Andrew Byrne, Broadway Voice Teacher/Vocal Coach, Composer, and Author.
[Interview Date: November 15, 2020]
Andrew’s students have been seen in many Broadway shows, including Wicked, Book of Mormon, Mean Girls, Hamilton, Come From Away, Frozen, Hadestown, The Band’s Visit, The Lion King and more. www.andrewmbyrne.com
Where were you on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
On March 12th, I ﬂew from Australia to Singapore to teach my course, The Singing Athlete. At that point, Singapore had already had active COVID cases, but my course went on as planned with no distance, masks, etc. It was an awesome experience in a beautiful country, but there was certainly some cognitive dissonance on my end. I was enjoying the gorgeous botanic gardens on my day off, while my feed was full of the first wave of shutdowns. I flew back to NYC on March 18th, got into Newark with no problems, and then didn’t leave Manhattan for months.
What was it like to come back to the U.S. in such a diﬀerent state from when you left?
I had been away from NYC since mid-February, since I had also been teaching for several weeks in Melbourne. I certainly came back to a different city than the one I had departed from. The most surreal difference was that my neighborhood (54th and 7th, in the heart of the theatre district) was EMPTY. Suddenly, there was no one on the sidewalks. My daily walk to Central Park, usually a barrage of people trying to get me to rent a bike, was eerily quiet.
I want to give a shout-out to Westerly Health Foods on 54th and 8th; throughout the spring they stayed open and were always stocked with everything my husband and I needed to cook healthy meals for ourselves. They deserve your business if you are in New York.
Did you initially anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
You are a long-time, well-respected voice teacher in the business. How has the pandemic aﬀected your voice studio and students?
My particular take on voice training is to look at singing through lens of the body and the brain. I’ve spent over 20 years training myself to not only listen to singers, but to look carefully at their physical selves as a whole. I try to see what a singer’s brain is telling me through observing their posture, habits, etc. This past eight months has been the biggest health crisis I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it’s not just those who have had COVID. Everyone is being affected, and many are not noticing the changes.
I’ve watched many people that I’ve known for years develop new compensations based on having to conduct their lives and businesses entirely online for months. Higher, more shallow breathing and visual strain have become very common. I’ve also observed an increase in kyphosis (or slumped posture) that can develop when staring at screens all day.
Your eyes are most relaxed when they can focus outward. Looking at devices engages the ciliary muscles, which are controlled by one of your cranial nerves called the oculomotor nerve. This particular nerve lives in your midbrain, which is the start of your sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) system. Constantly taxing this nerve without giving it a break can put you into a chronically anxious state.
When your eyes are rarely looking out, your body starts to follow suit. Eyes guide movement and posture. Once the eyes are always fixed in a close focus, the flexor (front-line) muscles start to get overactive. This can result in a neck that pulls forward, with a “hump” forming in the back of the neck. When this hump shows up, the vagus nerve starts to get squeezed.
The vagus is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs from your brain to your pelvic floor, and it lets you know how your organs are doing. It also controls your larynx, most of your throat and palate, and a portion of your diaphragm. The vagus is essentially your recovery nerve. It is a part of your immune response, and has many anti-anxiety properties as well. If your vagus nerve were cut, your heart rate would be around 100 beats per minute.
A slumped body and pushed-forward neck start to affect vagal tone, making you more reactive to stress and putting a strain on your circulatory system. Additionally, the vagus nerve responds to facial expression, and one element of this perception is the element of depth. Our eyes take in the subtle 3-D changes that happen in someone else’s face to let us know we’re safe in their presence.
When the only other people you see are 2-D Zoom images or faces partially obscured by masks, there is a potentially negative effect on the vagus nerve. Part of our neural health is seeing other faces, live and in their entirety.
I’m also very concerned about the amount of blue light that everyone is being exposed to. We’ve already been amping up the blue-light exposure for years with all the screens we look at, and now many of us are getting all of our professional and social interaction this way too.
Short-wavelength (or “blue”) light is the type emitted from most screens. This spectrum of light suppresses melatonin and can cause sleep disturbances. Blue light also curbs mitochondrial function, making it harder for your cells to produce energy.
