MG. You have two CDs out, Hybrid Songbird, and Kickin’ Up Life. What does the word “hybrid” mean for you and why did you choose a “hybrid” format for your first CD?
AV. For me the word hybrid is a combination of two different sources: guitar and musical theater music. Hybrid is used on both of my CD covers as a concept.
MG. Why is Frank Sinatra such an important part of your life?
AV. Mr. Sinatra gave scholarship money to me in my junior year while at Immaculate Heart College. I loved my time there. The Catholic College and High School were situated close together at the time; beneath the Hollywood Hills sign. The college closed in 1981 and the American Film Institute bought the college property. The library that I spent hours studying in is now one of the many Louis B. Mayer libraries in Los Angeles, California. This was a wonderful educational experience for me. The music teachers were phenomenal. Most of them were in symphonies, in the musicians union, played in the local big recording studios as back up musicians, and were just all around great musicians, not just teachers. They were located in the heart of it all.
MG. You are a prominent cabaret artist as well as a pop singer. How would you distinguish between the style and repertoire of a cabaret singer and a pop singer? Are there any other artists (male and female and opera singers) who have inspired you?
AV. Prominent, hum! Now that’s a big jump there. (Laughs.) I’m good at it in the early style as outlined in Lisa Appiganesi’s book, The Cabaret. She writes about the small rooms in Europe, most of them before pianos, where a good number the singers/entertainers accompanied themselves on the guitar. That entire history rather culminated in Jacques Brel’s material which he wrote for the guitar and sang most all of it himself. Much later it was made into a musical, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. In Lisa’s book you see the guitar used by Aristide Bruant, the notorious club owner-performer. This is the world into which Bud Dashiell brought me.
I had been signing in and out of clubs, hotel lounges, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and abroad. The Purple Onion was a fun moment for me. I had my first concert at age 16. In fact my first high school concert was a benefit to raise money for choir robes. I loved it. One venue followed another. I sang weddings, membership clubs, restaurants, lounges, open-mikes nights, radio shows and revues. I was cast in original musicals looking for investors and angels. Here in San Francisco the show “What The Hell” ,staged, directed and conceptualized by Sean Delaney was quite an adventure. Sean had been the early director and influence on the rock band KISS. Sean Delaney and Richard Mc Nees wrote some spell binding songs. The musical ended because of Sean’s health. In any case, what I had learned from Bud Dashiell was how to put together a SET and a CABARET SHOW and how they differ from a lounge set. He also introduced me to the Musical Theater repertoire for guitar and voice. Bud continually said, “A good song is a good song.” He encouraged his students to pull from a broad spectrum. Some current Cabaret shows are pretty much closer to a pumped up lounge act.
Much later, in San Francisco, I met an amazingly skilled voice teacher, Mr. Edward Sayegh. He heard me singing in a piano bar in Pacific Heights. In 1988, I started voice lessons with him. Already with undergraduate and graduate studies in music, many years of band singing and performances, I took nine more years of intense vocal training and building to include the American Musical Theater repertoire in my skills and to apprentice with Edward Sayegh as his protégé. I was invited to learn the Garcia-Marchesi Tradition with him and become a teacher. Before I started these lessons, I sang easily but with a smaller vocal range and not much power. When I started my training, Mr. Sayegh advised that I not perform while he would be reworking my voice from the bottom up. I had just been cast in a show. I called the director and declined. I wanted this training to work and I respected my teacher. I wanted to train right. I enjoyed the training process. It had a certain amount of solitude in it that appeals to me.
The voices I love and admire are wide in category.
Classical: Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavorotti, Plácido Domingo, Olga Borodina
Pop & Jazz: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Whitney Houston
Country, Rock. Blues: Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, Steven Perry, Leon Redbone, Ray Charles,
Foreign: Amalia Rodrigues
Guitar: Andres Segovia who makes the guitar sing
Never intended to pick mostly dead people.
