first_imgBefore she lived in Sherman Oaks and taught regular people how to turn themselves over to a piece of music, Morrow was a Broadway star. She opened for Buddy Hackett. She worked on TV. And before that, she was just a kid going to Catholic school in Des Moines, Iowa, with a couple of opera singers for parents and a flair for drama. “I grew up thinking that everyone in the world could sing,” she said. And, as anyone who’s spent time in karaoke bars or has an overly enthusiastic neighbor can attest, that’s not true. Morrow wasn’t really thinking of that when she was on Broadway, though. Leading lady She started performing 47 years ago, playing Helen of Troy and singing classic leading-lady-character roles. For years, she sang her heart out to crowds and loved it. But the roles only keep coming for so long, and the outlets shrank by the year. The Catskills resorts stopped booking shows. TV variety shows died. Theaters closed. But people still loved to sing and Morrow thought she could put her skills to use. In the early ’90s, she began teaching classes for regular, everyday folks. She didn’t see it as vocal coaching but a sort of therapy to bring out performers hidden within housewives and mild-mannered salesmen. “If I’d had a teacher like me, I probably would have been a big star,” she said, laughing. “People feel important and powerful when they let go. There’s a dropping of the guard. … It’s a yearning for people to be accepted as they are, not who you think they are.” So she offered classes in musical theater at UCLA, then smaller sessions on nights and weekends. Instead of fooling with students’ tone or rehearsing them through scales, she had them tackle the underlying emotions of a piece. They brought in classic literature and applied it to contemporary songs. They carried props and interpreted tunes as the punch lines to jokes. For a recent assignment, they used advertising copy to introduce material, leading to some surprisingly soulful takes on dating services and erectile dysfunction. “It was hard for me at first because with my ego, I thought I was going to train them to win Tony Awards and thank me from the stage,” she said. “But that wasn’t happening. They started telling me, `Wow, I got a call back from the Downey Community Theatre for `Once Upon a Mattress’ or, `I’m singing at a senior center.”‘ And Morrow began to recognize that was perfectly fine. For many of her students, a gig like that meant just as much. Or making the church choir. Or performing at a friend’s birthday party. Heart of the matter Standing before a piano, bringing life to an old Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, they had that same vitality she’d seen so many times in the old days. “Lots of people focus on the technique, but Karen makes you find what the song really means,” said Don Paris of West Hills. “I was singing big once and she said, `OK, that was fine, but sing it back to me like I’m a homeless person.’ And it was much better.” Paris was a music major in his college days but never had a chance to pursue it, settling into a comfortable life as a pharmaceutical sales executive. When he retired and took up music as a hobby again, he went to Morrow. She improved his phrasing and confidence and he made the church choir. Now he’s developed a one-man show based on what he learned in her classes and sings for seniors clubs. And that has become a measure of success for Morrow. She’s not getting rich on the classes, but she makes a comfortable-enough living and keeps herself occupied creatively. “There’s no one there who’s doing this for a living,” she said. “There’s a housewife; the editor of a race car magazine; Big Tall Bob, who’s a masseur; and Chuck, who sells fabrics and sews. “A lot of them sang in school and didn’t think they were good enough to be a professional. I’ve made music safe for them again.” Safe for the doctor of physical therapy with the charming accent. Safe for the publicist who sings of hot flashes and middle-age passion. Safe for a guy named Miguel Vargas, who shows up for class in gym shorts and a T-shirt, then lets loose with a professional-quality rendition of “A Bit of Earth” that leaves the other students floored. “Oh, my God, you did a whole 180 on that,” Morrow gushes. “Beautiful. Have you been coached by someone?” He shrugs sheepishly, embarrassed at the praise. “No,” he says. “I’ve just been listening to you.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738 If you go WHAT: Karen Morrow’s 2007 Master’s Showcase. WHEN: Friday and Saturday; dinner begins at 7 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. WHERE: Gardenia Restaurant and Lounge, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. COST: $12. For more information, call (323) 467-7444.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! McVey sits down, closes his eyes and begins to see, playing away at his phantom instrument. His voice begins to gain strength. “Drop that jaw!” Morrow interrupts. “Lose the L!” And McVey, who’s normally a bookkeeper at a children’s center, is flying. His voice leaps forth. Morrow grins slyly. Her technique is unusual but gets results. McVey coasts through the rest of the song, triumphant. He’s only been studying under Morrow for a few months, years removed from the singing he did back in college, but he’s noticed a dramatic change in his voice – it really sounds like his voice. “She makes people more themselves,” he said. “Once you can go into yourself and let it go, it’s very free. It’s like running and getting your second wind. You just lose yourself in the song.” Her ear cocked to the side, Karen Morrow frowns as she hones in on the notes spilling from Daniel McVey’s mouth. Her student is doing a very credible “Lazy Afternoon,” polishing the show tune for her upcoming exposition this weekend at the Gardenia in Hollywood, but Morrow, a classic Broadway belter, isn’t satisfied. She thinks for a moment as the last bars echo away. He stands patiently and then, she’s got it. “Now sing this like you’re playing a cello,” she says, making a broad sawing motion with one arm, resting the other near her clavicle. “It’s resting there and you’re warming your chest.” last_img