Monday, December 20, 2010

What's going on?

I had an interesting conversation today with a friend of mine who is also a voice teacher about the current state of the art of teaching. We agreed that too many singers are coming out of music schools without an idea of how to sing.

I have had any number of singers come to me after years of study, either private or in music school, who when asked about breathing, shrug their shoulders and give me a pathetic look. My friend said that she has had the same experience.

To me, the knowledge of how to sing begins with the knowledge of how to breathe. Not just every day ho-hum breathing, but deep singing breathing. How anyone can complete a degree from a reputable music school and still not know this technique is beyond me.

I begin every first lesson with a full explanation and demonstration of what I consider a good singing breath. I advocate listening to the sound the air makes as it passes down your throat. One should hear 'ah' or 'aw', never 'ih'. The latter sound means that the singer is not allowing the larynx to relax with the inhalation. When one inhales with the 'ah' or 'aw' sound in the air passage, one gets a deep breath and allows the larynx to relax.

To me, Ça va sans dire. The deep relaxing breath solves a multitude of vocal problems. Rather than try to solve each problem separately, this kind of breath is a panacea, a way to breath and sing with flexibility and ease.

One student of mine, who had worked with me for only a year when I had to close my New York and New Jersey studios, told me that she was studying with a new voice teacher who 'taught just like you do!' When she sang for me, all the work we had done together was lost. She was right back where she started. I asked her what her new teacher had said about breathing, since hers had deteriorated radically since I last had heard her. She told me that after several lessons she asked him why he had never mentioned breathing to her. He answered, "I never will'. I ask you!

We discussed how teachers are hired by music schools. Often it is on the basis of having had a career in opera or concert singing. Does anyone ever ask to see the person actually teach a lesson? Many fine singers make rotten teachers, simply because while they know how they sing, present them with a student who has problems, and they are lost as to how to solve them.

I find that as soon as a student learns how to take a deep, open breath, and the larynx relaxes, ten other problems disappear at once. It's not magic, it's technique.

Someone once said: 'Art is the emotion expressed on the technique'. This is true if one is a painter, a dancer, or a singer. Without a good technical background, the most beautiful voice will have a short career. Wonderful singers who had to face this problem include Renata Tebaldi and Renata Scotto. They both started with extraordinary voices that simply didn't hold up. I heard each of them scream out a high note on the stage of the Met toward the end of their careers.

My friend and I agreed that a woman's voice has a harder time stabilizing after menopause than a man's voice at the same age. Régine Crespin for instance, after having had a long career as a dramatic soprano, and, on experiencing some difficulties in her vocal range, after some time off, retooled, came back and had a long career as a mezzo. Not everyone is this wise.

We agreed that as the voice matures, very often the singer, either male or female, may need to change their repertoire to fit the current state of their instrument.

One of my pet peeves is the amount of vibrato I hear in many soprano voices today. Listening to the Met last Saturday, I had to turn off the radio. The soprano's vibrato was making me dizzy. If you listen to singers back a generation or so, you never, or seldom heard this kind of vibrato in a trained voice. Maria Callas, in her later days of singing, developed a vibrato you could drive a truck through. She, and some others, were 'natural singers' who were wonderful until something happened in their life to upset their equilibrium. I doubt if they ever really knew how they sang.

It would be so fine if voice teachers learned how to transmit this kind of information to young singers. The singers would have longer careers and I would get fewer head-aches!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A new Mantra for those over 30!

My dear friend Mary Carter gave this mantra to several of us who all turned 80 this year.

"Old is our game. Mere failure to be young in not interesting!"

Here, here!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hey! I'm on Youtube! At my age.

Thanks to a very bright young friend of mine, Ryan Salame, I am now on Youtube. Ryan has been my technical advisor on all things electronic since he was about 13 and still is at the advanced age of 17. I have no idea what he does, but it always works!

I asked him if he could put a DVD that was made in 2005 on the web and here it is. It is my farewell performance as a concert organist. The reason for my coming out of retirement to do this concert was that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the installation of the magnificent tracker organ built for the First Methodist Church of Red Bank, NJ, under my supervision, by the wonderful Austrian organ builder Gerhard Hradetsky.

