Barbara Gustern seemed invincible. At 87 years old, the Manhattan vocal coach had more stamina than the average college student. Nearly every day, she would teach students in her Chelsea apartment for eight hours before attending their concerts at night. Over the years, her clientele included Blondie’s Debbie Harry, avant-garde heroine Diamanda Galás, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Broadway performers, downtown firebrands, and anyone who wanted to learn to sing. When it was time to hit a show to see her pupils, she’d walk up to a mile and a half. “She was 4’11” and probably weighed 70 pounds,” Harry says. “She had the body of a child, but she was a dynamo in this little, tiny body. It was just astounding.”
On March 5, Gustern attended a retrospective for one of her students, performance artist Penny Arcade, at the East Village outpost La MaMa. “She loved talking about how great the show was and how great Penny was,” singer and Gustern student Tammy Faye Starlite says. “She was talking about how someone referred to her as ‘older,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m in better shape than she is.’ … Even at 87, she had not lost a step. When we were going to the subway, she was running in her little, tiny red cowboy boots. I was like, ‘Barbara, jeez. Slow down. Let somebody catch up.'” That night, Starlite says, Gustern was “vibrant.”
Five days later, 26-year-old Lauren Pazienza allegedly assaulted Gustern, unprovoked, calling her a bitch and shoving her to the ground one block from Gustern’s home. Gustern, who had moved from the small town of Boonville, Indiana to New York to become a singer, actress, and vocal coach, sustained brain injuries that would take her life five days later. Pazienza now faces manslaughter and assault charges, while Gustern’s family and friends attempt to make sense of how one of the brightest, longest-burning flames in their lives was extinguished.
“I never thought of her as tiny because she seemed massive,” Hanna says. “She had this massive personality.”
“Her example was the most inspiring thing about her,” multihyphenate performer Justin Vivian Bond says. “Just the way she lived and treated people.”
Barbara Joan Maier was born in Boonville on Feb. 10, 1935, with her tomboy ways earning her the nickname “Bobbi” early on. She discovered a knack for singing at a young age but pursued psychology in school, earning a master’s in counseling and clinical psychology from Columbia. Before she could pursue a PhD, however, she realized her love for singing and attended Julliard instead. She sang with the New York City Opera and other opera companies before taking a job in the chorus of the downtown synagogue where she met the man she’d later marry, Josef Gustern, a bass singer who would appear in Phantom of the Opera. In 1968, the couple had a daughter, Katherine, who gave the Gusterns a grandson, AJ, in 1993. Katherine died in 2003, and Josef died in 2017.
Despite these hardships, Gustern’s family and friends remember her as an optimist. “She was an entire support system in one person,” designer-singer and Gustern student Machine Dazzle says. “She was the most beloved person in our community.” Harry remembers her as a “terrific, caring person.” When Starlite’s mother died, Gustern was one of the first people she called. “She said, ‘I am your “Soul Mom,” ‘ and it just gave me such a sense of warmth,” Starlite says. At the pandemic’s peak, many of Gustern’s admirers looked to her social media posts for inspiration. “She wrote such wonderful, philosophical messages several times a week, if not every day,” Bond says. “It was like some sort of meditation from Yoda.”
“She was that rare New Yorker who wasn’t bitter,” Hanna says. “I wanted to be as generous and smart and good at my craft as she was. I wanted to be as well-read and funny; she’s fucking hilarious.”
Hanna fondly recalled Gustern’s personal and very New York guide to fortune-telling. “She didn’t believe in horoscopes, but when there used to be a lot of condoms laying around in the neighborhood, she would read her fortune by what color the condom was,” Hanna recalls. “She’s like, ‘If I saw a yellow condom, I knew I was going to be a great, sunshine-y day. If I saw a red used condom on the ground, it’s going to be a fiery, exciting day.’ Instead of being one of those people who are like, ‘Oh, there’s fucking condoms all over my neighborhood,’ she was like, ‘What’s it going to be today?'”
When Starlite, who performs as a Christian country singer whose repertoire includes the songs “Did I Shave My Vagina for This?” and “God Has Lodged a Tenant Inside My Uterus,” started taking lessons from Gustern in the late Nineties, she was afraid her act might offend the then-sexagenarian. “I thought, ‘Will Barbara be OK if I’m singing her these songs?'” Starlite says. “And she was howling. You could say anything to Barbara. She taught great opera singers. She taught Broadway. And here she is teaching me with songs with words like ‘dick’ and ‘vagina,’ and she just absolutely loved it.”
