coach

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Pam Chambers

 

She’s built a reputation as “Hawai‘i’s presentation coach,” but in her youth, Pam Chambers was far from that. The former wallflower reveals how a turning point in her career helped her blossom as a public speaker. For more than 30 years, Chambers has helped local professionals and students on their presentation skills through feedback that she describes as honest, gentle and clear.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Feb. 2, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Pam Chambers Podcast

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I was in the third grade, and Mrs. Zimmerman, our teacher, gave us the assignment of doing a book report. As I began to read, I stumbled on a word, and one of the girls in the class led the group in laughing at me, and I remember deciding this is not a safe activity.

 

It took twenty years after that incident for her to feel comfortable standing in front of an audience again, and she made a career of helping people get over their fear of public speaking. Meet this presentation coach next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one, engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha māi kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. It’s one of the biggest fears of many Americans: public speaking. For more than thirty years, Pamela Gaye Chambers of Honolulu has been coaching Hawai‘i residents, from children to CEO’s, in how to develop presentation skills. Not just public speaking, proper etiquette, dressing for success, preparing for a job interview, and learning to work more effectively in a workplace environment are only some of the many skills she teaches. Her career began with wanting to help people with speaking disorders. She avoided work that involved public speaking until she took a job that she wasn’t aware required it.

 

You grew up in west Los Angeles.

 

Well, my father was a professor at UCLA. He taught the classics: Greek and Roman history. And my mother was a stay at home mom, which I so appreciated. Some of my friends would go home to an empty house. My mother was always there finishing up a painting or something. And so we were…we had a humble beginning. I mean, I-I teach dining etiquette now, mainly because I had to learn what fork to use ‘cause we only had one fork. Well, we each had our own, but we didn’t have two forks.

 

And you went to public schools in LA?

 

Yes.

 

Where you had your third-grade experience –

 

Yes.

 

– That, that scarred you until you recovered from that?

 

Yes, yes. Emerson Elementary School. And Mrs. Zimmerman, our teacher, gave us the assignment of doing a book report, and I was an avid reader, so I instantly knew I’m gonna do Charlotte’s Web, and I was excited and I wrote it all out, and I couldn’t wait to get up there and read my book report. And as I began to read, I stumbled on a word and one of the girls in the class, her name was Wendy, was a leader of the group, and she led the group in laughing at me for my mistake, and I became flustered and my glasses slid down my nose and my face got hot and I just choked. And Mrs. Zimmerman said, “Go on!” That was her way of supporting me, and I remember deciding this is not a safe activity: being in front of the room with all eyes on me, being vulnerable, being laughed at. This is something I will avoid. So, for the next two decades, I avoided being in front of the room.

 

How did you get out of presentations for the next twenty years?

 

Oh, by being very cunning. If, if there was a school play, I would be absent the day that they were aud-you know, assigning the, “You be the rock, and you be the lead.” And, and I would volunteer to do extra credit work behind the scenes so that I wouldn’t have to be in front. I got very good –

 

Did anyone notice that – what, what you were doing?

 

I don’t think so. No one called me on it; no one said, “Hey you – “

 

You majored in something called Communication Disorders?

 

Right. I was going to be a speech pathologist. That was my plan, to help people who stutter or who have a lisp, or who nasal and they want to change that, or they’re too breathy.

 

And that comes from what? Because you liked helping people, and you were looking for –

 

It came from taking a class in linguistics that fascinated me. It was a class that told you, taught us how to write not phonetically, but in the symbols and – well symbols that allow us to know how to pronounce a word when we look it up in the dictionary. So, the world ‘length’ has a symbol for the ‘ng’ sound, and I was really good at that. I could listen to the teacher say a word, and I could write it in that language –

 

Diagram it.

 

Yes. Yes, and then I thought, “Well, so where do I get more of this?” And someone said in the communications department. So, I joined that department.

 

And found out there was something called Communication Disorders to major in.

 

Yes, yes. And I was able to work with a child who stuttered. I was able to work with an aphasic woman, a woman who had – very elderly woman who had a stroke who could not find her words, and I was supposed to find an aphasic person to work with for my term paper. So, it took me to really interesting places, but then I took a job that required me to stand up in front of groups.

 

Why did you take a job requiring you to stand up in front of groups?

 

I didn’t know they – I, I didn’t know that I would have to. They, they left out that part. I was working for a company called Actualizations, a self-improvement company in San Francisco. That’s where I was the sales manager, mostly doing one on one sales or very tiny groups. But once a month, I would have to stand in front of 300 people and introduce the seminar leader. So once a month I would have to be on a riser in a fancy ballroom introducing Stewart Emory, was his name, and once a month a minute; it’s just not enough to get over anything. So I would quiver and tremble and shake visibly.

 

How did you get over this?

 

Well I, I did the unthinkable. I said to them, “I want to conquer my fear. I need more speaking opportunities, please.” And they said, “Okay. Once a week, you can lead a preview about this seminar, and we’ll get hotel rooms and we’ll maybe attract 20 people that you can speak to.” And that’s how I got over it.

 

That is so smart, because if something is unnatural to you, it’s hard to feel natural, so you do it until it feels natural.

