Santa Barbara vocal coach and students adapt to pandemic with streaming showcase
The small performance space at Jensen’s Music became an intimate setting for a live concert.
When the clock struck 6 p.m. on Tuesday, three novice singing students took to a small stage at the far end of the room to showcase songs they had been working on for months. They were accompanied by their vocal coach, Sloane Reali, on piano and backup vocals and Barry Birmingham on drums.
All the students were dressed in T-shirts that read “We Survived Singing Lessons on Zoom.”
Their 12-week course of individual and group classes with Ms. Reali was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and had to be transitioned onto the online video platform. Originally scheduled for May 5, the showcase capping off their weeks of learning to sing was moved to Tuesday.
With the exception of this reporter and a News-Press photographer, none of the performance’s audience members were at Jensen’s that evening. They tuned into Facebook Live to watch the Santa Barbara-based show, which Ms. Reali streamed on her phone.
As the vocal teacher greeted the digital audience, she remarked that her group only returned to Jensen’s Music for in-person rehearsals four weeks ago and that Tuesday’s performance marked only her students’ second week of singing with a live band. She added that the showcase culminated weeks of diligence and effort.
“This is really a night of celebration for these guys. They’ve worked really, really hard,” she said.
Before proceeding with the main part of the show, Ms. Reali let the audience see the routine she and her students did prior to rehearsals, a warm-up “dance party” to “shake our sillies” out, as she put it. She turned on the playback, The O’Jays’ No. 1 hit “Love Train” sounded over the speakers, and the group grooved to the R&B classic.
Then came showtime.
One after another, Ms. Reali’s students Gunner Avenetti, Kiki Reyes and Phil Davis took to the stage to sing their first songs of the evening — Stone Sour’s “Through Glass,” Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” respectively.
A fourth student, Sandra Eagret, sang Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” via Zoom. Ms. Eagret didn’t personally attend because she has decided to lock down during the pandemic for the sake of her elderly father-in-law.
The students who were personally present told the News-Press that they had different reasons for signing up for singing lessons through Vocal Coaching by Sloane, Ms. Reali’s business.
Mr. Avenetti, a 22-year-old IT specialist and airman at Vandenberg Air Force Base, decided he wanted to add singing to his musical repertoire, long centered around the guitar. Whenever he made music to put on Spotify, his compositions were always instrumental because he was shy about the sound of his voice.
“I didn’t really like the way I sounded, wasn’t happy with it, so I went out and I was like, ‘Let’s find some lessons,’ ” he said.
He added, “I love instrumental music … But I want to be able to sing too in case I ever have to.”
During the showcase, Mr. Avenetti played acoustic guitar as he sang the three numbers he selected for the evening, “Through Glass” by Stone Sour, “Learn to Fly” by Foo Fighters and “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. He also provided acoustic rhythm guitar during some of his fellow students’ performances.
Kiki Reyes, a 25-year-old Santa Barbara resident, originally intended on taking lessons from Ms. Reali long before she actually did this year. When she was 17, Ms. Reyes took guitar lessons at the Santa Barbara Youth Music Academy, and her guitar instructor recommended she seek out Ms. Reali for vocal lessons.
However, she didn’t find Ms. Reali’s contact information until last year, a time that just happened to coincide with Ms. Reyes getting a master’s in writing from Antioch University.
No longer in school, Ms. Reyes decided to get back into her hobby of music and sought professional voice training.
In addition to “Brave,” Ms. Reyes sang “Dangerous Woman” by Ariana Grande. She performed on the ukulele on the former and acoustic guitar on the latter, changing the upbeat pop of both numbers into a more low-key reggae feel.
Mr. Davis, a 31-year-old who works in engineering, said he started taking singing lessons because his friends frequently sing karaoke at places around town like Tiburon Tavern. After finding Ms. Reali’s coaching service on Yelp, he decided to “test the waters.”
During the showcase he performed “Bad Moon Rising” because it’s “short and sweet,” and the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believing,” a song that frequently appeared on one of his favorite TV shows, “Glee.” He said Ms. Reali especially encouraged him to sing the latter because it’s “very high energy.”
Mr. Avenetti, Ms. Reyes, Mr. Davis, and Ms. Eagret were the last remaining of an initial 10 students that started the 12-week-course. When COVID-19 hit, several students fell away when they determined that singing on Zoom just wasn’t what they had signed up for. However, the vocal coach said that the classes have been something for the remaining students to look forward to every week.
Her students concurred. Even when the singing lessons shifted from in-studio to over Zoom, Mr. Davis said it was always a welcome addition to the week.
“I really just liked it because it broke my routine from work, and I had something to look forward to every week,” he said.
Though Mr. Avenetti’s military job at Vandenberg meant that he wasn’t out of work amid COVID-19, continuing singing lessons over the internet gave variety to his schedule that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“It was just kind of my different thing in the schedule,” he said.
Because singing is one of her great loves and Ms. Reali serves as a source of encouragement for her, Ms. Reyes said voice lessons brought her a great deal of positivity during what is a generally a negative time in the world.
“Just having her and having singing, which is one of my favorite things to do, it really helped me kind of navigate through this pandemic and have something positive to look forward to,” she said.
Doing vocal lessons over Zoom wasn’t easy, however.
After all, each singer’s uniform for Tuesday’s concert was a T-shirt that read “We Survived Singing Lessons on Zoom.”
Although conducting one-on-one vocal instruction went smoothly enough, Ms. Reali called conducting group classes “a nightmare” because of one person’s audio cutting out another’s.
“The group thing was really hard … I can’t be on a screen with a bunch of other people and all of us singing simultaneously,” she said.
Ultimately, she ended up bringing a number of guests on for the group Zoom sessions and conducted the actual singing instruction with one-on-one sessions.
This switch to digital teaching is a transition full of trial-and-error that many music teachers have had to deal with amid the pandemic. The showcase’s drummer, Mr. Birmingham, who frequently plays with Ms. Reali in professional gigs, also owns Santa Barbara Drum Lab on East Gutierrez Street, through which he works as a drum teacher. He too has found the shift to online lessons an awkward change.
“I think it’s more productive when the student is one-on-one because there’s two drum sets set up next to each other and it’s easier explained. You know, like, ‘Here, watch me,’ ” he said.
Due to the circumstances, if his student is unsure about concepts covered in a lesson, Mr. Birmingham will shoot a video of what they worked on using two GoPros and send it to his student.
Since Tuesday was only her students’ second time playing with Mr. Birmingham on drums and her on piano, Ms. Reali said she was “blown away” by what was left on stage during the showcase. After each student performed individually, they all got together onstage for the finale, a group rendition of Ben E. King’s R&B classic “Stand By Me.”
The vocal coach then stepped off the stage with Mr. Birmingham, Mr. Avenetti, Ms. Reyes and Mr. Davis, with laptop in hand so Ms. Eagret could digitally take part in signing off to their Facebook audience.
Ms. Reali made sure everyone could once more see the “We Survived” emblazoned on their shirts.
“We survived,” the coach said.
“Hugs and love, we are singing off officially. Thanks for tuning in.”