Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 7, 2014

A life of song

Vocal coach's latest love is barbershop harmony

by Katie Lyness

Pleasanton vocal coach Jeannette Smith did not discover singing -- she was born into it. Growing up, she loved to play the piano and sing, as did her two older sisters. The girls would often make up three-part harmonies to musicals and songs they heard on the radio, while their parents founded a musical theater production company.

"When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I started a rock band that produced all original music. I wrote the music, played the keyboards and sang lead vocals," Smith recalls on her website. "I was also very active in community musical theater, not only playing lead roles but also as hired pianist, musical director and/or vocal director."

Graduating from high school in Palo Alto, she attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, earning a bachelor of music in vocal performance. She then worked as a vocal coach, starting on the Peninsula, where she lived before moving to Pleasanton in 2006.

At first, Smith travelled to her students' homes for lessons, taught music in the public and private schools, and was an instructor for the well-known San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Once settled in Pleasanton, she created JS Vocal Studio, which she runs out of her home, training more than 50 students of all ages. She also teaches piano, though mostly considers herself a vocal coach.

Smith said her number of students has grown very quickly, and there is even a waiting list. They range from young children to retirement-aged adults seeking a challenge.

Many of her students from Amador Valley and Foothill high schools are interested in musical theater, and she also works with middle-schoolers from Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon and Danville. Her adult students range from worship leaders at churches to chorus members, musical theater performers and hobbyists. Several sing in barbershop quartets that perform all over the Bay Area.

Smith herself recently developed an interest in barbershop-style music after she met two women looking to form a competitive quartet to be part of Sweet Adelines International, a worldwide organization of women singers who sing a capella in the barbershop style, with tight, four-part harmony. Their quartet Craze! recently performed with the California Pops Orchestra.

This April, Craze! will compete in Reno against women from throughout Region 12, which spans Northern California, Northern Nevada, Southern Oregon, and Hawaii. First-place winners go on to compete internationally.

Smith said she not only enjoys the barbershop style but it provides a supportive and affordable way to learn musicianship skills and a healthy vocal technique. This prompted her to organize an a cappella group, the Stilettones, for women in Pleasanton.

In September, she invited some singers to join and held auditions for additional members. She still is looking for all voice types "from really low to really high."

"They need to be able to sing in tune, be able to hold a harmony line, and be available once a week, on Thursday nights," she explained, adding that they do not need to know how to read music.

Smith has been fortunate the core group is talented, competent singers, she noted. The 15 Stilettones currently practice in a home, but she said they will move to a larger location when the group exceeds 18.

So far, they have performed an arrangement of "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas at Centerpointe Presbyterian Church in Pleasanton, as part of Smith's studio recital. The women also did a holiday show at Harvest Valley Church, singing traditional Christmas favorites arranged in barbershop style.

Smith is preparing arrangements for the group to get "show-ready" for competitions with songs from the classic tunes of the '30s and '40s to present day pop songs.

"You can basically compete doing any song you want, as long as there's a good arrangement that meets the Sweet Adelines criteria," she said.

Her goal is to keep the Stilettones growing in number until they can form a chapter of Sweet Adeline's International, and she is hoping they will be eligible to compete in regional competition in 2015.

Smith encourages anyone interested in singing to do so.

"Get into lessons," she advises beginners. "Find a group. Practice. Get involved. Even if you have had little or no experience in singing, don't let that stop you, especially if the desire is there."

Anyone interested in voice lessons or auditioning to become a Stilettone, can contact Smith at sing4me@jsvocalstudio.com.

--Katie Lyness is a youth correspondent for the Pleasanton Weekly. She is a junior at Amador Valley High School.

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