My teachers’ teacher

Someone kindly asked what insights I might have about the teaching of Anna E. Schoen-René, my vocal grandmother.  I put the question to two other singers who studied with Julius Huehn at the Eastman School of Music.  Both answered that they did not recall that he ever quoted her.  One wrote, “I remember Papa Huehn mentioning Schoen-René, but I couldn’t say that I remember anything specific that he said about her.  Can we assume that he took on her methods of teaching?  Who knows?  I think we all create our own methods of teaching, don’t you?  He used the Vaccai exercises and gave us each a repertoire list that he felt was appropriate for us to accomplish in a semester.  He inspired us to be interpreters of the songs we sang.  He expected that we would be true to the music and the text.  He was a very special person and his students all loved him (but I doubt that Schoen-Rene had much to do with that!)”

I agree that “we all create our own methods,” and I never pretend that either Viardot or Schoen-René would approve of my singing or my teaching.  Still, I want to tell you what I can as the former student of two Schoen-René students, Sonia Essin and Julius Huehn.

I began at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as a student of Franklin Bens, a young man at the time.  I now think that he was a good teacher, and many years later he was the principal teacher of Kathleen Battle.  But for obscure reasons, I changed teachers midway in my sophomore year.  That turned out badly, and I finished the year with shattered confidence.

I went to Miss Essin as a junior, and her strongly positive approach to life and to singing saved me.  The bedrock of her teaching was “abdominal support,” which she definitely attributed to Schoen-René.  “Take a full breath and then push down on the abdominal muscles” was her frequent admonition.  I was to sing with a firm, constant legato, vocalizing always on “open O,” as in German offen or French objet.  The corners of the mouth were drawn in toward the center, the mouth opening had a vertical feeling, and the preferred tone was somewhat dark.  As a contralto, Miss Essin had sung probably more oratorio than opera, and she encouraged me to sing Bach, Mozart and Schubert, especially.

After my two years of military obligation, Miss Essin was disappointed that I did not return to her but comforted that I went to another Schoen-René singer.  At the Eastman I studied with Papa Huehn for five semesters, earning the master’s degree and performer’s certificate.  Miss Essin had known him when they were both students, but they did not keep in touch after he went into the Met at an early age, singing dramatic baritone roles until World War II, when he served in the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific.

In contrast to Miss Essin, Mr. Huehn said nothing that I can recall about how to breathe, except that he reminded me to keep the chest high and broadly open.  His first concern with me was to re-establish legato and then to extend the range in full voice.  His tonal preference was exactly as I described for Miss Essin, moderately dark, based on “open O.”

With undergraduates Mr. Huehn used the Vaccai exercises.  We graduate students did elaborate technical exercises from Shakespeare’s Art of Singing, some of which were drilled for speed while others were slowed to stretch the breath line.  He was adamant in training long legato phrases; physical necessity was never an excuse for taking a musically or textually inappropriate breath.  He expressly rejected the notion of “placing the voice.”  He used the image of an open throat: “It’s a big pipe.”  I understood from him that the resonance sensations one feels are the result of singing well, not a reliable goal in themselves.

Regrettably, I seldom wrote down any notes directly after lessons, and even those few I cannot find now.  When I began to teach, it was frustrating to have few memories of how my teachers had trained me.  I have tried to apply their tonal ideal without many specifics about their methods.

I have one anecdote about Schoen-René.  In Cincinnati I had a few lessons with Laura Mae (Mastin) Titus.  She had taught Clifford Harvuot before he went to New York.  When he was studying with Schoen-René, Mrs. Titus visited New York and Harvuot invited her to sit in on one of his lessons.  She told me that during the lesson, Harvuot sang one aria after another without comment, until Schoen-René stopped him once and said, “I would not sing that in my neck.”  Apparently, he was able to repeat the passage and correct it to her satisfaction.

I don’t know whether Mrs. Titus would agree, but my interpretation is that Schoen-René was not about to give away secrets to another singing teacher.  Nor could she let unhealthy singing pass by her without commenting on it.

In my student years there was no evidence of a spirit of sharing knowledge from one studio to another. Also, NATS in its early days was not just national but nationalistic.  Non-citizens were not admitted to membership, and I believe that even foreign born U. S. citizens were not welcome.  Miss Essin told me that Schoen-René counseled her not to join NATS, and Miss Essin later regretted accepting that advice.

Also, in my student years, falsetto and yodel were dirty words.  I was told that they were dangerous and would weaken or harm the full voice.  What I learned about the falsetto voice was entirely self-taught.  Now we understand that these techniques are not vocal malpractice, but vocal choices, possibly useful in teaching.

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