Sheila Whitney, who I like to call Sonoma’s Songbird, was singing a little country music backup last weekend at the Sebastiani Theatre, helping out the Joe Chaplain Band and in a benefit to raise funds to refurbish the theatre’s interior. This Sunday, April 29 at 3 p.m., Sheila performs with the 10-member Valley of the Moon Chamber Ensemble, of which she is a founding member, in a performance titled “Charity and Love” at the Sonoma Community Center, in yet another benefit for the theatre, this time Andrews Hall. Admission is just $20.
The Marin County native, one of six children in the family, and the only one to pursue music (“although my dad did sing loud, but I don’t think that qualifies”), knew at a very early age that her path would begin with music, but had no idea where it would lead. Luckily for all of us in Sonoma, it led right here, where she has resided since 1993.
After earning a Bachelor of Music degree from Dominican University in San Rafael in 1988, Sheila took additional classes in Spanish and French at the College of Marin, which, she would find out, would help with her classical music training.
Sheila has been singing as long as she can remember. “I joined any and every chorus group I could when I was growing up. I sang in church and for whoever would listen,” she says. “Classical music has always been my passion. It uses everything that I know, and everything that I have learned from my various voice instructors over the years. There is definitely a technique to master when singing classical music,” she continues, “You must have an ability to convey emotions using your heart and your head as well as having the energy to sing and perform. Classical music is acute.”
While the music and the arrangements can be very challenging, Sheila welcomes the rigors of practice and getting everything just right. “I get to perform some of my very favorite musical pieces with the Valley of the Moon Chamber Ensemble,” says Sheila. “All ten singers have to be on top of their game and must be able to harmonize as a group. And while it is very challenging, it is also very rewarding for all of us when the piece is completed.”
The Valley of the Moon Chamber Ensemble was conceived by five founding members: Sheila, Brian Sebastian, Shannon Howlett, Jerome Smith and Greg Grabow, during an informal Christmas party at Brian’s home in 2006.
Almost one year later, VOMCE gave its debut performance as an eight-member group. That concert, a benefit for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, was a smashing success, and since then, the group has evolved, increasing its membership, improving quality and gaining notoriety within the community.
However, the organization’s structure is loose enough where Sheila and other group members can branch out, or solo, if you like, and become involved with other musical endeavors. Sheila, who is quite often asked to perform benefits, also comes up with a few paying gigs of her own including performing at various wineries throughout the Valley and, as you would expect, as a much in-demand wedding singer (often as a part of the service, not always the reception entertainment, but I would bet she’s been both).
One other interesting gig that comes her way from time to time is when she is asked to sing at funerals. “Generally, the music is mostly traditional hymns, but one time, I was asked to sing the Frank Sinatra hit, ‘My Way,’ which I was told was a last request. And many readers may remember that she sang at the recent memorial service for Sonoma historian and baseball fan Gerald Hill, and the song requested was, of course, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”
Shelia will once again preside as the emcee for “Noche de Casbah,” a benefit for La Luz coming up in August at the Hanna Boys Center, and you can find her weekly at the Trinity Episcopal Church on East Spain Street, where she is soloist.
There is also one additional upcoming gig for VOMCE in May as they perform at Trinity Episcopal on the 25th of the month, but without Sheila. She’ll be too busy to sing that day, becoming the bride of Todd Stanfield. Congratulations!