 

Exactly. And I knew and loved my subject. I loved the seminar. I knew the seminar. I knew exactly what I was talking about, which is key. And once a week was all it – was what it took. We were in four cities on the mainland, and Stewart Emory and Carol Augustus, the owners, said, “Who wants to go to Hawai‘i to see if we can get the seminar going there?” And I said, “I would.” I was the only one who raised a hand. Well, if I had known how hard that was gonna be, I wouldn’t be sitting with you right now. it was not easy, coming from the mainland with a bunch of registration cards expecting people to sign up for something they had never heard of. But I got 80 people in the room.

 

How’d you do that?

 

Oh, ugh, it was so hard. I, I was here for three months, and so I was here – they paid for me to rent, you know, a little apartment, and they paid my paycheck and I got the people together. I had a lot of help. I had some support. And at the end of that three months, I realized I don’t want to leave here. I want to…I, I –

 

Even though it was hard to do your job here?

 

Well I, I had made a number of really good friends and I loved everything about it. So, but I didn’t have the courage to quit, so I went back to San Francisco and I misbehaved.

 

Purposely, I take it?

 

Un – subconsciously. I, I can look back, and I look back at the mistakes I made. In my right mind, I would never have done those things that I did. They were egregious. I got fired.

 

You did get fired?

 

I did. My – Carol called me. She said, “It was clear to me by your behavior at the Women’s Workshop last week that you don’t want to be here anymore. So we are releasing you.”

 

How were you acting at the Women’s Workshop?

 

Oh, I left her out of the group photo. There was a group photo of all the people in the workshop, and I had the photographer take the picture without waiting for Carol Augustus to be in the picture. How passive aggressive is that?

 

But you’re not regretting getting fired?

 

No, I, I cried for about ten minutes, and then I said to my boyfriend, “Doug, let’s go, let’s go to Hawai‘i.” So we packed fourteen boxes of things, came here, no place to live. Uh, someone lent us a spare room for a while. No job, no, no nothing. Fourteen boxes of stuff, and we, both of us has – have been here ever since. That was forty years ago.

 

Pam Chambers secured a job in Hawai‘i that continued to put her in a public speaking role. It eventually led her into creating her own business.

 

I ran the Winner’s Circle Breakfast Club in the eighties, maybe you’ve heard of it? It was a weekly motivational meeting held in various places over that ten-year period, and I was the director of it, and I was the emcee. So, every single week I was in front of a hundred people running the breakfast. It was so much fun, and then one day a man named Howard Wolf said, “We have architects who need to be better at presenting their work. Do you think that you could help them?” And I said, “I don’t know. I, I don’t know a thing about architecture. Let’s give it a try.” So we had one pilot class with twelve people, and I talked to them about body language, voice, words and image, and they loved it. So they hired me for several more classes, and that was the beginning of my career.

 

Did it grow because you got feedback and then you would change and evolve?

 

Yes, I always, I always listen. Sometimes I get feedback that’s painful. Oh my goodness, I, I don’t love critical feedback any more than anyone else does, but sometimes I get it. And I vow, ‘let me not make the same mistake twice.’ I got feedback about handling my lei too many times. A woman in the audience counted the number of times –

 

You’re right. you are judged, aren’t you, when you’re speaking?

 

Oh, yeah. She said, “I thought you might want to know that you handled your lei thirty-seven times.” And that is the moment I decided to say to people, “If you plan to give me a lei, which is lovely, I would prefer to have it when I’m done speaking,” because I know myself. I know that I’ll be handling it.

 

This is a really interesting subject because we know that public speaking is the, is probably the number one fear, right, that people have.

 

Right.

 

And um, and so just, just, um, being there for lessons is probably pretty daunting.

 

Yes, it takes a lot of work for me to fill a class. It is a very hard sell. People will go to Toastmasters because that’s very, very easy, and very safe, and they’re not gonna get the level of feedback that they’re afraid they’re gonna get from me. I have a reputation of being, “She leaves no stone unturned.” And that’s not true. I don’t turn over stones that can’t be fixed.

 

Well it is very personal.

 

It is.

 

Even if it’s not – I mean, what’s personal to one is, you know, no big deal to another.

 

Right, that’s right. One man came into my classroom and he sat down and spread his arms; his tall and long arms. He spread his arms. He took a lot of space, and after about forty-five minutes when enough rapport was there among all of us, I said, “I want to give you some feedback about your body language.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “Just freeze. Freeze just as you are.” I said, “Notice how much space you’re taking. Notice that you’re encroaching on the space of the people to either side of you.” And he pulled his arms in, and he said, “Thank you. No one has told me that before.” And I said, “I know. That’s why we’re here.”

 

Because sometimes people just don’t know.

 

They don’t know.

 

And, and it may be obvious to everybody else.

 

They don’t know what they don’t know. And they’re usually very grateful that someone finally told them about something that they can easily fix. Now the voice, that’s not easy. But pulling your arms in, that’s easy.

 

You know, I thought that most people would know, ‘I, I don’t like to speak. I’m fearful.’ But it turns out that some people don’t know they’re bad speakers, and you have to tell them. And, and you’re considered an expert in this area because you, you have to identify, and give them feedback, and get them to change. I, that’s, I, that’s, that’s pretty sensitive stuff.

 

I could laugh for an hour about this, but I won’t. Uh, yes, there’s one woman who I have to break it to her that she talks like Minnie Mouse. She, or a chipmunk. She has a, has a very nasal, up here way, nasal high voice and she does up talk, and so she sounds like a eight-year-old.