MG. You not only sing songs from musical theater but you have composed two songs for Kickin’ Up Life. Would you tell me about your life as a composer?
AV. My collaborator is a real hermit, very private. Yes, I am spending a lot more time writing and arranging these days. I got my first song-publishing contract in my college years. My uncle Joe Kerby (Stoddard W. Kerby) worked at CBS studios and in the movie industry and negotiated a contract for me. I then became a member of ASCAP.
MG. When you compose, does the melody come first and then the words, or the other way around?
AV. It varies. But I like Sammy Cahn’s quip, “…the phone call comes first...” a good reason usually drives the project.
MG. Aren’t you also a talented orchestrator ?
AV. For guitar arrangements, I’m probably above average. The voicing and chord positions are not among the usual for a singing guitarist. I don’t strum a lot. I also have a good sense of what other instrument parts I might include in my arrangements. I can write out parts but I much prefer developing the offerings and musical conversation with another musician who knows his/her instrument.
MG. You pride yourself on the guitars you use. Could you tell us about why they are so special?
AV. Well, every guitarist loves certain guitars. I list the guitars I use on the CD production notes for anyone to see. I am quite fond of a very simple guitar made by GUILD. I use a Guild Mark VI nylon string guitar on stage. It fits well for me and it is easy to mike. It’s an older guitar that needs work now and then. For working arrangements and recording sessions I like to use a John Mello guitar. It’s amazing.
MG. I understand that you are working on another CD?
AV. I’m always working on the next CD. I think that’s the standard reply from anyone who records.
MG. Tell me about your educational experience.
AV. I attended Catholic elementary and high schools and a state junior college in the San Joaquin Valley. I entered junior college to major in Music. I was on local radio programs during my sophomore year of college. High school and junior college yielded music awards. In junior college I was talked into entering a state jazz vocal competition. I won that award presented by trumpeter, Don Ellis.
I moved on to complete undergraduate studies in music at Immaculate Heart College in the Hollywood Hills and then graduate studies at UCLA. During my last few months of grad school, I saw an ad in the campus newspaper for a guitar performance workshop. Bud Dashiell of “Bud & Travis” fame from Warner Bros. Records, ran the ad and soon after that, my entire education experience changed. I left the classroom for individual private study. It was the best decision I ever made with respect to the guitar.. I’ve always been grateful for the breadth of a college education. However, it was time to hone with Bud.
MG. You were a guitar major and an ethnomusicology major. How did you get started on your vocal career?
AV. I started with a strong interest in rhyme when I was very young and then found my real interest in singing again in high school. I took piano lessons and teachers recognized that I had musical aptitude, but it wasn’t in the piano. I slipped into the guitar at about age 15 and I’ve kept it close ever since.
My undergraduate studies at Immaculate Heart College were the classical guitar literature of the 1800’s and a lot of composition.
My grad studies were wonderful too. It was interdepartmental--Folklore & Mythology, with an emphasis in ethnomusicology. I spent some time with msic of Portugal. I had a Smithsonian Grant for grad studies. When I concluded my studies I knew I was done with academia. It was just as well. I had found Bud Dashiell and I was engrossed in guitar and singing performance once again. Bud brought to me to the Musical Theater repertoire with guitar and voice. I was enthralled with the beautiful music, lyric, and challenging guitar arrangement.
As an aside, there came about a class action lawsuit by some students in the Folklore & Mythology Department and as a result, they were permitted to return to their thesis plans which the department had attempted to abort. I might’ve returned to UCLA at that point, but, as I said, I was not interested in returning to academia. I had found my place. But life makes turns and I was invited to ACT to teach singing after my assistantship and apprenticeship with Edward Sayegh in the Garcia-Marchesi Vocal Tradition.
MG. Is it true that you once looked at your vocal cords through a laryngoscope?
AV. My doctor sent me to a voice pathologist at my request. I wanted a video and photos of my vocal cords. That was in 2001. It was shown that I had one vocal cord significantly shorter and wider than the other. The pathologist said that it looked like an injury. I told her that I had never had an injury but I had chronic croup from infancy to age two. She said that coughing could result in this imbalance. She also said that I had made “remarkable compensation” for the injury. I was amused. I probably should have another test.
