Jazzitalia - Interview with Mary Setrakian
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Interview with Mary Setrakian
Milan, November 23rd 2006
By: Eva Simontacchi  

Fai click qui per leggere la versione in italiano

Eva Simontacchi: You are doing something very special in your teaching because you are connecting the acting to the singing. You do this in the States, and now you are holding classes here in Italy too, side by side with your performing. Could you please explain how all this began?
Mary Setrakian: Well, my early days of studying voice started in college at Stanford University. I then decided that I really wanted to continue my studies and master my singing technique, so I went to Boston at the New England Conservatory and received a Masters in Voice Performance. My last summer in Boston, I went to Tanglewood which is a Music Festival in Massachussetts, and I studied with a wonderful teacher, Phyllis Curtain. After all of this classical study, I decided that I wanted to move to New York because I really wanted to sing on Broadway. I met a wonderful voice teacher through Phyllis Curtain, her name is Joan Heller. She was living near New York at the time, so I was studied with her. She put all of the pieces together for me for a classical technique. I really loved her work and how she approached the singing, and I thought I could apply this technique in all the styles I wanted to sing: Classical, Musical Theatre, Pop, Jazz, even Rock and Roll. As I pursued a musical theatre career in New York I realized that I needed to work on my acting. I found an incredible acting teacher, Susan Batson, who changed my life and career. She is the one who taught me to connect my acting technique with the singing technique I had perfected. I went on to perform on Broadway and tour with Broadway shows including "Phantom of the Opera," Mary Setrakian in "Phantom of Opera""Les Miserables," the title role in "Evita," and "Hello Dolly." And then I started teaching. You know, my first student was Nicole Kidman for "Moulin Rouge." Nicole studies acting with Susan Batson, and Susan said to Nicole: "You must study with Mary before the audition." So she was my first student. We worked on connecting the acting with the singing technique. So! this is how it came about. Then I started getting a lot of students and side by side with my performing I was also teaching. This technique of connecting the singing with the acting is really connecting the mind with the body. It's not separating them. In our society today, so often, we get very disconnected. To avoid pain and uncomfortable emotions we get very in our head, in our mental state without connecting the body. This typically happens with singers studying technique. They want the sound to be so good, they only think of technique and get locked in their head. They make pretty sounds, but it has no human connection with the body. Teaching singing with the voice and the emotions together has been a very special journey for me. My personal dream is to share it with the world. I have always loved Italy since I vacationed there with my family when I was 11 years old. Three years ago I met up with a special friend who had studied at Tanglewood at the same time I did 24 years ago, an Italian composer, Luca Francesconi. At Tanglewood he studied with Luciano Berio while I studied with Phyllis Curtain. Luca's work inspires me so much, meeting him again and hearing his work with the LA Philharmonic, "Colbalt, Scarlett, Two Colors of Dawn," I got a burning desire to come to Italy again. Fate must have heard me, because a few months later, a wonderful Roman actor, Domenico Stante, found me on my website. He was looking for a voice teacher in New York. He saw that I was teaching a course at Black Nexxus, Susan Batson's Acting Studo. We corresponded through e-mail and he came to New York and studied with me for the month during my course. It was just wonderful! He went back to Rome, and I wrote him an e-mail, and said: "You know? I've always wanted to come to Italy to teach and perform", and with that he said, "Well, I've always wanted to produce, and I love this technique of connecting the acting with the singing." He immediately scheduled a course. I do concerts with orchestras and little concerts that I call my "Salons," so he also scheduled two Salons for me at "L'Arciliuto" in Rome in Piazza Navona. That was almost two years ago. I have returned now to Italy eight times and have taught over twelve courses. It's just been so special to share this with actors and singers here in Italy. That's how it all came about.

E.S.: We would all like to know more about you. How did it all start when you were a little girl? How were you driven or attracted into this world of music and acting?
M.S.: Oh, what a great question! I come from a very musical family. Both my mother and my father are fantastic singers. My mom is English, Scotch Irish, and my dad is Armenian. My dad's mother, Roxanna Setrakian, was match-marriaged to my grandfather Arpoxit Setrakian when she was fifteen and he was thirty-two. Well, she never had more than a grammar school education, but she was an opera singer!...and a two handicap in golf...and an expert in Asian art. She was a brilliant woman! And my father just loved singing. I think he would have loved to have been a professional singer and actor, but he went into the family business in grapes and wine. I remember him when I was three years old, with my three brothers. He'd put us around a microphone and we would all sing together. I have these wonderful audio tapes of me singing when I'm three and a half a duet with my dad "I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad" singing my heart out with my dad playing the ukulele. So, he's the one that instilled this wonderful love of music. I think that I was born to do what I'm doing, and I'm so lucky because he always gave me the permission – and my mother too – to pursue this very difficult but fantastic career. Difficult because there's a lot of rejection along the way. You have to keep hanging in there, but I've been very supported by my family for this love of music. So I'm very grateful!

