October 17, 2007

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Katie Agresta, Vocal Coach Extraordinaire!

October 17th, 2007

John Lloyd Young and Katie Agresta

Photo courtesy of Linda Lenzi at BroadwayWorld.com.

By Audrey Rockman, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

An Industry Icon
What happens when you combine decades of experience, medical and musical techniques based on years of research, a gentle and supportive skill for teaching voice, the gift of uncanny instincts with a warm personality in the heart of New York City? You have Katie Agresta, an industry icon, who continues to branch out from coaching singers like Cyndi Lauper and Jon Bon Jovi to working with the stars of the Tony Award-winning show, Jersey Boys. After mastering the unique challenges of rock performers, Katie found herself working with a similar population of singers who also needed to act and dance and have the guts to do it live- often eight times a week.

It’s not her credentials or the length of her time in the vocal industry that really sets her apart and causes the label ‘legend’ to fit like a glove; it is her unparalleled skill and instincts for diagnosing and remedying vocal problems. Of course, she is a vocal coach extraordinaire, but there are perhaps others capable of doing that. She stands in a category of one when it comes to being able to distinguish what exactly a singer needs to do when the voice is not functioning 100%. As I sat across from this vocal legend, I wondered how this youthful looking woman could possibly have spanned four decades of vocal experience.

Katie’s Beginnings
Katie Agresta was five when her father left his IBM job and opened a music store in Massapequa . Her mother was a Julliard graduate and a concert pianist so the nature and nurture were in place. But what about the personal motivation? Johnny Mathis to the rescue.

By age ten, Katie was in love with famed singer, Johnny Mathis. Sure that she was destined to marry him, she asked her parents for vocal lessons so that she would be ready when the time came to sing with him. She honed her singing, as well as learning piano, as musicians filed in and out of the family store- using the space as more than a retail establishment. It became ‘Music Central’ for the area (and Katie’s family of three girls and two brothers). As Katie says, “It was an amazing way to grow up.”

As a teenager, Agresta decided to study guitar so she could, in turn, teach her friend who needed to learn for a contest the two wanted to enter. With Katie singing and her friend on guitar, the pair went on to somehow win that contest. Now that Katie knew and enjoyed playing guitar herself, she was well positioned when her father needed a replacement for the store’s retiring teacher. At 17, she was soon teaching guitar to the younger students. As life always goes, one thing led to another, with Katie now around the store even more. As people heard her singing at the store and in the church choir, parents started asking if she could give their children voice lessons. A voice teacher was born.

By this time, Katie had started college at Hofstra on Long Island . The voice teacher she was assigned to was Dr. Edward Dwyer. He was to become Katie’s teacher and mentor for the next 20 years. It was Dwyer who taught Katie many of the techniques she still uses today. He did extensive studies involving 40 years of research including medical factors, language, the phonetic alphabet as well as the physiology of the muscles.

He left before Katie finished her degree, but she soon followed her teacher and for the next twenty years, Ms. Agresta continued to study with Dwyer as a student- as well as mentoring as a teacher- in addition to studying with operatic coaches and almost 20 other coaches such as Roger and Hammerstein pianist, Edwin MacArthur.

During this time, the lead singer in her brother’s rock band was losing his voice, so her brother, Ralph asked if Katie could help. “I’ll try” was her offer. She did try and it went so well, he sent along more rock singers with problems. As this thread of her work slowly developed, Katie got talking to her neighbor, Mike Miller, who suggested she really learn everything she could about rock singing and become the definitive source for that group which, unlike Broadway and opera, had no specialized teachers at the time. So, for three years, she went to some 300 clubs in the tri-state area. Although she had been studying opera, she had always maintained a foot in the world of rock, because of her brother’s band.

Her neighbor, Mike, pointed out the next logical objective- if someday one of her students became famous, that would be ‘just what the doctor ordered’ for her career. Enter Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi had been performing in cover bands, imitating Janis Joplin. Lauper was so adept at recreating others’ voices that she did damage while singing as Joplin and had been told by three doctors that her singing career was over. It took Katie a year to undo what Lauper had done to her voice.

At this point while sitting with Katie, I had to ask, “Have you ever concluded, when working with a student, ‘The damage has gone too far; there’s nothing I can do’?”

