. So they need to have a certain level of students. And these kids have hopes and dreams of becoming professional performers when they have no hope whatsoever, and they don’t have a plan B. So they find themselves at the end of these programmes with no job. Is there a way that we can take a more responsible approach to all of this to ensure that when kids come into these programmes that we can improve their chances of having that professional career?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  31:18

That’s such a big question. And I don’t I don’t know that I feel empowered to answer on behalf of the entire educational complex here. But I will say that, at least the safeguard we have in our programme for for that very issue is that we have a review process every semester. And so so we say that students are always here on a sort of probationary status. And if we find that they are not meeting benchmarks and Professional Standards and Training standards that we’ve set out, we let them know. And we often give them an opportunity to turn it around whatever is missing, be it you know, your grades and your classes, or the quality of your dance instruction, or, you know, how much you’re practising your singing? Yeah, you know, we will be very forthright about what is missing, and really outline it for them. And then if that student, you know, tries again, another semester and fails to meet the benchmark again, then we invite them to consider a different option so that they’re not continuing in a professional track and failing to meet the standards, yes. Because that doesn’t set them up for success. You’re absolutely right about that.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  32:26

No, no. And, I mean, that causes a lot of anxiety within these kids as well. And by the time they exit these programmes, they’re no longer young kids, they, they’re young adults. And I mean, as it is, as performers, we’re all kind of anxious kind of left of centre type of people. And we’re just we’re so in our heads as it is. And let’s move on to COVID. Then with these kids in the programme, obviously, they witnessed places like Broadway West, and they were all closed during that period. And for a lot of them, they would have thought there goes my performance Korea. What was the morale like amongst the students during that time?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  33:19

Well, yeah, it was certainly very tough on the seniors who graduated in 2020. That That was tough. Some of them went to graduate school. And that was very convenient that that worked very well. So they felt like they were still making progress forward with their plans. Some of them, you know, as a result of the senior showcase that we do, you know, had some opportunities for professional work or, or auditions. And those opportunities were lost, because the entire industry went completely dormant for everyone’s safety. And so that was, you know, that was a big loss, you know, and has continued to be, you know, a really big loss. What I have heard from, and we also have folks who’d already graduated, who’d already been in the field who also lost work, you know, that every everyone did. So what what I have heard from, you know, few students that I’ve touched base with, recently graduated or even graduated a few years Pat passed, is that they’ve really taken this opportunity to revisit their skills, and that they have, they have, you know, figured out how to make ends meet. And then taking the time away from the stage to work on their singing, to work on their dancing to get in good physical shape to eat better, asleep more, yeah, to take care of themselves in ways that working all the time made very challenging. Yeah. And so you know, maybe they’re doing more songwriting, maybe they’re doing other creative things that they wouldn’t have had time to do otherwise. One student started a voice studio and has a thriving, thriving studio and and then moved to New York and kept his studio intact because he Was online. And so he was able to sort of position himself in New York for when everything reopens, but continue to have, you know, his really stable income from his teaching studio.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  35:08

Yes.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  35:09

So, um, so you know, the thing about creative training, and I think in particular, in our, in our programme with the liberal arts background is that we are, we expect all of our students to be creative thinkers, to be entrepreneurial, to, you know, pick themselves up and figure out how to navigate this weird, contract based life that they are choosing in a way that hopefully allows for them to do meaningful work that is fulfilling, and allows them to take care of themselves. So So our hope, even without a pandemic, is that the students have those life skills in place for when things get Rocky, because even you know, even in the best of times, you’re still working contract to contract. Yes. And that’s not, it’s not a comfortable, easy lifestyle. So you have to be very creative. And you have to always be pivoting and adapting, and figuring out what’s going to work best for you so that you can still do what you love.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  36:09

Yes. And I think the word that comes to mind there is resilience. If you’re going to be in the industry, you have to be resilient. And I think with the pandemic, it kind of brought out the best in the worst in people, those who had that resilience went on and thrived. And those that didn’t kind but were the ones that sort of I say, went into a corner in a foetal position and sobbed you know, or watch Netflix?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  36:39