MG. You told me that you are a lyric mezzo. What is a lyric mezzo?
AV. That term is about weight and color as well as range. I sound very light in the upper range and very warm and smoky in the middle and lower range. Too much time spent in my top register fatigues my voice. It just doesn’t sit there easily. It might’ve if the cords were matched, but as I said, one cord is longer and the other is shorter and wider. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to warm up and stretch in that vocal area. Most of my songs just don’t sit in that range for long periods of time.
MG. You have said that you have the ability to “belt.” What does that mean?
AV. Belting is a term that brings cringes in the classical arena. It’s a standard American Pop, Musical Theater, and folk singer sound. Most female folk singers, pop singers and rock’n’rollers sing with a predominant chest sounding voice. When you’re belting it isn’t sweet because belting holds more power and more of a low mix than a soprano sound. You know it when you hear it. That being said, the argument “What is belting?” goes on ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
MG. Many times during my private lessons and in the salons you mention NATS. What is it and how do you get to be a member?
AV. It’s an acronym for National Association of Teachers of Singing. My teacher, Mr. Edward Sayegh, and another northern California teacher, Mr. Bob Bernard, sponsored me into NATS in August 1995. I really appreciate the code of ethics outlined in the bylaws. I know teachers who do not care much for the guidelines, and for obvious reason. They like to make up their own rules and behave in ways that are more financially competitive. Business is business, but for “carny” barkers to masquerade as singing teachers becomes tiresome.
MG. I’m interested in the Garcia-Marchesi tradition and I know that you are an expert in this tradition. Could you tell me more about it?
AV. ‘Expert’ is very kind of you. I see myself as one of many teachers in this wonderful tradition. We all have different strengths in imparting this work. I know mine and do not claim to work in all styles of singing with equal know-how and agility. Where would I start? The early 20th century book by the renouned bass, M. Sterling MacKinlay, Garcia the Centenarian and His Times, (NY: Nabu Press, 2010), would be the best place to start. This was an amazing family. Manuel Jr. is credited with having invented the first laryngoscope but there is ongoing debate on this since his device was rudimentary. In any case, he wanted to see the vocal cords so that once he saw them he hoped that the laryngoscope confirmed his ideas about the vocal cords. After his experiment was a success, ironically, he never really worked with his laryngoscope that much. Manuel Garcia, Sr., from what I’ve read, ruled with a tough fist. Here’s a little interesting note. Garcia Sr. gave many concerts where he accompanied himself on the guitar and sang arias from the operas in which he had starring roles. Fun, huh? Of course the stages were not the size they are now. I can see him imparting as Aristide Bruant did at the CHAT NOIRE in the left bank of Paris.
MG. Let’s talk a bit about Mathilde Marchesi and her contribution to singing.
What famous artists have benefited from her work? In other words, what is the Marchesi lineage?
AV. This is a list of some of her star pupils, some of whom also taught students and have created a series of lineages leading back to Mathilde Marchesi ( protégé to Manuel Garcia Jr.) Suzanne Adams, lyric coloratura soprano: Elena D'Angri, contralto and mezzo; Emma Calvé, soprano; Etelka (Fran) Gerster, soprano; Nellie Melba, soprano; Blanche Marchesi (daughter of Mathilde), mezzo; Estelle Liebling, soprano, was a favorite singer of John Phillip Sousa, taught Beverly Sills, and Meryl Streep as a young girl. Joan Sutherland’s mother, (Muriel) was taught by Mr. W. Burns Walker a pupil of Nellie Melba a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi. Joan’s mother. Muriel, was her early exclusive voice teacher. These were all heavy hitters in their time and hold benchmarks to this day. It’s a spider web lineage but the product of the work is staggering.
MG. What got you interested in this tradition and how does one find a person who is qualified to teach this method?
