On Sunday, June 5, I sorrowfully learned of the death of soprano Phyllis Curtin. Phyllis’s impact as a teacher was legendary. At the Tanglewood Institute, at Boston University, and in the countless master classes she did around the globe, she shared her expertise with grace, humor, patience, and unfailingly positive words. Those of us lucky enough to have known her over a period of months or years benefited immensely from her guidance in all things musical and personal. Phyllis was the epitome of an excellent teaching example. Even on the most humid and hot days at Tanglewood, she was always immaculately groomed and cool as a cucumber. She was generous, practical, and spot on with advice on everything from repertoire to reasons not to change jobs. And she shared with us some anecdotes about funny and horrific events she had experienced in her career, all of which impressed on us what a roller coaster ride a professional music career (and life) could be.
There is so much I owe to Phyllis’s instruction: believing that I could be a soprano and helping me begin the turn toward that voice category; showing me how to breathe deeply for the first time in my life; helping form images about singing that could be used and reused; advising all of us to keep a vocal notebook, to which one returns more than once a year for guidance and refreshment; and above all, showing how laughter really could be the best thing to happen in a lesson and indeed throughout life.
Despite many years of debilitating and painful rheumatoid arthritis, and even while giving master classes in a wheelchair, Phyllis’s wonderful, gracious, dignified, and happy spirit shone through all she did and said. No wonder she was treasured by all who came in contact with her. She loved music, singing, teaching, life, and living. Truly, voice teaching has lost a fine talent and a wonderful mentor to many.
Then, on July 24, we learned of the passing of Marni Nixon, a long-time NYSTA member, teacher, and wonderful performer. I was never lucky enough to hear her in a live performance, but her incredible singing, particularly in the movies My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and The King and I, is burned in my memory. I wanted that kind of sound as a young singer—and what a great example she was! Countless singers have been touched by her teaching and her vocalism; countless more have, in some way, emulated her fine model. She lives on forever in her students, in the cinema, and in our memories. There will never be another sound like hers.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t reflect on the teachers I have had. With one exception, each has passed on. I wish so often they were still here. I would ask more questions, watch more of their teaching, witness more of their technical wisdom and repertoire choices, browse their bookshelves, and absorb more of their teaching personae. Great teaching, like great music, needs to be preserved for the next generation—we need to seek it out for ourselves and incorporate it into our own body of work. All of us, beginning or experienced teachers, are conduits for the passage of knowledge to those who seek to improve. In “paying it forward,” we must keep educating ourselves by staying abreast of what’s new vocally, musically and scientifically, in print and in person, on CD or DVD, podcast or broadcast.
And so, not since elementary school have I written anything on the subject of how I spent (part of) my summer vacation. But I could not resist that idea to describe two (of three possible) days in June of this year at The Singing Voice Science Workshop sponsored at Montclair University in New Jersey. Attended by some 50 people, the workshop is in its second year on campus and boasted attendance/sessions by Jeanne Goffi-Fynn (NYSTA member), Christian Herbst, Kelley Hijleh, Daniel Ihasz, Richard Lissemore, Bodo Maass, Donald Miller, Stephen Oosting, Jan Prokop (NYSTA member), Kevin Roon, as well as college and university faculty from California (Barbara Dyer, NYSTA Board member), New York, and many places in between—and those were just the colleagues I recognized.
What we had was a quick refresher course on anatomy and acoustics, teaching demonstrations using Voce Vista as well as traditional methods (the latter by Peter Gillis and NYSTA member Lori McCann), MRI imaging demonstrating how the tongue works during singing (fascinating, I have to say), a great glimpse of the brand new Voce Vista software which should be available this fall, plus much more.
To those who do not want to hear about using a computer to help singers, I would gently say, “Do not put your head in the sand just yet.” We witnessed a prime example of a singing problem made visual on screen that helped the singer in question immediately change her vocal production. The problem was what could be termed inadvertent straight tone production: beginning a phrase with a vibrant tone but allowing most subsequent notes to be sung sans vibrato. The student knew it was happening, two different teachers pointed it out to her in 30-minute mini-lessons, yet she could not quite effect a change until Voce Vista, projected on a screen for all attending to see, turned her attention to what was happening in a very graphic, graspable way. She could see the blue bands of each harmonic alternately flat-line and then reacquire their traditional wavy pattern. As she herself admitted, she is a visual learner—and once she saw the evidence, she was able to look at the screen and allow her vibrato to occur naturally on every note. Voce Vista got through to her in a way that words were not able to do quite as quickly. Computer software is no match for the human ear and the teacher’s diagnostic talents, but when it can bring home a complex concept to a singer in less time, I am all for its use under the teacher’s watchful eye.
The latest version of Voce Vista has some terrific new facets: it can now record an excerpt of any length and save it for later analysis; the user can isolate any harmonic and determine its exact pitch, its vibrato rate and extent; you can separate the source from the filter input; you can see the effect of vocal fry on the formants; and now you can link real-time video input to the aural recording of the singer using a laptop camera, a separate camera or an iPhone camera. There on the screen is visible proof when you tell a student that the vibrato is wider than desirable or uneven, or the singer’s formant is missing. It confirms what your ears are telling you and your words are telling the student.
Perhaps best of all, Voce Vista is now going to be available for Macintosh computers. So if you have been holding out, it’s time to look into purchasing this next addition to your teaching toolkit. We were told OSX and PC versions with video capability would be available as a downloadable upgrade for those who already have the full (older) version. If you are interested, please contact Bodo.maas[at]sygyt[dot]com for the beta version, or Donald Miller (d.g.miller[at]vocevista[dot]com), the originator of Voce Vista, for all other information.
Best wishes for a wonderful teaching year. May your pharynx always be moist.