Take Five with Donna Singer

Donna Singer BY

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About Donna Singer

Raised in the lush Catskills, Donna Singer graduated from the New York Academy of Theatrical Arts, then studied at The Juilliard School. Her far reaching career includes European concerts in Paris, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and Wales. She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera Guild Recital Hall in Lincoln Center, Central Park's Naumburg Bandshell and The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, where she now resides. She has played countless U.S. cities and the Nebraska International Jazz Festival, Bethany College Jazz Festival in Kansas and the Saratoga Arts Festival in New York.

A popular guest soloist in the U.S. and abroad, Singer performs often with the 18-piece Harmony Jazz Orchestra, the 80-member Gold Coast Concert Band and her own jazz quartet. She was lead vocalist in the Swing Shift Orchestra for 15 years.

No stranger to radio, her six recordings have ranked high on the CMJ jazz charts and enjoyed international airplay in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and Africa. From 1998-2004 she hosted the weekly gospel show, Down by the River on WJFF 90.5 FM radio in Sullivan County, NY.

She is a member of The National Guild of Piano Teachers: Teachers Division of American College of Musicians.


Piano, Voice.

Teachers and/or influences?

Sharon Cleaveau of the New York City Opera Company taught me opera, which turned out to be a perfect foundation for my jazz singing. She opened up a new genre for me and gave me a stronger sense of who I was and what I could become. She loved to smile and laugh, while very much getting on me when homework was lacking. I absolutely adored her. She died of cancer 2012 and I was honored to sing at her funeral.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I grew up in Upstate New York where me and my siblings were introduced to the world of jazz. We were raised in a family of jazz enthusiasts who listened to the music of great artists like Nancy Wilson "Guess Who I Saw Today," Billy Strayhorn, "Take the A Train" with Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, "Hey There," and Count Basie "April in Paris." The bug hit me early on. I was humming before I could talk, and my father told me I was singing full songs at age five. My twin sister Dawn and I were in a local gong show and took first place as a song and dance duo to "Rockin' Robin." That routine quickly became the highlight of every family event until forever...

Your sound and approach to music.

My sound and voice placement are important to me. While growing up I sang at the back of my throat. I learned about vowel placement and consonant reinforcement, which have become second nature. My approach to music is strong and consistent. Using the proper tools and my body, I have grown into a smart singer—meaning I'm still concerned about pitch in a song, but more about body placement. When the body is right the voice usually follows.

Your teaching approach to music

Dr. Donna's School of Song is my academy. I taught piano and voice and we also had a violin and guitar instructor. We had recitals twice a year and absolutely taught with a fun flare to children and adults. If it ain't fun, then what's the point? We learn our warm-ups and technique, not just standing correctly, but being correct at all times. That's the hardest part. Consistency. Training the body and the brain. Wow, no easy task.

In teaching beginner piano, my approach involves scales, scales, and more scales, contrary motion, parallel motion, flying over that keyboard faster and faster and then, bam, as slow as possible. I spend more time on warm ups and then the song second. Then there's theory. Make it fun and energetic. Why bother if you are bored? Why bother if they are bored. I'm serious, one mother said too bad, they are taking piano lessons and I said too bad I'm not your teacher. Simple as that. The piano is a gift and I taught the kids who understood that.

Your dream band

I love an 18-piece jazz orchestra. I love singing with a big band. Don't get me wrong, a trio or quartet is fine, but I sing in two 90 piece symphonic and concert bands and the power is overwhelming and fantastic. Knowing that the stage is commanded by you and yet not is humbling. They are following me, but in reality, I follow them. An 18-piece orchestra is flying high. Each section is so very important and we all are in it together in the same place, space and time.

My ideal quartet would feature a jazz trombonist. I work with William Fleck of New York, and he would be the bandleader. His improvisational skills are not just correct, but fun to listen to. You never know what melodic tones he's going to come up with next. It keeps them wanting more. Writing about my album Feeling the Jazz for BVS Reviews, Bruce E. Von Stiers praised Fleck's playing on a Gershwin tune:" Then there is a terrific, smile effecting rendition of the Gershwin tune, "S'Wonderful." There is an awesome

The next ideal member is Herbie Hancock on piano. Of course, his album The Piano is one of my favorites. Sheila E would be on drums (I was an actress/extra in her movie Krush Groove.) I stood next to Prince and was captivated by her electric smile. The bassist would be Doug Richards of Erskine Hawkins fame. "Tuxedo Junction" is one of my all-time favorite songs.

Road story: Your best or worst experience best:

The Doug Richardson Trio and I worked together for seven years, and my husband (pianist/composer Roy Singer from Kansas) joined us for eight more. Doug had Stage 4 liver cancer, and when we were at the Nebraska International Jazz Festival, he was in so much pain that we all were concerned because he wanted to do this performance so badly, I knew he might not make it. My tears were silent. Not only did he go forward, his solos were hit perfectly. Why is this my best? He was the best, as a friend and as a musician. Get up and do the job.

Bill and I were performing in Switzerland and one of our side shows was a performance at a nursing home. Bill and I started circling the room to "When the Saints go Marching In" and the residents started going around with us, some in wheelchairs, some with canes, some with a cookie, and most important, all with smiles. They loved the music and the fun and having a trombone following the pack. Isn't that the joy? Most did not know English, but all felt the power of the music.

In Italy, we all sat down for dinner and were treated to a beautiful green salad that was hand-picked from the adjoining field. I put a piece of lettuce in my mouth and it was horrible, I said "what is this?" The chef told us it was grass and tossed it away. Later, touring in France, we found we were just moments away from the Tour de France. That was thrilling.

