“Night and day, you are the one—only you beneath the moon and under the sun,” she sings in honeyed tones, mature, graceful, and strong. She sways in a multilayered, floral dress, scattered with sequins that catch the stage lights at The Night of the Iguana in Norfolk on this Sunday afternoon in August. Becky’s enchanting rendition of this song, supported by the band’s arrangement, transports the audience back in time.
In a culture where musical performances turn into competitions on television, listening to and developing a true voice is sometimes hard to find. In our region, many women—as individual performers, choral singers, and leaders—are confidently sharing their gifts of music in different styles and genres. Let’s meet a quartet of fabulous females with a passion for song.
Audiences in Tidewater know Becky Livas from her work as the first African-American female news reporter on WTAR-TV in the 1970s—or from her soothing voice on “Jazz Excursions” on WHRO-FM radio in the 1980s. For the last twenty years, Becky has been pouring her passion into singing. Music has always been central to her, even as a little girl who pretended to be Ella Fitzgerald as she sang herself to sleep. She grew up in the home of an opera lover; her dad insisted she listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. She sang in the Grace Episcopal Youth Choir and her high school Glee Club and hoped to move to New York City after high school to develop a performing career. Her mother put the brakes on those dreams, and Becky tamed her artistic spirit—temporarily.
After Becky graduated from Hampton University and embraced marriage and children, she responded to an inner prompting, speaking out on subjects that mattered.
“As a young housewife, I found my voice in civic organizations, local politics and the women’s movement, and then in broadcasting,” Becky said. “I was able to make a difference in people’s lives.”
In 1992, fellow WHRO-FM announcer Lynn Summerall suggested putting together a band to perform music from the 1920s and 30s. Becky told him she’d always wanted to sing in front of a band, and he offered her an audition. She’s been the lead for the Hotel Paradise Rooftop Garden Orchestra ever since.
“Of the five or six ladies we heard, Becky really had it, and over the years, she has blossomed as a singer,” Lynn Summerall said during the band’s break.
Becky has sung with a variety of musicians, appearing at Sterling’s in Norfolk and Main Street Jazz in Suffolk. Her love of vocal performance now includes singing cabaret. In 1997, with her children grown, she auditioned for and attended the Eugene O’Neill Cabaret Symposium in New York, taking classes with Broadway professionals like Carol Hall and Margaret Whiting.
“You know how the Olympic athletes say they feel so lucky to have just made it to the games, no matter whether they win a medal or not? That’s how I felt! I just thought, I drove here all the way from Virginia and nothing is going to stop me,” Becky shared.
Becky says auditioning in New York reminded her that no one can make you feel good about yourself; it has to come from your own sense of self. She admits to being a shy person, but on stage, she projects a confidence and emotional connection to the songs.
Becky has recorded several albums: “Bye, Bye Blues” with the Hotel Paradise Orchestra and “If I Had You”(2011) with bassist John Lockwood, drummer Les Harris, and pianist Pamela Hines in memory of her friend Leon Bouvier. She’s working on another recording now also with Hines. Beyond her regular appearances with Hotel Paradise, audiences in Norfolk enjoy hearing her at the Veniziano Restaurant on Granby Street in Norfolk, where she performs a cabaret show several evenings a month. Becky promises women: “If you give your career everything you’ve got, you will get it back.”
CHANGING THE WORLD
Weaving an original songwriting style into her folk music foundation, 28-year-old Skye Zentz is on a musical journey. This June she released her second CD, “Birdheart,” co-produced at Tap-Tap Studios in Norfolk with her friend and music collaborator, Jacki Paolella. Propelled by ukulele, guitar, and a powerful backing band, Skye’s songs range from the pensive to the poppy with a flair for lyrics and introspection. She’s a gifted, young female singer, committed to a life as a performing songwriter.
Skye was a natural on stage at open mic nights at Ramblin’ Conrad’s Guitar Shop owned by her dad, Bob Zentz, creating songs before she could even read. While her first instrument was violin, she quickly moved into junior high and high school choruses and sang with Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Youth Choir. While she grooved to the boy bands in the 90s, acted and sang in musicals, and was a regular commentator on her parents’ folk music radio program, she found her true voice in a summer music gospel choir.
“The first year that I was at Common Ground on the Hill at McDaniel College in Maryland, I found something that happened inside of me, spiritually, when I was singing. And I learned so much from Shelly Ensor, our teacher, who taught in a kind of call and response, non-written process,” Skye said. “Because of that you had to connect through your heart, through your soul and memory. The words had to connect on more than one level.”
As a rising high school senior, she was initially upset that her dad was sending her to what she thought would be another old folkie’s hippie camp, but she was delighted to discover people her own age in Maryalnd, crafting songs relevant to issues of the time. She took classes with younger writers like Mike Merenda, who were “as good as John Mayer or Michelle Branch or better, but they were writing songs about things that could change the world, songs about what we need for ourselves in order to evolve.”
For several years, Skye honed her craft as a writer and performer with various collaborators, including a few years in a faux British band called “Mallomar” full of creative Generation Y artists. Skye’s first CD, “Legitimate Bohemia,” was produced at Soundside Studios on Ocracoke Island. She loves performing live, rather than writing songs for other people.
