Jennifer Vanella is one of Pittsburgh's most promising vocal coaches in recent years, and she does it all with dazzling color. As the founder and creative director of Sing & Relax Studios, the 30-year-old embarked on this journey nearly two years ago. Going from a meager eight students at the outset to over 40 now, the European-trained opera singer hopes to change the musical landscape by bringing about a new concept and way of understanding creation. "It all started really simply," she tells Examiner of how the studio first came to be.
"Literally, this time two years ago, I was staring at my studio apartment and the wall across from my bed, and I was like ‘I wonder what it would be like if I stuck a piano there? Huh. Ok, keyboard. I wonder what it would be like if I stuck this here, that there. I wonder what it would be like if I brought people here to learn how to sing.’ Then, I’m like ‘could I pull it off?’" she recounts vividly. "I talked to my grandmother, and I think she thought I was a little crazy. She was very supportive. Basically, I started off really small. I just wanted to see what it was like to teach, and I fell in love. It seems like everybody likes me, too, because in a year, we’ve gone from eight to 50 people."
"Whenever I get inspired, I just like to create things, and I like to help people," she adds with a hopeful chuckle.
Her method of teaching is built around visuals, namely the rainbow. Vanella explains, "My [method] is called the ROYGBIV JMV concept. I started out teaching people with special needs or learning disabilities how to read music using colors based on the rainbow."
"In a music scale, there are always seven notes, and there seven colors. You are then able to put those patterns together and orchestrate them into associations. So, let’s say someone’s looking at a black note, and they’re like ‘oh my gosh, where does that black note go?’ Well, if it’s red, you’re gonna know that it’s the first note in the scale, just by making it match the rainbow."
Vanella continues, noting that "another thing I do with variations is light and dark. So, for sad sounding music (or minor), I use dark colors. So, I would use a dark red, as opposed to a light red for major, which is happy. It’s not just for someone with special needs now. It’s for someone who wants a different twist on how to understand music."
Of course, teaching 40 to 60 people at any given moment, Vanella asserts that she must teach "50 different ways," depending on the types of people. "They say there are seven different ways to learn: I completely disagree about that. Everybody has their own way of ticking," she says. "I [utilize] pedagogy, as well. It’s the study of the human voice. I use a Halloween skeleton I got in Kansas for visual people. I show them what the breath actually looks like and the diaphragm on a skeleton. Little ones, ages 6 to 10, I’ll let them mess with Dead Ted as much as they want and point to the different parts of the vocal anatomy, so they can understand. You’ve got to have a sense of humor when you teach," she laughs.
It's also "not about age" when putting together lesson plans and activities. "It's about personality and how a person thinks. Say I had an 8-year-old who likes to sing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ and I had a 30-year-old who is a biochemist, I have 15 steps in my house and I go throw those really slowly to regear myself to use a different part of my personality to teach."
This April will see the two-year anniversary since Vanella founded her studio, and she basks in quite a bit of success for her students already. "We’ve had so many different kinds of victories in the studio. Something my studio specializes in is beginners and intermediate singers who want to really, really find their voices and maybe haven’t had a lot of experience in the past but have a lot of hidden talent."
She praises two students, in particular: "One of my students, Kiera Smith, goes Chatham College. She was a writer this time last year and had never taken a voice lesson. She’s a finalist now in the classical singer competition for the whole United States. Then, we have Imani Wilkerson who’s done everything from finals for ‘The Voice’ to producers round for ‘American Idol.’ She’s just going all over Pittsburgh and just started having a career three months ago. And bam! She’s doing anything and everything."
Adding, "My little ones are doing children’s competitions and teenager competitions. I’ve had great volume with that. The thing that matters to me more than anything is the minute they walk in, they feel so good about themselves. That’s the best prize of all."
