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With a Song in Their Hearts : Music: A class at Irvine Valley College helps rookie vocal students find the guts to perform in front of an audience.


IRVINE — "I enjoy root canals, tax audits, work performance evaluations, lengthy business meetings, raw tripe, artillery barrages, and dancing naked on national TV."

That isn't quite what Betty Fort said, but almost. What she said--and she actually got an entire classroom full of rational adults to say it with her--was worse:

"I enjoy singing and speaking in front of large groups."

Yes, this is social and psychological heresy. Because, traditionally, a majority of people have ranked the fear of speaking or singing in public higher on the primal fear scale than even the fear of death.

Yet there was Fort, leading a four-week adult education class at Irvine Valley College called "Singing for Joy." And there were her rookie vocal students, on the night of their last class, actually doing it. Maybe not belting 'em, maybe not exactly laying 'em in the aisles, maybe not quite Ethel Merman-ing the doors off their hinges. But singing. Really singing.

Or, rather, singing again after all these years. On the first night of class, a brief question session by Fort revealed that many of her students had sung before--as children around the house, as tentative members of the junior high school or church choir, as shower sopranos and baritones.

But most of these also had faced a common fork in the musical road: somewhere, at some time, someone whose opinion mattered had withered their vocal ego, had persuaded them with a look or a wince or a joke or a cry of anguish that they could not, and should not, sing.

And so they dutifully clammed up, convinced they had a tin ear or, at best, a thoroughly unpleasant singing voice. Until that first night of class.

"Many of them will tell you that they quit singing around age 12," said Fort, a vocal coach who has sung in several musical productions in New York. "Between 8 and 13 are the wonder years for singing, and either you are given the message then that it's OK and you go ahead and do it, or that it's not OK, and you stop. Most of it is confidence. There's a message of 'You're not good enough' or 'What will people think?' Fear is learned, and many of them are fearful when they show up here, standing raw in front of a crowd and singing. But the other side of it is that so many of them do correct that message that was sent to them a long time ago."

Not that it happens instantly. The transition from pipsqueak to Pavarotti takes time. But at least, the participants discovered on night one, they were all facing the same demons together.

"If I can live through childbirth with no drugs, I can live through this class," said Deborah Paquin, 33, a public relations manager from Irvine.

A few students said the class was turning out to be one of the few times they had actually considered standing up and singing solo without the buttressing effect of what they said were "a few too many."

Frank Delzompo, 30, a Marine Corps attorney from Irvine, remembered his father "opening all the windows in the house and singing Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra songs loud ." His grandfather, he said, was an opera singer in Italy, but Delzompo admitted to feeling that he'd gotten musically shortchanged.

"I tried karaoke," he said, deadpan, "and it was not good."

Members of the class had different reasons for putting their voices and their egos on the line for the sake of the musical muse, but nearly all had one unifying link in their backgrounds: They remembered singing when they were younger, and enjoying it.

"I sang when I was younger in a boys' choir and in church choral groups," said Sandy Stiassni, a 37-year-old real estate foreclosure specialist from Irvine, "but my singing activities kind of dropped off." Now, he said, he wants to pick up the melody again, in part, for the sake of his 4-year-old daughter, who he said is showing interest in music and singing.

Bebe Smith, a retired real estate agent from Irvine, said she signed up "mainly because I would go to the karaoke bars and wouldn't have the nerve to get up and sing. I wanted to develop the nerve to do it. I really had no experience, but my family has always sung for fun at parties."

Reawakening dormant voices from childhood was not a one-night (or even four-night) undertaking, but Fort offered bedrock basics, interlarded with plenty of reassurance.

"We don't have any gimmicks," said Fort. "We teach that breathing is the cornerstone to singing and that singing has to do with thought--they have to think the purest form of the vowels. They work on scales and the mechanics of singing, such as not locking your jaw. And at each class they get new affirmations."

Like this one: "If you didn't know," said Fort to the class, "you're all extroverts."

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