My mom told me that, in addition to being born with cross country skis on my feet, I came out singing. At the age of two, barely walking and talking, I staggered up on stage where my dad was performing and demanded to sing a song. He stared at me for a moment, uncertain what might come of such an unexpected proposal. At the time, he had no idea if I was able to remember the words to a whole song, much less perform one to a large audience. But he lifted me up on the piano and asked what song I wanted to sing. “Ba, Ba, Little Lamb,” I said and immediately turned my undivided attention on the audience in front of me. Much to his surprise, after he played a little introduction, I delivered the song with such determination, precision and gusto that everyone was convinced this was preplanned and well rehearsed. One thing lead to another and, before I could count to three (literally), I had become the youngest musical theater movie star and jazz singer in existence.
My initial vocal training consisted mainly of standing at the farthest end of the orchard that made up the garden of my childhood existence, speaking and singing lines to my dad, who was standing at the top of the stairs, screaming on top of his lungs, “Louder! Louder! I need to hear you at the farthest row of the theater.” We didn’t use microphones back then, unless we were on TV, at a stadium or in a big concert hall, so loudness, projection and enunciation were important elements to consider. Dad, a legendary jazz entertainer, movie star and my stage partner for nearly two decades, taught me to perform with great strength and enthusiasm, as well as the art of comedic timing, bebop and scatting.
Naturally, growing up in such a highly vocal and competitive family added plenty of contrast to the more shy and sensitive sides to my personality, and it has taken many great life adventures to find balance between the two.
How I learned to open my heart and sing with greater passion
One of my most precious teachers and mentors in the art of vocal expression came into my life at eighteen. Anne Wiggins Brown was her name. She was the original Bess in Porgy and Bess, handpicked by George Gershwin himself. After nearly two decades of touring the world as one of the most celebrated opera singers of her time, she fell in love with a Norwegian and began teaching her unique methods to young and upcoming divas such as Liv Ullman, Karin Krog, Elisabeth Nordberg-Schulz and myself. Under Anne’s wings, I learned to open my heart and sing with greater passion and vulnerability than I ever imagined possible.
During this time, I had a bicycle accident that sent me flying into the light and back into a body that had been maimed and mangled to unrecognizable proportions, not to mention the glorious attributes that naturally follows when the brain gets thoroughly shaken. This put an immediate stop to my career as a musical theater actress and also my childhood dream to pursue a profession as a medical doctor. Anne Brown loved, supported and empowered me through this time with great patience, fierce determination and a relentless belief in my musical talent and vocal abilities. She insisted I practice at least three hours a day so that I could pass the entrance exam at Julliard with flying colors. She also refused to let me wallow in any kind of self pity or treat me as anything but what she envisioned to be my fullest potential . So, I practiced at least three hours a day, and I swear both my mental and physical recovery sped up amazingly as a result.
By the time I had mustered enough courage to break the umbilical cord to my immensely supportive, but controlling parents, and as my love for the more rebellious forms of music took precedence, in spite of wild protests from my opera loving mentor, I decided to bail on Julliard and instead embrace California and The Dick Grove School of Music with all my heart. The sudden disappearance of my dearest friend and soul sister Stefanie Stroh, and subsequent life changing adventure into serial killer territory that followed also played a major role in my decision making. Stefanie, originally from San Francisco, was last seen walking toward highway eighty in Winnemucca, Nevada. She was on the last leg of a journey that had taken her on a year long vision quest around the world and was expected home the next day. I figured going to music school in California would help serve my two main goals: To continue the search for Stefanie and to record an album to get her name and face widely distributed.
At Grove I was told to loosen up. “My God, you’re a machine,” they would say. “Your vocal delivery is flawless, but it’s like you’re not human, so we’re bored to tears.” I had spent so many years building my strength and perfecting my delivery, like a good little entertainment soldier, but was missing the most important element of all: I was lacking the ability to relate to and therefore communicate effectively with others. Growing up as a child star does nothing, I repeat, nothing, to develop healthy relationships with people your own age. And, the irony of it all is that relationship building is the main key to being a successful communicator.
My dad was an amazing communicator, which is what made him such a tremendously successful performer. He also had a semi-normal childhood. Well, normal for growing up during world war two and having his dad go to jail for printing an illegal anti-Hitler newsletter and refusing to send his sons to work for the Nazis. But, as amazing as he was in the art of communication and as well meaning as he was in his desire to allow and nurture my vocal expression and performance, I missed out on some of the development that had made him so great. Development that you only get from playing with kids your own age, and from forming bonds with those kids. I think parents, in their desire to bring out the best in you, sometimes forget that the best in you can only come when you’re allowed to make mistakes, a bunch of them, in relationship to other kids.
The benefit of making lots and lots of mistakes
Mike Campbell was the head of the Vocal Department at Grove. “Your job,” he said. “Your job at this school, as long as you are in my classes, is to make mistakes. The more the better.” I just stared at him in disbelief. “What on earth do you mean?” I asked. “Did you know,” he said, ” that when Whitney Houston records an album, the producer has her sing the song twenty five times, and then he puts together the worst takes he can find, so that she actually sounds like a human being.” I didn’t know if he was telling the truth about Whitney Houston, but I got the drift. And, slowly but surely, Grove School of Music, psychotherapy and the fact that I was living six thousand miles away from my motherland of great expectations allowed me, for the first time in my life, to make lots and lots of mistakes in community with kids my own age.
Then there was Sue Raney, Hall of Fame jazz singer, multiple Grammy award winner, divinely heartwarming and amazing Sue Raney. First time I saw her in concert, she had me crying after three notes. Her arm stretched out in solidarity, her heart beating in rhythm with every single heart in the room, her voice soft as a whisper, she was vulnerable, open. I was awestruck. Here was a singer who was both amazingly professional and totally vulnerable at the same time, with a voice that seemed to carry every single nuance of human emotion. Not just her voice, her entire being was singing, and I wanted to learn that! With the same generous and loving spirit as Anne Brown and Mike Campbell, Sue took me under her wing and taught me the art of heart communication through jazz performance. I swear I can see her smiling at me every single time I sing “The Shadow of Your Smile” or “Emily”, which she made famous.
Seth Riggs, vocal guru to more than one hundred Grammy award winners, including Annie Lennox, Madonna and Michael Jackson, taught me to connect my bridges and master the art of belting like Aretha Franklin. He was a big bear of a man, with a heart of gold (do you see a theme here?) and a great desire to empower his students to powerfully freeing their voices. Seth inspired me to reach for the highest level of excellence in my vocal performance, to practice like my life depended on it and to begin teaching others what I had learned so far.
Long story short, after graduation, I released my first album, entitled Compassion, with Stefanie’s picture on it, moved back to Norway and began to teach Vocal Freedom. As Compassion made its way up the charts, I made my way onto various TV shows about empowering women and children to their freedom of expression. It was a dream come true. The opportunity to continue the journey of my childhood adventure and at the same time have the uninhibited freedom of my emotions and convictions at my disposal seemed nothing less than a miracle to me. A miracle made possible by the amazing hearts of my mentors and of my ability and willingness to receive their gifts.
Needless to say, there’s more to this story than meets the eye in the moment, so stay tuned…
Musically and imperfectly yours!
Love and Blessings, Caroline