Best Job Ever: 'Extreme Vocals Instructor' Helps Screamers Preserve Their Pipes

Melissa Cross' clients include singers for Slipknot, Thursday, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall.

Name: Melissa Cross

Age: 49

Job: Extreme vocals instructor

Location: The Melissa Cross Vocal Studio in New York

Her Story: During the late 1980s, Melissa Cross was onstage at New York club CBGB with her punk band Bibi Wa Moto ("woman of fire" in Swahili). With one bloodcurdling scream, she nearly destroyed her voice. Doctors told Cross the damage to her cords wasn't permanent, but they prescribed six months of vocal rest.

Cross, who'd received classical voice training at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England, couldn't believe she'd taken the techniques she had learned and tossed them in the trash with one passionate act of aggression.

The mother of one and lover of all things metal spent those six months away from the stage hitting the books. She learned all she could about the mechanics of screaming, eventually discovering the unique technique she's been teaching to her students for more than a decade now.

That technique, Cross said, has helped prolong the vocal cords — and thus the careers — of some of heavy metal's loudest men and women. Her students include Slipknot's Corey Taylor, Shadows Fall frontman Brian Fair, Cradle of Filth's Dani Filth, the Bravery's Sam Endicott, Thursday's Geoff Rickly, Arch Enemy's Angela Gossow, Lamb of God's Randy Blythe and Underoath's Spencer Chamberlain. Over the years, she's repaired the pipes behind Every Time I Die, God Forbid, Candiria, the Agony Scene, A Static Lullaby, Madball, It Dies Today, H20, Bloodsimple, Ill Niño, All That Remains, A Life Once Lost, Sick of It All and Unearth. She helped former Killswitch Engage frontman Jesse Leach perfect his clean vocals, and Andrew W.K.'s got her on speed dial.

"I am the only teacher I know of who makes a concerted effort to deal with extreme vocals," she said. "Once one of these artists is on my roster, they can call me whenever they need me. They don't show up for lessons each week, but they're in my circle, and we communicate about any problems they have. A lot of these guys are very busy, so I only get them when they're in between tours and albums."

Cross works side by side with her screaming students inside her Manhattan studio space, and together — with a little ProTools help — they record a CD of each lesson that the singer can bring on tour. That CD serves as a pre-gig primer. "They'll practice with it wherever they go," she said, adding that she's never taught any of her big-name students how to scream. "Most of the guys I work with already knew how to scream. I needed to teach them how to do it without throwing out their vocal cords, so they don't mess up their throats when they do what they do."

How She Got Here: Fed up after brief stints working 9-to-5 jobs at record labels and in entertainment lawyers' offices, Cross decided to give teaching a whirl. Despite being a fan of the genre, she said she didn't set out on a mission to revolutionize extreme-vocal instruction — the extreme vocalists came to her.

"It started in the mid-1990s, when the genre was smaller," she recalled. "It started with [Hatebreed frontman] Jamey Jasta. He never showed up for his lesson. He'd keep booking and then would get too busy and cancel. But somehow it got out that Jamey intended to come." That word-of-mouth alone led a metal producer to call on her.

"He brought me Jesse Leach, Ian [Keeler] from Dismay," she said. "He tells me about a guy named Brian [Fair] from a band named Overcast," who, these days, sings for Shadows Fall. "I was able to help these people not lose their voices in the studio. They only played shows on the weekends, so that wasn't an issue. The problem was they were in the studio and couldn't get through one song without trashing their voices."

Word spread fast about Cross within the metal community, and she started taking on more and more clients. "Everybody knows everybody," she said. "It's tight-knit and I just love that."

You Either Have It Or You Don't: Cross said that she's had several students come to her wanting to master the art of screaming. But before she can do anything, there must be talent. The majority of her clients were born with it: Like Fair, they're vocalists with well-established careers who've been screaming since the age of 15 but would like to stop spitting up blood after every performance. None of the novices, she says, have gone on to make an impact on the scene.

Others "have come to me with really clean voices and wanted to add that heat but couldn't because they were afraid or overly trained," Cross said. She's also helped artists who had been screaming but stopped because of a vocal injury or out of fear that they'd cause permanent damage.

"For instance, Geoff [Rickly] from Thursday had relegated all the screaming to [keyboardist] Andrew [Everding]," she said. "He was really pulling back. But he isn't anymore — he's singing, he's screaming, he's out there. It's a huge difference, because he's completely confident knowing that he can turn, on a dime, from the singing to the screaming."

Cross has a list of dream clients she'd love to work with — not because they need help improving their vocal skills, but because she's a fan and would like to help them conserve their voices: Life of Agony's Keith Caputo and Mikael Åkerfeldt, frontman for Opeth.

What's Next: Cross is putting the finishing touches on "The Zen of Screaming 2," the sequel to "The Zen of Screaming," a DVD that covers the fundamentals of vocal maintenance.

The second "Zen" will feature guest appearances by Rickly, Gossow, Blythe, Chamberlain, Unearth's Trevor Phipps, Phil Labonte from All That Remains, God Forbid's Byron Davis, Lou Koller of Sick of It All and T.J. Miller, who fronts Still Remains.

" 'The Zen of Screaming 2' is what everyone wanted from the first DVD — it's all screaming," said Cross. "Everyone needed the first one for the basics. This second DVD will teach my technique as it applies to screaming. Without the first DVD, we would have had all these kids hurting themselves."

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