Contact Kathryn at: kathrynspira60@gmail.com

Scat Singing Then and Now

I was fascinated recently watching the talented 16-year-old Canadian prodigy Nikki Yanofsky on a PBS-TV concert special from Montreal. It got me thinking about my own singing background and my vocal coach at Indiana University, the great Eileen Farrell.

When I first arrived at Indiana University in 1978, I was slated to train with an opera teacher--much to my dismay. As I walked along the halls mulling my fate in the school’s music department I was facing a floor-to-ceiling poster on a door that stated “Opera sucks!” I was so enamored with the sign that I knocked on the door and noticed at that time there was a smaller sign that said, “Eileen Farrell.”

Yup, you guessed it. She was to be my opera voice coach. And here’s what I learned about her in talking to her. I was amazed that she was actually in and invited me in as well. I immediately asked what was up with the sign if she was an opera voice coach. She very simply said, “The sign says it all. Been there done that.”

Even though she had recorded several successful opera albums, her first love was singing blues and jazz. And she had a special gift with scat singing, where the singer makes up nonsensical words and sounds to go with the music.

When Nikki Yanofsky started singing “Sunny Side of the Street” with scat included, I immediately thought of the times I sang that song with Farrell and she broke in with “Bop, doodle-iddle bop, wat,” which definitely wasn’t part of the written lyrics or arrangement.

When I saw Yanofsky, she had full orchestra and back-up singers, and I was struck with the fact that she broke into scat singing like an old pro with musicians around her two to three times her age. And then she broke into a very age appropriate, girlish “Thank you! Thank you so much!” and then introduced her next song. Nikki had her first PBS experience on the show “From the Top” at the tender age of 12 when she was discovered by the great Marvin Hamlisch on piano.

Needless to say, I bought CDs of both Nikki and Eileen’s work on-line. Nikki’s self-titled album to keep up with the new generation of the kind of music I love, and Eileen’s blues album to remember my own time with her. I sadly learned she passed away in 2002. She recorded opera albums as well, but I must say I agreed with her poster outside her office at IU.

Nikki Yanofsky will be at Troy Music Hall this October 29, and I encourage you to see this great new talent.

About Kathryn Spira

Kathryn Spira, a native of Cleveland, OH who pursued an acting career in NYC and Los Angeles, now pursues freelance writing from Caroga Lake in Fulton County, New York. Previous columns may be accessed at her web site www.kathrynskorner.com.