Is MJ Paranzino a singing teacher or a force of nature? It seems she is both. In her flat in Hove’s Adelaide Crescent, the Italian-American is salsa-ing around her piano as she demonstrates why we must feel the music as we sing it.
We mustn’t worry, she goes on brightly, about squawking or squeaking. “How can you fix something if as you’re going wrong you stop? You need to go right down that path and listen and work out where you went wrong. Allow yourself to be free! Don’t beat yourself up!”
MJ (she hasn’t been Mary Jane for years) doesn’t believe in things like tone-deafness, wafting away the notion as she might fairies at the bottom of the garden. “Everyone can sing unless they have a health issue. It’s about listening, not stopping and having fun. Sure, we’re not all going to be stars, but we should all be able to do it because we do it naturally.”
As a vocal coach, she’s helped actors limber up for musical roles, faded pop icons to rediscover their mojo and managing directors to storm the annual sales presentation. She leads community choirs in Brighton and London (the Brighton City Singers, South London Choir and West London Choir), hosts vocal workshops all over the world and, now and then, even manages to do a bit of singing herself in her R ’n’ B outfit MJ And The Boys.
It’s not hard to see how she does it – this woman is the embodiment of the American “can do” attitude and a walking billboard for her own product. After ten minutes in her company, I feel like kicking my Dictaphone to one side and joining her in a duet.
Singing has been enjoying something of a popular resurgence lately. Here in Brighton we have community choirs to suit every persuasion and we’re not alone in our enthusiasm. On TV, conductor Gareth Malone has had great success in rallying retiring members of the public to release their inner Shirley Bassey in The Choir, Boys Don’t Sing and The Big Performance. Meridian is currently screening The Choir That Rocks, a three-part documentary about 7,000 people from across the UK united by a desire to sing.
For MJ the appeal is obvious. “Singing was always part of the tribe. Then it got organised into churches and military and I think now we’re evolved enough to know we can have it wherever we go. It’s a great thing, a great outing, a good feeling and it means you really get in touch with yourself. When you’re singing, you’re able to release things that tend to get held back in everyday life.”
She sees people transformed through vocal tuition; aside from learning to carry a tune, singers learn how to carry themselves and to speak with more confidence.
We all have our tics. “Some people come in and they have very naeee-sal accents, like this. Then you have people who have a glottal-ly band right here. You get people who talk [she assumes a squeak] up here all the time. It’s hard because all of us have habits and your voice is very personal. Trying to get past that can be the most courageous thing. But when you’re only using part of your voice, you limit yourself. Get your whole body involved and something changes – you can see your whole world light up, even if it’s only for 20 minutes.”
There may have been a time MJ didn’t sing but she can’t recall it. She was born with a voice she says, though smiles at the diva-ishness of such a statement. Even in one of the earliest photographs of her, aged three, she is singing into an old-fashioned microphone. Family get-togethers in her native Philadelphia were characterised by singing, her dad getting up to do Sinatra standards such as My Way and New York, New York.
At Edinbro, a liberal arts university in Pennsylvania, the teenage MJ studied music education and formed her first band, touring the American festivals circuit with songs about women’s rights and green issues – she’s a child of the 1960s, after all. More recently, she was part of a close-harmony group and was a popular performer in the gay community of Provincetown, situated on the tip of Cape Cod, in Barnstaple County, Massachusetts.
She left Provincetown ten years ago amid some controversy. The rental agency she had been running alongside her musical projects had gone bankrupt, reportedly leaving her owing some $500,000, much of it to friends and theatre producers.
“Provincetown is a small town of around 3,000 people and there’s one newspaper – I was front page news. I was someone who was on a pedestal there and then...” [she trails off]. She thinks there’s a bigger stigma attached to bankruptcy in America and in a small community wounds are slow to heal. In 2005, the news MJ was preparing to stage a musical about the life of David Blunkett (more on this later) was bitterly reported under the headline “Provincetown deadbeat takes London by storm”.
The collapse of her business wasn’t the reason she left for the UK however – that decision was made on far happier grounds. She had met Ginny Dougary, the British freelance journalist who, in 1999, famously broke the news Michael Portillo had “homosexual experiences” as a young man, in a candid interview the former minister gave to The Times.
The two women became friends and are now in a relationship. As we talk, Ginny pops in to say hello and pass on the names of the artists whose work adorns the couple’s flat – Susan Derges, David Birkin and Esther Teichmann – for our photographer.
They wrote David Blunkett: The Musical, about the life and times of the former Home Secretary, together. “We were looking for a project and both simultaneously thought this was perfect.”
The show was due to go to the Edinburgh Festival and was expected to be one of the big hits of the 2005 programme but in the end was never staged. MJ is reticent as to why, saying only, “We decided to wait… there was too much… We wanted to do the correct thing, we didn’t want to make fun.”
They also wrote a piece of music to celebrate the renovation of Brighton’s Modernist masterpiece Embassy Court in 2005 – taking inspiration from each decade of the building’s history – and were involved with Wild Ocean, the 2008 nature documentary made by Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell of Brighton-born dance sensation Stomp. The Brighton City Singers feature on the film’s soundtrack.
The choir can also be seen on a viral ad recorded at this year’s Brighton Festival Fringe for sponsors Citroën. “Uh – that was fun!” recalls MJ. “We staged a flashmob outside the Theatre Royal [she pronounces it “royale”] and performed the Kaiser Chiefs’ I Predict A Riot in the street. It’s had about 55,000 hits online.”
Music, MJ thinks, keeps her young. It certainly seems to be keeping her cheerful. “Come to one of our choir sessions,” she urges as she shows me out. And I think I might.
* For more information on the Brighton City Singers visit www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk.
* To find out more about MJ Paranzino and her work visit www.mjparanzino.co.uk.