It’s a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, and Vanessa Hudgens is getting warmed up. She’s kicked off her boots, stretched out her neck, and stepped onto the white carpet in the cozy music room of her vocal coach, Eric Vetro. Sunlight pours in through the patio doors, and Vetro sits at a black baby grand — a high-end digital model he prefers for lessons because it always stays in tune. As he plunks out exercises, Hudgens begins making weird sounds with her voice: hees, hoos, haws, and heys, wes, mas and whiny-sounding nayayays.
“Now say, ‘Yum yum yum yum yum yum,’” Vetro says, and Hudgens sings back, Yum yum yum yum yum yum, following along to the piano. Vetro, flashing a smile, says: “Nod your head ‘yes.’ Roll your shoulders. Now, big gestures with your arms.” The young singer-actor — of High School Musical and Spring Breakers fame — raises her wrists and clicks them together above her head, then drops them gracefully as she reaches a high note.
Hudgens, who, at 26, has been working with Vetro on and off since she was about 17, has met with him regularly lately to prepare for her first major Broadway production. She’s playing the title role in Gigi, now in the middle of a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (ending Feb. 12). Today, though, inside Vetro’s elegant Southern-style craftsman home, they’re preparing for a different performance: an upcoming show at a fundraiser honoring the songwriter Diane Warren, one of the vocal coach’s close friends.
Accompanied by piano and cello, the former played by Vetro, Hudgens will sing “I Was Here,” a ballad Warren penned for Beyoncé about the legacy one leaves behind at the end of life. The song hits close to home: Only a day before this lesson, Hudgens’ boyfriend’s mother passed away (“I miss you already mama,” she wrote on Twitter that night). Despite the emotional weight of the loss, she’s cool-headed and ready to work in Vetro’s music room, taking occasional sips of throat-coat tea from a mug that bears the logo KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.
She’s always loved singing here.
“It’s like going over to a friend’s house to practice,” Hudgens says later. “He wants you to come into his home. He wants you to come into his life. He’s just open.”
From a superficial glance, one might assume that mainstream pop is full of vocal artifice. Pitch-correct programs like Auto-Tune have made it easy for the most mediocre singers to stay on key, while big producers often resort to cut-and-paste techniques to conjure hit performances out of countless vocal takes. Marketing and manipulation play such a big part in the hit machine these days that “authenticity” has taken on new meaning. Critics might see this in the case of a Disney veteran like Hudgens, whose greatest hits to date, including 2008’s “Sneakernight,” can feel like the products of a teen pop assembly line.
But Vetro, who is professionally predisposed to value old-world vocal craft, isn’t dismayed by technology. One of the country’s most in-demand vocal coaches, he’s been working in Hollywood for 30-plus years. His pupils include Hollywood actors, Broadway singers, and pop stars like Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and “All About That Bass” hit-maker Meghan Trainor (all of whom are nominated for Grammy Awards this year). Vetro has lived through the rise of Auto-Tune, and he says it’s never had an impact on his business. He asserts that proper technique and vocal maintenance are still crucial for working artists, and that many singers and producers who record in fancy studios still push to get the most genuine vocal performances possible.
“I completely proceed as if there is no such thing — as if Auto-Tune never existed,” he says, speaking about his approach during lessons. “I try to really help people sound as good as they can, sing as well as they can, and then I figure, you know, if the producer decides, ‘Ooh, we need a little help here. We need to do something,’ then that’s great that he has that tool. But I really don’t ever even consider it on any kind of level.”
Vetro, 58, has a warm and magnetic personality. His students find him easy to make friends with, and as a teacher, he likes to keep a low profile to preserve the sanctity of the work. Unlike other well-known vocal coaches, like Seth Riggs — pioneer of “Speech Level Singing” and coach of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder — Vetro doesn’t have a trademark method. In fact, he doesn’t even have a Facebook page. His website looks like it was designed in 1998, and his Twitter account has been barren for over a year. Still, he loves being around creatives, and in celebrity singing circles, his name is well regarded.
“Eric Vetro is quite the character,” Katy Perry tells BuzzFeed News. She’s been working with Vetro for six years, meeting with him to do warm-ups and cool-downs whenever she’s home in L.A. When she’s on tour, she brings CDs he’s made for her containing specialized exercises. “He kind of reminds me of a character from a Christopher Guest movie. He’s very bubbly and positive, always extremely positive. Never really talks about his other clients, and if he does — if he says a little tidbit — it’s always a very kind, nice thing. He would never dish.”
