I am committed to the proposition that learning to sing is like learning to play any other musical instrument. First, the science of using the vocal instrument must be addressed; then and only then can the art of singing be usefully studied. Far too many singers are trained to be “artists” without ever having mastered the necessary vocal science – without having learned to “hold the instrument” properly.
This state of affairs results mostly from the old myth that great singers are born and should be left alone as much as possible to sing with their talent. However, since in the early part of the last century it was determined that the physical equipment of a Caruso is not terribly different from that of the average “untalented” non-singer, the distance between these two extremes must be more a matter of function than of anatomy. In other words, it ain’t so much what you got; it’s what you do with what you got!
It follows, then, that beautiful vocalizing can be taught – that a mediocre voice can be transformed with proper training into a fine one. I emphasize that the result is beautiful vocalizing and not necessarily fine singing. The sensitivity, musicality, drive and dedication that make a fine singer - a vocal artist - may be absent no matter how beautiful a vocal tone the individual produces. It is for this reason that I value those four qualities in a student - sensitivity, musicality, drive and dedication - far more than the impressive vocal tones he or she might bring to the first lessons. But, it is unfortunate that vocal training often actually limits rather than expands the artistic potential of a naturally gifted singer by failing to address correctly the fundamental issue of how to use the vocal instrument with maximum efficiency and to best possible effect.
Considerably less difficult to master than the techniques required for playing other musical instruments, correct vocalism is accessible to most students if they - and the teacher - are persistent and industrious enough to achieve mastery of the few necessary physical coordinations involved in support, in maximizing pharyngeal resonance, and in articulating vowels primarily in the oropharynx rather than in the mouth. Until these fundamentals are firmly in place, addressing vocal “polish” and interpretative nuance is a waste of time – indeed, it is usually counterproductive.
It is unfortunate that many - if not most - young singers begin professional careers with training that amounts to nothing more than a veneer of polish slapped over their natural endowments without the issues of correct vocalism ever having been addressed. Singers trained in this manner may well be hiding vocal flaws that will only become apparent under the pressures of a career after the bloom of youth has passed. Woe to the singer who relies purely on “instinct” without understanding what he or she is doing right or wrong! Such lack of understanding is the primary reason that ten-year careers are far more common in the singing business than thirty-year careers.
I teach singing as a physical act requiring a certain amount of strength and considerable coordination. I give the student very specific instructions to achieve and eventually to master the requisite coordinations. To improve the likelihood that such mastery is attained, I require my students to maintain a high standard of physical fitness.
During my forty-one years of singing, I have found that I could nearly always do with my voice whatever the music required. I developed the reputation of being able to sing “un-singable” roles. I was able to thrive with schedules which most of my colleagues could barely survive. I became known as a “maîtresse” of high pianissimi, delicate legato, florid coloratura and seamless passaggio work – effects that elude many singers throughout their careers.
These strengths I know to be the result not of any superior talent – I am no more talented than most of my colleagues – but of my superior vocal technique. I was taught exactly and methodically how to make my voice do on demand whatever I needed it to do. I was also taught how to instruct others to do the same with their voices.
Now that I have turned some attention to teaching, I am determined to share with my students the technical advantages that I was lucky enough to acquire because I happened – by sheerest chance – to stumble onto great teachers.
I must address the matter of repertoire for students. I abhor the school of thought which denies the existence of young dramatic voices and demands that students possessing large, opulent instruments be forced into literature for lyric voices simply because they are young. The criticisms “You are too young to make sounds like that!” or “You sound too old when you sing!” are so absurd that they are really unworthy of comment – except for the fact that such thinking is the basis for ruining many young voices by squeezing them into an unnaturally lyric sound.
A baby whale is very uncomfortable in a goldfish bowl; likewise, a young Tosca is equally uncomfortable singing Susanna. The late, great Jerome Hines stated that training young dramatic voices to sing lyric roles is like driving a high-power sports car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brakes; the result is a burned out engine and burnt out brakes!
During the first months of training, all musical selections should be chosen primarily as tools for building vocal technique – while, of course, also serving to introduce literature, style, language and interpretative principles. Italian and Spanish are ideal languages for introducing English-speaking beginners to correct vocalism. The pure, open-throated vowels and forward consonants of both serve admirably to help establish a healthy legato. The next language to approach is German, with its essentially pure vowels, but difficult consonantal challenges. Then English, with its eccentric vowel structure, can be comfortably studied. Finally, French, can be intelligently tackled. All healthy singing in any language must be based on pure vowels articulated primarily in the oropharynx. Literature for the studio should be carefully chosen with this goal in mind.
While I abhor labels for “schools of teaching”, I can in good conscience say that my ideals of vocal technique are consistent with those that were practiced and espoused by Joseph Klein, Todd Duncan and Jerome Hines. Obviously, I am deeply influenced by my first teachers, Marlene Delavan, whose son (and student), Mark, is presently enjoying an important career, and Dr. David Scott, whose studio also produced soprano Carol Vaness.
But I have also learned much from other teachers with whom I have studied during the course of my career: Margaret Harshaw, Dr. Dean Verhines, Heldentenor Claude Heater, Rodolfo Celletti and Claudio Desderi - and from colleagues with whom I have worked or coached, like Marilyn Horne, Henry Lewis, Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge, Montserrat Caballé, Erich Leinsdorf, Riccardo Muti, Walter Taussig and Alberta Masiello.
I believe that vocal studies should always address the demands of a professional career. Even if a career is not what the student desires, singing on a professional level is a goal worth achieving in and of itself. My intention is always to produce singers good enough to have careers, whether or not they actually choose to do so.