Mark Stoddard: Well, good day. It’s now time for our podcast of the Influencers of Professional Music and Theater. I’m Mark Stoddard, marketing and media consultant to CS Music and singers across the globe. Today our guest is Darin Adams, a noted professional coach for many Broadway singers…but we’ll let Darin tell you more. Welcome to our podcast Darin.
Darin Adams: Mark, great to be here.
Mark Stoddard: Let’s first of all start off and tell our listeners what you are doing right now.
Darin Adams: It’s a bit of a list, but the main thing is we have founded a company called Appcompanist and we’re building a fantastic practice tool for voice teachers and singers of classical vocal repertoire and musical theater repertoire basically to help them be able to get greater control of their accompaniments using their smartphones.
Mark Stoddard: Let’s come back to that in just a second, but let’s talk about your musical theater career and what you’re doing in the musical theater world right now.
Darin Adams: We live in New York City. I’m based in Manhattan on the upper west side and for many years I’ve been teaching voice to Broadway professionals and I also am a composer. I write music. We’re actually workshopping and going through the pre-commercial process with a show of mine called Lost and Found. That’s been neat. We’ve done a couple of productions in California and we’re sort of reworking that.
So, from that side, everything you need to do to stay afloat in the musical theater industry is what we’ve been doing the last several years.
Mark Stoddard: Tell me some of the people that you’ve worked with lately in the theater.
Darin Adams: Well, as a voice teacher, it’s been fun. I started off teaching a lot of the Rockettes who ended up then, going on to become ensemble members and even leads in shows like Wicked and a shows like Hamilton. Pretty much every show you can think of in the last several years I’ve had the great privilege of getting to be a vocal coach or work vocally with singers in those shows. It’s been a neat privilege of mine and I’m so thankful for that.
Mark Stoddard: Any names that our listeners would relate to or understand?
Darin Adams: It depends what they’ve been to lately. You know, the funniest thing about Broadway is that you’ve got a first cast name in the very first cast that people might well understand, and those people go out after six months to a year and then you get a lot of wonderful Broadway folks who have been around a long time, but you know, no one might recognize the name.
Interesting story. One of our colleagues who we were just singing with the other night was the Christine in “Phantom” in Australia for years. She also has kids and lives here in the city and now is actually playing Madame Giry in “Phantom” on Broadway. So, as she likes to put it, she went from the ingénue to the old lady with the stick.
But, it’s kind of a fun story and that’s how it goes in this business as you just keep working and it may not be the big-name recognition, but if you can work you’re succeeding, that’s for sure.
Mark Stoddard: Tell us how you got started into the theater?
Darin Adams: Well, I was opera by background. I got my undergrad in southern California then I went on and sang for a while with companies like San Jose Virginia Bay Opera and Berkeley Opera and a bunch of the west coast companies. A mentor and teacher of mine would stage-direct operas and I would often go play a role where he was directing. If he went to Nevada Opera Theater and did Carmen, I might go there and sing.
I went from that to grad school where he retired on the faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington and got my master’s there, did my master’s coursework there in stage direction and opera production.
They had a habit of doing a musical each year [at Indiana University]. So even though I was dead set on singing opera, I had a ball playing Curly in Oklahoma and Cable in South Pacific. I was married already when we went there and my wife, Sherry, and we had a ball in grad school. We started falling in love with more theatrical stuff. In fact, she was in Oklahoma with me. I was Curly, she was Ado Annie. So not the romantic interests of one another, but had a ball doing it.
Mark Stoddard: At least she couldn’t say no.
Darin Adams: No, exactly! Well, fortunately to everyone else but me, she does. But Sherry and I jumped on cruise ships after grad school for about three and a half years and absolutely had a ball traveling the world and singing first as production vocalists and eventually as headline artists on the ships.
We had our own act where we had a seven-piece band and we would do a couple of different types of shows that got us into concertizing and traveling around and singing. So you’ll catch the theme from me is how many different things you do to sort of survive and thrive in the theater business, which thankfully we’ve been able to do.
Mark Stoddard: Well, let’s pick that apart. Just to go back to the early days and what was your first paid job?
