Go up, down or a little way off Main Street in downtown Ventura, and you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars that host a variety of musical talent. As long, that is, as the talent is 21 and older.
But what about 20 and younger?
There’s not much for young musicians, a reality that led veteran TV producer Jeffrey Willerth to develop the NambaYouth series. These performance workshops at the Namba Performing Arts Space on South Oak Street not only highlight the musical talents of young vocalists and musicians, but allow these performers to interact with the audience.
“There is so much young talent around,” says Willerth, who became Namba’s administrator earlier this year. “But young people don’t have a lot of places — outside school, where they are more restricted in what they can and cannot play — to perform in front of audiences. So they shoot video of themselves, post to YouTube and garner an audience in that manner. Which is fine, but they don’t receive much meaningful feedback or encouragement.
“These workshops give them the chance not just to perform under the lights with a live audience, but to tell the audience about the music they do, and then to receive feedback right away, which is so important to helping them really develop and grow and develop that next level of their specific talent. It’s one thing to sing in the shower, quite another to sing before a crowd of people staring at you.”
The intimacy of performing live in the 100-seat Namba theater makes a difference in the development of the young singers and musicians, says vocal coach Jodi Farrell, whose Vocal Studio in midtown Ventura is collaborating with Namba in presenting the workshops.
“It’s about the interaction between artist and audience,” says Farrell, who performs regularly in the area herself. “It’s about making the song more believable for both the performer and the audience. The kids grow by performing in front of others, and that’s a whole different experience than simply singing at home or in my studio or at school.”
The young performers who participate are grateful for the opportunity, not simply to showcase their own talents but to engage with and learn from the audience.
“We’d never performed by ourselves outside of school until we played here,” grins 18-year-old drummer David Krieger, whose jazz quartet O.K. Service played at the inaugural Namba showcase in June. “We had that freedom to play what we wanted to play, anything from old-school standards to modern fusion. And being able to talk about what we do with the audience was really helpful.”
A student of noted local drummer/percussionist Al Velasquez, Krieger and his bandmates — newly graduated from Moorpark High School — “are still talking about how much we enjoyed that experience.”
In the NambaYouth series workshops, each performer is allowed 15-20 minutes to sing or play four or five songs, to share his or her feelings or attitudes about the music with the audience, and to dialogue with audience members about what and how they did. Performances are also taped for airing on local public access television, says Willerth, enabling “those who can’t attend for whatever reason to enjoy young local talent.”
The notion of “engaging with the audience, talking to them, getting their feedback,” is what drew 16-year-old Sarah Clench, a student at Ventura High School and a vocal student of Farrell, to perform a mix of older and current songs in the Aug. 18 concert.
“I like to break songs down so I can make them new and bring myself into it,” says Clench. “That allows me to share them in a more personal way with the audience, so they get my connection to the music, and that helps us connect better with each other. And I feel like I grow as a singer.”
Recently, Clench and other musicians had the opportunity to participate in a community service project by visiting local nursing homes.
“A lot of people there are living with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” she notes, “but through music you can reach them in a place, a deeper part of their brain, they normally wouldn’t be, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And that’s what I want to do — connect with people. So I appreciate the opportunities Namba offers through these workshops.”
Clench hopes to major in music and chemical engineering in college, and Farrell points out that performing in front of live audiences and receiving feedback will serve her and other young artists well, regardless of the career path they choose.
“The beauty of musical performing,” she says, “is that it develops not only your talent, it builds confidence and self-esteem that you can bring into other areas of your life. I have some really talented 14-, 15-, 16-year-old singers who need that chance to develop not just their musical gifts but the self-confidence to handle situations outside of music. These workshops are a wonderful springboard and opportunity for them.”
The next NambaYouth workshop is scheduled for Sept. 15. Willerth aims to make Namba a key part of Ventura’s performing arts scene. A veteran TV and film producer, writer and actor whose credits include Babylon 5 and The Amazing Race, Willerth wants to enhance Namba’s role and legacy as “a multidisciplinary place to tell and share culturally relevant stories” through the arts, including dance and theater as well as music, while offering something unique to the local music scene.
“My dad’s business was in direct-mail marketing — yes, junk mail,” he smiles. “But I learned from that how to connect specific content to specific audiences. Now I get to apply that skill set at Namba, taking the same steps to structure storytelling that is compelling, smart and engaging for the audience and performer, making it participatory in a way that serves the needs of everyone.”
Namba Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak St., Ventura. For more information on the NambaYouth series and other events, call 805-628-9250 or visit nambaarts.com.