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Functional Listening, cornerstone of vocal technique

Functional listening is the cornerstone of the technique that I teach, taught to me by the late, great Cornelius Reid. This is the story of my introduction to both the maestro himself and the concept and transformative power on the singing voice of functional listening.

In March of 1998, my wonderful, beloved graduate school voice teacher, Julian Patrick, invited his teacher (yes, the 70 year old, Metropolitan opera singer still had a voice teacher), Cornelius L. Reid, to give a series of master classes for the University of Washington. We were all very excited and nervous to meet and work with this legend in the voice teaching world. I had read his book, “Psyche and Soma,” for one of my doctoral topics and it rocked my world with its insights. The thought of singing for him was a tad terrifying but exhilarating as well.

Now, a master class can take many forms, but for Cornelius, it meant giving a “private” half hour voice lesson IN PUBLIC! If you think having a voice lesson with a new teacher can be stressful, you should try doing it in front of an audience. Talk about standing naked, baring all, vulnerable and exposed for all to hear. And with Cornelius, there was no way to artfully cover up your vocal flaws; he found them like a heat-seeking missle. When it came my turn, I started like he almost always started a lesson, with a descending arpeggio on “ah”, as in “father” or “bravo”. And immediately he began to critique my “ah” vowel. “No, that is not a pure vowel.” “No, try again. Listen.” “Do you hear that it is more of an “uh”…or “aw”…” And on and on. We did do other things besides “ah” but that is what I remembered most at the time, as well as to this day.

For the rest of the day, I could not get the idea of a better, purer “ah” vowel out of my mind. It is fair to say that for the first time in my vocal life, I was obsessed with a technical issue. I thought about it walking down the street, watching TV, eating dinner, even while brushing my teeth. Didn’t I sing an “ah”? I’ve been singing forever and been taking voice lessons for almost that long. How is that I wasn’t aware of this? Ah. Ah? Aw? Uh? Ah!

The next day, the master class sessions resumed, and I once again took my place in the crook of the piano. We once again started with the descending arpeggio on the now infamous “ah”. After about two or three scales, he stopped me and said, “You’ve been thinking about this vowel, haven’t you?” I was stunned. HOW DID HE KNOW? Was he psychic?  I looked at him incredulously. And since, as I came to discover in the coming decade studying with him, he was sort of psychic in a way, certainly highly intuitive, he said, “I know you have because your “ah” vowel is infinitely better than yesterday.

Just by thinking about it, by being AWARE of what is actually coming out of your mouth, it got better.”

EPIPHANY #1 of so many to come working with this brilliant man.

It was so simple and yet so hard and ultimately so profound and empowering an action/concept: functional listening. In my quest for a better voice, I, like so many others, had clung to the convoluted, mysterious aspects of singing; often used as an excuse for not improving. And yet the straightforward, seemingly obvious path was right there the entire time: awareness of the sounds I was producing. What DO they sound like? Yes, you CAN hear yourself to a high degree of accuracy. And yes, it takes time to develop your ear in this way, but it is completely possible. It will change your life as it has changed mine.

I had always been under the false assumption that my teachers had all the knowledge on how to make my voice better and I had none, and was not allowed to have their knowledge until I proved myself somehow.

  • No one, until this moment, had truly empowered me with the tools to troubleshoot, diagnose and fix my vocal issues on my own.

Of course, outside guidance by a trusted, skilled (hopefully compassionate) professional is always necessary, incredibly valuable and important. But think about it, we are without our teachers more often than we are with them. We are the ones who have to stand on stage and sing, not our teachers. And what if something goes wrong then? Look longingly into the wings, hoping they will be standing there holding large flashcards with guidance?

  • If we are listening functionally and armed with the vocal tools to solve issues that might arise, we will (almost) always know what to do in a crisis.
  • If I teach my students nothing else, my greatest desire is to give them this knowledge and these tools. I never want anyone to be as in the dark about their voice as I was for far too long. 

I am happy to report that I continued to improve and refine my “ah” vowel (and everything else) over the decade I spent under Cornelius’ expert tutelage. I learned to truly hear my voice in ways I could never have dreamed of previously. However, at my very last voice lesson with the maestro before he passed away, he still was tweaking my “ah” vowel to achieve its ultimate expression of perfection… AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!