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BACKSTAGE PASS: Stephen Purdy, Founder & Principal Coach of The New York Vocal Coaching Studio

Monday, October 20, 2014 in Directors|1 comment

Stephen Purdy is known throughout New York’s music community as a top vocal coach for artists, and next year, his book Musical Theatre Song: Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Contemporary Stage will be available to artists all over the country. His musical direction and conducting credits include Broadway and national tour productions of Peter Pan, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and The Full Monty, and nowadays, he educates vocal students and runs The New York Vocal Coaching Studio in addition to teaching
at Marymount Manhattan College and the American Musical Theatre Academy in London, England. Stage Door Connections sat down with Stephen to talk about how he discovered musical direction and vocal coaching as a career path, his experiences
working with various groups of artists throughout this career, and
his upcoming book.

1. How long have you had The New York Vocal Coaching Studio?

You know, I’ve always had a vocal studio here in New York since 992 but I kept getting sidetracked by all these musical theatre jobs and music directing jobs and so it really wasn’t until 2005 that I was able to say “I’m tired of all of this traveling, I’m burned out on this.” I wanted to just sort of come hell or high water do what I came here to do. And it’s a slow go at first because it’s surprisingly tedious, much more so than I thought, to build one’s own business. It seems to be easier to work for other people (sometimes) but after a few years I’m happy to say that we are doing really well and we have four other associate coaches who work kind of under this umbrella. We have a client roster that numbers into the hundreds and students in Broadway shows and on the road and doing performances on concert stages and so I’m glad I took the leap and trusted that
it would work.

Did you always have a desire to teach and coach vocalists or were you more performance career-oriented throughout your education?

I started off as a singer myself and got an undergraduate degree in vocal performance and when I was in college began to accompany these voice lessons and play their cabaret shows and played for musicals and get paid for it and I thought “Wow, I can get paid for this! This is the greatest thing ever!” So I sort of at that point kind of changed the direction that the train was going in and moved out of studying singing and began studying both singing and piano, music directing and musical theatre and conducting all that.  And then again that thing happened where you start making money and you had one path and you start making money in another path and then you know something in life just takes a little turn and suddenly you’re doing something that you hadn’t really ever expected yourself to do. So that’s the long answer to the question - yes, I always wanted to, but then I was doing pretty well as a music director and I sort of stayed there. I walked through the open door and I stayed there a little longer than I had planned. 

You spend a lot of time working with professional companies and artists, and also teaching students. Are there any big differences between your experiences working with these different groups?

The more that I do this and the more diversity that I have under my belt in terms of whom I’m working with and where they’re from and what their mindset is the more you start to notice…I guess the word is “discipline” that is distinct from one group to another group to another group. For example, I recently was a coach at The National High School Musical Theatre Awards. They’re also called The Jimmy Awards. It’s a thing where the students compete regionally and then they all come to New York to compete against each other. These are fierce singer-actor-dancers! Discipline is off the charts! It’s like the best of the best, and they were collectively one of the most mindblowing groups I’ve worked with, much more so than many of the professional groups I’ve every worked with just because of where they were, of their level of discipline and their level of commitment and their level of - frankly, even at that age of sixteen, seventeen – artistry. It's a little mindblowing. I also notice sometimes when I go out of the country and work with singers out there – I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Germany several times, and I’m also on faculty at [American] Musical Theatre Academy of London – interestingly enough, sort of depending on the group, there’s a lot of really hungry burgeoning young theatre artists that have frankly more discipline than sometimes I see over here.

Your book Musical Theatre Song: Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Contemporary Stage is being published next year. What is it going to focus on? How did the idea for the book come about?

This book started as something I was creating for my own students and I kind of just wanted to write it all down so that I could sort of hand out literature to my college students and my voice students. Running parallel to my doing that, the Bloomsbury Group contacted me about doing some book reviewing - what they call peer reviews. In other words “read this book on the performing arts and answer some questions and tell us if you feel it could be improved in any way or tell us if you would buy it or tell us if you have any helpful constructive criticism.” Then the general editor, after a few years went by, got in touch with me. She said, “Hey we’re looking to extend our performing arts catalogue, our performance-based catalogue. Is that something you’ve ever thought of doing?”

The book is called Musical Theatre Song: Selection, Preparation, and Presentation [for the Contemporary Stage] and it’s a trifecta of sections: Selection, Preparation, Presentation. So it sort of is a beginning-to-end, stem-to-stern book on song performance from the time one chooses a song based on his or her skill set through the preparation process through the time that they walk into an audition or onto a stage and present that song. And there’s of course a lot of moving parts. It takes a lot of different directions.

  5. Are there any professional shows you’ve worked on or experiences you’ve   had that stick out in your  mind as being particularly significant in your career   or personal life?

