Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cornelius Reid

I've mentioned Cornelius Reid briefly here, but developments this past year led me to investigate him once again and more thoroughly. And when I mean investigate him, I really mean more his teachings but also information on the man himself. You can check out a website dedicated to him here (he died just a couple years ago in his 90s).

Several years ago, when I was still preparing to apply to music schools, I ordered the trio of books Reid wrote mid-century. They're each a mixture of manifesto, technical manual, and history of vocal teaching practices -- each book having a slightly different emphasis and mix of these elements. (Ironically, Patelson, where I ordered the books, seems to be defunct themselves now.)

I was hitting all sorts of roadblocks this past year. I felt that I had to sing full tilt for a semi-steady sound; I couldn't sing very high or very low; I became vocally tired relatively quickly; it took me forever to "warm up" to get a functioning sound. I decided that the most key deficiency was not being able to produce a medium volume or soft sound that would carry or be steady. And further, I thought it was because I didn't know how to make a heady mixture that I've heard my fellow students (even non-voice majors) produce and carry relatively high in the range. With this in mind, I turned to Reid's books again with an eye for something different.

In a nutshell, Reid's arguments are that (1) there was a Golden Age of song in the 17th and 18th centuries -- this is based on contemporary descriptions of singers, but also on the kind of vocal writing singers were expected to (and did) deliver; (2) in virtually all of the writing on vocal training and technique from this period do not mention or describe anything we would recognize today as "placement" or "breath support." Nothing; (3) therefore, what these teachers did focus on (vowel purity, pitch, and intensity) must be enough to resolve the technical problems and deficiencies encountered in vocal training.

In developing this argument, Reid then formulates an "answer," of some sort, to the current trends in vocal training -- namely, placement and breath support.

He writes that when the vocal mechanism is in balance (and he basically means larynx and vocal cord area), the body knows how to supply sufficient air and "support." Shortness of breath for phrasing does not mean the body does not know how to breathe -- it does. It is a symptom of inefficient vocal coordination and production. (If someone is running with shitty form and is having difficulty with running long -- or short -- distances, the approach to long-term improvement is not to practice breathing or endurance exercises -- it's to fix the form first.)

Moreover, the voice, unlike every other instrument, cannot be controlled consciously in the way that other muscles can. You cannot cause your vocal cords to vibrate 380 times a second consciously. What is under control are pitch, intensity/volume, and vowel. These are the tools that the student and teacher must use to investigate technical problems and their solutions.

Reid also invokes anatomy to support his (and I suppose, Golden Age teachers') view of the voice as a two-register instrument: there are just two motor nerves that go from the brain to the vocal cord complex. He calls these chest and head registers. The basic trouble in vocal training is to develop unused registers and then to combine these registral actions in such a way to produce and evenness of scale throughout the voice. This is approached via exercises that arrange pitch, intensity/volume, and vowel (just the very things you can consciously control) in such a way that it predisposes the voice to use one registration or another. That is to say, the voice has a reflexive tendency to use one of the two registers depending on what vowel and how loudly you sing it on a certain pitch.

From here, it's a pretty straight shot to the technical training procedure.

This approach was appealing to me because it dispensed with the entire notion of breathing support as something one needed to practice. As demonstrated in a session with one of my teachers, I can evenly release breath on a hiss at a very very slow rate. Ask me to sing and it goes to pieces. Ergo, something that I'm doing with singing is just not right.

So I did some digging around and spoke to two teachers who studied with Reid (or studied with someone who did) about vocal training. I'm probably going to do some consultation and some work with them this summer (one hopes) -- but let me first share some of the links/reading that resulted from my investigation.

The approach made sense, but was the proof in the pudding? What I liked about this group of teachers (if they can be called a group), was that they believed that everyone was able to learn to sing with freedom, and that anybody who wanted to learn how to do so, they would teach -- never mind about adding to their own reputation via their students'. I don't believe that having famous students necessarily means teachers know how to teach vocal technique. As a friend of mine pointed out to me -- the greatest predictor of who will win an award (like, say, the Nobel or Pulitzer) is winning other awards. Success feeds itself. So, I was looking for what students taught this way sounded like. And if I could figure out what they might have sounded like before (very hard or impossible), the better. What was telling were cases of singers suffering vocal damage and seeking out a Reid teacher to reconstruct their voices and techniques. That got my attention.