“I like the joy of doing a show and have somebody come up to me afterwards and say, ‘That really resonated with me because of…,’ something different than I wrote the song about,” she explained.
After spending a year in Berkeley, California, Skye returned to Norfolk and married artist and tabla player Gabriel Robinson in 2010. She has worked as a barista, a demographics researcher, a ukulele teacher, children’s music specialist, and a wholesale coffee administrative assistant. But her music and the development of her own writing voice comes first.
Skye admits that she still gets excited about “the pop sensibility,” Top 40 songs, and is an unabashed fan of the program, “Glee.” It’s that quirky combination that feeds her writing and singing.
“Creatively, we’re all quilts, and the fabric is everything including our upbringing, things that we’re exposed to at different times,” she said.
SHARING HER GIFT
Belonging to a vocal music community can often direct our lives. Stephanie Brown, 28, vocalist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk, and director of the Norfolk A Cappella Ensemble knew that music was her calling from the day her fifth grade choral teacher taught her a part of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” as an audition piece for all-city chorus. It was powerful and unforgettable.
“To experience the interaction between the voices and accompaniment, even at that simplistic level, I realized the connection between the voice, what we were singing, why we were doing it,” Stephanie recalled. “It was such a powerful feeling.”
Years later, Stephanie would discover that she not only loved music, she “saw” colors when she heard it. One afternoon, her dad, Tom, found Stephanie listening deeply to Yanni, one of his favorite musicians. He asked “You can see the music, right?” Though she denied it at first, Stephanie finally accepted her unique musical gift when she heard a composer talk about his experience as a “synesthete”—a person who has visual experiences when listening to music—on WHRV–FM’s HearSay program.
Music teachers and chorus directors inspired Stephanie. She sang in the same class with Skye Zentz at Maury High and at Christ and St. Luke’s, where she discovered a history of family connection with the church. A generous youth choir director offered to sponsor her for an intense summer vocal music camp at Shenandoah University. Stephanie was at home with young singers from all over the state.
Stephanie decided to major in music at Old Dominion University and designed a degree blending courses in music history, theory, and music education. Her dad’s sudden passing prompted Stephanie to consider how to best live her own life. Her pure admiration for so many music mentors and the sense of belonging she felt in singing groups inspired her to give that gift to others. Last year, Stephanie created the Norfolk A Cappella Ensemble: nine male and female choral enthusiasts, ranging in age from teens to middle age. They perform occasionally and rehearse at St. Andrews all year. She spends her own income for music and supplies for the group and is seeking non-profit status for the group with the vision of giving more performances to those in need.
“I know so many people who love to sing who don’t want to go to church, but we still want to have that feeling that you only get in choir,” she said. “We sing everything from Billy Joel to Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna!”
A SENSE OF CONFIDENCE
When you find your own voice, you can inspire others. Carol Thomas Downing is the creator and director of the Virginia Children’s Chorus, which just celebrated its twentieth season. Children who have trained with the formidable teacher and inspired leader are, like Stephanie Brown, forever lifted by the experience of learning how to use their voices well.
Music infused Carol’s life—from her Baltimore beginnings in a family of musicians. Carol studied piano from the age of 5, switched to violin, sang in her church youth choir, and then adolescence struck.
“At 14, I decided to drop both instruments and learn songs by the folk singers of the day,” she said. “I dropped the needle onto my records, locked myself in my room, and took melodic dictation!”
Years of singing in Baltimore coffeehouses gave Carol a sense of confidence, and she developed a love of performance.
“I could lose myself in these old songs and stories, find a voice of my own, and people responded,” she recalled.
Later, after college and an early marriage, Carol found another place to share her singing—teaching in her son Adam’s preschool. After the second class, she was completely in love with working with children. A mentor in the school wrote a grant for Carol to take the Walden School Musicianship Course, where she received rigorous training in keyboard, sight-singing, and music theory based on singing and keyboard drills. She excelled, mastered the KODALY and Suzuki methods of teaching music in schools, taught at the Waldorf School in Baltimore, and created a children’s chorus at the Peabody Preparatory.
Carol continued to perform, discovering Irish fiddle music, joining a Bulgarian women’s choir, and a folk trio called “Cross Country.” After finding her way to Norfolk, she discovered there was no professional children’s choir here—and so, she began one.
The Virginia Children’s Chorus has four choir groups and seven levels of proficiency, welcoming children from the age of six through high school seniors. The singers have performed with the Virginia Symphony, the Bay Youth Orchestra, the Virginia International Tattoo, and more.
“Do you know that children’s choirs are the fastest growing segment of choirs in the United States and that many, many composers are writing for them?” Carol asked.
After decades of teaching children of all ages, Carol’s new inspiration comes from the vocalizations of her god-granddaughter. Like Carol’s singers in the VCC, the three-year-old is learning by listening, the way the chorus singers listen to recordings of their choral parts at home.
“At this age, it’s all about vocal play and imitation, and it is such fun!” she said, her own voice light with love and happiness.
For more information:
• Becky Livas: GrammaJass@ aol.com
Kathleen Fogarty writes regularly for Tidewater Women and lives on a farm in Virginia Beach with her husband, John.