I think that my favorite show was, to this day, that I got to tour with Cathy Rigby playing Peter Pan because it had been my favorite childhood show and I was a little over-the-top obsessed in those days with Sandy Duncan playing Peter Pan. I had seen the road show, I had seen the show in New York, so that was really cool. That tour was sort of my last big show and I thought that was a very fitting send-off.

        6. What are some qualities that you look for in students/see in your clients  who go on to have successful  careers?

 One of the things that I think singing actors must possess is a willingness - if you will - to  fail. A willingness to just do it, a willingness to just put themselves out there and see what happens because when they go into the room -  the audition room, the rehearsal room in particular - they need to have this kind of form where they are all in a vulnerable place, and in the voice studio, that shows up. That’s something you can see immediately and sometimes you can coax that out of  singers, sometimes they’re resistant to it, and sometimes you never get them to  really completely open up. But I think also as a companion answer, the wherewithal  to tell  me – to tell us, collectively – a great story and to commit to the story that  they’re telling. Too many of us are hung  up on how we sound and how we look and we forget sometimes that what we’re all really there for at the end of  the day is to be compelled by the storytelling. So I find that the people who are most entrenched in that are often the most successful performers.

       7. Who are your top three favorite composers (any genre)?

 When I’m just on my own and I’m flipping through my iPod and I just want to hear music that moves me, I almost  invariably listen to Rossini and Mozart. Those are sort of my two go-tos. In the theatre world, it’s hard to pick a  favorite but I do go back to Sondheim with renewed awe. I knew all of that music when I was younger, particularly  when I was a student, and I was obsessed with it – and then now that I’m older, approaching 50, I still can’t believe  some of that genius and that artistry. It blows my mind.

8. Is there any musical theatre performance (a show or a particular performer) that you would like  to go back in time and witness? Why?

 God almighty, I wish I had seen the original production of Follies. I wish I had seen the original production of Company. I wish I had been sitting in the St. James Theatre in 1944 and had seen Oklahoma!. I mean there are so many seminal moments that one wishes one could go back in time and see, but luckily there’s the magic of YouTube – something we didn’t have before – and as years go on, more and more archival footage is being uploaded to that site, which is brilliant. And thank God we have the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, which has captured so many of those moments. Unfortunately, a lot of the greatest moments of the 40s, the 50s, the 60s are now forever lost, but luckily we get snippets of those on variety show clips, The Ed Sullivan Show and such, from those days. But I guess if the universe granted me one show that I could sit in the theatre and see, as through time transport, it would probably have been the original Gypsy with Ethel Merman playing that role. I can’t imagine the electricity that must have been going through that house.

9. I
s there any song that you’re absolutely sick of people bringing into their lessons and coaching sessions?

No, I think that the notion of a song being overdone sometimes gets a bad rep because there are two schools of thought: the one school of thought is “never do that, never do the greatest hits of musical theatre in an audition” – onstage it’s a little bit different – and then there’s that school of thought that says “you know if you do it well enough, then knock it out!” Hit it out of the park! But you have to hit it out of the park. If you don’t, then you may very well disappoint us because we have expectations that accompany certain songs.

I’m kind of in that second group, so if someone wants to bring in “Not For The Life of Me” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is a great song, or “Gimme Gimme” is probably a better example – but it’s also a song that I know the ending…I know who she is going to be, who the character is evolving into, how the song is evolving at the end – I already know the story, right? Now I’ve stopped watching the story because I know it already, and I’m paying more attention to the performer. If that performer isn’t compelling enough to keep my attention, that’s when I think “this is a really bad idea to do this song.” On the other hand, there are songs that are great songs that are never done and I will often find myself getting lost in the song sometime and listening to the singer, maybe. But yes, those songs do exist, and I don’t want to say to anybody “don’t do that” because I may be shortchanging my own experience and someone else’s experience of enjoying them as a performer, whatever the song. You can sing “Happy Birthday” if you want to as long as you compel me with it.

10. Is there one success story that you are proud of/excited about?

When you do what I do, one of the greatest pleasures that you have is seeing people go on to do great things and great things doesn’t necessarily mean a leading role in a Broadway show, or in a Broadway tour. It can be so many things, but what thrills me the most is watching someone who evolved in our work together, carried that work out of here and is now carrying it forward. I’m proud of everyone, whether they land a role in a Broadway show or are running a theatre company in Portland or whatever they’re doing, so it’s hard to pick out one that I really think of as a “success” story. I think anyone who in some way, first of all, survive this business and carry it forward – that’s success to me. You know, if you decide to go another way, so be it! It’s okay. I’ve thought about it, too, many times.

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