Stan Eby is the president of Valor Summer Conservatory which previously operated in Whitewater, WI. He is now endeavoring to establish a full-time conservatory named Valor Conservatory. For more information, please visit the website.
C. Stanley Eby has a D.M.A. in voice performance from Boston University where he studied with Robert Gartside and Phyllis Curtin. For 14 years he has been on the voice faculty at Bob Jones University (BJU) where he teaches undergraduate and graduate voice, Vocal Pedagogy I and Advanced Methods of Vocal Technique.
Dr. Eby tells his personal history as a vocal pedagogue in his own words.
I sang all my life but didn’t really know what a voice lesson was until I went to college. Having had piano, violin and trumpet lessons I knew what one was supposed to do with lips, arms, and fingers etc. all being external organs, but in my youth I often wondered what goes on in a voice lesson. “Do they have you sing while the teacher looks down your throat with a laryngoscope? That must be interesting, but weird” I thought in my naiveté.
Like every voice teacher the pedagogical journey begins by being a student and hopefully the pupil of a master teacher like I had in Dr. Gail Gingery who is a protégé of David Blair McClosky. Dr. Gingery was also influenced by his first teacher, Margaret Schaper who taught across the span of decades at the University of Southern California, and by Grace Levinson, who wrote that wonderful little book, The Singing Artist. Dr. Levinson, through Dr. Gingery, bequeathed principles that influence me to this day. I could mention many, but I will refer only to two.
First, Dr. Levinson asserted that the great artist must possess a great soul. Surely, there are singers who are difficult and have their faults, but I think generally, it is true that there is a greatness that lies within, a depth of soul, that characterizes the truly great artists. I think too, that all singers have a special something, perhaps a poetic soul, if not an apparently great soul, that sets them apart from others. That’s why I love working with singers and voice teachers. It’s not just having a set of great vocal cords, or pipes as we call it, or extra large lungs, that make them exceptional. There is sensitivity to life, a personal energy, an expressive relationship to text and music—something—that makes them incomparably and marvelously wonderful.
The second Levinson-Gingery tenet was that of the bel canto or “beautiful singing” method, à la Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. There was an obligatory singing of vocal exercises, particularly the Op. 9 vocalises by Giuseppe Concone and making sure the young singer stuck dutifully with the lyric literature before tackling the more dramatic repertoire. But the real distinction of the Levinson-Gingery bel canto, defies its very definition. “It is not the beautiful voice we are working for,” said Levinson and Gingery, “but the natural voice.” If your voice is totally natural then it will always be beautiful, they taught. The singer’s sense of “beautiful” may be to sound like someone else. The thing to work for is your own total naturalness guided by feelings of ease and idiomatic facility and the discerning ear of the all-wise teacher.
The primary tenet of Dr. Gingery is “freedom.” He holds that if the voice isn’t fundamentally free, any further technical work is superfluous. He never allows one hint of tension in the sound, in the body or in the face. When you sing correctly you can make it look easy he maintains. What priceless advice.
On to graduate school at Boston University where I learned much about French literature, for which I have a particularly fond affection, and the Berton Coffin method from the scholarly, Robert Gartside. I also had the privilege of studying with the legendary Phyllis Curtin. She was in many ways the antithesis of the technically brilliant Gartside, although they both exhibited near photographic memory. I believe I could distil her physical technique into two simple, yet essential elements: be lively in the epigastrium and from the clavicle up, be totally uninvolved. Ms. Curtin could put it that way, because she was endowed with a remarkable instrument and she was a natural and irrepressibly dramatic actor. Her “neutral” had more meaning than most singers’ most visceral effort.
Even though she listened assiduously and never compromised drawing attention to a tone she deemed encumbered in some way, studying with her was absolute heaven. She was an entirely beautiful person. I think one of the truest people I have ever known. She had a splendid way of making you feel as though, whether or not you conquered the next audition or performance, you were nevertheless going to soar in life. She was careful not to make grandiose predictions or pronouncements of success, yet I walked out of every lesson feeling whole and ready to greet life head on. She certainly affirmed the kind of greatness of soul Levinson had alleged years before. She was always charming. She had no need to prove her intellect, but was always ready to engage any topic of artistic interest. She taught me by example that as a teacher, who you are as a person is as important as what you know.
Along the way there have been other transformative influences. My methodology of vocal pedagogy, stage directing and movement has been heavily influenced by Wesley Balk and also by the Feldenkrais method of somatic instruction as taught to me by Uri Vardi. For vocal pedagogy classes, however, I use texts by Clifton Ware in which a traditional, Italianate method of vocal production is upheld.
I’m a strong advocate of what many call the “appoggio” technique. Some pedagogues like to talk of the epigastric or upper abdominal lean, esp. since in Italian “appoggiare” may be translated as “to lean” as well as “to support.” However, influenced by Ware, I like this definition: during phonation the muscles of inhalation control the forces of exhalation in a dynamic equilibrium. This description or definition accounts for both the buoyancy of the rib cage and the eccentric contractions of the diaphragm (confirmed by “the lean”) that should take place coordinated and balanced against the forces of exhalation and according to the varying intensity and range of colors requird during vocalization.
Other than music, the only other occupation seriously considered by me as a young man was that of a medical doctor. As a singing teacher and a teacher of vocal pedagogy the medical and physiological aspects of the art have held special interest; however, in teaching voice there are other similarities to the medical profession as well. We often tell our students how important practice is to the singer, but it is also key to the art of teaching. In medicine a practitioner is one who practices medicine. We even say a doctor sets up or runs a “practice.” Even though he or she goes through vigorous training before being legally allowed to “practice” medicine, it is still nonetheless a “practice” of medicine that will be engaged in the rest of the professional life.
So the voice teacher begins the teaching career repeating words and phrases heard in lessons and pedagogy classes, only to find the efficacious by experience. I am indebted to a throng of students over the years, some stretching me by their ambition or talent, some proving me by their insufficiencies, and some who dared ask the penetrating questions that spurned me to find those essential answers. I love to see the proverbial light bulb come on with a student, but it is I who has experienced many an epiphany in the course of teaching.
Like a doctor too, the voice teacher greets the student in a one-on-one consultation, makes a diagnosis and issues a prescription, then asks the student for an appointment the next week to find out how things have progressed. The voice teacher, like a doctor, abiding by the first rule of medicine, “do no harm,” since the human voice is the most divine gift, the most precious thing to possess in the world, at least in the eyes of a singer.
The student comes to the voice teacher often with professional career or health of the instrument at stake, or with a serious musical, vocal, artistic or dramatic entanglement to unravel. To me this is a sacred obligation. Teaching voice is more than a vocation—it is a calling.