Barbara McAfee, 55, was a talented yet shy singer when she was young.
In choir in high school, she steered clear of solos and did her best to be invisible, which wasn’t so easy, considering her stature — she stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall. McAfee comes from a musical family, “so why I was so fearful, I don’t know,” she said.
It wasn’t until years later that McAfee embraced her voice, which is big and full.
Her roundabout path laid the groundwork for the singer/songwriter’s vocal coaching work. McAfee has found a niche teaching people how to come into their own voices — not for music, necessarily, but for work and life.
McAfee, a Minneapolis resident who previously worked as an organizational consultant, is leading a daylong workshop on the subject on Feb. 28 at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. It dovetails with her 2011 book, “Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence.”
McAfee has built up this expertise through many twists and turns in her career. Eventually, a pattern emerged: “I have been formed by the forces of music, love and death in my life,” she said. “A lot of what shifted my world was about making sounds.”
During college, where she studied technical theater, she set music aside. After she graduated, in the 1980s, she started singing again.
A friend, pianist Rick Carlson, invited her to sing a solo at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing, Minn. At the time, he was looking for a singer for his trio.
McAfee aspired to be a jazz singer for a while, but the work lacked the meaning she was looking for. She wanted her voice “to be of service to my fellow human beings and to add beauty to the world,” she said.
When she was 31, her father died in her arms at home. It was then that “something opened up inside of me,” she said. She took voice lessons, which became more like therapy sessions because “I cried every time I opened my mouth,” she said.
McAfee, who’d always written poetry, also crafted original songs.
A neighbor gave her a piano that brought about “a whole other set of reclamations. Death and resurrection over and over again,” she said.
A workshop at the Roy Hart Centre in southern France clicked for her. It “opened this door to the sound of the voice, beyond singing and speaking, the raw materials,” McAfee said.
The training was very physical, with dance warm-ups. It was a life-changing experience. “I fell in love with that work. It was intense, emotional and fun,” McAfee said.
That shaped her approach to singing and vocal coaching, and it has made for an interesting career. Over the past 25 years, she’s put out seven CDs that feature her original songs, which range from dreamy (“Breathing Trees”) to irreverent (“Brain Rats”). “Holy Cold” pays homage to the Minnesota winter.
Right now, McAfee is noticing a shift in her creative process. “Before, it used to be out of fire and drive. It’s changing. … I have a feeling the songs are coming out of a different place, a quieter place,” she said.
Also, she leads a couple of singing groups. She founded the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. The music “helps [people] to endure the unendurable and express the inevitable, the beauty and pain of being live and mortal.”
“It turns out, it has become my spiritual home … it’s strangely joyful,” she said.
She also directs a community singing group that meets at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, which is open to anyone. Its next session is planned for March 1.
Singing in unison is an “essential way of being together,” McAfee said. “People don’t do it anymore.”
McAfee’s vocal coaching presents a unique way to link voice to everyday life. In her workshops, which involve singing exercises, McAfee offers lessons on how people can more effectively use their voices to communicate. She introduces people to the so-called five elements of singing. Each element — earth, fire, wind, water and metal — “has a color in your voice.”
She’s found that while many people think they’re tone-deaf or “horrible singers,” they’re usually not, she said. The activities are about opening up one’s vocal range, she said.
By learning about the choices that they have, vocally, people “can be smarter about how they say what they say. So often we’re just blathering away without a sense of how we say what we say.”
Sometimes the tone wins out over content. “We’ve all received the ‘sorry’ that doesn’t sound sorry,” she said. The idea is to be more deliberate about how to convey a message, she said, adding, “It changes how you listen. You’re not just listening to words. You’re becoming wise about what other people’s voices say about them.”
She sees a wide variety of people in her workshops and training sessions. Some are just starting their careers, while others are making a change or are looking to “say something they need to say before they die.”
One client who described herself as hot-tempered told McAfee that she no longer needed to express her “fire” through her voice. It came out in other ways, she said.
Whether she’s working with people one-on-one or in groups, “I’m a midwife for people’s voices individually,” McAfee said. “It isn’t my voice. It isn’t my baby.”
Benefit from a better sound
Roseville resident Mary Kay Ziniewicz, who is behind the marketing firm Horse’s Mouth Creative, has always struggled with public speaking.
“My voice is weak, making it really hard to hear me at the boardroom table,” she said. When anxiety strikes, “It’s hard to hear anything but my heart pounding. I used to leave meetings frustrated, wishing I was able to speak up.”
She sought out McAfee’s help at the suggestion of others. That might seem counterintuitive, since, “I do not sing. In fact, my entire life, I was told that I have a tin ear,” Ziniewicz said.
McAfee “fearlessly demonstrated how to reach a deeper voice,” she said.
Since then, Ziniewicz has learned to leverage her voice. She’s more confident. She runs meetings with ease and is able to contribute more to the discussions.
Another McAfee client, Dave Klun, a carpenter who lives in Woodbury, said his booming voice intimidated people, which hindered him at work.
McAfee helped him find a vocal range. “It was an awakening for me,” he said. Before, “I just thought I had this one loud voice. Even Barbara was like, ‘You have a lot of air in those lungs.’ ”
He didn’t realize how much control he had over his voice. “Sometimes I think people can’t hear me. I think if I talk louder, they’ll ‘get it,’ ” Klun said.
They went through various singing exercises, but it wasn’t about trying to become the next Pavarotti. It was about changing tone. “It’s not one-voice-fits-all,” he said.
After he worked with McAfee, “People said, ‘Wow, it’s really different,’ ” Klun said. “ ‘Your voice is calmer.’ ” Even his family took note.
Since then, he’s even dabbled in choir and theater. “I’m trying to get to a better level, be happier with myself, and the results speak for themselves,” Klun said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.