Learn to Be a Nightclub Singer in Six Easy Lessons!
No, Omaha jazz singer Susie Thorne didn't put it that way in preparing to teach six Monday-night voice classes.
She just promised that it would be fun, and that participants would learn a lot and gain confidence to sing in front of audiences.
As her email pitched it: “This is a six-week group class for aspiring jazz, nightclub/lounge singers or folks who just want to sing.”
So, never having taken a singing lesson or received other formal musical training, and knowing that I'm not getting any younger, I took a leap of faith. I signed up.
And that's how I ended up in a lounge last Monday night, singing a couple of solos as well as two songs with classmates as veteran musicians played behind us.
“It went really well,” Susie said afterward. “Well ... there was that initial stumbling block.”
Oh, that initial stumbling block? The song where, out of the blue, I somehow got out of sync with the others, momentarily panicking and skipping a line of lyric as I scrambled to find my place? That stumbling block?
“You guys knew the song, and you all recovered,” our esteemed teacher said. “It happens to everyone — an honest mistake. The room was full of people. That is high pressure. Sometimes the excitement of it all is more than we realize.”
Yikes. It was exciting all right.
* * * * *
* * * * *
In early January, our class of six met for the first time in the basement studio where Susie works as the music director at St. Andrew Episcopal Church, 84th and Pacific Streets. Couldn't help noticing I was the only guy.
Two women were in their 20s. The rest of us were middle-age on up, and, at 65, I realized I was definitely in the “on up” division.
What brought us all here?
Leah Koch, 27, a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, works in advertising and teaches yoga. Her motivation for taking the class was “listening to Susie Thorne sing!”
That was a link for all of us — we're fans of the teacher, who has sung in Asia and Europe and last summer dazzled 6,000 people outdoors in Omaha at Jazz on the Green.
Claire Atkins, 25, is a classically trained violinist who also fiddles with folk and fiddle music and has sung in choirs. “But I've never done anything like this before.”
A receptionist and Spanish interpreter for a downtown law firm, Claire hopes to enter seminary and become an Episcopal priest.
Kathy Mark, 56, a paralegal in Council Bluffs, lives with her husband on an acreage in southwest Iowa and sings in two choirs.
“I have been very hesitant to try out for solos,” she said. “I've really lacked the confidence.”
Stephanie Evans Elrod, 65, said the chance to be coached by a professional and sing with talented musicians is “the experience of a lifetime,” well worth stepping out of her comfort zone.
Carolyne Jordan I knew from Omaha Press Club shows, which poke fun at public figures. She is not only a classically trained singer who performs with the Intergenerational Orchestra, but she herself is a longtime vocal music teacher.
“I've always wanted to sing jazz,” she said. “I'm ready to branch out.”
My turn came, and I said I had sung in Press Club shows and even got to record a song on a charity CD a few years ago. “I think I can hit notes,” I feebly offered, “but I'm not a singer — in the sense that I don't really know what I'm doing.”
Unable to resist a quip, I said I had sung the national anthem before Husker football games. Eyes widened, and then the punchline: “Oh, not with a microphone. Just up in the stands.”
* * *
Classes included breathing exercises, such as blowing out 30 imaginary candles one-by-one and, my favorite, “panting like a dog.”
Susie would lead us in a conga line around the studio, scat-singing, and then asking us, as we strutted and snapped our fingers, to try our own wordless vocal improvisations.
(I just violated the rule “What happens in the rehearsal studio stays in the rehearsal studio.”)
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
We each had to select two songs for solos — one of slow tempo and one faster.
I had already started the process in December, visiting my brother in Cincinnati. Pat Kelly is a keyboardist, bandleader, composer, arranger and producer who, like Susie, is also music director at a church.
He played while I tried a couple of jazz standards, singing out strongly and thinking (ahem) I sounded pretty good.
“OK,” my younger bro said, weighing his words. “You're trying too hard. Bring it down.”
At a January class in Omaha, Susie put it another way: “It's good that you can project. But let's use our 'inside voice.' ”
Properly humbled, I realized I had a lot to learn if I wanted to keep from embarrassing myself at our Feb. 17 recital.
Over the weeks, we all encouraged each other with our solos. We learned about phrasing, about singing the story of the lyrics and, as Susie said, “making the song your own.”
