The Weekend Read with vocal coach and RCS alumna Yvie Burnett

Yvie is baking up a storm during lockdown!

From opera stages to TV screens and tour buses, RCS alumna Yvie Burnett’s career has taken her all over the globe.

The renowned vocal coach, who works with some of the biggest names in the business, tells Linda Robertson about finding her own voice, her early days as an opera soloist and life on the road.

“A singer needs to work on their voice like an athlete. The more you practice your tennis serve, the better you become. Being a singer is the same, it’s a constant work in progress ”and even the best always need a coach.”

Yvie Burnett is often the first person artists turn to when they need someone to help them fine tune their instrument. The in-demand vocal coach and mezzo-soprano, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, moves seamlessly between the classical and pop worlds, working with everyone from West End stage stars to some of the biggest names in pop.

Just before Covid-19 brought life to a halt, she was on tour with two of her regular clients, Sam Smith and Lewis Capaldi. They join a roster that includes Katy Perry, Dave, Bastille, Leona Lewis, Snow Patrol and Sarah Brightman.

As a singing teacher, she says the most important thing is not to change how an artist sounds: “Lots of acts and record companies don’t want someone to come in and go ‘la la la’ and make them sound like Julie Andrews. Singers can be scared of losing their own unique tone and being taught in a technical way that will make them sound ridiculous.”

It’s about working with what they already have: “That’s where I tell them that we’re just working with their muscles, working on the health of their voice, and they’re going to sound exactly the same. They just won’t get hoarse and if they do get ill, they’ll get over it quicker and they can sustain the number of concerts that they need to do.

“When Sam did a world tour with 100 shows without cancelling, I was so proud of them. I get such a kick out of that.”

Yvie is often brought in at a later stage, once careers start to take off. “Lots of acts will do really well and everything will catapult but they maybe haven’t worked on their voice or they’re nervous about performing. I realise how challenging it is. For me, as a trained opera singer, I was taught the technique first. Pop singers go out in the world and can wreck their voices.

“Learning how to use it properly makes them feel so much more confident. Trained singers have built that up from the start, but so many pop singers have to learn it.”

And it’s not all about hitting the right notes. Yvie, who has developed her own vocal training technique, says a key element is helping singers with performance anxiety.

“I think of myself as 50% singing teacher and 50% psychotherapist . So much is down to nerves and how you deal with them. I’ve rarely come across a big artist, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, who is completely confident. It’s such a strange thing to do, to go out and perform in front of thousands of people, and not only sing, but talk and engage with the audience.”

She knows what those pre-show jitters feel like, as well as the insecurity. She admits that she never believed in her own talent growing up in Methlick, Aberdeenshire, and even when she began her formal training.

She loved singing as a child and first found her voice performing the Twelve Days of Christmas at primary school, around the age of seven.

“Everyone got a line and mine was ‘five gold rings’. I belted it out and was like ‘what the heck, where did that come from?’. I realised early on that I had a very strange voice for a little girl!”

Yvie joined Haddo House Choral Society, established by June Gordon, Lady Aberdeen, who was a professional musician.

“It was a real place for up-and-coming singers and Lady Aberdeen was a mentor to me. I went there as a ten-year-old and would stand on a box and sing with the senior choir and do little solos. One of the first roles I did at RCS was actually at Haddo House.”

That takes us to her opera studies in Glasgow. Although, she almost ventured down a different path.

“My best subjects at school were languages and I wanted to study French and be an interpreter. It was what I was good at and while I had a singing voice, I never found harmony, composition, dictation and all those added challenges of a degree in music, easy.

“When I did my audition at RSAMD and surprisingly got in, I thought ˜I better just do the singing, everyone says I have to be a singer’. I had been doing concerts since the age of ten and was known as ‘the Methlick singer’.

“I came from this little village, being a big fish in a small pond, to the Academy as it was known, where a lot of people were incredibly confident. I felt like a little tadpole in the ocean, not even a small fish in a big pond! I felt like I was the worst one and really struggled with it. I never felt as confident as I should have been. That’s why I’m good at my teaching job now, I understand that anxiety. I was always worried because I wasn’t perfect or that I wasn’t good enough.”

