Vocal Coach Elizabeth Sabine, the Heavy Metal Grandma, Teaches Speech and Screech
05/15/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Neighbors have grown used to the scene. First, a car pulls up to the curb on the quiet tree-lined street. Next, a longhaired guy in leather and tattoos emerges and knocks on the door of a modest white cottage. A 65-year-old grandmother opens the door and lets him in. Moments later, the sounds begin. Ominous sounds. Moans. Wails. Screeches. Screams of "GO AWAY! DROP DEAD! I DIE! I DIE! I DIE!" Murder? Mayhem? Yet more suburban S & M parlor games? Something much heavier than that. This is, in fact, the North Hollywood home of a sweet little almost-old lady named Elizabeth Sabine, voice teacher to some of metal rock's weightiest dudes—and dames. "I've been so lucky," Sabine says. "Before I got to be known as the Auntie Mame of Metal, I was known as a practitioner of 'the science of electro-vocal energy.' Nobody was taking any notice of me."
Now Sabine, whose vocal coaching sometimes resembles primal-scream therapy, has attracted a notable roster of clients, both belters and speakers, rockers and actors. Guns n' Roses' serpentine frontman, Axl Rose, sought her aid to strengthen the high notes in his voice. L.A. Law's Alan Rachins, says Sabine, wanted help developing a "cold-blooded, almost robotic" speaking voice. A "somewhat reticent, withdrawn" Priscilla Presley needed coaching because a Dallas director couldn't hear her on the set. Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, Keel's Ron Keel, and Betsy, lead singer of the all-girl metal group Bitch, are other hard rockers who have submitted to Sabine, who, along with more traditional voice techniques, encourages her students to go for the emotional gusto locked up in the subconscious and early childhood memories. "Pretend you're 6 years old, your cat's dead, and your father's taking no notice of you," she urges up-and-coming rocker Michael Black. "Mean it more. Use more self-pity. Cry!"
In other words, don't grow up. "Children have the secret of singing," Sabine says. "Adults have a communication hang-up because of screams they didn't let out when they were children. I take inhibited boys and girls with enforced low voices and get some cries coming out of them. I'm giving back to people the voices they were born with."
Along with all the childishness, students receive some grandmotherly advice for their $75 hourly fee. "Drink plenty of hot tea, get lots of rest," she says. Other advice is less grandmotherly. "To have a strong voice," she says, "you've got to kick ass. You have to be a little more assertive, a little noisier."
That lesson is based on her own experience. As a child, "I didn't have much self-esteem," says Sabine, who was born in London but grew up in Australia, where her family immigrated in 1924. Raised by a Victorian-minded mum after her father's death in 1932, Sabine didn't enjoy what one would call a rock-and-roll upbringing. "I was a virgin until I was 25," she says. "In those days it wasn't difficult. What with mother's influence, ideas of purity and the feeling that sex was really quite an ordeal, it did keep me on the straight and narrow."
After early jobs as a dental nurse, magician's assistant, singer and sweater model—"I had a nice bosom," she says—Sabine, married at 27 and widowed at 37, supported two sons working as a cruise-ship social director and entertainer.
Immigrating to L.A. in 1974, at 51, she learned what she calls the "electro-vocal energy" voice technique from Bob Mazzarella, a singing teacher who prodded her to overcome an "unwillingness to make a big noise. I would come out with a ladylike 'ahh.' " Sabine says it took her two years to learn to power-sing. Some of her first students were rockers; in order to teach them, she first learned to mimic their musical heroes, who "seemed to be holding their breath while doing this wailing." She says she was perplexed by the sounds that some soul singers achieved until she learned that "I had to open my throat so wide it was like I was throwing up. In fact, I was throwing up one night when I realized, 'Oh, this is how Patti LaBelle does it!' "
Sabine, who for the past nine years has taught voice to acting students at the Strasberg Institute, says her current ambition is to open a chain of schools offering expert training at affordable rates. But on a cash-only basis. In the past she has let some rockers labor for their lessons, a practice she is phasing out. "They would leave the yard half raked or just walk away, complaining about the work. I'm getting a little tougher about getting them to save for their lessons. If it's worth having," Sabine says, in a burst of grand-motherliness, "it's worth saving for."
—Steve Dougherty, Stanley Young in North Hollywood