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First Person Singular: Voice instructor Peggy McNulty

Sunday, February 6, 2011; W02

I knew I could sing when I was 12. I could just feel it, in my body, in my throat, everywhere. The first day of seventh grade, I was at a new school, and the teacher called on me to sing in music class. I got right up and sang a solo. After that, I got the lead in all the plays.

Singing is all about the breath. And breath is life. If something bad is going on in your life, your voice will show it. I always know if something is bothering [my students]. I am a listener, first and foremost. We rarely pay attention to how we sound. We mumble. We cram lots of words into one sentence. We speak to fit in, not stand out. For example, one of my students was having some difficulty; the trouble was how she talks at work. There, she speaks in a deep, authoritative voice. She wants to sound like one of the boys. She is worried she won't be taken seriously with a high, feminine voice -- but it is her voice. It is a beautiful voice, and she's hiding it. And the voice is hurting as a result.

My students range from 13 to 73, but most are teenagers. I won't take just anyone -- the girlfriend who wants to get her guy voice lessons for Christmas; no, thank you. But there are always surprises. This man called, said he wanted voice lessons so he could sing at his wedding. I asked when the wedding was. He said he didn't even have a girlfriend yet! But turns out, he is a lovely tenor. What fun is that, getting to watch someone discover his hidden talent.

Everyone should sing. It feels so good, even when it sounds bad. You're doing it for you. Singing is so very personal. It is not this thing you put in a box and bring it out for practice. You are the instrument. The instrument is you. That makes it a gift, but that's also what makes auditions so difficult. You feel silenced, rejected. When my students don't get the part, my job is to restore that confidence. I tell them it happens to all artists. I tell them when someone said to me, "You're good but not great." Or at Juilliard, when a teacher said, "Why don't you just get married?" Or when the only comment after a recital is: "I love your dress." But that's life. My job is to pick them back up so they get back out there and face the music.

--Interview by Amanda Long

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