Darin Adams: First paid job was, well, let’s see. In college I actually had a couple of paid jobs. There was an NBC Christmas special and I was going to school in southern California and was singing quite a lot of concert and studio work and doing that sort of thing. I was a volunteer and I just happened to be in the studio session for no money at all and the director of this NBC Christmas special, said, hey we’re going to have this college choir and we’d love to have you solo on it. That was my first actual paycheck for singing because there was a residual from it. I got a check and thought that was pretty cool.
Then after that, right out of college, I started singing at the Nevada Opera Theatre. That was actually my first professional opera gig. Then from there I did Tony in West Side Story out at the Embassy Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. That was a professional job. So they just started kind of rolling in after that.
Mark Stoddard: Did you have a manager?
Darin Adams: No, never had a manager, never signed with an agent. Just auditioned and we found the things that were available.
Mark Stoddard: So truly music singing is a business.
Darin Adams: It’s always been a business. And I mean that in the broadest sense of the word. I lie a little bit about the first paycheck because before that I was a character called Mr. Debonair for a singing telegram company. I was getting $125 to write a little song based on information they gave me and show up with a rose and a Tuxedo and sing to whomever I was hired to sing to. I would do a couple songs, dance with them, and then do this little personalized song I would write for them. When I was hired to do it I thought, well surely, I’ll get maybe one of these a week. This wonderful woman from All-Star Showgrams, it was called in the Bay Area in California, she started booking me out about 15 times a week. I mean it was absolutely crazy. It was a job though and it was really fun and I had a ball and that would sort of be my piecemeal work in between other things. So yes. Is it a business? Definitely. Is it entrepreneurial? If you let it be, yes.
Mark Stoddard: So, you did exactly what Enrico Caruso did to get started.
Darin Adams: I would find that hard to believe, but if so, I feel so much better about my life.
Mark Stoddard: His friends would pay him to go and sing to their girlfriends and deliver a message.
Darin Adams: You’re kidding.
Mark Stoddard: No – he wrote the script. He did everything. I mean, we’re talking when he was 14 or 15.
Darin Adams: Oh my gosh. I love that. That’s basically early singing telegrams right there. That’s wonderful.
Mark Stoddard: Yes. I see some singers who feel like that’s beneath them.
Darin Adams: Yeah, I guess I had the good fortune or the low standards to never feel like anything was beneath. If I could sing in front of people and I could see them smiling as a result of that singing. That always seemed good enough for both my wife and I. That was kind of our mantra and what drove us was, hey, if we get to sing, that’s happy. Whether it’s on a cruise ship or in a church.
I had one church where I sang, were I became the funeral singer, which I know sounds weird because generally you want to be the wedding singer. But I really enjoyed entering into memorial services and being there to bring comfort and hope and developed a lot of repertoire that seemed to do that for people. So, I would do that actually quite a lot. I must have sung probably 200 memorial services in my early career at this church out in California.
Mark Stoddard: Let’s go back to the cruise ship. How did you get the cruise ship gig?
Darin Adams: I was on a fishing trip in Florida and my lovely wife, wanting to get a cruise ship job, she had always wanted to do one. I won’t say she impersonated my manager but, she impersonated a manager. And she actually called the Norwegian Cruise Line, and said, Darin Adams happens to be in your area. To which of course they’re saying, well, who in the world is Darin Adams, but it didn’t matter. She plowed on and she said he would love to stop by and saying he would be a great addition to your fleet. He’d be great in a cast show or as a headliner. They kind of jokingly said, well we don’t do that. He can audition in New York or LA. She said, oh, but you don’t want to miss the chance while he’s there in Florida. So she actually set up an audition for me to go in one afternoon to their corporate offices.
They had no pianos there. We went into a carpeted conference room and they all said, well, whoever called us on your behalf said we really ought to hear you while you’re in town. So what do you want to sing? I’d just finished Tony in West Side Story. They saw that on my resume. So they said, well, why don’t you sing Maria? So I stood there acapella singing Maria from West Side Story in their offices. They said, well, are you interested in cruise ships? I said, sure and I have a wife also who sings and they said, well send a videotape of the two of you singing together so that we can hear your wife. I went home and we didn’t even send it in, I thought it was the goofiest audition ever. I thought they were just being polite.
They called a week later and actually said, hey, what happened? We’re waiting for a video from you guys. So we quickly made one and sent it in to Norwegian Cruise Line and they called back, almost immediately and said we have a ship for you to go out on, can you get ready in three weeks? That was our first six-month contract. We went right down to Fort Lauderdale, rehearsed for a few weeks and went out. It was a weird job to tell you the truth. But wonderful too, and really opened the door to a lot of other things on cruise ships and on land.
