Music

Barbara Gustern, Beloved Vocal Coach, Remembered for Her 'Wild and Precious Life' at Memorials

Scattered pennies glistened along the pathway and steps leading into the Church of the Holy Apostles, an episcopal church in midtown Manhattan, where a memorial service for Barbara Maier Gustern was held on Saturday afternoon. During her lifetime, Gustern — a beloved vocal coach who was killed at age 87 from a senseless act of violence — loved finding pennies on sidewalks. She would give the coins to her students and ask them to place them in their right shoes for good luck before performances.

“She was kind of sad there weren’t as many pennies on the streets of New York,” one of her students recalled later in the day at a remembrance for her at downtown venue Joe’s Pub. “If those of you who walked down 28th Street, around the church today, noticed there were a lot more pennies in the street, it’s because some of us are starting to put pennies in the street for people to find … in her honor.”

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Although Gustern’s friends and family are furious about the way the singer died — when 26-year-old Lauren Pazienza allegedly shoved the four-foot-eleven octogenarian to the ground without provocation on March 10, leading to her death five days later — they cherished the joy she spread during her lifetime at the service held at the church where Gustern regularly attended and supported its soup kitchen.

For decades, she coached singers who were already famous, including Debbie Harry, Diamanda Galás, and Kathleen Hanna, as well as performers within New York’s thriving downtown arts scene. Those who spoke at her service described a resilient woman who persevered in the face of challenges — her daughter died in 2003; her husband soon after in 2017 — but nevertheless kept a cheery demeanor, encouraging everyone in her orbit to become the best versions of themselves.

The service started with a bell ringing 87 times, once for every year of Gustern’s life. With the church packed with Gustern’s students — so many that some were left standing in the back — opening hymn “Jerusalem the Golden” was likely sung by the most tuneful choir in Manhattan. Hanna was present with her husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, as were entertainers Murray Hill and Tammy Faye Starlite. Some congregants were dressed in their Sunday best; others wore bright leopard prints like Gustern was known to wear when out on the town.

The most stunning musical moment, however, came courtesy of Gustern herself and her late husband, Josef, when the church played a tape of them duetting on a song called “Sunday’s Child.” Her voice, a mezzo-soprano, sounded full and round, as it quivered delicately around steep note changes, an impressionistic piano line, and her husband’s deep, bass responses. When the recording ended, the congregation stood for an ovation that lasted nearly a minute.

Gustern’s grandson, A.J., gave a stirring remembrance of the woman who supported him after the death of his mother that was both funny and moving. After recalling the coach’s daily routine of breakfast and a crossword puzzle, followed by hours of lessons and then packed evenings out watching her students, he marveled at her stamina. “She shone so bright that in my failure to compete with this woman who was three times my age, I started to wonder if something was wrong with me,” he said. “Why couldn’t I keep up with her?”

He also expressed confusion over how and why she died. The vocal coach’s death, which occurred just a few feet from the church, has sparked outrage throughout New York; Pazienza is now facing charges of manslaughter. “I’m not sure there is some grand meaning to this unthinkable and violent injustice,” he said. “Do not question ‘What if?’ Question ‘What is?’ What is this world that we as individuals have built together? What are the collective choices that we make that allow such a positive force of nature like my Bobbob to be murdered across the street from this very church.”

When A.J. finished, the church’s Mother Anna S. Pearson gave a homily that spoke to Gustern’s generous spirit and unique personality. Quoting poet Mary Oliver, she asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Gustern answered that question, Pearson said, by her example. “Always and up to the very end, Barbara was someone who used her powers for good,” she said. “She pulled people into her orbit, and once we were there, we really did not want to leave.” She also told a story about how Gustern once answered another question about how her commitment to inclusion fit into her Christian faith: “Her answer was immediate and direct,” Pearson said. “Smiling and with conviction, she said, ‘I am a rebel.’”

After the service, many of the congregants relocated to Joe’s Pub, an East Village cabaret where many of her students performed. But no one took the stage. Instead, a pink orchid and a photo of Gustern got the spotlight while a larger picture of her on that very stage was projected on the wall. As another packed room of Gustern’s students drank wine and ate, performer Murray Hill stood in front of the stage, inviting people to share their memories. Some recalled how Gustern made them feel at home, inviting them to dinner after their lessons, others told stories about how she liked bawdy humor despite her “little old lady” status, and some shared how she helped them through difficult times.

One attendee said Gustern officiated her marriage. “She was someone who I considered a model for how you should [live your] life,” the woman said. “I wanted that person to be who would bring my husband and I together.”

“We have a community here in New York, and Barbara brought us all together,” Hill said, closing the event. “She was part of our lives, and we were part of hers. She was the mom that accepted all of us freaks for who we are. Take some of [Barbara’s] energy, if you can, with you — acceptance, love, and kindness, and being a fucking badass doing whatever the fuck you want — into your everyday life and others’ lives.” Once again, Gustern’s spirit received a rousing ovation.

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