With a Song in Their Hearts : Music: A class at Irvine Valley College helps rookie vocal students find the guts to perform in front of an audience.

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"I enjoy root canals, tax audits, work performance evaluations, lengthy business meetings, raw tripe, artillery barrages, and dancing naked on national TV."

That isn't quite what Betty Fort said, but almost. What she said--and she actually got an entire classroom full of rational adults to say it with her--was worse:

"I enjoy singing and speaking in front of large groups."

Yes, this is social and psychological heresy. Because, traditionally, a majority of people have ranked the fear of speaking or singing in public higher on the primal fear scale than even the fear of death.

Yet there was Fort, leading a four-week adult education class at Irvine Valley College called "Singing for Joy." And there were her rookie vocal students, on the night of their last class, actually doing it. Maybe not belting 'em, maybe not exactly laying 'em in the aisles, maybe not quite Ethel Merman-ing the doors off their hinges. But singing. Really singing.

Or, rather, singing again after all these years. On the first night of class, a brief question session by Fort revealed that many of her students had sung before--as children around the house, as tentative members of the junior high school or church choir, as shower sopranos and baritones.

But most of these also had faced a common fork in the musical road: somewhere, at some time, someone whose opinion mattered had withered their vocal ego, had persuaded them with a look or a wince or a joke or a cry of anguish that they could not, and should not, sing.

And so they dutifully clammed up, convinced they had a tin ear or, at best, a thoroughly unpleasant singing voice. Until that first night of class.

"Many of them will tell you that they quit singing around age 12," said Fort, a vocal coach who has sung in several musical productions in New York. "Between 8 and 13 are the wonder years for singing, and either you are given the message then that it's OK and you go ahead and do it, or that it's not OK, and you stop. Most of it is confidence. There's a message of 'You're not good enough' or 'What will people think?' Fear is learned, and many of them are fearful when they show up here, standing raw in front of a crowd and singing. But the other side of it is that so many of them do correct that message that was sent to them a long time ago."

Not that it happens instantly. The transition from pipsqueak to Pavarotti takes time. But at least, the participants discovered on night one, they were all facing the same demons together.

"If I can live through childbirth with no drugs, I can live through this class," said Deborah Paquin, 33, a public relations manager from Irvine.

A few students said the class was turning out to be one of the few times they had actually considered standing up and singing solo without the buttressing effect of what they said were "a few too many."

Frank Delzompo, 30, a Marine Corps attorney from Irvine, remembered his father "opening all the windows in the house and singing Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra songs loud ." His grandfather, he said, was an opera singer in Italy, but Delzompo admitted to feeling that he'd gotten musically shortchanged.

"I tried karaoke," he said, deadpan, "and it was not good."

Members of the class had different reasons for putting their voices and their egos on the line for the sake of the musical muse, but nearly all had one unifying link in their backgrounds: They remembered singing when they were younger, and enjoying it.

"I sang when I was younger in a boys' choir and in church choral groups," said Sandy Stiassni, a 37-year-old real estate foreclosure specialist from Irvine, "but my singing activities kind of dropped off." Now, he said, he wants to pick up the melody again, in part, for the sake of his 4-year-old daughter, who he said is showing interest in music and singing.

Bebe Smith, a retired real estate agent from Irvine, said she signed up "mainly because I would go to the karaoke bars and wouldn't have the nerve to get up and sing. I wanted to develop the nerve to do it. I really had no experience, but my family has always sung for fun at parties."

Reawakening dormant voices from childhood was not a one-night (or even four-night) undertaking, but Fort offered bedrock basics, interlarded with plenty of reassurance.

"We don't have any gimmicks," said Fort. "We teach that breathing is the cornerstone to singing and that singing has to do with thought--they have to think the purest form of the vowels. They work on scales and the mechanics of singing, such as not locking your jaw. And at each class they get new affirmations."

Like this one: "If you didn't know," said Fort to the class, "you're all extroverts."

Or at least extroverts-in-training. After all, you can't be a complete shrinking violet and do the things Fort insisted her charges do. They sang along as Fort played ascending and descending arpeggios on a tiny tabletop electronic piano, yawned repeatedly on cue (imagining, at Fort's coaching, that they had a potato in the back of their throats), and wailed like a firetruck's siren, imagining that they were 8 years old. Some of the sounds were surprisingly strong and accurate.

"Were you 8 years old when you were doing that, or were you an adult and thought it was silly?" asked Fort after the firetruck exercise. There were a few edgy laughs, but Fort explained that each of the imagery exercises was designed to "help you learn to feel what you're doing when you're singing."

Subsequent classes featured more of the same, incorporating the vocal production into actual singing of, first, the national anthem, and, on the final night, a song of the student's choice, with accompaniment provided by a karaoke machine.

One after another, on the last night, the erstwhile shower singers stepped to the front of the room, gripped the mike and became, suddenly, soloists.

Smith opened with a breathy but earnest "I've Got a Crush on You."

"See how easy that was?" Fort said as Smith finished.

Smith fessed up: "I was shaking from head to toe."

Later, however, she said that "I surprised myself that I was able to do it without my voice cracking. I worked hard in my song and I was more confident because of that. After I finished, I told Betty, 'That's another hurdle in my life accomplished.' That's kind of how I felt about the whole thing."

Stiassni, changing the tone of the evening drastically (the majority of the students sang ballads or love songs), took a whack at James Brown's "I Feel Good," which he called "a good release." He didn't exactly sweat rivers on cue, and he wasn't exactly draped with a cape and led offstage by a handler, but he did get the class to clap along.

On they came, both the crooners and the belters, the retiring and the brazen, taking the leap that might have terrified them only a month before, emerging from the anonymity of the shower into--at least figuratively--the spotlight beam.

And if anyone began to show the white feather, Fort was quick to restate the mantra: "Remember, you're all extroverts."

"I've always been extroverted," said Delzompo, "and I've always had no problem getting up and talking in front of people, but as far as my singing ability went, I'd never thought about breathing before."

Breathe he did, and deeply. He had to; his final song of choice was Elvis' "Teddy Bear." And his performance was enough to get the rest of the class to howl, whistle and clap in rhythm, extroverts all.

But, after the final note, what then? Not a return to anonymity, according to many of the students. Some said they would continue with Fort and take her karaoke class, also offered at IVC, and learn to sell it to an audience as well as sing it properly. One student, Scharlotte Agers, 49, of Dana Point, said she was considering buying her own karaoke equipment for a traveling singing business. Delzompo said he liked the idea of joining a barbershop chorus. Smith said she had "a friend who's a cocktail lounge pianist and he always said he couldn't believe I wouldn't get up and sing with him. Now I can do it."

She knew she could do it, she said, because of what might be called the class's final exam: a night singing karaoke in a bar in the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel a few days after the last classroom session.

"When we had that party," said Smith, "I got up on stage in front of everybody--the class and their friends--and sang. And I felt wonderful about it. Now I have the nerve to do it."

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