 

What’s up talk? Oh, you end up at the sentence.

 

You end with a – with a question. “So like I was at the mall and I met this really cute guy, and like, I wanted to go up to him.” That’s up talk. And she does that, plus she’s nasal, plus her voice is high, and –

 

And she doesn’t know this?

 

I don’t know if she knows it. I, that, that’s something I need to find out. I need to say to her, “So what kinds of feedback have you gotten about your communication skills?” And if she says, “Well, I’m told that I fidget too much.” Then I’ll say, “Okay we can work on body language. Have you ever had any feedback about your voice?”

 

And she says? What if she says, “No, no, not at all” ?

 

Then if she says no, then I’ll say, “Well I am going to give you feedback about your voice, because your voice is one of your four instruments. We have our body language, our voice, our words, and the way we look, and I’m going to be giving you feedback about all of those.”

 

Are people threatened, or do they say, “Oh good, help me.”

 

Yes, most people love feedback because I’m gentle but clear when I give it, and I never give feedback about something they can’t change, and I tell them the benefit to them of changing this.

 

Can you change a nasally voice?

 

Yes.

 

How do you do that?

 

You – it takes a lot of work, but you can do it. I mean, why are there vocal coaches if we can’t change our voice. There, there wouldn’t be vocal coaches if our voice weren’t changeable.

 

You can know you’re not doing well, but you don’t know how to change it.

 

Right. Well, luckily for me, I’ve been in business helping people who want to be helped for thirty four years, and it’s really astonishing because Hawai‘i is, is a place where we’re kind of not supposed to stand out a lot, but those who want to get somewhere in their career, if they realize that there are things that they’re doing in their communication that are holding them back, they want to know what that is and they want to move it out of the way. Resistant people are defensive people, so if people are defensive, they’re most likely to be resistant to any new idea that comes their way about what they could be doing different. So, so resistant people…I don’t get a lot of those in my public classes because usually those are people who chose to be there.

 

It is really, um, I mean, it seems like in most jobs you would have to – even if it’s to ask for a raise, you need to, you know – any, any…it could be a small, seemingly small human interaction with just another person, but it’s still a presentation skill.

 

Yeah, it is.

 

And you still have to tell a story, and, and, and uh, and be able to present.

 

Right. and I tell people if you’re shy and you’re like the way I was, if you don’t want to speak out, at every single meeting, do three things: ask a question, make a suggestion, and offer your opinion. You don’t have to be an expert to do any of those things, but slowly but surely you will be perceived as a participant, not a wallflower. So, do those three things and then be silent if you want, and if you do those everywhere you go, you’re gonna gain confidence. You’ll, you’ll – you won’t mind the sound of your own voice entering.

 

What’s the, the most, uh, startling transformation you’ve been part of?

 

Startling, what a great word. Okay, the one that comes to mind was a woman who was, still is, the CEO of her own company, and she looked like she ran a plant nursery. That’s what she looked like, and when it came time – one of my sessions is about image only, session two. I always ask them, “On a scale of one to ten, how much feedback do you want?” And I tell them what a five would sound like, and I tell them what a ten would sound like, and everyone chooses the ten.

 

They want to hear it all.

 

They want it, ‘cause they realize the ten isn’t unsafe, it’s more complete. So I said to her, “If I had to guess what profession you’re in, I would say you either work at a preschool or you work at a nursery. Maybe the nursery in Kailua.” And she said, “Really? Why?” And I said, “You don’t look like a CEO.”

 

So did you, did you give her styling tips?

 

Yes. She – actually, she asked me to take her shopping, and, and I did. I recommended a hair stylist to her. Here’s the sad part: her husband didn’t like it.

 

Her hair or her new image?

 

Her whole new beautiful, powerful, leader-like image. He said, “I thought you were fine the way you were.” And he was a chauvinistic, sexist, old-fashioned guy that didn’t want a woman who turned heads.

 

What’d she do?

 

She stayed good. And they’re still married.

 

Very good.

 

Yeah.

 

What about a, a man’s transformation?

 

A man – there was a man, also a CEO dressed very poorly: shabby, sloppy, pants too long, unshined shoes. Just, just a wreck. And his HR person, it was, said, “I’d like you to clean up your image, and there’s someone in town who can help you.” And we met, and I said, “I want to take you shopping.” And, oh, it was so much fun because he was so open. I said, “Wear – get this pink shirt. This pink shirt. Not fuchsia, the pale Ralph Lauren pink shirt. Women love it. Get this shirt. Here’s the tie to go with it. Get these pants.” And he put them on in the dressing room and he stood taller and he was so proud of himself, and he, he…those changes stayed. He didn’t go sliding back.

 

Pam Chambers of Honolulu conducts workplace training, holds her own classes, does individual coaching, and writes books on self-improvement. She’s operated her own business for more than three decades and has always done everything herself.

 

You prefer to be solo?

 

Yeah, I really like it. I really like being single and solo and making my own decisions. I am considered – I’m a polite, very polite person, but I don’t want to have to compromise on how I live my life. I think I’ve witnessed many, many people not being able to do what they want because their boss wouldn’t let them. For example, there is someone who wants to come to my class but his boss won’t let him. And I don’t want to have a life like that, so I don’t have a paycheck, I don’t have a pension, but I have freedom. And I just, I value it more than anything else.

