February 16, 2006
Wandering Jew - Music to My Ears
"In syngagyng a sangasongue ... " -- James Joyce, "Finnegans Wake."
Singing in synagogue is something I wish I were better at doing or at least less embarrassed about doing full-throated. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, the congregation doesn't have that problem. They have David Coury.
A voice expert known for coaching singers and nonsingers, and working with deaf and autistic students and contestants for TV shows like "Extreme Makeover" and "American Idol," Coury is unique and considered "revolutionary."
When I heard about his "So You Always Wanted to Sing!" seminar, I knew it was time to put my mouth where my ... or my money where my ... whatever. Who isn't a wannabe chazan from way back?
The Sunday afternoon workshop was held at the Howard Fine Acting Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, off a stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Highland Avenue near Buckbuster ("Less Than $1 Many Items Sell For") and the Hollywood Center Motel ("Electrical Heat"), which looks like an abandoned set from "L.A. Confidential."
A few dozen singees sat nervously in the studio theater. Lee Miller, television director and president of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, introduced Coury. The syagogue bills itself as "L.A.'s original entertainment congregation."
"Isn't there another shul like this in New York or Branson?" I asked.
Miller shook his head.
"We're it," he said. Coury chanted "Kol Nidre" last fall with Synagogue for the Performing Arts' cantor, Judy Fox, and, Miller said, "a lotta jaws dropped."
I was skeptical at first, hearing how Coury's accompanist on piano had just got the day off from studio work "with Natalie Cole." Coury had that hipster headset and two bottles of Sparkletts at the ready, high energy that got me wondering: How will I know if he's the real laryngo-glottal guru? This is Hollywood, after all. If you can fake it here you can fake it anywhere, right?
"How brave you are," Coury butters up the attendees -- each paid $75, which goes to Synagogue for the Performing Arts. The teacher is trim and dark in black sweatshirt, khaki slacks, sneakers.
"It's a long road from the shower to the stage," he says, rolling up his sleeves and diving right in. "I like to just get to things," he tells us. "There's no revving up."
A fellow named Sky is the first actor ready for his voice-up.
Our music man's method? It's all about the mask.
"That's where you sing from," Coury says, gripping his face as we model him. But wait. What? No up from the diaphragm and below bellowing?
"That's an old wives' tale," explains Coury. "A cave has resonance and an ant hole depth. You've got to use your mouth."
Alternately praised and nudged, each vocalist eventually expresses more than he or she thought they ever could. Whatever their issue, Coury calms them into laughter or steers them back to the mask. Soon they're singing "Moon River" like Mandy Patinkin or "People" like Barbra Streisand, bounding off stage to high-fives or applause.
OK, not like Streisand, obviously. But it is amazing to observe. Coury has no tricks or even a warm-up technique.
He can explain "pre-frontal rostrum medial cortex" like a speech therapist, but something else is at work, too. When Serena forgets her lyric and goes off into just sounds, Coury is laudatory toward her. "She has reached Yummyville," he says, "where it feels good, and there are no nerves anymore."
"Willingness and desire are everything," he teaches. "So the challenge is just the nerves. Put yourself in my hands and meet me halfway."
And darned if it doesn't happen right before our ears.
A good listener with a wicked laugh, Coury stops one singer as soon as she starts.
"Favorite food, Denise?" he asks.
"Clam Chowder," she replies, smiling.
"See how we light up when we talk about food?" he says with a laugh. "Singing and speaking are very oral. Singing equals speaking equals singing ... the voice should be musical, symphonic."
"You can't fake a blush," he says to a woman named Stephanie. "You've had a transformation."
Already full of fabulous pipes, Stephanie wants a "a fuller belt."
In moments, Coury releases her "Tiger Song" from "Les Miz" out into the wilds of Sunset Boulevard somewhere. Teary-eyed, she thanks him.
And I know it may sound silly, but he's got us all belting words like "I" and "you" over and over. No kidding. Love should be sung as "lahhv," you know, and pronounced as in "va va voom." The expert lets us in on the ins and outs of "eees" and "ooos" and how "eh" is a vowel, but they don't teach you that."
Well, that's one way to praise Yahweh. But how does he get us to do it?
"You must risk three things," Coury says. "Sounding weird, looking bad and being disliked."
Um, do we have to? Why?
"Because the world worships the original. Take these tools and risk it."
The tools are learned through little inspirationals, like the one he gives a lusty singer named Shelley, who gets up and growls, "Rock me, baby, like my back ain't got no bone."
Coury wants more.
"Be like a dog to a steak," he tells the loungey bombshell. "Bite into it. Not with your voice, with your mouth."
And for guys like Phil, afraid he can only drone a tone deaf "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Coury teaches: "There's no such thing as fearless. There's being afraid and doing it anyway -- that's being extraordinary."
So after hiding out fearfully as long as possible, I climb on stage. After a taste of Perry Como ("Just in Time," a song I want to sing at my wedding), I'm convinced I'm no crooner.
But with the coach's encouragement, I go for something even higher, recalled from the car radio while driving Sunset Boulevard to get here. It's a ballad from a lame top-40 band, Foreigner. "I've been waaaaiting for a girl like you, to come into my liiife...."
I tell him I had my tonsils out when I was 10, but Coury takes no lip.
"Listening to yourself is not going to allow the magic," he says. "Looking directionally at me will bring it. Use the human in the room. You'll find your humanity immediately at play."
Suddenly something comes out that I've never felt, not even while alone with the windows up and stereo blaring. I'm exhilarated. Euphoric.
He shakes my hand and I bounce off stage, hearing his final instructions to all of us:
"Dare to be heard. In this world of communication, you have to speak out to be heard. You can literally touch somebody with your voice. Who knows who's there? And that's magic.
"Do! Sing! Big! Not big voice, big mouth. It's not the singing; it's the learning. Your voice is greater than any song you've ever sung, if you're working on your voice. So keep your yapper open."
Sound advice. What else did I learn?
Singers should keep their eyes open and it's quite all right to lick your lips. Pronouncing is what gives life. And when you run out of breath? Breathe. Listen for me next Friday night and Shabbat shalom, Los Angeles.
Synagogue for the Performing Arts has another seminar, "Journey Into Self-Discovery," taught by Howard Fine, Feb. 17-19. For more information call (310) 472-3500 or go to www. SFTPA.com.
Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller for "Weekend America," heard on public radio stations every Saturday, including KPCC-FM 89.3 in Los Angeles.