For twenty-one years I was the Director of Music and Fine Arts at the church. I had met Gerhard in 1970 when performing at Stefansdom in Vienna, heard some of his organs, and determined that this was the man I wanted to build the new tracker organ for the church. It was installed in 1975. It is a marvelous instrument.

I have played organ concerts throughout the United States and in Haderslev and Copenhagen, Denmark, Hamburg and Berlin, Germany, Vienna, Austria, and at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris. I have made organ tours of the British West Indies, performing in Barbados, St. Vincent, Trinidad, and Tobago. I appeared with Gertrude Neidlinger, concert comedienne in Bemuda following my Carnegie Hall début with her in 1967. I was at the piano for the performances with her. I stopped performing publicly on the organ in the late 1990's. I emerged from retirement in 2000 to play the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organ and again in 2005 for its thirtieth birthday party.

The composition I chose to play, Clérambault's Suite du Deuxième Ton, was the first composition to be heard publically on this instrument at its dedication in 1975. It opened the morning service which included  a brass quartet and a chorus of one hundred singers. My own choir was joined by The Shrewsbury Chorale under Paul Grammer, for which I had served as organist for many years. It was a glorious day!

The movements of the suite are Plein Jeu, Duo, Trio, Basse de Cromorne, Flûtes, Récit de Nazard, and Sur les Grands Jeux. As in most live recordings of concerts, someone had to have a coughing fit during the softest piece: Flûtes. The choir, as you will see, at this performance, was seated all around me in the rear gallery of the church, and the culprit was evidently right in front of the mike! 'C'est la vie', as Clérambault himself might have said. I don't appear even to hear him as I played. Concentration!

If you would like to view this DVD,go to  to the Search line at the top of the page and type Herbert Burtis organist. If God is good, this should get you to the right place. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


As I look back over my 80 1/2 years, I seem to be always reinventing myself. I've decided that's the way to stay young.

To many people today I am known as a voice teacher. A new student is sometimes surprised that I can sit down at the piano and play whatever song they bring to sing for me.

I started life in Battle Creek, Michigan as a pianist at age 9. It was the depression, so I couldn't start lessons until we could spend the dollar a week. I worked hard at my craft and began performing concerts throughout my high school years. I often accompanied singers in their recitals.

Then I went to Michigan State College for two years and became an organ major. I still played the piano, of course, and I accompanied for one of the voice faculty who was preparing a concert. A member of the piano faculty played the concert; and not terribly well!

I had begun studying voice in high school with Maylon Searns, a Scandinavian tenor who would have me stand on his stomach to show me how strong those muscles should be to sing. I'm not kidding! It's a wonder I didn't kill him. I was good sized even then

I continued studying voice at Michigan State with Harriet Hiller Birchall. I was never asked to stand on her stomach. She was a good teacher. I majored in organ under Helen Roberts Sholl, a great teacher.

I came to New York City in 1950 to continue my undergraduate work at Columbia University. I studied organ with Claire Coci and Vernon de Tar. I studied voice with Mrs. Neidlinger, a good teacher if a bit crazy. But then, aren't we all? I also studied harpsichord with the great Gustav Leonhardt. In a moment of madness, I studied harp with Nancy Shank and actually played a few times in public. I had no shame, apparently.

A bit later I started accompanying lessons for
Anna Hamlin, a very good teacher, with whom I also studied. She was the head of the voice department at Smith and came to New York every weekend to teach mostly former Smithies, most notably, Judith Raskin. Judy was a lovely soprano and died much too young. She would sometimes coach with me after her lessons with Anna.

I had a series of church jobs, but the best and most rewarding was as Searle Wright's Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia. I did that until about 1958. At this point I began coaching and teaching singing to some of the members of the St. Paul's choir. I also worked with a very fine mezzo-soprano, Pamela Munson, who wound up at the Met.

I went on to get my Master of Sacred Music Degree at The School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, right across Broadway from Columbia. I came under the spell of many musicians and great theologians who were teaching there.

