Barbara Rayliss, singer, actor and teacher, digs in and finds the soul in everything — the human communion that unites us and the art that elevates us.
An Idyllwild resident for the last eight years, she has taught music and drama in Los Angeles-area public schools for 25 years, sung and acted with the Idyllwild Master Chorale and recently received an Inland Theatre League acting award for her star turn in Stratford Players’ 2014 production of “Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike.”
But it is in her devotion to and enthusiasm for singing in gospel choirs that she has found her center. In all her artistic endeavors, but especially with singing gospel music, she finds the heart in her art.
Born in and longtime resident of Hawthorne, California, Rayliss began singing at age 7. “I went to Catholic school and my mother arranged for me to take piano lessons with a nun at school,” said Rayliss. “She [the nun] gave me my first singing solo. She also introduced me to boogie-woogie piano. I always sang but it was not until my 50th birthday that I sang in a gospel choir.”
Rayliss described celebrating her birthday with a friend when her friend asked her if there was anything she hadn’t done that she very much wanted to do. “Sing in a gospel choir” is what Rayliss answered. The friend helped her contact the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Adams area north of the University of Southern California. The church had three choirs and is the oldest church in Los Angeles founded by African Americans. “Everything was done by rote [a memorization technique based on repetition] rather than reading music,” said Rayliss. “I was there for five years, and it was extraordinary.
“It was all about the emotion, the feeling and the authenticity.” Later, while pursuing her master’s degree in multi-cultural education, Rayliss continued to expand her gospel experience and repertoire, singing with soul singer and recording artist Brenda Lee Eager’s ensemble. “The arrangements her group sang had all these great chords, jazz voicings and all the emotion of gospel,” said Rayliss. “I sang with her for about 15 years. I left in 2014 to act in the Master Chorale’s ‘Into the Woods’ and then in Stratford’s ‘Vanya.’ “Gospel singing helped me find my way — the passion, the sound, the harmonies, the sopranos singing so very high in their chest voices. It was thrilling. And I was truly and often the only white woman in the place.”
Rayliss practices art immersion — digging in, finding the depth, her truth, and continuing to learn and expand. “I’m hungry to grow as an actor,” she said. “It is communication for sure. The key is looking into the eyes of others and connecting.”