BACKSTAGE/Photo: Bill Westmoreland

Transfer Students
Manhattan Transfer vocalist Laurel Massé can do -- and teaches!
enero 23, 2009
By David Finkle"

I come from a whole pack of singers," Laurel Massé tells me at a tearoom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. That concise declaration indicates why she's had a chock-full singing career, first as a founding member of the internationally renowned jazz quartet Manhattan Transfer and then -- after an automobile accident that sidelined her for two years ("I was a mess") -- as a soloist.

It may also imply an explanation for her now concurrent teaching career. When you're brought up around singing -- grandfather Leonard Kranendonk sang with Fred Waring for decades and became known as "Eisenhower's favorite baritone" -- you might have the instinctive urge to pass it on. And Massé has done so on the faculty of New York City's Singers Forum, regularly now on the staff of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason's Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp, as part of the mentoring staff of the Cabaret Conference at Yale, in master classes, and in private lessons.

Not that Massé ever deliberately set out to teach. Only after performing at the annual Ashokan gathering, at the start of her halting solo career in the early post–Manhattan Transfer years, did Ungar and Mason entreat her to instruct. As Massé explains, "They had a feeling." Trying it out, she instantly realized that she could teach.

Its Own Reward

Chatting about singing, the voluble Massé comments as much about its spiritual and emotional side as she does about the nuts and bolts, although she gets to those too. "If you can live without it," she says of singing, "find another way to express yourself." Having experienced “a brief, cometlike trajectory” with Manhattan Transfer and then having to pick up the pieces after the accident forced her to quit the group, she agrees with the sentiment that the difficulties of a singing career mean singing must be its own reward.
For that reason, whenever she's teaching, Massé stresses the need for students to understand there's "a difference between singing and show business." She worries when an aspiring singer's "focus becomes making it and not singing. Then you're allowing yourself to be defined by other people. You’re not being on your own path." Massé also emphasizes that a teacher should create "a safe though not risk-free" environment in which students can progress. She stops just short of being angry when noting that teachers must never be "tyrants": "You don't take a student apart if you don't know how to put him together again. You don’t know when somebody is depressed.

"Getting down to brass tacks and tactics, Massé says, "I think I am at my best with master classes," which she defines as listening to students with a certain amount of training, complimenting them on what they're doing right, and helping them to improve where they’re having problems. She also likes master classes for their group dynamics: "If the first singer is having difficulty making the words distinct, for example, I point that out. If the second student has the same problem, I point it out. By the third student, some of that is getting through." She also believes there's no one way to correct a problem. "With each student," she says, "you try different ways until you find a way that makes sense to a particular student."

In Harmony
Her Manhattan Transfer background gives Massé the lowdown on singing harmonies—although as the soprano in the foursome, she usually sang the melody line. Harmonizing, she proclaims, is a matter of listening and looking: "Just listen -- really profound listening -- and not to yourself. And you watch each other. I knew when Janis Siegel was going to breathe. You want that sound that becomes one sound. You don’t get that if all you're listening to is yourself." Incidentally, Massé and Manhattan Transfer colleague Siegel are harmonizing again, with Lauren Kinhan, as a trio they're calling Jalala. They're busy prepping a Johnny Mercer show and CD, which ought to be good news for music lovers. And since last spring, Massé has been a staff singer at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

She estimates that most of the students who seek her out are jazz hopefuls. Their pilgrimage undoubtedly has to do with Manhattan Transfer's jazz leanings and her jazz-oriented work since getting the soloing under way. But Massé gets exercised when confronted with wannabes who "don't think they have to learn the melody." She insists that much if not most jazz singing is founded on the Great American Songbook, and she has plenty to say about the sturdy "architecture" of that material. "The song can take it," she says.

Just as adamantly, Massé contends that anyone can be taught to sing, "unless there’s a hearing disability, and even then I'm not convinced." She likens mastering the singing art to getting a grip on hand-eye coordination. On the other hand, she will not encourage a career she thinks unlikely: "It's a cruelty to shuck and jive and take their money."

Answering questions about her teaching experiences, Massé goes to the heart of her impulse when she says succinctly, "I really want people to express a joy in their craft."