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Singing coach prefers passion to perfection

'Be a person! Be a person!'
Some over-emote. Their eyes bug out
As they climb the stairs to the second-floor choir room, identities fall away

A love song isn't really a love song if the singer doesn't feel it. Perfect pitch in a vacuum can be a perfect bore.

Karen Morrow believes that an audience is more likely to respond to a heartfelt voice that cracks than a flawless one that flat-lines emotion.

The Emmy winner — who has belted out numbers on stages from Broadway to Hollywood — has been preaching this to would-be crooners in Los Angeles for decades.

After 54 years in the business, Morrow knows how to grab a song by its soul. She has tricks to ease stiffness and shyness and stage fright. She shares them all over the country in master classes and at two local workshops a week for anyone brave enough to try.

Shower singer or star, it's hard to get up in front of others and get it right.

Some over-emote. Their eyes bug out. They wave their hands wildly, as if directing traffic. Others concentrate so hard on the notes, they barely move at all.

It's pretty common for a singer of standards to slip into slumber-inducing singsong. And then there are many who try to sound like someone else: If you must sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Morrow pleads, for pity's sake, don't try to be young Judy Garland.

"Be a person! Be a person!" she tells her students again and again. Make it natural, make it yours.

At each workshop, they get up one by one to perform songs they've chosen.

Morrow, who is in nearly constant motion, might bounce on her feet but let someone sing all the way through. She might stand beside whoever is up and demonstrate a different approach. Or she might call out a few bars in:

"Make it a conversation!"

"Speed up the tempo."

"Don't worry about the notes. Just go for it."

Her Monday night sessions attract an after-work crowd. Several sang when they were young but, in the press of life, for a time misplaced their music.

One man who says he sings everywhere he goes discovered his voice only a few years ago, after a doctor put him on lithium for a mild bipolar disorder. Each week, he drives his RV from Ojai to the workshop at Westwood Presbyterian Church. Someone else drives in from Huntington Beach. There's a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a fabric seller. As they climb the stairs to the second-floor choir room, they let these identities fall away.

They are singers, carrying sheet music to hand to the pianist. They are supplicants — the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion — coming to the Wizard of Oz to be made whole.

Once a year, on props day, each brings an offering. A red-haired troll doll. A coil of rope. A golf club. Morrow gathers the items and makes a pile that stretches across several folding chairs.

She knows that too often, the mind gets in the way. It needs to be distracted to forget that it's afraid, to be pulled off the safe path, to do what it dreams of but ordinarily wouldn't dare.

In the course of the evening, she will dole the props out randomly. Each performer will be given one just a few minutes before taking the floor.

There won't be time to over-think it. The point, she tells the class, is to plunge in and perhaps surface with something enlightening.

"The prop doesn't have to be used as what it is.... If it resembles a telephone, use it as a telephone. If it resembles a hamburger, use it as a hamburger. But incorporate it into your song so that when I take it away from you, you will still have information inside of you that you will be able to use."

And so the first brave soul, Robert Brittany, steps up with a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, "Everybody's Got a Home but Me." He is holding a metal flour scoop that in his hands becomes a shovel. As he sings about how he longs to have a roof over his head, he's digging a foundation, furiously trying to make it so.

The night unfolds and the rope becomes a snake and a woman struggles with the high notes of "I could have danced all night" until they just come as she's pressing a plush Charlie Brown to her chest and waltzing him across the floor.

Dyanne Gilliam glowers at the cat toy she's been handed, which has a stick to hold on one end, a ribbon of feathers on the other. She starts to laugh — sort of.

"I don't have a cat," she mutters. "This is just mean."

To which Morrow replies, "No, it's not. It's to get you guys to think and explore and go deep."

Gilliam's choice for the evening is "Send in the Clowns."

When she first started coming to the workshop, Gilliam says, she'd get up, start to shake and go all red and blotchy. She still does not step easily out front.

But there she is, and Morrow is asking her to think about gymnasts with ribbons.

"You don't have to sing. Don't even try to sing," Morrow says. "Let's just play the song, and you make it do what the music is doing. Make it a ballerina and see what happens."

And then the music is starting and the feathers are swaying and Gilliam sways and twirls with them, as if they're both being buffeted by a breeze.

She is smiling. Early giggles fade. The room is quiet but for the piano and for Morrow saying, "Yes, yes, yes, oh yes!"

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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