A Conversation with Barbara Smith-Davis, Performer

One of my most memorable encounters with Barbara Smith-Davis came when I took voice lessons with her. While I was only able to go to a couple of lessons before life got in the way, I remember saying something along the lines that I used to be soprano, but now I thought I was more of a mezzo. Maybe an alto. After running through some scales and other techniques, she turned to me and said: “You are a soprano who’s lost her nerve.”
I thought that was the most elegantly blunt feedback I’ve ever gotten. Unfortunately, New Orleans is quite a bit too far away for more voice lessons, but I wanted to invite Barbara to do a character study interview to share her amazing talent and background. (And if you are in the New Orleans area, and might be interested in studying vocal performance, check out her website!)

Q (Infamous Scribbler): Tell me a bit about your area of expertise. What do you do? How long have you been doing it? Where do you share or publish your work?
A (Barbara Smith-Davis):  I am a performer, primarily of opera and musical theatre, but I have sung recitals, church jobs and even cabaret shows. I have always loved to sing and “pretend”. My first stage experience was behind a puppet, and I still own and use puppets as teaching aids.

Q: Can you share with me some of the story of your journey? What first interested you in what you do? What were some challenges along the way?
A: I was probably about 6 when I first saw a television special starring Mary Martin as Peter Pan!  I was completely captivated by the singing, pretending, flying, crowing! When it was televised the next Christmas, I sang along, with all the characters.  Mary Martin has always been my hero. I learned so much from her recordings, and even studied with her teacher, Helen Fouts Cahoun, when I lived in Dallas years later. One of my great treasures is a signed picture of Mary Martin as Peter Pan. I always admired it in Ms. Cahoun’s Studio. When she died she left it to me. The next year I went to NY and saw Mary Martin in The Sound Of Music. I took the picture backstage and Mary signed it for me.

I didn’t realize what a challenging path I had chosen. I assumed everyone loved to sing, and dance and act like an idiot. My dear parents offered me lessons and I loved it.  After high school, and many musical performances there, I won an audition with The Dallas Summer Musicals. During the next two summers I performed in 12 professional productions there, and learned more than my classes at SMU could ever teach me.

Q: What in particular do you find most satisfying about your work? Q: What do you find most challenging?
A: I finally went to New York to study opera. I was mentored by a wonderful man named Boris Goldovsky. I attended his workshops and then joined his touring company. I loved traveling and being part of a family of performers. I even met my husband of 50 years, J.B. Davis.

The most challenging part of this business was now evident. NYC is the Mecca for everyone interested in the theatre arts! Competition was daunting, and auditions were often referred to as “cattle calls”! I hung in and hung on and discovered new opportunities.

After the birth of our daughter Debbie in 1974, we traveled with JB and I discovered how much I enjoy teaching! I studied music education at SMU, but teaching singing to one motivated student instead of a class of bored kids, is a tremendous joy!

Q: What work are you most proud of, and why?
A: There is nothing like helping a singer catch on to something as nebulous as vocal technique and seeing his pride when he realizes  he can do it! .  Music has always been an important opportunity for kids to get involved, make friends, work toward a common goal and discover yourself. My constant advice to students and myself is, “Just do it!”

Q: Anything to add?
A: As Debbie got older I resumed my performing career, but I continued teaching voice from our home in northern NJ. After 53 years in the East, I am now living in New Orleans where I have established a new voice studio.

I’ve taught many students, shy and fearful like myself, and I hope that in addition to bringing out their unique vocal talent, I have instilled in them a sense of confidence, and courage that they can take out into the world. Everyone is intimidated by “the cattle call” auditions of life. But the truth is, there can be no competition. Each of us has his own magic, his own unique contribution to make to humanity. We are here to give these Gifts.

~ ~ ~