A PIED PIPER FOR OUR TIMES by Sara Courtney
Everyone can sing. (Yes, even you.) Just ask Tim Welch.
Though it might strike the average person as wishful thinking, or perhaps just politeness, Tim Welch, who went to college to become a doctor before catching the music bug and switching from medicine to opera, insists that everyone has potential. Welch’s studio, which encourages students – from professional to novice – is proof of the effectiveness of his blend of vocal instruction and therapy: “Everybody can sing,” he declares. “That’s a big part of why I am super passionate about singing. Every single person in the world can get better at singing and can enjoy singing and have it be a part of their life.”
The Tim Welch Vocal Studio, which started in Maplewood for those seeking voice lessons, has had such tremendous success that Welch has expanded to seven locations, with his most recent studio opening in Jersey City. Welch and his voice instructors work with all ages and abilities. “In our program at the moment, we have 6-year-olds all the way up to 85-year-olds.”
The studio’s diverse community of students has a wide range of goals, but Welch has noticed a particular demographic that is drawn to it. “The part of us that’s growing the fastest are the adult hobbyists,” he says, estimating that 65 to 70 percent of his business is made up of adults seeking lessons for personal fulfillment.
Maplewood resident Brian Saber is one such adult hobbyist. Saber, who is 58 years old and spent his life in the nonprofit world, was used to public speaking. But singing? Not so much. “I had no background,” he explains. “I never sang in elementary school. I never sang in a musical. I never sang in a religious service or anything. I didn’t sing in the shower, in the car – nothing.” It wasn’t until four years ago, when Saber was looking to make some changes in his life, that he considered taking up singing lessons because it would be outside his comfort zone. Saber, whose son was already taking lessons with the studio, spoke with Welch about his hesitant interest. Four years later, Saber is still studying with Welch for an hour and a half each week.
Saber calls Welch’s approach “refreshing.” “What I love about Tim is that it starts and stops with the love for singing and brings an enjoyment and passion – it’s about joy. He’s not like some teachers who are going to browbeat you into just doing scales and scales and scales.”
South Orange resident Carla Barry-Austin, who has been studying at the studio for almost a year, always loved singing, but it wasn’t until after the birth of her second child that she considered taking lessons for herself. Feeling that she had a creative side that was not being nourished, she found that singing was an exciting and fulfilling endeavor. “It was like something awakened in me, and I was very happy to have this mentorship,” she says. “The school and all of the teachers are amazingly supportive.”
Welch has a theory on why many of his students have taken up singing as a hobby. “So many adults, when they get through the early stages of having young kids and they get through the desire of making a name and finding a place in life – a career or whatever quest they are on…they come to a place where they realize, wait a minute, I’ve spent my life doing everything for my kids, or my husband, or my wife or my career. What do I do for myself that makes me happy? What am I doing for myself that I love? What am I doing that I’m excited about the same way that I’m telling my kids they should do things they’re passionate about?” Welch compares this moment for adults to a light switch going on. He adds, “And that’s how they find us.”
Welch is passionate about personal growth and calls his lessons an inner journey as much as a vocal journey. He likens his approach to “a little bit like they went to therapy and a little bit like they had the best time singing.” The instructors encourage beginner students by relentlessly focusing on the positive. “The trick is to focus on what they are doing well, even if it’s a small thing, and then stretch that into other things by focusing more on the things that they can already do. It helps them feel more comfortable to do the work, which will add on more and more skills.”
Besides vocal instruction as such, Welch stresses the value of group dynamics. “I’ve always wanted to create a space where we didn’t separate them out by ability levels, but we all were together like a community,” he says, adding that “[t]he great singers who are really experienced are supportive of the beginner singers. And there is no judgment.” That’s why the studio hosts singing parties – where students gather together, hang out, and take turns performing a song of their choice. Less formal than recitals, they allow the adults to perform in a supportive environment. The parties started in person before the pandemic forced the studio to go remote, but the rollicking get-togethers have continued over Zoom.
“I waited a little more than a year to do my first party,” Saber recalls. “The first time I did it, I thought I would collapse,” he laughs. “Truly, when I finished singing, I literally had to hold on to the wall because my knees were shaking so badly. Afterwards Tim said, ‘Oh, that was great! You had so much vibrato!’ And I said to him, that wasn’t vibrato – my entire body was shivering from nerves!”
The chance to perform with others is also a thrill for Barry-Austin. After feeling nervous for her first singing party, she now looks forward to them. “It invigorates me to have something to work towards,” she says.
Part of Welch’s commitment to positive vocal training comes from his own background in opera training. Noting that he worked with some “real tough” instructors, he vowed to provide his students with an environment that doesn’t dwell on criticism. “When I’m hiring a new instructor, what I’m looking for is someone who has an energy that makes me want to spend time with them. They are inviting, and create a kind of warm, safe energy. And they are good at reading people.”
Being a teacher at the studio is a role lead instructor Brian Wiseman cherishes. “I say to every student that I am so grateful they allowed me into the journey when they went for their first lesson. Singing in front of a stranger the first time, it’s just the two of you in a room, and it’s one of the scariest things you can do. And they may be thinking that person is there to judge, and we are not. We are there to be a team and to help them. It’s really moving.” He adds, “We don’t take for granted how much trust they put in us.”
Welch has some advice for those considering getting outside their comfort zones and trying singing lessons. He encourages people to take time to imagine themselves doing it. “You have to get so excited about it that you’re just like, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I have to go through with it. Life is too short.’ A lot of times people will think of the thing they know they’d love to do, but they just don’t get to the place of actually pulling the trigger.”
Welch, with his relentless encouragement and assurance that yes, you can sing, insists with an excitement and joy that makes you think that perhaps it really is that simple. The trick, he says, is to get so very excited about it “that you can’t not do it. That’s the key, really.”
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. Her favorite song to unabashedly belt out is "Close To You" by The Carpenters.