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By Ed Ward

When Hayley Westenra walks on stage to perform a concert, two things are immediately noticeable. First, she's young. Second, she exudes self-confidence. And when she opens her mouth to sing, you know the reason for that second part: her uncanny ability to hit a note exactly and sustain it.

Lest that seem a fairly easy feat, at least for those people who can make the ear-to-voice connection, let's consider a few things. For many singers, the first note is a problem. That's one of the many reasons voice teachers exist. In popular music, pretty much anything goes, and complete and total accuracy isn't quite as much of an issue, although sliding into the note isn't considered good form most of the time. Many people who accompany themselves have learned how to use the vibration of the accompaniment, the physical feeling of the instrument producing the tone, as something to grab onto, but this can develop into a crutch.

And once the note's out, holding it is another problem. The tendency of the muscles involved to relax or tighten up means that they have to be tamed, exercised, in order not to slip. One common way of dealing with this is to employ what's called vibrato, a gentle throbbing that allows the tone a little leeway. Virtually every singer uses vibrato, and in the case of the most athletic singers, opera singers, it's expected and, in fact, has been enshrined in what's called the bel canto style.

Hayley Westenra's voice shows not a trace of vibrato. It is, as the title of her first international major-label album release says, pure. This is extraordinary. To keep steady over the course of an hour-long concert is comparable to Olympic gymnastics, a display of control and physical achievement far beyond what the vast majority of singers are capable of.

The thing is, she's always been able to do this, and not because she took lessons. Hayley's ability was discovered when she was all of six years old. Even her parents were unaware, although they knew she liked singing and dancing, and the day her mother, Jill, packed her daughter's ballet things off to school with her, she didn't give it a second thought. She knew that Hayley would be performing in the school's Christmas play and that she and her husband, Gerard, would attend like any proud parents.

What they didn't realize was that Hayley was the show: the play had been built around her singing and dancing. The praises of Hayley's music teacher finally made them realize that what their daughter was doing was unique. Her teacher also recommended Hayley get music lessons to take advantage of her superb sense of pitch, so she began learning the violin. It was a good choice: with a violin, you have to put your fingers down just so, or else the note is off. (And violin players, too, use vibrato, for the same reasons singers do.)

Top banner photos: Hayley Westenra, and the singer performing with special guest Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes

Baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes joins Hayley in the duets "How Many Stars?" and "Hine e Hine."

Hayley Westenra

Hayley Westenra's singing talents were first spotted by her grade-school teacher.

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Celebrating 30 Years of Great Performances