Mark Stoddard: Did you have a shtick?
Darin Adams: No, we didn’t have one then, and it’s interesting you should ask that because we didn’t even know enough to know what that meant. We just sort of showed up and we did that contract and we were production singers. I had come from a masters in opera and I’ve got an open jacket and no shirts singing La Bamba pulling the lady up out of the audience to dance with me on stage. It was as far a cry from opera as you could possibly go singing everything from Elton John to Some Enchanted Evening. It was just crazy. But when we finished that, the next time we actually auditioned for a cruise ship, we did have a shtick.
Mark Stoddard: What was it?
Darin Adams: Well, someone had said when they saw us on the first ship that you guys have that neat Steve and Eydie vibe, to which we, of course, had to avail ourselves of some research. We didn’t even know who Steve and Eydie were. Steve Lawrence had Eydie Gorme was who they were referring to. If you don’t know them, to the younger people who are listening, look them up.
Sherry was comical. She’s tall and elegant and beautiful and I do leading man stuff. But what was fun was just when they expected us to be this romantic leading lady and man couple, Sherry would break off into these really funny comic “Lucille Ball” type routines. I would be sort of flustered by the whole thing and it really became a great shtick; that people would enjoy hearing us sing the big stuff together, but then she would have this comic side and sort of razz me on stage and come up with different things and sang Adelaide’s Lament and funny stuff like that.
Darin Adams: That became a good shtick. It made us more sort of approachable and appealing. By the time we got through on Seabourn Cruise Line, we had probably, well in fact I know for about six months running we had the highest rated act that they had because it was an appealing, fun show that everybody could be into. We enjoyed visiting with people the rest of the cruise, so they all came out to the show and were very supportive of us.
Mark Stoddard: So you did that for three and a half years?
Darin Adams: Yes, we did cruise ships for about three and a half years, all different sizes. In fact, one of the gigs we were cruise directors on a very high end, small ship. It was a gig to be a performing cruise director, so we would lead trivia and host dinner tables and then we would put shows together with the band and do the shows. It was kind of a mix of stuff. But really a fun time, a great job. After that though, we did prefer doing just performer stuff.
Mark Stoddard: Why did you stop?
Darin Adams: We wanted to have a family and that’s hard to do when you’re out on a cruise ship, so we stopped. We still say to this day if we hadn’t wanted to settle in and have family and all that stuff, we could’ve done it forever. We loved it so much. We went back to California and took a music church job for a while as we started our family.
Mark Stoddard: I like to tell people that I believe in “planned spontaneity” and that sounds very much like what a singers role is in trying to find work.
Darin Adams: That’s a great way to say it, Mark. I’ve never even heard somebody put it that way, but I think I know exactly what you mean
Mark Stoddard: And the question I have many times from singers is they love to sing. I heard from Robert Swedberg several years ago when he told Classical Singer Magazine, please don’t send me any more singers to perform at our opera theater. Send me performers.
Darin Adams: Interesting. That is an interesting note. What do you see as the difference between those two?
Mark Stoddard: Well, I was going to ask you, you’re the expert.
Darin Adams: Well, I know what it evokes for me. It’s been described in Sherry and I many times that there’s this sort of spark and communication that people, whether we’re singing operatic repertoire or whether I’ve done lecture recitals on the ships (believe it or not, I even did a whole German leaders series and things), whether we’re doing that or big funny comic cabaret style shows or even production shows, we’ve always felt like what we’re really out there doing is connecting with people.
That what we’re really trying to do is communicate. Tell stories, connect with people, make the songs part of their story and so when we used to do things like You Belong to Me we’d do that wonderful sort of a post wartime song and we would find people crying and connecting with it. And sometimes we’d even get to ask their story or ask an important song to them and weave that song in. And really to us that journey from singer to performer was found through performing.
I think it’s through the connection with audiences where you realize if I sing at them, I’m doing very little for them. If I am performing for them and in fact experiencing with them, “them” being the audience- anybody who’s listening, whether it’s five people or a whole theater full, if we’re having a shared experience that’s much different than just singing. In fact it takes the pressure off of having the best voice in the entire world. I mean it’s great to have a wonderful voice. But we would run across many, many singers who were not performers. They were singing, they were listening to themselves and making beautiful tones. There just wasn’t a sense of connection. There wasn’t an ability to laugh at themselves, enjoy themselves, look at and take in the people that they’re performing for. So I do get what you’re saying it. It means a lot to me, actually. I haven’t heard it said that way, but I do appreciate it.
