Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 18
Interviewee: Whitney Nichole – Cytryn
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong, and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Jason: Welcome today, Whitney, Nichole, to the podcast. I’m so excited to chat with you here. I’ve done all kinds of research about your singing straw and I’ve had multiple people tell me that you are just an awesome person and that we need to talk with you about what successful musicians are. But before we dive into the whole singing straw, I’d love to just kind of find out a little bit more about your background. How in the world did you end up in music and I’m sure you grew up as a little kid thinking, I’m going to make a straw and sell lots of straws, tell people to sing and make millions of dollars doing it, right?
Whitney: (Laughs) Absolutely! I know, right? Not at all! The opposite, quite the opposite. I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for having me. Yeah. It’s actually really funny because my background, if you told me I’d be selling a straw, you’d be like, what? That’s ridiculous. But you told me I was going to be a vocal coach. I also wouldn’t have believed you, because when I was young, I really actually didn’t resonate with voice lessons. And I didn’t resonate with it, like I was in a choir, and I did some music stuff at school, but I never could find… I always felt like one of my voice lessons for me was, like, trying to fit me into a box that I didn’t fit into. It was sort of like, well, I wanted to sing like contemporary music. I kind of loved to belt. I liked Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey. I like the big voices and a lot of times the teachers that I met in my experience were a little bit more formal, more classically focused, and wanted me to learn arias and things like that. And no offense, like there is beautiful, there are beautiful, incredible voices and music on that side of the world but I personally was like, no, but I want to be doing this other thing.
It’s so funny because I just fast forward decades and this is my passion and literally what my purpose is on this earth, to help people sing and love their voice is just so ironic because if you told my 13-year-old self, I never would have believed you.
Jason: Well, and your background, you went to Yale university. So, you went to one of these really fancy colleges and I’m sure they have a very traditional… Was it music that you studied as what your major was?
Whitney: Yeah. No, it’s funny because before that reason alone, their program was very classically based, and I didn’t resonate with that at all. So, I was there. I went to pre-Med thinking I was going to be a doctor and I switched to political science, and I was on the road to being a lawyer and working in corporate America. But it’s funny. Actually, I had an amazing experience as an undergrad at Yale and my extracurriculars took over in terms of what I learned from the experience there. Of course, I learned a lot in class. It’s an amazing university but I was also part of the A Capella community, which was at Yale. It’s actually fun in the Ivy’s in the States, the A Capella community in those schools, it’s like more popular even than rushing sororities and fraternities. There were, I think, 12 or 14 Acapella groups on campus. So, when I got there, you go and you actually add diction for them, and then it becomes this huge piece of who you are and what you do. You rehearse twice a week, you perform on the weekends, you go on these tours on the breaks.
I did a worldwide tour with some of my closest friends, and I actually business Spanish the entire thing, so we’re not bringing a small amount of money. And you then put it into a tour around the world. So that was kind of my first foray into the music business, ironically, was in my extracurriculars.
Jason: I think they made a movie about the Acapella groups.
Whitney: Whiffenpoofs! The all-male, actually, these days, I think they actually started to open it to women and men but back when I was there, it was all men and then there was a female version called Women Rhythm, which still exists, and that was the senior version that I was in. But yeah, it’s a huge part of the community. But I loved it, and it was singing all the time. I learned so much. I performed, we recorded albums, we toured. It was amazing.
Jason: Well, I think where I’m at, the Acapella scene has been huge as well that we actually had for several years. It was called A Capella Stock. So just like Woodstock, it was a Cappella stock, and they would bring in four or five acapella groups and it was just like the biggest A Capella concert in the country, is what they were trying to make it. And it was every summer, and we’d sponsor it when I was working for the bank. It was amazing.
