2005 Classical Singer Teacher of the Year : Elizabeth Nohe Colson

Elizabeth Nohe Colson has been helping singers make the best of their voices for six decades. For this extraordinary teacher, “support” means more than solid vocal technique; it means a commitment to provide support and guidance to each of her students.

Classical Singer magazine honored Ms. Colson as its 2005 Teacher of the Year at the recent Classical Singer Convention in New York City. She lives and teaches in Atlanta, Ga., where she has spent much of her teaching career. Each summer she travels to Graz, Austria and teaches at AIMS [the American Institute of Musical Studies].

Ms. Colson’s studio has produced international names—such as Indra Thomas, Stuart Neil, and Helen Bickers—who have performed on the International scene in opera houses in Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Chicago, Cologne, Hanover, Dusseldorf, Houston, The Met and Carnegie Hall. Her students have won competitions including The Belvedere (Vienna), the Pavarotti, the Verdi (Busseto, Italy), the Washington International Vocal Competition, the Liederkranz, the Meistersinger (Austria) and the Metropolitan Opera Competition.

The accomplishments of Ms. Colson’s students certainly sing her praises, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of this world-class teacher is her consistent, tireless dedication to all of her students, regardless of level or ability.

What kind of musical experiences did you have growing up?

I grew up listening to Met broadcasts every Saturday—my father always had it on. And when I was in high school, friends of mine—we used to go to each other’s houses to listen to the Met broadcast. I remember Dominic Cossa said one time that he had to go to college before he learned that everybody didn’t listen to the Met broadcast on Saturday afternoon, because he grew up in an Italian household [where] everybody did. And that was true [at my house], also. All of those things helped shape my thinking and my ideals.

And you married a pianist—that comes in handy for a singer!

He doesn’t always do my accompanying. That’s the only problem! [Laughs.] He [Greg] is a very fine conductor, too. We went to study with Robert Shaw, back in 1960. (Shaw was teaching at the University of Minnesota.)

… Shaw was the reason we moved to Atlanta. … Greg was his accompanist for the first two or three years, and then Shaw told him to go out and form his own chorale, which he did. And Shaw told me he wanted me to start teaching voice … so he’s the [person], plus his assistant, William Noel, who really got my studio started.

What an inspirational and influential person to have as a friend.

Absolutely. He was the greatest mentor I ever had.

What kind of training did you receive as a singer?

To be honest, I went all over the world, literally, trying to learn how to sing. I went to LSU [Louisiana State University], and then I got my master’s at Peabody, and then I started teaching when I was 20, so I’ve really been teaching for 60 years.

… I really had difficulty learning to sing. When I graduated from college, I thought a high G or A-flat was the best I was going to do. When I was in grad school, Richard Rivers—who had been Shaw’s original baritone soloist: he’s on all of the early, early Shaw Chorale things (“Collegiate Chorale,” they called it then)—said, “You’ve got a much higher voice than that. You just don’t know what to do with it.”

I had been taught, like a lot of people, to tighten everything. And you know, there’s no way you can get high notes, or anything else, with that.

Eleanor Steber came to Nashville a few times in the ‘50s, and I did some work with her, and later taught with her at AIMS. That was a wonderful thing, because she was marvelous about listening to my students and advising me, and that helped.

But the woman who did more for me than anyone was Frauka Hawthorne. Greg and I started going to Europe in the … early ‘60s to study conducting with [Wilhelm] Ehman (although you study musicianship and everything with someone like that). He was a fabulous conductor. He had as his assistant Frauka Hawthorne, and she was wonderful at explaining and showing you how to sing. She did a lot of staccato work and wonderful mask resonance. All of it seemed to come together with her.

She wrote a book on singing that Westminster College publishes. She unfortunately died of cancer, but everything she believed about singing is in that little book. She would run a “Stimmbilde” every morning at 7 at the school. We’d all go down and there we’d start our little staccati exercises, deep breathing, posture, and everything.

Seven in the morning. Wow!

You start in the morning to get the voice up, so that you will speak in the mask, because if you don’t speak in the mask, it’s difficult to sing in the mask! I have several music teachers who study with me—college, elementary, and high school—and all of them have realized that if they’re going to be teaching all day they have to get their speaking voice up. [Frauka] believed very much in lip trills and tongue trills. I think those do as much to help people in developing a good breath support system as anything.

You’ve mentioned a few of your ideas about vocal technique. What do you consider the key elements of a solid vocal technique?

I think anyone can be taught to sing. … Shaw’s assistant, William Noel, one time told me: “I think you can teach a stick to sing! You’ve got to keep doing this!”

You have to be able to motivate people. … [Singers] have to be excited and they have to enjoy what they’re doing. So I think that the teacher has to do that, too. I try to teach them to be positive, to be proactive, and not to plan their work [by] reacting to what happens to them, but to think ahead.

One of the first concepts I have: Always create beautiful, ravishing sound. Now, how do you do that? As far as the steps in singing, I go after breath support, and so the first thing [I] work on is posture. You can’t have good breath support without having good posture.

The other thing I believe very much in is that you must have developed the resonators in the body. The masked resonance must be in every tone. I was so pleased to see Sam Ramey quoted in Classical Singer saying even basses must have masked resonance in every note. And I thought, ”OK, this will impress some of the basses!” because I say that all the time, but they don’t always listen to me.

