Our Student Spotlight showcases Deborah Zecher, a rabbi, a mother and an avid Singnasium student.
What is your performance background?
As one of those kids who spent my days singing along with cast albums of musicals, it was one of life’s great ironies that neither my high school nor college did musicals. Not until Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway in November 2019 was I in anything resembling a musical. (Thank you, Ricky!)
With my love of music, people were surprised that I became a rabbi, not a cantor but my passion for music always percolated just beneath the surface of my rabbinic life. In 1995, I was invited to speak at a nearby congregation; instead, I created Broadway Bible where I told Bible stories with a show tune title. Here’s an example: Noah is on the ark and his wife finds him outside, trying to escape the responsibility for all those animals for a few minutes. “What are you doing?” she asks. “Oh, just ‘Singing in the Rain.’” Fractured Bible stories with a musical twist!
That was followed by ten years doing Jewish-themed cabaret shows each summer. In 2005, I started taking a cabaret class at the local music school. I learned about the Yale Cabaret Conference, was accepted and spent twelve of the most challenging and rewarding days of my life there.
I realized that the need to perform was becoming more compelling so I retired early in 2014 and moved to NYC to jump into the cabaret world with both feet and a whole heart. I attended open mics, started taking the Arrangement Experience and Summer Boot Camps with Lennie, as well as classes at the Juilliard Adult Division and the Kaufman Music Center. I was fortunate to be a Senior Fellow at the O’Neill Cabaret Center in 2017, another intense but fabulous experience.
When Singnasium began, it became my cabaret address, not only for the classes I love, but also for the wonderful community of singers. In 2018, I presented my debut show called, ON PURPOSE, a musical memoir of my life as a rabbi, wife, mom and, now, cabaret singer. Doing that show filled my heart in ways I never imagined possible. And in 2019, I was so happy to be part of Four Women, Four Stories with Lynda Rodolitz, Helane Blumfield and Peggy Schwartz, as well as Meg Flather’s Cabaret Sisterhood.
What became clear as I began to explore this ‘second act’, was my desire to synthesize my love of cabaret with my lifelong passion for Judaism. I’ve loved traveling around the country as an artist-in-residence performing shows from my synagogue years, as well as ON PURPOSE.
Last September, I created a cabaret fusion High Holiday service where I substituted thematically appropriate cabaret songs in place of some of the liturgy. Planning and leading that service for the cabaret community was a total labor of love, especially because I got to work with my son, Joshua, who is another one of my favorite musical collaborators. What the experiences of the last few years taught me was that I could bring my whole self to the stage, and I’m really grateful for every opportunity to sing.
How are you staying connected to your family and friends while staying at home?
My son, daughter-in-law and grandchild (cutest baby ever!) live in Jerusalem so we have a weekly WhatsApp visit and regular Zoom calls for our extended family. I’ve taken part in Zoom get-togethers with college and rabbinic friends. I can attend Zoom Shabbat services at my former synagogue in the Berkshires, as well as those all over the country.
Being home has given me the chance to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen or talked to in a long time, a silver lining of this situation. And I’ve been happily connected with the Singnasium family as well, with a weekly Zoom visit with my Sing Your Story pals and others in my Singnasium world.
How are you staying creative?
I’ve been working on a new show called, Jewish Caroling: The Music of Carole King, Carole Bayer Sager and Carolyn Leigh, originally scheduled for early May but now postponed until mid-October (hopefully!). I’ve loved exploring the lives of these amazing women and their music. I work with Lennie Watts and Tracy Stark and they continue to inspire me with their talent, creativity and generosity.
After a short hiatus, I’m back working on the show which fills me with joy. I’m also working my way through a book on how to play from a fake book so that I can accompany myself a little better when I practice. I’m a terrible pianist, but I thought this might be more fun and more useful than just practicing scales.
What’s the first thing you want to do once we can get out and about more?
First and foremost, I want to see my kids and hug them for about 10 hours! Then (and I know this might be a while) I want to walk from my UWS apartment to midtown and revel in the theatre district coming back to life. And if I can see my friends on stage at Don’t Tell Mama or one of the other clubs we love, even better!