Whitney: Yeah, so much fun. A Capella is so much fun. I’m a total A Capella nerd. But it’s funny because I graduated and my parents were always, like, well-intentioned, but they’d always kind of given me to like but we’re glad you like singing, but what’s your real job going to be? Make sure that you have a career. You just went to Yale, so that’s an expensive degree. You need to pay for it. So hence, I worked in a law firm in New York City after that, and I thought I was going to become a lawyer. I took Elsa, did all the things. About a year into working for the law firm and living in Manhattan, I felt like I wasn’t enjoying my life. I was frustrated and drained at the end of the day and I kind of just wasn’t, I just was not happy. And I thought, well, why would I continue on this road and go to another three-year degree and potentially, if this is already draining me as a paralegal, I probably should consider other options. So, I took a pause.
I just hit pause on my real career, and I thought, well, you know what, I’m young, I live in New York City. If I’m going to write songs and pursue my music career, now is the time to give that a shot. So, I basically just started a band and started performing and honestly, that sort of moved me in the trajectory of where I am now. And it’s so funny that I once was going to be a lawyer. So funny.
Jason: Realistically. So, you’ve released albums and singles and I know I was listening to some of them, they’re great. And then you opened a studio for teaching people how to sing. And I know you’ve coached, you guys have over 400 students and you probably coached thousands of people over the several years that you’ve gone through that, which is amazing. So, you’ve seen a lot of musicians come through and you’ve probably seen the discouragement and the frustrations. With that, I guess when you’re coaching these musicians coming through, what advice do you give them? Or if you could rewind the clock ten years earlier and give yourself advice, what do you define as success in that world now to these people?
Whitney: 06:45 Yes, I think success is different for everybody and I think that’s part of what’s beautiful about our lives. I think it’s so easy to think that being a successful musician means being Beyonce or means being like, insert a person that you’ve always looked up to in your career and it’s just not that, it’s different for everybody and what you end up wanting in your life and what your day-to-day looks like. I mean, I think for me, really, like, once I took my first few tours on my own, like performing my own songs, I realized very quickly, as much as I loved to perform and as I loved music, I was like, I don’t think that being a touring musician is going to make me happy. I knew I wanted to settle down and have kids and I knew I wanted consistency and so I know that I love to perform, but that wasn’t going to be my bread and butter. And if I just said, well, then that means I’ll never be a successful musician and you just give up, it’s like, well, that would have negated all of these other beautiful, amazing, impactful things I’ve done since.
And I think that the real thing I would like to go back and tell myself is just like, you’re going to figure this out, hone-in on yourself – what’s original and authentic about you, what makes you happy right now, and try to pursue that and see where you go. It doesn’t have to always end up looking one certain way or being one certain way, winning American Idol, getting a record deal, whatever it is, it’s not all about that. And you will find your way. You just have to dig into who you are and express that authentically. That’s the best advice I can give.
Jason: Awesome. And so, tell me a little bit more about this singing straw. It’s such a novel concept, a lot of people probably haven’t even heard of it. So hopefully we send lots of people your way to go buy a straw. How did you come up with this idea?
Whitney: Oh, my gosh, the singing straws legit changed my life. So, here’s the thing. I started teaching and I already said that I had not a great experience with lessons as a young kid. And when I finally found sort of like a more contemporary style of teaching and I dove into training and understanding the voice and the functionality of it, I realized I wanted to be the type of teacher that I never had as a teenager, as a kid. Like understanding the contemporary cutting edge of what’s happening with the voice, how to use it in all of these more exciting, extreme ways – belting, distortion, all this stuff. And so, in my training, I attended a voice conference. I still attend voice conferences all the time. I think I’m a big believer in, like, continued education, just constantly learning as much as you can about all of the things that drive you and inspire you. And I was at a teaching conference and there was a voice scientist who came in, and this might have been like eight years ago now. And he came in and he stood up there and he’s a scientist, right?