E.S.: Let's go back to your courses here in Italy. How are you going to organize the classes? Are you going to follow a program so that the students might follow your classes each time you come back?
M.S.: Since I started this work in Italy almost 2 years ago, I have a lot of students who return and do the course again and again as well as brand new students in the workshop. I'm always bringing each student to their own personal new level in the 5 day workshop (all in one week). In the class, there are professional singers who are working right now professionally in Italy; and, in the class, I have students who are making their debut singing--they've never sung in their life in front of anybody before. Perhaps an actor, a writer, a composer. I do this combination of different levels in the class on purpose. I think it's very important. Often a student who is an actor but who's never sung before can take his acting technique and apply it to their singing immediately. Often the professional singers are very in their head about the technique. And for them to see a brand new student who's never sung in their life connect their acting with their voice and see the results and how gorgeous and amazing and profound it is, is an incredible learning tool. Also for the actor, to see the singer with this gorgeous voice connecting their acting for the first time and taking that courageous step is a gift. So the combination is quite interesting. Yes, I always am thinking ahead of everybody growing to their next level, whatever that is. I really try to be very individual with each student. I don't just do a general class and everybody gets the same exact work. Every student has a different issue, whether it be about their acting technique, their singing technique, connecting it, tension in different places...everybody holds their body differently, everybody is a different instrument. That's the other wonderful thing about the voice: that your body is your instrument, and there's nobody exactly like you. So it's quite a wonderful process. I find that in the classes the support of each student for the other students makes the growth in only five days dynamic. I'm am always surprised myself how fast the growth is. Almost more than you'd get in a private lesson.

E.S.: I agree, I saw that with my own eyes.
M.S.: Yes, you did. And I make sure that it is a very supportive atmosphere. We're really in this together. It's not about competition... And you know, sometimes we get jealous of each another: "I want to be like you!" and that's a wonderful thing to confess, but we're really there for each other to each one trying to grow to the new level.

E.S.: Can you give some specifics about the technique of connecting the mind and the body for our readers?
M.S.: The specific voice technique is of course an intrigal part of my work. This is the typical job of a voice teacher, which is to teach the student how to breathe correctly, how to support, and how to connect these two things, breath and support, with the voice. There are many different theories from different teachers. Some teachers I agree with, some teachers techniques I've heard of I think can actually hurt the singer. The technique I give to my students goes hand in hand with how the body really works, so when you get it right, it's easy! It's what the body wants! Next I immediately connect these technical aspects of singing with the acting. For example, the "need." The need is something very important in Susan Batson's work, and in my work. And the need is something you have when you're a little child. A need to be loved, a need to be seen, a need to be heard, a need to be somebody. There are all sorts of different needs, and the actor is to connect to the need sensation and sing and speak through that sensation. So this is again connecting the mind with the body, and it's very profound because something magical happens. It makes the voice sound even more delicious. This sound is something that I can't teach...It happens because you are speaking through the sensation of the body with the technical aspects of the mind, but they're both immediately connected. It's very, very powerful. And then it becomes universal. The audience is immediately drawn into the story and connected to the same need. The people in the audience are released. It's very powerful work.

E.S.: I believe you are going to come back to Italy in February. Have you scheduled other courses in Milano and Rome?
M.S.: Yes. End of February, March. And, as you know, I've just done my very first concert with big band in Milano, and I'm hoping to sing more concerts with orchestra, big band, different groups, yes! I am planning that.

E.S.: Then, of course, at the end of the course, there's the student showcase.
M.S.: Yes, the student showcase. I always perform at the student showcase as well because I want to have the students know that the work that I'm teaching is the work that I do too. And it's very important for me to show the students that they have this permission to take this step and have this courage. There's an intimacy in this work. I think is very special. It makes the performance more than just a pretty sound. It's human. It's humanity. My dream is to help each student live in their God given potential--to live in their potential as an artist, as a human being, and share this with the world. And our world needs this very much...to be healed...to be released...to be given hope. This can happen through the art of singing.

Related articles:

Ivan Lins at Blue Note in Milan: "His simplicity, naturalness and generosity are evident during his performances. You can feel he's with his audience all the time; he gives all he's got, and he does it having fun and involving Amuedo, the guitar-player with meaningful glances in order to establish performances and dynamics." (E. Simontacchi, N. Pazzaglia)


Interview with Ivan Lins: "When I start to write songs, well, I've never written songs for me, because I started to sing a little late in my career. Well, I started everything late. I started piano when I was 18, and then I started to write songs when I was at the University, and I never thought I was going to sing one day in my life. So when I was starting to write songs, I was imagining somebody singing them. And this kicks into my heart today." (Eva Simontacchi)


Pure Ecstasy (Eva Simontacchi)


Mary Setrakian & Avant Orchestra, When Broadway Encounters Jazz in Italy: "She has no microphone, but we hear her voice quite well, even though a whole big band is playing. She is singing and walking toward the stage in the isle between the rows of seats of the Teatro delle Erbe to reach the orchestra. She carries such a positive energy with her, and spreads it around to all the people in the audience." (Eva Simontacchi)


5 day course with Mary Setrakian: "...we all had to face the fact of "being naked" in our emotions, and this is something that may make somebody unsure, or raise some defences. But Mary supported each of us in our individual journies." (Eva Simontacchi)

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Publishing Date: 03/02/2007

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