Of course, Vanella also has students that are a little less serious about music-making, "I’ve got the people that want to go to Juilliard or be on ‘American Idol.’ Then, I’ve got the people that are like ‘keep me completely out because I just want to sing for fun.’ Some of them are really good, but they just want to keep it at the piano. And that’s what we do. Those lessons are really relaxed. They have a little bit of everything."
She is quick to note that her studio is much more than just about voices, "I don’t just teach people how to sing. I teach the International Phonetic Alphabet in Italian and German. I teach people the basic concepts of foreign language. I teach history, acting and I teach role preparation for commercials. We bounce all over the place."
Vanella's background, including earning her Artists Diploma at Duquesne University in 2012, allows her to cover a wide range of musical styles and influences in her sessions. "I started off as a European-trained opera singer, not feeling like I knew much about music, in the States, especially," she admits, "I was wrong. There’s tons of stuff out there. We do everything from Adele to Taylor Swift to Green Day to Pavaroti and Verdi. If you bring it in to me and you can sing it and breathe well while do it, I’m absolutely fine with it. We’ll jam out on the piano and make it happen. Even Miley Cyrus, too."
Pondering for a moment, Vanella shares two pivotal moments in her career, both as an artist and a teacher. "The most pivotal moment for teaching was the first time I ever saw magic happen in the studio -- the first time I saw someone get it, not only understand it but put it in their hearts and minds and know they have it for the rest of their lives. The energy that comes from somebody who feels like they’re never going to be a part of something as complicated as music, and then bam, it just happens. I can’t give you one person, because there’s been hundreds in the last two years. The anniversary is coming up this April."
"As a singer, the day I realized that the best performance was the performance you just let happen. Once you prepare, walk out on stage and connect. Don’t worry about people staring at you, worry about connecting with something that they’ll have for the rest of their lives."
Of course, the entertainment industry can be a beast to conquer, and even Vanella admits that she questioned her journey. "When I was in my Masters, I often wondered if I was in the right place in my life. But with everything that has happened, it’s all come full circle. So, no, everything worked out exactly how it was supposed to," she smiles.
Audra McDonald, who recently starred in NBC's live broadcast of "The Sound Of Music," alongside country singer Carrie Underwood, is one of Vanella's direct influences and favorite performers. "I think it’s always been because she does a little bit of everything. I never had trouble finding a way to connect to that voice style, too, jazz, opera, no pretentiousness. That always makes me happy."
Three weeks ago, Vanella became a certified coach with the National Association of Teachers of Singing, something she couldn't believe at first. She explains why this milestone was so important to her career: "The reason it was so important is that it’s partially about us music types always trying to embellish our titles and keep growing so we have more to offer our students. The real thing is NATS is one of the most accredited associations of teaching that promotes healthy singing and healthy teaching. There are a lot of programs out there that are out to get your money. They aren’t about the industry and growing as an art. They’re about growing in politics. NATS only takes teachers that know what they’re doing and singers who know what they are doing."
She adds, "I was kind of surprised when I got my letter. I thought I was going to have to wait another year."
As a performer herself, Vanella says jazz is her favorite musical form to perform. "You can put a contemporary spin to it. You can add vibrato. You can show the story and history of music as we know it in that genre."
With 2014 already well underway, Vanella shares her hopes and dreams for the rest of the year. "We’re getting ready to expand, especially since I’ve been doing this out of half a studio apartment," she laughs. "Just to have a full room. Everybody’s like ‘oh my god, we’re gonna have a full room?’ I’m like ‘we might even have a house.’ They’re like ‘ooooo.’"
"My students all have phenomenal goals and aspirations in the next year," she concludes, hopeful. "I think everybody’s just gonna blow us away. I think I’m going to start doing competitions myself again, start competing at a national level but not for opera. I think I’m going for Broadway and jazz. I want to start on having a summer program. I’ll start putting the building blocks together this summer for next year that is pay-as-you-can and get some coaches from around the city, too. We have great talent and it doesn’t get used the way it could."