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Coach Me If You Can

By Betsy Powell, The Toronto Star


"Your software has a virus," says Diana Yampolsky as I lower from tiptoe to flat foot and catch my breath after another tongue-tied run-through of do re me fa so la ti do.

"There is hope," she continues, though I'm doubtful. I'm learning to sing. Or hope to anyway.

For years I've kept my mouth shut, even in the shower.

And except for car radio sing-a-longs, I haven't belted a song in public since I was in The Wizard of Oz in Grade 6. Belting, actually, overstates my marginal contribution in the chorus.

I refrain from singing as a public courtesy. That is, until I read an ad in Eye weekly. "Beginner to professional singer in 10 hours. Guaranteed!"

At first, I dismiss it.

Another wanderlust-appealing gimmick, the kind of instant offers (learn to be a square dancer/fire-eater/car racer) found on matchbook covers. Except this ad has a client list with a familiar name: Raine Maida. He's the good-looking, multi-million-selling voice of Our Lady Peace, the Toronto rock quartet that rivals the Tragically Hip as Canada's favourite act.

So with curiosity and scepticism I head to The Royans School (For the Musical Performing Arts) located in a squat, two-storey strip plaza in Willowdale. Neighbours include a cleaners, driving school and a restaurant that's closed with a sign in the window promising Middle Eastern delicacies.

Yampolsky is a robust, 41-year-old Russian-born vocal coach whose soaring alto and powerhouse personality are packed into a large frame. The school she founded in 1984 is a two-story room studio with hardwood floors and walls decorated with typed testimonials, photographs of ex-students and a homemade Elvis clock - a gift from a former student-turned Elvis impersonator.

There, the former Leningrad choir director teaches about 25 lessons a week to a range of wannabes from those with no musical training to those with considerable experience behind a microphone - more than 15, 000 of them since coming to Toronto from Russia in 1980, she estimates. "A lot come to me because of word of mouth, a lot (because) of advertising and definitely by results,"she says.

Reasons vary. Some are interested in wooing the opposite sex. Others want to polish their pipes so they can sing at funerals and weddings and "some of them feel that they need a release, that there's a lot inside of them and they don't know how to express it so their very first intuitive thought would be, 'If I learn how to sing I would be able to do this through music.' "

In 1993, before his fledgling band signed a record deal with Sony Music Canada, Maida came for eight 75-minute sessions. Then he went away and became a star. Maida's father later enrolled to brush up on his public speaking skills, another facet of Yampolsky's business.

One of two dozen or so vocal coaches listed in the Yellow Pages, Yampolsky can document her work. She pops in a videotape of one unremarkable crooner, hands stuck deep in his pockets, mangling The Doors "Light My Fire." Then the same singer, after instruction, singing in tune.

"It takes a very balanced person, not flying on the handle of emotions," she says.

Her method, she explains, is a holistic approach recognizing that the voice is a reflection of the inner self, an imprint of your personality. It's a revolutionary approach, she contends, one that works on the brain, not the vocal chords.

A singer's ability is 25 percent natural talent, she believes, and 75 percent technical training. Good news for me. Further, someone with natural ability can still produce horrific sounds. "A beautiful body doesn't make you a good dancer."

Yampolsky, who knows I'm writing an article for The Star, says she'll begin by assessing my instrument."

First, the most obvious flaw. "You're short. Obviously, a larger person like me will be able to produce a fuller sound." A first-time, 75-minute meeting costs $65. Ten hours of instruction costs $890.

She rises, turns to a keyboard, tells me to stand, and presses her finger firmly on the middle C key. "One," she sings with full bodied resonance. "One," I repeat, timidly.

Pausing, she follows with a three-note scale. "Wait till I'm finished," she instructs. Inexplicably, I sing along. "Wait till I'm done," she repeats.

We do this a few more times and she renders a verdict. "It's unlikely to think that you might become professional," she says. So much for my dreams of a Celine Dion duet at the Grammys. I remind her of her ad promising she can transform anyone into a singing professional in 10 hours. "Good point," she replies. "That's why I qualify who is a beginner. You're a pre-beginner." But not tone deaf, apparently.

