For many creative people, the events of 2020 have inspired a fair amount of introspection. Elle Nichelle has the type of artistic mind that can produce something good when the future seems bleak. In 2019, she questioned her career direction and considered how her skills could best be used to help others. With the famous Confucius quote at the forefront of her mind, to “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”, she has created a bespoke professional development experience for voice teachers.
“I feel that vocalists, vocal coaches and singing teachers alike should aim to shift their mindset to one of reflection and growth. “– Elle Nichelle
Finding her voice
Elle Nichelle is a vocal coach, choir conductor, actor, and performer of 11 years, whose interest in studying the human voice came about following her frustration at the difficulty of finding answers to her voice-related questions. She recalls three major moments in her life as catalysts that transformed her perception of voice use.
The first was during her teens where she was experimenting with the quality of her voice and discovered a way to sing with ease in her higher register. “I detested my head voice – it was weak and breathy, I couldn’t smoothly transition over my break and I didn’t know how to change the quality of my sound up high. A few months after year 12 finished, I was loudly singing along to a gospel-like song in my kitchen, and all of sudden realised that I was singing extremely loud, and extremely high and it was easy! What I had discovered was twang and my aryepiglottic sphincter, but I didn’t know this at the time.”
Second, the advice she was receiving from her mentors didn’t work for her. “During my time studying my Jazz Voice Diploma at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, I would hear countless recommendations from lecturers and students alike, about ‘how to sing better’ and what is a ‘desirable’ quality in a voice. I often found this advice was conflicting or didn’t work for me (or others) at all – yet, we all still tried to apply it to our voices, out of respect for others or, more likely, from a place of massive insecurity.”
Third, during her tertiary studies she experienced a terrifying loss of her voice after a night on the town with friends.
“When I was in the middle of my diploma [studies] with a completely healthy, well-functioning voice, I went out to town to watch a gig. I drank with my friends and went on to have great, in-depth conversation with someone – standing next to three stacked speakers, right next to a live band for three hours. You can imagine how someone would have to be speaking to be heard in that environment. Needless to say, I woke up the next day and couldn’t make a single sound.”
“As hard as I tried – not a single sound would leave my throat. I waited three days and still nothing, I thought, ‘This is it. My whole life is over, my career is over'”.– Elle Nichelle
Elle Nichelle visited an otolaryngologist (ENT) and to her dismay, she was told she had a tiny nodule on her left vocal fold.
“[…] at this point in my life, the only thing I had ever heard about nodules was that only people with ‘really bad technique’ got them. ‘But I don’t have really bad technique’, I remember thinking. Looking back though, I really had no idea what stipulated good or bad technique – I knew nothing about how my voice worked, yet I really, really thought I did.”
She enquired further with her ENT at the time and was surprised to learn that vocal nodules can occur in as little as three hours under specific conditions: dehydration, speaking loudly, and constricting when speaking.
“I was the perfect candidate for a nodule. It blew my mind. Only three hours. I was referred on to a voice specialist, a speech pathologist, and this is where I had my first experience with a ‘speechie’.”
You would think that this was the moment where she decided to go back to university as a mature aged student and study speech pathology… but it wasn’t.
“It was a quick and cold session, I was not instructed well by the speech pathologist, I didn’t leave with a good knowledge of my voice, I was told to ‘not speak for six weeks’, and was charged a lot of money. Regardless, I followed my therapy plan and within six weeks my voice was completely back to normal.”
Nevertheless, she still wanted to know more. She was perplexed as to why so many things she fundamentally believed about the voice were being challenged.
“[…] I really didn’t know where to go or who to turn to for answers, because I began to realise – no one had a degree in teaching voice and literally any person ever could become a singing teacher with zero qualifications – so where were all of these ‘how to sing well’ recommendations coming from?”
“I was quickly becoming bitter and frustrated with not being able to find answers in the singing teaching industry, so I went back to uni to study the most real and basic voice related thing I could think of – the anatomy and physiology of the voice – a degree in speech pathology.”
At this point in her career, she learned the value of research, the importance of evidence-based practice, and the art of communicating anatomical information in a way that is accessible, easy to understand and relevant to others.
“During COVID-19, people have had more time to sit on their own, without the noise of the outside world and question what they are doing with their careers, personal life and what goals they would like to pursue.”– Elle Nichelle
Creating during the pandemic
Elle Nichelle is an advocate for isolated, reflective practice which she believes creatives should adopt, allowing them to reset, stop comparing themselves to others, and focus on what is important to them.
“This isn’t selfish. It’s necessary for personal growth and internal satisfaction, and ultimately, when we feel satisfied within ourselves, we are better equipped to help others – and helping others is typically when we start to experience joy in our lives.”
Despite not being able to do any gigs during the pandemic, she has enjoyed seeing the innovative ways others have been able to perform. The time alone has been beneficial for her creativity, ultimately leading to the launch of her course, the Vocal Educator Toolkit (VET).
