In a converted factory in New York’s Union Square neighborhood, a woman’s delicate voice floats from a spacious fifth-floor apartment outfitted as a music studio with a baby grand piano, microphones and sound system, and electric keyboards. Every so often, the voice halts, awaiting instruction.
A vocal student is practicing with vocal coach and singer Norma Garbo ’72. Garbo reveals that her studio is where she coached country star Taylor Swift and “American Idol” judge and songwriter Kara DioGuardi, and where the rock band Scissor Sisters currently trains.
Garbo was president of Cabrini’s Women’s Chorale for three years. She then attended Villanova University’s theatre program. The next summer, Garbo met her ex‑husband, a professional studio musician in New York, and packed her bags to move to the Big Apple.
Vocal lessons with renowned instructors helped refine her singing, and taught her how to read and write music. Soon she was booked to record advertising jingles. Then she landed backup gigs with superstars like Billy Joel, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, and disco artist Gloria Gaynor.
Garbo’s friend, composer Artie Resnick (who penned chart-topping hits “Under the Boardwalk” for The Drifters and “Good Lovin'” for The Rascals) in 1978 asked Garbo to provide vocal instruction for his wife, Susan.
She became Garbo’s first student, and Garbo’s practice grew by word-of-mouth. Today, Garbo’s students devote the first portion of each lesson with a series of 14 exercises that correct breathing and use the body to project the voice. Students then warm up singing scales with piano accompaniment. Students use the remainder of the 45-minute lesson to sing pieces they are preparing to perform, as Garbo coaches them on proper position of the jaw and tongue, pronunciation, and vocal techniques.
Garbo credits her Cabrini education—including a minor in secondary education and student teaching experience—with giving her the confidence and ability to become an instructor.
“Cabrini brought me to the point where I knew I could teach,” Garbo says. “Teaching is similar to performing. Whether it’s a great song or words of wisdom, unless you grab your audience’s ear, you can’t be heard.”
In the late 1980s, the Manhattan School of Music contacted Garbo regarding an open position as instructor of jazz and pop music. She accepted, and was a faculty member for 16 years. While teaching, she continued to perform at high-profile venues such as the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.; the 1989 Inaugural Ball for President George H.W. Bush; and upscale Manhattan hotels such as The Plaza, The Waldorf-Astoria, and The Pierre.
One of Garbo’s former students from the Manhattan School is launching the International Music College from her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, and she appointed Garbo head of the commercial vocal department. In her new role, Garbo soon will be teaching voice—via Skype—to students all over the world.
Today, Garbo sings with a few notable orchestras in New York, including The Peter Duchin Orchestra. She says it keeps her fresh because it provides variety.
“On these jobs, I do music from the Great American Songbook to rock ‘n’ roll and R&B,” says Garbo. “I get to do a whole gamut of styles.”
And after more than three decades, Garbo says she still beams when a student uses the knowledge she tries to impart, and improves vocally. “To see a student grow to the extent where they become a star, or become better than their potential, is so rewarding,” she says.
“The Norma Garbo Technique,” a comprehensive vocal lesson, is available on CD. For information, contact