When Gustern would go out, she would drink whiskey and dance with her students. She had a bubbly personality and would kiss friends square on the lips. “She was always up for fun,” Dazzle says, who always appreciated her flair for leopard-print clothing. “She might have been 87 years old, but she was on the dance floor with us.”
“She was that rare New Yorker who wasn’t bitter” – Kathleen Hanna
She celebrated her 85th birthday at Joe’s Pub — the East Village venue where many of her students performed and that held a memorial for her last week — with a two-and-a-half hour marathon of performances that helped raise money for the soup kitchen associated with the Church of the Holy Apostles, her place of worship located around the corner from her apartment. “Her energy and dedication inspired us all,” the Rev. Dr. Anna S. Pearson, the executive director of the soup kitchen and the rector at the church, says. “Our community is diminished by her loss.”
“She was just this really warm, generous spirit,” says Bill Bragin, a former director of Joe’s Pub. “She was one of those people who had just a little pixie gleam in her eye, and she exuded support and enthusiasm. You really felt her generosity come across just having her in the audience.”
“She would tell you how much you meant to her all the time, but she was also very open about her own grief,” says Shanta Thake, who met Gustern as a director of Joe’s Pub. “She was not afraid to be a full human and express that entire range of emotions very openly. She was so open and vulnerable, and that’s what I think made her an amazing teacher.”
For Harry, it was Gustern’s perseverance and generosity she admired most. “She had a terrific ability to survive,” Harry says, pausing to cry. “She wasn’t going to be sitting [around] moping, wallowing in self-pity. One of the greatest qualities that a human being can have is to embrace life and give. She was a giving person.”
The last voice that Harry, Hanna, and most of Gustern’s students hear before performances is Gustern’s. That’s because she made each a unique recording to warm up to before their show. Bond, who is trans and uses she/her pronouns, likes how her tape shows off Gustern’s “irreverent” humor including “all these salty cracks” in and around the exercises.
“[Whether] you were a huge Broadway star or a downtown punk, she treated you like a regular-ass person,” Hanna says. “And it was really cool to have her as a friend and a mentor. It made you feel special and connected to the history of show business.”
Many of Gustern’s students credit the coach with saving their voices and teaching them how to sing sustainably. Harry first heard about Gustern after attending a concert in the late Eighties or early Nineties by Diamanda Galás. At the performance, the provocative artist was literally screaming about the AIDS epidemic. “I was astounded that she could do this night after night,” Harry says. After inquiring about Galás’ training, she connected with Gustern. Harry had vocal coaches in the Seventies and early Eighties, during Blondie’s ascent, but Gustern’s demeanor made things different. “It seemed easy and casual,” she says.
At first, however, some of the coach’s lessons confused Harry. Gustern would liken the mouth to a theater, and the arch over the tongue a proscenium. “It took a while for me to actually grasp what technique she was giving me,” Harry says. “I absolutely owe her a big debt for having some kind of longevity.”
“She was so open and vulnerable, and that’s what I think made her an amazing teacher” – Gustern’s friend Shanta Thake
Hanna feels she owes Gustern her singing career in recent years. When she first met the vocal coach in the mid-2000s, she was suffering from an autoimmune disorder and didn’t think she would ever sing again. Even though Gustern lived nearby, Hanna felt so debilitated, she would take cabs to her apartment. “She helped me build back my voice and my confidence,” Hanna says. “She gave me my voice back. She taught me all these workarounds for the health problems I had and she was never one of those people who is like, ‘You can do it.’ She’s a New Yorker. She’s a tough person. She was all business. She loved her craft and she expected you to work for it. But the thing that was just so remarkable was she made relearning my own voice really fun.”
Some of Gustern’s tips, Hanna recalls, included unusual visualization techniques like “throwing a note over your shoulder,” “singing from your third eye,” and adding a near-silent “H” in front of vowels to preserve your voice box. “She also taught me really easy things that anybody could do like, ‘When all else fails, laugh,” she says. “If you sing like you’re laughing, a lot of really interesting parts of your voice can come out.”
Gustern attended Bikini Kill’s 2019 run of reunion shows in Brooklyn. “When she is in your audience, she‘s who the whole show is for in your head,” Hanna says. “And I had to take the advice she had given me and pretend she wasn’t there so I could be present. After the show, she came backstage and there were all kinds of cool people there and she was the one I ran to immediately and just stared in her eyes and was like, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. I felt you with me tonight.’ Hugging her afterwards was one of the happiest moments of my life. Just being able to thank her and remind her how much I loved her.”
