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Magic in the Air

From small-town Ojai to the neon lights of Broadway—and back—with voice coach Laura Dekkers.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Rudy Loupias

Almost Broadway: Laura Dekkers onstage at the Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio (OYES) Theatre.

 

here is a wonderful saying attributed to Rabindranath Tagore that I often quote, with a caveat: “God respects me when I work, but he loves me when I sing.” I add that he (or she) hasn’t heard me sing!

Recently, a respected musician heard me scatting along to a jazz CD featuring my dad on piano. He suggested that I should not only sing, but also perform at one of the Tuesday night open mic/jam nights at Squashed Grapes in Midtown Ventura.

“Are you nuts?” I replied, knowing full well that although I can occasionally carry a tune, I am miles away from subjecting anyone outside of my shower or car to my vocal strains.

Then I thought, what the heck? Something new and different to try.

Enter Laura Dekkers, voice coach. Laura teaches vocal instruction to share her passion with others. She helps singers belt out a tune Broadway style, or “Sock it to them!” in a pop song. Could she help a gal who loves jazz and ballads, I wondered?

Laura has performed on Broadway, off Broadway, and in regional theaters across the United States and Europe, but left the lights and glamour of New York City to return to her native Ojai three years ago to raise her darling trio of young daughters in the small town’s rural atmosphere. Her credits include performing in the original Broadway cast of the Tony-nominated musical The Woman in White, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and playing the role of Anna in Bachelor Pad at the York Theater in New York City. She also took on the role of the original Bonnie Rockne in the musical Rockne, by Laurence O’Keefe (of Legally Blonde).

In addition to teaching voice and caring for Olivia, 7, Hope, 5, and Fiona, 2, Laura puts together off-the-grid weekend retreats for women who want to connect with themselves and each other “on a deep level that often includes lots of digging and even crying.”
“I feel very strongly about that work as well,” she noted. “And it really is the same work: helping women find their voice and tell their story.”

Laura began her singing studies at age 12 in Ventura with vocal teacher Linda Ottsen. She earned her BA in theater at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and then studied voice privately in Los Angeles with Edward Sayegh from 1998 until 2001, and in New York City with Liz Caplan from 2002 until 2012.

The list of Tony Award winners and nominees she has worked with on stage includes theater luminaries Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, Diane Paulus, Kelli O’Hara, and many others who, she says, “haven’t been up for a Tony yet… but they will.”

And then there was me. Even though I’m a rookie who will never see the neon lights of Broadway, Laura kindly agreed to take me through the paces of one of her lessons for this article.

She had just moved into her newly remodeled home a few days before we met, and had me take off my shoes before leading me through some physical exercises. We stood in the living room and did a few stretches. Soon enough, she had me blowing up a yellow balloon.

“The whole body is involved,” explained Laura. “Singing is a full-body athletic experience. The process of singing is about controlling the release of air through your vocal cords.”

Hence, the balloon exercises. She was showing me how to “support my sound” in the same way she helps real singers find their own voices. She then sat at the piano and ran me through some singing exercises consisting of scales, first using the word “he,” then “la,” followed by some “laga-las” that were combined with sticking out my tongue (to relax the back of my tongue) and holding my face so my jaw didn’t move. I was hoping we were going to sing a song, but that wouldn’t come for some time.

“I build on my students’ authentic, natural sound, and strengthen and grow that voice into one that can sing rock, pop, or classical for hours,” she says.

A reluctant vocal coach, Laura had her first taste of teaching in 2005 when she taught as a Liz Caplan Vocal Studios associate in New York City and loved it. She never thought she’d leave New York—until she had children.

Although Laura specializes in teaching singers who already have a foundation of vocal technique, she also loves working with talented young people who have the singing and acting bug. Her own children follow suit, and are especially fond of The King and I and The Sound of Music.

Her goal is to teach singers about their own voices and provide them with the tools to keep those voices healthy and strong, since she can’t be with them in auditions, rehearsals, or in the studio.

“It’s my job to not only teach people to sing correctly, but also to know what to do when it isn’t working.” Due to the intense nature of the work, she only takes on a handful of students at a time.

Granted, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so my chances of being able to sing and perform a song after just one session were pretty slim. But it did give me a newfound respect for singers and the paces they need to run through on their instruments.

We did sit at the piano at the end of my lesson and flip through the pages of a Broadway show tunes songbook. Most of the songs were too difficult for me. When I asked Laura if she’d sing, she reluctantly agreed, choosing a song from Showboat.

The person who introduced us, Spencer Westbrook (no relation), and I are trying to convince Laura to perform a one-woman cabaret of her favorite tunes in Ventura or Ojai. Her excuse is that she’s looking for an accompanist. Is there a piano player in the house?

As Laura noted at the end of our wonderful post-lesson conversation about life, birth, and other matters of the heart, “Just like athletes don’t get a six-pack after one workout, singing takes being present and grounded, focused and dedicated.”

Are you going to hear me sing at an open mic night anytime soon? Don’t count on it. But if you do, it probably means I had a little too much wine—or that I took a few more lessons from the lovely Laura.

As for me, I think I’ll stick to my day job. If you want to hear me sing, I’ll see ya in the shower!

So you want to sing at Carnegie Hall? It begins with a 90-minute “vocal consultation” ($150) to assess your abilities. If you pass muster, continue with individual 30-minute or one-hour sessions ($75-$150), available at a savings in a package of six. Group master classes, offered monthly, are great for beginners and new students.

For more information, visit lauradekkers.com or call 310.383.4219.

Dekkers returned to her native Ojai to raise her daughters in a small-town atmosphere. From left: Olivia, Laura, Fiona, and Hope. Photo by Shell Dransart, Wildflower Studio Photography

Tickling the ivories and helping writer Leslie Westbrook find her voice.

10-1-2015

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