Workin’ It Over 60: Voice Teacher Barbara Maier

Barbara Maier
Fabulous voice teacher Barbara Maier / Photo: Romy Ashby

This is the beginning of a series of interviews with people age 60 to 100 who are fully engaged in creative work. And kicking ass.

Barbara Maier, 81, is a full time New York City voice teacher who grew up in Booneville, Indiana “with a major work ethic from here to tomorrow.” Her career took a very interesting turn in the early 1980s when internationally lauded performance artist Diamanda Galas walked through her door. Maier now teaches many of New York City’s so called “downtown” performers (denizens of Joe’s Pub and the jewel-box cabaret room Pangea, among others) and quite a few who are on the international stage. She spends several nights a week out at students’ performances, often traveling to 9:30 or 11:00pm shows. She has been known to accept a dare to dance on a table at Joe’s Pub. Picture it: lithe, slim, barely 5’ tall; a natural brunette elder bustin’ a move at Joe’s (probably in leather pants). She’s not your grandma’s voice teacher and definitely not your grandma, though she is very loving and kind. (And for anyone who thinks I wouldn’t describe a table-dancing 81 year-old man’s wardrobe and physique, you’re just wrong.)

Betsyann Faiella: Barbara, how long have you been teaching voice?

Barbara Maier: Since around 1970 or ’71.

BF: How many hours a week do you teach?

BM: I teach about 30 hours a week now. I taught 40 hours a week at many points, but 30 is about the max I care to do now.

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BF: Was Diamanda Galas the most unusual person who had come to study with you when she showed up in the 1980s?

When Diamanda showed up, all hell broke loose.

BM: Unless you consider one fully garbed Hasidic rabbi who told me to call him “Bobby.” He left his glasses here. I got in touch with him, but he never came back for another lesson or for his glasses. He let me know it was because he liked being with me too much.

When Diamanda showed up, all hell broke loose. She’s so original and creative, and that attracted other people. Debbie Harry was next, then Justin Bond. People started showing up from burlesque artists to singer-songwriters and performers who are hard to codify like Taylor Mac and Penny Arcade. And a bunch of younger performers — like Molly Pope — popped up recently. Many people from across the evolving gender spectrum find me.

BF: Why do you suppose that’s happening?

Diamanda Galas
Diamanda Galas

BM: I think one reason is I’m not judgmental, and another is I don’t dictate what anyone is supposed to sound like. I’m totally enthralled by my students’ creativity and joy and the willingness to be whatever they are. I love being part of that. I just try to make students the best they can be vocally and I work with what they have. I don’t have a set of exercises that everyone has to do. People react differently to things and as a teacher you have to figure out what gets to them.

BF: You work with several people who have transitioned from male to female or visa versa, correct?

BM: Yes, absolutely. Our Lady J, Geo Wyeth are two students. I had no idea Geo was a trans person, because not a peep of that voice has any feminine characteristics.

BF: What challenges does transitioning present in vocal training?

You can train the voice, but also the attitude.

BM: Because female to male trans people usually take testosterone, there is a deepening of the voice. Not always, but usually. If you have a student who is transitioning to female, and usually taking estrogen, they are often very concerned about continuing to sound masculine since the change in sound is not nearly as profound as in female to male. We deal with this voice more in terms of air flow and inflection, although we try for the lighter, higher comfortable range. Our Lady J is a great example, though, of a woman who uses her deeper timbre in an extremely feminine way. You can train some of the deepness out of a voice, and you can also train the attitude.

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BF: What’s different about the business of teaching now, 40+ years on?

BM: I think more and more anybody who wants to make a buck thinks they can teach. There are a lot of bad teachers out there. People have big online studios. I don’t think it’s the right way to teach voice, because it’s such a personal thing. There are things you can’t see and do online, and I have resisted it, though there’s a whole bunch of people who would like to study with me that way. I’m reconsidering, but only for students with whom I have long relationships. People go on tour and they need me. I’ve been really bullheaded about the rest of it though. However, I suppose if somebody’s going to teach people online, it may as well be me. At least I know I’m honest.

BF: You’re notoriously reasonable with your rates, to the chagrin of some of your fellow teachers. Why are you so reasonable?

Barbara Maier onstage in the 20th Century
Barbara Maier onstage in the 20th Century

BM: Well, I took voice lessons when I was training to be a professional, and I know how difficult it was to pay for them. So why should I make it difficult if I care about these people and I care about the state of the art? I mean, I think I’m worth something, but the truth of the matter is I don’t need any more than I charge. And, as with so many things, the amount of money something costs doesn’t necessarily directly relate to what someone gets out of it.

BF: What do you see for yourself in the future?

BM: I expect to be sitting at the piano and my face will go “clunk” and that’s that…I’m gone! But before that, I hope to do more directing. I recently directed Late Nights in Smoky Bars with Barbara Bleier and Austin Pendleton. It’s a cabaret they’ve been performing at Pangea. Barbara is a student of mine. I was scared to take it on! I thought, how could I direct Austin Pendleton? But he had directed me, and he thought it was a great idea. I’ll produce a benefit for a Marni Nixon scholarship fund that Marni told me about before she died. She was a very good friend of mine. Oh, and I’m writing a book. But nothing will ever supersede teaching.

BF: What are you excited about in the world at large?

BM: I recently taught a workshop in Philadelphia for a company called The Bearded Ladies. I was so impressed with this little company. I have two students who come up from Philly — one is Dito Van Reigersberg, actor and co-founder of Pig Iron Theater Company, who has an alter-ego drag persona: Martha Graham Cracker. I was so impressed at how Philadelphia supports these little activist theaters, which are very inclusive: straights, gays, all races, trans people. I think if the arts are going to have a further impact on civilization, the way to go now is to be inclusive, show how well people can actually work together and show how we are actually more similar than dissimilar.