Stars rock on with help of Revere voice coach
REVERE >> Mark Baxter's voice studio in Revere is relatively small — a corner room in his house — but it's produced some big voices.
His list of clients has included Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, Gary Cherone of Extreme and Van Halen, and John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. Then there's Steve Augeri of Journey, Aimee Mann, Emerson Hart of Tonic, Jonny Lang, Grace Potter, and Boston bands the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Del Fuegos, and Treat Her Right.
Baxter's studio walls are lined with CD covers from well-known clients he's had over his 30-year career as a voice teacher.
"There's 100 on the wall, but I rotate many," said Baxter. " Three hundred national acts sounds right over the years."
Tyler, sometimes called the "Demon of Screamin'?" for his onstage wailing, has kept it up for five decades in part because of Baxter's coaching.
"I didn't teach Steven Tyler how to be Steven Tyler," Baxter said. "But I just tried to protect Steven Tyler from Steven Tyler with things like overall strength and conditioning for the voice ... much like an athletic trainer works with an athlete."
Amanda Palmer, one of Baxter's clients and lead singer of the Dresden Dolls, said she remembers the first time she went to Baxter's studio and saw the Boston-based duo's CDs on the wall.
"My heart swelled with pride, and I thought, there we are, next to (expletive) Aerosmith," she said.
Baxter, 59, grew up in Plainfield, N.J., and studied music at Trenton State College. He quit after two years to join a rock band and made a living singing and playing drums for 15 years. He moved to the Boston area about 30 years ago with his wife and son and taught voice lessons in Brookline before relocating to Revere 10 years ago.
Baxter also travels to New York and Los Angeles once a month to accommodate clients in those cities. One of his LA clients is Martin Johnson, lead singer of the rock band Boys Like Girls. Johnson, originally from Andover, said when he was starting out in music, Baxter was the sought-after guy in the Boston area.
"I was impressed by his client list and wasn't interested in classical training," Johnson said in an e-mail.
He also liked Baxter's ability to cater to each singer as an individual.
"When I was 18 I had ... a throaty belt that cracked like a pimply teen, and a falsetto that was stuck in boy soprano land," Johnson said. "Mark helped me create the bridge between those two distinct voices."
Another of Baxter's LA clients was Scott Weiland, the late lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots, who died of an apparent drug overdose in December.
Baxter said Weiland's death was sad, but it wasn't a surprise.
"Performers are the person they want to be when they're on stage," Baxter said. "But many artists I know struggle with the real world. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs are what some artists reach for to calm the storm when they're not on stage."
Kristin Welchez, (a.k.a. "Dee Dee"), lead singer and guitarist of the Dum Dum Girls, said she connected with Baxter through a friend, Ezra Koenig, from the band Vampire Weekend, who is also a Baxter client.
Welchez said after recovering from vocal cord nodes, she was still sidelined by mental hang-ups about her singing.
"He understood this completely and made me feel like I wasn't broken," she said.
Some of Baxter's well-known clients do travel to his studio in Revere.
"I've had 50-foot tour buses pull up in front of my place here," he said.
One of those buses belonged to JJ Grey, lead singer of the Southern rock/soul band Mofro, from Jacksonville, Fla.
"I have swung by in the tour bus on more than one occasion," Grey said. "Anytime I'm in Boston, I schedule a lesson/therapy session."
Grey said he first found out about Baxter when he bought a copy of Baxter's book, "The Rock- N-Roll Singer's Survival Manual," back in the early '90s.
"The book was way ahead of its time in every aspect," Grey said. "Later on, my voice started a vicious cycle of deterioration due to my touring nonstop with pneumonia back in the early 2000s. I looked Mark up to start the road to recovery."
Grey said the most important thing Baxter taught him as a singer was relaxation.
"Mark teaches you to get the absolute most out of yourself with the least amount of relaxed effort as possible," Grey said. "It's Zen-like to me."
Baxter said many of his well-known clients come to him with bad vocal habits they've developed over years of singing.
"They come with a brand," he said. "Typically, the bad behaviors are their signature sound. I show them how to remove the bad behavior and still maintain their signature sound."
Baxter said those bad behaviors often involve overcompensating by adding extra muscles the singers don't need.
"All the muscles they add in are a source of friction (on the vocal cords) and a problem," he said.
Dr. Steven Zeitels, laryngeal surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, said Baxter has been the sole voice teacher who consistently attends his continuing education courses at Harvard Medical School.
"In my view, this demonstrates a unique and valuable commitment to integrating complex medical/surgical issues to enhance his ability to teach," Zeitels said.
Among his over 3,000 students, Baxter said he currently has about 100 active clients. Not all are famous rock stars. Baxter takes on students of all experience levels, including beginners.
"The biggest thing with beginners is to give them permission to sing badly," he said. "People have permission to play instruments badly (when first learning), but not singing. They often stop singing because it's more socially risky."
Baxter said it's also important to praise beginners to develop trust.
He said that same level of trust extends to his famous clients.
"I feel grateful (to be their voice trainer)," he said. "Not because they're famous, but because they're trusting me."
Information from: The Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com
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