Monday, April 30, 2012

I remember Mama- and Papa- and....

This morning was my weekly day for a massage. My moment of heaven: when Lisa digs her fingers and her elbow into this ancient body making it feel like a youngster again.

For some reason, today, especially, it evoked memories of long ago. Memories that amazed Lisa. She said 'I should have brought a tape recorder'.

Image of Herblock's The philanthropistWell, this is the next best thing. See if you remember any of these events. If you do, you must be pretty old.

I remember when bread was ten cents a loaf. It came with a little charm on a string that your mother would sew to the top of your beanie. I don't remember ever wearing a beanie, but I suppose I did. What ever happened to Wonder Bread? What ever happened to beanies?

I remember when mother and I would walk up the hill to Mr.Pooley's grocery store. Mother would tell him what she wanted. He would then go and get it off the shelf and assemble it on the counter. I remember if we were buying a water-melon, he would take a sharp knife and cut a little triangle out of the melon for mother to taste to see if it was ripe enough. Then we would walk home and he would deliver the whole order to our house in his car. This was not a gourmet grocery shop and we were not wealthy people. We lived in a very middle-class neighborhood; but this was how you shopped for groceries in the nineteen-thirties.

I remember when the milkman came to the front of the house in a horse-drawn wagon to deliver the milk to our door. The milk came in a tall glass bottle and the cream would have risen to the top of the bottle. Mother would skim this off to be used in coffee.

I remember, during the War, when friends who had a farm would bring us cream, which was practically like dealing with the 'Black Market'. It was so thick you had to spoon it out of the bottle. Mother would beat it with a hand mixer until it became butter. Otherwise you got white Oleo that had a little red capsule in it that you squeezed until it broke, making the Oleo look like butter. I used to ask my mother, 'Why can't we have white butter like the folks next door?' They were even poorer than we were.

I remember when an iceman would come to our backdoor with a large block of ice on his shoulder, held with large tongs. He wore a leather pad on his shoulder to keep from getting frost bite, I guess. He would would then put this block of ice in our Ice Box (not a refrigerator) which was in the back shed. For cold drinks, mother would chip off pieces of ice to put in the glass for iced tea or whatever.

I also remember when Hobos, wandering poor men, would come to our back door and Mother would give them food. Maybe they did a little work; I don't remember.

I remember when I walked to school throughout elementary and junior high school. No buses. When I went to high school, I took a city bus.

I remember always having scabs on my knees from falling down on my roller skates, skating on the sidewalk on Meachem Avenue where we lived. No shoe skates, but the kind you fastened to the bottom of your shoes with a key to tighten the clamps. 

I remember one Christmas when there was a large item behind the Christmas tree with a long handle sticking out from under the blanket that hid it. I thought that my father had bought a new vacuum cleaner for my mother. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a bicycle for me. With balloon tires! We must have been coming up in the world.

By now you have figured out that I was a Depression Baby.

I remember when my father and I would walk over to Capital Avenue to meet my mother coming home from working at Kellogg's. My mother's job was to sit beside a moving belt with a long paddle and push off any burned corn flakes. My father, obviously, had no job at that time. We would walk the several blocks to Capital Avenue and meet mother getting off the Street-car.  Yes, a street-car.

I remember sitting with my mother in a large chair. She was reading to me. Suddenly a number of ladies came through the front door with happy cries of joy and all sorts of wrapped presents. Some of them were for me. I thought that this was a great idea. It turned out that my mother was expecting what turned out to be my brother.

I remember coming downstairs one morning when my grandmother, who lived with us, took me into her room, sat me on her bed, and told me in serious tones that my mother was not at home but would be bringing me a baby brother. I don't think I was thrilled with the news.

I remember visiting my mother in Leila Hospital. I don't remember seeing my brother, although I am sure he must have been there, but I fell in love with a tiny baby carriage filled with lilies of the valley that someone had sent. I wanted that so badly.....

Antique Piano with path I remember my first piano lesson when Miss Fairchild came to the house in her funny little coupe, with the back seat filled with piano music for her students. I guess she charged a dollar an hour. I was nine. This was the first time we had an extra dollar for piano lessons.

At the first lesson, she was showing me where all the C's were on the keyboard. Mother had recently had the floors refinished and varnished. As Miss Fairchild reached for the highest C  on the piano, her chair slipped from under her and she fell on the newly varnished floor on her butt. She laughed hysterically. She never let me forget that first lesson.

I guess that is how I became a musician.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bellow me not!

I recently attended a rehearsal for a performance of Mozart's Requiem  in which one of my students was singing the soprano solo role. The other three singers in the quartet were as different from one another as could possibly be.

The mezzo had what sounded like it could be a good, authentic mezzo voice, but began every phrase with a straight tone and was often off pitch.

