Walk into Debbie Bello’s voice studios in Orchard Park, and you’ll be treated to a symphony of sound. For years the voice coach taught voice lessons to people of all ages. Bello learned to sing as a child in Silver Creek, starting with piano lessons at age 5 and adding voice training by age 7. It wasn’t too long before she set her eyes on “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. As a voice coach, Bello continues her mastery of the anthem, challenging her students and encouraging them to perform the difficult song at local stadiums.
Bello is a devoted teacher who has escorted her students to cities throughout the Northeast for “American Idol” auditions. This month, she will perform with her students at two events: next Sunday for an acoustic show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Niagara Falls; and Feb. 16 at Ralph Wilson Stadium Fieldhouse in Orchard Park for a Hunter’s Day of Hope benefit show.
Bello is 48 and the mother of three grown children.
People Talk: Why do so many singers suffer anthem angst?
Debbie Bello: The anthem is difficult because it is performed a cappella. The national anthem is an octave and a half, so you have to power up to sing it, and belt out the notes. The lower you start, the better chance you have of powering up the words “glare” and “free.”
PT: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
DB: Singers who mispronounce the word “perilous.”
PT: When did you make the anthem your specialty?
DB: I used to sing it for the Bisons, the Blizzard, the Buffalo Destroyers. I used to sing it all the time. Now every year, at least one of my students sings the anthem at Bills games. The boy who sang it last year is deaf. He’s also made it on “American Idol” and “X Factor.”
PT: How long does it take to sing the anthem?
DB: One minute 30 seconds.
PT: How do you prepare students for stadium echoes?
DB: That’s my favorite part. I drive them crazy. At Coca-Cola Field and Ralph Wilson Stadium, you hear your voice maybe 2 to 3 seconds after you sing because of the echo. So when they sing, I sing the same words in their face three seconds after they do. Then at the stadium I tell them to tap their foot, or to bring an earplug or put one hand over one ear to help block out the echo. And I tell the girls to tie their hair back because those fields are usually pretty windy.
PT: How do you prepare your voice?
DB: I have a warm-up CD of 25 vocal exercises. If I were going to sing for the Bisons, I’d sing in the car all the way down there.
PT: Who did the best version of the anthem at the Super Bowl?
DB: No one will ever be able to top Whitney [Houston’s] anthem, and for the longest time I thought it was live. It wasn’t. It was pretaped. Either way, it was amazing because from that point on every person who went out to sing the anthem did it their own way. She was the turning point. I still get chills.
PT: Who today has the best anthem voice?
DB: I don’t think Jennifer Hudson did a great job with the anthem until the end. Christina Aguilera made up her own words. It’s something I tell my students: If you make a mistake, don’t stop. It’s funny at Bisons games, they have the words for the anthem on the scoreboard, but they are delayed. Another thing I teach is: Your job is to pump up those thousands of people in the stadium. Get them excited to watch a game. When you get to the word “free” you are not done yet. The rest of the song (“and the home of the brave”) must be louder.
PT: What are your thoughts on lip-synchronization?
DB: I hate it. People are either lovers or haters of Justin Bieber, and that’s great. Honestly, I think he has a pretty good voice. I don’t know how he keeps it as high as it is being as old as he is. But when he’s out and he’s singing and bouncing all over the stage, he’s lip-syncing. So I’m thinking, why pay all this money to listen to him in concert? If you’re out there, sing your own songs and sing them live. Taylor Swift is another one, though I think she sings more than she originally did. She’s a better writer than singer.
PT: So you think that we as consumers are subjected to more lip-syncing than we realize.
DB: Definitely. There are even auto-tune microphones. You go into a studio and record a song and if you’re off by a little bit – flat or sharp or something – you’d be completely on pitch with an auto-tune microphone.
PT: How difficult is it to find age-appropriate songs for children to sing?
DB: I’m pretty careful about what I let the kids sing, but that’s all that’s on the radio, inappropriate songs. They try to sing them with emotion, but it’s tough because they haven’t experienced what the song is about. The Kidz Bop versions are clean and more relevant to their age. Or sometimes we’ll sit down and read the lyrics together. They think they’re about their dog or Grandma.
PT: What singing styles do you teach?
DB: Everything but Screamo music. We do pop, country, Broadway, R&B, rap, classical, Christian. There’s nothing I can’t teach. I’m so happy my mom gave me the piano lessons.
PT: What’s your take on the “American Idol” selection process?
DB: They’re looking for someone they can mold. Look at Kelly Clarkson. The day she performed “Natural Woman” and she did a whistle tone? I knew at that moment she owned it. Mariah Carey started whistle tones.
PT: Tell me about your “Idol” road trips.
DB: Ten years to Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orlando. This year we went to “X Factor” in Rhode Island instead of “Idol.” We always stand in line the night before. If you go the second day, you’ll be sure to sit in that second tier of the arena. The lower you are, the sooner you audition. Out of the 13 who went to Rhode Island, six made it to the next round.
PT: What’s key to surviving the overnights?
DB: No rain. Last year it was an absolute torrential downpour. If the child is 18 or under, the parents have to go, too. The parents were suffering.
PT: Can you cook out?
DB: No, we bring water, but some people bring guitars and we sing. Standing in line is bad, but if it’s not raining out it’s so much fun. You can get the entire line – thousands of people – all singing the same song. One year it was “Rolling in the Deep.” “Lean on Me” is another big one.