Sean “Diddy” Combs has been known for a lot of things over the years—launching Notorious B.I.G.’s career, starting the Sean John clothing line, making Ciroc a household name, becoming hip-hop’s richest mogul—but singing isn’t usually first on the list.
So last year, before he launched into the 20-show, month-long Diddy-Dirty Money Coming Home Tour, he decided to seek some professional help—from voice coach Ilana Martin. She helped Diddy and his band-mates improve their sound with advanced breathing techniques and warm-ups aimed at soothing tired voices. One of the first songs they worked on: Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” which won a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group in 1998.
“That’s one of the key songs, it means so much,” says Martin. “[It’s] something that he staked his career on.”
Many young musicians hope to someday attain Diddy-level stardom, but Martin’s example shows it’s possible to have a fulfilling and lucrative career as a coach to high-profile entertainers. Accepted to the prestigious Berklee School of Music at age 16, she started teaching private lessons the first week she arrived on campus. Within two years, she was touring with Barry White and Patti LaBelle as a backup singer.Martin soon found her calling not as a pop diva, but as a voice teacher, founding the Vocal Workout Singing school in 2001. She emphasizes a holistic approach that includes influences ranging from ancient Yoruba breathing methods to a more modern focus on working with the body’s built-in reflexes. With one location in Manhattan, she’s planning to open another in Brooklyn this year.Voice coaching is nice work, if you can get it. Martin charges $175 or more per hour, depending on the quantity of lessons and whether or not she has to travel; she offers discounts for youngsters who don’t have much money to burn. All in all, Martin says she makes about as much per year as she would touring as a backup singer, but without all the aggravation of life on the road.A typical lesson begins by removing shoes—this helps with grounding and posture—and teaching students how create “a cathedral in your mouth.” She preaches avoidance of common mistakes (one should breathe through the mouth, not the nose, for example), reminds singers to remember that words mean something, and above all, warns against rushing through a song.“When you have access to your voice, you have access to what your choices are,” Martin says. “A common mistake is trying to access the choice without taking your time or thinking about it.”FORBES joined Martin in her studio recently to hear her thoughts on the business of vocal coaching—and to see if she could work her magic on a journalist guinea pig.