FOCUS on VOCAL TECHNIQUE
by Shirlee Emmons
People sometimes ask me why I am so devoted to the work of Berton Coffin. These are my reasons.
In 1980, my coauthor and I were about to have our book, The Art of the Song Recital, published by Schirmer Books. Realizing that it was time for me to join NATS, I did so and went to Texas for the national convention. While riding in a bus to a rodeo arranged by the local hosts, a man in the front turned around and shouted, “Is that Shirlee Emmons back there?” The man who came back to greet me looked very familiar, but I honestly didn’t know who he was until he was introduced at the opening ceremonies as Berton Coffin, a former national president of NATS. Then I realized that he had been my colleague as a member of the Robert Shaw Chorale in its first tour. The next year I had gone to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship, and Berton had begun to teach at Colorado University, Boulder, and we had not seen each other again. During that convention, however, we saw a great deal of one another, and he gave me a hand-colored copy of the famous chart as well as much generous and valuable advice about publishing the recital book.
The next time we saw each other was the year that one of my Princeton students was a finalist in the NATSAA competition and Berton was a judge. She won the first prize, not least because she had received Coffin training at my hands. She went on to work with him at the AIMS program in Graz, Austria, and then sang at an “A” house in Germany for many years.
At the time when I began to teach, in 1964, the methods that most voice teachers invariably used for their students were the methods under which they themselves had studied.
In other words, they taught what they did successfully. Indeed, I did the same in my early teaching at Columbia and Princeton Universities. Some time after the Texas convention, while visiting SMU to do some master classes, I spent an entire week sitting next to Coffin in his studio where he was teaching as a visiting professor. I listened, taped the sessions, and made notes. At every dinner party that week, the hostess would seat me next to Coffin. I took advantage of the situation and kept a tape recorder on my lap under the napkin. Every golden word he spoke about singing I recorded. That week was the beginning of my thorough understanding of his work, which taught voice according to the principles of acoustics.
I am but one person of many who acquired teaching and singing skills based on his work.
All over this world there are artists and teachers whom Coffin helped to hone their crafts. Amazingly, his exercises function not only as a training tool, but are remedial as well. I myself, after a singing lifetime during which I was crippled by the lack of a secure pianissimo, finally learned at the age of 62 (!!) to sing high register pianissimo notes, thanks to the exercise on page 42 of the Overtones of Bel Canto. Tenor and baritone students of mine literally gained their high range for the first time, using the exercises on page 108 and 109, in addition to the infamous but always successful exercise on page124. Into my studio come singers searching for their high range, which many have lost in spite of a successful career. Overtones of Bel Canto enables me to help them find it again. This is because the Coffin exercises are science-driven, yet thoroughly practical. They answer voice teachers’ quest for the “how-to-do-it” information.
These days in 2010 there are vocal researchers worldwide studying the use of formants in singing and teaching. The published results of their research are always expressed in stringently scientific language, but, alas, with little instruction as to their practical application. In 1967—43 years earlier—Coffin published his own solution for how to use this information: it was the famous chart. Reviewing the research and understanding the science is laudable, but it is only the first step. How to use it in actual singing and teaching is something else. The chart is in actuality a chart of how to use the science. Of all his splendid contributions to the art of singing—his teaching, his many books, his master classes—these are all surpassed by the fact that he broke down the science for us, into an accessible body of knowledge. I, for one, will be eternally grateful. In my New York studio, whenever one of Berton’s exercises enables a student to achieve command over a certain vocal skill previously unmastered, we have a lighthearted but meaningful ritual. We turn to his picture and blow him a kiss.
A word about him as a person. Responding to a question about his Overtones of Bel Canto, he said in my presence, “This is not a method; it is a body of knowledge for you to use as you see fit.” In this simple remark were embodied Berton Coffin’s innate modesty, his generosity of spirit, his intellectual curiosity, and his creativity.