One Small Voice: Irene Jansen

Published on 11 April 2016

Anyone can be coached to sing, including at-risk youths and persons with disabilities, says vocal trainer Irene Jansen.

INTERVIEW BY PAMELA HO

I train non-singers, people who don’t think they can sing. It’s very fulfilling to be able to take them from where they are to where they don’t think they can be. To me, vocal coaching is firstly about vocal techniques — like how to project your voice or get your tone right — and secondly, about how to bring out a song. As long as you can sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ in tune, there’s a way to take you to another level. I always tell my students, they must believe.

My youngest student is seven, my oldest is 80 — my father who sings with the Gems choir at Dover Hospice! Besides working with theatre companies like W!ld Rice for their year-end pantomime, I started a show choir at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in 2009, and coach students with intellectual disabilities at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) and Delta Senior School, which is run by the Association for Persons with Special Needs.

Most people assume that the intellectually-disabled can’t be coached to sing, but you’d be surprised. When I first started working with the students, you couldn’t decipher any tune. What I did was to pull out the better singers and work with them to match my voice. Then I paired them with the other singers. I think being paired with a good singer stimulates the ear because they do get better!

As some can’t manage the speed of a song, I break it down into chunks of three lines; we repeat each three lines slowly first, then gradually increase the speed. It’s all about patience. If you don’t have the patience to teach, vocal coaching is not for you.

With at-risk youths, they come with their own sets of issues. Everyone has a story. They may have problems at home, but when they come to the rehearsal space, they are happy. I treat them as family and teach them how to share the love. So when they go up on stage, it’s very powerful because they just want to be real and to tell their story — nothing more, nothing less.

In my show choir, there’s a teenage girl with Asperger’s who was always seeking attention. I had a word with the choir and told them I needed their help to make her feel comfortable, but not to spoil her. With their support, she now shines! I’ve also worked with another girl from Pathlight School (for children with autism) for about four years, and she’s transformed from a screamer to a singer, to writing songs, to playing the guitar and singing her own songs!

Singing has a therapeutic effect. I once had a boy who didn’t speak at home, he was always quiet. Because of singing, he opened up and now he can talk about anything! I believe if you can hit the high note bravely, somehow it sets you free; in other areas of your life too.

To be a vocal coach, you must want to bring out the best in a person. I had a vocal teacher once who scared me so much I forgot my lines on stage! That’s when I vowed to always help my students find the beauty in their voice and within themselves. It can be life-changing for them.

IRENE JANSEN is a singer, vocal coach, music director and chef. She is the resident vocal instructor of the ITE Show Choir, and founder/director of education and talent management agency, One Heart One Voice. She coaches actors from theatre companies to students with intellectual disabilities. As a chef, Jansen helms Culinary Adventures, is a published cookbook author, and has her own cooking programme — On the Go! on the Asian Food Channel. To marry her twin loves, she staged The Singing Chef, a cooking musical show that has enjoyed three installments at the Esplanade —Theatres on the Bay.

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