Cultivating the city’s voices


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Barbara Gustern on coaching Diamanda Galas, Debbie Harry, Taylor Mac and others


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  • Barbara Maier Gustern. Photo: Albie Mitchell



Barbara Maier Gustern said it feels like she came out of the womb singing.

As a youngster growing up in Boonville, Indiana, she would entertain her family by standing on a chair and belting out tunes. At 21, she moved to New York to get her master’s in psychology at Columbia University, but ultimately decided to pursue her vocal artistry. At 40, she sensed she had hit an impasse professionally and at the suggestion of a stranger at a party, went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, gave her first trial lesson and was hired.

Over the years, she has taught the likes of Debbie Harry, Justin Bond and Taylor Mac. Now 82, she still coaches in her apartment every weekday, with her first lesson at 10 in the morning and her last at 7:30 at night. She also teaches on the occasional Saturday.

This year, with the help of her students, she hosted two benefits in honor of her late husband, Joe Gustern, who passed away in April. It was through one of her first jobs in New York that led her to meet Gustern, known for his more than eight-year stint in “Phantom of the Opera.”

The 82-year-old is currently putting her expertise to paper, writing a book about vocal technique. When asked about her future plans, she said, “I’m going to teach until one day I am at the piano and my head drops down and that’s that. And I want to dance on the table again at Joe’s Pub.”

In high school you were in a jazz group, replacing Florence Henderson.

Yes, in Tell City, Indiana. It was a little bit bigger than Boonville, but not much. When I was in high school, I got hired to sing on Saturday nights with this jazz group in one of those fraternal organizations, I don’t remember if it was the American Legion of the Elks. The band leader would come to my house with his wife and pick me up and bring me back, so that was OK with my parents. I got paid and sang standards mostly. I took the job after Florence Henderson had left to come to New York. As a matter of fact, I followed two people in jobs. That was the first one, and when I was here, Madeline Kahn was singing out on Long Island at a German place on Sunrise Highway. And I had known her because we were in an opera workshop together, and she was gonna quit because things were starting to happen for her. So she said, “Do you want to take this job?” And I said, “Sure.”

You met your husband through singing at a synagogue.

Yes, I got a job singing in Adath Israel up in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse. And I had never been in a synagogue in my life; I lied and got the job. A lot of the stuff wasn’t even written down, and somehow it was just as though I knew it. I mean I just took to it. My husband was substituting one morning for the bass and offered to take me home and I said, “No, the tenor always drives me home.” But then he called me that afternoon and asked me out. It turned out the next afternoon, we were singing at the same church out in Brooklyn. We went out after that and the rest is history.

How did you transition from singing to teaching?

I hit a stumbling block when I was about 40 I guess. I wasn’t getting hired for leading ladies or ingénues. I was losing my mind and didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to do something; I was very unhappy. And coincidentally, one time at a party, I was talking to a woman I didn’t know, and this all came out and she said, “Why don’t you teach? American Musical and Dramatic Academy is always looking for good teachers.” Well, I never taught, but went over there and fed them my line and they said, “You have to do a trial lesson.” So I taught one, the first in my life, actually. They didn’t know that. And they hired me. And I found out I absolutely loved it and have been totally dedicated ever since.

You’ve been working with Diamanda Galas since the early ‘80s. Explain how that partnership came about.

I was out last night in that storm to go to Brooklyn to hear her, and she’s the most incredible talent you ever saw in your life. In the early ‘80s, a friend of mine out in California said, “Diamanda Galas is coming to New York and she’s a friend of mine and I told her to look you up.” She called me and she was going to do a performance at one of the big Lincoln Center halls. And she came to see me and sang. And I told her she needed to see a doctor because she was hoarse. And she went to the doctor and got what she needed and started working with me. She’s totally unique. She does extended vocal technique, sings more than one note at a time. And is the most powerful pianist you ever heard.

It was through Diamanda that you started teaching Debbie Harry.

Debbie was a fan of hers and she asked if she could come to a lesson. So Diamanda said, “Do you mind if Debbie Harry comes?” And I said, “I don’t care who comes. Anybody.” So Debbie showed up one day and she was like a little girl and asked, “Do you mind if I sit and listen?” And after the lesson was over, she said, “Do you think you might have time for me?” And I said, “Are you kidding me? Of course I have time for you.” She was a wonderful student. She studied very diligently. She started in about 1999 when the band [Blondie] was getting back together and was going to tour. And she introduced me to Justin Bond and he started working with me. And then for the longest time, I knew Taylor Mac and we always met each other at events and then he called me and said, “It’s time, Barbara, because I’m doing this 24-hour thing and have to prepare.” I worked with him for four years on that, getting him ready to sing for 24 hours.

You give the lessons in your apartment. Explain how you make that work.

Well, my neighbors aren’t terribly happy listening to the vocalizing, so I have a keyboard in the bedroom, because you can’t really hear that much from there. So I put it on my bed and we do the vocalizing there and then I have a baby grand piano in the living room. To sing the songs, we come out to the living room, because they’re happy to hear the songs; they just don’t want to hear the vocalizing.

Explain why Joe’s Pub is so important to you and your students.

My daughter died in November of 2003, and that March, I did a benefit there in her memory. And I had been going there, because a lot of my students sang there, and I loved it. And Bill Bragin ran it at the time and I asked him if I could do this benefit and they were so wonderful to me. It’s a beautiful room and they’re very professional and welcoming. All of the downtown acts love to be there. And now it’s run by Shanta Thake, who coincidentally grew up about 30 miles from my hometown, so I have that connection with her.


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