Mark Stoddard: That’s well said. Tell us about your app, how that’s going to change the way people do things.
Darin Adams: Well, you know, what I tell people a lot about the app is that we didn’t set out to start a business with this app. We set out to really solve a problem that those of us who are involved with it all experience. Which is we’re all singers, we’re all teachers. We are not expert accompanists ourselves. I play enough to play for lessons and things, but we all share this common experience of it’s hard to choose songs and find songs and then be able to really practice those or sing them into your voice, choose the right key, find a tempo that works.
All of the recorded solutions just didn’t work for me as a teacher, definitely, but also often didn’t work for me as a singer. I’d find myself locked into one specific interpretation. So my goal for years has been, couldn’t I have a tool where I could do that wood shedding process before I get to work with my collaborative pianists where I know the melody and I’ve tried it at different tempi, especially with auditions. I have been in the room too many times where the accompanist who’s paid to be there at the audition just takes an altogether different tempo than I’m used to and it would throw me vocally.
I wanted to build something that would let singers actually move the tempo around, practice at different tempi, put it in different keys, try it a half step up because music directors will throw that at you sometimes. Then also to be able to put a melody on and off, blend it in and out and not have to start the recording over. So I had this whole series of things in my head “I want it to do this, I want it to do that”. I didn’t even know if it was possible. But I got a wonderful programmer friend. (I say programmer, he’s much more than that.) But I got somebody who actually had the where-with-all to build it. He was amazing and said, yes, I think we can make that happen.
It couldn’t have been done five years ago but the technology exists now where we could put it in the palm of singer’s hands. The way it’s going to change things is as we build the biggest accompaniment library ever assembled for classical vocal and musical theater repertoire. Our goal is that everybody who uses this creates their own interpretation.
Then the next feature is that there’ll be able to save their own interpretations. We even have a fermata button in this thing or for a recitative or a high note that someone wants to hold. This fermata button, they can push it and the notes ring underneath as the chord holds. Just like when a pianist does it and the second they release it jumps to the very next chord and continues. It’s a patented feature that’s never been done before and it’s just cool because as a singer I feel like we’re doing it. We’re making a tool that actually will work in the studio and work in the practice room the way singers are used to singing and practicing or the way teachers are used to teaching.
Mark Stoddard: I watched you demonstrate this to some students and I must say that when you sang along with it and you hit the money note and gave it a fermata, they went wild. I was shocked.
Darin Adams: I’d love to think they’re going wild for my amazing high note. But in reality, any singer that sees, oh my gosh, the recording just held with him and he controlled it and he held that note as long as he wanted and it came back in flawlessly? I mean, any singer who’s ever waited on a traditional accompaniment recording and missed as it came back in, had that embarrassing thing of, oh my gosh, when is the next chord going to come? They get it immediately. That’s why the freak out. Yes. Those kids went nuts because they were like, oh my gosh. It hasn’t been available before. So it’s fun to see that reaction.
Mark Stoddard: Then you modulated to the middle of the whole thing then you change the tempo from slower to faster. It was more than they could help themselves.
Darin Adams: I think what they’re expecting, is if you’re going to manipulate the music like that, because in the past it’s always been this way, it’s going to affect the quality. If you change key, it’s going to start getting wobbly and weird because most things that even allow key change, the sound gets bad. Our whole goal in the beginning was, there can’t be any change in the quality of the piano or the sound. It’s got to sound like the person is playing it live for the first time every time, no matter what key, no matter how fast or slow they push it, it has to sound the same piano quality – Perfect. And that’s what we’ve achieved. Believe it or not, it’s kind of a magical thing. It’s still magical to me when I put it up a third and it sounds like someone just moved their hands on the piano. So there’s no change in quality. That’s magical.
Mark Stoddard: The other thing that I see is you have really made the singer become their own conductor.
Darin Adams: Yes, yes.
Mark Stoddard: When I tell this to singers, I think let your imagination go. Because one of the things that needs to be thrown in there as they could become their own conductor as they’re performing at some very odd places where they need a black-box and need a negative track.