AV. I became interested in this tradition of singing when I began studying with Mr. Edward Sayegh in the fall of 1988 in San Francisco, CA. He met me singing in a San Francisco piano bar in Pacific Heights. He gave me his card. I made a few calls to Los Angeles and found out that he had apprenticed with the wonder man, Dr. Dean Verhines. Dr. Verhines worked with many other famous singers. This was the kind of voice training I had always wanted. In 1991 Mr. Sayegh asked me to be his assistant/protégé . He later assembled a teaching team. He helped me start my studio and sponsored me into NATS. The training was solid. I came to his studio and observed lessons and assisted him in his classes. I got what I needed for the guitar from Bud Dashiell in Westwood, CA. Mr. Sayegh is from Orange, CA. I had to move to the Bay Area to get a southern California transplant to be my voice teacher. Life is funny like that.
MG. Is this a very difficult tradition to master as a teacher and if so why is it so difficult for a voice teacher to master?
AV. Everything one wants to do well takes time--lots of it. There are a lot of beautiful sounds that come out of a natural singer as well as lots of unorganized sounds. Training brings range, volume, flexibility, and vocal predictability and it is predictability that brings in the paycheck and repeated casting. Vocal predictability does not just mean one can produce a lovely, whimsical sound. One must train the voice for predictability. It is not just sheer luck. It’s a skill and it’s a talent and it takes time to acquire. I believe most voice teachers can master this method. However, it’s the devotion to a rigorous training time and then finding someone to apprentice with that’s difficult.
MG. As a teacher in the tradition of Garcia-Marchesi, why do you believe it works?
AV. I’ve never seen it not work. I’ve seen students not work it! I’ve seen impatience and impudence looking for the quick fix, but I’ve never seen the Garcia-Marchesi tradition in voice development not work.
MG. Why (in your opinion) do you think that this method is not taught in more colleges and universities?
AV. It is, to a degree. The voice departments are all familiar with both Manuel Garcia, Jr. and his esteemed student and teaching assistant, Mathilde Graumann Marchesi. The adjustment exercises based on a mild glottal stroke remain under fire and question. When one is trained vocally in this tradition, you are given the exercises that you need. When you are trained to train others, you learn, with a master teacher, how to apply the exercises for certain vocal reasons. This has become so second nature to me now that I would not be able to synthesize this in a Q &A. However, it takes years beyond a usual four-year program and then there aren’t enough teachers to teach it around the campuses. It’s a cottage industry and may remain so. Since many schools are now trying to shrink the degree earning time, well, this would make it just impossible to deal with this sort of voice training work.
MG. What is your singing “family tree”? How do you trace your connection back to Marchesi?
AV. I have a singing family tree back to Marchesi through my training with Mr. Edward Sayegh. Here goes my account of how I connect to the Marchesis. Mathilde Marchesi taught her daughter Blanche. Blanche then had students and one was Muriel Alston Sutherland, yes, Joan Sutherland’s mother, next came Percy R. Stephens, Paul S. Althouse (tenor), Dean Verhines (tenor), Edward Sayegh (lyric-baritone), and Ava Victoria (lyric-mezzo-soprano). An aside, the Garcia family took the name Garcia as a stage name. The father’s name was Rodriguez. My mother tells me that on her father’s side of the family there was a Rodrigues lineage from Galicia, Spain. The Portuguese usually spell Rodriquez with an “s” and the Spanish with a “z”. My mother’s father’s family moved from Galicia, Spain to Portugal but I can’t verify any connection to the Garcia family. My father had a wonderful voice. My mother also sang for weddings and church. My father had guitarists and singers on his mother’s side. My mother’s brother was an actor who had a beautiful speaking voice (Stoddard W. Kerby).
MG. Why don’t you tell me about your background, traditions, and cultural strands?
