“The Voice” Vocal Coach Debra Byrd: A Musical Life, A Musical Career

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Donna ByrdMusic is not only her passion. Music is also her career. Debra Byrd is a professional music coach, teacher, singer, musician who has worked in television, film, theater. And, oh yeah, she is also the vocal coach for the popular singing competition show “The Voice.”

“I love what I get to do on ‘The Voice,’” says Byrd. “I get to help guide new talent.” “The Voice” isn’t Byrd’s first foray into television—in fact, she is somewhat of a veteran.

She was part of the first team of “American Idol.” “I had gotten a call from a producer I had worked with and he had just been made musical director of ‘AI’. When he offered me the job, I didn’t know what ‘American Idol’ was but I said ‘Count me in.’ Whenever anyone offers me a gig, I always say ‘Count me in,” says Byrd with a chuckle. At the time, she was in the studio, recording with Bob Dylan.

This gig lasted 11 seasons and turned out to be more than giving vocal coaching to the contestants. “I got to do almost everything on the show—coaching, vocal arranging, performing. I pulled 17-plus hours each day, seven days a week. People would joke that I lived at CBS. At the time, it was just me. Now, they have four vocal coaches doing the work I used to do,” she recalls.

Byrd departed from the show when a new record company stepped in at ‘AI’ and bought in their “own” people. But Byrd is a hot commodity who even Oprah Winfrey named as “America’s Top Coach For Best Vocal Advice.” After ‘AI’ Byrd went on to work with “The Winner Is” and other TV shows before taking her role at “The Voice.”

Cleveland-born, L.A.-based Byrd has been in music for as long as she can remember. “I come from a musical family,” she shares. “When I was six my grandfather got piano lessons for me. When I was 12, my mother started me taking vocal lessons.” Byrd was trained in opera and can sing in four languages. And as a teenager, she co-founded and sang in church choirs, performed in a band and narrated children’s concerts for the Cleveland Orchestra.

“I was all music, all the time. My mother thought it might be too much music, but for me it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be the best musician. Not just best singer, but best musician. I understood that you could go further in the music business if you did more than just sing.” By the time she was 17, Byrd had been offered a record contract, but to her dismay her mother made her turn it down. “My mother insisted I go to college,” says Byrd. “And after I did, I realized she was right.” Byrd went on to study at Kent State University.

After college, Byrd went about not only building her career, but creating a brand. She is considered the go-to vocal coach for the top names in the business. She has vocal-coached the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jennifer Hudson, Margaret Cho, Chaz Bono, Blush as well as hundreds of singers from “The Voice,”  “American Idol,” “Canadian Idol,” “The Next,” the Grammy Awards, “High School Musical,” “Majors & Minors,” “Operation Rising Star” and “The Winner Is.”

As a singer, she has performed around the globe with artists ranging from The Eurythmics, UB40, and Lyle Lovett to Roberta Flack, Patti Austin and Bob Geldof. As a former recording artist on RSO/Polydor Records, Byrd has also recorded and performed duets with Bob Dylan and Barry Manilow. She is the vocal arranger on Manilow’s Emmy Award-winning DVD, “Music & Passion.”

It’s not just music that Byrd has succeeded in. She is also an actress, having worked on Broadway in various hit plays. And she has worked in film both as an actress and a singer on various hit soundtracks.

Being not only an artist but also a sharp business woman, Byrd has developed a line of products for her brand. The products incorporate her Star School Live! vocal seminars, her instructional DVD Welcome to Star School and her digital pitch pipe Pocket Tones by Byrd. She is also currently developing an exclusive line of herbal products that will protect, soothe and enhance the voice.

Byrd is now juggling her time between “The Voice” and The Musicians Institute. In October, she joined the Musicians Institute’ Hollywood college of contemporary music as its Vocal Program chair. “I have 27 teachers who report to me,” says Byrd, who is excited about the new role—even if it means extra long days. “I have no typical day. I am either at the Musicians Institute, at Universal Studio with ‘The Voice’, coaching, or performing. It’s a lot to do, but I love it,” she adds.

On top of this, Byrd, who is an Artist-in-Residence at the renowned Berklee College of Music, continues to give master vocal classes and private lessons to clients worldwide—sometimes using Skype to connect with clients in France, Ireland and other international locales.

One thing Byrd enjoys the most, she says, is passing her knowledge on to others. She often advises new artists not only vocally but schools them about the industry. So what is her best advice? “You better love it because it is not called the music business for nothing,” she explains. “Artists need to equip themselves with as much information as possible about the money side of the business. You need to know what the people around you do. It would be nice to say I am ‘just an artist’ but this is not the reality. It is about your career and its longevity. By understanding the way the business works, you will be able to survive longer in the business.”

And if there’s one thing Byrd knows—it is how to build a successful brand in the finicky business of show business.