My life from a very early age has been driven by a deep love of music. Even as I pursued other professions or found myself at the brink of medical school, music always pulled me back.
Many years and experiences later, my career continues to include the art. I have coached brilliant musicians and up-and-coming beginners.
I recently finished working as the vocal coach for talented actors starring in Julie Taymor’s (“The Lion King,” “Frida”) next film, “Across the Universe.”
I’m often asked about my background and how I gained the understanding of singing I have. Here is a synopsis of the delight of discovery, the work and my mission (but minus the pain, anxiety and expense.)
I was born into a musical family. My grandmother, a concert pianist, played the musical scores for the silent movies at the major movie theaters in Michigan. My mother and her three brothers were all natural singers and by age five or six, I would join in with the family sing-a longs. We harmonized and played singing games at home in our little town in the logging country of Oregon where we moved when I was eight years old.
At age eleven I sang for the first time on the local radio station. During high school, I sang solos in our church, which were broadcast on the radio every Sunday. Every year I took part in the radio broadcast of the March of Dimes fundraising drives. One benefit of growing up in a small community was that I had so many opportunities to sing, from the high school chorus and theater work to the church and charity functions.
When I left home for college in Michigan, it was to be a doctor. It wasn’t until I was in my pre-med program, that I took my first voice lesson. I became possessed with singing! I wanted to understand the mechanics of singing and improve the gift I’d been given which, up until that time, I had been doing naturally and joyfully. I knew nothing about the difficulty of high notes, the passaggio, or breath support until I had studied for a while. To that point I’d been singing and breathing without difficulties, but those lessons introduced elements of frustration and confusion that grew over the next twenty years. My love of singing and music won out over medicine.
I entered and won first place in the lyric tenor division in The Chicago Tribune music compeitition during my second year of college and my direction became clear. For the next twenty years, I earned my living as a singer, singing with bands, in musical theater, doing a club act and what came to be my real passion — opera. A long way from the logging country of Oregon!
As I kept singing professionally, I kept studying and changed teachers time and again, looking for help. My voice, which had started out natural and free, had developed problems. It was locked up and I sought the secret that would free it once again. Vocally things got worse and worse until I gave up singing and started driving a taxicab to support myself. But I never gave up my love of singing nor my quest for that voice-freeing key! My greatest asset, or sometimes curse, is “I can’t give up!”
I was browsing in a music store one day and found a book titled ”Tradition and Gigli” by E. Herbert Caesari. I didn’t know who Caesari was, but I was and am a very big fan of the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. I have a very large record collection that is a history of singing. The Caesari book, written in 1958, explained the history of the first singing school and Caesari’s connection to its first exponents. It also mentioned his other book “The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone.” I suspected that volume might be an important part of the key I was seeking and so I had to find that book. It was out of print and it was a time before Internet searches and out-of-print divisions at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Finding it was difficult. Eventually I did get my hands on a copy and that was, for me, the beginning of vocal truth. What I discovered in “The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone” was a master teacher who did not offer an “opinion” or “theory” or trendy fashionable ideas about how the voice worked. Caesari offered not only the explanation of the physical science of singing, but also exercises and examples of how to identify what muscles did what to make a person, a voice, a body sing. He described the sensations that help a singer identify that the physical parts are moving correctly in a healthy and natural way. Caesari explained how the voice worked and I came to understand how my previously natural singing technique had been distorted by incorrect teaching.
Even as I studied “The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone,” I set out to find the rest of Caesari’s five books. I found the second book, “The Voice of the Mind,” after another difficult hunt and worked on these books by myself for four years. Only after all that time did I notice that Caesari dedicated “The Voice of the Mind” to his daughter Alma and that he had taught her this great art of singing, too. If only I hadn’t skipped the early pages to get to the “good parts” when a great part was on the dedication page! The book publisher told me Alma Caesari was living in London and they would forward my letter to her. Three months went by and then my phone rang. Alma was calling from London. What followed was a course of study with Alma Caesari in London and with the writings of her father and the exercises that they used, I finally understood the teachings of the Old Italian School.
I then decided to study all of the other books written by vocal masters of the early 20th century and before. First I studied the German operatic soprano Lilli Lehmann’s book “How to Sing” for two years. Although a decidedly different approach, it achieved the same exact vocal mechanics and freedom of the instrument. Then I searched for more books of vocal truth and I found Manuel Garcia Jr., Herbert Witherspoon, Lamperti amongst others.
I was on a mission! Natural singers needed to understand how their voices worked to preserve their free and healthy singing style. And people who didn’t have that same natural and free gift from birth, but wanted to learn to sing should be taught a technique with an honored centuries-old tradition that would enhance their abilities and neither damage nor destroy their voices. All those instructions to pull in the stomach or support the diaphragm or sing into the mask or sing into the nose or cover the note or push that and hold this…..etc, etc. that had contributed to the degradation of my voice had to be erased from my head and from my body.
Out with the old bad habits and in with new healthy ones. My joy of discovering a school of vocal instruction based on science, anatomy and physical reality was beyond imagining. It brings tears to my eyes even now, decades later, to recall my delight and hope.
I had found THE WAY!
I loved the journey of following in the pathway of the old masters which resulted in the resurrection of my own voice. Since that first trip, more than 30 years ago, I have loved taking many students step by step, educating new singers, and retraining and healing some rather damaged voices. What an honor, privilege and delight to follow in the steps of the masters of the Old Italian School!
One day in the mid-1970’s, I was invited to meet a voice scientist who was doing laboratory tests on singers. Great idea, I thought. However, I didn’t know who the scientist was testing or what kind of singers they were.
Our meeting did not illustrate a melding of science and art!
I talked about the physical sensations of singing and the “voice scientist” only wanted to talk about muscle names. Knowing what muscles and body parts make up vocal production is all well and good, but simply identifying and naming them wouldn’t help a singer sing, or a teacher teach how to train this invisible and internal instrument!
This voice scientist was testing anyone, indiscriminately recording and observing voices. All well and good. However, I was more interested in understanding how the great singers’ produced their voices and how the singers of our era were, by and large, not measuring up. The voice scientist didn’t think there was value in studying “dead people.” Listen to a recording of the great tenor Enrico Caruso and dare tell me there is no value in studying THAT “dead” person!”
My frustration with the “voice scientist” got me thinking that my early interest in anatomy and becoming a doctor meshed beautifully with my study of singing!
A study of anatomy would explain which muscles moved and how they moved to cause the sensations I felt when I sang. Understanding the physicality of singing….what happens to all those muscles….was the path, which I call “vocal truth” and the way of nature, to being able to teach the singing of the old Italian school and continue the tradition of the masters.
I was more than delighted when the Mapleson Cylinders were transferred to LP’s in the early 1980s. The first recordings at the Metropolitan Opera house were at the turn of the twentieth century by the opera company librarian Lionel Mapleson. He captured the performances on wax cylinders that he recorded at various places in the wings of the stage and from the prompters box. Years later the acoustical engineer Tom Owens developed a sophisticated device for transferring the wax cylinders to LP’s.
In so doing, he observed that the sound pressure levels of the early singers on the Mapleson cylinders were greater than that of the singers of the current day. He deduced that those early voices carried into the theatre much better and that their vocal technique was far superior.
Owens’ scientific assessment of the Met opera singers of old added to my conviction that the centuries-old traditional school of singing produced a superior vocal technique. Science and technology was able to concretely measure art and that appealed to my scientific nature.
The Owens’ observation reinforced my belief that the teachers and singers of the old school had a body of knowledge about how the body produced singing that I needed to understand and pass along. It is not that we are condemning our modern day singers, for the great talent is at hand. We are only trying to explain a schooling that would lift these wonderful artists to their true potential.