AV. I’m born and raised central California. Both sides of my family moved to Portugal from other countries. My four grandparents came to the USA from Portugal. My father’s family came to Ellis Island. His ancestry is Austrian and Portuguese. My mother’s family came to Boston Harbor. Her ancestry is northern Spain and Portugal.
MG. Many of the exercises consist of moving the head up and down while vocalizing on “gah” and “goo” sounds. Why are those sounds so important in the training of the voice?
AV. These are the exercises I mentioned earlier, targeted glottal stroke exercises. Moving the head disarms the constrictor muscles from gripping. The strengthening of the glottis for vowel centering is the basis for free singing. The overuse of articulator muscles is a huge problem that the actor brings to singing. A note, Kristin Linklater, a renowned teacher of voice and speech had great admiration for the works of Marchesi. You’d think that more actors would know this little insight into the remarkable works of Garcia-Marchesi through their own art form.
MG. Beside Marchesi, you advocate the study of the Vaccai method. What is it and why is this method important for a singer? Does it complement the Garcia-Marchesi method?
AV. Vaccai, “The TOP 40 of the 1800’s.” The melodies in these 15 lessons are timely. The beauty of these studies working is really acquired by deleting the consonants and singing the vowel core of each word. Schirmer, Ricordi, Kalmus, whichever publisher you choose, and there are several, you’ll find the studies in multiple keys and this is so helpful in working the voice through problem areas.
MG. Musical Theater is a huge part of your life and you have often said that by Teaching it we learn a lost about American culture and history. Are there differences between singing opera and singing musical theater?
AV. Musical Theater has dialogue and monologue. Opera as a rule does not. The Musical Theater singing sound and the operatic singing sound are different. One can attest to this when you listen to “The Three Tenors” sing selections from West Side Story or, on the other hand, when you listen to Michael Bolton sing Puccini. The listener knows the difference between the operatic voice and the non-operatic voice. Each of the above situations reaches the listener’s ear either positively or negatively according to their preferences. However, as I mentioned earlier, a well trained singing voice, in either of the two vocal categories, depends on the performer’s vocal predictability in the performance, otherwise it’s a crapshoot. Good training insures predictability.
MG. Why are conservatories of music, colleges, and universities not offering more training in musical theater?
AV. There has been a very petty opinion for some years that “Musical Theater is neither,” neither musical nor theater.To say that musical theater is neither music nor theater simply fails to see the influences in the form and the influence the form has on entertainment. American Musical Theater captures the essence of the American experience just as do folk music and rock’n’roll. American Musical Theater shows how we spoke, dressed, danced, and thought in a particular era of American history. Plays also do this but adding music, singing and dancing, nails the time and place together without question. American Musical Theater is loved all over the world. American music in general is adored all over the world. Reggae singers cut versions of “Over The Rainbow” and Latin American singers visit our blues, Gershwin, and fuse it with their music and rhythms. The American classic standard pop and jazz books are filled with songs that many people don’t even realize come from American Musical Theater shows. When academics in the arts fail to look squarely at the roots, and even resist looking at the connections and contributors of this truly American art form a lot of fun and simple charm are missed.
MG. What do you see as the future of the Garcia-Marchesi tradition?
AV. It goes on and on, like the seasons and the weather.
MG. Finish this sentence. “I am a lucky person because…?
AV. … because my talent was recognized early and I ran with it. Thank you, Marcia for reminding me that I’ve been having a lot of fun. And I also enjoy the pre show talks you give at the San Francisco Opera House. It is an honor for me that you have taken this time.
The interviewer is Dr. Marcia Green. Her musical education consists of a Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.), University of Southern California; Master of Education (M.Ed.), State University of New York at Buffalo; and Bachelor of Music (B.M.), Eastman School of Music. She studied with Eileen Farrell. She is currently a student of Ava Victoria’s.
A forthcoming interview with Ava Victoria and her knowledge of the Garcia-Marchesi tradition of singing is in preparation for a volume of Interdisciplinary Humanities--a journal published by the Humanities Education and Research Association. Please visit: http://www.h-e-r-a.org