 

That is a hard way to live, though. I mean, it, it really takes enormous, uh, uh, I mean you’re always thinking…you, you not only have to plan your content, but you’ve got to get your own business, take care of your own finances.

 

Oh, I know. I have to do my marketing. I have to do my own social media. I have to make my own nametags. I mean, I could probably hire someone to help me, but it would take more time to train them to – than to do it myself. So yes, I do do it all.

 

Really, what you do is a lot because you’re doing different subjects and you’re doing very different groupings.

 

Yeah.

 

And they come to you different ways.

 

Yes. Yes. I love it.

 

May, maybe that’s why you like being solo because you have so much interaction and stimulation in your, in your job.

 

That’s true. I love living alone. I, I love my alone time and I give myself a lot of it. A lot of it, and I, I’m sure it’s because of all that I put out.

 

Right, because you’re…essentially, you’re teaching people how to be more social.

 

More social, more considerate, more aware of others. I teach them don’t be walking down the sidewalk and stop smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Do you think that you’re the only one on the street? Or I’ll say, “Do – are you aware that you just interrupted her when she was trying to give you helpful feedback?” There’s no – nothing that I won’t say if it can be changed.

 

So, I do think that comes from a place of abundance because you’re, you know, you’ll share it, but on the other hand, it’s, it’s expertise that you, you know, that you take a lifetime to build up to get.

 

I – It took me thirty-four years to know what I know now. So, so if you think I’m charging too much for an hour, you’re not paying me for that hour; you’re paying me for all the blood, sweat, and tears I suffered learning how to do this.

 

You like to fly solo and, and you’ve, you built this incredible business, um, and, and basically, you’ve done it a long time so you could retire –

 

I could.

 

But you, but you keep working. What is it that – what is it that’s special to you about Hawai‘i?

 

Oh, so many things, but mainly the diversity: the languages that we hear, the different cultures, the different values. I love it! And, and when I have someone in my class who is fretting because she has an accent, I say, “No, I am not helping you get rid of that accent. We like it. We like to hear something that’s different.” The weather, except it’s been too hot lately. The, the plumerias; the, the weather, the seasons that we have…the roots I have here, the people I know. I know thousands of people, and, and I feel like I belong here. And you’re right, I could retire, but I don’t want to. I want to do what I’m doing.

 

Mahalo to Pam Chambers of Kaka’ako, Honolulu for sharing your stories with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

You’re known for wearing hats. I wonder, I mean, and all kinds of hats for lots of variety, which is not common in Hawaii nei, so tell me about that.

 

Well, I have a – I sent your staff a picture of me at the age of three wearing a beret. Somehow my mom, or maybe my grandmother, put that beret on me, and I always liked that picture. But I didn’t wear hats my whole life. I started wearing hats probably about twenty years ago, and I don’t…I think, oh I, I do know why: because I was really into vintage at that time. I still am. And I bought vintage hats, and I liked wearing them because they got so many comments. “Oh, your vintage hat. I always wonder what hat you’re gonna wear.” Well, I got out of the vintage stage, but I got in the habit of wanting something on my head, so if it’s not a hat, it might be a scarf. If it’s not a scarf, it might be a bandana. There needs – I need something on my head.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit pbshawaii.org.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
The Top Stories of the Fall Semester, 2018-2019

HIKI NŌ Episode 1008 – The Top Stories of the Fall Semester, 2018-2019

 

This compilation show features some of the top stories from the fall semester of the 2018-2019 school year. Each of the stories presents a variation on a theme that has become a hallmark of HIKI NŌ storytelling: empathy.

 

Program

 

–Students at Waiākea High School in the Hilo district of Hawai‘i Island tell the story of a married couple for whom empathy has become a profession and a way of life: husband and wife both work in the foster care industry and foster children themselves.

 

–Students at H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui tell the story of a fitness coach who channels his own physical and psychological challenges into developing empathy for his clients.

 

–Students at Maui High School in Kahului tell the story of a young woman who is grappling depression and has, on occasion, harmed herself. The student storytellers who created this feature deal with this sensitive topic with a great deal of empathy.

 

–Students at Konawaena High School and Konawaena Middle School on Hawai‘i Island collaborated on a story which shows that empathy is not limited to people’s feelings for other people. Human interactions with goats at the Dancing Goat Sanctuary prove that animals often elicit and deserve our empathy.

 

–Students at Kamehameha Schools Maui High School show how one teenager’s empathy for girls who suffer from low self-esteem inspired her to launch a positive self-image workshop for young women.

 

–Students at ‘Ewa Makai Middle School on O‘ahu tell an empathy-driven story about the highly personal connection between a young dancer and her art form.

 

–Students at Waimea High School on Kaua‘i tell the story of a girl’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a way that leads viewers from feeling sympathy for to sharing empathy with the young patient.

 

This special episode is hosted by Yasha Ronquillo, a 2018 HIKI NŌ graduate from Maui High School who is currently a part-time HIKI NŌ teacher at her alma mater.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawaiʻi Island and other stories

HIKI NŌ: Episode #1003 - Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawai‘i Island and other stories

 

TOP STORY

 

Students from Konawaena Middle School and Konawaena High School in Kealakekua join forces to tell the story of the Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawaiʻi Island. The sanctuary is situated on an organic farm and is dedicated to providing abused, orphaned and abandoned goats with a safe environment in which to thrive. Youth and animal advocate Shawna Gunnarson utilizes the goats for an afterschool program at the sanctuary that teaches students how to treat animals compassionately, setting a path for both animals and youth to build lasting connections.