Well, we all did a little bit of that in the beginning, I’m not gonna lie, I guess, that was a part of the grieving process. But you know, eventually, yeah, you come to acceptance, and you figure out what the new normal is going to look like. And, and figuring out, you know, how to still be creative when those those typical outlets are not available, is really important for someone with the heart of an artist. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  37:00

Yes. Now, you are very creative. You are very academic. I were having a conversation earlier, when I admitted to you that sometimes when you would use words in your writing, I have to go and look them up in the dictionary. But I can say that that was said with love. It was not. It was it was said in jest and with love. Now, when you reached out to me, I already knew who you were. Because there was a lot of hype around and excitement about a book that you were releasing, which is now released, and that is training contemporary commercial singers. And how is that book going? And where did the book idea come from?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  37:53

Oh, and the book idea came from a conversation over beer with Matthew Edwards, oh, at Shenandoah Conservatory, we were just talking about different book ideas. I wanted to write a book because I needed to, to get tenure. And I also wasn’t really aware that there was a lot of stuff missing in our canon books and resources that I would have liked to have access to when I was first learning to teach musical theatre at that community music school where nobody wanted to sing classical music, and everyone wanted to belt. And so I had to kind of scramble on my own to figure that stuff out. And I wish I had had some guidance. So in the form of a book and I got lots of guidance from amazing pioneer individuales and training programmes like the somatic voicework and Lisa popeil, voiceworks and esto. And, you know, tonnes of amazing resources out there. But it wasn’t all in one place in a book. And so we were met, Edwards and I were talking about it. And we sort of had this idea of, you know, just getting all the rock star CCM teachers to do interviews and to you know, synthesise the their responses and put it all together in a book. And the idea, of course, sort of evolved into, you know, different format, different structure, different content, but that was the seed of the idea. And I especially felt like I wanted the book to be structured and by topic like that, that was very important to me, so that you could look up like a teaching philosophy. And you could look up and see all these different methods, like somatic voice work, and Lisa povilas voice works in SQL, and so many more Speech Level Singing CBT there, I mean, there’s so many, you could see all of them side by side and sort of look at what the similarities and differences were and and you could, as a consumer, have an idea of what you might be expecting if you’re going to go and do one of those workshops. So, so I also wanted it to sort of be a place for People coming from different methodologies to come together and share our commonalities and to identify our core values and what is shared within the industry. Because with the the training models sort of set up the way that they are, you know, sometimes the vocabulary used like an STL is not the same as the vocabulary used in CBT, or somatic voice work correctly. And it can be very confusing to sort of go from one to the other. So I also wanted clarity I wanted, I wanted there to be a place where you could go and see what, what these methods are about. And then I also wanted to talk to people who don’t have anything to do with a method who were just amazing teachers and their own right, and to find out sort of what they were doing. I was interested in what younger teachers are doing, folks in their 40s, all the way through 80s are included in the book. And, and I wanted to know what folks were doing outside the United States. So it wasn’t just folks in the US, although the majority are from the US. But I was I was particularly intrigued by you know, some of the major differences in in how pedagogy is viewed and sort of what the core values of pedagogy, classical and contemporary, for example, in Australia is so different. And it blew my mind when I heard that there isn’t this whole classical versus contemporary kind of animosity or any anything that’s just doesn’t exist. And I thought that sounded like a utopia and how could we get out here? Yeah, um, and so I, you know, I definitely had an agenda I wanted, I wanted, I wanted to emphasise, core values, and commonality and look at all of the things we have in common, and to celebrate our differences as a as a important integral part of pedagogy in CCM, so that that really underpinned everything I did in the book and how I how I put it together and how I present the material, and then how I analysed it.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  42:04

It’s an incredible book, and you interviewed, how many people it was 25 perspectives 25. So okay, now you’re talking about commonalities. What were the commonalities after interviewing 25 people? Was there a common thread that came out of all of that?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  42:29

