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An Exploration of Pedagogical Ancestry
by Kimberly Beasley
Eileen FarrellBy the time we are in school for master’s degrees and beyond, trained singers have most likely had more than one teacher. We are the product of several teachers and we have combined their teaching and ideas with our own personal discoveries about our voices through time, practice, study, teaching, and performance.
What is often unexplored, however, is the pedagogy of our “teacher’s teachers,” and the exploration of this history can be fascinating and empowering to both our teaching and performing. This article will define, make relevant, and provide inspiration for the study of your own pedagogical ancestry.
What Does It Mean? A Definition of Pedagogical Ancestry
While Merriam Webster defines pedagogical as “of, relating, or befitting a teacher or education” and ancestry as “line of descent, especially honorable, noble, or aristocratic,” our vocal pedagogical ancestry is our line of descent relating to our position as educators of singing. We all are descendants of singers who teach and were taught by other singers who taught and were taught. The performing résumé of a teacher comes into play in the second part of the ancestry definition: “especially honorable, noble, or aristocratic.”
While we all know singers who were great performers but possibly not great teachers and great teachers who were not necessarily great performers, I believe it is possible to be both. The performance aspects become a part of the entire singer package, something that enhances that singer as a teacher. Ideally we are a combination of the best parts of all the teachers we have had, deciphering what pedagogy works and does not work for us in our own singing, while at the same time knowing there are many ways to say the same thing, keeping our teaching fresh and innovative for every student that walks through our door.
Great teachers were innovators themselves, subsequently giving us the opportunity to be great—at teaching and possibly performing, something we all most likely dreamed about on a large scale at some point in our development. For those fortunate enough to have a lineage with historical greats within it, it is exciting indeed. However, this is not a requirement, keeping in mind again that not all great teachers were popular performers, and there is much to be learned and passed down from these pedagogues. And this can be encouraging, especially for those of us who were fortunate enough to discover our love of teaching at some point in our development, though being on stage at the Metropolitan Opera never realized.
Why Does It Matter? Educational Implications
I went back to school when I was 30 years old. I had been teaching since graduate school as an adjunct instructor and gigging a bit around Chicago, singing in the Lyric Opera Chorus, giving recitals, and performing in operas and shows at my local venues. Teaching had become time consuming to the point that I felt I wanted more balance with performing—and my master’s degree in church music had been interesting and gotten me a job, but it was not what I was really interested in or actually doing. So, I put together an audition for Northwestern University and was accepted into the certificate of performance in voice degree.
I had no idea what I was in for, but I learned very quickly that there was a big world of singing out there that I had up to that point not understood. The following 18 months of song literature classes, opera workshop, numerous coachings, and two recitals opened my eyes to greatness. At the same time, it was humiliating. My voice was reduced to no more than an octave in an attempt to build it back up again with the ring and support that would carry me into my 30s.
My teacher, soprano Sunny Joy Langton, in one of my first lessons said, “When you say, ‘O quante volte,’ do you move your jaw around and up and down? No. You simply say, ‘O quante volte.’ So sing it the way you say it.” My coachings with Sherrill Milnes were intimidating to say the least. “Why can’t you do it like this?” he would ask. I would stare at the pictures in his office of him and Leontyne Price and feel overwhelmed. But, at the end of that 18 months, I understood how my voice worked and what it meant to study the history of my art and learn from both great performers and great teachers.
I realized where I was and who I was working with, from Sunny and Sherrill to Elizabeth Buccheri and Richard Boldrey. I began to appreciate where they had come from. And even though I was too old for many of the competitions and Young Artist Programs anymore, I knew my associations were special—and as I went through the transition of moving from a great performing city like Chicago to Jacksonville, Fla., and getting my position at Jacksonville University, I was determined to keep that inspiration going.
My new position in a new city required me to introduce myself via a recital. Planning recitals takes thought and effort. They need to highlight the voice’s best qualities and at the same time be music that people want to hear while putting forth some kind of theme or message. Sunny had studied at Indiana University with Eileen Farrell. I knew Farrell had once made a trip to Florida, and as I brainstormed a possible recital program, I decided to read Farrell’s book Can’t Help Singing.
Born into a musical family in Storrs, Conn., Farrell was a sickly child, leading her to later joke that it “was the only time I was thin.” She had initially studied with her mother; her parents were known as The Singing O’Farrells, singing everything from Mozart to Irish folk tunes. “My mother didn’t really push me, but at the same time she knew I should have some decent exposure to music,” she wrote. “After that, I could make my own decision about whether it was the right thing for me. We would practice scales over and over, working until all the notes were even as possible.” Farrell won a singing prize at her high school her senior year.
