One of the most cheery people you are likely to run into around Sonoma is Sheila Whitney. Whitney can be found singing to a crowd, in a crowd watching one of her students, singing at a church service, or serving dinner at a local restaurant.
Whitney grew up in Marin and but has called Sonoma home since 1993.
“The first home I remember was on San Rafael Avenue in Belvedere on the lagoon,” she said. “But my dad was a renter, so we had to keep moving north.”
The energetic Whitney, who is “approaching 60,” has been singing since her high school days at Terra Linda High School. Early on, she studied classical music and opera. As other kids were hanging out listening to “Pet Sounds,” Whitney was internalizing Puccini.
She went on to attend Dominican University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music, emphasizing in vocal performance. “I learned to sing after that,” Whitney says, echoing the feeling that many college graduates have upon entering the real world.
While sitting on the piano bench in her sunny home studio, Whitney talked about life as a single parent, a waitress, a teacher and as a vocalist.
She is fiercely proud of her son, Bill Brock. Whitney candidly talked of raising a son, and its challenges. She said, “I finally just stopped criticizing him. I didn’t offer advice and just let him find his way. It was like, OK, I love you.”
Brock, now 28 and doing just fine, has inherited his mom’s keen musical sense; he’s also a musician and works as a sound engineer at Lagunitas Brewing Company. “He’s really good at it,” she said.
Whitney has been serving yummy meals to hungry diners in Sonoma for years. At one point she was referred to as “The Singing Waitress.” She’s currently at the soon-to-be-closing Mint and Liberty restaurant and is looking for a new gig.
“I really like people and I really enjoy interactions with people and I really am curious about what makes them tick,” she said.
These days, Whitney is busy giving singing lessons and teaching others to empower themselves with their voice. This coming Monday, Feb. 11, she is teaching a seminar called “Liberate Your Speaking Voice” at the Sonoma Community Center at 7 p.m. She says that it will be an introduction to discovering one’s authentic speaking voice.
“My workshop is an introduction to training to speak authentically,” she said. “A lot of people, I think especially in America, use their voices in limited ways that aren’t using the whole body. If you’re coming from a more whole place, they’re going to trust you more, they’re going to listen to you more, you will be more compelling, more magnetic, and that not only will be helpful in your job or your profession, but it will change your life.”
She describes the ability to use one’s voice as being similar to a painter’s palette. Whitney has been teaching singing for years. One rising star student of hers is 14-year-old Fernanda Alvarez, who has studied with Whitney for the past two years.
Alvarez was referred to Whitney by Marcelo Defrietas, board member of La Luz Center. Defrietas was organizing the center’s “Noche” fundraising event a few years ago and took a gamble on presenting his friend Fernanda to the crowd. She sang a song, and the place went nuts. Defrietas said, “It was an amazing moment.” He was able to cajole a few community members into paying for singing lessons for Fernanda with Whitney.
Monday, Feb. 11, “Liberate Your Speaking Voice” at the Sonoma Community Center
Saturday, Feb. 9, with the John Simon Trio at St. Francis Solano Church
Friday, Feb. 15, “Evening of Love for Nat and Larry” at the Community Center
March 23 and 24, as the featured soloist with the Stephanie Ozer Trio at a Sonoma Valley Chorale events