Barbara Maier Gustern, one of the world’s most beloved and successful vocal coaches, died on March 15 of injuries suffered in a brutal assault in her Chelsea neighborhood five days earlier. She was 87.
She had stepped out of her apartment after rehearsing a cast of cabaret singers when she was struck from behind and fell on the sidewalk on West 28th St. just off Eighth Avenue. A passing cyclist helped her return home, where an ambulance was called. A 26-year-old Long Island resident, Lauren Pazienza, has been charged with manslaughter in the attack.
A tiny woman with a big voice and a larger-than-life presence, Gustern was born in Indiana and came to New York in the 1950s with hopes of becoming a Broadway singer. But she soon discovered an aptitude for teaching. It wasn’t long before she’d become one of the most highly sought after vocal coaches in Manhattan, a stature she relished for over half a century.
Dedicated to preserving the individuality of her clients’ styles, Gustern did not follow a one-size-fits-all approach in her teaching. Her training empowered Diamanda Galas to maintain her stamina through punishing, marathon performances. Gustern made a first-class jazz chanteuse out of Deborah Harry, and helped Tammy Faye Starlite channel iconic voices from Marianne Faithfull to Mick Jagger. Gustern also worked with Carol Lipnik to refine and expand her spectacular four-octave range.
Gustern was a taskmaster and did not suffer fools gladly. But those who studied with her say her influence was transformative.
“Barbara Maier Gustern was my Voice Mother,” says Lipnik. “For eleven years I was lucky enough to cherish her as one of the most important people in my life. At just 4’ 11” no one ever thought of her as small, At 87 years old no one ever thought of her as old. She had the energy of a hummingbird. She never stopped moving. She would bound up and down seventeen flights of stairs to her apartment for exercise rather than taking the elevator. When she would dance at parties no one could keep up with her. She was the matriarch of a whole tribe of downtown artistic misfits that she proudly and lovingly nurtured. She celebrated singularity, individuality, and peculiarity.
I was born with a natural, wild voice, a seemingly unlimited vocal range, and fiercely possessive of my personal sense of expression. I never wanted to study singing because I was afraid that a teacher would damper my spirit and try to me make me sound “Broadway”. Not Barbara, she met me in my world and worked with me to help make me the best and strongest me that I could be. She never pulled punches and always was straight with me when she heard something wrong. I was in awe of her, and scared of her, but I listened to her – me, a person who never, ever listened to a single teacher. She’d humble me to my knees and I’d listen. She had a playful, mischievous side, too. Many times she would have me sing scales higher and higher and higher till I realized it was just for her own sport to see how high I could go – then she’d beam and proudly say: “that was a D!”. Together, we cultivated and nurtured a crystalline quality in my voice so diligently that when I recorded vocals for my “Almost Back To Normal” album I actually had a very bad flu.
You can’t describe Barbara without also mentioning the fabulous fashion sense that she had. I honestly don’t think I ever saw her wear the same thing twice. Cashmere turtlenecks, black leather pants, paisley shirts, animal prints… Once I asked her where she got her famous red cowboy boots and she smiled and said, ‘The little boys department!’
This is not goodbye because I will love her forever. I now am part of her legacy that will carry on and out into to the world through the sound of my voice.”
Penny Arcade echoes that sentiment: “Barbara Maier Gustern was a remarkable person for many reasons. She had charm, talent, good looks well into old age and a desire to contribute to society which she acted upon. But the thing that made her most unusual was that she had made it her business to spend her old age completing her character. Quentin Crisp, the great English raconteur famously said that the function of life is to reconcile our glowing opinion of ourselves with what our friends call ‘the trouble with you.’ Precious few people get to complete their characters, because for one, you have to live long enough. Barbara lived gloriously till she was violently struck down in the street by a demented stranger. At 87 she was vibrant, energetic, busy doing new things like directing cabaret and still singing and teaching. She was still growing , still exploring what it meant to be fully human. She led a charmed life despite many disappointments and personal tragedies and made it to 87. Somehow she managed to emerge not bitter, envious or complacent. She presented a glowing example of how to age into old age with vibrancy, wisdom and fun. She will live on in people’s memories and stories because of her contributions to so many people and her example of what it means to be a fully evolved human being.”
Serena Jost says, “Barbara was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever encountered. She was both the consummate voice teacher and the embodiment of a life well lived. Carol Lipnik introduced me to her and I’m so thankful. I’ve had other wonderful teachers but Barbara helped me find my true voice. Her lessons were both rigorous and fun and blew me away. She was always honest and didn’t have the need to praise for her own sense of well-being – rather, her perceptions were grounded in x-ray vision, honesty and so much caring. She recognized talent and saw my potential in a new way. When I brought in one of my songs, she not only knew what to offer technically but amazingly fully understood the essence of any song. She was very complimentary about my music and then helped me to soar. I think what Barbara loved most – in and out of the studio – was connection, truth and communication. Like the best of teachers, she loved her subject and students as One.
Barbara had boundless energy and came to many of my shows including at Pangea, the Owl and the release of my album Up to the Sky at Saint Peter’s Church in Chelsea. I knew if I’d done well because she would be beaming afterwards. Barbara taught the whole person and it gave her so much joy to see others realize themselves in song. She was such an evolved human, a giver, a mover, a shaker, a mother, a mentor, always purposeful. She was made of steel with a soft giving heart. She gave generously to all she encountered and sought out people in need who she could serve. Barbara had an effervescence that is hard to fully describe but when experienced you knew you were amongst one of the greatest humans around. I hope we may all be inspired by her example and live and give as fully as she did. I am forever grateful to her for giving me the wings of song.”
John Kelly adds, “Barbara Maier Gustern gave me permission to continue to own my voice and honor my desire – my need – to sing. She also gave me confidence – through a more solid understanding of the technique and tools necessary to produce open, supported sound. Barbara was a diminutive but powerful presence and a force that I feel privileged to have known, worked with, and loved.”