Joy to the World

Like many great singers, Joy T. Barnum started in church. She still remembers how she felt at age 9, when she and her sister. Ruth Hetsberger. sang I Cast All My Cares Upon You before the entire congregation of Midland Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“I was so nervous I was crying,” she said, explaining that performing before a crowd wasn’t the issue. “I didn’t know if I could hit any of the high notes.”

She survived the ordeal, but then had to face another.

Her mother, Mellonie Furbert, signed her and her sister up for piano lessons with their uncle, Daniel Hill.

“I hated piano. [Eventually] I asked her, ‘Why are you wasting your money? Stop paying for piano lessons that I hate.’

“She and my uncle got together and said they would let me have a go at voice lessons.

“He would give me a soundtrack and leave me in the room and tell me to sing: ‘Louder! Louder!’”

Ms Barnum added: “He challenged me to the limits I thought my voice had.”

The training helped with her solos in churches.

She sang at her sister’s graduation from Bermuda Institute where a scout from Oakwood University heard her and offered a music scholarship to the Huntsville, Alabama school.

There, she joined The Aeolians, a touring ensemble known for its “choral music repertoire from the Baroque era to the 21st century”.

“We sang for the Clintons at the White House; we sang everywhere,” said Ms Barnum, who learnt while singing with the choir that she was a soprano and not a tenor as was originally thought.

“They got a shoutout at this year’s Grammys from Jacob Collier who used them for his rendition of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long and called them ‘the greatest choir on earth’.”

Also performing on the song were the a cappella gospel group Take 6, who are Oakwood almuni.

“It’s the same choir, the same acumen, the same drive, the same desire for excellence as when I studied under Ginger Beazley.”

Now retired, Dr Beazley taught voice at Oakwood before founding Ars Nova School of the Arts.

A soprano, who studied under many of the world’s greatest, her speciality was training singers for opera and musical theatre.

“As a student she told me, ‘I believe your voice is in the same realm as Whitney Houston,” Ms Barnum explained.

“As long as you don’t do bad things [to it], it can last for ever’.

“Dr Beazley said: ‘You’re gonna be a soloist. You’re not made to blend your voice with anyone else’s’.

“She just always believed in me and, after Daniel Hill, she was the only vocal instructor I had during my formative years,” Ms Barnum added.

It’s to the 83-year-old that she turned for help after she received a long-hoped-for invitation to be part of this year’s Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.

Dr Beazley gave her voice lessons over Skype in preparation for tonight and tomorrow night’s shows, when she will open for The Four Phantoms.

“[In 2008] the Bermuda [International Film] Festival brought in Odetta, the most amazing folk singer.

“I had never heard of her. She [was famous in the 1970s and] had been rediscovered and performed here and in the same year she passed away.”

It was all the inspiration Ms Barnum needed to perform on one of Bermuda’s grand stages.

The annual performing arts festival seemed to be an appropriate goal, but she didn’t think it accepted Bermudian entertainers.

“The next year, they had Gita Blakeney and the Wall Street Band and I said, ‘I want to do this.’”

She was finally invited last year by David Skinner, the festival chairman.

He learnt about her after she started performing outside the church.

As lead singer of a rock band, Joy T. Barnum and the Channel, she got a spotlight.

“Other than that, nobody would’ve heard of me,” she said. “I would’ve been the girl singing at church.”

In 2010, Heather Nova asked her to join her European tour; throughout it all, Ms Barnum wrote her own songs.

“I try not to cry when I sing, but there isn’t a part of me I leave backstage when I go onstage,” she said. “I’m giving it everything and I’m getting it back.

“Someone could’ve had a long day and be there yawning and tired, but they’re there to see me and I want them to enjoy it.

“Even when touring with Heather, not everyone spoke English, but it doesn’t have to be your first language.

Ms Barnum added: “I can sing and [emotions will shine through].

“It’s not within me to not put it all out there. If there’s pain, if there’s heartbreak, you’re gonna hear about it.”

As such, she’s promising Bermuda two nights of fantastic entertainment at the Fairmont Southampton when she will be joined by Angela Sainsbury on grand piano, Brian Swan on upright bass and Jenia Thompson on cello.

Amethyst Richardson, her stylist for the concerts, has sourced clothes from a Bulgarian designer.

“I’m gonna put on a show,” Ms Barnum said. “I know what I want, know what I aim and strive for — the same Aeolian precision, the same training I was taught to do [with The Aeolians but] without the other 249 voices behind me.

“I know if all of them were the phantom at some time in Phantom of the Opera, they’ve got chops, so I’ve got to bring it.”

Her father, Alan Henry Barnum, is flying in from Mexico for tomorrow night’s show.

Her mother will also be there with her husband, Andrew Furbert; Ms Barnum’s sister will bring her husband, Ulric Hetsberger, and their twin daughters, Elizabeth and Grace.

Although keeping her songs a secret, she says she will follow a strategy learnt in her early performance days.

In 2004, as the first runner-up in the Bermuda Idol competition, a title she shared with Twanée Butterfield, she was invited to open for violinist Karen Briggs as part of the Bermuda Music Festival.

“I sang a ballad and it was mine; it wasn’t a cover. [Ms Briggs popped her head in the door] and said, ‘Starting off with a ballad? Bold!’.”

The experience taught her to “open with the familiar”.

“I’m singing four songs,” Ms Barnum said. “I will open with a Phantom of the Opera piece and everything else is going to be a beautiful surprise.”

She’s especially grateful to Gita Blakeney-Saltus, the festival’s deputy chairman, who used her own make-up to style the singer before one of her first shows and released her carefully created curls into a ‘fro.

“The look she gave me, along with my performance, worked,” Ms Barnum said. “She’s my fairy godmother.

She has always supported me. She’s amazing.”

• Joy T. Barnum will perform at the Fairmont Southampton hotel tonight and tomorrow at 8pm.