I was reminded again last night, Thanksgiving at my home, why I wanted to write this column about Bob Miner, voice teacher, musician, actor and my good buddy. The ten of us were doing sing-alongs during a pause between turkey and pecan pie.
“Harmonica Bob”—it’s his trade-marked name from an earlier career as a children’s entertainer—was shooting out beams of sparkling light and encouragement to my partner as he accompanied her on the guitar while guiding her through a solo on “A Simple Gift.”
Moments later, he was publicly gifting a gifted 11-year-old ukulele player with an eyeball-to-eyeball reflection of just how much promise the kid has as a musician. “You’re the real deal,” he said.
That’s when I piped in, mock-complaining that he’d never given me—I’m a guy who’s as likely to hit a musical note as a 100 mph pitched fastball—that sort of praise as a vocalist.
Ignoring my attempt at self-deprecating humor, Bob gathered in my full attention with a flick of a gleaming eye. In a tone both clear and raindrop gentle, he lifted me up with, “Your gifts are in other areas.”
It was meant as a compliment, of course, not a statement that I was hopeless. He wouldn’t even hint at such a thing. Actually, it’s Bob’s fervent belief, based by decades of success with vocal students, both amateurs and pros, that he can help any committed student achieve his or her goals. Even me. (And I may take him up on that someday.)
In fact, for the first time in a few years, Bob, who has never stopped giving private lessons, will begin offering his “Vocal Freedom” workshops and seminars in a month or so.
The goal, he says, is to “teach people how to release their natural voice and use it to achieve their own ends. “Some of my clients come in because they’re working on their next CD or a new show, and others because they wish they could stand up in church and sing with everyone else.”
What’s key, he says, isn’t necessarily achieving a so-called “beautiful” sound, but being able to release the inherent power, honesty and unselfconscious vocal quality in a student’s voice, a sound as compelling as a baby’s cry.
“Releasing the voice has nothing to do with singing and everything to do with singing.” It’s about freeing the vocal instrument to function easily throughout its range.
“The real work in voice is about allowing passion to flow honestly in your song,” Bob says. “That doesn’t mean every song has to be overwhelmingly passionate; it’s about committing completely to whatever emotion is real in the moment.”
While mastering the vocal instrument is important, says Bob, a core element of his program is to “help people have the confidence, and have fun when they stand in front of others to sing or speak.
“All of us are acculturated to be afraid to express ourselves in front of others,” says Bob. “The number one fear people have is public humiliation. And the greatest reward for humans is to achieve a sense of connection with themselves and others.
“Confidence is a core element of vocal freedom,” Bob says.
When he talks about these seminars, it’s more than merely a teacher previewing a class; to my ear, Bob might as well be Charlton Heston, intoning with the conviction of Moses at Mount Sinai.
Why, I ask him, “do you care so much about teaching voice?”
“Because,” he replies, “the art, this art, enriches my life.”
That’s when Bob’s partner and manager Peggy Smith urges him to share a story that addresses his more practical motivation.
“It was 1969 and I was playing in a blues band in New York,” Bob recalls. The band was on a small tour through the Catskills and New England when it ran into financial trouble. There wasn’t enough money to go around. Someone had to go. The drummer in the band did vocals, and so did the guitar and bass players. Bob only played harmonica. “I got jettisoned,” he says.
Back home in New Jersey, “feeling hurt and licking my wounds,” Bob was moved to remedy that situation. Returning to his hometown of El Paso, Texas, Bob began taking voice lessons and eventually enrolled as a Vocal Performance major at the University of Texas at El Paso.
At that point in the interview Peggy reminds me of Bob’s powerful performance as Southern aristocrat Edward Rutledge last summer in the Camelot Theatre Company’s production of “1776,” particularly his show-stopping rendition of “Molasses to Rum.”
“And this,” says Peggy, “is the same guy who got fired because he couldn’t sing. Basically, the message is, ‘If Bob could do it, anybody can do it.’”
Bob has another gift I became aware of during rehearsals for his performance as a Jewish immigrant in “Rags,” a musical also staged at Camelot a few years ago. When he asked me to check out his Yiddish accent for authenticity, I was surprised how good it already was. Then, when he proceeded to demonstrate a darn good Jersey, Italian, Irish and Hispanic accents, one after the other, I was floored. And wondered where he’d picked them up.
As a Texas twenty-something with a new bride and a baby soon to be born, Bob arrived on the outskirts of NYC desperate for a day job to supplement what he might make as a musician. First there was duty as a day laborer in a car wash. Then there was a one-day hellish-heat-of-summer stint assisting a maniacal forklift operator in the Remco Toy Factory. Already paralyzed with fear, Bob quit before his first Friday there; his boss had bragged how much fun it would be when everyone was driving around the factory drunk.
Finally and fortuitously, Bob hired on with a company that marketed magazine subscriptions (with a bonus 7-inch-thick Webster’s Dictionary thrown in). He was trained by “two Jews, a Greek guy and a black guy and they changed my life.” One neighborhood at a time, block to block, door-to-door, he worked shops and retail businesses in the New York metro area.
Having grown up just across the border from Juarez, Mexico, he already had an ear for Hispanic accents. Now, he found himself “under the influence” of the accents and dialects dominating the urban neighborhoods he plied: Jewish, Puerto Rican, Asian, Irish and the “Jersey” spoken by the longshoremen he’d sell to on the docks.
“I experienced the cultures on their own terms,” says Bob. “I listened to the accents and learned to develop a rapport. I fell in love with the people and with diversity.
“And I found I enjoyed my relations with people more if I was in rapport with them.” Picking up the accents facilitated that rapport.
Of course, Bob adds, it didn’t hurt his sales volume either.
You can call Bob at 541-897-0764 for private singing and acting lessons in singing, acting and public speaking or for more information on the “Vocal Freedom” seminars. Also starting up in 2013, Bob is developing a seminar with Bret Levick, a sound engineer and recording artist, to teach people how to record their own high-quality multi-track music with the Garage Band software.
(Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg is a Realtor with Real Estate Depot in Ashland. You can reach him at 541-778-8949 or at firstname.lastname@example.org