Anyhow - without further ado:

Studied directly with Cornelius Reid:

Students of Students:

Each of these singers a) looks relaxed, b) sounds easy, and c) has great diction. It's what I want and although I've made some breakthroughs in many of my goals this year, I hope that this summer will be extremely rewarding studying this way. Will keep tabs on developments here.


Betsy said...

I'm really impressed with this intensive search. Looks like it's yielding some interesting results. The idea of following the trends in vocal teaching is a fascinating one. As I'm at the brink of starting to look for a new teacher myself, I'm very curious about the evolution that lead to the current batch. My last teacher occasionally reminded me that I'm in the 'Renee Fleming lineage,' which was always a bizarre notion to me.

It's curious hearing a baritone talk about having difficulty doing what seems to come so easily to many of that voice type. I curse those recordings of Fischer-Dieskau and others for their impossibly effortless pianissimos. It's comforting to know that doesn't always come easily! I also have trouble keeping the richness while reducing the volume, and those messa di voce exercises make me feel like a complete vocal idiot.

I saw a bunch of young singers the other night, and the ones who seemed the most relaxed with the easiest production were the ones I most enjoyed watching. I went home thinking that there's no way I'll ever achieve that effortless appearance. I practiced in the mirror, which I hate doing, and decided that I have a long way to go. I think it's a holdover from my choral days. I still over chew my words and my jaw won't get out of the way.

Looking forward to checking out the clips you found!

alex said...

Thanks, Betsy!

It's strange to think of trends in this way. The more I think about it, the more I think of the practices one usually encounters with voice teachers these days as incredibly unhelpful, generally-speaking.

It seems to me that all of this focus on the diaphragm, for instance, and placement (oh my LORD how I have spent all this time trying to sing through my eyeballs) seems to, among other things, way too reliant on some idea that we all feel the same sensations when correctly producing a sound.

Basically, I think that vocal pedagogy has gone the way of nutrition science (as described by Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food) in that it's so eager to break apart the mechanism into its parts and tinker with them separately and assume it can be put back together into some working whole that it ignores the way in which causal connections could run.

For instance -- physiologically observing a well-produced voice might yield nuggets like: "oh the soft palate is lifted" and "hey, what do you know - there's all this belly movement going on when s/he breathes" which are then prescribed like health supplements. As if it's the breathing and the soft palate that resulted in the easy singing rather than the other way around. I'm not so sure.

I'd be happy to loan you a Reid book if you're interested, though I understand that there's a volume (maybe still in print) that I hear is a little bit more readable if you'd rather pick that up.

I basically just got a little fed up with what I perceive as this bizarre way to go about teaching something as involuntarily controlled as singing in a tightly micromanaged way. It's like this story of a physics professor who describes exactly the most efficient edge-to-ice angles and speeds and body positions a figure skater should use in order to maximize power and efficiency in launching and landing jumps. And as he winds down, he says, "you know, although we understand that this is how and why it works, nobody actually learns to skate this way."

Anonymous said...

Hello Alex, Thanks for including my website on your blog. We functional teachers who worked with Cornelius Reid consider ourselves mavericks in some way - as was he one. I owe that man's knowledge and clarity my complete gratitude for making me into purposeful teacher and for embellishing my life with his integrity. Without him, I don't know what might have become of me as I was so disgusted with the politics of singing and its teachers.

Years ago there was some very unpleasant, politically motivated controversy that he had ruined the voice of George Shirley. Shirley himself was so embarrassed by this unfair criticism that he wrote Mr. Reid a long and arduous letter stating how untrue the entire accusation was and how horrified he was by it. Both John Stewart and myself possess copies of that letter. I might contact George to ask his permission to publish it, but cannot do so without his consent.

One of the most extraordinary things about some of us with abused voices who had protracted study with Cornelius Reid is that often we grew satisfied with the knowledge that indeed we are/were highly musical beings and decided not to continue our performance ambitions, but to teach and help others.

