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:
- Judith Raskin -- so told to me by another of his students. It's not mentioned in biographical materials I've been able to find.
- George Shirley -- and here with Leontyne Price
- Wendy White -- who also attributes everything to Reid - her sole teacher, here with Bartoli
- Julian Patrick
- Ellen Shade -- and I'm not sure but is this same Ellen Shade here and here?
- John Stewart -- as you might expect, it's a little bit tricky doing searches for this name and getting the right person
- Marianna Kulika -- and here singing Adalgisa with June Anderson's Norma
- Ariel Bybee
- Katherine Posner
- David Christopher
- Joel Ewing
- Carol Baggott-Forte
Students of Students:
- Grant Youngblood -- David Christopher
- Kevin Youk -- Joel Ewing, I'm assuming
- Sharla Nafziger -- Carol Baggott-Forte
- Stephanie Piercey -- Carol Baggott-Forte in recovery from vocal damage which required surgery
- Wolfgang Weiss -- Carol Baggott-Forte
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.