They're Still Going Strong : Retirement Would Be Unheard of for Voice Teacher, 83

Times Staff Writer

They began working in the 1920s, and after 60-odd years on the job, they've more than earned the right to sit back and relax. But at a time when the vast majority of their contemporaries have long since called it quits, they refuse to retire.

Blessed with good health and indomitable spirits, 83-year-old Holly Lash Visel,81-year-old Carl Civic and 79-year-old Ferd Johnson of remain not only willing but also able to continue working. For Visel, Civic and Johnson, their work is their pleasure and, for them, there's no end in sight.

Like comic George Burns, himself still going strong in his 80th year in show business, they believe it's best to keep working as long as they can. As the youthful 88-year-old Burns says, "You've got to do something that will get you out of bed."

Settling into a chair next to the baby grand piano that dominates the upstairs studio in her Balboa Island home, voice teacher Holly Lash Visel trained her eyes on the young girl standing in the middle of the room.

"You're not still using a script, are you?" the stately white-haired woman asked 11-year-old Amy Roberts, who was clutching a copy of the poem she was expected to recite from memory.

"Sort of . . .," said Amy. "I'll have it down by tomorrow."

"I hope so," said Visel, smiling encouragingly as she listened to Amy recite, with wide-eyed expressions and appropriate hand gestures, a '40s-vintage poem entitled "Earrings."

The brief performance over, the young girl waited for the older woman to speak.

"All right, now," Visel began, "how about your eye fixations? Your eyes looked in the same direction most of the time. You can't do that. You've got to look at all the people. . . ."

So it goes six afternoons a week as 25 students, ranging in age from 4 to 72, take their turns trooping up the outdoor stairs leading to Visel's studio, where they spend an hour learning the arts of singing, public speaking and dramatic self-expression under Visel's experienced tutelage.

At 83, Holly Lash Visel has no intention of drawing the curtain on a teaching career that began in 1923 when she opened a large fine arts studio in Santa Ana.

"No," she says simply, "it's just plain fun."

A grandmotherly, yet imposing, figure of a woman at 5-foot-10, Visel, born in Maxwell, Iowa, speaks with the air of authority of one who began studying voice in 1914, at age 13, and has spent her life making herself heard in front of both audiences and students.

Although a callus on her left vocal cord makes her occasionally lilting voice rougher than normal, she refuses to have it removed. For Visel, the idea of not being able to speak for three months is unthinkable. "I'm not going to write down everything that I think and take three months to do it!" she scoffs.

Besides, it would take her away from her students, who unfailingly continue to seek the professional wisdom of her years. As one of her students, 14-year-old Vicki Vistaunet, says, "She just knows what she's talking about."

Indeed, Visel's three-page resume duly notes her 27 years as director of private fine arts studios in Santa Ana and Orange and her years of teaching drama and speech at Tustin High School, Southern California College in Costa Mesa and at a private high school in Utah. And there's her five-year stint as a judge for district and state voice contests in the Midwest, her years of choral directing and soloist concert appearances, not to mention her continuing lifelong habit of attending conferences and seminars in theater and the oral arts.

Those years of experience help explain why, after working six decades, Visel refuses to retire.

"I feel," she says, "if you have a great deal of knowledge about anything, it's unfair not to use it; it's unfair to the people you could be instructing, and it's unfair to yourself."

Well Traveled

For the past 15 years Visel has been teaching privately out of the Balboa Island home that she and her late husband, Nelson, built as a summer house in 1926.

Visel's studio is a cozy, knotty pine-paneled room, filled with books, assorted knickknacks and pictures of her children, grandchildren and, as might be expected, her students.

"Every year I put their pictures on the wall dressed in their finest attire, and they love to look at these," Visel said, moving in close to examine the students' faces. "They really occupy a large place in my life."

Visel, a charter member of Musical Arts Club of Orange County and the National Teachers of Singing, travels once a year to her farm in Iowa and frequently visits friends in British Columbia, where she lived for 19 summers and attended the university. But she's never away from her students for long.

As far as Visel is concerned, most people simply don't use the vocal powers they were born with.

"Some of the secretaries' voices are horrible, and there are business people whose voices are terrible," she said, grimacing at the thought. "Schoolteachers are especially victims of poor communication--and to impart your personality or knowledge of anything effectively is very important to any person. Otherwise, people are looking out the window or looking at notes they have in their pocket or something."

Although two of her current students are professional singers and many are aspiring professional singers and actors, Visel said that what she most enjoys is promoting and stimulating what she calls the "personal development" of her students.

Curing Bad Habits

"A lot of young people do not look you straight in the eye, others have funny things they do with their hands and their hair--you know, so many peculiarities of expression," she said. "I just make them very conscious of it and give them another way to operate."

She recalls one student many years ago, "a 6-year-old girl who had a bad lisp, and we conquered that. We learned how to use the tongue properly and"--she smiled at the memory--"she gave a speech at her college graduating class last year.

"I've had businessmen during my course of teaching who've had peculiar mannerisms and who don't know what to do with their hands or how to breathe, which is very important because that motivates your voice."

She also stresses the importance of having "an interesting melodic line when you talk: Don't talk with just the same color and the same line of tone. There must be a great deal of variety in public speaking to hold an audience."

Recitals for Students

Twice a year, Visel's students get an opportunity to practice what they've learned before an audience at recitals arranged by Visel. Her current crop of students recently performed two Christmas recitals for more than 200 people at a Costa Mesa retirement home. Their teacher, naturally, served as master of ceremonies.

"I love people, and I love to help them," said Visel, explaining why she continues to teach. "My full desire is to help other people attain a better way of life. I would say that is my chief thing, really."

It was time for Amy Roberts to sing the Christmas song she had been practicing. Taking her place at the piano, Visel placed the appropriate sheet music in front of her, looked up at Amy and said, "Now, would you announce it please?"

" 'White Christmas,' " said the girl.

"Well, I would say a little more than that," suggested her teacher.

"I am going to be singing 'White Christmas,' " Amy said.

Visel, her voice taking on its characteristic lilt: "I can't hear you."

Amy, this time louder and with emphasis: "I am going to be singing 'White Christmas.' "

Holly Lash Visel, a smile creasing her face, clapped her hands in approval.

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