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Meet Sonoma soloist Sheila Whitney

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Sheila Whitney

around town

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

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.

Sheila Whitney

around town

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

Alvarez excitedly agreed to the tutelage. “I had no idea there was a vocal teacher in Sonoma. I said, ‘Awesome!’” Whitney has been working with Alvarez’s singing and speaking voice. “Sheila has been really helpful in showing me new genres of music,” said Alvarez.

Alvarez also credits Whitney with what she says is her most exciting singing moment so far, singing “The Star Spangled Banner” before an Indy car race at Sonoma Raceway. “I don’t think that I could have done that without Sheila,” said Alvarez. “She is just so supportive, she’s always, ‘You got this, you can do it… be yourself.’”

But it is as a singer herself that Whitney truly shines. Her voice, pure and powerful, slips her in the mezzo soprano range. To say Whitney loves to sing is to miss the point – she lives to sing. She feels blessed to be able to interpret musical scores and lyrics, and to deliver that to people. Whitney says, “Sound is the basic building block. Music affects everyone. What brings everybody together more than anything? Music.”

When asked about the favorite places where she’s performed, Whitney speaks in wondrous tones about the acoustics at San Francisco’s Saints Peter and Paul Church, in North Beach. “I sang in the loft and my voice just went on for days.” She added, “Another one is the barrel room at Jacuzzi Winery. It’s angelic.”

Whitney has performed in the Valley hundreds of times. She has sung rock ‘n’ roll on the stage of the Sebastiani Theatre. She has sung “Ave Maria” at dozens of funeral masses. She also sings classical pieces at Trinity Episcopal church, where she is the director of music and the choir director.

Tomorrow night, Saturday, Feb. 9, Whitney sings with the John Simon Trio at the Knights of Columbus Mardi Gras Dance at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma. She is singing as part of the Live Band Karaoke portion of the “Evening of Love for Nat and Larry” at the Community Center on Feb. 15. On March 23 and 24, Whitney is the featured soloist with the Stephanie Ozer Trio at a Sonoma Valley Chorale event called “All That Jazz.”

If you want to hear a lovely voice sing a “slinky and sexy” song, or if you want to learn more about split vocal chords and tilting larynges, or maybe you just want to hear your waitress yell out to the cook, “Two eggs, wrecked!,” Sheila Whitney is the one to call.

Or just walk around town for a while, you’ll probably run into her. She’s the one who’s smiling… and singing.

whitneyvoice.com