And so, he’s like, wow, this man is very smart, older, and he’s sitting there with a coffee stirring straw. He’s like, this is going to change your voice. And like, this is how it works and it’s going to help you. So, he introduced the concept of straw phonation to me, and I was very skeptical at first. This has got to be a joke. Is there a hidden camera somewhere? Because this guy is holding a coffee stirring straw and telling me that it’s going to change my ways. And I’m like, I don’t know, but I gave it a try. I’m like, all right, well, this is a legit conference. He must know what he’s talking about. He kind of probably has some studies. So, I started playing around with coffee-stirring straws, and understanding what straw phonation is. And it’s a variation of SOVT’s. So, if you want to get nerd with me, it’s a Semi Occluded Vocal Tract exercise. So anytime, if you have singers or if you’ve done any exercises, you’ve probably done variations of SOVT’s, like Lip Trills or like humming or Z, anything like that, where you partially obstruct the airflow.
And so essentially, those things are spending energy and helping the vocal track to work more efficiently. But the straw, a very narrow diameter straw specifically does that, very focused and extreme. So, you get all of this extra benefit to the vocal fold and in the vocal tract. And so, I started using straw phonation and little plastic storage straws in my own way, and brought it to my students. I saw huge results, and I was like, this is incredible. So fast forward a few years and plastic is just like I’m using it all the time with my students, these plastic straws but they are inconvenient. They’re dirty, they break, they’re bad for the environment. You can’t find them as much anymore. I’m in the San Francisco Bay area. They stopped using them in our coffee shops. So, I was ordering all of these gross straws, and I thought, well, there are all these reusable drinking straws, all over the internet, why aren’t there any that are more narrowed? I searched far and wide, and this was five years ago. At this point, nothing on the market is like it. And I was like, all right, this isn’t going to be rocket science.
I could do this. And so, I basically designed my dream product. I put together a nice little case, a nice little bag, and three perfectly sized tube straws. They’re stainless steel, so they’re easy to clean, reusable, all of that. And I basically put it together. I was like, you know what? I’ll see who likes this. I’ll see if maybe my 400 students like it, that would be great. And it just blew up. Like, it blew up. And I had no idea there were so many fellow voice nerds out there, and yet there are still so many people who don’t know what straw phonation is, who don’t know what the scene was. And so, I’m just still out there, like on YouTube, on the podcast, just like, I want people to know about how impactful and amazing this can be for your voice.
Jason: That’s so awesome and such a unique thing. It’s amazing. In the music business, the more people I talk to and the more people you meet, how many different paths. There are so many ways to make it in the music business, whether you’re playing piano hymns. Who would have thought that writing piano hymn book arrangements would be able to allow me to have a career in music and now you’ve got a stranger woman with the straw.
Whitney: I know! Weird, little straw. But it just is actually amazing. So many people have, like, written to me, DM me, and they posted reviews on our website. They’re like, this changed my life. And I gotta say, it’s funny, when you talk about defining success, you figure out what matters. 13:14 One of the things that mattered to me was impacting people’s lives; was actually helping people. And that’s part of the reason I started my teaching studio the way that I did and grew it the way that I did. But there’s only a limit to how much you can physically be in someone’s life. So, it’s so interesting to find a product that could actually help people and change lives. And I feel like you have to define what success means to you and then to figure out how that iterates and how that looks in your life.
Jason: Yeah. I noticed you’ve done some I’m sure you do, like retreats or these I saw you’ve been with Ben Folds on a songwriting retreat, it looked like. Tell me a little bit about some of these retreats that you’ve been on. I know there’s a lot of people that are kind of up, maybe haven’t done a retreat or gone to these conferences. And you talked a little bit about education. What makes a good retreat or a good conference in your mind, having been to a lot of them?
Whitney: Awesome. Great question. I think it’s the people. I think it’s the people and the sort of the culture that they bring and the vibe that they bring. I’ve been to events that have, and I think as an attendee, you get to trial, step out and see what works. You’re going to go to things like this is exactly what I needed, and then you’re going to go to things where it’s like, cool, I got a little bit of…you’re always going to get something out of it. I think that’s also a challenge. It’s like buying something from everything. No matter if it’s what you expected, if you don’t expect it, if it was a little bit drier than you expected it to be, whatever. It’s like you can still learn from any one of these events. And that’s actually something like my husband has been very always pushing me before we were married. I remember, in fact, the conference that I found out about straw phonation, he was the one. It was a big investment. I wasn’t sure if I should go. All of the list of reasons you’re not sure if you can make it work.
