A sign in the yard of a modest south Minneapolis duplex advertises music lessons, but it doesn't really explain all that Ariella Forstein does. It couldn't.
"I'm a vocal empowerment coach," said Forstein, 32. "I help people with the technique of their voice, but also help them move through emotional and mental blocks about their fear and anxiety of sharing their voice with the world."
Forstein works with singers, public speakers, sports play-by-play announcers, business executives — anyone, really — who wants to express themselves more confidently. She says she can work her magic on shy, tone-deaf and shrill-sounding voices.
"Anyone who's willing to do the work can learn to sing or speak with confidence," she said. "Look at Macy Gray and Bryan Adams. Maybe growing up they were teased or thought they had ugly voices. They've made millions thanks to those voices."
There are no shortcuts to getting there, however, and Forstein's clients have found themselves at the mercy of some of the same unorthodox exercises that a speech therapist used to help King George VI overcome his stammer in the movie "The King's Speech."
Students lie on their backs on the floor of her home-based music room. Instead of sitting on them like in the movie, Forstein stacks books on their chests. Students shake their bodies and walk around the room while vocalizing; they draw pictures of what they think their voices look like on a 12-foot-tall chalkboard; and they "sing colors."
Such techniques are often met with disbelieving looks of: "You want me to do what?"
"When I worked in Los Angeles, I was normal," Forstein said. "In Minnesota, I'm weird."
But there's a purpose behind it all. Even the stack of books.
While attending grade school in Robbinsdale, Forstein imagined herself as a famous singer, but her lack of confidence got in the way. She sang in the school choir, and at temple. After studying detailed Hebrew music for her bat mitzvah, Forstein sang her first solo. By ninth grade, the determined but still extremely shy teenager signed up for her first singing competition.
"I shook like a leaf and stared at the ground while I sang," Forstein recalled.
After graduating from Ohio State University's School of Music, Forstein fled for the lights of Hollywood, hoping to make it big. In many ways, she did.
She sang in touring bands, provided vocals and percussion for films, TV shows and albums, and performed on any stage she could — even breaking into song in empty parking ramps. She also gave singing lessons and launched her vocal coaching business, the Ariella Approach, teaching Hebrew all the while to help pay the bills.
After 8½ years in Los Angeles, Forstein had an epiphany.
"I coached all sorts of people — celebrities, public speakers, even housewives," she said. "I knew I wasn't just a voice coach when, during warm-ups, some of them would start crying. Then I'd have to act like a life coach, too, so I started using the term 'vocal empowerment coach.' "
As it turned out, Los Angeles wasn't the best place to teach people to find their most authentic selves and voices. "No matter how well I was doing financially, it never seemed good enough," she said. "I came back to Minnesota for a simpler life."
Permission for imperfection
Forstein went from paying an assistant in Los Angeles to keep track of her busy schedule to practicing yoga, taking long walks and growing vegetables in a narrow plot at her rented Minneapolis apartment. She's taking a break from performing for the next year to build her business in Minnesota, and things are off to a good start. Her clients include Minnesota Twins radio broadcaster Cory Provus.
On a recent afternoon, Forstein worked with local singer/songwriter Pamela Machala. After a warm-up in which Forstein asks her student to imitate a "bluesy Aretha Franklin," Machala positions herself at the piano to play a new song she's been working on. The one about her dad.
Forstein listens intently as the music pours from Machala's lips.
"I'm gonna stop you," Forstein interrupted. "Take a deep breath, plant your feet on the ground and start with intention about what this song is about."
Forstein is trying to get her student to feel — not just sing — the words.
"Own the feeling you have for your dad," she urges. "Give yourself permission to not be perfect and then whatever you do will sound great."
Here's what Forstein has to say about mastering a craft, going for what you really want and the vulnerability we all share.
Q What do you think mastery means?
A "I've heard that one truly masters a subject when they teach it. This makes sense to me, as the process of teaching has enabled me to truly see what works for myself and for others. However, this definition of mastery feels only partly true. Of course, my diva self wants to say, 'Of course I have mastered my craft!' But developing true mastery has no end. There is always more to learn."
Q Are there sacrifices in your job?
A "I don't feel I've made any sacrifices, though I've experienced a learning curve. While most of my friends were working steady, well-paying jobs in their 20s, I was out performing and working side jobs to pay the rent. It was constantly unpredictable, but all for the dream. After some touring and performing success, I wanted to help others have the same. Starting a business is not a sacrifice, but instead, a deep practice in risk-taking, faith in self and trust in my actions."
Q Does everyone, regardless of their experience and skill, get nervous when speaking or singing?
A "Yes. The voice is one of the most vulnerable parts of us. It's like we're naked. Everyone has something they're self-conscious about."
Q What's your ultimate goal?
A "To help as many people as possible feel comfortable with their voices, and most important, with themselves. Everyone spends so much time worrying about what others think. We forget to just be ourselves. My other goal is to continue to perform powerful music that makes the world a better place."