As a group, we worked on our opening number, the Oscar-winning “Baby, It's Cold Outside.” It's usually sung as a duet, the guy begging the girl not to leave his place because, “Baby, you'd freeze out there — it's up to your knees out there.”
It's a back-and-forth song, almost two songs in one, with the two parts musically overlapping each other. My five classmates sang the gal part and I sang the guy part, made popular by Dean Martin.
The night before our recital, we enjoyed a potluck dinner at the Elkhorn-area home of Susie and her husband, and ran through a final rehearsal.
We nailed “Baby, It's Cold Outside,” and we were ready for our performance. This was fun. I mean, what could go wrong?
* * *
Susie Thorne's mother is a classically trained vocalist and her father was a professional trumpet player, so Susie grew up with music — eventually singing in choirs and accompanying on piano.
She toured the United States as lead vocalist with a band, and studied piano and vocal performance in college.
She sang in Sweden, France, Germany and other parts of Europe, as well as in Japan. In the mid-1990s, she sang jazz as the house musician at a hotel in Hong Kong.
Visiting family in Omaha about 15 years ago after three years in Asia, Susie met and soon married a man named Bond — James Bond. He is an artisan who renovates homes and has worked on restoration of the Orpheum Theater.
“Omaha has really been good to me,” Susie said. “The city has come so far with its performing arts and has become much more metropolitan. There's just tons of music here.”
An MTV website last year rated Omaha the second-best up-and-coming music scene, and livability.com gave the Big O a top 10 national ranking for live music.
Last fall, after I got the nerve to solo on “Georgia” at a jazz jam, a musician friend urged me to keep singing, saying, “Susie Thorne is starting a winter class. You should call her.”
Whatever our age, it's good to keep trying new things. A friend in his 60s is taking banjo lessons. Others take up dance. For me, a singing class would be brand new.
Susie said she was inspired to start teaching by her friend Jackie Allen of Lincoln, who holds classes called “Torch Singer 101.”
In Omaha, our class of would-be torch singers learned to think about our lyrics and achieve a better tone. Me? I also tried not to belt out tunes, but instead to sing with my inside voice.
* * *
It was time, if only for one night, to be nightclub singers. We all had dressed up for the occasion, and friends and relatives came to the Nosh wine lounge.
With Ron Cooley on guitar, Andy Hall on bass and Susie Thorne introducing us, we all felt like ... well, like singers.
“Baby, It's Cold Outside” started well, and we all sang with confidence. Baby, we were cruising along.
And then, on one of our overlapping lines, I came in a beat late. Oh, no — I was off. I glanced to my left at Claire, who gave a sympathetic look and kept singing with the others.
I skipped a line as I concentrated on re-finding the beat. Whew! Got it back. We had another blip at the start of the second verse that threw everyone off, but we got it together and finished OK.
No, we weren't perfect, but we had to forget it and concentrate on our solos.
They included Kathy singing “It Had to Be You” to her husband; Claire on “Freebird”; Leah with a sultry “Fever”; and Carolyne singing “S'Wonderful.”
I sang a jazzy, swing version of “The Nearness of You,” as well as a heartbreak song with great visual imagery, “Willow, Weep for Me.” That's an international jazz standard written by Ann Ronell, who graduated from Omaha Central High as Ann Rosenblatt. (When the song came out in 1932, she was dating a guy named George Gershwin.)
Our one-hour lounge recital ended with the class singing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” On the last line, we naturally gave our uncritical fans a grateful wave goodbye.
Then the audience got to hear Susie sing her arrangement of “Nature Boy.” What a pro — cool and comfortable and clear as a bell.
(Susie will sing from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Nosh, near 10th and Dodge Streets, and she will hold another class on Tuesday evenings from March 4 to April 15. Her website is susiethorne.com.)
A few days later, I looked at a video of our “Baby, It's Cold Outside.” I had imagined it would be terribly embarrassing, but guess what? It was a stumble, not a train wreck, and no one got hurt.
You're vulnerable on stage, Susie said, and when things start to go wrong “they can go downhill fast.” But we had prepared well enough that when there was a stumble, she said, we had enough confidence to keep it together.
Yes, my first singing class was fun and I learned a lot, including an even greater respect for real musicians.
As we left the lounge and walked into the winter night, I felt a sense of accomplishment and gave a quick “Yeah!”
For a change, in my outside voice.