Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Should Have Gone to the Fame School

It seems like every teenager wants to be an entertainer these days.  Some are happy just chasing fame, but others want to do it the right way by actually learning how to sing, dance, act or play an instrument.  When I was a teen, my passion was singing and songwriting. There was no "New Directions Glee Club" at my high school, and even though I grew up in New York City, it never occurred to me to audition for the "High School for Performing Arts," made famous by the "Fame" movie and TV show, both popular at that time.  Though it would have been nice to have had a bunch of friends I could feel connected to who also wanted to be performers, I thought the only option for me was to go it alone.

First, I enrolled in group singing lessons in a building that also housed our local DMV.  There, we practiced the most bizarre vocal exercises I'd ever encountered in my life (both before and since).  There were "Ya-EEs" and "EE-Yeh-EE's."  One girl's voice was so high and screechy that as she went higher and higher up the vocal register, it was hard not to plug our ears.  I can't even write the syllables "Ya-EE" without thinking of her!  The next year, I quit the "Ya-EE" group and joined a singing workshop for adults.  I was the youngest member since I was only 16, and the man who ran the group promptly distributed his original 45-record to us.  It was enclosed inside of a sleeve that had a picture of him where he looked just like Tom Jones -- curly-headed, shirt open, gold chain, holding the microphone in full Tom Jones stance!

Needless to say, I was getting frustrated. At the rate I was going, not only was I not learning how to sing,  I also had no hope of getting the handful of pop songs I had just written recorded on my own 45-record or at least onto a taped demo! My dad's best friend, Hans, who was working as a playwright/filmmaker at the time, told me that if I was really serious about singing, I should answer an ad in "Back Stage" magazine which was THE magazine for out-of-work actors and musicians in New York City in the '80's.  I found an ad where you could work with both a vocal teacher AND with a record producer, kind of like a "two for the price of one" deal. I quickly called the phone number on the ad, and a man with an Italian accent answered.  He said his name was Victor, and I told him I was interested in taking singing lessons with the teacher and also in working with the producer on my original songs.  He said that we could start with singing lessons and later make some rough sheet music arrangements to give to the producer so that I could record my demo.  He gave me directions to his studio in Manhattan.  "Right next to The Gustino," he said.

Being a cautious 16 year-old girl, there was NO WAY I was taking the subway and going to some strange man's studio in 1980's New York City, so I dragged my forever indefatigable best friend, Ania, to come along.  When we got off the subway at Columbus Circle/59th Street, we looked for a building labeled "The Gustino," but we couldn't find one.  "Maybe," Ania began, "he meant the grocery store, D'Agostino.  There's one right over there."  "Yes, that's it."  We found the address and took the the elevator up, but when we got off of our floor, it looked like a regular apartment hallway where people lived.  There was no large door that opened up to a studio!  We found the door to his "studio," and I almost ditched the whole idea.  "Should we knock or just go?"  I asked Ania.  "No," she said.  "Let's try it out." Indefatigable or insane? You decide.  A gray-haired man who looked like he was in his sixties opened the door and introduced himself.  "You can call me Victor," he said.

I studied singing with Victor every Saturday for several weeks.  He accompanied me on vocal exercises that were not nearly as crazy as the ones from my group lessons with the screechy singer.  He let me bring in whatever songs I wanted to learn, mostly by singers like Sheena Easton or by groups like the Bangles and whoever else was popular at the time.  Victor LOVED to talk, and as I became more familiar to him, he'd often stop playing, mid-song, and turn to me and tell me all the things that were on his mind, i.e., "This song was obviously copied from the Beatles.  But you know, the Beatles didn't write their own music anyway. No, not at all.  Their producer, George Martin, wrote all their songs for them.  Bet you didn't know that, huh?"  Another time I brought in "Live To Tell" by Madonna, and Victor again took his hands off the piano keys, turned to me while I was in mid "singing" sentence, and said,  "You know, Madonna, she's really popular now.  But she's not going to be around in another few years.  Yeah, that's right.  A few years from now, no one is even going to remember Madonna!"

But still, I always tried to be polite.  One time, Victor wore two pairs of eyeglasses stuck on top of each other, both hanging down the bridge of his nose, scotch taped heavily.  He began the lesson and played the piano as I practiced my vocal exercises, only to suddenly stop playing and start laughing uproariously.  "You didn't notice!" he exclaimed.  "I broke my bifocals!  I had to do SOMETHING so I could see during your lesson!" 

It was around this time that I thought I should mention the record producer.  "Oh, yes, the producer," Victor said.  "Let's get your best three songs written out on sheet music, and then you can set up a meeting with Mike to see if he'll record those songs for you in his studio."  Finally, I thought.  The three songs we chose were "Lemon Meringue," "Rainbow Ice," and "Cinnamon Wishes," -- remember, this was the 80's!  Once Victor got the three songs arranged on paper, he played them for me and I sang along.  I sounded like Cyndi Lauper being accompanied by Liberace, but still, I felt I was ready to meet the producer.

Judging by my experience with Victor, I should have known that Mike the Producer would probably turn out to be somewhat similar to Victor since they both advertised in "Back Stage" as a pair.  Sure enough, when my mom and I sat down in the studio to have our meeting with Mike, he was also gray-haired, in his 60's, and was more interested in telling us all about this new girl he was recording than discussing the arrangements of the songs I'd brought him.  He told us that she was a teenager around my age who sang country-western music. He played us the demo he had just recorded for her that he was trying to shop around to record companies.   "I don't know what to do," he said.  "She's a really talented singer, and I know her music could sell. It's just a matter of getting her to the RIGHT record company."  I know the feeling, I thought to myself.  It's also just a matter of getting me to the RIGHT vocal teacher!  I should have gone to the Fame School!

1 comment:

  1. You should have gone to the "Fame" school, but instead you ended up at the "Berklee" school! haha.

    Good story! I like the "Ya-EE" club. I had a vocal coach (after Berklee) that had me singing similar syllables and words, like "Haaa-AAAAWK!" Haha it was great. I had a whole practice tape full of them.

    Also, it's funny you should mention writing a song with "Cinnamon" in the title. I once wrote a song called "Cinnamon Go."