There were there were several, but I’ll just touch on some of the ones that I think are the most compelling, which is, voice training, must be customised for the student in front of you. And that most of these teachers had a very sort of service centred student centred philosophy to what they were doing. So they wanted the student in front of them to have a solution to their problem by the time they left yet, and that is very different from a master apprentice model. It’s it’s very different from the teacher having a sort of pre planned curriculum of sorts. And, you know, it’s not always possible to be that freeform within a university setting. But for the most part, this had to do with a teacher’s sort of core philosophy, that really, their job is to be on the team with the student on their side, helping them being of service. And that was certainly not how all of my voice teachers were in my formal training, I didn’t always feel that they were all on my side and there to to help me find solutions quickly and effectively and efficiently. Though, some of them were amazing performers. But But this was interesting to me, I thought this really reflected a shift away from people who perform first and then sort of go to teaching later. Now 50% of the people that I interviewed had chosen only to be teachers, they were not simultaneously pursuing a performance career that they all their eggs were in this teaching basket, because they wanted to provide consistency for their students, they didn’t want to be away tutoring, they didn’t wanna have their attention divided. And they wanted to be amazing teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with also pursuing a performance career if that’s what you want to do show that but this was to me an interesting new model, that the model I came up with in my formal education was you perform first and then if for some reason that doesn’t work, you can then teach okay. And this is very different. It was very different to hear from my contemporaries saying, I never wanted a performance career I only wanted to teach.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  44:42

Was there some distinctions then, in amongst all the 26 people, what was there something that you went, these people all disagree on this particular topic or concept?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  44:57

So many, so many topics, though. The one thing we agreed on with belting is that belting is many different sounds. Oh, yeah. But beyond that, yeah, for us, there were a lot of different ideas about what belting is the belting chapters are quite meaty, there’s a lot there to dig into. And I think my introduction to that chapter was something like 12 pages long, it was extensive. But the, there were so many I mean, but but what I loved was you could have perspective side by side, in the book, read them. And and think, gosh, you know, how could somebody who doesn’t use registration at all get results the same way that somebody who uses registration as a foundational idea in their pedagogical model, but they do, they do, these are all elite high level highly regarded teachers in the field, who are having success and having students who are very successful. So so what I love is that this sort of pluralistic idea that there are many different approaches, and there’s many different ways to get results. And really a good teacher is the one who helps the student in the moment, achieve the goal that the student wants to achieve. And the means by which they do that is is individualised, it really depends on the teacher. And so I loved sort of celebrating that, that the differences were something that we should respect and honour and embrace. Rather than say, well, until we agree on this, I don’t think you’re legitimate, that to me, is a real waste of time. And, and I also, I also would like my other agenda in all of this is that I would love to see the field of voice pedagogy called voice pedagogy instead of classical voice pedagogy, or CCM voice pedagogy, I would appreciate if there was no delineation at all, that we could just all be one big family, and then have our styles that we specialise in under that umbrella. And so, so So for me, while you know, you can absolutely see in the book, how the perspectives differ, because you’re reading their words, you know, with with the pedagogues name attached to what they’re saying, Yeah, and so the differences are clear in black and white, but, but at the end of the day, there are so many different ways to achieve a good result. To me, as a teacher, that was incredibly comforting to know, there isn’t just like one way to do things. And so I don’t always have to have the answers, you know, I can look at these, you know, maybe 14 different ways that people are doing things and try until they find the one that works for this student. Because even if I know one way that works for me, or works for student a, it might not work for student B. So I have to have a lot of ideas. And so that’s where I felt this this resource. This is the book I would have loved to have had when I first started teaching, so I could know there’s so many different ways to to get where you want to be. And and you have to have a lot of tools, having a lot of tools is a good thing.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  47:56

Yes. So it sounds like it’s an incredible resource for teachers out there who are teaching contemporary music styles, and especially those who have not a great deal of experience or knowledge in that area. That is that this book could be so helpful for them. I certainly didn’t have a book like that when I was studying. Everything in the library was classically based.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  48:25

Right? Right. And we definitely mean we have a great canon of classical voice pedagogy textbooks. Absolutely. But yeah, this this book is meant for it is very useful for those who are beginning, but but I do want to be careful to say that you can’t learn how to teach from a book.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  48:41

No!

