Todd Duncan: an interview with Marvin Keenze

I visited Marvin Keenze at his voice studio in Princeton to talk about his long association with the famous baritone Todd Duncan. Duncan created a sensation as the first Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Here is some of what we talked about.

When did you start studying with Duncan?

I auditioned for the Army Chorus in 1960 after finishing my Master's degree, was accepted and went and did my basic training. Once there, I realized that a lot of the army chorus members studied with Todd Duncan. He was charging 10 dollars a lesson. And I remember thinking, "I can't afford that each week!" Then some of my army chorus friends had me accompany their lessons. Eventually, Mr. Duncan asked me to play for his studio one day a week. So I did that for a while. Eventually, I asked him for voice lessons which he taught me at the end of his long day at no charge. He said to me: "Marvin, you are a good musician. But you don't know how to sing!" At this time he was in his 50's and still touring. He was still active doing recitals.

Did he have a big influence on you?

Yes! Before Duncan, I was a choral musician and had a full-time position as a choral conductor/pianist. He became my guide as a teacher.

How so?

Because I played for lessons, I saw him work with other students. And if I got to the lesson early he would invite me in. I would also stay and hear other lessons. He would say, "Come in here! I want you to hear this! " In the early stages he treated me as a conductor/teacher/educator.

So you saw how he worked with different people.

I heard the kind of language he used. He called it "Duncan Junk." He was a mechanist is some ways. He spoke a lot about the larynx and vocals folds—a lot about resonance.

What did he teach you about resonance?

He would say to me: "Your voice is too dark. It's too thick. There's too much molasses in it. You have no lead in your pencil!" He would say, "Now Marvin.  What did you just hear? You know what you hear is what you get." There was that dimension to it. You had to hear it first. And then he had this thing: he talked about sphenoidal resonance. He kept touching the top of his head.  He would say: "You're moving your ear around too much." He had this picture of a top of a head in yellow marker.  He would call, "Hey! Come on over and have some hot dogs!" He had this big range and all of it was accessible. What he was doing was keeping the language in the same place but adding resonance.  You never left the place where you communicated the language.  He would say: "No! No! No! The word is too high. You're putting the word up in the music!" Now I use that a lot and it relates to the work of Tomatis. You put your ear on top of your head. It relates to that perspective. You have the student speak it normally and then have them speak it in a theatrical way that is close to singing. But you have to get 'communication speech' first. 

It sounds like he had a great ear.

Yes. He was very good with languages- German and French. He had the essences of these languages- the nuance.  It wasn't just about the voice. The voice served the music. His teaching was highly tied up with how you said the words. He really served the poetry. But he would also say that the sound carries the message, the honesty and authority of the sound carries the message. If the sound had no message, it wasn't worth it. He was also very big about the root of the tongue.  He wanted the root of the tongue free. No pressure. I learned later that when the root of the tongue presses it kills the ring. Visceral was a big word with him.

He wanted 'metal' in the sound?

Yes. He would say squillo. His ear would detect when you lost ring in the voice. He would immediately stop and say, "You lost your resonance!"

How did he get it?

He worked a lot on support, on very low support. I think he was very Germanic in a way. It was very pelvis oriented. That kind of lower 'gripping' is very German. He could really spread his pelvic muscles. He would put your hand under his waistband and move his muscles in a big way. It was very physical, a low center of energy and support. Then he would alwasy say, "This must never go to your throat." My pelvis wouldn't begin to open like his did.  Nobody's did!

What did he teach you about breathing?

He was a 'down and out' person. He was about maintaining the appoggio posture. Low larynx. "The inhalation of the breath puts the instrument in the proper position and then you leave it there.  You sing from where the breath places the instrument." I went to see him years later in Annapolis and he said to me, "Marvin, what do you thing about subglottal air compression?" He used a lot of vocal fry's to get this subglottal compression that would guide the voice.  He would say that the last point of resistance is at the vocal folds. He would say to sing in your body on that feeling of sub-glotal pressure. He believed that the diaphragm could not be controlled directly, and that the larynx was an organ of reaction. "You must always treat it like that." He talked about 'jelly belly.' The epigrastrium could not be tight. There was nothing in between these two things (Marvin places one hand on his lower abdomen and the other of his head.) That is the goal of resonance. He hated throaty singing. Harshaw said to focus here  (Marvin points to his nose and face). I think he would have helped some of his women if he hadn't been afraid to do that. You feel a narrowing there. He hated the words 'place the voice.' He didn't like 'put the voice forward' talk. He would say that the thing to have was 'all-around-sound.'  And he didn't like a localized sound.  He didn't like this (Marvin imitates a neck-tie tenor). He hated stiffening and rigidity and wanted softness.

