Haley Pilkington is a remarkable singer for reasons far beyond her 14 years and the dynamic voice that so effortlessly uplifts anyone who hears her sing. Haley is a student of Deborah “Zuke” Smith, a Brett Manning Associate whose students populate northern New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area.
To say that Haley’s story is inspiring would be an understatement. In a note to Zuke/Deb, Haley’s mother, Caroline, wrote the following words about Haley’s health issues.
Haley’s Mother, Caroline, Explains
She has an autoimmune disease called scleroderma since the age of two which caused the discoloration and tightening of the skin on her left arm and hand. The disease went inactive at age seven and then last year went into an active phase again. She takes immunosuppressive drugs in hopes to stop the disease from progressing any further. Scleroderma has also caused tissue damage in her lungs and vessels that go from the heart to the lungs. Since the blood can’t flow easily from the heart to the lungs, Pulmonary Hypertension has become the result along with an enlarged heart. With this past year of treatment, her pressures have been lowered and her symptoms like dizziness have faded, and she is feeling much better these days.
At first, she didn’t want many people to know that she had these health problems. But, I think she is now understanding the benefits of awareness more…we’ve been discussing fundraising opportunities and other things. Before Christmas, there was a benefit for autoimmune diseases, and kids from the Hackensack Childrens Hospital could enter a “talent show” type of thing… no winners…just showing off their stuff. Anyway I encouraged her to do it but she kind of balked at it so I let it go. I just thought it would be awesome for the people who treat her to see this side of her and also to show other kids that their disease doesn’t define them.
Zuke believes the Haley around nine years old when she first started teaching her piano. She found Haley to be somewhat shy and quiet but eager to learn.
“Her family lived in many places in the world and they had recently moved back to the states from United Arabs Republic,” Zuke said. “About a year or two later, the family moved to Paris, France. When she came home, she came back for lessons but wanted to sing instead of piano lessons. She had been in a choir in school in Paris and her teacher taught her the song “Moon River” which wasn’t a normal song for an 11 year old to sing. We got down to business with her voice because every week she grew more animated and eager to learn. When she came in with a Joan Jett suggestion, I knew I had a young rocker on my hands. Around this time she started having breathing problems and had to go to Boston to see specialists. She hated missing her lessons and even if she was drugged up and exhausted, she showed up. Her tenacity cannot be compared with anyone else.”
Q & A Session With Haley And Her Mom
We recently posed five or six questions for both Haley and her mother, Caroline. There wonderful words best convey the joy and triumph of finding the unique voice and engaging it to its fullest potential.
SSO: Describe yourself before your first lesson in terms of fear and confidence, as well as the state/condition of your voice?
Haley: Before my first lesson with Deb I wasn’t really that nervous because I had been taking piano lessons with her when I was in second and third grade. I was in fifth grade when I started singing with Deb. After watching a tape recording of myself I realized that my voice was very breathy and sounded so much younger than my voice does now. Deb has helped me mature into the voice that I have now.
Caroline: Haley first became Zuke’s vocal student when she was 10 years old. She had developed an interest for singing the previous year while we were living abroad in France. She participated in the children’s choir at Marymount School of Paris. Having this experience had given her confidence about her singing voice and also inspired her passion.I remember the condition of her singing voice being very sweet and childlike.
SSO: Do you remember a specific breakthrough that clearly began to fight through fear? Talk about that experience.
Haley: During my first year going to Deb, I realized that I did have some fear about singing in public. Deb recommended that I audition for one of the township plays. I received a supporting role and when I was on stage and singing, I wanted to stay up there. Ever since that play I have loved being on stage.
Caroline: Less than a year into lessons, Haley performed in a play with our local theater company. She played “Fan” in A Christmas Carol. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was so expressive and her voice sounded so beautiful and mature. I couldn’t believe that it
was my little girl up their on stage. Her vocal quality and range had changed dramatically. Since then she has continued to amaze us with her fearless attitude and desire to perform.
SSO: What was the biggest challenge with working through the program, and did you ever have an experience where you thought you might give up? If so, what got you through it?
Haley: My biggest challenge working through this program would be receiving the news that I had pulmonary hypertension which is a cardiac disease. I already have scleroderma and when I found out I had a new disease I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to sing, but I went to one of my lessons with Deb and I told her what I was going through. Deb knew exactly what to say. She told me about her experience battling breast cancer and how hard it was. That was when I realized how far I had come with my singing and that I could not give up now. I wasn’t going to let some stupid disease stop me from what I love to do and Deb really helped me with this and still helps pick me back up if I’m ever feeling run down or bummed about it.
Caroline: Zuke has been such a positive influence in Haley’s life and mine. Having successfully navigated through the teenage years with her own daughter, she is a well of knowledge from which I draw on a weekly basis (if not more!). She is very “in tune” with fears, issues, wants and needs of her students. But beyond that, she completely understands and relates to Haley’s daily struggles with her illness. Some lessons are vocal and some are therapy, either way my daughter is benefiting beyond what I could have imagined when we first decided to start lessons. There are many days that Haley comes back from lessons just loving life. She overflows with joy and confidence. I’m thankful everyday that Haley has such a wonderful and talented woman on her side.
SSO: Describe yourself now after your latest lesson in terms of fear and confidence, the state/condition of your voice, and aspects of your life that the program (and Zuke) have impacted?
Haley: After my latest lesson with Deb I am feeling very confident with myself and the song I have chosen to sing. My voice is in great condition and I think I am really going to nail this song. Deb gave me tips on where to put my voice during the song and she really makes me connect with the lyrics and what they mean.
Caroline: After her latest lesson Haley is, as most days, very confident and happy. Her vocal range continues to expand and become more powerful. Recently she has been singing with a lot of emotion and emerging herself in more of a rock genre that she finds very appealing. What I love about Zuke is that it is so obvious to see how she encourages her students to get out there and go experience and sing what they love.
SSO: What is your favorite tip, exercise, or lesson learned?
Haley: My favorite tip would be when you sing a song don’t try to sound like the famous singer who already sang it. Make it your own sound.
Caroline: I love when Haley comes home and shows me all the crazy vocal exercises they do together and tells me how much fun she’s had.
SSO: Any final comments you wish to share?
Haley: When I was younger I always wanted my voice to project more and still have a beautiful sound come out. Working with Deb has helped me accomplish this. Thanks, Deb.
Caroline: I can honestly say that I had no concerns what so ever for my daughter to begin her training with Zuke. I knew from the start that she was interested in preserving the purity and individuality of the singer’s voice while at the same time enabling the singer expand and reach their highest potential. I look forward to many more years of working with Zuke and seeing my daughter become the person she was meant to be.
The Teacher Sings Haley’s Praises
Like many great teachers Zuke feels that she also learns from her students. The lessons that come from Haley leave an indelible mark on Zuke’s heart and no doubt lend a helping hand to her teaching from time to time. The teacher and student share a strong bond of survival, recovery, and spirit.
“Haley has living spirit. When you’re with her you want to laugh, to sing, to smile but most importantly, you’re not afraid of your own fears because she is facing hers head on like a bulldog,” Zuke said. “Every home needs a Haley. Knowing her sense of humor, she’d probably cringe that I just said that! She has taught me how I must always listen intently to the student’s voice because what they are saying about how they feel or trying to do vocally might not be what’s good for the vocal cords. When she’s feeling just ok, she rocks hard; and when she’s feeling good, her voice explodes! I saw her this week, and she had gone through her drug regimen. So we had a gentle vocal session. It’s frustrating when your brain says you can do something, but your body has been compromised temporarily. I’m quite sure she’ll be singing loud and strong for our next session together.”