She enjoyed her studies and performed at the official opening of the institution’s current home in Renfrew Street in 1987.

“In my final year, we moved from the original building in Nelson Mandela Place to the new building in Renfrew Street. It was an incredibly exciting time and I remember being chosen to perform an excerpt from the Merry Wives of Windsor for the Queen Mother who came to open the building. My mum always had a photo of the Queen Mother shaking my hand taking pride of place on her mantle piece.”

Yvie Burnett in her student days at RCS. She's pictured meeting the Queen Mother during her official visit to open the Renfrew Street building

Yvie Burnett in her student days at RCS. She’s pictured meeting the Queen Mother, who was patron of the institution, during her official visit to open the Renfrew Street building

From Glasgow, Yvie furthered her studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and the National Opera Studio. After graduating, professional roles quickly stacked up and she performed as a soloist with the Welsh National Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera North, Opera de Nantes and De Nederlandse Opera.

“I started doing solo roles straight away, I was really lucky. For the first time ever, I felt confident. I think because I was getting offered jobs and being paid for it. I loved dressing up and going on stage. Putting on a costume was much easier than singing as Yvonne Burnett.”

When Yvie and husband Gordon started a family, Yvie would take their children, Emily and Ollie, on tour. But when they reached school age, and she was travelling for up to three months at a time, she was approached for a job on a certain TV talent show.

“When I got the offer to be the vocal coach for The X-Factor, I thought ‘you know what, I’m going to give this a go’.

She joined as Louis Walsh’s vocal coach in series two and helped Shayne Ward clinch the title. In 2006, she coached Leona Lewis, one of the show’s biggest success stories.

“I loved it,” suddenly I wasn’t the one getting nervous. I was helping other people but still fulfilling my performance ambition. I was on the telly but I didn’t have to sing, I only had to speak. That was easy.

“It was a lovely time to be involved in The X-Factor, people would come up to me on the Tube on Monday mornings and ask who I thought would get through. The whole country was excited by it at that point as it was such a new concept.”

Next came Britain’s Got Talent, where she worked with Susan Boyle: “My life started doing weird things like flying to Chicago with Susan to work with her on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It was always exciting and it meant that I didn’t really miss the opera world.”

TV work flooded in with shows such as America’s Got Talent, Last Choir Standing and Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, where composer Andrew Lloyd Webber searched for the UK’s Eurovision entry. It led to her coaching the singers of his musical Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera.

“I went to Andrew’s house and he played me the whole musical – I was a blubbering wreck, with snot and everything, and he said ‘so you like it then?’

“It was the most heart-wrenching, beautiful musical from start to finish. I helped audition and coach all the singers and it was great to work with theatrical performers, it was like going back to my roots.”

Her most-recent TV appearance was on the BBC series Emeli Sandé’s Street Symphony, alongside John Logan, Head of Brass at RCS. Award-winning singer-songwriter Emeli toured Scotland to handpick her favourite street musicians. They were coached by Yvie and conductor John, before performing with Emeli and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the City Halls in Glasgow.

“We rehearsed in the Conservatoire and it was the first time I’d been in there for years, it was really nice to be back.”

Yvie Burnett with Emeli Sande and John Logan in the BBC TV Series Emeli Sande's Street Symphony

Yvie with singer Emeli and RCS Head of Brass John Logan© BBC/Alan Peebles

So how does it feel when she first hears someone that she knows has a real gift?

“It’s always exciting, especially when you’re the only one who can hear the potential. I know what they’re capable of and can help to bring that out. It’s lovely to see the transformation, that’s probably the thing I love the most.”

