By Rebecca Stout

Rebecca Stout[Editor's note: Rebecca Stout began singing for audiences in exchange for Barbie doll money when she was six years old. She traveled throughout the southeast performing Loretta Lynn songs with her mother at music festivals, dance halls and senior centers. Growing up near Nashville, Tennessee she later became a sought after background singer, harmony arranger and session vocalist, known for her four-octave range and impeccable sense of pitch, timing and blend. She also is an amazing flat foot dancer and teacher. Check out her website.]

As I wracked my brain this morning trying to come up with the perfect words to tell you how much Trudy Israel means to me as a director, friend and mentor, I began to cry. The tears just came pouring out. I remembered so many of the major life experiences I have survived with the help of Trudy Israel and Nevenka. It’s a miracle this group has been together so long. It’s a miracle I was ever accepted into in the first place. It’s a miracle I’ve stuck with it for fifteen years. It’s a miracle I haven’t lost my mind. It’s a miracle I surrender my “artistic vision” to Nevenka on a weekly basis. It’s a miracle that Nevenka continues to support me, no matter how often I fall short. But Trudy Israel has shown me something: I CAN BECOME.

Have I told you the story of how I lied my way into Nevenka? In 2003, fresh from growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, I came to Los Angeles seeking an expansion of my “musical horizons”. During my free time I began scanning Craigslist every day, looking for interesting musical opportunities. I was blown away when I saw this ad: “Alto Singer Wanted for Balkan Women’s Choir. “ Not something you’d see in Nashville, that’s for sure. I immediately responded to the ad with my impressive resume of background vocal work, including the fact that I’d been performing Bulgarian music for over ten years. Well, sort of. I left out the part about how I only knew one Bulgarian song. And that was the one I had been performing for the past ten years, when the occasional need for some random Balkan singing arose back in Tennessee. Basically, I was hoping I could fake my way in.

I was terrified when I went to the audition and realized there was no way I could fake my way in. I sang my one Balkan song for Trudy and her assistant director, Jennifer Jurick. They very sweetly told me that it was really nice and kind of “jazzy.” They let me sing one more, an Appalachian ballad of my choice. At this point Trudy told me very politely that she didn’t think I could ever sing Bulgarian music because of my southern accent. “There are no diphthongs in Balkan singing.” she patiently explained, “But I like your voice, so I think we will give it a try for a few months on a trial basis”. Looking back, I see it was a miracle that Nevenka had chosen, for the first time, after 25 years of being together, to place an ad for an alto singer. They never did it again, because they haven’t been able to get rid of me yet. Looking back, I see it was a miracle they ever accepted me in the first place. I didn’t even know what a diphthong was.

Over the past fifteen years I’ve learned so much more from Trudy Israel and Nevenka than I ever bargained for. I’ve learned that I need music in order to breathe and attempt having healthy relationships with other human beings. I’ve learned that not getting what I want is sometimes a good thing, if I can allow myself to step back and watch the fascinating results. I’ve learned about the wound-healing power of harmony singing. I’ve learned that just showing up regularly and trusting my sister singers to do the right thing is half the battle. I’ve learned to speak up for myself, which is not always a pretty thing. And that’s ok. I’ve learned to listen better and better and better and better and better. And better. Of course, I’ve also learned what a diphthong is. And no, you do not check your oil with it or wear it to avoid panty lines or look sexy.

But most of all, I’ve learned to check my ego at the door once a week and enjoy the wild ride that is Nevenka. I’m not always successful, but Trudy constantly reminds me that I’m amazing. That’s her super power. She has a way of making everyone around her feel special and important. She sees the big picture. She tells me, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. She’s taught me that singing the same song, in a foreign language, over and over for decades on end while attempting to perfect it can be a Zen art form, if I can only surrender and enjoy the journey. It’s a miracle I haven’t lost my mind. It’s a miracle Nevenka continues to accept and support me in my journey, no matter how often I fall short.

What the heck is “artistic vision” anyway? Artistic vision is seeing things not as they are, but as what they might become. A true artist will often spend decades honing and perfecting their vision in a never ending search for the best possible representation of their ideal. I believe that Trudy Israel is an artist of the most authentic kind. I feel so blessed to somehow be a continuing part of her artistic vision, as she encourages me to seek my own with integrity. I feel lucky to be given this moment to publicly say: Trudy Israel, thank you for giving me the opportunity, at least once a week, to attempt to BECOME my better self, while singing. It’s really a miracle, isn’t it?