Finding Your Voice
What if the only thing keeping you from being the singer you’ve always wanted to be was…you? That is the question at the heart of the work of acclaimed jazz vocalist and educator Stephanie Nakasian, and one she has been asking and answering with students at UVA and elsewhere for some 25 years. Some of you are probably waving this question away by saying it doesn’t apply to you “What if I just can’t sing?” Nakasian, hailed by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz as one of the leading jazz singers in the world today, has an answer for that too. The title of her most recent book is You Already Know How to Sing: Voice Lessons/Life Lessons, and her unofficial mantra is, “if you can hear it, you can sing it.”
The real breakthrough, Nakasian said, comes with discovering your true voice – not the one you’ve been copying off of your favorite songs on the radio, but the one you were always meant to have. “To sing well, you have to be free in your body,” Nakasian says, “especially in jazz. So, as they open up their technique, they are opening up their self-expression, so then we open that up to the standards of the repertoire, then introduce some improvisation into the mix. It is all a way to help them discover what they want to sing, how they want to sing, and how they feel about the sounds.”
The foundations of Nakasian’s approach, which incorporates piano, theory, and sight-reading, and which she has expanded beyond jazz into the realms of pop, R&B, and rock, as well as the singer-songwriter genre, came from one of her own most influential teachers, Joseph Scott. It is all about helping her students open up and let go. The end result can bring benefits that go well beyond the realm of music. “Something happens when people find their true voice,” Nakasian said. “Something tells them they were right to begin with, that they didn’t have to copy someone else. When you give people the power to express themselves, what they find is that they develop the confidence to be who they are already, and real changes can happen in their lives.” It helps that her students are smart, but it can hurt too. “The good news, and the bad news,” she said, “is that they have well-developed brains. They often think too much. They want to control and analyze, but with the arts, you really have to come at it from another part of the brain.”
Her students are mostly non-music majors, and include computer science and biology majors, and a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, in addition to professors, department heads, and community members – and yes, some professional singers too. Using both sides of her brain is nothing new to Nakasian. Before she went into music full time after falling in love with her late husband, accomplished jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, Nakasian was using her Economics degree and MBA to carve a professional path on Wall Street. “I was young,” she said, “and I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always go back.” Now, instead of betting on businesses, Nakasian is helping her students bet on themselves, which comes with its own rewards. “Especially when you are dealing with pop music, people tend to want to sing the songs the way that they hear them,” she said. “A couple weeks into our lessons, they start to hear themselves differently, and they say, ‘Whoa, what was THAT?’ I tell them THAT is their real voice. They can’t believe that they can sing higher and stronger and prettier and faster than they ever thought they could when they were trying so hard.”
Her prize student may be her daughter, the highly-acclaimed 26-year-old Veronica Swift. Veronica put out her first jazz CD at the age of nine, and currently performs regularly with some of the industry’s leading musicians and ensembles, including Michael Feinstein, and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. For Nakasian, though, it all comes down to finding the right place for music in her students’ lives. And as she has learned, sometimes her students can shoot for the stars in a whole different way. “I have an astronomy student who is a very gifted singer,” Nakasian said, “He got his Ph.D. and sings professionally on the side. It is really wonderful to watch these students learn to find and use their voices,” she said. “I am just a cheerleader encouraging them to dig down in their bodies, to find them, and to experience the freedom that comes along with that discovery. It just takes a little courage, a little faith, and a little time."