Anne Pringle Burnell is an acclaimed jazz singer and a certified instructor international presenter, author and education provider, who has been teaching exercise for 20 years. She developed the Peyow Aqua Pilates and Stronger Seniors programs and trains clients and groups in Pilates, Peyow Aqua Pilates, and a wellness procedure called AquaStretch. She has released two CDs: “Blues in the Night,” a collection of songs by Harold Arlen, and, just recently, “Summer Days & Dreamy Nights.” Information on her exercise programs is at aquapilates.net and strongerseniors.com; her performance schedule is at anneburnell.com.
There seem to be two Anne Burnells: one a very talented singer and the other an accomplished fitness instructor. The websites for the two halves of you don’t reference each other, so they’re like parallel universes. How did these two Anne Burnells develop and how do they coexist in you?
I started on both about the same time after college. I came to Chicago and I was waitressing at a French restaurant on State Street called Yvette’s. There was music there; a piano player. The restaurant did a singing competition and I applied to apply but the owner said I couldn’t because I was working there. I said fine.
I was hoping to do some acting because that was my passion and my degree. I kept getting called back for character parts against 40-year-olds and I was in my 20s. So I was not going to get parts. It was always the same callbacks with the same parts with the same people.
Had you done theater in college?
Yes and I’d done some professional theater and commercials in Detroit where I went to college.
But at Yvette’s I became friends with the piano players and they took me to see some of the legendary people who were performing: Buddy Charles and Dave Green. The city was rich with such people. Amazing guys. And I fell in love with that American Standard Songbook material.
Meanwhile, at the end of the month- or two-month-long singing competition at Yvette’s, the owner said, “OK. Get up on stage because none of these people is any good.” I got up and sang and Rick Kogan from the Chicago Tribune noticed me and he’s been a proponent of mine ever since. He said, “You’re wasting your life as a waitress.”
But you knew that, right?
Oh yeah. I knew that already. But I got it together and put a little ad in the [local weekly] Reader and put a band together. Then it was just about going out and trying to sit in with the jazz musicians in town and not being intimidated by drummers who don’t like vocals or players who try to get you lost. It meant having a lot of grit to get out and learn the art form.
Did you have to develop that grit, or did you have it from the start?
I knew it was important to go out and listen because you can’t understand jazz and its components unless you’re inside it. It’s like a meal: You can’t taste it without eating it. So I just had to pay my dues. I would always want to go to a club where they’d have a jam session at the end of the night and I could sit in. The Green Mill. The Get Me High Lounge. As a result, I met a lot of musicians and got their respect. When I did start to get gigs I had a wealth of people I could call on and it was great.
I hadn’t planned on becoming a singer but I really began to like it. And then I started to singing with my own style instead of singing as a “character.” I liked putting my own spin on it.
What about the fitness side? Was that unplanned, too?
It was. It was an accident. I was singing at a blues bar called Lilly’s; it was really my first gig. I’d worded at a few other spots but Lily the owner gave me my first steady gig. She created a dressing room for me upstairs and brought costumes from her wardrobe for me.
I was singing with a lot of the old blues singers like Detroit Jr., Big Time Sarah and Valerie Wellington, who was phenomenal and died too young. I learned a lot from them, but I was waitressing at Yvette’s and eating a lot of great French food. A girlfriend came in one day and said, “Oh my gosh, Anne. You’ve got to get to the gym!”
I’d danced in college and had been on the swim team so I was fit but I didn’t realize what was happening. I joined a gym—the cheapest I could find—and I would go in the middle of the day for classes. But they don’t pay those people much and the instructors never seemed to show up. I asked the manager, “Can anyone work here? Because I’m coming to classes but the teachers aren’t.” And they said, “You want to work here?”
I started with basic training in how to teach aerobics and it just became a natural interest. I researched more and more—and I still can’t get enough information—about it. I have a lot of certifications but I still want to find out more.
It sounds a bit like the same arc as the one you had with music: you reached a point where you wanted to do it your way and learn more. Is that fair?
It is. I’m doing a lot of research and learning a lot about cutting edge thinking on exercise from people like Dr. Len Kravitz at the University of New Mexico. When I was going through the certifications for Pilates about 10 years ago, I knew that I’d hit on something deep, like an onion that you can keep peeling.
At the same time in 2001 I was hired by The Peninsula hotel, which had just opened. They asked me to create a mind-body class in the water because they didn’t want people jumping around and doing aerobics. That was the seed that grew into Aqua Pilates.
Was that also when you were developing exercise programs for seniors?
No, the senior programs I did first. I was asked to take over a class for seniors at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Ave. There were 50 or 60 people in the class. I began subbing for a friend one summer and I started learning more and more about that demographic.
I made a home video for my parents to make them work out because I was worried that they were so immobile. Friends and I shot it and sent it to our parents for Christmas. After that I shot a professional video called “Stretch & Strength” even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with it.
The videos were shipped to my house and they were sitting around everywhere. One day a student of my husband Mark [Burnell, a musician, singer, and vocal coach] asked about them. It turned out working with seniors was a passion of his. He bought the entire company [Stronger Seniors]. I create the content and he handles the marketing and it’s been a great relationship over many years.
Is it under the “Stretch & Strength” name still?
It’s called Stronger Seniors. We have seven videos in total, including “Stretch & Strength,” yoga and core fitness videos. I still teach at Fourth Presbyterian Church. I think the average age is about 75. There’s one woman who is 101.
I started doing things with them I don’t think others thought of doing. My program is safe but I wanted to challenge them to do more [than the usual exercises]. And that program also became one for disabled adults or those with limited mobility or obesity.
Four years ago, the Rehab Institute of Chicago called me because they were interested in my water program. They implemented Aqua Pilates into their Adaptive Sports & Fitness, and I’ve been working with them since 2010.
You really are involved in so many things, do you worry about overextending yourself?
I have a student who’s a poet and she always tells me, “You’re going to wear yourself out but it certainly looks like you love singing.” But I quit management at one point. I was managing a private club, singing and running two fitness companies. And I was burning out. The club job was supposed to be a 20-hour-a-week job, but it wasn’t.
I stopped all that and went freelance and became more of an educator. I still run around a little bit to create big-picture things and I have to shift my focus to music and then to fitness. It just requires time management. I have warm-up tracks [for singing] that I can listen to in the car while I’m driving.
I feel very passionate about making people feel better through exercise and through my music.
What have I learned about yourself that you share with younger people?
Well, I’m not certain you have to be sure about your purpose [in life]. I was reading interviews on the GlassCeiling.com site and the great speech given by Shonda Rhimes and I think you need to be flexible about where opportunities can come into your life.
Henry Johnson, who I’ve worked with for the last two years and who produced my new CD, “Summer Days & Dreamy Nights,” is on tour with Ramsey Lewis. For him to mentor me has been the biggest break. The last album I did was in 2005 so this was a long time coming and I know how fortunate I’ve been to work with him.
But I’ve also learned that I can’t do all this [that I do] without valuing it, without seeing it as something of value and pricing it appropriately. I’ve faced that a few times in my career. One time I was with a band playing weddings and I just decided I was going to have two prices: one for weddings and private events where people tell me what they want to hear and another price for events where I have control. I almost doubled the “non-artistic” rate and nobody blinked.
Were you worried about putting your foot down?Oh yeah. But no one has ever turned around and thrown money at me no matter how good a job I’ve done. I’ve always had to ask for raises. It’s crazy but that’s something you learn. If you go to middle management [at a club], my experience is that they won’t
get you a raise. You have to go to the top. You have to make some noise.