Last year, I volunteered to work for six months at The Artist Co-op, a new co-working space with rehearsal rooms, geared towards connecting and supporting artists from theatre, film, opera, dance, etc. I met actors, singers, filmmakers, producers, directors, lighting designers, dancers, and most importantly, people who have and will continue to change my life. I’m grateful to be singing in a concert to support The Artist Co-op this Friday night, and I hope you’ll attend, if you’re in the greater New York City area.
On a couple of occasions, I mentioned to members of The Artist Co-op that I wanted to learn to expand my vocal abilities to include belting and musical theatre techniques. Although I’ve had a couple of really wonderful musical theatre gigs, I always knew I had work to do to really learn how to sing that repertoire at the best of my natural ability. Having several friends in an incredibly unconventional, grammy-winning group called Roomful of Teeth, I’ve been inspired for years to learn to expand my voice outside of the purely classical realm.
Growing up, I wanted to be Debbie Gibson. I learned how to sing like her, mostly with a pop mix and an unsophisticated teenage belt when needed. One night, at a karaoke bar in Koreatown, I reached the pinnacle of those childhood dreams when, while singing “Lost in Your Eyes,” a man dropped to his knees at my feet and shouted, “You ARE Debbie Gibson!” As a fully realized adult who had earned a living as a respected classical singer for two decades, I knew I could do far more if I trained my whole voice – not to mimic an 80’s pop icon, but to find the limitless possibilities within my own voice.
When the universe speaks, I listen. Personally, this means paying attention whenever more than one source produces the same message or advice. Several people mentioned the tiny street on which I now live, for example, as I was searching for an affordable apartment in Manhattan, and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. So when two different members of the Artist Co-op praised their teacher Jon Stancato and recommended I work with him on my much of a coincidence. “Are you Jon Stancato, by any chance?” I asked, and my journey began.
Since then, I’ve had several lessons, sometimes a week apart, sometimes spread out by months because of my performing and travel schedules. Now, preparing to sing everything from Troubadour songs to Alanis Morisette with medieval harp on an eclectic concert on Friday, June 14 at the Highland Lodge in Vermont with Christopher Preston Thompson and Heidi Lauren Duke, I have the privilege of meeting with Jon weekly. He’s an incredibly intuitive coach, working with me as we experiment together to find the authentic and meaningful sounds that color each song fully and appropriately.
On days like today, feeling raw with the emotions of loss and mourning and worn down by allergies and the thicker vocal cords that greet young women once a month, working with Jon reminds me so much of my intensely mindful work with Josh Pais, or training to become a life coach. I make sounds I wouldn’t dare to make in front of almost anyone, and Jon tells me that he can learn just as much from my voice on what I would consider a bad day. I relax into the present to play with what we have, which apparently is a lot more than I expected.
Singing, as a career, creates a life of wildly glorious and meaningful highs, coupled with social needs cut short, an unparalleled need for body awareness and physical health, and constant sacrifices to keep that voice, which earns me money and keeps me fed, fresh and strong. Today, I found a new way to play with it healthily and, as I so often do on this journey, I felt at turns vulnerable, scared, empowered, and exhilarated. Finally, we found a really rich resonance with which I can play across my range, and I felt good, as we heard a knock on the door, and the lesson came to an end.
As the door opened, a classical conductor with whom I’ve previously worked and who I respect walked in the absolutely not soundproof door. We briefly hugged, and I mentioned that I was working on some belting techniques, before he said, “I know, I heard. Sounds good,” and rushed off to setup for his rehearsal. Upon exiting, I passed by sixteen of my most talented friends and colleagues from the classical singer world, half happy to see them, half awkwardly mortified that they all heard my rather vulnerable exploration of self and voice.
Although I still wonder a bit how it all sounded and think perhaps I should start audio-recording my lessons, I trust Jon’s assessment, that I sounded great, and it’s a good thing they heard me. Despite a decent deal of stigma in the classical world about non-classical techniques, I’m nothing if not a proponent for change and plan to embrace the role of helping others to both embrace and seek it. If the three deaths I’ve experienced this month have taught me anything, they’ve increased my need for vulnerability, authenticity, and a mindful exploration of life. Finding my whole voice, accompanied by a talented and compassionate guide, fills me with just the right combination of nervousness and joy that tells me I’m on the right path. I’m glad my friends heard me, and I can’t wait to sing for that audience in June. This life is worth living fully, with every color, sound, and expression I can possibly find for the artistic manifestations of my spirit… Not just tomorrow, now.