So that you may have some idea of my own background, I offer the following. I was born and reared in McAllen, Texas, where I grew up and developed vocally through participation in the “womb to tomb” choral tradition of the First Baptist Church. Just as did many other kids of that generation, I suffered the obligatory piano lessons (musically talented – hated to practice), and I was reasonably successful in the high school marching and concert bands, where I played French horn. At age sixteen, I was “discovered” as a singer with possible career potential and had the wonderful and fulfilling experience of singing in my high school A Cappella choir and of winning medals in regional and state vocal solo competitions.
I hold two degrees, a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music (both in Vocal Performance) from the University of Texas at Austin. My teacher there was dramatic-spinto soprano Willa Stewart, who graduated in 1942 from the Curtis Institute, where she studied with Elizabeth Schumann and William Thorner (teacher of Rosa Ponselle) – and later in NYC with Milan Petrovitch and Paul Althaus. While at Curtis, she was a friend of Samuel Barber and had the honor of premiering live on an 8:00 AM morning radio show many of his songs. She was featured soloist in the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall singing “O Holy Night” 6 or 7 times a day for several months. At age 25, she began her career with the San Carlo Opera Company, touring throughout North America singing such roles as Aïda (over 300 performances), Santuzza, Nedda, Leonora (Trovatore), Marguerite, Pamina, Maddelena (Andrea Chenier), Micaëla, et al. She also appeared with the New York City Center Opera, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric, at Carnegie Hall with the Detroit and Philadelphia Orchestras, and the CBS and NBC Symphonies. Immediately following W.W.II, she was engaged by the Wiener Staatsoper, where she replaced Ljuba Welitsch, and performed regularly throughout Europe at Covent Garden, Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Paris Opera and the Baths of Carcalla in Rome. She sang frequently with many of the greatest singers of her day, including, among others, George London, Richard Tucker, Jan Pierce, Helge Roswänge and Kurt Baum. When she was only 35, she was contracted to make her debut the following season with both the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala; however, disaster struck – she suffered a massive heart attack, the result of having had scarlet fever as a child in Missouri. At that time, medicine was not what it is today – they treated her as best they could, and she recovered, never to perform again professionally. At first, she was weak and very bitter, but she soon pulled herself together and accepted a teaching position at North Texas State University in Denton, where she taught a full load of students and at the same time completed her Master’s degree. In 1957, she went to teach at UT Austin, where she remained until her retirement in the 80’s. For a number of years, she spent her summers teaching singers in the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artist Program – and, after retiring from UT, she taught for a time as adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Plagued for years with ill health and numerous surgical procedures, including crushed vertebrae and replacement of both knees, almost completely blind in the last six or seven years of her life, and with no living family outside of her former students who are spread far and wide, Willa Stewart was, nevertheless, still very sound of mind when she expired in the early afternoon on Sunday, the 19th of May 2002, in Austin, Texas, at the age of 85. This truly marked the end of an era. Her contribution was great, and she will be missed.
I once heard it said that Willa had the ability to “teach a plate to sing”. She had enormous energy, determination, charisma for days and a phenomenal ear of pure gold. In the early years of her teaching, she was also still very much in possession of her magnificent voice, so all of us learned from her primarily through imitation, while, at the same time, absorbing her remarkable love and passion for the singing art. What she actually “told” us to do was not necessarily what she herself did or, for that matter, what her ear demanded that she require of us; nevertheless, the results were truly amazing. One might possibly designate it a prime example of “Do what I do – not what I say!” Over the years, she produced countless winners of numerous important national and international competitions and participants in various professional opera training programs – among them the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Merola, Santa Fe Opera, Friday Morning Music Club (Washington, D.C.), NATSAA, etc. I myself had already won all of these and more before completing my Master’s degree only six years after my first voice lesson with Willa – or with anyone else, for that matter.
