Background and training

All my vocal instruction was private.  I had four principal teachers: Lief (or Leon) Kurzer, Donald Johnston, Thelma Votipka, and Cornelius Reid. Kurzer and Reid, though very different from each other, were “functional” teachers, working with the nuts and bolts of vocal structure.  Johnston and Votipka were “placement”  teachers, working through imagery and the student’s sensations to try to direct  tone to favorable adjustments.  Of course, all advocated the “open throat” and a “free voice.”  So do we all.

Kurzer was a pupil of George Armin (in some references incorrectly spelled “Arnim”), an influential and controversial teacher during the interwar  period in Germany.  Armin dealt with dualities in the voice (e.g., dualities of emission– “hard” vs. “soft,” of vowel formation, of register, etc.).  But his ruling   idea was  the “Stauprinzip” (“Stowing Principle”), which, as its name implies, had to do with the development of breath compression as the source of strength and “support” in singing.  Armin wrote several books, and many articles and pamphlets, of which none seem to have been translated into English, leaving a bit of a hole in our history of pedagogy.  Of course Kurzer was his own man, but he was very much an Armin disciple, and everything I recall from his teaching (Stauprinzip exercises, the use of  German “mixed” vowels, in addition to Italian pure ones, in vocalization), accords with Armin’s theories.

Don Johnston (not to be confused with others of that or similar name) had been a pupil of Oscar Seagle, a concert baritone who made some recordings early in the 20th Century, and who founded the Seagle Colony in upstate New York.  Seagle was a protégé of Jean de Reszke’s, and something of that heritage survived in Don’s teaching, which (at least with me) dealt with forward placement and “masque resonance,” combined with rounded vowels and some work on abdominal strength.  Don was himself a fine baritone, and had several successful pupils that I know of.

Thelma Votipka (“Tippy”) was a much-loved singer of character roles at the Met for nearly thirty years.  She is often misclassified as a mezzo-soprano because the Met found her indispensable in such roles as Marthe (Faust)  and Mamma Lucia (Cavalleria Rusticana), but her voice was a pure lyric soprano.  Her debut role (in Chicago) was Countess Almaviva, and her voice sounded best in parts like Frasquita (Carmen) and The Priestess in Aïda.  (At left, Tippy as Marianne in Der Rosenkavalier, one of her signature roles.)  Her final performance was at the farewell gala for the old Metropolitan Opera House, in l966, as Frasquita in the Carmen quintet.  For many years, Tippy maintained a very active teaching practice  in her apartment at that old musicians’ landmark, the Hotel Ansonia.  Tippy’s teaching, as I recall it,  emphasized a light attack, pure vowels, and lyrical, legato phrasing.

Cornelius Reid, like Armin, was both influential and controversial.  His career was extraordinary in length.  Many good singers came out of his studio, and a number of prominent singers in mid-career went to him for restorative work.  He also wrote extensively on vocal theory and practice.  His basic structural ideas (two registers with a universal passaggio, in a stable “resonance adjustment”) are clear.  Beyond that, since he continued to refine his work for many years after my time with him, and his books are still easily available, perhaps it is best to let his writing speak for him.  He was certainly one of the important pedagogical figures on the American vocal scene throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

Many things outside the vocal studio contribute to one’s formation as artist and teacher.  For me, extensive reading in vocal theory and a period of exploration in the related fields of body alignment, movement, and respiratory function (subjects I felt had not been sufficiently addressed in my vocal studies) were important.  I did some work in the movement analysis system of Laban (“Effort/Shape” work) and in the Ideokinesis discipline of Lulu Sweigard, and familiarized myself  with the principles and methods of Alexander and Feldenkrais, as well as with the breathing co-ordination work originated by Carl Stough, now carried on by Lynn Martin.   Experience with any discipline calling for advanced physical co-ordinations and mental control of same will give teacher and pupil alternate angles on problems, and alternate vocabularies for discussing them.  The same is true, of course, for the study of acting.

But by far the strongest outside influence on my ideas about technique came through my work as a critic (see Criticism & Writing).  More than anything else, the intensive, comparative listening involved in this work (hundreds of performances attended, thousands of hours of home listening, all with the goal of analyzing what I was hearing and describing my conclusions as accurately as possible for readers), expanded my knowledge of singers and singing, of why voices sound and behave the many ways they do, why some endure and others do not.  Without practical and theoretical grounding, this would only be a kind of connoisseurship, but when combined with those, it broadens the technical picture immeasurably, and forces one to constantly re-examine one’s beliefs.  Recorded comparisons also keep our ears open to the standards set by great singers of the past, as well as a sense of their stylistic understanding, often so different from ours.

A bit about my teaching

It’s been 45 years (and counting) since I established a studio, and as an independent teacher here in New York, I have over that time dealt with a wide range of talent — from singers of leading roles at high-level international houses and festivals to some whose study was purely avocational — and with what seems like every imaginable vocal problem, except that the next student may prove me wrong.  The clichés we all hear about learning from one’s students, and from failure more than success, are true in the most literal sense.  This is not the place for an essay on vocal theory, but I can say  that I try to work primarily from a model of vocal structure and behavior — from the things a fully developed, technically advanced voice should be able to do, as demonstrated by the masters of our art.  I try to listen for what separates the voice I’m working with from that model, and then to take the next available step toward it.  I believe that as a voice approaches that model, it progressively reveals the aesthetic qualities it is meant to have.  No sound, however seductive, is quite right if behavioral restrictions or imbalances exist, and no specific problem can be addressed without considering its place in the voice as a whole.  For that reason, the “fixit” approach is not very compatible with my way of working: the obvious problem (a wobble, say, or persistent flatness in a particular area) is usually just the localized symptom of a more general one, and the fix turns out to be only cosmetic.

Of all the problems facing young singers today, one that concerns me on a daily basis is compartmentalization: the separation of technique from musical interpretation, and of both from physical action.  In the past, I have taught operatic scene study classes and directed workshops with the objective of reconciling the modern acting sensibility with the demands of the classical repertory.  In the vocal studio, physical action can be addressed only through the imagination.  But with advanced students, I try to at least establish a bond between technique and vocal interpretation.  We must recognize that every technical decision is also an expressive choice; that every interpretive decision feeds back on the technique; and that every technical problem is also an interpretive limitation.

Here’s a little quiz I give to new students.  I give it to save some studio time finding out what they know and/or believe about the basic functional elements of singing.  If you have clear answers to these questions, and if the answers mesh with one another, then you’re pursuing some kind of coherent technical model.  And if you don’t, you’re not.  The Quiz:

  1. Respiratory function:  How do you picture a normal breath cycle–the act of moving air in and out of your body?  What differences from this norm are set up for the act of singing?  What role does breath play in initiating the tone?
  1. Registration:  What do you understand about how pitches are created by the vocal apparatus?  What do you understand by the term “register”?  What is your belief, if any, about the number and distribution of registers over the vocal range?
  1. Resonance:  What do you understand about the term “resonance”?  What are the sources of resonance in the human voice?