While at Wichita State University studying voice with Arthur Newman and at Indiana University studying voice with Eugene Bayless and Margaret Harshaw, I was obliged to take certain undergraduate courses in the art of teaching and conducting that gave me insight into not simply knowing how to teach but also in understanding myself as a singer. So when I became a member of the Young Artists Program at Cincinnati Opera, I was asked to teach voice at the Cincinnati School for the Performing Arts.
During a tour in Europe in 1977 of the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess, I had a chance encounter with Madame Marie-Henriette Dejean. I explained to her that I wanted a technique that would allow me the freedom to sing without having to worry about notes but would let me concentrate more on the characterizations of my roles. And her technique provides exactly that. After working with her while on contract to the Opernhaus Zürich for two years, and then working technique intensively with her on a daily basis for another two years, I began using her technique as I was building my international career. I began teaching privately in 1985 while still continuing to sing all over the world. I use the same technique summarized by Madame Dejean in her book Le Chant. This technique was originally based on her own teacher's ideas, but Madame Dejean enhanced this technique in its philosophical aspects, drawing inspiration from her wide reading, in particular Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, as well as by studying many great singers.
The technique operates on the premise that sounds exists in the ether outside, around and inside us. Rather than being the engine that seeks to produce sound, we are the engine that employs sound from outside of us and manipulates it outside of us. There are certain physical constraints towards optimising a balance between the physical and psychological aspects in order to avoid strain using minimal effort.
I found a kindred spirit and a mentor towards characterization for operatic roles in Charles Hamilton, who was a staff director for a number of years at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and who now runs Charles Hamilton Associates, a management training organization focusing on the art of communication. His own technique mirrors many of Madame Dejean’s ideas. Working with Charles on stage helped me enhance my teaching experience giving the students the opportunity to “be” the person they want to portray rather than “acting”.
My students cover the gamut, from housewives or business people who sing in amateur choirs, to young singers in pop, opera and musical theater working to build their careers. I’ve even helped some of my professional colleagues when the need arose. Some of my students have come to me after unsuccessful experiences at various conservatories but who revealed drive and talent that only needed to be nurtured. And more than a few are singing professionally today.
One tool that I have been using more recently is the ability to connect with students across time zones via Skype or Facetime. While it is not the ideal solution, it does help us see each other while waiting for the time when we can work physically together. And I’ve had wonderful results so far with this method.
I enjoy teaching and feel it is essential to adapt to each of my students specific needs in order to help them realize their full potential.
Marie-Henriette Dejean (1921–2014)
Et vous, monsieur, qu’est-ce que vous faites ? And you, sir, what do you do? These were the first words that started my epic journey with Marie-Henriette Dejean some 40 years ago. I’d come to her house to serve as accompanist on the piano for a colleague from the Houston Grand Opera tour of Porgy and Bess who was auditioning for Madame Dejean. But after I had sung my own “audition” for her, we started working together. I’d been looking for a teacher who could give me a technique that would allow me not to worry about high notes or anything else so that I could be free to express myself on stage. And instinctively I knew that I’d found her.
It was not easy in the beginning. And twice I almost left because we were both very strong-willed individuals. And yet it was because of our strong wills that we became inseparable friends. We learned that we had many points in common in our lives; we had both started in music at the tender age of four and had both played keyboards in our respective churches. She had played the harmonium and I was on the piano. Our formative years were tumultuous with her living through World War II and me through the civil rights movement and race riots as a result of Martin Luther King’s death. Neither of us had degrees from our conservatory or university because of administrative arrogance, yet we are both considered master musicians for our accomplishments. Our musical tastes were very much the same even when they ran contrary to accepted norms. I once lamented the accepted musical and interpretive styles of singing in French as laid out by certain well-known singers of the genre. She despised the manneristic approach of these well-known singers and told me that if I ever sang in French like any of them she’d kick me out!!
Her investment in my career was astounding as she persuaded some of her more well-heeled friends to sponsor my many efforts. Always they invested without expecting anything in return – a testament to their faith in her and her discernment. But it didn’t stop there. I’d decided to use the competition circuit as a means towards making myself known. We started with the UFAM competition in Paris. After I won first prize in this competition as well as two subsequent prizes at other events, she was asked to serve on the jury for another competition. Shocked by the level of the competitors and the seeming “acquiescence of mediocrity” of her fellow judges, she vowed never to judge again and became something of a “recluse” in the music world. Yet through me and other young artists of varying types that she supported, she was never a completely unknown quantity in French musical circles.
Marie-Henriette traveled the world listening to me sing and helping us both to improve the technique. She was feted by many of my colleagues and even worked with a few of them trying to help them improve on what they were doing.
It is impossible for me to put into a few words a lifetime of experiences with this very dynamic woman. She was creativity, enthusiasm, ambition, excellence, power, devotion, loyalty and sheer fun all rolled up into one person. She was my mentor, my friend, indeed my family.