It is our pleasure to welcome Isabella to the Music Time family! Raised in the “melting pot” of Istanbul, Turkey, Isabella comes to us with a unique background of music experience and education. Western classical music has been her passion since childhood. Her education focused on Opera performance, as well as Vocal Pedagogy. As a teacher since 1999, Isabella has worked with students of all ages and abilities, helping each to build both a stronger voice, and a stronger love for music.
I always like to start at the beginning. What do you remember about how or why you first started in music?
I knew that I wanted to be a singer since I was 5! I know, it’s going to sound cliche, but I really would close the door, have my hairbrush in my hand, and practice singing in front of the mirror! My mom used to teach me songs when I was little. Then I was 18, I joined the State National TV and Radio Choir. That was a big deal, because you had to go through a huge audition. I remember the year I auditioned, there were more than 500 people trying out. They only pick 19, because they have 100 members, and want to keep it that even number. They already had 81 people in the choir, but 19 people quit. They only take 19 people, and I was one of them! I was really excited and really proud of myself! One other girl and I were the only two people who didn’t come from the children’s choir, or from conservatory. Basically, we were the only people who didn’t have formal training. So that is how I started, when I was 18. I sang there for three and a half years. And it was really my foundation. They gave us such a solid training. It was tough love, like military. You have to be very persistent and disciplinary, and make sure that you’re respecting everybody else’s time, because joining in the rehearsal late, you have to catch up. If you make mistakes, you’re dragging down the whole group – it’s going to affect 99 people.
What was this group called? Why was it such a desirable choir to be a part of?
It was the Turkish Radio Television Polyphonic Youth Choir. It’s the most prestigious choir in the country. They don’t have auditions every year. As I said, it’s only if somebody quits. You will be on television for national holidays, live recordings, and monthly TV shots. There was actually an older lady who recognized me on the street! I was so happy! It’s because I’m short, I’m always in the front row.
Awesome! You mentioned your mom taught you some songs, was she a singer as well?
She sang, but she didn’t like to study music. She was a math teacher, and we just sang for fun. She has a beautiful voice, and so did my father! They both have great ear and good voices. So that helped. When I when I came here, I went to San Francisco State University and got my Bachelor of Music, Vocal Performance, with an emphasis in Opera. I also did a vocal pedagogy training with Boston Conservatory, they had an intensive course.
So then was one of the main reasons why you came here to the United States to study music?
I was actually born here, so I have I have dual citizenship. I was curious about where I was born, so I wanted to come here and study music.
You were born in the Bay Area?
I actually just picked a spot, randomly. I thought the weather can’t be too extreme, and I definitely need proper transportation, a good university, and if it’s closer to the sea, that is good. So I chose San Francisco.
That’s great! You mentioned a major in performance, then also going to Boston for pedagogy, to work on teaching skills. Have you been able to find a balance between teaching and performing? What sort of performing have you done?
I am focusing on teaching now, but of course, a performance aspect is always in my heart that never dies. I’m going to go back to that. After school, I also did a little bit of World Music with different organizations. It wasn’t like Western music, many of the artist did not reside in the Bay Area. I was part of performances at San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, DeYoung Museum and Universities.
Since we have so many young students here, let’s talk a little more about when you were growing up. What memories or experiences stand out to you as being particularly inspirational or influential?
I even though I was growing up in in Istanbul, I was really interested in Western Music. I remember seeing Ida, and I think Magic Flute. I really love Mozart, and I like singing anything from Mozart. Seeing those operas at a young age, it really gets ingrained in your heart, and not only in your mind, because the music is so beautiful. It just made me decide that I wanted to study classical music, like seriously. At the same time, I was going to the choir and getting a solid education, and we were only doing Western music. But when you see a live production of an opera, that really affects you, a lot.
Was pop music not really present so much over there? Or was it just didn’t grab you as much as the Classical Western Music?
We have Turkish artists, like Turkish pop singers. Turkish pop music is a little bit different. They have some that are like American pop music, but some have ethnic markets ingrained to them. For instance, one artist, his name is Baris Manco. He’s very famous also in Japan, because he gave concerts there. He passed away, but his music is very interesting, very artistic, like folk rock. If I compare it with Western music, kind of like Beatles, because it has substance. The songs have value, and they’re different. It’s not generic.
I liked all kinds of other stuff, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Beatles, like Michael Jackson. And we have some Turkish singers, like Sertab Erener. She studied opera and she was my idol, because she has an amazing range. She did the Queen of the Night Aria not with actual words, but just with vocalization, and with Eastern drums like doumbek, and it was so interesting! I like that kind of music that combined Western and Eastern – it sounds Western, but it doesn’t sound completely, 100% Western.
Did you get to see much live music growing up? Were there a lot of concerts or performances in the area, or was it more rare?
Western music was not really common in Istanbul. In Turkey, we have a lot of variety of music, like Turkish classical music, which is completely different. It’s based on “makams”. I don’t know if you know anything about makams, but it’s like different tonalites, and different instruments. We have the Kudüm, a lap harp and the Oud, which is a stringed instrument that you play on your lap. It kind of looks like a mandolin. Drums, of course doumbek, and we have clarinet, but it’s tuned differently.
So you had this traditional music, and an influence of Western? Western music was not as big?
I mean, it is, but Turkey, especially Istanbul a melting pot. Half of the city is actually, literally on the European continent, and half of it all is in Asia! So we really have it all. We have a lot of rap music, Turkish rap music. On the radio, when I was growing up, I remember listening to Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Michael, those were really common. We also had our own pop music, rock music, and a lot of folk music. The choir that I was in did folk songs, but arranged like Western-style acapella music.That was really cool! It’s a folk tune, everybody knows that, but it’s done in such an artistic and classy style.
