Vocal Coach in Residence: Donna McElroy

Returning Vocal Coach in Residence: Donna McElroy

This month’s coach has opened for Ray Charles, sung backing vocals for Amy Grant and appeared on the Tonight Show.

Donna McElroy is also an esteemed Voice Professor at Berklee College of Music.

She’s revealed to us that her career highlights also include honoring Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox with Honorary Doctorates.

We’ve given Donna only one sentence to answer our questions:

Quickest way to hurt your voice
To sing for too long or too loudly and not hydrate, especially covering songs not in your range and style.

Best way to a healthy voice
The healthiest vocal sound I ever hear is when singers understand how much breath control is needed to do the ideas they have, and don’t just gasp a lot and get nothing done in their performance.

Donna McElroyAn unforgettable vocal performance you witnessed
Donny Hathaway at the 1975 Fisk University Homecoming Show; I know… it was over 30 years ago and I still remember!

What made it so?
He’s the vocalist who has shaped the sound of EVERYBODY since and some before, and I got to see him actually move his lips!

What was the secret behind his vocal impact?
He was the epitome of soul, passion and dexterity all wrapped into one warm and passionate voice, and though he was trained in classical piano and voice, he found a way to marry his Gospel upbringing with that Classical technique and make the truth sound like heaven!

Best advice you’ve heard on dealing with nerves
My best advice for nerves is preparation and projection past the performance; not just being terrified at the moment, but imagining the delightful results.

Is “X-factor” a bad word?
No, some people don’t have great voices and some are not all that physically “hot”, but when they open their mouth, watch out!! That’s the “X Factor”!

Best coaching experience in the past year
My best coaching experience in the past year has been working with a young singer named Jenn Hoyt (Berklee College class of 2014), who listened to all my suggestions and song referrals and performance tips and is now on her way to stardom!

Best tip on song choice.
My mantra is to find songs that say what you feel and design them for your performance style.

Donna McElroyIf an alien landed in front of you and asked you to define singing – what would you say?
Singing-organized emotional manipulation of air originating from the lower part of the human body and emitting from the mouth.

Did you have a career setback that turned out not to be a setback?
Many… so many things I auditioned for I didn’t get to do, but I wouldn’t be happy if I had gotten some of the things I thought I should have. Life has taught me to trust the path.

Bad thing to say to your backing band
I couldn’t hear myself tonight! You guys played too loud!

Good thing to say to your backing band
Let’s work on getting a better stage volume next gig; could you hear me?

Most important thing to know about singing in the studio
What you leave on the recording is a stamp, a tattoo of your vocal ability; be prepared to reproduce it for perpetuity because if it “strikes”, you’ll have to sing it for the rest of your career.

One way a singer can find their unique voice?
One way to find your unique voice is being unafraid to imitate and “mess up” and being unafraid of trying different things with your own voice for a lifetime.

Quote about singing that inspires you

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free

~ “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”, a Christian hymn


Donna McElroyDonna McElroy is a Grammy nominated vocalist, celebrated arranger and well-loved Voice Professor at Berklee College of Music. Her contributions include arranger/background vocalist on gold and platinum releases “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?” by Reba McEntire; “We Shall Be Free” by Garth Brooks, “Addictive Love” by BeBe and CeCe Winans, and “House of Love” by Amy Grant. She’s been the recipient of a Grammy nomination for Bigger World (WB) and a Dove Award for Songs from the Loft (Reunion). Television appearances include Arsenio Hall, The Tonight Show, and The Grammy Awards.


  • William Spivey

    I was blessed to attend Fisk with Donna and I’ll never forget her softly singing Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” to herself for no particular reason. Hers was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard and none has surpassed in in all the years since.

  • Sheldon R O Hope

    I love this lady. I attended Berklee in 2001 and met this lady who closed the door in my face for being late for class. She said ” your late for the gig” I have never been late for anything since that time. Much love from Barbados. Sheldon hope.

  • John Tank Winston

    Me too!
    Tank ’75