Favorite venue

In NYC, Bar Thalia in Symphony Space. On Monday nights Mr. D'Ambrose Boyd has a singer's open mic. There is always a great, warm crowd and most definitely always great jazz. Singers and their songs were treated with respect.

In Upstate New York, The Center for Discovery, which is Designated as a Center of Excellence in New York State, they have become a magnet institution where individuals from around the region and world travel to receive highly advanced care and access to groundbreaking research for a myriad of complex conditions. They offer residential, medical, clinical, and special education programs to over 1,200 children, adults and families annually. For the past six years I have performed concerts there. The crowds are larger and larger and the fun gets bigger and better. The Center for Discovery is special and I'll perform there November 13, 2019 at 8:00 p.m. That same weekend I'm performing at Carnegie Hall on November 17.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

Feeling the Jazz (2018) My favorite song from that album is "Have You Ever Had the Feeling," written by Karen Macklin, my sister in law. Karen and Savani (her daughter) plays violin on the track.

Another close favorite would have to be Kiss Me Beneath The Mistletoe. My favorite song is the title track, written by my husband Roy Singer and lyricist Mitchell Uscher. The Luis Camacho duet with me on "Kiss Me Beneath the Mistletoe" was great. See the video: "Kiss Me Beneath the Mistletoe."

You see, I love Christmas! I have a huge tree, with lots of decorations, different flavored candy canes, cookies and, wait for it, my many black angels. I collect them and some I keep out all year round.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I contribute my professionalism and having a ball myself. With my audience, this is really important. I'm a little bit of a comedienne on stage. My favorite class at the New York Academy of Theatrical Arts was stand-up comedy, so I have to admit a smile breaks in here and there all the time.

Did you know...

Roy and I each earned a master's degree in theology from the Newburgh Bible Institute, Newburgh New York.

The first jazz album I bought was

Boy Meets Girl, studio album by Carmen McRae and Sammy Davis Jr. "They Didn't Believe Me" was my favorite song from that recording.

Music you are listening to now:

I'm listening to American gospel musician Alvin Martin Slaughter. I performed in two concerts with Alvin and he holds a special place in my heart. His Revive Us, Again! album rocks, the title song is gold.

I'm also enjoying Legion Of Peace: Songs Inspired by Nobel Laureates. It was recorded by Lori Henriques Quintet featuring Joey Alexander. The CD was sent to us by our good friend and producer Kabir Sehgal.

Sehgal served as a producer of American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom by the John Daversa Big Band, it won three Grammy Awards: Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella; and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. My favorite song/track is "Don't Fence Me In.""

I'm also listening to a Freddy Cole CD titled My Mood is You. It was Grammy nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That CD was given to me as a gift from the producer, Todd Barkan. His wife Ilene Glick and my husband Roy are friends from the early seventies. Todd is co-owner of the exciting new jazz club Keystone Korner in Baltimore. My favorite song on that album is Temptation.

Todd Barkan also produced Cedar Walton, Charmed Circle: Live At the Keystone Korner on HIGHNOTE Records. Roy and I went to see Cedar and Todd at Jazz at Lincoln Center Dizzy's Club. Great night...great album...best song for me is "Jacob's Ladder."

Desert Island picks:

Céline Dion Let's Talk About Love (Columbia/Epic Records) Arthur Rubinstein -Chopin 19 Nocturnes (Vol. 49)  (Columbia Records) Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Quartet (Verve Records) Ella and Louis (Verve Records) Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone) Thelonious Monk It´s Monk Time (Columbia Records)

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Jazz is a maturing American musical art form. It continues to mold and hold me with it's constant depth of feeling. Will the state of jazz continue to grow and go forth? Yes, because it's enduring and adapts to each new generation.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

I've thought about this question and feel the answer is our kids. We need to bring jazz to our younger generations. I have two school programs inspired for and by children.

The first project is a simple look at bullying, diversity and inclusion. In Jazz is the Key of Life, we talk about love and peace and use jazz to help get our message across.

The second project encourages a sense of self-trust, brotherhood and respect for all. In It's an Art to Follow Your Heart we discover that the heart is a mystical, magical, musical thing...a universal treasure! This program is designed with CD and coloring book created by Carole Belle.

What is in the near future?

New Jazz CD Release planned for November 2019 Carnegie Hall Christmas Show in November 2019 The Center for Discovery Jazz Concert in New York in November 2019

In June, one year from now, I'll be doing the Harmony Travel 2020 Scandinavia Tour (Musical Director Patsy Meiser). I'll be performing in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki and as well as St. Petersburg, Russia. New Jazz Christmas CD Release, Florida November 2020

What is your greatest fear when you perform?

I worry that my voice will fail me. In Italy I could not hear the quartet and, wow, I was scared to death. That's when training and rehearsal come in. Practice so you cannot get it wrong.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

I'd like to have "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow."

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower

I'm a very strong, good whistler!!! I love to whistle and some people actually get upset with me for whistling. I always whistle "Things Ain't What They Use to Be" and "Two O'clock Jump."

By Day:

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would like to be a mediator. Let's get along people!

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

It would be Maya Angelou. She said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them." Her quotes ring truth. I'd love to have time to talk with her.

What are your hobbies?

I love to work on scrapbooks to pass away the time. I have many photo albums but my favorite is of my son Christopher and his track career. He was fast and he was ranked #5 in Track and Field by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It puts a smile on my face, relaxes me and keeps me sane. I also do volunteer work, singing for community events and fundraisers for causes relating to cancer, homelessness, Parkinson's Disease, bullying, literacy and the Boys and Girls Club.

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