Hitting The High Note At Guild Hall

Marianne Koerner played accompaniment as she led her class in a warm-up sing on a recent Wednesday night. Durell Godfrey

    When Marianne Koerner offered a class at Guild Hall this spring called So You’ve Always Wanted to Sing it turned out plenty of people did. The six-week course, designed for all levels of talent and experience, attracted an architect, two actresses, a lawyer, and a retailer of fine china, among others, to a “welcoming environment in which they can participate as both audience and performer,” as the flier put it.
    The students began each Wednesday evening lesson with physical exercises: head rolls, breathing in while moving their heads left and right, and standing up and bending over while expelling all the air from the lungs. These were followed by vocal warm-ups: “Zee, ay, ah . . .”
    They may have been amateurs, but Joe Brondo, Bill Chaleff, Robin Foster, Joan Lyons, Elinor McDade, April Schiavoni, and John Thomas were treated as professionals by Ms. Koerner, who has been teaching groups for some 16 years.
    “I feel strongly that, while individual lessons are very helpful, the group situation truly works. Everyone learns so much by watching others who have, very often, the same vocal problems they are experiencing,” she said, “not breathing correctly or enough, tension, particularly in the neck and throat area, and, most importantly, not connecting emotionally to the lyric. And they are amazingly supportive of each other.”
    Connecting to the lyrics is of particular importance in Ms. Koerner’s classes. She was a bit stern with those students who, one night in May, admitted they had not learned all the words to the pieces they were to perform for the group. She told them she didn’t care how they sang, but they must know the lyrics, that the only way to feel the lyrics is to know them by heart.
    While some students planned to put the lessons to good use in their working life, she said, “most people come for the sheer joy of it.”
    “Can anybody sing? Emphatically, yes, unless there is a severe pitch-discrimination problem, which I have encountered only once in all these years,” she said.
    The songs of choice were standards and show tunes, some familiar, others more obscure. The instructor said students picked their own numbers, and that while Broadway predominated, “often there are those with a great affinity to country-western and folk songs. They also discover repertoire from other members of the class.”
    Occasionally, she said, she would have to “veto a selection” that was “beyond their present ability. But I always tell them that there are thousands and thousands of songs out there, and it makes no sense to sing anything that you don’t really love.”
    Over the six weeks of the course, she said, she can always see progress. Sometimes, some of her charges sign up again, and in those cases, she has “seen some miraculous changes. There are some real­ly dedicated students who themselves never believed how good they can get, just by a few technical adjustments and their own commitment to singing.”
    Watching them learn their own sound and become more relaxed in sharing their voice is a beautiful thing, Ms. Koer­ner said. She counts it as a success when someone has learned to “authentically communicate the meaning of the lyrics while producing a good solid vocal sound.”
    For the final class, there is a recital of sorts to which the students invite guests to hear them sing. Even then, Ms. Koer­ner continues to offer suggestions to help them refine their fledgling art.