As a child, Laura Landsberg never had to think about what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“That’s because I always identified myself as a singer,” she says.
Landsberg will retire this spring from 20 years of teaching singing at the Selkirk College music program in Nelson. It’s hard to leave, she says, because of the emotional bonds she shares with her students.
“I have shepherded many students through the years and had wonderful connections with them. I was a bit like their Nelson mama. The love that I would feel from them has been amazingly wonderful.”
The two-year Selkirk College Contemporary Music and Technology program enrols about 70 students per year from Canada and elsewhere. Landsberg and the other instructors guide them through a world much different from when she went to music school.
Then, if you wanted to be a singer, you just studied singing. If you wanted to be a sound technician, you learned about sound. In the days of record company contracts, you didn’t have to think much about such things as marketing or graphic design.
Now, a beginning musician has to learn it all.
“Computer skills, production software, marketing skills, performance skills, writing and composing. Now it is very difficult, the number of hours you have to put in,” Landsberg says.
She says the number of hours comes as a surprise to some students.
“A lot of people that come to music school don’t realize that it is going to be hard work and they are not just coming to jam. I mean, there is jamming after class, but there is a lot of homework and it is hard, it takes a lot of focus and energy.”
She has tried to help with this by offering motivation and enthusiasm.
“One of Laura’s greatest gifts as an educator,” says fellow faculty member Don Macdonald, “is her ability to energize those around her with her unbridled passion for music and her tireless work ethic.”
Singing with the whole body
Landsberg’s main message to student singers is that their voice is connected to the rest of their body.
“The biggest issue for students is to be entirely present and balanced in their own human body,” she says.
This means learning about the way the voice functions in the whole body, integrated with the hips, the shoulders, the breath, the whole system, she says.
If a singer has had an injury or a psychological trauma, or has simply picked up a bad physical habit, the body will compensate and adjust so it can carry on. But for a singer, this comes at a price, Landsberg says.
“This gets in the way of smooth, connected, functional singing.”
Working with students on bodily awareness — a practice known as somatic voice work — involves “a kind of neurological unwinding.”
For example, she says she doesn’t simply tell people to stand up straighter. Instead she might tell them to put their arms up as though catching a ball, and sing while doing it. They are often startled by the difference.
“They will be like ‘Whoa, what just happened?’”
One big Kootenay family
Landsberg already had a deep connection to the West Kootenay before joining Selkirk College in 2003.
She was born in England, then moved with her mother to B.C. when she was eight after her parents separated. Landsberg’s father is the Juno Award-winning trombonist, bandleader, and Order of Canada member Ian McDougall.
She moved with her mother and two siblings to the Slocan Valley and a kind of life that has become part of the valley’s distinctive story — young urbanites going back to the land and living communally.
“Milking cows, grinding our own grain — there were 12 of us in a one-room cabin through one winter,” Landsberg says.
Her childhood and youth also included travelling to Mexico with her mother in a converted school bus, residing for a year in Europe with her grandparents, and living in a tipi in Lillooet.
At 18, Landsberg moved to Edmonton to join a band, then studied music at Grant McEwan College. After separating from her husband, she eventually brought her two daughters back West Kootenay, where she spent her time performing, teaching voice and running an accounting service.
At the first Kaslo Jazz Festival in 1992 Landsberg played a gig on the floating stage just ahead of a band led by Paul Landsberg, a jazz guitarist who had moved to Nelson in 1989 from New York to start the Selkirk music program.
They met, got married, blended their families — he had three daughters and she had two, all a year apart — and then had another daughter. Paul Landsberg retired from Selkirk College in 2017.
The couple now has six grandchildren, ages one to 15, all living in the area.
Macdonald says the size of her family has not slowed Landsberg down at the college.
“You would think that someone with such a large family would need to take a break now and then,” he says. “But Laura is always one of the first to leap into action when things need doing.”
Practice and distraction
Landsberg says one of the things she teaches Selkirk students is how to practice.
“That is a hard one for a lot of musicians, having a good relationship with practising. It is really takes a lot of emotional and mental growth to have a good relationship to practising your instrument so it doesn’t feel like drudgery.”
But often a breakthrough comes when the student first sees the results.
“That excitement that one feels when you get something – when that happens, I say OK, if you do this, even this much every day, that will happen way more.”
Landsberg has seen changes in music students over the past 20 years. Because there is less music taught in elementary and secondary schools, students have less background knowledge and skills.
Student musicians are more likely to learn to play by themselves in front of a computer and watching YouTube videos as opposed to starting a band and playing in the garage.
They are also increasingly distracted. Landsberg says this takes a toll on their studies, but she has adopted an empathic approach to this.
“I myself am way more distracted than I have ever been, and I think for students to be living in this chaotic, distracted, digital world makes it more difficult to stay focused on the work.”
A future of more learning
Landsberg, who has released two albums during her time at Selkirk, plans to continue performing and recording.
She considered writing a memoir, but instead has decided on a multimedia project that would combine music, poetry, imagery and film.
“I want to redefine myself as an artist through the exploration of reading and writing poetry to tell my story.”
She has travelled abroad to take courses in somatic voice work, and has been studying a method of breath work taught by an innovator in Switzerland.
“I was blown away by the transformation in my own body, and I had to get rid of 45 years of incorrect vocal technique that were buried in my muscles. So I decided to do the training.”
That will take a year and a half, and then she hopes to combine that new knowledge with other body-centred voice work to mentor singers and singing teachers in the West Kootenay.
Those six grandchildren are also a priority.
“The heart-opening experience of having grandchildren is a beautiful thing and I look forward to strengthening the special bond I have with them.”
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