IT may be back-to-school month for children all over Cork, but for one well-known singer, September also marks the first days of a brand new school and an exciting new chapter in her life.
The Jean Elliott School of Singing and Performance is opening in Douglas and it is a natural progression for the girl we came to know on RTÉ’s You’re A Star 15 years ago.
“It’s something that could have happened a few years ago, but life is very busy,” explains Jean.
“I recently turned 40 so it’s a new chapter, a new decade, a new beginning and a new venture.”
Douglas native Jean, whose own school days were spent in Christ the King in Turner’s Cross, is returning to her roots to rent space at both Douglas Community Centre and Douglas GAA Hall, but at this point teaching is nothing new to her, having spent six years working with Voiceworks Studio, as well as other venues like ACA Performing Arts at North Link Business Park, which she plans to keep on one day per week. The main difference is that it will be her name above the door in Douglas.
“It’s all just happened very organically for me. I’ve been teaching full time for the past six years in different schools in Cork and I’ve been teaching privately for years. But we recently moved to Crosshaven and I’ve spent the past year commuting up and down, getting home that bit later so I felt I needed something to better suit the family/work balance.”
It’s an important consideration for Jean, as the ‘after school’ nature of her classes pushes her working day right into the evening, with three daughters (aged ten, six and 19-months) at home looking for their mama’s attention too.
Having spent years performing with bands and spells in panto as well, Jean came to realise that her schedule needed to change.
“With panto you could be doing 56 shows over five weeks — two shows a day or more — and you need to have the stamina for that. You have no Christmas. And things change when you have a family. I used to gig with a few bands, doing corporate or pubs and clubs and you mightn’t get home until three or four in the morning. That just doesn’t work when you have a 19-month-old! I couldn’t commit to every weekend and the travel up to places like Tipperary or Galway. You’d end up missing out on family.”
Speaking to Jean, the passion she has for her job is obvious but there’s also an air of personal contentment; the feeling that she is exactly where she ought to be right now.
“I love what I do. Some days I’m tired, I could be exhausted driving to work but I go in and teach and I come out energised because I love what I do. I can see the progress the students are making, we’re singing, it’s so uplifting. I feel so much more uplifted after my classes.
“I’m actually really happy where I am now. I’m not trying to chase any other dream as a performer. I just feel now is the right time, as I’ve gained enough experience and knowledge.”
Her considerable knowledge comes from life’s experience as well as specific qualifications. It was a music teacher at her secondary school who encouraged her to audition for vocal lessons at the Cork School of Music when she was just 17 and also to apply for the BMus in UCC, which she studied for four years. She returned to education again to complete a two-year Masters in Music Performance in 2013 at CIT Cork School of Music.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned dreams she chased in the past included her 2004 participation in the TV talent show You’re A Star, which aimed to find a singer to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s an experience about which Jean now has mixed feelings.
“I was quite young and naïve at the time and I really thought, ‘Will I be signed? Will I be a recording artist? Will I be out gigging?’ I kind of struggled with who I was; what kind of singer I’d be. I struggled with media interviews. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
“I was so naïve and afraid of saying the wrong thing. I don’t honestly believe it was right for me. I think I’m the person who is actually quite private; just having my regular life. I wanted to go out and perform and then go home to family and do normal things.”
Her anonymity went out the window overnight and the sheen of the limelight soon tarnished for Jean.
“I remember going out with friends to a pub and there were people there who all took out their phones and started taking pictures of me. I was just out with my friends and I hated the fact that I had no privacy whatsoever. People formed opinions of you even though they didn’t know you. It was mentally draining.”
When the series concluded, Jean finished a respectable third behind James Kilbane and winner Chris Doran, but what she recalls now is the feeling of being utterly tired and spent.
“The night I was voted out I was mentally exhausted. I went in to sit in the bathroom, just to have a break; not having to talk or smile. I was feeling the pressure and I just wanted to go home and go to bed. It definitely was a trying time. The experience was fantastic in some ways — and in other ways, a struggle.”
These days there is an increasing awareness of the importance of reality show contestants’ mental health, but there was no such focus back in Jean’s day when Pop Idol had just preceded it and The X-Factor was only beginning.
“Nobody looks after you. I was in the second year of You’re A Star. It was all fairly new. We didn’t have any counsellors. We were on our own, trying to fend for ourselves when it came to that side of things.”
Then there was the aftermath to deal with.
“Honestly, I came off the show thinking something might happen. And then there’s nothing. There’s an expectation on you to do well afterwards. I did write some music, record some stuff, release some singles. Then you think, maybe this isn’t working and you ask have you failed. You’ll go through a period of being down on yourself, feeling a little bit lost. I wasn’t sure where I was going. I left music altogether for five years or so and started working in The Echo in sales. I took time out and in that period, met my husband.”
So how would she sum up the You’re A Star experience now?
“I’m glad I did it but it was not all roses,” she concludes.
A benefit, surely though, is that it’s all part of the tapestry of her career and it offers her extra scope to pass on guidance to students who may wish to pursue a similar path. So what is her advice for those who want to make singing their life?
“If you want to be a recording artist you should be out gigging all the time, putting in the graft and all the hard work. Things have changed though. You can now record and upload to Youtube. There’s great home recording equipment, whereas I had to go into a studio. You can record quite easily now.
“But you need the experience of performing and gigging; it’s going to help you. Plus, maintaining your health and vocal health is important. Your body is your instrument, so mind yourself.”
Jean’s new venture will officially start with a new term on the second week in September. On Tuesdays she will have introductory Mini Pop classes from 4.15-5pm at Douglas Community Centre for 5-7 year-olds, followed by Kids Pop from 5-6pm for 8 -12-year-olds. On Fridays she’ll run Kids Pop for 4th-6th class pupils from 3.30-4.30pm at Douglas GAA Hall, followed by another session of Kids Pop for 1st–3rd class pupils from 4.30-5.30pm at the same venue. Those enrolling can expect to learn pop songs, Disney tunes and big musical theatre numbers.
She’ll also be offering one-to-one classes, primarily for adults, with a waiting list as slots have filled up fast. In time, she says she’d love to incorporate, piano, guitar and musical theatre classes, while she’d also love to set up teen and adult choirs.
“I’m not planning to take over the world or anything!” she laughs. “But I do have ideas and I’m excited to see where it might all go.”
For more information e-mail: email@example.com or phone 087-7495620.