After a very brief, but thoughtful pause, she said, “I’ve never had that happen. I know so much about the voice. I just won’t give up.” Hearing the way Katie said those words really hung powerfully in the room. She had… never… had to give up on anyone’s voice.

Working with Students
Agresta’s expertise is not limited to the singing voice. Her most memorable and challenging student was a gentleman named Bill, who had been hurt in an accident, leaving him unable to speak. By the time Katie saw him, he had seen doctors and voice teachers; a total of 12 consultations concerning the reportedly permanent damage.

After referring him for some specialized surgical techniques by Dr. Quizling in Nashville, Katie started working with Bill, beginning with baby talk. Yes… baby talk; as in sitting on the floor repeating sounds like ‘da-da.’ This was a watershed moment because her mentor, Dr. Dwyer had just died and Katie was on her own. Katie followed her gut, which once again proved successful. The man had forgotten how to talk, but Katie tapped into the instincts beneath his lost speech response.

Although initially terrified of possibly leading Bill down a fruitless path, Katie kept in mind her mentors’ rule of healing the speaking voice first. Katie and I got talking about the therapeutic effect of giving attention to and empowering the voice. Katie pointed out, “People grow and change when they start to accept their own voice.” She added that the throat, the fifth chakra (center of activity that receives, assimilates, and expresses life force energy as identified in yoga), is how we communicate, how we ‘get heard.’

A devoted fan of eastern medicine and holistic approaches, Katie is very clear that if you are blocking your emotions, your voice will reflect that. In fact, she claims that your voice reflects everything from traumatic moments to what you ate for lunch. There is a significant piece of her work that involves a therapeutic aspect. Helping someone to find their voice is a metaphor for finding your self-expression, power and place in the world.

After so many students and going through a terrible health scare herself (that led her twenty years ago, with the help of Phoebe Snow, to successful live cell treatments in Mexico), Katie has ways of dealing with each student’s needs, but she has noticed a difference with Broadway-like performers. She says they are more disciplined and intense. They have more needs and are on top of things, so she has to give them more. It is a wonderful and challenging job, but she says, “I have to be way ahead of them.”

Jersey Boys
Katie Agresta fully and officially arrived in the world of Broadway singers when her student, John Lloyd Young, walked away handily with the 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Katie Agresta was the first name mentioned in the acknowledgments on his website after that Tony win (as well as being acknowledged in John’s Who’s Who in the show’s Playbill these days).

That win was a profound moment for the teacher. She certainly had Broadway clients, having worked with almost a dozen shows, but this was never her mainstay; she figured they had their teachers. But with the advent of rock singing coming to the Broadway stage in shows like Jersey Boys, so did those who knew how to help them sing their best.

The producers of Jersey Boys took the cue and brought Katie in to work with all their ‘Frankies’ and Frankie-want-to-be’s. With two Tour casts for Jersey Boys already and three additional shows opening in 2008 (London, Las Vegas and Toronto), Katie participates in ‘Frankie Camps’ which are audition training sessions where actors come for a few days to work with a dance captain and Katie as well as familiarizing themselves with the character, so as to ensure the best screening process.

Katie continues to work with the “Frankies” in the JB Tours, as well as other cast members in the JB productions. Given the distance, she relies on voice lessons via computer–using the technology provided by skype. The one second delay is a bit challenging, but workable nevertheless, she’s found.

Whereas rock singers can use their body to support their singing, an actor’s moves belong predominantly to the director, Agresta points out. Coordinating the combination of skills is a skill unto itself. Add to this, the need to imitate a particular, living person… just unimaginable in Katie’s book.

When asked about coaching a falsetto, Katie says there is a special technique to connect the falsetto through the area that singers have countless names for – their break, their mix, their change, their flip, their ‘passaggio.’ Generally, the male singer uses what is referred to as the full range of the voice- using the full length of the vocal cord.

As the notes begin to get very high, the man has the option of either singing those notes in full voice if he has the training and the technique to accomplish that, or he can “switch” to using the falsetto range which only uses part of the full vocal cord length. It is that transition from the full voice into the falsetto range that can be taught. That area of the voice is naturally weak and must be strengthened in singers first. Only then can the person be taught to move smoothly from one area to another.