Dr Elizabeth Benson  48:42

You have to learn how to teach from teaching. But the book does give you a lot of ideas and things to try and resources. There’s also an extensive reading list at the end of every topic. So if you want to go and read more on breath, there’s a very long bibliography, you can go and educate yourself. So it’s meant to be a great starting point for beginner teachers. But it also does assume a lot of anatomy and physiology knowledge that you are going to understand the basic functions of the voice. There’s a glossary if you need to look things up. But it is but it is equally valuable. I would hope for more advanced pedagogues. So it’s not just not just the beginners, but for all the folks interested in CCM.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  49:26

Yes. Now I know that you’re always training, you’re always dabbling. You’re always writing you’re always doing something. You’re You’re not a teacher who’s complacent. So what are you up to right now? What’s Next on the agenda? The book is out. So what’s happening next for you?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  49:49

Well, I one of the ways that I coped with the pandemic last summer was just to keep working. And I you know, I had achieved promotion and tenure and I have planned to go on an ice life and relax. Thank you. I had all sorts of plans to relax and reward myself. But then the pandemic hit and all those plans were lost so, so I just barreled right on through the summer, I hardly took any time off. And then I was also grappling with having two school aged children at home during school from home for the past year since since March of 2012. And so, um, so so for me this summer, I definitely am going to take a break. And I think that’s the first thing I should say is that there’s no way to be productive and to be successful and to be able to have energy to give to your students and your work and your family without rest. So I have scheduled a healthy break for myself this summer. I’m going to go on a trip with my children in an RV. And it’s going to be wonderful.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  50:54

No no, it’s a much nicer it’s a girl’s own girls only trip. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  51:02

Oh, no grandma rocking or was it the aunty rocking on the roof?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  51:07

Oh my gosh, no, no. But um, we did it. We did it last year, actually. And we’re really excited to to repeat it. There’s just so much that you can’t see if you’re flying. You know, so there’s there’s a lot of the country to see. So I’m

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  51:22

Sorry, I was gonna say I hope you’re taking um Miriam shopping.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  51:27

Oh, yes. My youngest. Oh, no. She’s already bought her new clothes. Yeah, she okay. She is she need new clothes for the trip. So yes, absolutely. Very important. Well, um, the other thing that I’m doing this summer, which was just meant to be a gift for myself, is I’m taking voice lessons. And yes,

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  51:47

In what style?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  51:49

Pop rock! 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  51:50

Really?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  51:51

pop rock because it’s my weakest because it’s where you know, where I absolutely need to be working for the state of my students, I need to continue to develop my skills there so that I can be a better teacher. But I also, you know, I’m always wanting to do it more authentically, and to be more comfortable, because I don’t have you know, 20 years of formal training the way I do in my classical singing so I’m very confident with my classical singing. But I but I, I need to be working on my chops and pop rock. So, so yeah, I decided to become a voice student again, for the first time in about 12 years. It’s been a really long time.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  52:27

I’ve been having a great time doing it too?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  52:29

I am I’m having a blast. Yeah, that is so much fun. And I you know, putting practice voice practice on my schedule. What a joy. It really feels like a treat and a gift. Yeah, a gift to myself to fill my own cup.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  52:43

Yeah, feeds your soul, doesn’t it? Yes. When when you spend time on your own instrument, because it’s a bit like the mechanic and the car. When you’re working on other people’s cars all day, the last thing that you want to do or feel like doing is working on your own car. So I completely get that I’m actually going to be having classical voice lessons. And I’ve never had a classical lesson in my life. So I am really excited about it. I’m going to be involved in someone’s PhD, someone’s research. Wow, I’m very excited for somebody and I’m very for you. Anyway, it’s about you. So yes, you’re having the voice lessons.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  53:29

