Helping Pageant Contestants Sing Out

Posted: June 28, 1989

The neighbors must think there is something funny going on in Robert Edwin's Cinnaminson garage. Beautiful women are always prancing up and down the driveway as if it were some kind of runway.

In a way, it is. Those women are beauty pageant contestants, and they go to the music studio in Edwin's garage because they want to win. That is OK with Edwin, who is a voice teacher. But he also insists that they learn how to sing.

Edwin, 43, whose parents were voice teachers, has coached people to sing everything from Vivaldi to Ozzie Ozborne. He was responsible for transforming singer-model Grace Jones into a model singer. After two of his students won the Miss New Jersey Pageant, Edwin suddenly found himself besieged by beautiful women from all over.

Sheila Handley, who won the pageant in 1987, was the first contestant to seek him out. She recommended Patricia Lynne Bowman, who not only won Miss New Jersey in 1988, but also captured the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant with her rendition of "The Wind Beneath My Wings."

This year, Edwin has twice the chances of producing a winner in the Miss New Jersey Pageant on Saturday night. Two of his students are competing for the Miss New Jersey title, Suzan Stover, Miss Mays Landing, and Dalia Aleman, Miss Somerset County. His odds would have been even better, but a third student, Deborah Drain, Miss Atlantic County, dropped out of the contest to get married.

"I'm turning into Mr. Pageant Person," Edwin said.

Indeed, Edwin projects many of the same qualities as a pageant winner. Tall (6 feet 5), handsome and relentlessly upbeat, with a blinding smile, Edwin has become an ardent defender of beauty, oops, scholarship pageants. He sees the contestants as modern-day versions of the Renaissance woman.

"The whole dumb blonde syndrome is history," he said. "You can't win without talent."

But in the beginning, Edwin concedes, he was wary of pageant contestants. They would "come in and say, 'Make my song good.' " No four words sound more

discordant to Edwin's ear.

He complained that some contestants thought that they could win pageants simply by singing in key. They wanted a voice coach to do the same thing as a dressmaker or a hairdresser, to polish them for a pageant night. They wanted to sound technically perfect - and nothing more.

"You can sing mechanistically. You can process yourself to achieve some goal, but that's not art," Edwin said.

If people are going to sing, he insists that they learn to sing with feeling.

Unlike some voice coaches, who stress the technical aspects of singing, Edwin is interested in expanding a singer's emotional range. For $35 an hour, he teaches his students to put their true feelings into every word they sing.

The first thing he tells them is, "Don't give me this phony, plastic, lounge lizard stuff," he said, doing an imitation of clinched night-club singer, snapping his fingers and clutching an imaginary microphone.

Edwin tries to teach vocalists "to sing from the inside out," to project their feelings in their voices.

But he never tells a singer to "Be yourself."

"That's the worst thing you can say to a singer," Edwin said. "You're asking her to be vulnerable, to share her innermost, private feelings. In a public forum, that'll get you killed."

Edwin's method is to get singers to develop a character for each song, as an actor does for a stage or movie role.

"The character you create plays out the part in the song," he said.

The song still sounds natural, "but there is a little separation from the private self," Edwin said.

He says that even the most earnest person would not be a decent singer without talent.

"You can't be sincere and sing off pitch," he said. "I'm a big, strong fan of genetics. If there is no innate musical talent, I can't make something that isn't there . . . You can teach people to eat with a knife and fork, but whether they are graceful has to do with hand-eye coordination."

Bowman, who will reign as Miss New Jersey until she turns over her crown to her successor on Saturday, said that Edwin helped bring out her native talent.

Until he did that, she said, "people used to listen to me and said, 'Oh, she's nothing spectacular.' I was never a bad singer. He heard the potential in me. Now people compliment me on my singing."

Bowman had fallen into the trap of many pageant hopefuls. She was imitating the clinched, lounge lizard style and, in the process, keeping her true feelings buried.

"Robert taught me that singing is a lot more than having a nice voice," she said.

To get Bowman used to projecting her feelings, Edwin first would make her read a song in her speaking voice. Then he would make her sing the song in the voice of well-known movie characters, such as Tarzan and Jane. Eventually, he helped her develop her own persona, one that suited her personality.

Even if Edwin's streak in the Miss New Jersey contest ends this year, he has chances of winning other pageants. He has one student entered in the Miss D.C. Pageant, Sally Tumas, and another in Miss New Jersey Teenager Pageant, Kelly Wokock of Mays Landing.

Both have the talent to succeed, Edwin said. Otherwise, he said, he would not bother with them.

"You can't make a donkey win the Kentucky Derby," he said.

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