And why I do what I do as a director/producer of a youth musical theatre program.
I grew up the baby in a family of adult siblings. When I was born, my sister was 12 and my two brothers were 16 and 20. I was incredibly shy, feeling very small around all these big people. I remember clinging to my mother’s skirt if anyone outside the family talked to me. I also remember trying to be like my adult siblings and to converse with them on their level, which often made me feel even smaller.
So while I was shy, being around my siblings taught me how to converse intelligently with adults, but I just afraid to do it. I had little confidence that I could compete with all those adults in my life, and I was also an “only” child because of the age gap. So when I entered school, I was an introvert, awkward, and very unsure how to communicate with kids my age.
My mother was wise. She knew I needed something to get me out of my shell. So when I was four years old, she signed me up with Lou Mosconi, a Vaudeville-Ziegfeld tapper with studios in Hollywood that trained most of the dancers for the film industry.
My older sister studied with him and was a great dancer by age 16. One year later she was acquired by Twentieth Century Fox Studios. I wondered how I would ever measure up.
I was terrified. I didn’t want to get out of the car. So, my mother patiently waited for me to calm down, and I walked into the studio. Mr. Mosconi taught me the basics, shuffle-1, shuffle-2, suffle-3, stamp, stamp. And I could do it fine.
Everything was going well for a few lessons until I asked him what the bamboo canes hanging on the barre were. He said, “Oh, I use them on your sister when she makes a mistake!” Of course he was joking, but as a shy four year old, I didn’t know that and that was the end of it.
In first grade, I was put in a special reading class, not because I couldn’t read, but because I was afraid to read out loud in front of the class. (I was actually an advanced reader, and I loved to read, still to this day.)
But I admired my sister who was immersed in the musical theatre arts, and wanted to be like her.
So at age 7 my mother signed me up for piano lessons. I was not comfortable being in Mrs. Beckstead’s hom,e and I really did not like playing scales, so Mom found a concert pianist, Jeanette Kourilsky (Jeanette Savran), who had been a child prodigy and had performed several times at Carnegie Hall and twice in the Hollywood Bowl. She agreed to come to our Hollywood Hills home and teach me without doing scales (bad idea, but it worked for me at the time).
As a child, Mrs. Kourilsky’s hands seemed large and muscular. She wore her thick, white-streaked black hair in a large braided bun at the nape of her neck. She came to our home, but I tried to find ways not to come downstairs for the lesson, so I sometimes locked myself in the bathroom. My mother was the most patient mother in the world.
But while I was getting up the courage to come downstairs, Jeanette played the most beautiful classical pieces by Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and others – week after week. It was amazing to hear and watch her play, and the music she played became a warm-up to opening the door and going downstairs. She was a smart woman.
I decided to be engaged in these piano lessons. One drawback was that when Mrs. Kourilsky would lean on the piano to count out the notes or mark the fingering with her pencil, sometimes she would lean so hard, the Steinway keyboard cover would come crashing down on my hands unexpectedly. I learned to watch her hands while watching the notes and to be ready to get my hands out of harm’s way quickly. And I asked my mother if she would tell her to be more careful (I was still too shy to tell her so myself!)
But I hung in there, I studied until junior high school where I attended Marlborough School for Girls and the curriculum was rigorous. I could sight read adequately and I really enjoyed playing. When I stopped the piano lessons, I started really practicing. During the summers, I would play for hours every day, when no one was around. That was the problem. I was embarrassed to practice while anyone was in the house.
My first piano concert was a game-changer. I knew the piece very well. It was a simple piano arrangement of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, which I probably saw 10 times in the movie theatres. I knew it backwards and forwards and could play it with my eyes closed. But when I saw the audience, I freaked. I was so nervous, my knees started shaking.
I began to play, but my fingers were shaking so hard I could hardly keep them on the keys. All was going well, until I hit a wrong chord. I had no idea what came next. Total blank. After five consecutive WRONG tries, I heard a desperate and loud whisper from the audience. My mother. “Just go on!”
And I did. What a great idea! (I went on to become a singer instead.)
But my mother did not give up on me (and I did not give up on piano either). She saw my interest in musical theatre, so at age 15, she signed me up for voice lessons with an 82-year old Metropolitan Opera singer, Margaret Romaine. She was a large woman with a voice that could crack glass even at 82. It was huge. She complained about how she had lost control of her diaphragm, but honestly, it sounded incredible.
For one year she patiently worked with me. She immediately focused on my shyness, “Speak up, child! I can hardly hear you…Do you want people to listen to you? Then you have to learn to be confident. I’m teaching you how to be confident. You have a beautiful voice, and you can sing at the Met if you want.”
I wasn’t sure that the Met was my goal. And there were times that I simply burst into tears because I couldn’t do what she was asking me to do. I mean, how many ways can you sing the vowel “ee” wrong? I found them. And my tongue…She made me wrap my tongue around a pencil to bring it forward and loosen it and my chin. I stuck it out (not my tongue, the voice lessons).