Bright daylight also contains a lot of blue light, but it is balanced by the presence of red light, which shields your eyes and skin from harm. Screens emit blue light without the protective presence of red light.
Here’s a list of some preventative things you can do for your eyes if you are still using screens for most of your work and social life:
—Invest in a pair of blue-blocker glasses to use when looking at a screen.
—Use Night Shift on your phone or f.lux for computers. These programs increase the red-light ratio on your devices in accordance with the time of day.
—Use incandescent lights in your home (They emit more red light than fluorescents, which you should not use for lighting).
—Consider buying a red light, which you can sit under or shine directly into your eyes. I get my supplies from redlightman.com.
—Get outside as much as possible without wearing sunglasses.
You’ve continued to teach during this pandemic. What has that been like for you? How is your day-to-day diﬀerent?
As someone who has a lot of international students, I was already very conversant with teaching on Zoom, a platform I have been using since 2016. Even though I was familiar with the pros and cons of online teaching, I was not used to doing it all day long. I experimented until I found a schedule that allowed me to not break my own body while still keeping my business afloat. I also took the down time to finish my book (see next question) and complete some online projects I had been meaning to do. Unlike many folks in our business. I was able to feel productive and earn some money throughout the spring, which I did not take for granted.
I have done what I could to give back to our community. I did a series of ten free classes on various topics for Backstage (you can watch them at andrewmbyrne.com under the “Free Resources” tab.) I also put together what I called the PSA (Professional Singing Athlete) Project, where I paid any student who took a lesson with me between March and July to record a song for me. The point of it was to use my resources to remind my students that singing is a profession, and that they deserve to be paid. You can watch the videos at thesingingathlete.com/psa.
From March forward, most of my free time has been devoted to understanding the science around this virus. I have spent hundreds of hours reading studies and listening to many smart doctors and scientists so I could make appropriate choices for my life and business. Based on my research and the guidance provided by these professionals, I started to reintegrate live teaching into my schedule. Seeing live students again has been amazing for my body and spirit.
In addition to being a Voice Teacher, you are also an Author. What was it like having your book, The Singing Athlete, published during the pandemic?
I had been working on The Singing Athlete for two years and had planned to publish it in the spring of 2020 anyway, but the lockdown gave me an unexpectedly focused time to finish it up. From the beginning, the book and its accompanying video series were designed for individual use. I wrote it with the idea that, no matter where someone lived and whether or not they had access to a voice teacher, they could improve their singing through brain-based training. So, in a way, it was a perfect time for it to be released.
The Singing Athlete is based on a simple idea: everything you do as a singer is guided by your brain, so it makes sense to harness your nervous system to improve your voice. The book is full of physical drills, so I also created a companion website (The Singing Athlete Video Guide) that you get free access to with purchase. Learning movement is a visual process, and I wanted everyone who read the book to feel conﬁdent that they were doing the exercises correctly.
The response to the book has been incredible, and having it become a #1 Best Seller on Amazon was a dream come true. I am so indebted to the performing artists and teachers who have purchased a copy—you created a giant bright spot in my year. Thank you.
(As a shameless plug, you can read about the book and get your copy at thesingingathlete.com)
What have you been doing over the past several months to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
The number one thing I’ve done is go outside every day, rain or shine. When my husband and I got our apartment, we knew that was important for us to be close to the park. I had no idea how crucial that would be until this year. Exercising daily in Central Park and using Citibike have been crucial to my mental health.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
The thing that I have struggled with the most is not seeing live human faces all day. As a student of the brain, I don’t believe that 2-D images or partially-covered faces serve the same neurological function as interacting with fully visible humans. I have sought out people in my life who are willing to meet up and spend time together, and I have treasured every moment with them.
I got into theatre, because I like being with people; so any chance to be in a live community again, no matter how small, has been a lifeline. I’m very grateful for online platforms, but there is no substitute for in-person interaction.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
In 2002, I went through a chronic-pain experience that I thought was going to end my music career. It ended up making me even more committed to living my life in the arts. Faced with the prospect of losing the ability to do what I loved, I felt like I had a choice: quit or figure it out.
