Elva Lee was hooked the moment she read the brochure. Friends always complimented her voice. She knew she had talent. Once she had even been paid to sing at a wedding. But now, standing alone at the front of an elementary school classroom in Mar Vista, the only emotion the 35-year-old Brentwood manicurist could muster was gut-wrenching, white-knuckle fear.
"When you just give love
"And never get love,
"You better let love depart," her a cappella warble tentatively began.
"I know it's so,
"And yet I know,
"I can't get you out of my heart."
From behind an upright piano, Suzanne Weiss Morgen, a professional music director whose students include the singing waiters at the Big Bear Inn, beamed encouragement. Lee's fellow students were harder to please.
Wedged into desks designed for adolescents, the nine women sat impassively. Each had paid $68 for voice lessons and the chance to perform before an audience of invited friends three weeks hence at the Alley Cat Bistro in Culver City. For some it would be a dream come true, to others merely a night of fun. Everyone considered it a challenge.
"You-uuu-uuu made me leave my happy home," Lee continued, despite the florescent glare and deepening mood of introspection.
"You took my love and now you're gone.
"Since I fell for yoouuu."
Though the applause that followed her performance was genuine, Lee's sense of satisfaction was fleeting. "I still feel like hiding behind the piano," she said with a sigh. "How will I ever be able to perform in front of people?"
"With confidence," Morgen said, bounding to the front of the room. "The only way to progress from a person who thinks 'I can't sing' to one who says 'I not only sing, but expect to get paid' is with confidence."
At the Learning Annex's Shower Singers' Workshop, confidence is born of musical aerobics. One woman whose reedy voice belied her passion for the blues was advised to shadowbox while practicing her lyrics. Lee was called up for a repeat performance, this time while slow-dancing alone in a now-darkened room. "I'm finally into my own trip," she said at the final reprise. "With lights off, it's easy to get into the mood."
If the workshop seems rooted more in the "harmonic convergence" than academe, it's because the Learning Annex is a '60s open university reborn into the New Age. Other non-accredited adult education programs may offer courses in accounting and English as a second language. The 700 students who attend Learning Annex courses in Los Angeles each month can choose from classes such as "How to Flirt," "Know Your Aura" and "Cosmetic Surgery."
Though it offers some practical courses, the Learning Annex does not aspire to serious academic thought. Its president and chief executive, multimillionaire Bill Zanker, 33, who founded Learning Annex six years ago with $5,000 saved from his bar mitzvah, said his company is patterned after McDonald's. Like McNuggets, its affordable programs come in bite-size chunks. Two-thirds of the courses are two nights or less; most cost less than $50.
Los Angeles program director Meryl Ginsberg, 28, describes her curriculum as "edutainment." "If you want to better yourself in a serious way, you should consider UCLA Extension," she said. Learning Annex students, she said, are couch potatoes still up for occasional networking with the opposite sex. "Our students are into spur-of-the-moment decisions, people who finally decide they just can't watch another 'Star Trek' rerun."
Even the Klingons would have difficulty competing with Ginsberg's crew of part-time professors. An instructor from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality offers a five-hour class on "Sexual Secrets of the Orient." Later this month, Twyla Tharp dancer GiO will fly in to teach "How to Strip for Your Man." Barry Helman, who gave America the Slush Mug and the Exer-Trimmer, will follow in GiO's wake, discussing marketing techniques with aspiring capitalists. December will feature a daylong Christmas shopping tour lead by Geri Cook, author of "Best Bargains" newsletter.
The 30,000 Americans who sign up for courses each month in 15 cities find the Learning Annex as stimulating as Jolt Cola. "The secret is to respond to whatever the public wants," Ginsberg said. "Six weeks ago, Newsweek said people are staying together longer. This month we have a course in 'Massage for Couples.' "
Ahhhhh. Ahhhhh. Ahhhhh.
Like a wave rippling through Anaheim Stadium, the chant undulates, then changes pitch as each woman fills her diaphragm with fresh air. Ahhhhhhhhh.
"Sound waves have energy you can feel," said Morgen, exhorting her shower singers, now aroused and on their feet, to collectively hit Middle C. "Breathe deeply and get that sound out so it can interact with the room."
"Don't you feel it?" said temporary secretary Abby Luttrell. "You can feel your body vibrating."
"Yes, me too," adds Laura Padovan, a free-lance writer. "It's an acoustical happening."