By Corey Fournier and Jim Bybee
Darcel Wilson is assistant professor of eartraining and voice at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, as well as a professional singer with a long list of performing and recording credits. Her substantial résumé includes working with top artists like Branford Marsalis and Paul Simon, numerous jingles for top companies, and even a stint on Broadway.
In her work at Berklee and as a personal vocal coach, Darcel was thrilled to discover the many great benefits that Roland’s VT-12 Vocal Trainer offers for teaching. She uses it with her students, and highly recommends it to them as an essential tool for daily practice and improvement. The VT-12 has become a go-everywhere companion for Darcel, as she takes it along on both professional singing gigs and her extensive travels as an international educator.
When did you first discover the VT-12 and how it could help your teaching?
I saw an advertisement for it last fall on the back of Making Music magazine. I looked at it and I was like, “I want to see this thing!”
What did you initially like about the VT-12 when you started using it?
I liked that it’s geared towards vocalists. When I rehearse, perform, or do whatever, I’d always use some kind of recorder. And I tell my students to do the same thing, and to bring one to their lessons. I just think [the VT-12] carries a lot of things all in one, and that’s good. It has that pitch-accuracy button, and you visually see the notes that tell you you’re matching pitch. I really like it. You guys have put some exercises in there, and also some backing-track type things. It’s convenient, a kind of a silent partner, I think. I would probably call it my “voice buddy.”
In addition to being a vocal educator, you’re a professional singer with a lot of top credits. Does the VT-12 appeal to your performing side as well?
Definitely. It can go from a rehearsal room to the studio to backstage. When I’m doing my professional work, I make sure that I have something there that I can use as a recorder to refer me back, because it’s important for me to not have to have something repeated time after time so that I can learn it. If I record it, I can go back to it in my quiet room and do it that way. But as far as learning for studio stuff, I love it, because you can do the harmonies with yourself if you need to, or you can practice harmonies. You can gauge what you want to do on that, and I really like it.
Have you had the opportunity to use the VT-12 as a practice or teaching aide one-on-one with a student in a private lesson setting?
I used it recently with a student. We didn’t do the personal recording stuff, but I played some of her warm-up exercises. She could see the visual of what was happening, so that was kind of cool. What I really like is the fact that the note names light up as you sing. Working on the road doing workshops, we have so many varying levels of musicianship—some can write the notes on the staff, some cannot.
A few weeks ago, we were in Puerto Rico, and I split the voice up into four or five voicings, and I would tell the section to write down the notes. Once you get the rhythm, if they know what the notes are—say it’s E, G, E or something like that—they can write it down over that lyric. For those who are a little more learned when it comes to the staff, they would just write it on their music paper. So it worked out well. If you see that you’re singing [the right notes], it gives you a certain reassurance. I really like that.
So you use it for note identification with sight singing and note reading?
Exactly. I also teach in the Ear Training Department at Berklee, so I don’t just teach vocalists; I teach instrumentalists who don’t have singing experience. At Berklee, you have to sing. When we’re doing solfège with drummers or bass players, it’s often their first time opening their mouths to sing besides in the shower, so I do a lot of work one-on-one outside of the classroom. I try to help them to find their voice, and [the VT-12] is one of those things that can really give someone an honest assessment, as far as pitch matching. It’s imperative that they learn how to match pitch. With this, they can assess their own progress in order to continue to advance and become confident. Then they can get a gig singing backup while they’re playing drums.
That’s an interesting point that you make. We see many instrumentalists nowadays singing on stage, even drummers.
Yes. That’s the wave, and I tell all my students, “If you want to get a gig and you really want to work, get your oohs and aahs under your belt.” [Laughs.] That’s it. Learn how to hold a note. When you audition, let them know that you sing light backgrounds or whatever you do.
I can see how that would be a valuable skill for musicians who are trying to get work.
I think that this vocal trainer brings it all together. You don’t have to have all these external things [like separate recorders and tuners] to keep you in check or to help you. It really is nice, and it’s honest because it’s not masking the sound with reverb or whatever. It can be the difference in making and breaking a person. Many people who sing, especially young people, are told they sound so great. They’re never told they don’t sound good until they audition for Simon Cowell and he asks, “Who told you you could sing?”
So, sometimes singers don’t get the objective, unbiased feedback they need?
Exactly. I’m telling you—it’s true. In that sense, the VT-12 really is a buddy. A true friend really tells you the truth. I see a lot of students who if they hear themselves sound terrible, they kind of give up. But for the determined singer and the determined learner, I think it’s a good thing, because you only need to beat your own personal best.
Are there any other VT-12 features that you like, either for your students or yourself?
I love the metronome feature, because a lot of times singers don’t even know what tempo they’re [performing at]. But visually seeing that tempo, the metronome, and being able to adjust it, it helps the practice of things like riffs. You can slow it down and sing it very slowly, and then speed up the metronome to try to sing it in time. And I like the [built-in] stand, and that the VT-12 [comes in different] colors.
You mentioned solfège before. Do you use that at Berklee?
We do. We use moveable-do solfège at Berklee in the Ear Training Department, and everybody has to take an ear-training course. We have levels one through four; I teach levels one through three now. We also have other ear training courses that are elective, but the first four are not elective.
Incidentally, there are now two different solfège static-cling overlays for the VT-12 that support si do and ti do, and you can move the do on the note display to whatever pitch you want to start on.
That’s really cool. We do have quite an international group of students that we encounter, so that’s good. I did a workshop last year in Spain, and they use si do. I also demonstrated the VT-12 in Perugia, Italy, this past July at the Umbria Jazz Clinics, where I was one of three voice instructors. I have recently heard from students in Germany, Italy, Africa, Spain, Brazil, China, and throughout the United States that they are looking to purchase this most useful tool. One of my students from Italy recently wrote to me saying, “I bought the vocal trainer and I tried it for intonation and to understand keys. It’s fantastic!”
Do you recommend the VT-12 to your students?
Well, I told all my students today, get this VT-12 before you go—go home with this. They were excited. They’re here at Berklee this week for a three-day vocal summit. We have students ranging from age 15 to 99, and they come to get infused with singing and some knowledge, and then the experience of performing. Tomorrow, all of the singers will be performing with Paula Cole at the Berklee Performance Center. We also started a weekend series that we have once a year called the Stage Performance Workshop, where I had the opportunity to share and demonstrate the VT-12 this summer. I can confidently say that I really enjoy using this product. I’ve found it to be personally useful in my own career, and being able to recommend it to my students feels great. I just think it’s a great tool.