By Laurel Busby
Ross Chitwood planned to be an opera singer.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music and vocal performance at Juilliard in 2006 and a graduate degree at Rice University in 2008. Then he started teaching.
“I found it so rewarding, that it took over,” Chitwood, 32, said. “I love singing, but I love sharing that love through teaching even more.”
He had previously thought that the old saying was true: those who can’t do, teach. However, he has found that teaching actually offers unique rewards for both his students and himself. He has worked with numerous students to connect them with their natural voices, and his voice lessons have even helped inspire addicts in their recovery.
“What I’m doing as a teacher really does mean something to some people,” said Chitwood, the music director at the Pacific Palisades Community United Methodist Church. As for his previous belief in that old saying, he admits that “the world has a way of showing you that you’re wrong a lot of the time.”
And Chitwood is not someone who can’t “do.” Palisadians might have heard him sing in this summer’s Theatre Palisades production of The Spitfire Grill, in which he played Sheriff Joe. He later sang “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks at a preview of upcoming shows during the TP awards show, and Sue Pascoe, editor of the Palisades News, found his performance breathtaking.
“To have a song done like he did, still sticks in my mind,” Pascoe said. “It was one of those rare moments of absolute beauty.”
For Chitwood though, the theater doesn’t call to him as it does some performers. “I don’t have any need to be on stage,” he said. “It’s not something I crave or desire like a lot of people.” He also is not fond of acting. “It makes me feel like I’m not being true to myself . . . even though it’s silly, because I know it’s all just pretend,” he noted.
So teaching has become a passion. In addition to giving private voice lessons, Chitwood has also been working with children at the church to bring to life a new Christmas musical, One More Angel, which he created with colleague Joey Hargrove. The play is a 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at a group of kids putting on a Christmas play and includes music adapted from Pachelbel’s Canon.
The show will be part of the 10 a.m. church service on Dec. 11.
In addition, Chitwood is leading the choir in a half-hour music program on Dec. 18 at 10 a.m. As part of the church service, the choir, soloists, a band and Chitwood will sing a wide variety of Christmas music, ranging from classic pieces to popular music.
In all of these endeavors, Chitwood uses his own teaching method, which he is distilling in a book that describes some of the benefits of both individual and group singing. For example, he has seen students who struggle with addiction change their lives in part due to their joy in singing.
“I’ve seen incredible transformations in people when they have a specific goal and a focus in what they’re doing,” Chitwood said. He described a former heroin addict who initially couldn’t sing a note, but has now left the drug behind and sings in a band. “To watch his life completely change” has been rewarding, and “it made me realize that what I’m doing can matter.”
He has developed a method that builds on the natural comfort people have with their speaking voices. To help access that natural voice, he might have people call to his dog or join him in the car to sing while driving.
“Everything you’re doing when you’re speaking is the same thing you need to do when you’re singing,” Chitwood said. To eliminate the anxiety some singers have, he works to “remove the emotional side of singing. ‘Are people going to like me? Do I sound pretty?’”
In the process, singers start to access their intuitive and creative side, instead of giving rein to the more judgmental, reasoning side.
Chitwood’s journey to approaching voice lessons in a different way began about eight years ago when a voice teacher told him to run at an Altoid taped to a mirror while singing. The incident inspired him to leave voice lessons behind, and his thinking shifted.
“I feel like I found freedom in my voice,” Chitwood said. “A lot of the things I thought were really very hard and that I couldn’t do, I suddenly found weren’t so hard.”
Chitwood, who moved to Los Angeles from Houston with his husband five years ago, teaches voice lessons at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a college in both Los Angeles and New York City that specializes in musical theater. He also gives private voice lessons in the Palisades, and is directing Paul Revere Middle School’s musical Hairspray, which will open in March.
Now a Hollywood resident, Chitwood grew up in Sulphur, Oklahoma, where his parents nurtured his musical interests. He first played Wilbur in a musical Charlotte’s Web at nine years old and kept singing in plays and choirs throughout his childhood. However, until The Spitfire Grill at Theatre Palisades, he hadn’t performed in a musical for about seven years.
While Chitwood tremendously enjoyed the chance to dip his toes in the theater world again, he said, “I probably won’t do another one for at least seven years. The experience validated that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”