Breathe right and sing out
Just about anyone can learn to sing - almost. So says New York-based singing coach and performer Cary Gant, who arrives in Hong Kong this week for the forthcoming musical production Once on This Island, part of the International Arts Carnival.
'There has to be some innate ability to sing to begin with,' he says. 'But as long as that's there, you can teach students to produce sound in a more efficient way. Most people have relative pitch, and that's good enough to work with to develop technique. As a teacher, you can improve their breathing and develop their musical ear. But there are a few people who are tone deaf, and then you can't really do much for them.'
A successful performer in his own right, Gant has also worked with Motown legends such as Diana Ross in his capacity as musical director for the Motown Cafe chain, which closed in 2000. Born in Chicago, one of the main centres for blues and jazz, he's been immersed in music ever since his grandmother gave him a piano when he was eight.
Gant's task in Hong Kong will be to coach students in singing techniques and then groom them for a presentation of extracts from Broadway show Once on This Island, of 'mystical folk tales from the Caribbean' by Stephen Flaherty.
Choreographed by Mohamed Drissi, founder of the Hong Kong 3 Arts Musical Institute, directed by Alex Taylor and with Nobel Gabasan as musical director, the cast will feature musical actors Bonnie Lam Siu-po and Gigi Cheng.
A lot of Gant's work will be in Cantonese, and it's a challenge he's looking forward to. 'I have taught singing in different languages before. I worked with a multicultural theatre group in New York, and we did a show singing in classical Greek.
'Last summer, I did a show called The Raven. We sang in Italian, English, and a bit of Putonghua as it was set in China. Cantonese will be new for me, but the process of singing is universal - it's basically about breathing and vowels.
'The sounds change in different languages, but they are produced the same way. Breathing technique, the aperture, the mouth, the jaw, the tongue - the technique of singing is similar in every language,' he says.
'I start with breathing. I am very particular about that. Without breath there is no sound. It's vital. It's the basis of any style you want to do. I spend time explaining the action of the diaphragm and how to breathe properly. When that's understood, we start to sing and do the musical portion of the tuition.'
Like all good teachers, Gant has spent time doing as well as talking about it. He's proud of his work
on a production of the musical Dreamgirls, which toured the US in the mid-90s. He worked as both musical coach and second male lead. 'Dreamgirls is like an opera - all the dialogue is sung, so there was a lot of work.'
Dreamgirls led to Gant's next gig, as musical director of the Motown Cafe theme restaurants. It was a dream come true: 'I grew up on Motown. I used to perform Motown songs at talent shows when I was starting out. I was very affected by performers like the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. I got to meet many of them through the cafe, and that was great. I also had the privilege of hearing the original mixes of the great songs at Motown studios.'
Motown, he says is an enduring music that's never been bettered. 'The melodies are distinctive. Everything about a Motown song is special - the vocal, the guitar, the bassline, everything.'
Gant was born to a musical family. His mother and father were great jazz fans and seven of his uncles were musicians. He began his musical career studying piano, and took to singing later, while accompanying gospel music in a Baptist church.
Teaching was a natural progression: 'If people like the way you sing, they ask you how you do it. That's how the teaching started. You only realise how much you know about something when you start to teach it to other people.'
Sheung Wan Civic Centre Theatre, Aug 8-9, 7.30pm; Aug 9-10, 3pm, HK$100, HK$140, HK$180. Inquiries: 2370 1044