Achieving excellence: The voice coach

In our continuing series about everyday people mastering their craft, this coach helps others find their voices.

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“Vocal empowerment coach” Ariella Forstein works out of her home in south Minneapolis. Here she guided singer Pamela Machala through a warmup.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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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.

Audibly authentic

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.”

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    Learn about everyday Minnesotans who exhibit mastery -- the combination of knowledge, skill, experience and understanding that offers a deep command of a topic or activity.

  • Ariella Forstein, a vocal empowerment coach, took notes as she listened to singer/songwriter Pamela Machala during their recent session in Minneapolis.

  • Ariella Forstein, a vocal empowerment coach, talked with singer/song writer Pamela Machala about what she wanted to work on during their session in Minneapolis Min., wednesday, June 19, 2013. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com

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