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Teaching voice has been my overriding passion for many, many years. I have had an enduring interest in young singers as far back as when I was one myself. I suppose this is because the development of a voice and an artist is accomplished through the small technical steps that a young singer makes on a daily basis, bolstered by the big leaps of understanding that come when you least expect them. As a singer, I always found the preparation and rehearsal aspects the most intriguing; far more so than the actual performing. On top of that is an attitude that was instilled in me by my very first voice teacher during high school and even more so by Margaret Harshaw, my voice teacher and friend from 1974 until her death in 1997. That attitude is one of mentoring and passing on the experience gained from learning and performing. In the arts especially, there are so many aspects that cannot be effectively written in a book and learned in a classroom. Skills such as vocal technique and artistic expression must be taught one-on-one and learned by guided experience.
I was fortunate in my career to have worked closely with many of the great musicians of our time. People like Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Zuban Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Gianadrea Gavazeni (who was Toscanini’s concertmaster!), Robert Shaw, Bernard Haitinck, Sir Edward Downes, James Conlin, John Nelson and others that are not so well known but were or are tremendous musicians, gave me an opportunity to learn the subtle things that take music from good to great. And working beside many of our greatest singers also provided a chance to learn from them. So, now it is my turn to pass on what I have learned and observed. Of course, I intend to keep learning about singing and music until day I die. Learning is our lifeblood and the thing that I enjoy the most. To do otherwise would be to stagnate and become useless.
We all have certain “light bulb” moments in life, when in a flash of inspiration, we comprehend something previously incomprehensible. A sudden paradigm shift in our personal universe. One of my most memorable life experiences was one such moment. I was part of a quartet of singers invited to the Marlborough Music Festival in the summer of 1977. It was during a rehearsal of the Brahm’s Liebeslieder Waltzes with the inestimable pianist, Rudolf Serkin, playing the piano. I was 26 and to even be in the same room with Rudolf Serkin was amazing; to have him playing while I was singing was almost unbelievable. My “eureka” moment came as I listened to him play these waltzes. Although they were in 3/4 time, it wasn’t “oom-pah-pah”. Serkin bent the rhythm in a subtle way that defies verbal explanation – you would have to hear it to understand – but it was in that moment that I understood what music was – what art was. He made art from the notes on the page. A rhythm machine could not do this. An unskilled musician could not do this. Even lesser skilled musicians could not make music into the Music that he made. I learned in that moment that music is not music until someone gives it life and magic. Someone has to breathe life into the notes written on a page, that a musical score – those notes on a page – are not really music until a person recreates the life and the energy and the intent that the composer imbued his creation with. When you perform a piece of music, you have a sacred duty to infuse it with meaning, and in doing so you provide a bridge between your audience and the composer. It is a solemn responsibility and wonderfully intimate experience among all of the participants.
In terms of vocal technique, i was lucky to have been trained for nearly 25 years by one of the greatest vocal technicians of the 20th Century, Margaret Harshaw. Her lineage runs back to the great 19th Century teacher Manuel Garcia, via Harshaw’s teacher, Anna Schoen-Rene. The crux of the technique is not hard to describe. It is marked by low breathing and support and high, forward placement. But the simplicity of stating its goals belies the time and training required to reach those goals. Harshaw was a tireless instructor. She lived and breathed vocal technique. She approached each singer as an individual and as a puzzle to be solved. She would come into a lesson and say, “I’ve been thinking all week about” some problem you were having and had come up with new ideas about how to solve that problem. As she reached her mid-seventies, she became almost obsessed with understanding her own vocal technique so that she could better share it with her students. I learned so much from her about singing and about life.
This is the kind of teacher I aspire to be. To understand my students vocal issues and to give everything within me to their training. To see my students as whole persons and to teach them as such. To see them as emissaries to the the generation following them and prepare them to pass along the knowledge and experience I give them and the experience they will gain. I want them to become complete artists, understanding that technique is the artist’s skill. One cannot be a great artist without the technical skills to create that art. The means to the end.
I want to help my students understand that singing is a mental thing, that you cannot sing without thinking. If you can imagine it – truly embrace it in your mind – then you can do it. Maybe not on the first attempt, or even the 500th attempt, but eventually. But if you cannot see it, then you will never do it.
There are no shortcuts worth taking in life. To achieve anything lasting and worthwhile takes effort and time. And patience. And persistence. Learning to sing is a complicated process. It will take time and dedication. But along the way there will be triumphs big and small. Those successes will keep you going.