How long was your association with him?

Thirty-five years. From 1960-1995. That's regular lessons. By 1995 he was blind but still teaching.

Who were his teachers?

There were several. Eduardo Lippe was one. Duncan met him when he went out to Hollywood in the 40's. He called him Dr. Lippe. Now this is years after Porgy. He would say, "I sang in my nose in Porgy." Sarah Lee was another teacher. I know there was also a Frank Bibb at some point.  These two teachers, Lippy and Lee, had one thing in common: honesty! They had no more than five points to make and were very simple and never went past them. 

Did he talk about the start of the tone?

He did a lot of this. (Marvin opens his mouth and makes a barely audible click at the level of the glottis.)  Now.  This to me is Garcia's coup de glotte.  He would put two fingernails together to show that the vocal folds come together without pressure.  He would say, "You have too many religions!  You change your religion too much!" The vocal folds do change in thickness and length, but if you over-change them they put out a whole different acoustical product, you would get too many different timbres. That's what he meant. So he would even out the voice by making you think about not making any more pressure than the two fingernails lightly touching. That's how I understand coup de glotte. Of course, this matter has caused no end of consternation.

Didn't Garcia write that the coup de glotte was simply a matter of getting right to the tone without scooping around?

Yes. That's right. That's what Mr. Duncan wanted. He said he wanted it clean but not an audible glottal stroke. He emphasized this with everybody. 

Was the old idea of open throat part of his teaching?

"I don't like a fixed throat," he would say. "You're holding your voice in your throat!" He always had that Vennard picture of the tongue and liked a grooved tongue—a low position. He loved what he called pure vowels. He would say, "I don't hear a vowel in that, it's just a sound that you are making."  Then he would say, "I don't want to hear your throat. You must have no throat. It ain't nothing but a hole." When I listened to him singing Lost in the Starsthat is singing in the hole. He hated any kind of pressure (in the throat) and said that the upper chest was the shock absorber. I use that idea a lot in my teaching.  You never push the energy up against the throat. Margaret Harshaw also used that idea.  He would say, "Marvin, you are moving your throat!"

Speaking of pure vowels, did he emphasize Italian tonal values?

Well....he didn't think the languages should sound the same.  He would say,  "The French don't care if you have a beautiful voice: they just want to hear the language.  They want to hear the vowel.  If they don't, they won't like it! "  He had the music of the language in his ear. He would say that to sing French you had to have a 'sexy  throat."  He could hear that my throat wasn't in the position to grab onto the right frequencies that emphasize the 'lows.' Americans don't hear this so easily.  If you didn't get it he would say, "You've left the language, you've abandoned your vocal cords!"

It sounds like he was very direct and charismatic.

Very! You always expected some breakthrough to happen while you were there. You'd go there thinking something great would take place. He was very energetic.

Did you sing scales? What were lessons like?

He would start with scales and loved intervals. Regardless of the student's level, the first part of the lesson was always spent on the mechanics of singing. He did not have a monolithic teaching style and emphasized only one or two principles at a time so that the student would not become overwhelmed.  And he was into the meaning of the poetry. This was very, very important to him.  It's hard to separate his presence from the teaching. Duncan said that when his students got up to sing he didn't want anyone to say that they could hear the technique of Todd Duncan. "Singing is singing! You get up there and all this stuff I've given you- forget it! All of it will work automatically if God wants you to sing- not Todd Duncan!"

(This article originally appeared in the November '05 edition of VoicePrints and is reprinted with permission from the author.)


William Jackson said…
My Voice teacher Eddie Jackson studied with Mr. Duncan! and as i'm reading this it brought a tear to my eye because everything Duncan said to u, he said to me, and i say to my students lol thank u so much for sharing this and keeping young singers and voice teachers dreams of Vocal excellence alive!!