I think there are many tools for learning, like the Breath Builder. I use a breathing belt. I don’t look at these as crutches at all, or tricks. They really are part of what it takes to sing. English National Opera makes breathing belts for all of their singers, or they make them into the costumes. It protects the back as well, as you have something to feel the muscles [push against].

After that, it’s loose jaw, loose tongue, pure vowels, voiced consonants, keeping the pharynx and the soft palate area open, and using a lot of m’s and n’s and ng’s to help build resonance—and of course, messa di voce. I believe in starting off right from the beginning with both sustained exercises and agility.

Singers need good role models, and if they [can’t] hear them in person, they need to have a good collection of recordings. For sopranos, I always use people like Eleanor Steber, Arlene O’Shea, [Elly] Ameling, [Renata] Tebaldi, [Lucia] Popp, and [Beverly] Sills. I just think all of those are beautiful sounds.

For mezzos, of course, Marilyn Horne, Christa Ludwig, and lyric mezzos Jennifer Larmore and Frederica von Stade. For tenors, [Franco] Corelli and [Nicolai] Gedda are my two favorites. And for basses, I always have George London and Eberhardt Becker recordings, but I think Jay Larse is wonderful. I think Richard Stillwell’s sound is fabulous, and today, Renae Pappa is just fantastic. And that young tenor Matthew Polenzani is wonderful! Of course, I love Thomas Hampson.

Living here in the South, we don’t have much [singing] to see and hear, so I try to get people to go out of town when they can, or to hear everything that comes here. I’m lucky the Atlanta Symphony uses my singers when they want local soloists. One of my basses has sung five performances with Atlanta Symphony in the last year.

How many singers do you teach in a day, on average?

It depends. … Some days I teach eight and other days I teach six. One of the most important things I do: For 25 years I’ve had a Thursday-night class in which I always have a very fine coach/accompanist and everybody comes in to sing. The [singers] who make the most advances are the ones who come regularly on Thursday night. At that class, sometimes I have visiting “firemen” come in, … like Arlene Aujer when she was here recording with Shaw, [and] Lorna Haywood. … Just different people, and that’s great.

Are you selective about who you take into your studio?

I am selective about the beginners. I do want them to be able to read music, and to have studied piano or an instrument. If they haven’t studied piano, then I insist that they begin. I do audition everybody—but years ago, I couldn’t be that selective. Since I have been both a public school music teacher and a private school music teacher, I have had to teach everybody. In choral singing, you teach everyone. And I was always pleased that I never had a child I couldn’t get to sing in tune. I always said, “It can be done.”

You were a choral teacher for a while?

Yes. I’ve done various things. After I married, I couldn’t get a job teaching, so I became the music librarian for the Nashville Public Library system. Then Greg had a personal TV show, so I quit that job to produce the show for him. Then Blair Academy was formed in Nashville [now the Blair School of Music], and I was one of the first teachers there. I taught voice, history, and piano, and then I was more or less the assistant there for John L. Sawyer, who really started that school and got it on the map. The day that Ronnie Copes was on the cover of the New York Times as the latest new member of the Juilliard String Quartet, I remember jumping up screaming, because the idea was to find students in the South, or middle Tennessee, who had talent, and really give them first-class conservatory training. We had a lot of people go on and do great things.

What age is too young to start taking lessons?

It depends on the child. I think children’s choirs are wonderful for youngsters. They learn the discipline of being in a musical organization, and they learn to sing well through choral experiences. Then, at about 11 or 12, you could begin, but again it depends on who it is.

[When] we moved [to Atlanta] … I was very disappointed that I couldn’t get a job in a college, and so I went to Lovett [a school in Atlanta], and here I was back to kiddy choirs and high school choirs—and what do I find but this little girl who came to audition for the chorus in the 6th grade [and who] had a range of four octaves. This was incredible! She has just come home from Germany after 18 wonderful years as a Verdi soprano! I had a terrific experience with her… I discovered her in the kiddy choir! You just never know.

Any final words of wisdom for our Classical Singer readers?

Bach, Handel and Mozart are better teachers than I am. I believe in using their music a lot. I also think that people should not sing music they can’t support. The technique has to be there.

I’ve had a video camera in my studio for years, and I like to record people. I like them to use the video, and use the tape recorder. I even [record] myself sometimes to check on what I’m doing, which is very revealing, and very embarrassing sometimes [laughs].

You have to be excited; you have to enjoy what you’re doing. And when the going gets tough, you have to have that inner drive that says: ”OK, I can do this.”

You know that old thing about the Chinese word … they don’t have a word for crisis—[instead] they combine danger and opportunity. I find that’s true, whenever anyone reaches a crisis. Yes, it’s dangerous, but it’s an opportunity for change, and to make something go.

I think people have to have a tremendous amount of stamina, and if they are excited about what they’re doing, then they’re going to be able to get over that hump. It’s the same thing that takes them through being rejected. You have to be able to say, “I am good, I want to do this,” and keep going. I’ve had people go to AVA [the Academy of Vocal Arts] or Juilliard for auditions and not get in, and some of them crumbled after that. I’ve had others go back the next year and get in. You have to have that kind of thing inside of you.

Sara Thomas

Sara Thomas is editor of Classical Singer magazine. She welcomes your comments.