Ayana Haviv has multiple musical personalities. The Grammy Award winner works as an ensemble singer and soloist with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
But she’s also a session singer who’s recorded countless film and TV soundtracks, from “Avatar” to “The Lorax” to “Wreck It Ralph,” moving easily from ethereal solo and background tracks to klezmer, Jewish traditional music and Middle Eastern melodies, as well as South African and Bulgarian women’s folk music, jazz, Baroque and Renaissance stylings. She’s even been a pop singer who’s written her own music.
A Santa Monica resident, Ayana’s eclectic career wasn’t exactly what her parents had in mind for her. “In my family, you became a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher; being a singer was not on the radar,” she told me in an interview that took place in October this year.
Ayana was born in Jerusalem and spent half her youth traveling between the U.S. and Israel. She always “sang along with the radio, like everyone else,” but she decided on an academic career, pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA after undergrad work at Cal Berkeley.
“I thought the only way to have a career singing was in a rock band or as an opera singer, never being able to live in just one place, which wasn’t compatible with having children, which is something I’d always wanted. So I just kind of ruled out the idea of becoming a professional singer. I never realized it was possible to sing in a lot of different places but still live in just one.”
Marrying her high school sweetheart, before the kids came along they tried their hand at creating a pop band, and “we had fun but that didn’t work out. We didn’t work quickly enough in our songwriting and it became clear we’d need day jobs.”
Her husband became a lawyer, and she went on to grad school.
All along, she’d been singing in choirs and studying voice and music history. Through UCLA’s ethnomusicology department she studied with one of the top Bulgarian singers in the world and joined the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. Eventually this training would lead to her Grammy.
After UC Berkeley, she thought it would be fun to audition for Los Angeles Master Chorale, then under the musical direction of Paul Salamunovich. But she’d not yet mastered the art of sight reading, the ability to look at any piece of music and sing it at first sight. “I always cheated my way through the choirs,” she laughed. “I’m a soprano, there’s a melody; I used my ear.”
But when Salamunovich showed her different key signatures, she had no idea what they were. He told her she had a really good voice, and should come back and audition for him once she learned to sight read. He also told her to get the book, “Melodia.”
“It’s a fantastic sight reading book,” she said, “which has lessons from easy to hard, and you just keep going and going until you master it. When I decided to audition again seriously, I got the book, went through it cover to cover for several hours a day before the two kids came along. After another audition I got into LAMC.”
It wasn’t until she became a “ringer,” a singer hired to join a choir for special occasions, that she learned about session singing, which requires sight singing. “Churches do this for Sunday services if they have the budget and on the high holidays, Jewish temples also hire singers.”
Wondering whether the other high holiday ringers made a living singing, they shared their experience as studio session singers. “They told me how to record a demo with my different styles, how to get it to the right people,” and because of her vocal flexibility, she’s received a wide array of studio work.
Among her long list of credits are two Little Mermaid character voice solos on the album “Disney on Broadway,” and she’s recorded with prolific film and television composers like Grammy winner Danny Elfman and Oscar winner Michael Giacchino.
Ayana’s grateful she’s based in Santa Monica. “My live music career is centered around downtown L.A., but there are actually a lot of film composers who have studios in Santa Monica, so I do a fair amount of recording work around here.”
And her children benefit too. “One of the things that attracted me to this area was the reputation of the arts in the school system here. I’m very happy to be sending my kids to a public school system with such a great arts and music program.”
Her many different vocal capabilities make her an in-demand solo singer. But there is an art to singing in a group.
“When I get into a choral situation, I tend to sing a bit more quietly and usually tame the vibrato, although Grant (Gershon, the music director of LAMC) really lets us sing, he doesn’t make us get completely swallowed up. Still, you’re trying to match tones, match vowels and timbres to the people around you, and trying to align phrasing while looking at the conductor. It’s a very different skill from solo singing.”
The beauty, of course, is that when blended, a chorus of human voices, perfectly tuned, can sound like an instrument all its own.
“That is what we are striving for,” she said, “to create the sound of our own instrument and the transcendent moment that transforms the emotional state of someone in the audience. That’s the goal of every single performance.”
To learn more, visit www.ayanahaviv.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.