A song is where the heart is
Weiss helps students tune in to music
Elissa Weiss '78, a founding member of The Salomone Trio, a group that performs Renaissance, medieval, and Jewish folk music, likes making music, but she just loves teaching a course called Everybody Can Sing!, which she holds in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in New York City. [NOTE: Classes were moved to Makor several years ago.]
"We are all born able to sing with good voices. It's fear and tension that prevent us from using our voices the way we want to," Weiss says. In her 90-minute class, which meets weekly for four weeks, Weiss focuses on technique: helping students to sing in tune, match pitch, project, and create beautiful tones. She also includes rhythm training, or solfège, and lessons in correct breathing, which increases a singer's range and power.
Her students have included lawyers, social workers, psychotherapists, computer programmers, secretaries, nurses, architects, and librarians. "The first class I taught gave me so much energy," recalls Weiss. "There are dynamics involved in teaching. One of the things I learned right away is that it's important to keep things moving and not spend too much time on one person. I get as much joy from teaching as the students seem to get from learning."
A typical class opens with a guided meditation to help relax minds and muscles, followed by group humming to focus on breathing. In each class, Weiss goes over different aspects of music, including tuning, harmony, and rhythm, and she focuses on a particular musical style, such as Gregorian chant or the blues. The group might sing together then split into duets. One-on-one work with Weiss is optional. To close each class, the group sings students' favorite songs. In the final class, Weiss teaches a Gregorian chant that they sing together. "When the class is over, my living room feels as though it's alive," Weiss says. "I always hear the group singing in the hall as they wait for the elevator."
Weiss, who grew up in Florida, played the clarinet in high school. She went to Princeton to study math but majored in economics; she wrote her thesis on the U.S. money supply. She took one music course, Kenneth Levy's The Symphony, which she now draws on for her own teaching. "I learned an enormous amount about Analysis, a method of analyzing musical scores which can be used by non-musicians," Weiss says, "and I constantly use the information Professor Levy taught us about form." She also joined the marching band, Glee Club, and chapel choir and took regular voice lessons. After graduating, Weiss worked at McCarter Theatre for a year, then became the accounting manager at the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York, where she still works four days a week. [NOTE: In July, 2000, Elissa quit her day job and became a full-time singer and singing teacher.]
Weiss's favorite moment is when a student realizes that yes, he or she can sing. "I'm blown away every time I discover a student's real voice," Weiss says. "I'm convinced that singing and dancing are more important for our identity as humans than walking and talking. It's so sad that we dance and sing as children, then something happens and we don't do those things daily any more. We sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, as the Bible says. That pottage is all the practical stuff which adds tension and makes us forget why it's fun to be alive."
-- Art Fazakas
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