 
Program

 

ALSO FEATURED

 

–Students from Kapaʻa High School on Kauaʻi show how to take simple steps towards developing your own personal style.

 

–Students from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui show how to get started learning American Sign Language.

 

–Also from Baldwin, the story of a fitness coach who overcame his own personal struggles to become a motivating force in peoples’ lives.

 

–Students from Waiʻanae Intermediate School on Oʻahu introduce us to a teacher who has turned a sustainable garden into a special place of learning.

 

–Students from Pomaikaʻi Elementary School on Maui tell us the history of the musubi in Hawaiʻi and show us the right way to make one.

 

–Students from Maui High School tell the story of Maui-based painter Philip Sabado and how he re-connected with his Hawaiian culture.

 

 

HIKI NŌ
Piano Prodigy

 

TOP STORY

 

“Piano Prodigy”
Students from Island School on Kauaʻi feature 10-year-old piano prodigy Jannik Evanoff. A Kauaʻi resident and Island School 6th grader, Jannik started playing piano when he was six and by the age of eight had already won an international piano competition: the Stage 4 Kids competition in Hamburg, Germany. Jannik now performs internationally and says he does not get nervous before performances, unless it is in front of an audience of 600 or more. His daily piano and violin practices begin at 5:30 am and end at 7:30 pm, with school in between). Jannik was home-schooled for a good part of his childhood in order to keep a schedule that accommodated his music. He is also a gifted student and advanced from the 4th to the 6th grade soon after entering Island School. Although Jannik cannot predict exactly what the future holds for him, he knows that music will remain a major part of his life.

 

ALSO FEATURED

 

–Students from Konawaena High School on Hawaiʻi Island profile 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Goldina Lefkowitz, who speaks at school assemblies about the importance of tolerance and understanding.

 

–Students from Maui High School in Kahului feature a family-run shave ice business that operates out of a classic VW bus.

 

–Students from Kaʻala Elementary School in Central Oʻahu profile a teacher at the school who finds joy in making haku lei and instructs others on how to do the same.

 

–Students from Kealakehe Intermediate School on Hawaiʻi Island offer a tip on how to save our reefs.

 

–Students from Kalani High School in East Oʻahu find out what makes their wrestling coach tick.

 

–Students from Hongwanji Mission School on Oʻahu tell the story of Taylor Inouye – a young baker at their school who became a finalist in the Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship.

 

This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by students from Hāna School in East Maui.

 

 

 

PACIFIC HEARTBEAT
Next Goal Wins

PACIFIC HEARTBEAT: Next Goal Wins

 

In 2001, American Samoa suffered a world record 31-0 defeat at the hands of Australia, garnering headlines across the world as the worst football (soccer) team on the planet. This film is an inspirational story about the power of hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and an object lesson in what it really means to be a winner in life.

 

Preview

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Neva Rego

 

Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2008

 

Hawai‘i’s Voice Coach to the Stars

 

Neva Rego is known by many as Hawai‘i’s Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names.

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down with Neva to discuss how she followed her musical dreams, and how she shares her training and experience with her vocal students.

 

Neva Rego Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawai‘i. We’re about to sit down with Neva Rego. Never heard of her? Neva is known by many as a Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with  a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names. Neva Rego—next.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox – produced with Sony technology – is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD. High definition… it’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

Neva Rego is an extraordinary woman because she did an extraordinary thing. She followed her dream. Her wish was to be trained in a classical, Italian style of singing, the kind she’d been listening to on records since she was a child. So, at the tender age of 18, not long after World War II, she hopped on a freighter and shipped off to Italy to seek her destiny. She didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t even know the name of the technique she was seeking. It turned out to be bel canto.

 

It’s very hard to explain. It’s easy to listen to. What I think about it is, it’s so legato, meaning tied together; it’s all beautiful singing without pushing, without smashing those poor little notes. You know, it’s just gorgeous, beautiful singing; very legato. And free. I mean, if you’re singing bel canto, you’re not killing yourself when you hit a high note. It just—Pavarotti is an example of bel canto.

 

You know, my dad was a radio DJ and when I wanted to work in television I said, Dad, how do I use my voice? And he said, Do it the bel canto way. And of course, I had no idea what that meant. And he said, Take a candle and light it and put it in front of your mouth and speak, but make sure that you don’t blow that candle out.

 

Right.

 

No clue what he meant. And of course, when he spoke in front of it, he knew how to use his voice. But how does the candle relate to bel canto?

 

It doesn’t blow out. I’ve tried it so many times. It’s because your air is utilized with your voice, and no [BLOWS] comes out. No spurts of air or anything. It’s amazing.

 

And so that should help you as a performer to have a career over time, that you don’t destroy your vocal cords.

 

Oh, yeah. You don’t hurt yourself. And then it’s easier. Singing wise, you’re using your diaphragm and not your throat muscles to hold it up, you know, like some singers do.

 

So tell me a little about what life was like for you growing up. You were in Ka‘imuki.