We proceed to the next phase. Yampolsky nudges another video cassette into the VCR. An important component of her method is capturing students on camera. "Students quickly HEAR, FEEL and SEE the results," reads her promotional material. Those results, incidentally, become the property of Royans once students sign a legally drafted "letter of agreement."

For my audition, I reach for Roy Orbison. "He's a man," she says, taking the song book and cassette away.

I point to the not-even-close Alanis Morrissette-lookalike on one of her tape covers. Yampolsky takes out a cassette and hands me a lyric book. I decide on "Hand in My Pocket," Morrissette's smash hit in 1995, thinking that it's not one of her most vocally adventurous numbers.

Yampolsky presides in her chair by a camera, TV monitor and tape deck, her version of Japanese karaoke. (Karaoke means "empty tapes" which contain the band tracks for songs, without the singers' voices. Yampolsky's version allows her to lift or submerge Morrissette's wailing at will.)

She records the date, time and my name before a familiar guitar riff fills the room. "I'm short but I'm happy, I'm poor but I'm kind," I sing - though it sounds a lot like speaking - while reading the lyric sheet.

She replays the videotape. No savage beasts will be soothed today. I hear a weak voice and off-key notes.

Singers say it's a way to express themselves, a way of telling things you don't find easy to say. E-mail works for me and so far I see no reason for that to change.

"I have no idea where you're coming from," says Yampolsky. While her English isn't always precise, Yampolsky's vocabulary is rich with vivid analogies. She variously invokes images of skewering shish-kebobs, Steven Seagal, the Titanic, jet takeoffs, skaters and coffeemakers. Visualization is key, she says, when learning to sing.

When we move to vocal exercises, she demonstrates the routine singing position which relates to body alignment, the key to Yampolsky's technique. She stands straight, holds her stomach in and, simultaneously, rises to her toes and raises her arms above her head. From there she says to "bite" down on the number one and continue counting through to five. After several times, I progress to sound combinations: de di doh, then ma me mi mo followed by "ah oo eh oh ee" on tiptoe, throwing my arms in the air.

It's a frustrating, unsettling and relentless exercise. It should be simple yet I stumble, mixing da with de, ma with me. I'm not "attacking" the first syllable or using my arms for "lift off." Yampolsky shakes her head. "You're not decorating a Christmas tree."

She doesn't mention that my "doh" sounds like Homer Simpson.

Throughout the world, vocal coaches counsel their students to drop their jaws. Not Yampolsky. "I'm the only one who says otherwise, she says. I close mine.

We cap these not-so-nifty tongue-twisters with a verse about lemon trees looking real pretty because the flower is very sweet, emphasizing each syllable. That, she concludes, is the skeleton of every song. "From here to incorporate singing is nothing."

Our next few visits are compressed - I'm only doing five hours instead of the recommended 10. We repeat many of the same exercises with added technical emphasis. Using facial and abdominal muscles with proper posture are key elements. We work on stamina and pitch.

One morning, I run into trouble. "Your words are sitting at the back of your throat," Yampolsky says. "It's a turn. It's like driving on the DVP (Don Valley Parkway) and you know you have to adjust the wheel or you'll go off the road."

Yampolsky offers criticism that's neither destructive or negative. She went ballistic when one student announced she "hated" her voice. "That is a prohibited word."

At the end, another taping. "Everything is fine, fine, fine," I sing.

As we watch, minutes later, Yampolsky smiles. "You got all the high ones," she says. "This is amazing. It's not 100 percent but it's exactly where we should be after five hours."

We watch again. I see a boost in confidence and hear clearer enunciation. My voice is stronger, my inflection more precise but my interpretive powers are limited.

I'm encouraged but not enough to subject myself to endless da de di's and lemon flowers.

Yampolsky asks me what I think. I parrot her reaction and agree I've improved and notice the tape is still rolling. Another videotaped testimonial.

What the tape doesn't capture is what I've learned about the process. Yampolsky asserts years of hard work aren't required to become a moderately good singer.

Perhaps.

But drive, focus, persistence and patience are all part of learning to "free the sound" Yampolsky maintains is locked inside us all.

I'm keeping my night job.