The tenor, a true tenor voice, sang with a pinched tone much of the time, and joined the mezzo in off-pitch singing; mostly sharp.

The basso had an enormous voice that could be really impressive but bellowed most of the time.

My student, the soprano, sang beautifully, but constantly had to battle the various sounds coming from the other three members of the quartet.

How, I asked myself, did these four people happen to be chosen to sing this work?

All of the voices showed great promise if you considered them simply as voices without the pitch and volume problems. But how, I asked myself, did they turn out this way?

Problems of pitch are usually either an inability to hear a pitch accurately or the result of some kind of tension. Sometimes tension will push a voice sharp; sometimes it will make it sing flat. The ability to sing in the center of the pitch must be a quality that any good singer possesses. If the problem is the ear, this may never happen, If it is the result of tension, it can be resolved.

'There is beauty in the bellow of the blast' sang Gilbert and Sullivan in The Mikado. Well, not always, it turns out. The tendency to sing everything at one volume: LOUD, is not an especially musical approach to singing.

I work with the principle of messa di voce  with all of my students. This merely means using the entire scope of dynamics possible in the voice when singing. Each phrase should have an element of this technique. It should follow an arc; starting softer, crescendoing, and then tapering off. This gives the voice the chance to offer emotion, musicality, and vocal line by incorporating this technique. It's a package deal. The voice heads for the end of the phrase, not in a one-volume shout, but in a beautiful arched line. The exercise of messa di voce  should be a part of every singer's repertoire. Without it, singing is one dimensional.

It is tough to sing against this sort of competition. Often the singer just gives in and joins the general noise. Don't fall for this! Hold your ground.

When Lorraine was singing the role of Didon in Les Troyens at the Met, she had to sing a duet with a Russian mezzo who sang at one dynamic level and had a wide vibrato. Lorraine said she just had to turn away and not listen to this for fear she would sympathetically get sucked into this unmusical way of singing. I heard her performance a number of times; she always held her own and sang musically and artistically.

Be yourself when all around you is collapsing. Don't go along with the herd. Lemmings do this and wind up in the sea!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

All that glitters

I paid a visit this afternoon to my good friend 'the other voice teacher' who has had a rough time health wise lately. Three sessions in the hospital in three months. But she is a remarkably resilient woman. We started out by my asking about her health and then she said, 'Enough of that, let's talk about singers'. So we did.

I told her about my recent voice class at Smith and we both agreed that teaching a one-time session like that is fraught with problems. As the teacher, you don't want to say something or do something with the student that is going to confuse them or discourage them, but in twenty minutes or so, you need to come up with at least one positive suggestion that may help. It's a bit frightening. I hate think of sending one of these singers home with a wrong idea of what we were trying to do. And there is no follow-up.

My friend also does voice classes but sees and hears the singers over a long period of time. This certainly gives the singer the chance to think about whatever you have said to him or her, work on it for a while, and bring it back to you for further study. This would be an ideal situation.

Some years ago I attended a series of master classes that Christa Ludwig did at Weill Hall. They lasted eleven days so she had a chance to hear each singer multiple times. It was a wonderful experience for me and for everyone else who was present. She is a wonderful singer and musician who knows how to teach!

I said to my friend that the longer I have taught singing, the simpler I make it. She agreed totally with this concept.

As I said to her, 'It all begins and ends with the breathing'. If you don't learn how to take and use a 'singing breath', you will never develop a free, flexible technique. I have written four books which all say this same thing in one way or another. I'm sure that some of my students are ready to biff me over the head when I get on the subject of BREATHING again. Sorry; but that's what it's all about. By solving a breathing problem you instantly solve about ten other things that have been troubling you. Maybe the concept is too simple.

Plenty of voice teachers make it much more complicated. My friend and I both agreed that singing should be a joy. For a young woman who has been studying with me lately, it is. When another voice teacher heard her sing recently she said to me 'I love to hear her sing. She enjoys it so much.' She also knows how to take and use a singing breath. This is what gives you the opportunity to find joy in your singing.

I love visiting my friend, and today, especially, I was happy to see her looking so well. She has been through a lot. I told her that she must have very good genes. She and I are both in what has been called 'The Golden Years'. Trust me. Ask her. All that glitters is not gold.

But we both agreed that we are obsessed by the need to teach. So that's what we do.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Backward, O, backward

Christine Gevert directs music at Trinity Lime RockThis rainy afternoon I was wafted back a few centuries to the 15 and 16 hundreds at a charming concert presented in Lakeville, CT by members of the Crescendo Chorus. The chorus, conducted by Christine Gevert, sang works by Girolamo Frescobaldi, Orlando di Lasso, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Andrea Falconieri, and Claudio Monteverdi. They were assisted by two excellent recorderists,Tricia van Oers and Felicitas Eckert.