 

Right; on 18th Avenue. And I’m still there. And I must say, we had a beautiful childhood, my brothers and myself. And at that time, there weren’t that many houses around us. You know, we had a lot of empty lots and little foresty-looking places that we built our clubhouse and all the kids would gather after school there. And I must say, it was a lovely time.

 

And you went to what school?

 

I went to Sacred Hearts Academy. And loved it. The nuns were wonderful, and I think they were a bit instrumental in my learning languages. Because all the nuns at that time were French, and I remember studying Latin and the teacher taught to us in French. How do you like that? And we had a lovely sister from Germany, Sister Polaneya, and she was a fabulous musician.

 

Now the girls at Sacred Hearts Academy are primed to go to college, and have professional careers. What was the goal in those days?

 

In those days, I do believe that a lot of the girls strived to be nurses or teachers. There weren’t that many kooky ones, like I was. [chuckle]

 

And how were you kooky?

 

Well, I wanted to something in music. I wanted singing; I loved it. And you know, here’s this little kid from Kaimuki, wanting singing. And you know, I don’t know why, but I felt it. As I recall, when I was seven years old, I heard this beautiful aria on the radio with this Italian singer. And I remember telling my mother that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my whole life. All of seven years, yes? And Mother said, You really loved it? I said, Oh, I love it, I just love it. Well, that did it. Mother went down to House of Music, at that time in Waikiki, and she kept buying all these records of Italian singers. And well, that whetted my appetite for opera.

 

What were the other kids on the block listening to? What kind of music were they listening to?

 

They were mostly in Hawaiian. And I loved Hawaiian; but there was something about opera that was for me, I felt. You know. And if nobody else liked it, that’s okay; but I did.

 

What appealed to you about it?

 

Oh, I loved the language, first of all. The Italian language is so beautiful to sing. You never have a bad sounding word in it.   You know, everything is so fluid and beautiful. And the drama, the music; I mean, it’s just glorious. Opera is complete, I feel. You have acting, singing, dancing, tragedies, happiness; everything all rolled up in one. You know? And that appealed to me.

 

So Italian opera was speaking to you from the time you were seven years old.

 

Seven.

 

And you’re singing at Sacred Hearts Academy.

 

M-hm.

 

And looking at graduation.

 

Yes. And then I said, I think I want to go and study more music. I was looking all over for it; I had seven teachers here, and they were wonderful; all seven of them. But it was not what I was looking for. I kept hearing this other thing in my head, and even though all my relatives told my mother that they were sorry for her, because they felt that she had only one daughter, and what a shame she was crazy.

 

[chuckle]

 

So I thought, never mind, they can’t hear what I’m hearing. So I convinced my mother and father that I had to go to Italy. So my mother said, Oh, my god. You don’t know Italian; what are you gonna do? But you know, when you’re 18 you think you have the world in your hand; you can do anything. So I said, I’ll learn it; no problems. So [chuckle] off I go on a on a freighter to Italy.

 

You know, some people follow their dreams to find fortune or fame or truth. Neva Rego heard a beautiful sound and followed it all the way to Milan, Italy simply to seek its beauty. Today, with air travel and cell phones and the internet, traveling halfway around the world, alone at that age, may not seem so remarkable. But to do it, at that time, seems so foreign.

 

Who did you go see? I mean, who did you know in Italy?

 

Well, before I left Honolulu, I was singing at the Hawaiian Village. And Rossano Brazzi, this Italian actor, he heard me singing, and he said, You know, senorina, you should be singing opera. And I said, Oh, I’m going to. And he said, Yes? I said, I’m going to Italy. And he said, Oh, wonderful. He said, I write to La Scala for you. And I thought, Well, that’s very kind, you know. But when I got to La Scala, I realized that [chuckle] it was so silly, because it was like shooting mosquitoes with a cannon; it was that ridiculous. I wasn’t ready for anything, except maybe to clean it.

 

[chuckle]

 

You know. And but the maestro was very nice, Vittorio di Sabato. He was very nice, and he understood my plight. And he told me, Oh, senorina, I will get you a teacher and this and that. So I got set up with this teacher.

 

How did you pay for this? Were your parents funding this uh, adventure?

 

Not really. I mean, they gave me a little in the beginning, ‘cause I didn’t come from a wealthy family. We were medium, you know. And so I had saved money when I was at the Hawaiian Village. And then just before I left, I was fortunate to get an Atherton scholarship, Atherton Foundation scholarship.

 

M-hm. They’re still giving –

 

–thanks to Bob Midkiff.

 

Still in business today, helping folks.

 

Still in business. So that really helped me. And I thought, Maybe I’ll stay a year and see how I do, you know. I think I’ll understand well after a year. Oh; after a year, I didn’t know beans yet. So I knew I had to stay on. And there was no more scholarships; my mother and father helped me a bit, without a doubt. But then I started to get jobs; little jobs. I’m not ashamed to say that I cleaned a few houses in the beginning, because I didn’t know the language. And then I started to teach English, which I think was horrible, because I didn’t really understand the grammar. [chuckle] And poor Italians would study with me, but they were mostly interested in speaking.

 

Conversation.

 

You know, conversation. And then later on, I got a job with the designer Pucci. And that started me working in haute couture. And I went on from him to Valentino and I was with him for seven years. And all the while, studying.

 

Now, were you dreaming of becoming a huge Italian opera star?

