On any given day in Jana Szabo’s studio, her students sing and push their vocal ranges to the limit.
But for Szabo, “student” is a flexible term that includes both 6-year-olds and 80 year-olds.
“In any community I live in, I need to know that the people, especially the children, aren’t left behind in the arts,” Szabo said. “I was spoon-fed the arts when I was young. I feel obligated to make my community feel the same way, regardless of age.”
The Clinton-based vocal coach has been training singers young and old for 30 years. She brings a flavor of the theatrical West Side of Manhattan to South Whidbey, having grown up in the area listening to the likes of conductor Leonard Bernstein and other Broadway legends. Her background in the Big Apple and being surrounded by music teachers from Julliard sparked her interest in teaching the arts, and she’s never looked back.
These days, Szabo lives to ignite the same passion in her students. She also performs at local venues and works with South Whidbey theaters.
“My interest is in knocking on the door of my students’ own creative potential, and unlocking that doorway using music as the key,” Szabo said.
Szabo’s students range from kindergartners in need of a creative outlet, to retired vocalists, to those in prominent Whidbey groups like the Shifty Sailors and Joann Quintana Band. She says not all vocal coaches are open to working with students of such an age range, with some turning down students they see as too young to have perfect pitch, and others who focus on nurturing young vocalists.
There is no “cookie cutter” method of teaching for Szabo. There isn’t a magic formula or strict code to get her students to the level they want to reach. For example, she doesn’t confine herself to teaching jazz vocals, despite jazz being a large part of her musical heritage. Her training sessions can look much different from one another depending on who her student for the day is.
“One of the great things about Jana as a vocal coach is she’s flexible with her training methods,” Joann Quintana, lead singer of Joann Quintana Band said. “She’s actually come to my band’s practices a couple of times to make the lesson more relevant to my performances.”
Vocal sessions are particularly personalized when it comes to her youngest students. During her vocal sessions with Amelia Rochholz, 6, Szabo will instruct her pupil to sing in front of her reflection in either a mirror or video recording device such as an iPad. Szabo says it’s a way to get the little ones attentive and engaged, since they enjoy seeing themselves perform.
Things look a little different for Rochholz’ 8-year-old sister, Emmalynn Rochholz. The older sister was drawn to the Broadway style of theatrical singing, and is as much of a dancer as a singer. Given Szabo’s Broadway roots, she was able to incorporate dance and mold the sessions perfectly for Emmalynn. As it turns out, Emmalynn Rochholz is a better singer while dancing.
“Jana is extremely flexible with my girls and comes up with creative ways to teach them effectively,” the Rochholzes’ mother, Kristin Hummel, said. “She lets my oldest daughter choreograph her own dance routines to the songs that she creates. It’s been the perfect creative outlet for both of them.”
Szabo says the most important thing in training vocalists young and old is to focus on the individual. She believes some coaches, trainers and educators focus more on their own achievements, where the end goal is to train students their way and mold them into the artist they think their students should be. Szabo leaves that up to the student. For some students such as Shifty Sailors member Ted Ravetz, vocal sessions are for finding his own voice and growing more confident in his own abilities. For others, it’s about fine tuning their singing to fit dance or a backing band.
“I want my students to have control over what they do,” Szabo said. “I can’t teach each student the exact same thing. Otherwise, they’re not molded into the artists they think they can be and the teacher doesn’t learn from the student in return, and that’s important.”