I have just begun a new project in Abu Dhabi, directing two live theme park shows that I wrote a few years ago, before COVID brought everything to a screeching halt. As has been so often the case when directing or coaching, I find myself transmitting many of the things that I learned from my voice teacher, Frédéric Faye.
I first began studying with Frédéric around 1990 and, in those early months, I remember wondering why I was paying him so much money. Each week, the lesson consisted of taking in a rapid breath while simultaneously snapping my fingers, and then letting that breath out on a “ssssssss” while holding my fingers together. That was it. No vocal exercises, no warm-ups, no trying out new songs and working on them, no trying to get through the infamous “break” where you switch from chest to head voice... Just a long series of “ssssssss”. Finally, the day came where I had to prepare for an audition. I defiantly went back to my old vocal exercises, only to discover that the outer reaches of my 3-octave range, which had always been a bit thin, were now rock solid. Just from those “ssssssss”.
I was sold.
From the beginning Frédéric was clear about how he would work. He was not my guru, he was not my mentor, he was not my friend. He would not be sharing his private life with me, and he didn’t want to hear about mine. We were just there to work. Those of you who have taken voice lessons know how refreshingly unusual this is! He had a keen sense of humor, a constant sparkle in his eye, and endless curiosity about the best way to help artists gain a sense of freedom to fully explore their craft.
I would go on to study with him for over twenty-five years. I learned to feel notes as energy in my body, to let go of fear, to experience joy in the process of discovery as I worked through a song technically. Above and beyond his vocal method, which was constantly evolving, his voice lessons had a direct application to life, if you chose to integrate what he was teaching in that way. My time with him was yes, filled with new and strange vocal exercises, but also philosophical discussions about the creation of sound through emotional integrity, about finding one’s truth in order to be able to give authentic performances. And to me, by extension, to lead an authentic life.
Sometimes a few years would go by between lessons. His lessons were pricey and in leaner years, I couldn’t necessarily afford him. And when I would return after a year or two, he would test his new ideas on me. I was one of his earliest students and he was always curious to see how I had integrated his teaching since our last sessions, while I couldn't wait to learn the latest in his ever-evolving method. Every time, my work with him brought change to my way of performing, but also, on a deeper level, affected the way I lived my life.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from him that I often pass on to others (and this is just the tip of the iceberg!):
When babies cry, they open their mouths and produce an unbelievable level of sound. They don’t think about their spinal columns, or whether their feet are grounded. They just do it. And they don’t run out of breath. By extension: Sometimes we have to unlearn what we have been taught and find a more natural and integrated way to approach a problem.
Fear is one of the biggest enemies of a singer. If you’re afraid you can’t hit a note, nine times out of ten you won’t hit it. Trust yourself. The question to ask yourself is not whether you can hit the note, but HOW can you hit the note. Figure it out technically and then go for it without a shred of doubt in your heart. And if you do crack a note? Forgive yourself and try again. By extension: No brainer here! Take away doubt and fear and anything becomes possible. You just have to figure out how to get there. Change careers? Move to a new country? Yep. I can do that. Losing my fear of not reaching a high note helped me lose doubt in so many other areas!
If you come from a place of emotional depth, whether you are singing a song, acting, or even dancing, your performance will ring true. And if you are singing, you get the bonus of always being in tune, smack in the heart of each note. Don't know how it works, but it does! By extension: Be authentic in your approach to life and you will be in tune with your world.
Know yourself and recognize your value. We all know the phrase “Those who can’t do, teach.” This, of course, is not true in general, and in Frédéric’s case that was abundantly clear. I can’t speak to his performing since I never saw him on stage, but his singing voice was beautiful. I remember asking him about it once and he replied that performing was fine, but teaching was what he wanted to do. And he knew that what he had to teach was valuable. Hence the high prices for lessons. By extension: I’d like to say that I have fully integrated this lesson into my life, but like so many of us, I’m still working on it!
“Before. Now. After”. This little phrase is shorthand for the work you do as an actor. Your character was somewhere, doing something before the show begins, the show is the present moment, and your character will go on to do something else after the play ends. I use it before every show to remind myself that my character is on a journey and doesn’t just pop into existence when the curtain goes up. By extension: How many of us spend time nostalgically dwelling on the past, or anxiously planning for the future, or living only for the moment. The key to a balanced life is to fully appreciate the journey of life, knowing what has shaped us in the past, appreciating what we have in the present, and looking forward with curiosity to the future. Easier said than done, I know!
Before. Now. After.
The last time I worked with Frédéric was about 6 years ago when I was preparing “Into the Woods”. At that point, I was already well into my transition from full-time performer to my current work. We caught up on his method and I went into the show with new thoughts swirling through my brain.
And then life happened. My career in writing, directing and exploring emerging tech took off, I moved to the US with my family, Covid hit, and I lost touch with some of my life in France.
Which brings me full circle to the top of this post.
I have just finished my second week of rehearsal with a new cast and shared with them my teacher’s “Before. Now. After.” I gave it to them as an exercise to help them explore their characters. And of course, it made me think of Frédéric and how much my life had changed since last I saw him: That I should be in Abu Dhabi of all places, teaching young actors what I learned from him in Paris… how delicious! The urge to reach out and share it with him was irresistible.
In changing to a US number, I lost many of my old contacts and no longer had a phone number for him, so I decided to see what I could find on internet. I had a hunch he wouldn’t be easy to find. Frédéric was always intensely private. He wasn’t on any social media, didn’t have a website, and was rarely in the news even though he worked with major stars in the French singing and acting world. And sure enough,... nothing. Until it occurred to me to look up his wife on Facebook.
“Frédéric Faye s'en est allé ce matin vers les étoiles” (Frédéric Faye left for the stars this morning.)
One sentence. And my Now is filled with grief.
My journey with Frédéric had been such a long one, that it never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to catch up with him again. After all, we had already gone for a few years without seeing each other. I fully expected that I would pick up my conversation with him again, as we had done so many times in the past, and that I would continue to learn from him. That I would have many more chances to see his eyes sparkle as he shared his latest insights into what it is to be a human being and an artist.
The hundreds of responses to the announcement of his death all say the same thing in different ways: his presence in our lives was transformative.
Before. Frédéric accompanied us on our journey
Now. We mourn his passing
After. We will endlessly be grateful for having known such a teacher
My thoughts are with his wife, family, and the many, many people whose lives he touched.