While most of Yvie’s time is spent nurturing others, she hasn’t lost her own passion for performing: “I had a student recently who was running twenty minutes’ late for an online lesson so as I was sitting at the piano I just started to sing. I’m now singing a wee bit more and I even got out all my old opera scores . Every now and then I do miss being an opera singer. I think to myself, ‘I can do the old bat roles’. Mezzo-sopranos are never really the glamorous one, usually the sister or a man, and older mezzo-sopranos tend to be the auntie, the mother or the granny. Maybe I could have a new lease of life as an older singer.”

She did step out from behind the scenes in 2016, to perform Caledonia at the opening of the Scottish Grand National in Ayr.

“I performed it on TV the night before and it was a big deal for me as I hadn’t sung in so long and had always been a nervous wreck. I enjoyed it and it was like I had come full circle, going from singing and not loving it in many ways and then eventually learning how to be a singer and not be nervous and perhaps even enjoy it!”

Right now, she’s at home in Bedfordshire where she’s teaching and coaching online during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“I’m very rarely at home, my life is mostly travelling because I work with artists who are on tour across the world. From that point of view, it’s lovely for me as it’s the first time I’ve been at home for more than two weeks. The washing isn’t piling up and my house is so organised.

“Before lockdown, I was in Australia with Sam in February for Mardi Gras and I was on tour with Lewis after that. Other people I go in and out with for things like a Brits performance or the Today show.”

Does she enjoy tour bus life? “It’s really cool, it’s like a family and you become close to people. In Britain and Europe it’s double bunk beds and in America there are three layers. There’s no way I’ll go on the top, I make the young people do that!

“We’ll watch films in the evening in the living area and if I want to go to bed, the bedroom is in a separate area so the others can pad around without disturbing anyone.

“We’ll spend a few days in an incredible hotel somewhere as the artist can’t sing every day. I sleep really well on the bus, though. We once did a 17-hour bus ride from Oslo to Madrid with two ferries and I thought I’d never manage but slept through the lot.”

With things at a much slower pace, Yvie is enjoying spending time pottering at home, whether it’s working on the garden or getting busy on the baking front – she’s just about to rustle up a tea loaf for her neighbours.

“I’m probably the same as everyone else. I started lockdown enthusiastically, all the drawers were emptied, the house never looked better, then I got a bit lazy,” she laughs.

“I’m never at home though, so it’s a real luxury.”

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Who inspired you?

Maria Callas, someone who acted and put all her emotion into her performance.

I’ve always loved her over a technician who gets it perfect every time, not that she wasn’t a technician.

I was someone who had a difficult voice to control. It was a big unruly voice, it was never a light, lovely voice. I really respect unruly voices – it won’t be perfect but it has passion.

Trying to be perfect puts an unreal pressure on singers. In the pop world, fans will love you for a passionate performance, they won’t care if it isn’t always precise. The greatest opera singers have both.

Isolation entertainment?

I find gardening really relaxing and love being outside. I got a delivery from a local garden centre so I’m planting shrubs and trying to augment all the plants in my garden.

I need to be really relaxed to read so the only time I read a book is on holiday and it tends to be stuff like Marian Keyes and Liane Moriarty, more easygoing stuff.

I’ve been watching The Nest and This is Us. My husband and I have watched it for years but we’re never together for long enough to finish it. Grace and Frankie is just brilliant, I’m hooked!

Who do you turn to for vocal coaching?

Graeme Lauren, who I was at RCS with, who is part of the chorus of English National Opera.

I have to practice what I preach and what you sound like to yourself is not what you sound like to other people, and you can get into bad habits. I’ve always gone to Graeme and he’s very strict and will say ‘no, no, no, don’t sing like that’. He keeps me on my toes.

Your advice to singers?

I think that sometimes young singers need to give themselves a break – you’re not going to be perfect every time, just get into the habit of putting your heart and soul into it and don’t beat yourself up.

Right now, use this time to learn things you are maybe not so good at. Spend time on your breath control and get to know your operas and music – every word and emotion.

Can everyone sing?

I wrote my book Yes, You Can Sing! because I’d be asked that question in every interview or by people in the street. If you can hold a tune then your voice can be improved.

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