So I’m doing it. Yes, I’m doing a five month programme. So I mean, I’m on month two of the of the programme, and it’s going very well. So I’m very excited about that. And then I’m working on a couple of research ideas. So since, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement really took off last year, my and I had sort of, you know, got to that milestone of research. With tenure and promotion, I wanted to look at sort of creating a new research agenda for myself. Whereas, you know, I felt I have contributed significantly in the area of CCM boys pedagogy, I was really proud of that work, I wanted to see where my work could have a larger impact. And so I have a couple of research projects in the pipeline, couple of which I can tell you about. But all of my all of my research right now is collaborative working with with folks in other genres or in other disciplines or in other countries or all of the above. That’s really important to me, also looking at issues of social justice, different different focus points, but I’m really interested in the intimacy direction training that has really come up in theatre, and around issues of consent and safety and communication. And I felt that there were some really interesting applications of those philosophies and voice training in the one to one teaching model of voice training and university So I’ve just completed the first stage of a collaborative research project on emotional safety in the voice studio with, with two psychologists and three voice teachers. That’s it. And so we are presenting some of that, for the voice foundation coming up. Yes, some really interesting preliminary research. And that’s a mixed method study. It’s qualitative and quantitative. And we’re looking at revising the study. And then we’re going to try again, for a larger pool of responses. But it’s had some pretty interesting preliminary data, there really isn’t a lot of information about what the student experiences in one to one training in the United States, right, there are a number of angles that really do need some research. So that’s the first one, another one that I’m looking at now, in, in collaboration with you, Marissa, and with Tunis. Robinson, Martin at Princeton, is around really practising equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging in the voice studio, and what that looks like. So we, we have a presentation coming up for the Association for popular music education. And we’re going to be talking about what the voice teacher can do as an individual to make changes toward a more ethnically and racially just voice studio, and what what that looks like. Because we know that, you know, folks who are teaching within the university, often there in classical music departments, especially in the United States, there is a sort of European hierarchy and euro centric model in place, the system is restrictive, and in some cases, very limiting. And it feels impossible to expand our thinking and to embrace a multitude of genres, because the system isn’t designed to do that. So what we wanted to do is sort of create some steps that could empower the individual teacher in the voice studio, to make sure that the atmosphere they’re creating and curating for their students was as inclusive as could be, especially in light of our increased cultural awareness of anti racist practices, white fragility, some of the, you know, tremendous publications that have come to the forefront of American culture in the last year, looking at what does that mean, in the voice to do? How does that translate? So we’ve just finished writing a writing an article about it, and submitting it to a journal for publication. So we’re in the process now of trying to get that out. And it’s been, you know, incredible to work with, you know, those two powerhouse women.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  57:45

Likewise, it’s been a real privilege and a real joy. And, I mean, really, the idea for this paper came about just you and I having a conversation about the status quo in music education, while singing voice education. And we actually did it like we’ve actually done something about it, not just about it. And it’s been incredible. As I said, sometimes I don’t understand, I don’t know the words that Elizabeth uses. She is an incredible writer, you are, you’re just so articulate, and you write so beautifully. It’s been a real joy and a real learning journey. And I’ve learned so much, because Australia and the US are at different stages of progress, like we’re actually doing quite well here in comparison to the US in terms of where the music is, here in in our in higher education. Like for me, I teach in a popular music programme at a Conservatorium. And some of those kids come to me with no training, right, which is unheard of and, but it’s based on potential, like, what’s their future? potential, like it, you know, as performers as recording artists, so and then listening to trainees and what she has brought to the table has certainly been very eye opening for me, but it’s been an incredible journey. Both of us have learnt a lot, haven’t we?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  59:30

Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. Working with Tunis enriched everything, exponentially.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  59:35

Yes, yeah. Yep. So are there any other things that you’re working on? I think that sounds like it’s a lot anyway. Well,

Dr Elizabeth Benson  59:47

I have one other one other project in the works with with some amazing collaborators on equity, faculty equity, with a sort of coming out of some conversations we had about gender Equity, and that in our in our larger conversations which are absolutely overdue and essential on how do we solve sort of systemic racism within university systems. That also, you know, as a woman, I was a little, I was a little concerned with gender equity kind of falling by the wayside, that this was also something that we we have not reached parity. We may have representation, we may have women working in the universities, but are they getting paid the same as their male counterparts? We don’t actually know. Because there’s no information. No. So. Um, so some colleagues and I felt that this was an area that we wanted to look into a little bit more that as we are having these incredibly important conversations about racial justice, that we also make sure that, you know, all the components of justice are included here. And so so like I said, my, you know, my entire agenda now sort of revolves around things that I see that I don’t feel are right, and I would like to see them change. And so, so it’s a real sort of social justice agenda.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:01:11

Yeah. So sounds like you’ve become a real Trailblazer?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:01:16