 

You know, I have to say no, I was not. Because I was so interested in this bel canto technique, that that’s what I kept looking for. I was trying to find it. And after two and a half years with this maestro from La Scala, I wasn’t finding it. And I was so embarrassed to tell my family that I didn’t find it yet, in Italy, two and a half years. So I didn’t tell them.

 

Did you think maybe you were chasing a phantom, that it really didn’t exist, it was something you heard, but you really couldn’t learn?

 

I knew it existed; I just couldn’t find it. You know, and I didn’t know where to go. And so I quit La Scala, the maestro from La Scala, and and then I must say, I passed about three months of sheer depression. [chuckle] I just said one fine day to the dear Lord, If you really want me to sing, you better show me the way, because I’ve exhausted everything. And so now, I leave it in your lap. If you want me to find this elusive little thing, you will let me find it. And so I stopped worrying. But that night, I had to get out of my little apartment, because I was getting stir crazy, you know. And so I went to La Scala to hear a concert. And I heard this girl singing. She was studying with me before at Scala, but she had left—she was gone about a year. And she was singing divinely; just what I was looking for. So I thought, How could that be; she must have found someone. So I was sitting in the opera house in the very top, which we call the chicken coops, yes?

 

M-hm.

 

And I rushed down, but somehow I was too late; and I missed her. So I was so upset and depressed, because I didn’t know how to get a hold of her. And I remember walking home; I couldn’t even take the tram, because I was crying. And so the next morning, I got up, still depressed. I said, I’ve gotta get out of here. So I went—in Milano, they have this big galleria in the middle of town, glassed in, and you have a coffee, you know. And it’s a nice diversion; people are walking to and from. And I was sitting down and all of a sudden, here comes this girl that sang the night before, walking down. Wow; I ran after her, and I said, Ciao; I said, I heard you sing last night; it was just beautiful. And she said, Oh, Neva; did I find a teacher. I said, I can hear it, I can hear it. And she said—I told her that I left that maestro, and she said, I wondered when you were gonna get smart. You know. I said, Yeah, but I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know. You know? And so she said, What are you doing now? I said, Absolutely nothing. She said, Well, I’m going to a lesson; come with me. So I followed her to the lesson one-hour lesson, and I sat in a little corner, and I listened to lesson, and I cried for one hour. [chuckle] Cried. Because it was like there was so much emotion, because it was like something I was looking for, for so long and I found it. And so afterwards, the senora came over to me and she said, Senorina Neva, she says, are all Hawaiians so emotional? And I said, No, Senora, I said, you know, it’s just because I was looking for you since—I was trying to find you since I was seven years old. And she looked at me, and she started to cry. And we hugged, and it was love from then on; for 22 years, I was with her. Yeah.

 

What’s her name?

 

Her name is—was Magda Piccarolo. She was a lyrica leggiero soprano, and she sang all over. She sang at Scala and in America at the Met.

 

So you continued to have lessons with her for twenty-two years?

 

Yeah; twenty-two.

 

And you became a singer in Italian opera houses.

 

Italian opera. I first started off in concerts, because that’s what everybody does to get going; get your feet wet sort of thing. You know, and then you get a little role here and a little role there, and it just starts getting better and better.

 

What was your favorite role?

 

There’s so many. Gosh. Lucia is beautiful; Rigoletto is beautiful. I love La Sonnambula, but we never do it, because it’s very classical, it’s very bel canto, and maybe boring. But the singing is beautiful. And those are ones I love.

 

To sing in opera houses in Italy. To live and achieve a dream. Can you imagine? Neva Rego did what she loved and loved what she did. And that’s what I love about this story!

 

You know, I love the language. And I love the people; they’re so wonderful. You know. When I first went to Italy, it was not too long after the war, so people were still quite poor. And we didn’t have a refrigerator in the house. And there was no washing machine either. [chuckle] You’re looking at it. And you know, it’s difficult to wash sheets in the bathtub.

 

You did that for years?

 

I did all of that.

 

Ah.

 

Yeah, I really learned well. You know. And then I realized, silly Americans, when they complain; how beautiful our life is in America. And I think anybody who speaks against America should go abroad a while. Then you will how wonderful our country really is. You know. I know we are having problems now, but I mean, you know, the life is beautiful in America.

 

You stayed how many years; 26 years in all?

 

Twenty-six years. Really. It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?

 

Had you intended to come back? I mean, were you going to come back?

 

I think I might not have. The the thing that pushed me back was, in the late 70s, the man responsible for opera in Italy—he’s the one that subsidizes—that part of the government subsidizes opera. It was a Communist who got in. And when he got in, he decided no foreigners were gonna sing.

 

How high had you risen in the hierarchy of opera singers? Were you a big deal?

 

Well, I don’t think so. It was hard to get to be a big deal, because it was so political.

 

M-m.

 

You had to do so many things; you had to make sure an empresario liked you. [chuckle] And I didn’t wish to go further than that. So I just struggled along and sang and it worked well. But say that I got to the jet stream top; no.

 

And was that okay with you?

 

That was okay. Because I didn’t start off to be a big opera star. I started off looking for this technique. [chuckle]

 

And you found it—

 

I found it.

 

–and then you practiced it, and –

 

And now, I’m teaching it.

 

Neva Rego is a professional voice coach, teaching her beloved bel canto in her longtime family home in Ka‘imuki.

