Renée Lubin-Holmes, a lecturer in the School of Music and a veteran performer in the raucous Beach Blanket Babylon, continues to blend community and campus spirit in her work while encouraging students to pursue their musical dreams. As director of SF State’s Jazz Choir, actress, singer and mother, Lubin-Holmes coaches her students while emphasizing the importance of higher education to her son.
Not originally aiming for a career toward music, Lubin-Holmes took an unexpected turn that took her from biology to Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running musical revue in the world! She’s never regretted her decision in pursuing her passion for music, and says education is crucial in helping overall personal and professional development. “Every single one of the singers was pretty much incredible — especially Renée Lubin, who played a list of characters including Tina Turner and Michelle Obama,” SF Weekly writes.
Were you always a natural performer?
I grew up singing in church, but I was always the shy one. If I had a lead role I would want to hide in the back.
How did your education influence your career choice?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in environmental biology from San Jose State University. However, there was a real fear for me moving out of the realm of environmental biology, because you set yourself on a path, but then you realize … I really think I like that better and then you pursue that instead. It’s really hard. Lots of tears, lots of soul searching.
My dad was not supportive at first. My mother was a singer, an undiscovered singer. So she understood. My dad was more worried about how hard it is for musicians and singers to catch a big break; even with a degree it’s competitive.
Was the transition from environmental biology difficult?
My passion was in music. My hobby was music. I got an opportunity to take both my passion and hobby and turn it into a career, so I did.
It wasn’t easy. We are creatures of habit. It’s hard to change, but there is something about a new experience that makes you better, stronger, more aware of yourself and you never learn what your limits really are until you try. I’m good at science, but it’s not my passion. I followed my heart, and that’s where I ended up.
When did you join Beach Blanket Babylon?
I joined Beach Blanket Babylon in 1986. I was the third African-American person to be cast in the show. I still hold the role of the longest veteran performer in the show.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians and performers?
If you’re doing something new as a performer, there’s always a fear. Even though you’ve done it a million times, you just want to do it perfectly. But I don’t know that there is a thing such as perfect, so do it to the best of your abilities.
I think there’s something about that experience that makes you stronger, makes you better. You never know unless you try.
When did you join our campus?
I’ve been here at SFSU since fall of 2009, six years. I was first asked to teach a vocal jazz class and thought, no way, I’m not a teacher. I was then encouraged to take the opportunity by my colleague Dee Spencer, professor and director of the School of Music and Dance at San Francisco State University, and I’m so glad I did.
My students are full of so much talent, and I’m often shocked by their transformation from the beginning of the semester to the end — not only in their musical abilities, but also in how much they come out of their shells and blossom.
Part of the program allows me to coach one-on-one with some of the students, and it really surprises me how much talent they have and how they grow the courage to select pieces that are difficult and then perform them beautifully.
How has your career influenced your teaching?
The class is always diverse, filled with a lot of fun. Jazz major class is a lot of work.
It’s about bringing your ideas, trying new things. A lot of students pick challenging things and I just say, go on with your bad self! Seeing the changes from the beginning of the class to the end is sometimes shocking.
I allow students to bring in music that is not always necessarily jazz. I encourage them to bring in things they’ve written, even music in other languages. Part of the journey is, OK, you don’t know any jazz songs, then look up some jazz classics, and I guarantee you’ll find one.
The more they learn, the more they can vocalize. Everyone is very helpful and supportive.
How does your career influence your parenting?
Higher education is very important to me. I’m now focusing on preparing my son for college applications; he’s been with me all during my career with Beach Blanket Babylon. I was pregnant with him and performing so he’s my Beach Blanket Babylon baby. I remember when I could hold him in the palm of my hand, but now he’s getting ready for college.
The mom part of me is like, I remember when you got your first tooth, I remember this and that, and now here he is moving away.
It’s scary, but we want to usher him into the right environment and support him to pursue a higher education.
What are some things we might not know about the cast of Beach Blanket Babylon?
Most of my fellow actors are triple threats. That means experience in acting, dancing and singing. Such talent! You might not get to see all of it from them at one time, but I respect them because they are incredible triple threats. I’m not, I can sing and act, and I can throw down some moves but not a professional dancer.
What are some of your favorite memories from the show?
In the past during Christmas, we used to do a tap number and I loved to tap. It was the only time of the year I got to tap. I used to be a tap dancer, and people would laugh because I was the shortest one.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Stevie Wonder, the style of Anita Baker, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and of course the Queen, Ella Fitzgerald.
I’ve also always loved Bette Midler. I saw her years ago and I loved her stuff.
Now, I’m getting ready to go see Janet Jackson. I remember going to see the Jackson 5 when I was little, but I’ve never seen Janet, so I said, let’s go!
Photo courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon