By all accounts an impeccable musician who sang radiantly for over forty years in an astonishing array of styles until retiring in 2000, Benita Valente gave a two-hour masterclass for the New York Singing Teachers Association October 17th at Grace Dodge Hall, Columbia Teachers College. If you weren't there, you missed seeing an extraordinary artist imparting the essence of her craft with style, dry wit, élan and yes- her voice. She sang/demonstrated when doing so could say more than words could. And it was beautiful.
Ms. Valente worked with five singers, Sheila Carroll, Amy Shoremount-Obra, Margaret O'Connett, Courtney Ross and Briana Sakamoto, bringing to each a keen intelligence that focused on musicianship, the meaning of words and the tone that communicates them. This last aspect was - for this listener - the most interesting aspect of the evening. How so? Ms. Valente enabled each singer to make distinct vocal gains by helping them listen to themselves. How did she do this? Though the ancient use of imitation. If a vowel wasn't quite up to snuff, she zeroed in on it and provided correction by giving it auditory context. Compare and contrast - a streamlined manner of instruction which bypasses untold paragraphs of blather and mechanistic manipulation and educates the student's ear. To do it, you have to know what you are doing, and do it well. The student, I should add, needs to have their wits about them. This manner of instruction provided- for those with ears to hear- a distillation of instruction in self-listening.
"We have to get to the center of the sound," she said, pointing to her upper lip.
"It goes out from there! A circle around us." She gestured with her hands. "It is ourselves. The center is small."
"Like a horse in Central Park, I feel I have blinders on down to here," she said, gesturing from her temples to her jawline.
The singers responded to this auditory short-hand. Ears perked up. Vowels became clear and tone soared. A jaw or two stopped opening inordinately. Coloratura flew.
"It's a roller coaster that doesn't leave the ground!"
Funny- the things that happen when you help someone listen to what they are doing. (I call this the 'where' of listening.) If you can achieve the same gains that were heard in the room from this brief description minus the original context, you are a first-class autodidact.
Ms. Valente studied with the indomitable Margaret Harshaw.