I want to thank every front-line worker and first responder I encounter and ultimately, I want to advocate to make life better for those who helped us by their willingness to be out there during the pandemic.
As a rabbi, any words of comfort for those feeling a little off while on lock down?
The wisdom of people’s shared life experience has been enormously comforting. In particular, I am guided by those who remind me to take one day at a time, live in the present and acknowledge gratitude. It’s so crucial to be gentle with ourselves when we feel frustrated, sad or depressed and to acknowledge the legitimacy of those feelings. Social media can be both a blessing and a curse; it helps us to stay connected but it can also be intimidating. We’ve got to let go of the tendency to judge ourselves harshly when we see what others offer online and wonder why we’re not doing the same. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply living out each day as best we can.
But since you add the caveat of my rabbinic background, I’ll frame my answer in the context of a Jewish text. One of the key components of the Passover seder is the retelling of the exodus from slavery. We tell the story over and over again because we are commanded to remember and to see ourselves as if we too had escaped from slavery. And that remembering must inform our day-to-day existence—to see our lives as a journey, to know that bondage and liberation take many forms and that both are part of our lives. We also realize we have a sacred responsibility to help others with their liberation. It’s about kindness, compassion and empathy for ourselves and for others.
Another piece of the story resonates deeply for me. When the Israelites left Egypt, they did so with almost no time to prepare for the journey, but the Torah is explicit that Miriam, the sister of Moses, packed her tambourine among her few possessions. In later commentaries, the sages ask why she would bother to bring a musical instrument at such a precarious time. As usual, they answer their own question. She brought her tambourine, they suggest, because she understood that music would be vital to their survival as the Israelites made their way through the desert with so much uncertainty and angst. Miriam knew that there would again be a time for music and celebration. The same is true for us. Music has the power to heal as we slowly and often painfully, make our way through these complex and challenging days. We will sing again and our music will carry us forward to days of celebration and joy!
May 2020 - Deb Zecher
Singnasium student, Laurel Lockhart, has been an actor all her life, working in summer stock, dinner theatre, Off Broadway and National Tours. Being cast in La Cage Aux Folles, and going to Los Angeles with the company, starring Gene Barry, was a definite highlight. And repeating her performance as Madame Dindon with Larry Kert (original Tony in West Side Story) at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera was like a dream come true.
Television, film and Actor’s Alley Theatre Company made Los Angeles a busy place. But after one too many earthquakes, and her mother suffering a stroke, she moved back to her hometown, Pittsburgh. After her mother passed she wondered, “What to do? Move back to L.A., or back to NYC?” She ended up going to Ireland, and then decided that New York would be home.
But when she arrived, she found the New York she knew was greatly changed. She turned her shock into art, and was inspired to write Times Square Tourist, a solo show that she took to the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland.
Laurel came to Singnasium through our Artistic Director/CEO, Lennie Watts. A couple of friends of Laurel’s were MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets) members and they encouraged her to join and go to MAC To School, a weekend of singing and performing workshops, where she met Lennie and learned about his classes. Laurel has taken The Arrangement Experience and most recently Sing Your Story, which she feels is a great class in which to improve your craft, learn new material and meet a supportive group of people.
Laurel shared, “there is nothing better than being with creative, energetic, inspirational performers and sharing the joy of music together.” Here at Singnasium, we couldn’t agree more!
When asked what teaching artist Gabrielle Stravelli wants her students to leave her class, Swingtime, with, she exuberantly answered, “confidence!” And Gabrielle certainly knows how to instill that in her students. A trained actor with a BFA from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Gabrielle is an award-winning jazz singer who began singing at the age of 15 as a soloist with the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea in New Jersey. And she never looked back, singing on stages from New York to Amsterdam, and most recently touring Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Azerbaijan as a United States Department of State “Jazz Ambassador”. In 2017 Gabrielle was invited to be a master teacher for YoungArts (a national organization that organizes week-long intensives for artists 14-18 years old and connects them with professionals currently working in their chosen field) and has taught extensively for the Kaufman Center's Lucy Moses Special Music School.