They also had the participation of a male soprano, Benjamin Rauch. As a voice teacher, I have never had much luck with counter-tenors. I have never taught a male soprano, although one of my students, a coloratura, had a boy-friend I met once, who was a male soprano. They took turns singing the Queen of the Night arias. Now, I ask you....  'Love is a many splendered thing'. Mr. Rauch, however, has a beautiful voice and sang very well.

Ms. Gevert played upon a small house organ which was based on a 17th century instrument.

The group sang with a sweet, well-tuned sound. The various choral pieces were interspersed with selections played by the organ, and/or the two recorders.

I didn't realize that there are that many enthusiasts for 16th century music in Connecticut, but Trinity church was packed.

Having spent most of my years as a church organist in a Methodist church, I did not do a lot of the music of this period. As Searle Wright's assistant at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University for six or seven years in the 1950's, we did music of all periods, but with the Methodists I did music from Bach on, for the most part.

As a concert organist, I often played music by Frescobaldi (whom an organist friend of mine called 'Fresco Badly') and Sweelinck, but  my knowledge of the choral music of the period is limited.

Ms. Gevert got some very musical singing out of her group.

To my ears, with too much Puccini in them lately, an hour of choral music of this period begins to sound all of a piece. It was frankly a delight to me, when the chorus ended with a composition by Monteverdi.

Since both Frescobaldi and Monteverdi are fellow Italians (see Alberti) it's no wonder that I liked the concert.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hit and Run!

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of teaching a vocal master class at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I taught voice at Smith from 2008-2010 and continue to work with two members of the voice faculty and one undergraduate at Rood Hill Farm.

I call this kind of class a 'hit and run' class because in twenty or so minutes one must hear a new singer, decide upon the most salient point you can work on within a very brief space of time, and send them home un-bruised. Afterwards I told one of the faculty members who was present that it is like compressing seven hours of teaching into two. You have to kick-start yourself all over again every twenty minutes.

I heard seven young women, one of whom is studying with me currently, and one of whom studied with me when I was teaching at Smith. With the latter, it was interesting to see how her voice has grown in two years.

The various vocal problems that we worked on included body posture with the first woman to sing for me. She had a good low breath but was moving her upper body around with every inhalation. I tried to calm this movement down. I never want a singer to feel that she is 'holding' her body in good posture, but constant moving interrupts the flow of sound and is very tiring.

One woman sang an aria that was filled with difficult runs which she was not executing very well. Actually, I guess if you 'execute' a run, you are killing it. She was not killing the runs but was often sliding over pitches. It was as if she knew the territory but not the details. I do not ever advocate punched out runs where each note is issued as if from a machine gun (see Cecilia Bartoli). I like an articulated-legato run. I asked her how she learned her runs and she told me that she listened to the aria on UTube many times. This is definitely not the way to learn a run- or anything else. One has to build coloratura passages, or any musical phrase, into the ear and body carefully, bit by bit. To help her learn how to do this we took one run and divided it up into patterns. I then had her repeat the pattern over and over until it sang easily. Then we added a bit more. By the end of the session she sang the run perfectly. You must do this kind of nitty-gritty work with any florid aria you intend to sing. Then it will flow effortlessly. (See Lorraine Hunt Lieberson)

Several of the singers sang songs in English. Well, thanks to my work with Madeleine Marshall a hundred years ago, English diction is one of my fortes, or I guess it would be forti. For some reason, people tend to put stronger vowels in weak syllables when they are singing than when they are speaking. Kindness (with a schwa in the second syllable) becomes kind-NESS, as in Loch Ness. This is what Madeleine used to call 'singers' English'. If you do this enough, your audience will assume that you are singing in a foreign language and stop listening.

One young woman, who had a good sized voice, was incorporating a lot of facial and jaw tension into her singing. We tried to find ways to loosen these problems. I also encouraged her to move about the room while singing. This frees the body and, as a result, the voice.

The young woman who has been studying with me this year sang very well. She has gone from singing with great discomfort to singing effortlessly. With her I worked on the very high notes in the aria she sang, including a couple of high C's. I basically used her to demonstrate various ways I suggest to a singer to free the body as you sail up to the top of the voice. The body should really go in the opposite direction from the pitch. I had her do a gentle knee-bend as she went up and then also had her move forward as if she were going to ice skate. Both of these techniques allowed the high notes to resonate perfectly and soar into space. It is easy body movement that enables you to free the sound.

Teaching this sort of class is beneficial to me as a teacher, as I hope it is to the singers. Dealing with seven distinctly different voices with seven different approaches to singing in a limited time frame, keeps me on my toes, to say the least.