DA DA DA. It’s a lot of time away from your business or your life. And I remember he pushed me, and he’s always been like, just get out there and try it. And I think the thing is just the more you do, the more you’ll learn, the ones that resonate with you, because it’s actually not a one size fits all. It’s like a vibe check, a vibe fit of like, what retreat, what event is going to speak to me in a way that I need to learn or the way that I want to be spoken to? So, I mean, there’s an incredible summer organization I’m a part of that I just came back from that called Vocalize You. It’s incredible. Songwriters, artists. It’s a really great program I’ve done for years. But the songwriting one with Ben Folds, I’ve done 2 actually, – one in person with him down in Ojai, and then another one we just did last October, digitally or virtually. But I will say one thing about Ben Folds, he is what an amazing songwriter he is. But also, he’s like, I was surprised. I shouldn’t be surprised. He was such a great guide for songwriters because you don’t truly teach songwriting, in my opinion. You guide people in exploring their creativity, and he was so good at that. I highly recommend that, if you can ever get into a room with him, it’s well worth it.
Jason: Interesting. I’ve got a good friend, my producer, Chuck Myers, he’s worked with all kinds of amazing people. He partners with Seth Rigs on Speechlevel Singing that we were talking about earlier. And I’ve never watched anybody coach somebody better and just kind of build somebody up. And I think it’s interesting when you say guide, I really think that’s what a good teacher does. It’s not so much that they’re teaching you to do the thing. They’re kind of holding your hand and showing you the way and helping you believe that you can do it. And I’m sure it’s the same thing with your vocal coaching, just helping people believe in their abilities and making sure they don’t crash, right?
Whitney: Oh, my gosh, yes, absolutely. The way that I’ve always taught is student centered, right? So, it’s really about what they need. And so often I find that what people need is reassurance and that they can trust themselves and that will open up their voice. That’s why the course that I launched this past year and that I’m doing with singers is called Love Your Voice. You know, it’s called the love your voice course. And it’s like, yes, we get into exercises, and we work out how to access your upper register notes, and I help you belt, I help you navigate your mix and blend the transition points of your voice and yada, yada, yada yada. But I really like the more important thing is that you accept your voice and that you’re able to then express that authentically. And so, so much of that is like, guiding people through that process, and I can’t do it for them. And there’s no one book that’s going to teach you exactly what you need to know to do that. It’s a process of learning and growing and accepting. You know what I mean? It’s so interesting and coaching, right?
Jason: Oh, for sure. I’m curious where you’ve done a lot of these retreats, what your experience has been, or if you have any advice in this world. But I’ve found that a lot of these retreats or calling vacations, my wife sometimes will say, oh, you’re just going on vacation. I’m like, no, I’m really working. But some of these conferences, you’ve got short conferences, a couple of days, or you go to some of these retreats, and it might be weeklong. Do you feel like there is a benefit to day two or three? Do you feel like all of a sudden now the dynamic of the group breaks down where now you’re a little more vulnerable and willing to learn? What’s your experience with that?
Whitney: Definitely. I think that I’ve run the gamut of events where you just go and you attend during the day and do your own thing in the evening versus like all 100%, all inclusive. You’re on the top of a mountain for twelve days, not talking to anyone else. There’s no self-service, you know what I mean. And you’re there.
And it’s funny because the more immersed you are, the more transformative I think they have the potential to be. And I think that that absolutely happens. And a couple of days in, there’s eventually some sort of emotional breakdown, but that makes room for the growth, right? You know what I mean? And being put in those situations. In fact, the first songwriting retreat I did with Ben Folds Down in Ojai was, I think, six days long, and I was actually 30 weeks pregnant with my second kid. And I remember having this whole mental breakdown of like, who am I, giant pregnant woman with all these artists here. And I had to remind myself, no, I am an artist. This is still an artist and a mom, and I’m going to do these things, and I’m just going to remember just being so like, that’s where the growth happens. And that was isolated too. I think that the more immersed you get, the more impact potentially those things can have. Because all we did was live, breathe, sing. It was just amazing. But I do agree, longer can be better. But of course, when you’re trying stuff out, but get your feet wet, figure out the types of retreats and the types of events that speak to you, because there is sort of a life.