“When Frankie Valli sings, it is his natural way and he does it very well. There was a lot more rock, more gravel in his voice. In their attempt to copy him, I can’t allow them to copy him completely because if they pushed like he does authentically, they couldn’t do it over the long term. Even with all the warm-up and cool down instructions, they can’t afford to do vocal tricks show after show.” warns Agresta.

As Katie pointed out to me, “No rock singer in their right mind would do that many shows a week. The preparation is just huge! These guys have to be onstage for almost the entire show- acting, dancing and singing 27 songs!”

What does it take to sing?
Connie Francis, Brooke Shields, Steven Tyler, Annie Lennox, Phoebe Snow, Jethro Tull, Lisa Bonet, Carole King, Courtney Love, Helen Merrill and South American superstar, Paulina Rubio. These are just part of an impressive list of students on Agresta’s website who have come through the door over the years. Katie seems to have a soft spot, though, for the everyday folks from all walks of life that have come for no other reason than the personal goal to be able to sing.

When asked if some people just aren’t able to sing, Katie reflected that she had only seen one or two people who couldn’t and in those cases, there was intense emotional trauma at play. Through observation of one of her own students, Katie learned that the key to singing is focused listening. Professional singers seem to be natural listeners.

Katie said, “I first discovered this with a new student who was responding to the notes I’d play with off-key sounds in return. He finally got it after seven tries and I wondered what kept him from getting it the first time. I realized that it took several times to hear what he needed to do. Some people just don’t have the natural focus to listen carefully.”

Many of Agresta’s students come every other week or even once a month. Katie has found that word of mouth is the way people generally find her. “I do take new students, but there is a waiting list now- with the explosion of Jersey Boys. I can help someone even if we only have one session, however. This is especially true when a performing singer is in the city and has an emergency; I can get them through the show. I listen to them and give a fast, physical remedy.” This is what Katie does better than anyone. Katie can diagnose the problem in terms of what’s needed… like a master mechanic.

For instance, by listening to the ‘patient’ in this case, Agresta might determine: the spine is stuck, the tongue is swollen, there is muscle entanglement, their jaw is tight, etc. The possible solutions are many, including perhaps: hold the jaw, pull the tongue, breathe steam, snore, stretch. exercise or even an instruction to do the vocal exercises quietly. Most likely, it will be a series of such actions.

The Young Singer
Contrary to what some might think, although Katie has had students as young as eight, she advises that the teenage years are a reasonable starting point. On a rare occasion, a young person might be ready, but it is neither necessary nor important for long term success. Very young singers do need to have careful guidance so that the exercises given can progress according to the individual muscular ability of that particular child. It takes great patience and skill to know what exercises must flow in what sequence so that the muscles develop gradually.

In general though, young people should not sing too loud, too frequently, too long or too pushed; the larynx isn’t adequately developed. If a child is self-motivated at a young age, it would be fine to put them in settings where they’d have the chance to sing a lot.

The most important point this sensitive teacher wants to stress is- do not discourage a child! Agresta pointed out that Joe Cocker and Tiny Tim had successful singing careers, but imagine what a bad voice teacher might have said to them at those first few lessons. She says to steer clear of negative influences which can traumatize a young person and get in the way of that person taking their own path- whatever that may be.


  • Exercise: Walking is always a good option; better yet, swimming if available.
  • Relax: The voice is relaxed when the body is relaxed through varied techniques. The larynx can be relaxed with massage for the neck and face.
  • Warm up: Warm ups not only help avoid vocal abuse, they also contribute to conditioning, skill development, good tone quality, accuracy and agility.
  • Adequate rest: Less talking may be needed. Don’t over vocalize. Sleep.
  • Good nutrition & vitamins: balanced diet and multi-vitamins such as the B vitamins.
  • Hydrate: 6-8 glasses a day of fluids, including sports drinks.

Common signs of significant vocal abuse or overuse:

  • The throat is tender to the touch after vocal use, with soreness and swelling.
  • Your voice feels tired and hoarse at the end of a session. Maybe you were tired or not warmed up or the material was new and not prepared for..
  • Another sign of vocal overuse is a need to clear the throat, which worsens after singing. Singers often confuse this with laryngitis. This is most often protective mucous which the larynx produces.
  • A persistent “tickle” in the throat and a feeling of dryness experienced after singing. Be certain that you are getting plenty of fluids.
  • The inability to sing softly or the inability to sing high, soft tones after singing strenuously.
  • Persistent hoarseness or inability to sing or speak with a clear voice 25 hours after complete vocal rest.
  • If it feels bad, chances are, it’s wrong. Don’t do it!