Gabrielle explains that studying jazz is like learning a language, and she gives her students the tools to go home and practice - she empowers them to sing this amazing artform. Gabrielle admits that, “people get intimidated by jazz because they feel it’s intellectual, and it is, and it takes a lot of work. But jazz started as dance music. It’s joyful, fun and complex - these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
In the classroom, Gabrielle demonstrates techniques, shares exercises and has students listen to various versions of the same song to hear the possibilities. This past winter, she and her students explored how to develop a swing feel, they practiced singing different rhythm patterns, and how to improvise. They also learned how to adjust their singing style - for example if a certain section of a song needs to sound more like a horn - how to do that vocally. One student, Wendy Russell, commented “I thought I knew a little bit about jazz and she opened up my eyes and ears to so much more!”
In her classroom, her teaching style alternates between checking in with students and letting them inform her, while also pushing them out of their comfort zones. But the confidence piece is important to her. She shared that when she was at the conservatory the practice was to break students down and build them back up, but she doesn’t want that for the people who study with her. They can gain that confidence without the damage.
It’s clear that Gabrielle wants her students to have fun, first and foremost. For her, singing is her happy place, and she shares that feeling with her classes. “It’s always exciting for me to be in a room with people who have fun singing and are interested in learning more.”
And the learning is not one-sided. For Gabrielle, teaching what she does to others, having to articulate what she is doing, reinforces her own singing and performing. Gabrielle is looking forward to teaching Swingtime again in Fall 2019.
Gabrielle currently has a new album, Picking Up The Pieces, Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson, which you can purchase digitally on iTunes or Amazon or get a hard copy at CD Baby. To learn more about Gabrielle, watch videos of her latest performances, and find out where she is singing next, please visit her website http://www.gabriellestravelli.com
Dear Singnasium Friends,
In Musical Theatre, it is said when a character’s emotions become too intense, it is time to sing. Well here at Singnasium….it is always time to sing! And right now, I want to sing the praises of all who are part of our beautiful Singnasium world.
Let me start off by saying how very pleased and honored I am to be Singnasium’s new Board President and to be greeting you all in this, our inaugural newsletter! Several years ago, when Lennie, John Koprowski and I began to talk about Lennie’s vision for a school, I had no idea that I would one day be asked to preside over the board. Those early meetings, which happened around my kitchen table, led to where we are today. Our original mission to keep vocal arts alive in NYC is the same today, and today we are thriving. Lennie Watts and his incredible creativity and vision lead us. Our fabulous board of directors are diverse in their talents and all very passionate about Singnasium. They have done the hard work of getting Singnasium on the map. Our Singnasium faculty is the best in the business! They bring their knowledge, skills, experience and love of singing to every class and workshop they teach. We are graced by their presence and dedication to us. And none of this works without students. We value the support of our fun, loyal, talented and sometimes-crazy students. We cannot exist without them. We cannot exist without you!
How will we keep this momentum going, you ask? How will we continue to thrive? To sing aloud for years to come? The answer is to get you all to take more classes and/or donate to the cause. We hope you do both. Singnasium depends on donations big and small. This includes donations of people’s time as well as money. When you think of your annual giving, we hope you will think of Singnasium. If you need a reason, think of singing as feeding our souls. When we sing, we lift our spirits and the spirits of those around us. We take joy out into the world. We bring happiness. Plus singing just feels good! Did you know that singing is a natural antidepressant and that it strengthens the immune system? This is a medical fact. Singing a song is more than just learning the tune and lyrics. It can transcend languages and culture. It can reverberate into the world and effect change. Music connects us to all of humanity and does as much as feeding starvation or curing disease.
We hope you continue to help Vocal Arts Thrive in New York City. We encourage you to spread the word about us. Tell your friends and neighbors how great it feels to sing and connect to people through a song. We give special thanks to John Koprowski, whose generosity and support is being used to pursue our mission. We miss you John! Finally, I want to say thanks to all of you who have given your talent, your time, your money and your moxie to our cause. Keep singing and we’ll save the world while we’re at it!