Immediately following graduation, I was engaged by the opera house in Essen, Germany, singing Steuermann (Fliegende Holländer), Pinkerton, Cavaradossi, Don José, Gregor (Die Sache Makropoulos), etc. In my first season there, I did more than 60 performances. I was in my mid-twenties, and I soon learned that, no matter how conscientiously I practiced and worked on my voice, that was a heck of a lot of singing for someone of my age and experience. The things in my voice that were good got better, while the things that needed attention became more obvious (at least to me). One day, when I was vocalizing in my dressing room before a performance, one of my colleagues dropped by for a chat. As he was leaving, he asked me why I sang a particular vocalise – meaning, “What does it accomplish?” I nearly replied, “Because my teacher told me to.” THAT WAS NOT THE RIGHT ANSWER! It was at that precise moment that I came to the realization that I did not actually have a technique of my own – my teacher had been my technique. She told me or demonstrated for me what to do, and I did it. It had never occurred to me that I needed to know not only HOW but also WHY to do certain technical things or the reason for practicing certain vocal exercises. Fortunately, I never had to stop performing in order to rework, polish and solidify my technique, but it was a number of years and several teachers later before I finally began to have a genuine grasp of what it was that I was doing. Though I had tried in vain to find a teacher in Europe, it was not until a couple of years later when we moved to New York City that I found someone who put me on the road of vocal self discovery. Teachers that I worked with there were Joseph Frank Poùhe, Cornelius Ried and Daniel Ferro. Additionally, my wife, Dixie Ross-Neill, who was a remarkable vocal coach and collaborative artist, was playing in the studios of several of the best known and most accomplished voice teachers of that time – among them were Oren Brown, Winifred Cecil, Kurt Baum, Raymond Buckingham, Felix Knight, Carolina Sigrera, Judith Raskin, Eleanor Steber, et al. Ultimately, the two of us together pooled our information and experiences and “worked it out” over a period of time. I hasten to add that this was NOT by any means an easy task – as one might well imagine – nevertheless, it has worked for us, and we continued to work together, separately or in tandem when teaching and coaching our students. Fortunately, I am able to achieve positive results with my students much more rapidly than I did myself when developing my own technique. Why? Because, I have tried and ultimately retained or rejected virtually anything and everything that anyone in the history of singing could possibly have imagined when it comes to vocal technique. Dixie and I together sorted out what works and what doesn’t; therefore, we were very quick to recognize what can eventually lead to success or to a disappointing dead end. Even if the most immediately accessible gimmick, trick or image might seem at first to result in producing an acceptable sound, it often proves to be only a temporary “fix-it” that will not hold up in the long run. Been there…! Done that…! Trust me!
I have been extremely blessed and truly fortunate that I have been able to sing most of the repertoire in most of the places and with most of the colleagues with whom I might ever have dreamed of performing. Perhaps that is why I am now genuinely happily to be teaching and find it so gratifying to assist others in realizing their own dreams – and not just another frustrated and unfulfilled singer who is forced to teach merely for the sake of earning a living. Needless to say, my personal experiences strongly influence my teaching. I do everything in my power to help my students to become confident, independent and self-reliant singing artists. Under normal circumstances, teachers meet with their students at best only once or twice a week. The remainder of the time, a singer is left to their own devices. Even when they are vocalizing, they are giving themselves a mini-lesson. As professionals, they are frequently away, travelling and performing for months on end – required to sing under less than ideal conditions – possibly not in good health, physically or vocally fatigued, or possibly ill prepared musically. It is crucial that singers fully understand what it is that they are trying to accomplish or to improve upon vocally. Quality practice time is essential. With each new role, there are new challenges. Solving these problems inevitably brings about changes in the voice – with change comes doubt – things feel and/or sound “different” to them. This constant questioning can be debilitating. For this reason, the professional singer absolutely MUST CONTINUE TO STUDY with a teacher and/or coach who is intimately familiar with their voice, their personality and their learning needs – someone who respects them and willingly accepts this enormous responsibility, while at the same time understanding the grueling demands of a career. The singer must have complete faith in their teacher’s loyalty and be able to trust them implicitly. After all, their future, their life and the lives of their family and loved ones are at stake here. Recently, in a Master Class with a well known artist, one of the young participants asked, “How long do we need to continue studying voice and coaching?” The answer was really quite simple, “For as long as you hope to continue singing professionally!”