If you have followed my blog then you know that I tend towards the ‘alternative.’ This tendency towards the ‘alternative’, however, is almost always borne out of frustration or necessity. If I have tried something that is more conventional and it doesn’t work then I try to find a new way or a way that works for me.
This tendency has expressed itself in my singing, as well. I had (and, still do to some degree) struggled for years with certain technical problems that my teachers in my undergraduate university and then graduate school could not ‘fix.’ I continued to sing and was able to get some work professionally but these technical problems continued to haunt me and hindered my ability to express myself. If art is a means of expressing oneself, I found myself only able to express so far.
However, being the dutiful student I was, I continued to practice and tried many different methods (Alexander Technique, yoga and even rolfing…look that one up if you don’t know it…ouch) in addition to my regular lessons to address my difficulties but to no avail. I would always seem to make marginal progress but never to a degree where I felt it was putting me on a consistent upward trajectory.
Then I met someone who would change things for me dramatically. Amy Cheifetz and I met while singing together as Young Artists with an opera company in Utah. We were roommates and got along very well. I remember one day walking to rehearsal and we were talking ‘shop’ or technique as many singers often do with one another. We discussed a recent masterclass and her response to the class really struck me. She said she didn’t understand what the instructor of the masterclass was saying. I thought, “How could you not understand?” It made perfect sense to me…or so I thought. She told me briefly about the technique that she had studied and that it was very different from what was being taught at the masterclass and she left it at that. I remembered some doctoral students who’d also studied ‘that’ technique when I was in undergraduate university and it was considered strange and maybe even ‘harmful.’ I left it alone and we never discussed again while working together.
Several years passed and I kept in touch with Amy who was teaching voice at American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City at the time. I had just finished a successful show with a local theatre company but those same issues that had plagued me for years were not going away. I had the impression that I should call her and talk to her about what she had been taught and what she currently taught her students. The conversation resulted in me asking her to fly and stay with me for a week while I had a crash course in the Cornelius Reid technique. I will be forever grateful. If you are frustrated and are looking for something different, this might be interesting to you.
Here is what Amy and I discussed recently:
1. When did you start singing?
I’ve sung informally since I was very young. When I was little, I sang along to all of my mother’s records of all the great classic musicals: My Fair Lady, Music Man, Anything Goes… But I started singing on stage at the age of 9 when I was cast as Duffy, one of the orphans in “Annie” and it snowballed from there. I started taking formal voice lessons about age 13 when I was a member of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
2. When did you first learn about Cornelius Reid?
I first heard about Cornelius through my voice teacher in graduate school, the amazing Julian Patrick. Cornelius was his teacher and he talked about him all the time. I studied with Julian when he was in his late 60s and he would still take the occasional lesson from Cornelius!
3. What drew you to his philosophy and what was it about him that prompted you to uproot yourself and move across the country to study with him?
Julian taught a version of Cornelius’ technique and immediately I was singing better than I had ever sung before so I knew I was on to something right from the very first lesson. It was totally different from anything I had been taught before with instantly better results. But then my last year of graduate school, Cornelius himself came to give a week of masterclasses at UW and I signed up to take three lessons with him; a 30 minute lesson in front on an audience! At this point I thought I was a pretty good singer and was basically on the right track. But in that first half hour lesson with Cornelius, he opened up a whole new world of singing and sound to me. I had never sung so well in my life- I never imagine I could make sounds that good, that free, that open, – it was as close to “effortless” as I had ever gotten. The following two lessons with him were equally amazing. On some level, I knew this was what I had been waiting for all my life- it was the beginning of a profound understanding and knowledge of my voice and of THE voice in general. So when at the end of the week, Cornelius asked me to come to New York City and study voice with him, well, it was an offer I could not refuse. It wasn’t a question of yes or no, it was a question of when and how. And keep in mind, Cornelius was 86 years old at the time so time was of the essence.
What drew me to it was the results I heard and felt in my voice and instrument- the difference in my voice was- a major change. And what further drew me in was the clarity and directness with which this change was achieved. Singing, “technique” actually MADE SENSE for the first time, ever. I had always sung instinctively, relying on my musicality and dramatic flair to make my voice work, never technical thoughts on what my voice was actually doing. But this was truly the missing piece to my development as a singer. And Cornelius himself was like no one else I had ever met- totally about the work, straight forward and tough but an absolute visionary and, I do not use this word lightly, genius. He heard my voice like no one ever had and I knew he KNEW what to do to fix it. And he told me how we would go about it and he did.
