DIME has an amazing staff and faculty who are immersed in the music industry and teaching the next generation of musicians, songwriters, and music entrepreneurs here in downtown Detroit. We sat down with one of our vocals instructors, Liz Gray, to ask her some questions about her career, and her experience teaching at DIME Detroit.
What inspired you to be a singer?
I fell into acting and theatre as a kid. My mom discovered that I had a big voice for a little kid when hearing me solo at choir concert in 5th grade, singing the rock opera tune, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Also, growing up I attended theatre camps, and latched onto a mentor who said: ‘you should really pursue these things professionally.’
Later on, I started doing a lot of auditions for TV and films too. Life with Mikey was one of those films. I also auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club, in its last few seasons.
In all, auditioning and working as a kid in the industry opened me up to the possibilities of using my voice whether on stage, on camera or for voice over work.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
Some of the really great teachers that I had. I fell into voice teaching when I was in college, when someone asked me to come teach private voice to high school students. Also, from taking leadership positions in high school and college, I recognized that I had an ear for this, and a desire to help, train, share, and coach. I’ve had this love for music and education instilled from great teachers I’ve had in the past, but also from my mom who taught for a short period of time. I discovered that teaching was a skill that could be developed. I discovered later that I could make a difference in voices that weren’t just in the classical music field. For instance, when I started working with this rock vocalist back in 2005 who was a frontman for an alternative band in Detroit, it was so exciting to see how I could effect change that didn’t turn him into a classical singer, but helped him thrive with his own vocal style.
I’m grateful to my mentors who gave me a chance to teach alongside them. I fell into opportunities and then ran with them.
What do you like about teaching at DIME?
This is really exciting! I am loving that I get to work with so many unique voices. And, I also like getting to work with people who write their own music, and helping them develop their own unique sound. It’s crucial for up-and-coming artists to have their own unique sound and something that is authentic to them. I like to provide a strong technical foundation, and then help students create a sound that is truly their own without compromising their instrument (voice).
At DIME, I have been given a range of opportunities to flex my teaching muscles and use my pedagogical skills. And, to see it make a difference is really exciting. The students here have made the experience at DIME something that continues to fuel my passion for teaching. I love that you can see that there is so much passion and creativity at DIME.
And, what about interactions with other faculty or staff?
Being able to collaborate with other faculty, and what’s happening on the education side of things, is fulfilling my own desire to help, whether it’s having talks about pedagogy or education itself or being able to contribute to the operation of different classes. Getting to share ideas and seeing them come to fruition, that couldn’t happen without the collaboration with other faculty members.
What kind of things are you involved in outside of DIME that filter back into the classroom?
I’m working on a PhD in Educational Studies with an Urban Education concentration.
Some coursework there has helped me to define what I am doing in the classroom. Also, the different organizations that I am involved in, whether it be the Voice Foundation, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, or attending the Pan-American Vocology Association meeting, all of these research and practitioner-based organizations that focus on the voice are providing some extra research and knowledge and methods for working with the students here at DIME. A lot of these organizations are really starting to value practices that relate to contemporary popular music. I’ve gotten to meet some major players in that arena, and that both validates things that I have put into practice and challenges me to introduce new concepts and new ways to work with voices.
What’s one of your proudest moment thus far as a teacher here at DIME?
Any moment where a student starts to feel their voice in a place that feels comfortable and feels like they could do this on a regular basis in a sustainable way. I remember one student had this moment where he transitioned out of this heavy-throated pressurized singing to this concept of resonance. Getting students to adopt practices of resonance is important for me, and it’s a point where I get to be super nerdy about what I love the most, which is effecting change in people’s voices, because the voice affects your entire body, your mind, your emotions – everything. I am proud when students make adjustments to their voices so that it just simply feels good. That’s one of the most rewarding things: when a student has a lightbulb moment, and then sees that in others. When those things happen, it validates the work that I put into my teaching.
In general, it is so great to have a school that focuses on contemporary popular music and has students coming out with unique, dynamic, and flexible voices that are also sustainable and healthy; that is going to make a real difference in the industry. Getting students to sing in a way that doesn’t hurt at all, that is beautiful.
I also get so excited when non-vocal majors come in to see me, because I know I can make a difference in their voices, and make them feel better about their singing. DIME has given me the space and opportunity to do that.
Anything else you want to add about your experience at DIME?
It’s been really exciting to see departmental collaborations. I have been able to help create a better connection between DeAnna and myself; that has been great. It’s been wonderful too, to contribute to a group-taught class, like Artist Inquiry, where the instructors feed off one another and improvise what we are going to do. Having flexibility in the classroom leaves space to create more meaningful relationships with students as we serve their interests and needs.
Lately, everything feels like an honor. I don’t know if that seems cheesy, but I can’t think of a better word for it. Being asked to be part of the auditions master class or being a judge for the End of Term auditions, that helped stretch me, and it also helped me feel more welcome in the DIME space itself.
I’m also looking forward to performing again, after having taken a few years off due to an unfortunate accident that occurred while on tour in 2014. I don’t think I could have gotten to that place (as quickly) if it hadn’t been for the students at DIME and the whole DIME experience. I thought it would take longer. The students have been so thoughtful and encouraging, telling me that when I was performing for them in class, they saw all of the things I’ve been asking them to do. It made DIME feel more like a home.