“This had a lot to do with it,” Bryan Putnam gestures to a flute on the table between us. “The flute and the voice are very similar in the way you breathe—and the way you release air—and they’re both very melodic. The vocal phrasing and the flute phrasing are very similar.”
As we sit in his vocal studio on Dock Street, I expected him to wax poetic at the keyboard setup in the room. However, as with most conversations with Bryan Putnam, he surprises me.
“When I was 4, I knew I wanted to play flute,” he recalls.
We are off on a journey through the human breath, which is so important to Putnam’s view of vocal performance that he named the voice studio: “Breathe. Speak. Sing!”
“I honestly believe if you can breathe and speak, you can sing I have never had a student prove me wrong.”
Putnam smiles and his whole being lights up with excitement as he demonstrates where words, tones and resonance happen in the human body. I am startled and mesmerized.
There is beauty which shines through when someone is in the throes of their purpose and gifts.
When they draw back the curtain and we get to see what the gods have given them. With Putnam the joy is infectious. I never thought I could be excited about thinking of my diaphragm as a reflexive muscle. When he says anyone can sing, he means anyone—not just the beautiful performers who tread the boards and belt out showtunes.
“I’ve had Army sergeants come to me because they were hurting their voice doing drills and I got them singing!” Putnam explains. “Not only did we give them a nice base of air to not hurt their voices when they talked—and get the air over it—they were like, ‘I want to stay. I want sing.’ I’ve had psychologists come because suddenly their jobs went from being in a room with somebody, to doing PowerPoint presentations all over the state.”
But the majority of Putnam’s students are singers working on improving their skills for performance. Brenton Schraff, who was introduced to Wilmington audiences as Robert Kincaid in Thalian Assocation’s spring production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” began working with Putnam after a referral from local performer and musical director Amanda Hunter.
“When it was announced Thalian was producing ‘Bridges of Madison County,’ I went looking for someone to help familiarize me with and prepare the music,” Scraff notes. “I began working independently on vocals and soon realized, to do justice to the music, and put my best foot forward at auditions, I would need help. That’s when I went looking for a coach and eventually found Bryan. We worked together weekly for many months leading up to the audition.”
It was not Scraff’s first experience with a voice coach.
“I lived and worked in Los Angeles for 13 years,” he says, “and during that time, worked with a handful of voice coaches for various projects and auditions.”
Putnam is more interested in working on long-term voice development and training. He doesn’t pitch a quick one-stop fix ahead of an audition.
“Where many coaches would only do audition prep—or teach how to act the song, or coach vocal technique, Bryan teaches all of those areas simultaneously,” Scraff explains. “Since he is a composer, actor, musician, and singer, he is able to draw upon a virtually bottomless bag of tools and techniques to address the vocal and performance challenges of actors. . . . He is constantly working on a foundational level to build a voice from the ground up and truly change his students’ approach to singing. He also teaches about the biology of voice and throat, so the singer can better understand how their interest creates sounds.”
As Scraff points out, Putnam is no Johnny Come Lately. Though he is an accomplished performer (including the lead in the national tour of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, among others) and a gifted composer in his own right, his credits will astound. He has a membership to the Actors Equity Association, as well as Dramatists Guild of America and ASCAP for his writing and composing. He is currently scoring music for JR Rodriguez’s film “Remember Yesterday,” and his musical “The Toymaker” will appear on stage in Wilmington next year. But it is his 30-plus years of voice teaching which has earned him membership in the New York Singing Teachers Association and his decade running a voice studio in New York.
“In New York you go to a vocal coach just prior to an audition. They’re a pianist; they’re playing for you and giving you last-minute tips—like a coach. One who’s giving you a bit of advice, a tiny bit of technique and upping your game a bit right before you go into an audition,” Putnam explains. However, a voice teacher should “teach from the correct breath, to the reflexive release … communicating through the voice, where the placement of air is for each vowel, you’re actually teaching the voice, you’re teaching the musical structure. You’re teaching all of that.”
The words rush from Putnam like a hummingbird beating its wings hundreds of times a minute, I realize he needs this to thrive. It is part excitement of sharing his knowledge; part curiosity of an incredibly inquisitive mind about how the human body works; and partly a marvel at the mystery of this intangible thing called “art,” of which we as humans get to create.
“[It] happened to me in New York when I started digging into the voice and going to voice teachers. I could sing a song. I knew inherently where to put things. But no one ever showed me a chart that said, ‘This is actually a chart [and] this is where this happening.’ No one ever showed me where the soft palate separated from the back of the throat and the air to pharynx passed through and that’s your main resonator. No one ever showed me.”
Putnam’s days are filled with teaching pretty constantly right now and he seems enthralled by it. Students range from 12 to 70 and they all bring something different into the studio.
“There’s a lot of therapy that goes on in this room,” he says. “Recently, in this room I’ve had several students break into tears—not because I’m driving them but because they feel a release.”
He flashes that smile again and recounts a success story with a young actress whose voice finally soared through “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The experience surprised her so much she actually backed herself into a corner and started crying.
“‘I’ve never heard that come out of me before,’ she said. And you know what? She’s only moved forward since then,” Putnam recalls, his eyes twinkling with pride.