Darin Adams: Exactly. It’s so reliable because when you load a song, it streams immediately to the phone. So I have gotten in situations where I’ve stood at the Junior Theatre Festival, it’s called GTF. It’s this wonderful festival, young people who do musical theater. I stood up in front of 6,700 kids and actually used the app in front of them.
I thought this is amazing, because you mentioned being in a performance environment and maybe you want to go to an old folks home and work up your music and practice and bring joy and sing for people. It’s neat to have a tool that is so reliable that it could actually become an accompanist in that situation when you don’t have one. Again, it’s not to replace a pianist, but there are moments where, wouldn’t it be lovely to sing and you just don’t have a pianist with you or even a piano in the room. It might be a nice thing to pull out a Bluetooth speaker and a phone and be able to entertain people. This is built for all of that. To be able to practice, wood shed, learn, sing.
We had a little party here the other night in my living room in New York and the singers we had here were ridiculous. We had two singers from Something’s Rotten, one singer from Phantom, one who had just come off a national tour and they’re all in the living room and we pulled out Appcompanist and we were having a ball. One was doing Glitter and Be Gay and she’s holding all these fermatas and all these high notes and she’s playing with it and just giddy. She’s having so much fun and we’re all having a blast and I can’t play that repertoire flawlessly in her key. So it was just fun to be able to do that.
Mark Stoddard: And the royalties?
Darin Adams: The royalties are all paid. We have an arrangement through the Harry Fox Agency, Rumble Fish. So just like any streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, we actually have an arrangement where we report the use every month and that’s how everybody gets paid. In fact, we recently have had to go on a bit of a campaign to help singers understand copyright law because it’s confusing today with the accessibility of music. We’ve had people get the app and say, oh great, now I can make some neat recordings for my students and my friends.
We’ve had to do a little reeducating to say, hey, it’s important as an artistic community that we all follow copyright law, and everybody gets paid. When a recording gets made, when someone uses this app and makes a recording, that’s actually not a legal copy and it hurts the composers and pianists, the recording artists, everybody down the line because no one’s getting paid on that recording. That’s why they call it an illegal copy.
So yes, we’ve really taken pains to do it right. I know there’s some services that don’t, but it’s important to us. I’m a composer. It means a lot to me. I have a good friend who wrote the show Dear Evan Hansen. We’ve got so much of that amazing Pasek and Paul music on our app and I couldn’t hang around with them and feel excited about it if I didn’t realize that they’re getting paid for their work. That every time people stream it, they’re actually getting compensated for their amazing work.
Mark Stoddard: So, you probably have a very sizable portion of the famous opera Arias as well as the tremendous library of musical theater for the singers to choose from.
Darin Adams: Yes, we were heavier on classical at first because we knew that our first excited group would be the classical people. So we built an incredible library over 2000 titles right off the bat with the big standard Arias in all the voice types and then tons of German lieder, French melody, even Russian stuff. We have some wonderful Russian art songs and Spanish cancion. It’s just been wonderful. So we’ve had a blast building the library. Musical theater has come out strong. We just passed about 2,200 titles I think on musical theater. What’s fun is people are now requesting, so we have thousands of users and they’ll go on our website and they’ll say, hey, I really want this.
I got this beautiful email from an African American singer the other day who said I’ve searched everywhere for a song from the show Curly. She said it’s almost impossible to find. I couldn’t believe it when it was there on Appcompanist. Then what meant a lot to me is she said it feels like a product that is for me and what she meant, and she went on to clarify, she said, I look for songs specifically for African American singers and you had such a variety of those and I can see you’ve recorded a bunch lately because they have little tags. She said, I know you’re thinking of it and it matters to you. That means a lot to me. So that was cool to hear.
Mark Stoddard: We’re about out of time, but I’m just assuming that they can get the Appcompanist app on csmusic.net?
Darin Adams: I know that we cooperate a lot with CS Music. I don’t know if there’s a link on there are not. That I’ll have to leave to you to check out, but I do know it’s on the app store. So however they get to it, if it’s through csmusic.net or if it’s through our website appcompanist.com or if they just go into the Apple store and search Appcompanist we are there as well.
Mark Stoddard: Well, we thank you for your time. It’s been a great pleasure to this to talk about music and theater and all the things that lead singers to the opportunity to actually make a career out of it.