The definition I use for pain is, “anything that prevents you from doing what you love.” By that metric, everyone in the arts has now had many months of chronic pain. The vast majority of us are not able to do what we love.
And if anyone decided to quit after this year, I most certainly wouldn’t blame them. But I do think that those who stay in the field will be even more resilient and dedicated, which will result in exciting and vibrant work in the near future.
What is your biggest concern right now?
Neuroplasticity (or your brain’s ability to change) isn’t good or bad. It just is.
I’ve been teaching voice since 1993. When I returned to live teaching, I had to remind myself to play scales with the students, since I usually don’t play along on Zoom. Playing vocal exercises is something I have done daily for almost 30 years. A few months of online teaching had rewired my neural circuitry so much that I had to retrain myself to do a task that I have thousands of hours of practice in.
Many of the Broadway singers I’ve seen have had similar experiences at their first live lesson back. They’ve “forgotten” certain aspects of performing, and have experienced huge waves of anxiety and emotion when singing live with a piano again. The brain is a “use it or lose it” proposition, and singing in your room to a track on your phone is neurologically different than performing on a stage with live musicians.
You can forget how to sing, no matter how many shows you’ve done.
I’m very concerned that we are, as a community, forgetting how to be with our fellow artists without fear. Stanford University epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya recently said, ”One of the unfortunate outcomes of this pandemic has been to train people to think of other human beings as just bags of germs to be avoided.” I see a lot of evidence of this mindset, which could make reintegrating with others in a live setting more challenging.
What do you miss most about live theatre?
I love the concept of the “uncanny valley”. If you’re not familiar with this term, it was coined in the 1970s by professor Masahiro Mori, who originally applied it to robots. As they appear more human-like, robots become more appealing, but only up to a certain point. When the uncanny valley is reached, our fondness turns into angst, and we begin to feel uncomfortable in the presence of these almost-human-but-not-quite creatures.
I feel like performing online creates its own type of uncanny valley. It’s lovely to a point, but it cannot come close to replicating the sensation of being in the room with live performers.
One of the specific things that has struck me being back in the room with live voices is how acoustically rich they are. When we listen through speakers, no matter how good they are, we are not getting the whole story. The compression necessary to allow speakers to not “max out” means that we are only getting a more-narrow range of the overtones that a live voice provides. Live singers ring a much more complex and satisfying range of overtones, and I’m very glad to be experiencing it again.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
Seeing the entire original cast of Ragtime. The section in “New Music” when Coalhouse calls up to Sarah and she decides to come down to him…I can remember like it was yesterday.
What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?
Up until this year, I was living what felt like my perfect life. I was working in the city I love, supporting artists I believed in, and getting to be a part of a larger community. I’m most excited to get that life back in any way that I can.
What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?
Despite the fact that I advise people all day long as part of my job, I’ve found this question to be the toughest to answer. I think it’s because I feel such a crushing sadness for the young people having to navigate this messed-up terrain. I so badly want them all to be able to have the great high school and college experiences that I (and countless others) got to have. It feels very unfair.
The best thing I can think to say is this: Live performance isn’t going away, and it’s absolutely worth fighting for. It serves a different neurological function than watching YouTube, and it is an essential part of being human. As incredibly unfortunate as this year has been, the performing arts are still where I plan to spend my life. If you are like me, and this feels like the only path that makes sense for you, it’s worth it. What’s happening today is ‘only for now’ (Avenue Q reference, for those keeping track), and there will be a better future for our industry. I pray that it’s soon.
Favorite Broadway Musical: Cabaret or Ragtime (don’t make me choose)
Favorite Broadway Play: Indecent
Favorite Movie Musical: The movie version of Chicago remains a masterpiece
Movie that you think should be a musical: The Favourite
Favorite Vocal warm-up: A good vocal siren tells you a lot
Favorite Broadway Icon: The jaw-dropping versatility of Audra McDonald
Favorite NYC Restaurant: Aska
Favorite Instrument: Piano (duh)
Favorite Instrument you don’t currently play: Guitar
Favorite Theatre Tradition: The ghost-light (I hope they’ve been burning this whole time.)