Thanks to Karen Smith Emerson who arranged for me to teach the class and to all the young singers who performed for me. You were all great!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hats off!

'Hats off, gentlemen, a genius' said Robert Schumann of Chopin's Variations on 'La ci darem la mano'  from Mozart's Don Giovanni. I re-echo this thought on hearing Yevgeny Kutik play tonight in Lenox Massachusetts.

I have been listening to Yevgeny's performances for about nine years now and he has gone from an extremely talented teen-ager to a 26 year old genius of the violin. His playing goes far beyond his amazing technique, his inate musicality, and his exquisite sense of pitch; it emanates from the soil of his native Minsk, comes up through his young body and his soul, and enters the mundane world, turning it into a place of infinite passion and beauty. He is damn good!
PR images

Tonight's concert at Kimball Farms in Lenox was a dress rehearsal for the concert he will play on Tuesday, April 10th at the New Center for Arts and Culture in Boston. The program will be narrated by well-known classical radio personality, Martin Bookspan. It will reflect the Jewish influences on American music.

In tonight's concert Yevgeny, with his brilliant pianist, Timothy Bozarth,began with the Brahms Sonata #3 in D minor, Op. 108. This gorgeous work was played by both performers with great warmth and excitement. It was followed by Baal Shem of Ernst Bloch, Maurice Ravel's Kadish, Max Bruch's Kol Nidre, and George Gershwin's 'It ain't necessarily so'. Afterwards I told Yevgeny that in this last piece he sounded like the great jazz violinist St├ęphane Grapelli. As an encore, he dashed off the fiendishly difficult last movement of the Shostakovich Concerto. This is a stunning player!

I have been listening to violinists for the past seventy years, at least, not counting my grandfather, who played square dance music on the fiddle. Heifetz, Morinni, Menuhin, I heard them all. Yevgeny fits right into this category of genius performers.

We had dinner together in Boston last Monday evening. I was in town for the GLAD vs DOMA trial which was on the 4th. We had time to talk about the state of classical music in general and Yevgeny's career in particular. His busy spring includes concerts in Boston, Poland, Maine, Weston, MA, Atlanta, GA, Rostock, Germany, The Lobkowicz Palace in Prague Castle, Washington, DC, Sandisfield, MA (a benefit for the Ferris Burtis Music Foundation) Nantucket, and Germany again.

I think that it's about time that a college or university snapped this young man up as Artist in Residence while they can still get him!

PR images

Yevgeny's exciting CD 'Sounds of Defiance' may be ordered at  If you haven't heard it, you should!

I have been so happy, as Director of the Ferris Burtis Music Foundation, to be able to help Yevgeny in his education and career in whatever way I can. I know that John Ferris would be as delighted as I am that we began this relationship nine years ago and continue to follow this brilliant artist as he heads for the stars!

Monday, April 2, 2012

This was the week that was!

I have spent more time at Smith College this week than I did when I taught there. At the moment, two voice faculty members and one undergraduate are studying with me. They all had performances this week!

It began with my attending two rehearsals for Suor Angelica, the second part of Il Trittico by Puccini. The Womens' Chorus was presenting this with the Smith Orchestra, which was enlarged with some professional players.

Judith Gray, who is on the Smith voice faculty sang the title role in the opera with great passion and drama. Her glorious voice soared above the orchestra.

Katie Weiser, a junior in the College, sang the role of Suor Genevieffa in a lovely high soprano voice. The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Hirsh, and the chorus, conducted by Gregory Brown, performed admirably. I told Greg that his women sounded better than the Met chorus. This isn't saying a lot, I admit, but I meant it as a compliment. They sang freely with a lovely sound. The concert was Sunday afternoon.

In the second half of the concert they were joined by the Men's Chorus from Amherst College, just up the road. These hearty young men sang with vigor on a number of opera choruses, but men's voices at this age are just not in the same field as women's. It was a youthful, rather raw sound. But they performed with gusto.

Today I attended a noonday concert by Karen Smith Emerson, who is also on the Smith voice faculty. Karen has studied with me for several years and sang an all Debussy program that was exquisite. She ended with the Air de Lia, from L'Enfant Prodigue. Which received a large ovation.

My relationshhip with Smith goes back many years when I accompanied lessons for Anna Hamlin, who was the head of the Smith voice department in the 40's and 50's and who came to New York City to teach on weekends. I also studied with Anna and often coached some of her students including the wonderful Judith Raskin.

After the death of my spouse, John Ferris, in 2008, Jane Bryden, also a student of mine and a member of the Smith voice faculty, asked me to teach at Smith, which I did for several years. I will be teaching a vocal master class there on April 17th. So the connection, which has been going on for over sixty years, continues.

At the master class, I guess you could say, I will be teaching my grandchildren.