As for Grande, she once tweeted: “Eric Vetro is my favorite person ever.”
Vocal coaching/teaching has been a steady cottage industry for decades. Allen Henderson, executive director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, estimates that there are well over 10,000 vocal instructors working in North America today. Many of them operate at beginner or intermediate levels, schooling kids on the basics or helping karaoke diehards crush the competition. Meanwhile, in the upper echelons of pop, opera, classical, and musical theater, Henderson says some in-demand maestros get paid upwards of $200 to $300 per hour for their services — if not more. (Vetro declined to discuss his rates on record.)
Even for the naturally gifted, being a singer is demanding work. Other musicians have instruments to stand behind. All singers have is the soft tissue that makes up their lungs, larynx, and vocal cords. For the best vocalists, the stakes can be perilously high. On tour or during extended show runs, some of Vetro’s clients go months without a day off. When the lights go on and the curtain goes up, exhaustion or an imploding personal life is no excuse for disappointing the crowd. So, many singers go to great lengths to protect their voices.
“If I only have 70% of my voice, I’m not excited. I’m not happy. If I only have 50% of my voice, it’s bad,” Perry says. “If I get hoarse, it’s over. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I can just press some track or something.’ We kind of treat my vocal cords like a Fabergé egg of sorts.”
Vetro always has a busy schedule. He sees students seven days a week, and he’s backstage at most of the big L.A. awards shows. He often rises at odd hours or takes breaks from dinner with friends to help touring artists with warm-ups via Skype and FaceTime. His clients marvel at his approach, in which he brings a lot of physicality to the art of breath support, vocal placement, vocal maintenance, and other core issues.
“We do things where we shake our whole body,” says David Burnham, an actor and singer who’s worked with Vetro for 15 years. “We bend over and sing the high note when we’re bending over. We click our wrists together above our head. We stomp on the ground with our feet. There’s lots of different things to loosen you up so that you don’t have tension in your neck, in your throat.”
Though Vetro circulates among the Hollywood celebrities now, he comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small city about 50 miles north of Albany. Once a hub for the nation’s glove manufacturers, he says it wasn’t exactly an ideal environment for a budding music lover. “I could not wait to leave,” he recalls.
Still, Vetro’s parents were amateur artists — his dad loved playing jazz, and both parents had a knack for painting. While they wanted Vetro to be a lawyer, they let him splurge on records and bought him a piano, and they didn’t mind when he started an amateur teaching practice, bringing classmates home from elementary school to help them brush up on assembly standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
“I’ve just always, always loved hearing people sing — more than hearing musical instruments play,” Vetro says. It’s a quiet evening in November, and he’s sitting cross-legged on a leather couch in his music room, wearing an understated combo of dark blue jeans and a black-maroon dress shirt. “To me, [the voice] is a very intimate and genuine line of communication… That’s why I think so many miscommunications these days happen through texts and emails. Someone can say something, but it’s the way they say it that really communicates their real thoughts.”
In the ’70s, Vetro left Gloversville to study voice and piano at NYU. At night he’d hit the clubs uptown with friends like Desmond Child, who went on to become a famed songwriter and producer. Meanwhile, Vetro roved from music teacher to music teacher, eventually finding a mentor in Lloyd Walser, at the time the chorus master at the New York City Opera. Walser, who died in 1986, was a domineering instructor — sometimes he’d cut a lesson short with a subpar student by declaring, “You have exhausted me!” Vetro opted to cut such brusqueness out of his own practice, but he was inspired by Walser’s targeted approach.
“He would listen to the singer sing an aria, and then he would take a second to assess what really needed the most work,” Vetro says. “And he would tell them, ‘This is what’s good. This is what needs work.’ And that’s what you’d work on. That was very, very revealing to me. He wasn’t trying to make everyone sound the same — ‘This is how you do it.’ He was like, ‘What makes this person special? Why are they good here? What do they need work on?’”
Vetro moved to Los Angeles permanently in 1984, and he’s been picking up steady teaching work ever since. He can afford to be choosy about his clients, though not all of them are famous. Some come directly from producers, like Perry and Becky G collaborator Dr. Luke, who’s hired Vetro to teach some of his artists. At this point, it seems Vetro has been in such close proximity to the annals of pop power for so long that he’s developed an understanding and appreciation for how the system works. Some critics might balk at things like Auto-Tune and Melodyne, a piece of software that lets users reshape recorded performances. But in Vetro’s eyes, those are simply tools producers have at their disposal — which, in recent years, he’s noticed some of them using less and less.
“To be honest with you, the really good producers, the Dr. Lukes, people like that, Max Martin, I think it’s like a pride thing with them that they really try not to use it, if possible,” he says. “They’ll spend extra time to get a really great performance so they don’t have to use that tool.”
Filters in the studio or no, there are still plenty of singers in the mainstream who are actually, well, singing. The proof is in their live shows, and also, alarmingly enough, in the injuries they sustain. In 2011, Adele had surgery to remove a benign vocal polyp, a blistery, fluid-filled bump that sapped her voice of its power and forced her to cancel tour dates. In 2013, Frank Ocean also canceled a tour after tearing one of his vocal cords. And John Mayer was sidelined for over a year while he received two surgeries to repair a granuloma in his throat.
Joanna Cazden, a speech pathologist at the voice and speech program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, compares the fields of vocal medicine and surgery to sports medicine. Powerful though the vocal cords may be, they’re susceptible to wear and tear, in much the same way joggers can get knee problems. Often major issues can be avoided through proper technique and care, but Cazden says the lesser-known workhorses of the music industry — Broadway cast members, backup singers — are especially vulnerable to vocal health problems because of more limited resources, less awareness, and the challenges, even potential hazards, of the job.
“I worked with someone who was in one of the casts of The Lion King, and she has a headdress that weighs 40 pounds,” Cazden says. As is customary with touring musical theater productions, the patient was performing up to eight shows a week — “dancing, with 40 pounds on her head, in this posture. And then she gets vocal trouble, because she can’t breathe fully, because her back is busy supporting the headdress.”
Katy Perry, for her part, is done with the debate over Auto-Tune. “That’s such a conversation from 2005,” she says. “Everybody fucking uses it. It’s just about, how much do they use it? Some people need it a lot more than others.” She’s much more concerned with keeping her voice healthy on her long-running Prismatic World Tour, which started in May 2013 and continues through to March, and requires about two hours and 10 minutes of singing per stop. In a capstone moment for her career, she'll perform during the Super Bowl half-time show Feb. 1 — the world's biggest stage — in front of a likely audience upwards of 100 million. It's the most scrutinized gig in the business (does she risk singing live or lean on a backing track?), and preparation is paramount. Following Vetro’s suggestions, she's been maintaining a monk-like regimen on the road, sleeping 9 to 10 hours each day and cutting out coffee, alcohol, dairy, and any foods that cause acid reflux.
Though she doesn’t work with Vetro on technique, Perry turns to him for ways to sustain her voice through heavy use. Describing him as a “vocal life coach,” she says he encourages her to maintain her voice-friendly practices and provides rejuvenating warm-ups and vocal exercises.
“We say ‘popcorn, peanuts’ in this really particular way, and anybody that’s in the room when I’m warming up will kind of chime in with me, and it becomes this weird, like, flash-chorus Broadway thing in my dressing room,” Perry says. As for when she’s recording in the studio, “There’s a really noticeable difference in my voice when I go to warm up with him before I go and sing whatever song I’ve written. You can just tell.”
Back at Vetro’s house, his lesson with Hudgens proceeds smoothly. She finishes warming up and then launches into a modified yoga technique that’s a specialty of Vetro’s. He calls it the “Silent Ferocious Lion’s Yawn,” or simply “Lion’s Pose.” Hudgens pushes her arms out, opens her fingers wide, drops open her jaw, and sticks out her tongue. Then, after 10 seconds, she lets out a giant yawn.
After that, it’s time to rehearse “I Was Here,” the Beyoncé song. The track, which originally appeared on Beyoncé's 2011 album, 4, builds from a tender opening section to a soaring mid-song climax. In the intimacy of Vetro’s music room, the shift feels pronounced. Taking position at a mic stand, her eyes closed as she sways to the melody, Hudgens brings her voice up a full octave to deliver the empowering chorus — only, instead of using actual words, for this initial run-through she uses only vowels:
MAH MAH MAAAAAH
MAH MAH MAAAAAAH
Her voice is taut and strong, if not quite a facsimile of Queen Bey. Even without the words, the passion shows through.
On this Friday afternoon, it's clear that Vetro’s positivity isn’t just part of his personality. It’s also a working philosophy — a way to set singers at ease and let them open up. Still: When his students show up for lessons, they put in work. Requiring months of discipline, Hudgens has prepared for Gigi like a runner would a marathon.
“You have to be in fighting shape,” she says. “You have to make sure that your voice is very strong and agile. You have to make sure that physically you can keep up to the demands of performing twice a day and singing and running around dancing. You’re an athlete."