In 1939, she auditioned for Merle Alcock in New York City, an acquaintance of her mother’s music teacher, who recommended her for CBS radio. She sang “Last Rose of Summer” and got a spot in the CBS chorus. While working her way up from chorus to her own half -hour program with the CBS symphony, Merle Alcock started acting as an agent, charging 10 percent of Farrell’s earnings. In 1946, Farrell married New York City policeman Bob Reagan who told her to fire Alcock, leaving her without a teacher. But later that year, she was introduced to Eleanor McClellan, “Miss Mac,” the teacher she would have the rest of her life.
As I read the pages about Farrell’s study with Miss Mac, I might as well have had Sunny sitting in my living room with me. “Take any old pop song—‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ will do. Try speaking the first line, ‘Are there stars out tonight?’ When you speak it, you don’t drop your jaw on the word ‘stars.’ So why do it when you sing ‘stars?’” It was at this moment that I became inspired by my pedagogical ancestry.
Farrell, while teaching at Indiana University after her retirement from the Met, describes her first lesson with my own teacher Sunny:
Then there was Sunny Joy Langton. She was a lovely young lyric soprano who had had some coachings with George Trovillo out in San Diego, and he had suggested that she study with me. At her first lesson, Sunny Joy didn’t do very well. I stopped her and said, “You seem very nervous.” “Oh, yes, Miss Farrell,” Sunny said. “I’m terribly nervous. You used to be a star.” I nearly came apart. Right away it got around, and one of my doctoral students went out and had a T-shirt specially printed up with I USED TO BE A STAR printed in big bold letters.
How fun it was to read about my own teacher in Farrell’s book! I couldn’t believe it! I e-mailed Sunny right away to ask her if she remembered she was quoted, and she did—somewhat regretfully, I might add.
I have had the privilege of working with another wonderful teacher with noble ancestry, Jean Greer, who also studied at Indiana University, but with Margaret Harshaw. Harshaw and Farrell were not the best of friends. However, this did not hinder their teaching abilities.
I was only 20 when I took lessons from Jean, so the language she used about feeling yourself expand as you sing and envisioning space inside was new and foreign to me. I finally realized what she was saying 10 years later, because it was the same language Sunny was using. I later came to find out that she and Jean even knew each other back then. As a pedagogical descendant of Farrell and Harshaw, I can say Jean and Sunny said a lot of the same things! They had taken from teachers that didn’t get along, but good vocal technique prevailed, and I got to experience the best of all of it!
Other lessons learned by Farrell from Miss Mac and subsequently passed on to Sunny included the secret of solid breath support, not to listen to yourself, perfect diction, register unification, and the importance of the text. As I read, I knew I had heard all this before. It had been five years since I had had my last lesson as an NU student, but because the pedagogy was sound and I used it every day, it was like I was just there.
“I don’t recall that we ever talked about the positioning of the pharynx, the larynx, or any of the other things so many teachers go on and on about,” Farrell wrote. “I’ve heard about teachers who make their students lie down on the floor! I would love to know what Miss Mac would have had to say about this kind of nonsense.” Fascinating!
In his book Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias, Richard Boldrey classifies Farrell as a full dramatic soprano and has this to say about her:
An impressive Gioconda and Alceste, Farrell possessed what must have been one of the largest and most even voices in the history of American singers. She is unique for her great success and versatility in the fields of both opera and popular music—she is still today recording jazz albums that display an uncanny sense of style. Overcoming the challenge of all “crossover” artists, Farrell has not let her operatic soprano training intrude on her renderings of popular music.
Sunny is a soubrette/light lyric coloratura soprano. She was a Zerbinetta, a Susanna, and an understudy for Kathleen Battle at the Met. Good technique is fach-less. If I learned anything about my voice as I learned more about my ancestry, it was that breath support and control are universal concepts whether your voice is big or small, slender or broad, high or low. This is extremely important in managing the variety of voices that walk through our door. Knowing how you sing is vital to explaining it to someone else. Good pedagogy tested by time and history is something you can depend on as a performer and a teacher.
This is what I love about tracing pedagogical ancestry. You can really go back and discover how you have come by the technique you hold so dear—the technique that has gotten you through nerves, fatigue, and unforeseen circumstances as you have performed and taught others to do the same.