The Katie Agresta Vocal Studio is located at West 88th Street in New York. Her website is www.katieagresta.com. Furthermore, if site visitors click on ‘Vocal Coaching Insights’ in the lower right hand area, there is a vast wealth of information about all aspects of vocal training, as well as Katie’s perspectives on these subjects.

Agresta will be offering yoga in upcoming months tailored specifically for singers. Group classes may also be available. The cost for a private, half hour session is $95. Under ‘Respected Clients,’ on her site, she generously offers names of vocal coaches who have trained with her or prospective students can be placed on her waiting list. For information, call Patrick Pfeiffer, Katie’s assistant of twenty years- and author of several Bass books, in the Studio at 212-724-1083.

This article was first posted at NYWomanOnline.com on Sept 24, 2007 and an abridged version is in the print publication of the September 16th issue of New York Woman.

It was a real honor to meet Katie and explore a bit of her life for this article. I want to thank her for graciously allowing me the opportunity to sit with her and listen to the voice of experience.

Thank you to the phenomenal Katie Agresta and JBB Special Correspondent Audrey Rockman for this in-depth and fascinating interview!


  1. Great story Audrey! Katie seems like a fascinating person, and I loved hearing about how she came to do what she does.

    Comment by Melissa — October 17, 2007 @ 7:27 am

  2. Fabulous interview Audrey! Very in-depth and very well written. I was also intrigued by “skype”, wonder how that works. I also loved how you ended the piece with “voice of experience” – how fitting. Thank you so very much!!

    Comment by Angel — October 17, 2007 @ 7:28 am

  3. What a powerhouse of a woman! I just love articles like this one. Audrey, you sure have a talent for writing. Just brilliant!

    Comment by Gary — October 17, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  4. My niece, Jackie Pock a musical theatre student in Boston, had a lesson with Katie in the spring and was amazed at her ability to help her improve technique and the emotional part as well. She is an earth mother all the way!

    Comment by Gayle Kamen-Weinstein — October 17, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  5. Audrey a beautiful interview. Gary is right, what a talent..Bravo..Jody

    Comment by Jody Cardillo — October 17, 2007 @ 11:56 am

  6. Audrey – that was dynamite!! Great interview and very interesting. What a terrific person Katie is.

    Comment by LindaL — October 17, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  7. I echo what everybody said about this piece. Fantastic article!

    Comment by Lauren — October 17, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  8. Audrey, this may be your very best piece; magically done. I’m assuming Bill made a complete recovery thanks to Katie. I’d also love to know more details on the live cell treatments and the help from Phoebe Snow (of beautiful “Poetry Man” fame).

    Your comment on techniques is also interesting. Both John Lloyd and Christian have talked about “pulling the tongue” to get ready for a performance. Colin Donnell told me he needs to warm up to get low enough for the Nick Massi bass voice as it’s not totally natural for him. And John Lloyd also said he needs to take a few minutes to “wind down” his voice after his 27-song performance.

    I also enjoyed your take on encouraging young singers; Tiny Tim, if I’m not mistaken, performed nearly everything in falsetto. Along with Tiny Tim and Joe Cocker, I wonder what would have happened had Rod Stewart, Bonnie Tyler, Kim Carnes, and even Bob Dylan not been encouraged as youngsters.

    The “don’t overvocalize” is probably good advice for all of us, performers or not!

    And finally, for $95, maybe Katie can lower my voice an octave or two, so I don’t have to deal with every tenth telephone operator telling me “just a minute, m’aam”??

    This was a gem, Audrey! Bravo!

    Comment by Howard Tucker — October 17, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

  9. Great interview, Audrey! It was fascinating to read about this amazingly talented woman , as well as her contributions to John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys and so many others. One really gets a sense of her warmth and ability to see people as complete entities . Thanks for this compelling piece.

    Comment by Pamela — October 17, 2007 @ 4:06 pm

  10. Audrey,

    Great article! You’re a fantastic writer!