 

I never intended to teach. Never. But when I arrived home, after Italy, I thought, What am I gonna do? So I decided I was gonna go to Seattle. Because Seattle had good opera. And I was still young enough. So, then my father got ill.

 

M-m.

 

And had a stroke. And so that determined what I should do; I should stay home and take care of him. Because my brother was taking care of him all those other years, ‘cause Mother died so young. And so I stayed home, and this man came over and did an article on me in the paper. And the phone started ringing. And that’s the wonderful part of the story; it hasn’t stopped.

 

You have a waiting list this long. How many people are on your waiting list to take lessons?

 

Well, it used to be 200; right now, I think it’s down to about 100, 120. Which is nice; it’s security.

 

So the world started beating a path to your door; people wanted voice lessons from you.

 

Right. And one of the ones that came was Robert Cazimero.

 

How old was he then? Was he a young singer, just starting out?

 

This was in the 80s, early 80s.

 

In the 80s.

 

They were just from Manoa—

 

Sunday Manoa.

 

Sunday Manoa; and Robert came to me and said, You know, I’m having to lower my keys, and I don’t like that. He said, So I thought maybe if I studied a while, you’d help me. So 15 years later [chuckle]–

 

Now, why fifteen years?

 

Well, because he didn’t want to leave. He kept saying, No, I need it. I said, Robert, you don’t need lessons anymore; you know it so well. But we got on so well; he’s wonderful.

 

And this is not something that’s a quick fix, right?

 

No.

 

A student has to commit himself or herself.

 

Oh, yeah. With poppy music, I would say two years, two years and a half. Classical, forget it; six and seven. And you can’t learn it overnight; it’s not like you learn to play piano overnight. You know, you just need time. And anybody can learn to sing, if they wish it.

 

You are such a popular voice teacher. What kind of criteria do you have in accepting a student?

 

Just that they really want to learn, and that there’s a voice there.

 

So tell me some of the people you’ve trained over the years.

 

Well, as I said, Robert Cazimero. And I had Shari Lynn at that time too. She’s been great. And Jimmy Borges, and Tony Conjugacion. At one time, on Broadway, I had 17 people. Really. That was great for me, but it was kind of sad, because I wanted one at the Met.

 

[chuckle] Don’t ask for much.

 

And everybody was on Broadway. I said, Oh, my lord; what am I doing? You know. We even helped Richard Chamberlain study, Betty and I, and gosh; there’s so many.

 

Well, and just recently, American Idol came along and—

 

Oh.

 

Didn’t I hear your name with Jordan Segundo and—

 

Yes.

 

–Jasmine Trias? After the competition, though; not before.

 

After. And Anita Hall, Les Ceballos is one of mine too; a dear one. Jasmine, Danny Couch, and John Koko from Makaha Sons. You know. So there’s a long list, and they all are like children, like my kids that I never had.

 

How interesting that a lot of these people distinguish themselves in singing before they had lessons from you, but they were motivated to learn—

 

More. And you take Jordan, for example. He’s singing so well now. I’m so proud of him. And that he’s such a nice boy. And I really want him to get ahead. And he’s learned very well. He never misses lessons, he’s so enthusiastic. See, that’s—

 

Now, he didn’t win American Idol, obviously. Do you think he would have gotten farther if he’d had the lessons earlier?

 

Without a doubt.

 

How would his voice have changed?

 

Well, he would have—now, he has a complete range. He sings down the bottom, he goes all the way to a B-flat, and a high C. He never had those notes before.

 

How about Robert, because he had wonderful training at Kamehameha, I would think.

 

Yes. Robert can go to a B-flat like that too. You see, what you do with the technique is, you tie the voice together. Especially people like Jordan and Robert; you might sing with your chest voice here; but then the minute you get near what we call the break, the passagio, you have to have a different placement for those high notes. So you have to blend in the bottom to the top, and you learn to go over that transition very smoothly with study. And they do it; beautiful. Listen; listen to Robert. After all these years, he still sounds glorious.

 

And after all this time, it’s still bel canto for you.

 

Yeah, it’s still—

 

You’ve never heard another type of vocal technique that works as well for you?

 

No; I’m in love with bel canto.

 

And so your mother didn’t raise a crazy daughter after all?

 

No, I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t know if others feel that way, but I’m in love with what I’m doing. I love it.

 

Mahalo to Neva Rego for sharing her stories with us today. And thank you for joining me for them. That’s all the time we have for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ciao bella and aloha hui hou kakou!

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawai‘i with Sony technology. High definition. It’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

My name is not really Neva; it’s Aggreneva. And everybody gets all twisted ‘cause they don’t know who she is. But my mother named me after a Russian opera singer, and her name was Agraneva Schlovanskaya. I’m kinda happy Mother stopped after Aggreneva. Mother never told me that I had this name. I knew it was a kooky name; at school, they called me Aggrevacious. You know how school kids are. Anyway, all of a sudden, I said to Mother that I was in love with music and I wanted to do music. So Mother said, Well, you know, I think I’ll tell you about your name. And she told me about Aggreneva Schlovanska, who had come here years ago with some Russian group. And they sang at Hawai‘i Theatre. Isn’t that interesting?

 

And your mother obviously had a love for opera.

 

Yeah. But I was the one that was gonna make it my life.

 

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