“One of the greatest qualities that a human being can have is to embrace life and give. She was a giving person” – Debbie Harry
Bond feels like Gustern was able to help her find her true voice. For years, she had performed as “Kiki” in a cabaret revue called Kiki and Herb. “I basically went to Barbara so I could rediscover my natural voice because I’d been singing in a character voice for about 10 years,” she says. “She was really somebody who just allowed you to be yourself. As a singer, I found that very important. Especially as a trans singer, somebody who was not singing in the way that somebody who’s traditionally gendered would sing, she was very open and accepting and really worked with me to help me become comfortable with how I sounded and have ownership over that in a way that made me comfortable and at ease with my own sound.”
“She had a master’s in psychology,” Gustern’s grandson, AJ, says. “I think that really allowed her to understand what so many people were going through. Depending on how you were singing, she could tell if you were present or not. If she felt like you were having a bad day, she’d call you on it.”
Over the decades, Gustern became an integral part of New York’s singing community. She worked with the cast of the Broadway show Passing Strange and served as voice director for a recent revival of Oklahoma! Each singer got a unique lesson specifically for their voice, which is how Gustern’s impact spanned rock stars to cabaret singers. “We’re both from small towns in southern Indiana in the same county,” Thake says. “So we would often imagine what our friends back home would say about the lives we had chosen and the company we kept. Certainly, there weren’t a lot of queer cabaret extravaganzas that we would be planning in Boonville, Indiana.”
In the weeks before her death, Gustern had been helping Dazzle prep for his first album sessions. Last week, he spent a day in the studio with another one of Gustern’s students, Carol Lipnik, practicing what she’d taught them while mourning her loss.
“It’s hard not to be sad,” he says. “Barbara helped us with our voices, but here we are recording [and] Barbara’s not here. She didn’t warm me up for my recording. We’re glad the suspect is in jail, but there’s still this sadness. But it’s this weird shock. She was here one minute and the next minute she wasn’t here.” (Pazienza surrendered to police on March 22 and is currently awaiting trial. “We are pleased that the Court granted bail to Ms. Pazienza and we expect her to be released in the coming days,” her lawyer, Arthur Aidala, said in a statement to the New York Post. “The Pazienza family joins the rest of the City in grieving the loss of Barbara Gustern.”)
“Nothing will bring her back,” Starlite says. “But I just hope that justice is done, whatever form that may take. It’s still hard to think of her in the past tense.”
Over the weekend, hundreds of mourners, including Harry, Hanna, and Starlite, filled the Church of the Holy Apostles to celebrate Gustern’s life. A bell rang out 87 times, once for every year the vocal coach graced the planet, and the crowd gave a standing ovation to a recording of Gustern and husband Josef singing “Sunday’s Child.” Afterwards, many of them relocated to Joe’s Pub to share stories about Gustern’s impact on the community. One woman told the room that Gustern had served as officiant for her wedding because the vocal coach “was someone who I considered a model for how you should [live your] life.”
“She was very open and accepting and really worked with me to help me become comfortable with how I sounded” – Justin Vivian Bond
Now Gustern’s students are processing the lessons they learned from the vocal coach, about singing and living. “With what happened, it just made it so obvious that one person can change so many people’s lives,” Hanna says. “It’s intense. And it’s someone who hasn’t been on tons of covers of magazines and had tons of accolades, but behind the scenes, she was a real driving force for a community. There are so many unsung heroes like that.”
“She placed herself in the center of an artist’s practice,” Thake says. “I think we probably don’t celebrate our teachers enough and the people who walk alongside all these incredible artists. But I think she really was able to meet artists where they were and bring them to the next level.”
Last week, before Pazienza turned herself in, Galás posted a tribute to Gustern on Instagram that captured the resentment she and many others felt. “Many of us are in a state of rage as well as terrible grief,” she wrote. “We want her murderer to be found before interest in this crime wanes. This has to happen now. I kiss you, Barbara, great woman, great mother of so many. I am too angry to say farewell. This will happen only when your murderer is caught and incarcerated for life.”
Gustern’s grandson, AJ, sees his grandmother as a role model and especially appreciates her determination. “It took a violent event like this to stop her in her tracks,” AJ Gustern says. “It wasn’t disease or anything like that. It had to take a violent, evil event to stop her.”
Asked what lessons he hopes people could learn from his grandmother’s life, he says, “Just be daring. If you feel like you want to do something, go for it. If it fails, keep going. But just don’t stop. Find that thread and pull it until the blanket comes apart.”