I have no doubt that what I am teaching my students is sound and proven by time and practice. I myself may not be a Metropolitan Opera star, and neither were all of them nor some of their teachers. More importantly, each one of them was inspired by their teachers enough to pass that inspiration on to their own students. Now I can be proud of what I am passing on to my students. They can know how to sing because of Farrell and Harshaw, because of Sunny and Jean.
How Do You Proceed? Ideas for Perpetuation
“The most important thing a singer can do is to be true to his own voice. . . . I was lucky—my teachers never pushed me to sound like anybody but myself.” This endorsement from Farrell of her teachers—her mother and Miss Mac—is inspiring. What we can do as teachers today is to not forget and to remind others to not forget. For my debut recital in my new city, I decided to honor Farrell by giving a recital patterned after her CBS radio shows.
Farrell would begin the CBS show with a few arias, followed by foreign language art songs, and finally ending with musical theatre repertoire and jazz pieces. She specifically loved Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin and she sang all manner of jazz standards. The repertoire on my recital encompassed a little bit of everything Farrell liked to sing. The arias were chosen to match specific points in Farrell’s life. “Ritorna vincitor!” appears on many of her recordings, and she sang this aria many times on the show. Leonore was her debut role with San Francisco Opera, and she sang Santuzza at the Metropolitan Opera. I chose to avoid anything from Alceste as well as Andrea Chénier.
Verdi was her “go to” composer, and there is hardly a show or recording that does not showcase Farrell singing Verdi arias. One show in particular shows her singing the second piece from the Debussy song cycle, so I performed the whole of Trois chansons de Bilitis. She also enjoyed singing Strauss, so I included “Allerseelen,” “Heimliche Aufforderung,” and “Zueignung.” The second half was entirely Rodgers & Hart, some jazz (including “Stormy Weather”), and Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” from Rosalie.
As I read and researched to prepare my program notes, I learned that when the CBS radio show came to an end in 1947, Farrell started a concert circuit with pianist George Trovillo. It was Trovillo who would later refer my teacher, Langton, to study with Farrell. During this time, Farrell performed with a Bach Consort, performed with Carol Burnett on the Garry Moore Show, and sang on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1959, Rudolph Bing of the Metropolitan Opera fired Maria Callas and hired Farrell for Gluck’s Alceste, sung in English. Farrell’s Met debut was Dec. 6, 1960. She sang five total seasons with the Met, singing with Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, and Nicolai Gedda. In 1965, she refused to sing Marie in Wozzeck because it was to be performed in English, and so Bing fired her.
From 1965–1971, Farrell sang on the concert circuit before being hired at Indiana University. She joined the faculty that included Jorge Bolet in piano, Janos Starker in cello, and Margaret Harshaw. After forming a jazz voice class that was highly criticized by other members of the voice faculty, she semi-retired in 1980 to Maine and passed away at the age of 82 in 2002. She never went back to the Met.
Putting this program together, the repertoire and the notes, held some new discoveries for me about someone so admired and well-known for her art. Her legacy and that of her era need to be perpetuated, and what a better way to do it than by making her the theme of a performance. Farrell significantly influenced my own teacher who, in turn, influenced my teaching. I encourage everyone to discover their pedagogical ancestry and become renewed and encouraged by the singers they worked with and who inspired them.
A recital program is only one suggestion. Another idea would be to give a workshop or a conference presentation. Our NATS Chapters are the perfect place to present, preserve, and perpetuate vocal history, pedagogy, and ancestry. I would love to hear from other teachers about their inspiration to teach and what they learned from their own teachers that they still pass down. Or, write your own article and tell your story so we can all be inspired and empowered by your legacy. What we don’t share won’t be remembered.
And, finally, teaching gives us the ultimate stage to perpetuate good pedagogy and wonderful teachers from our past. I hope we all continue to be inspired to keep singing healthy, vibrant, and relevant as we meet with our students week after week. Being excited about what we do, but also recognizing that it has history and background, is grounding. I love my vocal story. I hope someday to hear yours.
Kimberly Beasley, assistant professor of voice at Jacksonville University, holds a bachelor's degree in Music Theatre from the University of Colorado, a master of music from Valparaiso University, and a certificate of vocal performance from Northwestern University. Singing in all styles, she performs regularly with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and in recital and concerts from north Florida to Chicago to Colorado. She has stage and music directed numerous productions at Jacksonville University and in the community, including Little Women, the musical which won awards for Best Actor and Best Scenic Design from Broadway World. Her JU website is www.ju.edu/cfa/Pages/Kimberly-Beasley.aspx