I continued in church music in Red Bank, NJ for twenty-one years, teaching piano, voice, and organ. Students in all of these fields often went on to music schools and careers in music. I was a general factotum, also directing plays, hanging art shows, and doing organ recitals. Twice I performed the complete organ works of Bach; once in Red Bank in sixteen concerts, and a year later at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia, in fourteen concerts in fifteen weeks.I also conducted the St. John Passion of Bach in Red Bank and played a total of sixty organ concerts that year.At the same time I directed and produced Tennesse William's The Glass Menagerie. Whew! It was quite a year.

Through all of this I continued to teach voice. In 1979 I left Red Bank and taught voice at Harvard University for ten years. I left Harvard in 1990 and kept teaching voice in New Jersey (flying down once a month for forty-four students) and at Harvard for twenty-eight students. I opened a New York City studio on West 90th Street off Broadway where I taught another twelve or so singers.

At this time I did some vocal work with the amazing and fascinating Olga Averino. I didn't always agree with her technically, but she was an inspiration to me as a friend and mentor.

In 2005 my life partner, John Ferris became very ill with Parkinson's disease and I had to close both the New Jersey and New York studios. I did a little teaching at my home, Rood Hill Farm, in Sandisfield, MA. After John's death in 2008, Jane Bryden, a long-time student and friend who was on the voice faculty at Smith College, asked me to teach there; which I did until this fall. I now teach exclusively at my home in Sandisfield.

In the meantime, six of my students have sung at the Met and other major opera houses throughout the world, most notably, the late, very dear, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

So reinvention is my game, voice teacher is my name- for the moment. So far it has worked just fine. Try it!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The fabulous Elektra Ensemble

The Ferris-Burtis Foundation of the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, is pleased to announce that The Elektra Ensemble is being added to the roster of young artists whom we assist in furthering their careers. A brilliant trio, they will be a welcome addition to this list.

The three extraordinary musicians are Brunilda Myftaraj, violin, Melissa Morgan, 'cello, and Igor Lovchinsky, piano.

Ms. Myftari is the first prize winner of the Van Rooy Competition, the Emerson Quartet Competition, and has been a finalist in the Young Artist Guild of New York, the Indianapolis International Violin Competition, and the Lipitzer Competition in Gorizia, Italy. Her teachers have included Piero Faulli of the Quartetto Italiano, Alberto Lissy, Phil Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Rafael Druian, and Renato Bonacini.

Melissa Morgan has performed throughout the United States and Canada as a member of the Bella Cosi String Quartet, at the Piano and Friends Chamber Music Series in Tucson, Arizona, the Mostly Mozart Series in Napa Valley, and the Shubert Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has also been featured on radio stations in New York, Conecticut, and Massachusetts. Her teachers include Stephen Doane and Bonnie Hampton. She has studied chamber music with Isaac Stern, Isadore Cohen, Daniel Asholomov, Paul Katz, the Juilliard String Quartet, the Guarneri String Quartet, and the Saint Louis String Quartet.

Igor Levchinsky has been hailed by Gramophone Magazine as 'a star of the future', by Germany's Piano Magazine as 'Having elegance and rapturous beauty in his musicianship.' He has performed at Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall, the Bushnell Center in Hartford, CT, and the Ohio Theatre. He has played solo piano recitals in Warsaw, Beijing, and Calgary among other international engagements.

The Ferris-Burtis Foundation will help support this exciting trio in their musical career. The Foundation was established in 1987 by the late John Ferris, University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard for thirty-two years, and by Herbert Burtis. Mr. Burtis's career includes teaching voice at Harvard and at Smith College, and an international career as a pianist and organist. He is a well-known voice teacher, whose student, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang throughout the world. Six of his students have performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The Foundation encourages interested people to help us support these young artists, who with violinist, Yevgeny Kutik, also under the Foundation, are in emerging careers at the highest musical level.

Tax-free gifts are welcome. If you would like to assist the Foundation in its work, you may contact the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, Ferris-Burtis Foundation at 800 North Main Street, Sheffield, MA, 1257-0400, or on line at: