I was such an eager beaver. When I began voice lessons, I was the type that would be assigned a song and who then would find the book that the song came in, learn that song, go through the rest of the book, and come back the next week with four more songs I wanted to learn. I had come to college to major in history, go the Library School, and become a librarian. In high school I had been a very good student, and my activities were the chorus and the library club; you’ve got it: total nerd. I had a wonderful church choir director who was also the music department chair at the only college I wanted to attend, the only college I applied to, and fortunately the one I got into. When he suggested that I take voice lessons, I was delighted and soon left off thinking about being a history major to become a music major.
They had a new voice teacher who was a very impressive woman, quite a good singer, and a Curtis graduate. For some people she was a fine teacher, but those people were mostly the ones who already had a solid technique. Most of what I knew about singing had been learned in choirs and had little to do with solo singing. I had a large voice that was flexible and fast and that had quite a long range. I was very nervy with lots of stage fright that I dealt with by learning music so well it would come out of my mouth without my brain having to operate. That was good because my brain and body were paralyzed with fear. The lady who was my first teacher was one of those very good singers who was not a very good teacher of technique. She was not what I needed, but I was so flattered to have her attention, that pleasing her was my goal for at least the first three years.
Because I would learn absolutely anything, she let me sing repertoire that included operatic arias from my first year. I was singing Musetta’s Waltz and everything from Vedrai, carino to Boito’s L'altra notte in fondo al mare from Mefistofele. Vedrai, carino is more or less appropriate for a young singer; L’altra notte, not so much. I was not very interested in vocalises at first, although later I became fascinated with them. She would play some warm ups and tell me how I should feel when I sang. Much of the time I would not feel whatever it was that she felt, and she had no other way to talk about voice. Eventually she would say, “Oh well, let’s just sing.” We would head into tons of repertoire, and I had a great time.
The problem was that a big voice needs to be tethered to the body. She was never able to explain what to do when I was supposed to “sing from the diaphragm” or “use more breath support”. I didn’t know where the diaphragm was or how to use the torso musculature. I didn’t know why certain vowels worked better than others, and my posture and diction were appalling. By my senior year I would sharp as much as a major third in a page of unaccompanied music. Neither my voice teacher nor any other faculty member had any idea of why this happened, so they naturally fell back on the time honored practice of blaming the student. I was given to understand that although I was an excellent student and had a “fine instrument”, I really was not a very good musician, and there probably was something wrong with my musical ear. For a 21-year-old to have her most respected teachers let her know that this was their opinion was not good for my self-confidence.
During my junior year my accompanist and friend started playing in the private studio of a woman who taught one of the other voice teachers at the college. The faculty voice teacher was Janet Stewart, one of the most beautiful singers I have ever known. My pianist friend wanted me to leave my college teacher and go to Inge Manski Lundeen, but I felt that doing so would be disloyal. I was the big singer among the undergraduates by then (even out of tune), and I thought it would be a big problem for everyone in the department. As you may be thinking, I have always known that I am the center of the universe.
Anyway, I graduated, and some good things started happening. I was accepted into the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus; I started getting chosen for leading roles in the small opera companies that kept popping up in Atlanta at that time; and I got up the courage to call Inge. With me she had a strong-willed, talented, and ignorant young singer. My diction made her cringe, so that was one of the first things that she worked on. She was old fashioned in that she did not talk about vowels creating a resonant sound so much as she did about singing the right vowel in the language in which I was singing. I was a high chest breather with no idea about connecting my sound to my whole body, and that was the next thing on her list.
Inge was interested in the voice science that was gradually seeping into voice teaching in the 1970’s. She introduced me to the Vennard book and to another fine little book by Dr. Friedrick Broadnitz called, I believe, Keep Your Voice Healthy. She loved to read, and she constantly read about voice, about performance, about psychology, and she would give me the books she liked best. One was The Inner Game of Tennis that started off a series of imitators trying to get our heads into whatever game they wanted to talk about. She made me aware of the literature of voice, that written in English (or German, since she was bi-lingual) and that written in notes. The years that I was with her, from 1972 until she entered a nursing home and her son moved her to Chicago, were years of incredible richness for me. We went to concerts, I sat in on lessons, I joined NATS, I began to teach, and she was always there for me, leading me to understand, enabling me.
In : Learning to Sing