Vocal coach for the stars tells her story


Norma Garbo, vocal coach of the stars, has over the course of her career life worked with renowned musicians including Tommy James, who rose to fame in the 1960s with the Shondells; Melba Moore; Eddie Kendricks, a founding member of the Temptations; reggae star Jimmy Cliff, and many more.

Garbo gave lessons to a young Taylor Swift. She has worked with actors such as Lori Loughlin on the art of proper cadence and vocal range.

Garbo has been a performer as well, a backing vocalist for Billy Joel and actor Danny Aiello and many others, who also toured with a group of her own, Garbo the Band.

And she got her start right in Freeport, in the high school music program.

“I was in every choral group in Freeport High School,” said Garbo, who now lives in Manhattan. “The mixed choral group, the select chorus, the madrigal chorus … I was the only alto in Freeport that got into the all-state chorus.”

“I have young students now, and they don’t have music programs in their schools,” the now 73-year-old said. “I think music programs saves people’s lives.”

Garbo was born in Freeport in 1951, shortly after her parents moved to the village, and she attended local schools from kindergarten on, graduating from Freeport High in 1968. She went on to attend Cabrini University in Radnor, Pennsylvania, where she majored in English.

At first she thought she might be an English teacher. “But I thought that was kind of boring,” she said. “So I went to graduate school for theater in order to get my master’s in theater, and then I figured, well, I’ll be an English teacher who also teaches theater.”

But Garbo was encouraged by her partner at the time, Jimmie Young, who was a musician, to take vocal lessons. “He said, ‘With a voice like that, you should be a singer,’” she recalled. She was initially hesitant about the idea, concerned about the competitiveness of the music industry.

Garbo worked with two music teachers in New York City for several, taking voice lessons and learning to read and write music. She supported herself by working at an advertising agency as an assistant to the casting director.

Her big break came when Billy Joel hired her to work as a backup singer in 1978, and she performed with him most memorably at three concerts at Carnegie Hall.

“Billy was the sweetest guy in the world,” Garbo recounted. “You know … Long Island boy! I felt like he was the guy next door — he was great.”

That was the end of her work at the advertising agency, because that was when the job offers for vocal work started pouring in.

“Once I said, ‘Now I’m a singer’ … then the jobs just kept coming in,” Garbo said. “I think the way you perceive yourself is the way the world sees you … and if you say, oh, I’m studying to be a singer, no one’s going to take you seriously.”

Garbo would go on to sing with groups such as the Peter Duchin Orchestra and the Danny La Rue band. She performed at President George H.W. Bush’s inaugural ball, and at the Robert Kennedy Human Rights golf tournament. Garbo remembers how surreal it felt walking through Ethel Kennedy’s home and looking at Kennedy family photos.

Garbo also worked with the acclaimed pop band the Scissor Sisters, and has both their gold and platinum records, gifts from the group, hanging on her wall.

These days, she is looking forward to watching her student Raye Zaragoza perform in “Peter Pan” on Broadway.

“It’s always a thrill for me to sit in a Broadway theater and see a student on stage,” she said.

Asked about the effect a lifetime of music has had on her worldview, Garbo said, “It sure has gotten me through a lot of stuff … you have the ability to belt out a song or play an instrument, and the stress goes out the window.”

“Join a chorus, join a band, join an orchestra,” she advises. “It keeps kids off the streets doing bad things, you know?"

What music does is it gives it gives people an intelligence …,” she added, “because when you’re analyzing music, it’s almost mathematical, you know, to read music. You have to develop your analytical skills. And I think that’s why the smartest kids that I went to school with, you know, 80 percent of them were musicians.”

She noted that music can serve as an outlet, and a way to work through negative emotions.

“Pick up an instrument, learn how to read music, sing,” Garbo said. “Sing in the shower, do anything. Music can be the best therapy in the world.”

Garbo can contacted at her website, vocalcoachgarbo.com.