Rock 'n' Risk

By
Brett Milano
April 12, 2002
Didi Stewart
In one of her labs, Stewart assesses a student performance.
Photo provided by the artist
Photo by Bob Kramer

When Didi Stewart teaches her class on performance techniques, she encourages students to drop their inhibitions. And sometimes the results are a little wilder than expected. During one class, a singer who had been quiet all semester finally came out of his shell during a performance of David Bowie's "Suffragette City."

"He had his rock 'n' roll clothes on underneath his street clothes. So he was up there in his leather pants, swinging his shirt over his head and throwing it at the piano player," says Stewart. "And he sounded great. I encourage a lot of risk taking, since rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about fun and making contact with the audience. In fact my midterm is based on how many risks you can take and how willing you are to make a fool of yourself."

With that she breaks into a laugh. "Who knows what I'm inflicting on the music world in five years, but I hope it's going to be good," she says.

Stewart knows a thing or two about performance, having fronted one of Boston's most popular 1980s bands, Girls Night Out. And as a woman with a rock background, she's a great example of the kind of person you didn't find much of at Berklee twenty years ago. In fact she admits she dropped out of Berklee at the start of her career.

"At the time it was all about jazz-fusion, and everybody genuflected to the Mahavishnu Orchestra," says Stewart. "I was one of a few girls there, and I remember one time when the teacher told us, 'What are you doing here? When are you just going to get married?' So I left and joined a band.

"I tell that story to my students today and they gasp," Stewart says. "And that shows what a different universe it's become. The Voice Department is largely female, and the male students don't have any issues with that. I make sure that my students know about writing a lead sheet or doing business, so they won't be just the 'chick singer.' If I was a student here now, I'd stay through graduation and love every minute of it."

The successes of women who studied at Berklee since Stewart was enrolled underscores her message. The list includes Aimee Mann '80, Melissa Etheridge '80, and Diana Krall '83.

Stewart came of age in an era when persistence and talent alone could still get you a record deal. Her band the Amplifiers built a following in Boston during the early '80s, and she landed a deal with the Kirshner label, home of such diverse acts as Kansas and the Archies.

"I think my students would envy the way my career went," Stewart says. "This was a time when radio still played local music, and there was a huge support system in town. The Kirshner deal was the result of years I spent going around to record companies, carrying bags of tapes. You can't do that anymore because of all the lawsuits. I think the majors will shut a lot of my students out because they don't conform. They're not the fifth generation of some group that's already successful."

After the Amplifiers broke up, Stewart found herself with a number of musician friends, all female and none with a regular gig. The result was Girls Night Out, and there's still never been a Boston band like them. They started out wearing miniskirts and white lipstick, playing campy covers of '60s pop hits, but evolved into an all-original, rock/soul band doing Stewart's originals. Much loved in town, the group never succeeded on a national level, in part because they were too hard to categorize.

"It really was a gang of friends," Stewart says. "It would have been hard to manipulate the band into something saleable. We weren't really an industry aggregation, and I say that with some pride."

But everyone in the band is still performing. Sax players Cercie Miller and Myanna '74 are now mainstays of the local jazz circuit, and the group has reunited a few times, most recently at the Somerville Theater in 1996.

She was invited to teach voice at Berklee the following year, and is now a full-time associate professor, teaching the performance class as well as voice lessons. But she'd never planned to go into teaching, and today she sees her unconventional side as a plus.

"I think of myself as more a mentor than a teacher, and I'm teaching the kids everything I learned through trial, error, and pain," Stewart says. "For instance, it doesn't matter if some really great singer happens to go on right before them. I'm finding that a lot of my voice students want to belt like Janis Joplin, and I used to be that way. I used to love screaming my guts out. But if you're going to do that for five or six weeks on the road, you have to know how to survive it."

A longtime music fan herself, Stewart has been surprised at the breadth of her students' taste. "A lot of them are going backwards now, looking for more quality rock and pop," she says. "When a student tells me his favorite songwriter is Nick Drake, I'm thinking, 'My God, I bought that record down the street before you were born.' But it doesn't make me feel old; it makes me feel vindicated that the music is eternal."

Though still a rocker at heart, Stewart has branched out into pop and cabaret over the past decade. She was doing Burt Bacharach tributes before he became hip again, and now she finds a lot of students in her audience.

"Working with the students has made me more of a risk taker. I thought that teaching was like finally becoming a grownup, but it's just the opposite: reconnecting with my adolescence. Only problem is when the students come to a show and I start thinking, 'Whoops, better not grab the mike cord while I'm singing. I just told the class not to do that.'"