Well, I hope so is my you know, my goal is to contribute in a way that is meaningful. And, and I know that there’s a certain amount of risk in putting myself out there and, and expressing opinions loudly. But I but I, but I feel that that is essential for any kind of meaningful contribution. Yeah. So that’s the way my mother raised me. So if you’re here I am.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:01:41

Yes. And I know when we were talking about our work, that we were well aware of that we went into this writing this paper presenting at this conference, well aware of some of the potential, you know, reactions that we may receive. But we we felt so strongly about it, that it didn’t matter that the need for the work was more important than the reaction that we were going to receive. And we both felt that we had enough Audacity. There was enough between us to overcome any of that. Right? Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve come to the almost the end of the interview, I would just like to ask a couple of quick questions in terms of your career, who has been your greatest inspiration?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:02:39

My mother? Oh, you Yeah, I, um, I think, you know, the, the core values that she instilled in me, you know, are what gets me through every day, you know, tenacity, strength, endurance, just keep moving forward, rest when you need to, and get back at it. work ethic, being kind. Also making sure that you don’t neglect the relationships in your life that are important and making time for family and doing your best at everything you do. Never doing anything halfway. So yeah, definitely my mother.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:03:24

Yeah. So that sounds like making the most of every day living in congruency. I think so. Yeah. Yes. And what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned about yourself over the last year during the pandemic? 

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:03:43

Oh, Well, um, this isn’t as deep philosophically. I have learned actually, very surprisingly, that I think I’m a bit of an introvert, which you would never know, I would never know, I didn’t know. But that I really do, I really do need a lot more downtime and recharging time, so that I can go and do my best workout in the world, I think, you know, the profession of being a voice teacher is incredibly extroverted, it requires a lot of energy, social energy, and interactive interaction interactions with other people and, you know, public speaking, and all of these things. So, in order to do all of those things, well, I really do need a lot more downtime, I need a lot more rest. And I think that the pandemic has allowed me to prioritise that in in ways I couldn’t before I was just always on the go, always a little bit depleted. But But this taught me that you know, if I rest just a little bit more, I can do even better when I’m out in the world.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:04:45

Yeah. So and that’s so important because that comes back to self care. And you realising that, you need to have more rest, in order for you to turn up at your best every day. Right to give you All students your best. Yeah. And what’s the best piece of advice you could give to our singing voice community? The teachers especially?

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:05:12

Never stopped learning. Yeah, never stop learning be a student forever. 

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:05:20

Well, look, Elizabeth, it’s been an absolute joy. As always, we always have a lot of fun when we chat. And we are both very passionate people. Yes. And look, I wish you all the very best with all your ventures. No doubt, we’ll be speaking very soon anyway, on our little project, but you’re good on you. And thank you for your contribution to our industry. And don’t stop doing what you’re doing because you’re doing an amazing job.

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:05:50

Well, thank you. And thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of the podcast.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:05:53

Yeah, thank you so much. Take it easy. 

Dr Elizabeth Benson  1:05:57

Thank you. Bye.

Dr Marisa Lee Naismith  1:06:06

Hey, I hope you enjoyed this episode have a voice and beyond. Now is an important time for all of us to spread positivity and empowerment in our singing voice community. It’s time for you to invest in your own self care, personal growth and education. use every day as an opportunity to learn and to grow. So you can show up for your students feeling energised, empowered, and ready to deliver your best. Be the best role model and mentor you can possibly be and watch your students thrive as you do. Thank you so much for listening to this episode. If you enjoyed it, please make sure to share it with a friend or a colleague who you think will be inspired by this, copy and paste the link and share it with the people you think will enjoy listening to this show. Please share it on social media and use the hashtag a voice and beyond. If you would like to help me please rate and review this podcast and cheer me on by clicking the subscribe button on Apple podcasts right now. I would love to know what it is you enjoyed the most about this episode. And what was the biggest takeaway for you? I promise you there are many episodes to follow as I’m committed to bringing you more inspiration and conversations just like this one. I’d like to finish up with my final thoughts. Remember that to sing is more than just learning how to use the voice. as singers. Our whole body is the instrument and our bodies echo what we feel physically mentally and emotionally. So singing is not just about the voice. It’s about a voice and beyond. Please take care of yourself and I look forward to your company next time.

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