    Comment by Dina — October 17, 2007 @ 5:51 pm

  11. Audrey, when I initially read the article in mid-workday today, I sort of skimmed over the Cyndi Lauper passage. How remarkable it is that Katie also has Grammy winner Cyndi (Best New Artist, 1984) to her credit. Ironically, along with Tony-nominee Jim Dale, Cyndi also starred in “The Three Penny Opera” in 2006, the Tony-winning year for “Jersey Boys”. Wonderful and inspiring piece, Audrey; you should submit it to “Billboard.”

    Comment by Howard Tucker — October 17, 2007 @ 7:08 pm

  12. Oh my, thank you so much and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading about this wonderful woman and the work she does… especially for the cast members we hold dear. She is a true treasure and those attending Sunday’s BC/EFA event will have the rare opportunity to say hello to her in person!

    Comment by Audrey — October 17, 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  13. Audrey,

    What a fabulous interview! WHatever your day job is, you should do what you do best – write! IE

    Comment by irene eizen — October 17, 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  14. [...] You can read the rest of this blog post by going to the original source, here [...]

    Pingback by Singing Lessons » Blog Archive » JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Katie Agresta, Vocal Coach … — November 10, 2007 @ 9:45 am

  15. hi could you recomend a great vocal coach for a 16 yesr old girl who lives in dix hill. she wants to sing pop. i believe she has a great voice but need training. thanks doug

    Comment by douglas johnson — May 3, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  16. I am glad I found this post. The lady obviously has plenty of experience. I love the advice at the end of the post. We all could use good advice on how to improve our voice and make it better.

    I know it’s good to drink plenty of water during the course of the day. I was a little surprised to see sports drinks were also recommended. I may have to give that a try now. I would also add that in order for this to help your performance you should drink water at least 1 hour before you begin to sing to enjoy the full effect.(Make sure the water you drink is warm for best outcome.)

    I did not even know that walking was a considered a good exercise for singers. I do this naturally but I will continue to do this.

    Finally, It’s exciting to know that there are now vocal instructors specifically for rock singers. I enjoy rock music myself and look forward to doing more in the future. This is an excellent article and I look forward to reading more in the future.

    Comment by Singing Lessons In Dan — August 8, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  17. Hi!

    wow you have a beautiful life story! and it sounds like you have accomplished soo much during your amazing life. :)

    I am a 14 yr old living in Australia and my dream is to sing (but, sadly, i dont have a good voice..at all). i like Cyndi lauper and other artists songs and beautiful voices, i heard about you and how you helped cyndi during her early years! :) If you werent there when she needed your help, she probably couldnt sing like she can still sing today

    Comment by keziah — October 4, 2009 @ 7:53 am

  18. to conclude the last coment :

    Comment by keziah — October 4, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  19. You have done many nice things for others and thats something to be proud of!

    God Bless! and keep up the good work:)


    Comment by keziah — October 4, 2009 @ 7:56 am

  20. I’ve had the privilege of studying with Katie, and came across this interview by chance today. I can attest to how brilliant her work is, how healing her presence is, and how exceptionally good her results are. Thank you so much for recognizing this truly wonderful teacher and human being!

    Comment by lulu — February 27, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  21. I was a student of Katie’s back in the mid 80s. I had met her at a three day vocal seminar where she was a guest coach/teacher. I felt almost immediately that she had some special instincts that enabled her to look INTO a person and read their emotional blocks, and the technical knowledge and immense empathic gifts to guide the singer break through those blocks in order to help them sing better. I started taking group performance classes with her, and that was an amazing time in my life. When I sang in front of others, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. I hadn’t thought it was a problem… I thought it was me being “soulful”. but I soon found out, from hearing feedback from Katie and the other students, that I was withholding myself from the audience and blocking them out by keeping my eyes closed. Katie explained the singer’s responsibility to the audience and always stressed how powerful a gift music can be, and to withhold oneself defeats the purpose of the performance. It was a very important realization for me, and there were many such learning moments with Katie. Singing, if done well, can be extremely intimate, and for some people that intimacy is hard to conquer at first. Katie had many tools to help us to relax and embrace that scary intimacy with an audience. She accompanied her knowledge with a profound compassionate and supportive guiding hand, a warm loving voice, and a great sense of humor. She is absolutely unique and amazingly gifted. What she does is truly a calling, and she definitely has “the touch”. it was a great gift to have met Katie. The time I spent learning from her is a beautiful memory.

    Comment by Neil — April 30, 2013 @ 1:18 am

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