Six hours a day, Elizabeth Sabine sings heavy metal lyrics with the passion of an adolescent groupie. Her North Hollywood home displays pictures of local bands such as Darling Cruel, Leatherwolf and Megadeath--her friends.
But Sabine is no groupie. She’s a grandmother.
She’s a 66-year-old voice instructor who helps rock singers cure hoarse throats and cultivate lofty career aspirations. Sabine spurns conventional voice teaching techniques: learning musical scales, using deep breaths and hitting difficult highs and lows by matching notes played on a piano. She exhorts her students to sing by tightening their abdominal muscles instead of relying heavily on their vocal chords. She teaches them to shriek with what she calls the unrestricted, childlike energy they abandoned years ago.
“Children are born with this wonderful, clear sound,” Sabine said, “because they never listen to it. But as we get older, we act self-conscious about what we look like and sound like, and what other people will think of us. So there’s this monitoring in the voice, and we lose it.”
Sabine grew up in Australia, where she performed in musical theater groups for decades and appeared on television in dramas and variety shows. She later moved to England. She says her voice was more soothing than booming, and she regrets it.
“I could have been so much better,” Sabine said. “I had a powerful voice as a little girl, but my mom told me to tone it down. So in order to soften my voice, I put a little air through it, which made it pretty and acceptable, but it took away that connection that children have.”
Sabine first became aware of the technique that she eventually adopted when introduced to operatic tenor and teacher Robert Mazzerella at a Hollywood party in the mid-1970s. She had arrived from England a few months earlier and was cleaning apartments--$5 a crack--for a living. (Her husband had died of a heart attack in 1960. Today, one of her sons lives in England, the other in Los Angeles. Two grandchildren live in England, two in Los Angeles, and one in Australia.)
For several years, she studied under Mazzerella, gradually fine-tuning her new singing voice.
As the 1980s progressed, she inherited many of her mentor’s students and soon set up her own voice-strengthening studio in her home. She taught herself more about rock ‘n’ roll when rock students began to seek her assistance.
“My sons used to play it and I would tell them I didn’t want to hear it,” Sabine said. “I thought Pink Floyd was something you ate. And I thought I’d better look and see what it’s all about. I turned out to be good at this, and there was a need for it.”
Today she teaches singers and speakers, charging $70 per hour. She occasionally gives seminars and has two part-time instructors who share her workload. Sabine instructs several dozen aspiring performers and some who just want to “sing for themselves and the family by the piano.”
Michelle Brunetti, 27, hopes Sabine will help her acting career. She believes an improved singing voice will make her a more confident actress. Brunetti, who appears frail but possesses a bubbly personality and booming voice, enlisted Sabine’s support several months ago because she found her emotion overpowering her stamina.
“My biggest problem is breath control,” said Brunetti, who lives in North Hollywood. “I get too emotional and then I start to breathe too heavily, and I lose the power in my voice.”
Sabine has taught Brunetti how to hold her abdominal muscles tightly and use less breath in her songs. Sabine believes the muscle tightening generates an “electrical energy” that gives the voice its true force. She avoids the breathy sounds that come from the vocal chords. She often puts a hand on her student’s stomach to see if the tightening occurs.
Sabine also has taught Brunetti the art of self-expression. Even though she is trained as an actor, Brunetti says she has been unable to make contact with her “deepest emotions, especially anger.” But Sabine’s lessons have allowed her to deal with the “pain of her life” and use it to enhance her singing.
“My anger doesn’t scare me as much as it used to,” Brunetti said. “It’s a natural catharsis, both personally and professionally. People seem to respect me more, and I respect myself more.”
Sabine is a therapist of sorts. She relies on an immediate and close rapport with her students, searching to understand the
fsource of their passion for performing. Before she listens to their songs, she hears their stories.
“They talk to me about everything,” Sabine said.
At her urging the students relay their anxieties, which helps them demonstrate more passion in their songs. They live their lyrics.
Sabine also teaches her pupils several exercise techniques to loosen up at the beginning of each lesson. They roll their shoulders and fling their arms--all designed to prepare their abdominal muscles for the work ahead.
Then Sabine takes each student to the closed window of her studio. She identifies a spot outside, such as the neighbor’s hedges or a street sign. The student cries out as passionately as possible, as if trying to be heard by someone at those spots.
Sabine complains that most voice instructors don’t know how to teach aspiring rock singers to reach their potential.
“It’s hopeless. They waste their money,” she said. “The teachers tell them, ‘Rock is bad for you. You mustn’t do that. I will teach you to sing correctly, and then you must try to adapt your rock singing to that.’ But a classically operatic style doesn’t always lend itself to rock. It’s too gentle.”
Perhaps most important, Sabine does everything she asks from her students. She shrieks with them.
“They think that if this middle-aged woman can make a fool of herself, then surely they can,” she said.
Sabine is convinced that everyone has the potential for a powerful voice. “I’ve never had any failures. But I’ve had people who didn’t get the range they wanted. Some of them are scared to have such a big voice.”
Some well-known singers, Sabine believes, could benefit from her teaching. She won’t give names, but said she has written letters offering her assistance. They usually don’t respond.
Dave Fefolt responds to Sabine. Fefolt, 26, of Reseda recently formed a rock ‘n’ roll group. Each week he takes a one-hour lesson from Sabine to prepare for the grueling rehearsals and, he hopes, upcoming gigs. His last trip on the road as a rock singer, a summer trek to Germany, almost wiped him out.
“You can’t go sightseeing. You can’t do anything,” Fefolt said. “You’re always afraid you’ll get a sore throat, and that takes away a lot of the fun of the road. But after seeing Elizabeth, my voice doesn’t hurt as much, and that’s what I was looking for.”
Fefolt, practicing for Sabine, began singing one of his group’s songs. Sabine watched in admiration.
“These guys make me feel so much younger,” she said. “If I were a kid, I’d be into that beat.”