4. How does Cornelius’ technique differ from what is generally taught in music schools and conservatories?
The first thing I’ll say about that is that we are after the same things- freedom, ease, beauty, range, stamina; HEALTHY, beautiful, expressive singing. We just approach it from a slightly different angle. From my personal experience with a multitude of other techniques (I had 5 different voice teachers before Julian, all of whom taught widely varying techniques), it deals more directly with the mechanism/ the physiology of the voice and does not rely as heavily on imagery. We believe in a two register system and balancing those two registers (head voice and chest voice) as being the cornerstone of the technique. Also, and fundamentally, learning to sing is learning to functionally listen to your own voice (and others, for that matter). Training your voice is also training your ear- what you hear corresponds to an action/a function in the mechanism.
5. How did studying with Cornelius change your singing?
How didn’t it, would be the easier question! Totally and completely. Probably the biggest technical and noticeable change was that before I studied with him, the salient feature of my voice was my tremolo. He solved that problem completely. My range increased, I finally had flexibility and agility and a huge improvement in depth and warmth of tone. But for me the biggest and most profound change was my understanding of my voice and as I said before, of THE voice. Before Cornelius, II would never have thought I would earn my living as a voice teacher and actually be truly passionate about vocal technique!
6. I understand from what I’ve read that Cornelius felt his research and, subsequently, those principles he later implemented into his teaching are a revival of the true ‘bel canto’ technique. Do you agree or disagree with that?
Honestly, I have never read the 16th, 17th and 18th century treatises he used so I am unqualified to say. The term or designation doesn’t matter as much to me as a technique that works for me and for my students.
7. Every teacher has his or her own style. How much of Cornelius’ technique informs what you teach your students?
The technique I teach is all Cornelius’ as filtered through my brain, understanding and sensibilities. It’s the only technique that ever worked for me and that I understand completely. That’s why I never thought I would teach voice prior to working with him- I could never teach what I didn’t truly understand. I teach singing the way I sing myself, which is not to say I teach everyone to sound like me- far from it. But I don’t teach one thing and do another. My teaching is also influenced by my other great teachers and coaches; Julian, Gary Norden, and Rosemary Hyler Ritter. And then there’s my personality…
8. I know that you have several students that have gone on to careers on Broadway. I was always told that belting was ‘bad.’ How do you feel about this and is there a way to belt in a healthy manner?
Belting is not bad at all unless it’s produced badly. There is absolutely a way to belt healthily. First and foremost you must have a functional head voice- that is the key! That is the cornerstone to a healthy voice in general, but especially important for belters since belting uses so much chest voice- you must have a balancing mechanism. And let’s face it, belting is an extreme sport for the voice. I always use ballet dancers as an example: they dance on point. It is not natural to dance on your toes, but you can do it if you are healthy, strong and smart about taking care of your body and feet. I always saw the ballerinas around Lincoln Center wearing slippers or Uggs to walk around town in- they can’t wear 4 inch stilettos and expect to have healthy feet to dance on. So I make sure my belters warm up and cool down (this is a particularly important point and one that is ignored too often) with the head voice when they are belting.
9. Do you feel this technique is for everyone and that it is the best way for people to study singing?
Nothing is for everyone. I had a friend once who resented the fact that Cornelius’ technique worked for me. My response to her was that I once resented the fact that the more traditional techniques NEVER worked for me. Singing is very personal, how we learn is very personal and unique to each of us. I am thankful that I found this way of singing. I know I would have given up if I hadn’t studied with Julian and then Cornelius. I was tired of it never making sense and my voice never getting better no matter how hard I practiced. I feel very strongly that each of us as singers must find the technique that works for us. I offer one solution. I hope it works for my students but if it doesn’t, just as all those well meaning teachers’ ways did not work for me, then I wish them very well and hope they find a way that speaks to them as this does for me. Singing is joyful and the way you learn to sing better should be joyful too (hard work can be joyful!)!
10. If there one thing that sticks out in your mind that Cornelius taught you that would be helpful to other singers and artists, what would that be?
ONE? It is so hard to choose just one…
but I guess if I had to choose, it would be his concept of functional listening. The only way we can truly change our voice is to listen to it as objectively as possible and learn/come to understand what we are hearing and why it sounds the way it does. From there we can start to make changes.
While I am thrilled to finally be able to do some of the things that I could never do, this technique is by no means a panacea. It takes a lot of hard work and if there are structural imbalances it can take a very long time to work them out. I am and will always be working on my voice. But, now I have my ‘tool box’ that will help me along the way.
If you have any questions for Amy, please post them in the comments or message me and I will ask her to respond as she’s able. Your question may also result in a future post.
Live well and be happy!