You’ve heard her joyously thanked in Tony and Emmy Award acceptance speeches, and you’ve sung along with the fruits of her work on record-breaking pop/rock albums, blockbuster movie musicals, and Broadway shows about Mormons and Dublin street musicians. As the voice behind the music industry’s top voices, vocal coach-teacher-supervisor Liz Caplan is a story all her own. Since arriving to New York in 1978 with just $300-worth of babysitting money, she’s amassed a clientele that includes The Goo Goo Dolls, James Blunt, Lily Allen, Neil Patrick Harris, the Broadway casts of Book of Mormon and Once, and more. And when you couple her students with her two apps, her consultation to all major record labels, and her team of associates that teach her licensed technique, a Liz Caplan empire is born.
But you’d never know it when you meet her. Clad in a bright tunic in her sun-lit Chelsea studio where you’re greeted by her very vocal and gentlemanly dog Schanuzee, Liz is the image of contentment. Better yet, joy. The secret: her mind-body approach to coaching. By mixing homeopathy, physical alignment, and nutrition, Liz has created a style that seeks to, as she explains, "melt" people – drawing forth their true spirit, and giving it the freedom to be heard in their voice.
And she does exactly that. For an afternoon, I had the chance to have a lesson and conversation with Liz, where she shared some of the most thrilling moments of her career, a shocking singing no-no, the truth behind tone-deafness, and one miraculous story.
You have a kind of sixth sense, and you’re also a bit of a guru. When did you realize you have this talent to understand voices?
Since I was a child, I’ve always had this freaky gift of being able to hear what frequencies are missing in somebody’s voice. I’m able to locate it and hear when someone is locking their head, their shoulders, tensing their feet. The moment that tension is released, the sound pops open. I truly believe the voice is completely perfect; it’s what we do to it before we breath and sing that makes it imperfect.
What’s it like for you to watch a live performance? Are you constantly in coaching mode?
I can’t help it, but the answer is yes. For instance, I work with Amanda Seyfried, and worked with her on the movie version of Les Miserables. When I sat down next to her to watch the premiere, which was so exciting, I told myself, "Okay self, relax, let the movie just wash over you." But I couldn’t help but dive into every person’s voice. It’s just what I do. When it comes to what you were put on this Earth to do, for me it’s analyze voices.
How did you prepare her for the role of Cosette?
Amanda didn’t just get an offer; she had to audition a bunch of times. She came into classes pretty much everyday for six months. There was a moment where I said, "I’m going to make this happen for her. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to get her this role." And I still have the voicemail on my phone when she called and said, "Hi. I’m calling to let you know I just got off the phone with the director. And I’m Cosette."
You have so many thrills like this.
I think it’s the kind of thrills I’m supposed to have in my life. When I was a singer, I couldn’t handle them, but when I apply them to my students, I can; it’s so joyous because it’s in my heart but outside of me. It’s like the energy my client, composer/lyricist and performer Lin Manuel Miranda, gives off everyday. It’s pure joy, because you’re doing what you’ve always wanted to do. So my applause is when my client gets the part.
What about the time Book of Mormon actress Nikki M. James won the Tony?
I was in the third row because I was working with Neil Patrick Harris on the Tony Awards, as I always do, and when Nikki said, "to Liz Caplan, my voice teacher who saved my life and my voice," my husband turned to me and said: "She just said your name." And I went into this place where a vacuum happened and I had to watch it myself to remember it.
You work mostly with clients sent by Broadway producers and management companies. But you also do emergency consulting work with record labels.
Yes, recording companies will call me when an artist has to do a really huge gig and they were on tour and suddenly lost their voice. I’ll be with them for an entire day and give intermediate voice lessons – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes here, 30 minutes here – from 9am to when they do their gig at night.
And that doesn’t overwork their voice?
Nothing I do will ever fatigue the voice. I feel like when I’m teaching, I have a miner’s cap on with a flashlight. I’m always inside the voice and throat and trying to get a feel for what’s going on. Everything I do is to limber up the intrinsic muscles that cause that fatigue and are overcompensated.
What’s it like promoting a healthy, holistic vocal approach in an industry known for debauchery?
I’ll never judge what artists want to do with their mind and body, but I do feel that if you want to be at the top of your field and aim for that award, then you want to take care of yourself; do yoga, meditate for just 10 minutes a day, eat properly. It can be a hard, depressive industry, and if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’ll always feel a step behind the artists who work out, eat right, win awards. If you treat yourself positively, all of that will actualize itself positively into your career.
Besides drinking and depressing yourself to death, what’s the #1 worst thing for your voice?
Advil. Do not take Advil. Ibuprofen is a blood thinner, so it thins the blood going to the vocal cords. If you’re singing something really hard and you’re taking ibuprofen, the risk of hemorrhaging your vocal cord is tremendous. Take extra strength Tylenol.
Be honest: do you think anyone can sing?
Yes. If you can hear the pitches of police or fire engine sirens, then you can sing.
Then what about tone-deafness? Does that exist?
Actually, no. People who say they are tone deaf were just not exposed to music growing up. I call them "tone-ignorant." They were usually very into athletics as a kid, and rarely saw shows or listened to music, so they weren’t exposed to any music. With a good deal of lessons, it’s easy to reverse, and always a revelation for them when they finally hear themselves sing in-tune.
Four paws appear underneath the door, as Schnauzee scratches to come in. Liz opens the door, and he takes a seat beside her.
Your dog can really sing. How old is he?
Eleven. He got diagnosed with cancer in June, during Tony week when I was working with Neil. They gave him 30 days to live and said he has the worst kind of cancer an animal can get. So I called all of my homeopathic healers and medical intuits, and today is day 188. He’s on supplements and enzymes and I cook him organic food.
And it’s gone?
He’s in remission. He went into remission on the day they said he would not live. While the medical professionals told me nothing would help him, my homeopath said, "This is going to be hard, but if you do this regimen, you might be able to get him okay." And he was. I will tell you, I have had students who have won Tony Awards, Grammys, all of that, and this is my biggest accomplishment yet.