“Honestly, my career and mental health were affected very positively by COVID-19 restrictions. I am introverted by nature and like to take my time collecting my thoughts and reflecting, so everyone having to stay home was the happiest and most productive I have ever been in my life – and I don’t say that in an exaggerated way – it has been wonderful for me. COVID-19 also provided me with the space and time to create the Vocal Educator Toolkit, so it has been a gift to me in that way.”
The moment of inspiration
One day Elle Nichelle was scrolling thorough Netflix and came across a documentary called I Am Not Your Guru, which explored one of Tony Robbins most successful life coaching courses. She was inspired and primed to learn everything she could.
“I jumped online and there was a conference in Sydney, Australia – what were the odds? I booked in right away and what I learned changed the course of my career. I was challenged to never stop learning, to have certainty in my skills, and to practice gratitude daily. These three things gave me the permission I needed to go for it – stop worrying what other people thought and just get it done.”
When she returned from interstate, every Friday she’d take herself out for coffee and spend the day working; reading motivational and entrepreneurial books for introverts (she highly recommends The Introvert Entrepreneur by Beth Buelow), and listening to podcasts to find a convergence point for everything she knew. She wanted to discover how to help others with these skills so she filled notebooks with ideas and plans, “I wasn’t really getting anywhere but I wasn’t going to stop because I knew there was something waiting just around the corner if I kept going. And there was.”
At the beginning of COVID-19 restrictions, when she couldn’t take herself out for a coffee on a Friday and read, she decided to go back through her notebook, and found these words:
“There is a huge amount of ego involved in being a singing teacher or professional voice user. You constantly feel isolated and community is scarce because of the ‘I’m better than you’ [attitude]. You feel like you are the only advocate for your voice and your student’s voice. You fight for and defend the needs for vocal health and it often falls on deaf ears…”
As a singing teacher, this paragraph excited her, and she realised that this was the information and the empathy that she wishes she’d been given when she first started teaching.
“It was like a switch flicked in my head and I realised that whilst I liked teaching younger students, I was most passionate about helping educators feel more empowered in their own teaching – and inadvertently, their own voice, and it was here that I started writing up the bones of the VET.”
“I believe that singing teachers don’t have the support around them to continually upskill due to high demands, lack of accountability, and the internal and external judgements they face day-to-day. I want to connect singing teachers with the resources they need to provide the best possible education for their clients.”– Elle Nichelle
Communication and ongoing education
Throughout her career, she has observed that there is a secrecy and judgement surrounding ‘optimal’ vocal health and what makes a ‘good’ singer. By creating the VET, she aims to foster a supportive community of voice educators.
“This [judgemental] mindset can create a toxic environment and stop open conversation dead in its tracks, which means people’s mental health and, inadvertently, their voices suffer because of it.”– Elle Nichelle
As an advocate for ongoing education, Elle Nichelle set out to inspire others to continue learning in a non-judgemental environment. She believes that ongoing education gives educators the confidence to teach and make better recommendations to their students.
“I don’t want to offer advice or exercises to students or peers that I don’t know will actually help them. To give an indication of how important education is to me, I read at least one to three research articles a week and I always have an evidence-based vocal anatomy book of some description on the go (I am currently working my way through Voice Work by Christina Shewell).”
Her advice for singers is to “have real conversations with your peers about how your voice functions and what you want to know more about.”
She stresses the importance of a non-judgemental dialogue between singer and vocal coach about the things one may find difficult, the times one has sung and hurt their voice, how their mental health affects their singing and what they wish they knew more about.
“It is so important that vocal educators try not to fall back onto old habits of ‘faking it until you make it’ when giving vocal advice and actually research and ask questions before advising students. You will always feel more confident and inspired as an educator if you know you are providing the best information you can find.”
Her advice to vocal educators is “when seeking out further education, often you don’t even need to find a singing related course to do; we just need to listen to the questions our students are asking us and ask ourselves ‘how much do I think I can help them with the knowledge I already have?’ When the answer is, ‘not as much as I would like’, it is here that we should read the available literature, ask questions in our community and approach experts in the voice field to find better answers.”
“Stop judging each other against your own definition of ‘vocal health’ and success and admit when you don’t know something and follow it up with research to empower yourself and your craft. Let’s make a vow to never stop learning, to have each other’s backs and to provide the best environment for vocalists and vocal teachers to flourish. We are not in competition; we are an alliance.”
Elle Nichelle is a vocal coach, choir conductor, actor and performer of 11 years and teaches voice to students from ages 13 and up. She has a Diploma in Jazz Voice from the Elder Conservatorium of Music and recently finished her Speech Pathology degree at Flinders University, with a keen interest in voice therapy. She performs regularly, is a song writer and mentor and watches The Office religiously. Elle Nichelle has a passion for learning about vocal function, teaching voice and inspiring confidence in others. She is an advocate for vocal health; working towards optimal vocal functioning and vocal freedom with all of her clients. Elle Nichelle developed the Vocal Educator Toolkit webinar series with the goal to empower educators and increase their confidence in their craft by building on their vocal knowledge with relevant and applicable teaching.