Wow, sounds like you really got a nice mix of everything!
Well, I studied Eastern music privately from famous instrumentalist teachers. Theory is very different, Western and Eastern, like day and night! The tonality, the makam, there are three or four notes between “Do” and “Re” – very, very tiny steps. You need to tune the instruments to the scale, or have a piano that is specially built, or specially tuned.
Was your training equally in Eastern and Western style?
My training was mainly wisdom. I know just a little bit about Eastern music. We used to have more than 500 makams! A lot of them are not in use right now, there’s maybe 90 of them, or 50? It’s just really deep and I only know like the surface of it. I did not study it much, since I was always interested in Western Classical Music.
Let’s talk about teaching a bit. You first started after college?
No, actually, I was teaching when I was still at college. I have been teaching since 1999 while I was still at San Francisco State University.
That is a long time! Let’s talk about what your experience has been over the years, and how you have found your own teaching style.
For me, teaching came very naturally. When I was taking voice lessons, I really paid attention to every one. Then, I was talking with my voice teacher before I started teaching. She told me to think about what I have learned, she said “You know more than you think you do.” That really helped, she was really correct.
Teaching one-on-one and teaching in school environment is different. When I was making that transition, when it was really happening. I was thinking, “What am I going to do?” and, “Am I prepared for this?” Then I thought of all my voice lessons, and all the classes that I took at college, I got something from almost every class. Even though it wasn’t a voice class, or a pedagogy class, it was still a way to teach, a way to express. All of those little notes and anecdotes, when they came together, it just made sense. It’s like a little pieces completing a puzzle.
Since you’re a voice teacher, I have to ask about this. So many people have this idea that they are tone deaf. Do students come to you with this issue a lot?
For me, it’s the opposite! When students come to a voice class, most of them have this over-confidence. They think they can sing really well, just because they have been singing along with YouTube, or with the radio or their friends told them. Everybody loves to sing, which is good, because singing is really brings up your mood, and it’s really beneficial. It’s great, but there’s a lot of false encouragement. Because of the internet and everything, instantly downloading, kids do not have any patience. Everybody wants things to be done instantly, and it’s not like that, you really have to work on it, really study. Everybody is thinking it’s going to happen overnight. It doesn’t make a difference in a month. You’re starting from somewhere, but you still have to continue for at least two years to see some change, and young people don’t consider that. With voice, the body is the instrument. While they’re growing, the voice changes, For boys, it’s different and for girls, it’s different. There’s a lot of biological and hormonal stuff happening, and nobody considers that, everybody wants everything to be done instantly, or to be done with this song instantly. I want my students to really know a song fully before we move on to another, because it’s not patchwork of song, you have to finish the song completely.
What have you noticed about how age affects voice training? Do you see more success with kids that start very young, or do you recommend not starting until the body is more developed?
Voice is different than a physical flexibility (like for training gymnastics) because we always talk. So, everybody has the potential, but it is really individual as well, and some students come in with a lot of talent. For some, the tonality of the voice is different. But for everyone else, they can, but it’s like going to gym. So like if you want to have a flat abs, there’s no age limit. Of course if a very young kid want to start exercising, it’s a different thing. But a 70 year old can start exercising too!
Over the years, how much have you found that singing is natural thing, versus something that you can succeed at, if you work hard?
I’m sure it’s the same for instruments. Let’s say we have five students, they all started at five years old. One student is exceptionally talented, and one student, after years and years, just improved a little bit, and the rest are average. Of those three, maybe one becomes really, really talented after a lot of time practicing, every day. The two others might improve a little bit, but super, if that makes sense.
You are saying, you’ve seen a lot of successes from people that maybe didn’t seem like they were born with it?
Yes. Of course, the vocal range, the tonality, it’s God-given for only a couple of us. The rest are always average for vocal range, including with practicing. Two and a half octaves is the average voice, but the exceptionally talented like three and up, and they’re only a handful. There is a minority of completely tone deaf, not improving for years and years. That’s fine, too. Since it’s the body, you have to work with what God has given to you.
Makes sense! We have been discussing the possibility of you leading a group singing class here at Music Time. I’d like to end with talking a bit about what you have in mind for this. What kind of music would you learn, is it classical?
Nobody is starting with Arias or classical! For private voice process or group singing classes, it all goes the same way, we start with short songs, or folk songs. We do musicals, like Disney movies for kids. We can sing in different languages. I don’t only teach songs in English, I teach songs in Italian, Spanish, German, and French. If they want to bring a song to class, and if it’s a language that I don’t know, they can help me with the pronunciation – it’s like teamwork. It’s always great to learn something new. So I’m always encouraging my students to bring in part of their culture.
Awesome, you can bring in your own songs, like in lessons! How is a group class different than private voice lessons? What makes it such a valuable experience?
Sometimes kids find singing classes intimidating, even though almost everybody enjoys singing, and they all hum along when there’s a song on the radio, when we feel happy, I really, highly recommend that if kids feel shy about singing in voice class, starting with a group class because it really helps a lot. Singing is a way of self expression, and it’s the most fun way! When you’re doing it in a in a group, everybody’s supportive, everybody wants you to do well.
Singing helps for public speaking, too. I know adults who are terrified of speaking in front of a group, and this actually prepares them, singing in a group that really helps a lot in the future. It helps for debate classes in middle and high school, too. Basically, it’s really helps to build up confidence, and you also have a lot of new friends, so win-win!