Musicians career: It started with a song in her head

One day about eight years ago, Shiela Steinman Wallace woke up with a melody in her head. It was new, nothing she had ever heard before. It even came with words and a title — "What is a B'racha?" She pulled out a piece of staff paper and wrote it down.

Wallace was neither a musician nor composer and had only recently learned there was such a thing as staff paper. When she showed the song to her rabbi and musical director at Temple Shalom in Louisville, Ky., they pronounced it good.

"What is a B'racha?" became the theme for the synagogue's annual cantata, a service performed by the choir.

Today Wallace, 46, has nearly 40 copyrighted songs to her name and is finally comfortable calling herself a composer. Her music has found its way into synagogues around the country, including Oakland's Temple Sinai.

Wallace's music "has a very American sound to it, like Aaron Copland," says Cantor Ilene Keys of Sinai, who has used some of Wallace's music in services. "She [goes] from major to minor keys. You don't usually see that."

No question about it. Wallace has a gift. But what wasn't included in the package was an agent, marketing instructions or financial support. Talent is one thing. Success is another. That requires some serious marketing.

First, there was the money question. That she got from the Kentucky Foundation for Women in the form of a $1,000 grant in 1996. With that she did two things: She hired musicians to play for the service she composed celebrating her synagogue's 20th anniversary and produced a demo tape of her music. The tape includes a recording of the service. For the other pieces on the tape, she formed a vocal quartet called Canfei Yona — wings of the dove — and found a recording studio that she was able to rent at $35 per hour.

"It was a low-budget, low-end effort," says Wallace. She got help from a friend who was a sound engineer but did her own mixing and producing — skills she had to learn. "There were no musician or singer fees. It was all volunteers. If [the tape] turns a profit, I'll divide it among everyone."

But a tape is just a tape unless you can get people to listen to it. And that requires a lot of self-promotion.

"I usually shrink from attention," says Wallace. "I'm learning that if I want my music to get out there, I have to be more active."

And that's just what she does at the conferences and conventions she attends in her capacity as an administrator and editor at the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

Last year, she attended a Coalition for Advancement of Jewish Education convention, which is also a showplace for Jewish entertainers. She brought sheet music for two of her songs and distributed all of it. "Hopefully, [the tapes] will go back to congregations where they'll be used," she says.

She also attended marketing workshops at the CAJE convention, where she got tips from other, more established Jewish music composers and performers.

And it's paying off. Wallace's sheet music and tapes have been purchased by synagogues from Oakland to Atlanta and Chicago to Florida. And this spring, she broke into the international market. While on a federation trip to Israel and Ukraine, she met the director of Israel's Akko choir. When Wallace returned home, she sent him some of her music for the choir to perform.

"A marketing plan means contacting Jewish newspapers and magazines across the country," says Wallace. "I work so many hours on my [federation] job that I can't give [my music] the time it deserves."

Wallace is planning to return to the recording studio with Canfei Yona to make another tape. Although she is just starting the quest for funding, she already has hired a producer.

Wallace's music is eclectic — a little folksy, a little traditional, a little Sephardic and, as described by Keys, a little American. And some is just instrumental like the Eastern European music she is currently rescoring for a klezmer group. She's even created a dance to go along with it.

"The music comes whether I want it to or not," says Wallace. "Sometimes [the music] is very insistent and won't leave me alone."

To go along with the inspiration, Wallace needed some training in technique, music theory and composition. Since she hadn't studied music since abandoning piano lessons in high school, she turned to Ann Niren, the musical director at her synagogue. She introduced Wallace to Christopher White, with whom she has studied for six years.

Although Wallace is a bit flummoxed about where her gift came from, she is enthusiastic about the new dimension it's brought to her life. And she isn't complaining about the fact it wakes her up in the middle of the night with new melodies demanding to be recorded.

"It's very exciting to get started on something new at this stage in my life," says Wallace. "It's also very scary. Sometimes I feel like I'm sticking my neck out where I've got no business being. Then something happens that lets me know I've got to give it a try."

Wallace, whose first name is pronounced "Sheila" — she says her parents misapplied the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule to her name — lives in Louisville with husband David and children Glenn, 18, and Sara, 13.