Irene Bartlett may not have the same household recognition as 2016 Eurovision Song Contest finalist Dami Im or ARIA Award-winner Katie Noonan, but she is a voice to be reckoned with.
Dr Bartlett, a Queensland Conservatorium vocal coach and senior lecturer, has been a mentor to many of Australia’s most popular voices, helping them to reach their potential.
“I can’t underestimate the importance of a good teacher,” Katie says.
As one of Australia’s most talented and versatile vocalists, she certainly speaks from experience.
“Teachers bring confidence, a sense of self-worth, and they teach you of course, but it’s so much more. It’s how they make you feel. They give you confidence to follow your path in life and in music,” she says.
Katie studied at Queensland Conservatorium 20 years ago with Dr Irene Bartlett – the very same teacher who has helped shape the talents of some of the country’s most popular voices, such as Megan Washington, Kristin Berardi, Elly Hoyt and Dami Im.
Her students have been recipients of seven ARIA Awards, the Freedman Jazz Fellowship, the Montreaux Jazz Festival International Vocalist Competition, six James Morrison Generations in Jazz Scholarships, and two Churchill Fellowships.
The teacher with a performer’s heart
It’s quite the career for a woman who initially baulked at the idea of teaching.
“I was a professional performer from a very young age and I learned what I know about music by doing,” she says.
“For 25 years I was a doing up to six gigs a week, whatever it took, cabaret, band work, television. Teaching was never really on the radar, it was all about performing.”
Yet it was this life experience that made her such an ideal candidate for a vocal teaching role at Queensland Conservatorium. Irene’s approach to training the voice, which she calls “the first instrument”, is one that now attracts some of the best emerging voices in Australia.
“Very quickly I can size up whether there is something special in someone and I saw that particularly in Dami Im. There was something so pure and so honest about her singing,” she says.
This same voice was recently given a worldwide audience of more than 200 million, with the pop idol finishing an unprecedented second place in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.
“Irene has been a great mentor. I feel like I’m so lucky and blessed to have had such a caring and competent teacher, because I couldn’t have anybody better who would equip me to maximise my potential,” Dami says.
Finding their own voice
For Katie Noonan, it was Irene that helped her find her lower voice.
“Singing high comes quite easy to me but I was really having trouble getting that big, full, smokey, richer, lower sound that suits jazz and blues better and so she really helped me understand that from a physical point of view,” she explains.
“I’ve always been very careful to protect my voice and not ever to push it or overuse it, but she helped me realise that I could get those low notes without doing any damage at all.
“I could suddenly sing songs with a much broader range, and that’s transformed my life not only as a singer but as songwriter too as I’ve got more notes to choose from,” Katie says.
It’s not unusual for students to want to study here specifically to work with Irene, according to Professor Scott Harrison, Director of Queensland Conservatorium.
“Irene has built up this name over many years being a performer teacher in the truest sense of the word.
“She is a unique individual in that she draws talent to her by the nature of who she is and her dynamism as a teacher.
“She’s also got, and she won’t like me saying this, about 40 years of experience as a performer on stage and she brings that into the studio as many of our teachers do.
“We attempt to give students the broadest range of skills possible to maximise their opportunities.
“In order for a singer to be successful they have to have talent to start with, and they have to have good teaching and the right atmosphere to thrive.
“There’s a certain amount of luck involved, but what we try to do is minimise the luck component and to give them a suite of skills that will maximize their opportunities,” he says.
Montreux Jazz Festival’s International Vocal Competition winner and former student Kristin Berardi says she still asks for Irene’s advice many years after graduating.
“If I have a big gig or I’m a bit sick, I’ll call Irene and tell her what’s going on and she will do a vocal assessment over the phone!”
“She encouraged me to be myself and she gave me the tools to make me a healthy singer to ensure a long professional life.
“Her nurturing nature and her knowledge of the physiology of the voice has allowed me and so many others to find our own voice.
“Even when I’m teaching now I think what would Irene do or say!” she says.
Despite all the praise and the obvious results from her teaching, Irene remains humble when reflecting on the role she has played.
“Nothing I do gives them talent, that’s their parents, God or good luck!” she says.
“But that small time, those few years that I have with them, if I can somehow be a mentor through their journey and make things a bit clearer for them, that’s the part that just warms my heart.”