Her belief is that everyone, no matter their amount of experience, is capable of singing
By Samantha Bambino
When Bensalem’s Rita Perez began studying under the esteemed Russell Faith, founder of the Newtown School of Music, she planned on being a star. But after spending nearly a decade under his tutelage, learning chord progression, songwriting and vocals, Perez experienced a revelation. She no longer wanted the spotlight to be on her. Rather, she wanted to help shine it on others.
Faith appointed Perez as the school’s first vocal coach, a position she has proudly held for 25 years. Though her mentor passed away in 2003, she has carried on his legacy as head master coach, working diligently to boost the confidence of her students through the art of singing.
“When I started teaching and seeing the difference that I could make with these little people, there’s just no better feeling than that. I feel like I’m changing the world. I’m not, just a small part of it,” Perez said. “It’s so rewarding. I don’t know that anything else could be more rewarding for me.”
In the midst of her busy schedule, which involves vocal and piano lessons at the Newtown School of Music, 120 S. State St., and her home, The Times sat down with Perez to learn about her vast experience in performance, her unique approach to teaching, and her belief that everyone is capable of singing whether they have raw ability or not.
When taking into consideration Perez’s upbringing in Philadelphia, her eventual career path comes as no surprise. While her mother was a homemaker, her father was a professional musician, as well as a barbershop owner.
“There was music in our house always. It was so wonderful growing up with music,” Perez said. “We had a baby grand, we had piano lessons, we had dance lessons, we had acting lessons. So I feel like I was doing this my entire life.”
Under the direction of Faith, Perez was able to hone her lifelong talents while embracing new ones such as writing music.
“He was a very quietly famous man, wrote for all of the stars,” she said. “It was such an honor to learn from him. He unlocked a door in my brain. He was such a great teacher and everyone loved him.”
When Perez accepted the role of vocal coach 25 years ago, she never dreamed that one day she’d be inspiring students in the same way. But that’s exactly what she has the pleasure of doing on a daily basis. Perez has taught aspiring vocalists as young as 4 and as old as 75, many of whom came to her with no natural talent.
“People think they have to have experience or raw ability. They do not,” she explained.
During a student’s first lesson, Perez asks them to sing a song of their choice. She’ll then lead them through various breathing exercises and mouth positions before they sing it again. According to Perez, their abilities are almost always improved, and the student is instantly more excited and confident.
“Not that they’re a professional singer, but they can hear the difference in their voice,” she said. “The biggest thing that stops people from coming in is fear, and that’s just a shame because after they have their first lesson with me, they walk out and they’re really so happy and exhilarated. It’s not what you think it’s going to be, and I hope other teachers are like that. But I teach in a very fun, non-pressure manner, especially the first lesson.”
So how does Perez help her students continue to build this early confidence?
“That takes a little bit of time, but I have a very unique program and I try to bring them out, I try to actually get to know them,” she said. “So I know what they’re most afraid of, try to reassure them that they’re not going to make a mistake and if they do, this is not surgery. We can make mistakes. That’s what I say. We can learn from them. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”
Throughout her years of teaching, Perez has encountered students from all walks of life. A 75-year-old retired journalist from New York came to her with a handful of original songs that he wanted to sing better. Though he moved to Florida after six months of lessons, he informed Perez that because of her instruction, he was able to book several gigs.
Watching her students go on to do bigger and better things has become something of a norm for Perez. Another student, who was 9 years old at the time, attended lessons even when she had a fever. But that drive paid off and she went on to star in the 2010 movie Standing Ovation.
“This kid was so determined. Now, she’s a beautiful grown woman. She’s successful, she’s done commercials, she’s interning for Broadway, she’s been in this movie. She just never stopped,” Perez said. “But I credit that to her mother, too. If people have the support of their parents and a good teacher, there’s no stopping them. They could do anything.”
Other students of Perez have gone on to appear on American Idol and take home titles in local competitions. In addition to grooming future stars, Perez works with students who have autism, Parkinson’s, speech deficits or heavy accents they wish to eliminate. According to Perez, singing also helps to improve symptoms of depression, releases endorphins just as exercise does, and strengthens the immune system.
“It’s great to help people that are in need of help. It’s not just about singing,” she said. “There’s a variety of reasons why people take voice lessons.” ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com