Frances Ruffelle has played the iconic role of Eponine on Broadway and the West End, she represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest and has created 5 solo albums.
She tells us how to balance vocal technique and vocal character without compromising on health.
What are a few ingredients that go into a memorable vocal performance?
For me the most important quality for a memorable vocal is a song sung raw with heart and truthfulness. I think there is too much emphasis on hitting top notes (which I do often admire) but I think that the vocal tone is more important and more enjoyable to listen to.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about vocal health?
For me rest and steaming. I have a naturally husky quality, so it really does mean that I have to be very careful. I can’t go out to loud restaurants and talk too much when I am in the middle of a busy schedule.
Have you ever been let down by your voice?
When I was 17 I played the narrator in Joseph and His Technicoloured Dream Coat. It’s a very demanding singing role and I was booked to do 12 performances a week! By the 9th show I was doing what we call in the theatre business ‘the Rex Harrison performance’ which is talking your way through a performance. I hadn’t had any singing lessons and I had no idea how to support my voice. So I was fired!
What tips or tricks do you have to keep your voice in shape given busy recording schedules and performances?
I try not to talk on the morning of a performance, sometimes even up to 4pm. I only text and email, I am very strict about this and it drives my family mad. I then warm up and after that I do talk a little. It really does make the voice ring out.
Have you ever worked with a professional to help maintain your singing voice? If so, what’s one lesson you’ve found invaluable?
When I was 18 I went to singing teacher Mary Hammond who taught me how to look after my voice and luckily, I learned just in time to play Dinah in Starlight Express. I didn’t miss a show through loss of voice, just a broken toe! Mary made me a warm up tape and I still do it to this day. I always start my warm up singing single notes with an E sound and after lots of sirens and scales I end my warm ups going back to the same single E tones and the improvement is so satisfying.
What would you recommend for singers to try to improve different aspects of their singing?
I think it’s great to record yourself, if you don’t like what you hear the chances are that others may not too. It’s a great way to self teach yourself and find a quality that you like.
Some singers have good vocal health and technique but really struggle to find their unique voice. What advice would you offer them?
I do think that over training can create a really generic vocal sound and technique, although it is important, it can be too over-thought. I think it’s important to try and find your own quirks and personality and ultimately I think it’s more interesting for audiences to hear unique sounding voices. Sometimes it’s great to disregard some of the technique but to always be aware and careful not to strain the vocal cords.
Name one influential singer, and what it was that makes them stand out to you.
I used to listen to an old time music hall singer called Kate Carney. She sang with a cry in her voice, she was very raw and streetwise.
As you look back on your vocal work what would you say was an important landmark(s) in singing more effectively?
At first I really didn’t think I had a good voice, I often cracked on notes and I didn’t used to have any vibrato. Once I realized I was being praised as a singer I stopped worrying too much as I realized my voice was good because of the performance as a whole. I still think of myself as an actress rather than a singer. As long as I perform well, I don’t care if I crack on a note, or hold a long note on shorter than I should… It’s really is about the delivery and I always work hard to be right inside whatever I am singing.
As you look ahead, what projects, shows or other aspects of your career are you looking forward to?
I love doing my solo shows, it gives me an opportunity to sing anything I want to and in any key I like. I am performing all the songs from my new album ‘I Say Yeh-Yeh’ on the 13th to the 17th October at the Crazy Coqs in London and next year I will do a small tour of the USA.
You possibly know Frances Ruffelle best for originating the role of iconic waif Eponine in the original London and Broadway productions of Les Misérables, for her anthemic hit single Lonely Symphony, or for recently playing Naomi, Dorien Green’s vicar daughter in ITV comedy Birds Of A Feather. But Frances is a recording artist at heart, with five solo albums and a series of 5-star sellout UK and US live performances to her name.