It’s almost like dating or finding the right kind of match, because it’s the right type of energy, the right type of people, the right type of event that is going to speak to you in that moment or that stage in your life. But the longer and the more mercy is great, the better. More impact.
Jason: That’s great advice. As you’re telling me that, I’m thinking I’m just applying that to all these courses and people selling the $200 course and the $1000 course. And I mean, there’s a $10,000 course. I’ve heard there’s some groups that are 50 and $150,000 to go play with the cool people or whatever you want to call it, but like every one of those, I think it really depends on that person. Are you going to go with the right frame of mind to these types of things? Or even with the simple courses where you’re just doing the online training? Maybe that’s how you’re going to learn. But I’ve heard some statistics where some people will spend money on vocal coaching, maybe just even in your example. And some people don’t give the money, but they don’t show up, they won’t watch the videos and probably just drive. I know it drives the good course creators crazy when they know they can help somebody and they’re passionate and they know this will make a difference. But you can only guide them so far. You can’t make them jump off the cliff and say, hey, let’s do this, you’ll have growth.
Whitney: Absolutely. And it’s weird because it’s like if you price things and you figure out, how do I get this to as many people as possible? The irony is that if you make it completely free or really cheap, people don’t necessarily value it as much. And so, it’s like they’re less invested when they then sign up, and then they’re less likely to complete the program and then therefore less likely to achieve the success of results that you set out in creating a course for them to have. So, it is a balance and I think there are all kinds of hybrid ways to reach more people while valuing yourself in your course. But the reality is there’s price points, everything, like at every level for a variety of different things. I will say personally, and I’ve bought, I’ve done the free stuff, I’ve done the cheap stuff, I’ve done the high-ticket stuff in terms of consumption, that’s one thing. I believe if I’m going to be out there teaching people and I’m going to be out there putting out courses, I need to know what it feels like to be a student, not just in the music world, in all genres and so I will take courses on all kinds of things. And that’s given me between that and my husband, who’s very like, go for it, why not do it? Between that, I have done a lot and I have never once regretted an event, a course, an experience, coaching, never once. Even if I say, okay, well, I wouldn’t do that again next time I don’t go through another round of it. Or maybe I wouldn’t do other products with that, like content creator or whatever. Of course, creator, that’s fine. I still gain so much from the experience because that’s the mindset that I went in with. Like, I am going to learn so much and take so much from this, even if it’s what I don’t want to do.
Jason: And I’m sure a lot of that comes from just even your early childhood. And then also, I’m sure with college, if you’re trying to be an attorney, you have to study and you have to learn some of that’s got to be so dry that you’ve got to try and figure out how to make it fun. Thinking of the whole attorney and the corporate world, do you feel like that has helped you be successful in the music business? And do you feel like that’s giving you a leg up on some musicians that you see that maybe have more talent in the music world side than you do?
Whitney: Interesting. I don’t know because I didn’t really live in it that long. I only did that one year after graduating from college. So funny because I told myself I’ll pause, I’ll come back to it, and then I just never needed to. But I think that entrepreneurial spirit was always in me, and I think it probably had more to do with just like honestly, I think I learned probably more from business managing my A capella group in college. And it’s funny because now I look back at it and go, well, I couldn’t have taken a few business classes. I was there anyway. But I think it’s an entrepreneurial spirit and a love for getting into the nitty gritty. I don’t hate spreadsheets, but I like to get into them. I like the dryer stuff. I like to crunch numbers, and I like to dream big. And I think that has served to benefit me because I have the balance between the creative stuff that I love, right, just sitting down and writing a song or like, journaling or doing something more creative. And then I also have, like, I can get down and dirty with some spreadsheets, and I enjoy project management.