By age 15 I wanted to learn not to be shy and it was painful. I had friends, but typically one best friend at a time. I was determined to overcome this problem.
My first solo was in a church service, and I was shaking again, mostly because Margaret was in the audience, but I made it through, and she complimented me, and it was a moment that kept me going.
THE ROAD TO CONFIDENCE
I decided to leave Marlborough because it didn’t have a music or theatre program, and so I transferred to Hollywood High School. I was too afraid to audition for My Fair Lady my freshman year, so the next year I followed through with an audition for the musical, Plain and Fancy. It was excruciating, but Margaret helped me prepare, and I made it in the ensemble with a little speaking role. I also made it into the Chamber Singers, and I was loving singing in a trio with two of my best friends from Pasadena.
Step by step I found confidence. I tried out for The Sound of Music my senior year and I was cast as Liesl. Then I auditioned for the senior class soloist. Although I was told my song was too mature for my age (Musetta’s Waltz), I sang it beautifully, but had to sing an art song for the graduation ceremony, which was in the Hollywood Bowl. Margaret was miffed because she told me I was just about ready for the regional Met auditions. But singing in the Hollywood Bowl and hearing my voice echo back at me a split second after I sang the note was the experience of a lifetime, art song or aria.
I’m most grateful for the Hollywood High School Chamber Singers teacher, Bernice Hutchison, for her inspiring direction, and my drama teacher, Addison Myers, who approached me after The Sound of Music and to let me kn
ow that I had “real” talent and I should continue with theatre. That carried me throughout college and beyond.
Eventually I learned to love auditioning and I went on an ongoing audition binge. In Dallas, where professional theatre was alive and well, I began to get cast regularly, to the degree that other women told me that they knew if I showed up, they might as well have stayed home because I’d get the part.
I have ad a rewarding life, having been directed by Broadway directors, and having performed in a Broadway national tour, and Off Off Broadway and in many regional theatre productions, all while being a mother of five children who were growing up, and some already on their own.
I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to create the musical theatre summer program for Circle in the Square Theatre School, a Broadway theatre, which Backstage rated best in NYC along with NYU’s CAP 21 program. From there I was recruited to a top 10 nationally ranked performing arts high school, the Orange County School of the Arts ,where I created the curriculum for voice technique, song styles and interpretation classes. I also have exclusive rights to teach the David Craig On Singing OnStage course.
LIFE SKILLS LEARNED
I continue to perform myself. I learned to be supportive of my competition, and to be friends with them. In fact, I learned that I’m my only competition and that making and keeping friends was more important than getting cast in a show.
I learned many life skills. Promptness, being prepared, a good attitude, learning to take criticism without getting offended or defensive, how to work with a team of cast members in a supportive way, and how to keep my ego in the right place after getting rave reviews. (A bad review does that quickly!)
I learned how to speak clearly and how to study and research. I became well-read and, after my Shakespeare training, which began with Mrs. Draper at Hollywood High, I learned to love history. I learned marketing skills, because every audition is a new interview and the actor is the product being “sold” to the producer. To this day I can kill it in an interview all because of my theatrical experience. I learned how to write and how to deliver great presentations and speeches. In fact, I give motivational presentations and speeches without an ounce of fear.
All the skills I learned in theatre have been a huge benefit to me in real life. (Even reading stories to my children and grandchildren, acting out all the parts.)
UCLA STUDY SHOWS THE ARTS CAN NARROW ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Studies have also shown the life benefits of students in the theatrical arts. A UCLA Study shows how it helps narrow the achievement gap.
I know from raising my own children that fine music, singing and piano can order the brain and help children focus and do better on tests. Singing and dancing releases endorphins. Deep breathing, as required in singing, is good for breathing and oxygenating the blood. Performing positive and wholesome content in a world that has stolen our children’s innocence and over-sexualized them puts wholesome words and thoughts in children’s minds that will serve them well as they grow to adulthood. Inspiring words and memories created through music can even help combat and avoid depression.
I love teaching youth the qualities of a positive attitude, patience, resilience, and kindness, along with creativity and communication skills because they are more likely to move forward to live a successful life with stronger coping skills when confronting tough times.
YOUTH AMBASSADORS AT GLENDALE CENTRE THEATRE
I am so pleased to be directing this new musical theatre training program and to be working with talented youth at Glendale Centre Theatre. GCT is a wholesome, family-friendly place where these children will have opportunities to perform on stage there as they train in a safe and encouraging environment.
There is so much negative in the world. Our children do not need negative. This program focused on the positive, uplifting messages in the world. It is structured to help them believe in themselves and their dreams and to understand that it takes hard work.
By the way, I still have that Steinway. It has a lifetime of memories and was a big part of my overcoming my shyness. I joke with my kids that I want to be buried in it! Which brings me full circle: I am forever grateful to the best teacher of all, my mother, who gave me those three words that have stayed with me and sustained me through every challenge I’ve encountered through life: “Just go on!”