I may be reached by finding my blogspot and looking for the email on it. The one on the website is no longer working as it filled with spam.

All the best in your continued quest for vocal freedom. Carol Baggott-Forte.

The Art Song Preservation Society said...

I found your blog very interesting because much of your story mirrors my own. I had hopes to find either Oren Brown or Cornelius Reid still living and teaching after all these years and was terribly sad when I found out they had since passed. When I first began singing (as a baritone before migrating to tenor), I devoured Reid's trilogy. I recently had the idea of seeking out students of Mr. Reids who are still teaching in the NYC area and that is how I stumbled across your blog. I would be interested in any research that you would be willing to share as far as the contact info for any oh his previous students. Thanks again for the blog....It was so interesting. I can be reached at or . Many thanks, and best of luck on your path to success! Per ardua ad astra! Blair

Anonymous said...

I came to NYC for the very same reason! I studied with a student/colleague of Reid's for much of my training in Texas (as did my Mother) When I moved here I worked with a good number of teachers before coming back to the Reid philosophy. The teacher that I work with now is Lenora Eve. She was associated with Reid for (I think) 2 decades up until his death. She is an amazing pianist/coach as well.

nanofan said...

Dear Alex,

I thank you so much for posting such an incredible amount of research regarding Cornelius Reid onto this blog.
I am a young baritone currently residing in Los Angeles, and have been searching for voice teachers who follow in the lineage of the great Cornelius Reid. It is so great to see that others are so interested in discovering his technique and gaining vocal function. This is why I am so interested and excited about discovering a voice teacher who teaches this method.

Would you be willing to share your contact information of the voice teachers who follow in his teachings? I have been searching for such a long time.

My email is

I will be moving to New York shortly, but any information about these voice teachers that you could give me would be very helpful


Thank you, I hope to hear from you soon

Katherine Posner said...

I just discovered this and am honored that my name is included with the list of "Reid-ies."

To Alex: Please give Ellen Shade a try when you get to NYC. She is a superb teacher and a warm and supportive personality. We are friends and I think so well of her.
She has consulted with me on my students several times and I find her a wonderful resource. When I have students in NYC for auditions or visits, I try to get them to Ellen for a lesson. That is what I appreciate so much about function teachers. None of us - to my knowledge - is territorial about students. We just want you all to sing to your potential and will do what we have to to make that happen. I have taught lessons to other teachers' students, as well. If you want contact info for Ellen, write me on my website.

Matthew said...
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Matthew said...
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Anonymous said...

Dear Alex: For the sake of politeness, and not to leave any other important names off this list who have direct lineage to Cornelius Reid and his direct descendants and so on, as I am almost certain there are more names, would it be permissible to remove any of the names that have been tacked onto your blog in the Comments field? In that way, you can modify the original post to include other names, should they be verified and accurate. Thank you, kindly!

Anonymous said...

there is also Johanna Peine in Berlin, Germany. and there is Donna Reid in New York City, Cornelius's widow.

Deborah Greene Bershatsky, PhD said...
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Anonymous said...

Dorothy Stone of NYC, who also teaches all over the US and Europe, is - with all due respect to Donna Reid - the best pedagog of all of Reid's students. Sadly this comment must be anonymous, but I can be reached for further information at

sharla nafziger said...

HI! I'm happy to have stumbled across this website. It looks like there haven't been new comments for a while, so maybe I'll be opening up the conversation? I want to clarify that I actually studied directly with Reid in NYC for a little over a year, late 1999 to early 2001. I do however, attribute pretty much everything I am today to Carol Forte. She saved my voice. She built it up from the ruins. Since I moved to NYC almost 16 years ago, I haven't been able to see her for lessons for quite some time. There are, of course, many people who have not been included on this list. One person who I feels deserves recognition is Wendy Sharp. She is the head of the voice department at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I also teach there. I have been taking lessons with her from time to time, to make sure I keep my voice in shape. She has helped me tremendously, and has influenced my own teaching. I have not been performing as much as I used to, since my son was born in 2009, so keeping up my instrument has taken a back burner, unfortunately. Wendy is a wonderful teacher, and is very supportive in her role as department head. btw, I think Grant Youngblood also studied with Reid as well.