I enjoy hiring people, you know what I mean. I think that it’s helpful to have those split sides, and not everyone has both of those. Not everyone lives with a little bit of both, and sometimes you’re more logistical or way more creative. And that’s okay, too. You just got to find the right teammates, right?
Jason: Okay. So last question for you. So, as you think of all of the courses and the books you’ve read, what was the book or podcast or whatever event you went to that made you decide to go, you feel like it made all the biggest difference in your entrepreneur journey to say, hey, I’m going to do this. Maybe you can pick two or three, I guess.
Whitney: It’s so funny because it was sort of like an evolution. It wasn’t necessarily one thing that pushed me over, but if I have to choose, like if I were to choose one event, I would say, it was my first time going to Vocalize You, which is, you know, I totally didn’t need to get on here and promote it. But if you’re an artist or songwriter, you definitely should check it out. And it was that first one, and I was still very early in my teaching. I still haven’t recorded my full-length album yet. And it was exactly that. It was immersive, confidence-building. I saw people who were having success. I saw success in the music industry in so many different ways because I saw people who were there, obviously as singers and performers, but then also on the business side, attorneys and other kinds of people in the record labels and things like that. And I just thought, oh, it isn’t just one track. Like, there are all these options. And I really think from that I gained the and maybe I also had a little bit of this in me, but it helped bring it out of like, no, I’m just going to get this done. I can do this. If I want to be successful in this, I can do this. I’m going to do this. So, I would say it was mobilized.
Jason: You awesome. Cool. Well, people want to find out a little bit more about you and kind of learn more about singing straw. I think it was becomeabettersinger.com? Where should they go to check out?
Whitney: Yes, that is one of our links. So, you can definitely check singingstraw.com and you will find a ton there. I have a YouTube channel with lots of videos explaining the science, talking you through how it works and how to use it and exercise sets and everything. So, everything you need is there and can be done on our YouTube channel for free. So that’s just youtube.com/@SingingStraw. And then you can also check out my course, which is loveyourvoicecourse.com and I think that’s a great place to stay connected. So, then I’m also on TikTok @notyourbasicvocalcoach. That’s where I have a lot of fun. So, anyone who wants to just stay connected and see what I’m doing, hit me up on TikTok.
Jason: Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time. Value bombs have been dropped all over the place for people and great advice that we all wish we would have had ten years ago or whenever it was, we were back and beginning our career in music. So, thanks so much.
Whitney: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a blast.
Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Our special guest is a vocal coach, studio owner, singer/songwriter and creator of the Singing/Straw™ & the S/S method which helps singers develop a healthier, stronger and more balanced voice.
She is the Founder and Lead Vocal Coach of Songbird Studios – a premier vocal coaching studio that offers singing lessons, voice lessons, vocal coaching, songwriting workshops, group classes, master classes, summer camps, and performance showcases in-person in San Francisco, California and online all over the world.
What You’ll Learn
Let us discover how The Singing / Straw™ is the next evolution in singing and how it changed Whitney Nichole’s life. She discusses how to use it in all of these more exciting, extreme ways of singing like belting and distortion.
Whitney shares how she came up with her dream product and how impactful and amazing this can be for your voice.
Whitney also shares some insights about retreats and conferences and how you’re always going to get something out of it. She has this mindset that “I am going to learn so much and take so much from this, even if it’s what I don’t want to do.”
Things We Discussed
The Singing / Straw™ – The first of its kind: a patented, reusable, sustainable and customizable straw phonation tool set for singers, speakers, and vocalists that promotes vocal efficiency and reduces tension.
Straw phonation – Singing through a straw is a powerful “semi-occluded vocal tract”(SOVT) exercise, which means that as you vocalize, the air coming out of your mouth is partially blocked. This creates a resistance in the vocal tract, which sends energy back to the vocal folds and helps them vibrate more efficiently.
SOVT – stands for Semi Occluded Vocal Tract. A fancy way to say – the mouth is partially closed.
Connect with Whitney Nichole
Connect with Jason Tonioli