The scene is hauntingly reminiscent of the Broadway show A Chorus Line. In a darkened room, a person stands alone on a stage lit by beams of intense white light. From the back of the room, its source unseen by the nervous would-be performer, a voice calls out questions, instructions.
It is Claude Stein, an intense, curly haired voice guru whose “Natural Singer” workshops have become a popular testing ground for people who think they can’t sing but have fun doing it, think they can but are embarrassed to, people who know they can and want to earn their living doing it.
With Stein, they get more than just a singing lesson. They get a lesson in themselves. The performing experience here can be as emotional and invigorating, for Stein isn’t afraid to use psychological insights and intuition to get the effect he wants – a breakthrough.
The 11 people on stage this Sunday in the Penthouse Room of the Marco Polo Resort are computer programmers, secretaries, mothers and fathers, waitresses, store managers, owners of greeting card companies. All love to sing and have dreamed of singing before an audience.
But, they don’t. The reasons why are different, but somehow the same. Their parents didn’t approve of singing as a career. They had babies. They didn’t think they were good enough. The pressure of performing scared them. They sang beautifully in the shower, but in front of friends, the voice gurgled and broke.
After a while, they pushed the desire to sing out of their minds. Or thought they had. But the desire kept coming back, gnawing at them as they pushed typewriter keys or scribbled down food orders. They heard about Stein’s workshops and thought they would give it a shot.
The daylong sessions go like this: For two hours, Stein runs the group through very simple relaxation, breathing, and vocal exercises. The emphasis is on not trying to sound good, on relaxing and letting go.
“Holding yourself back takes more energy than just letting yourself sing,” Stein tells the group.
Then, show time. Everyone picks part of song and gets up on stage. Each person sings the song once. And Stein goes to work.
Let the lyrics and the audience in, he tells Alan Harris. The burly Miami Lakes resident is one of the few professionals in the room, but has never had formal schooling. He sings for a living, but has had a hard time accepting praise and keeping his material fresh.
Let’s lighten up, he tells Gary Morales. The computer programmer stands stick straight, chin stuck firmly in front, to sing George Gershwin’s Broadway tune, Embraceable You. He has always wanted to sing, he said but his family discouraged it as an unworthy trade. In college, he majored in marine science and geology.
Out comes a green feather. Morales must sing the song again while being tickled. And again, in a German accent. Both times, it is hilarious, and by the final performance, Morales sings the song with his own meaningful interpretation and is more at ease.
Be a wild woman, he tells Cassi Eubank. The girlish computer programmer with a sweet voice and dimples wants to sing in a rock band. But she is shy. She has a hard time being aggressive.
Stein instructs Embank to try singing her song, Temptation Eyes, like Tina Turner. Like Madonna and Michael Jackson. To intimidate. At the end, she sings better and is less afraid of losing control.
Relate it to someone, Stein tells Tamara Anderson, as she sings about a jilted lover. Anderson attended the workshop nine months ago. Since then, she has lost 20 pounds and started her own band, called Agency. Anderson begins to share a detail or two about her ex-husband. The anger overflows into the song.
When the lessons are over, each person sings the same song again. Inevitably, the voice is clearer and stronger. So is the emotion. So is the power of the song and singer.
“He tells you exactly what you were hoping for but were afraid to reveal,” said Maritza Cruz, a clerk for Metro-Dade building and Zoning. “He encourages you make room for your fear and your uniqueness. It works.”
As you watch the parade of aspiring performers, you are hypnotized by their stories and their songs. You feel their nervousness as they stand alone in the spotlight, their pain as they bring to the surface emotions suppressed on the job and at home and, after Stein has encouraged the emotions out, when they finally belt out a song, you feel the goosebumps of triumph along with them.
The experience is not unlike a group encounter, where individuals come together for intense sessions on a variety of emotional topics.
“You can pull a little bit of yourself out of each person,” said Eubank, a computer programmer from Boca Raton who sings in a band. “We all have self doubts and always wonder of we’re good enough. So many people don’t follow their dreams because they’re afraid to fail. If you never fail, you never succeed.”
The lesson learned by the end of the day is that the singer is inseparable from the person inside, and the success of the singer is directly related to the expressive freedom of the person.
Said Stein: “All this honest communicating really helps the quality of the voice and the phrasing in the music. In art, there are no value judgments on emotions, not like in real life. There, we are told that sad or insecure is bad. Angry is bad. It becomes very helpful to express anger, to channel insecurities, to integrate them and to use them creatively. Art loves it when you’re honest and emotional.”
That is why Stein’s workshops are not just for aspiring professional singers, but for anyone who has ever not done something or been something because he or she was afraid of not being good enough.
The voice becomes a convenient tool of self-discover – convenient because, obviously, everyone has one, and because singing is a large part of the human experience, from the lullaby sung to us at birth to the songs heard on the radio every day.
Said Stein: “You have the ability to inspire people whether you’re a beginner or a professional or can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It’s your voice. Nobody else in the world has your voice. Use it!”