The Sunday Theater section of the New York Times featured a fun angle on the Kristin Cheneworth vs. Kelli O'Hara competition for this year's Tony-- a visit from the woman who taught both of them in college.
The Oklahoma City University website lists Florence Birdwell as "a force of nature." She has been teaching voice-- musical theater and opera-- for decades. The woman started teaching in 1946. She is 90 years old.
The NYT writer watched some teaching sessions. Birdwell is a great source of quotes.
She turned and addressed the class. “Anytime you make your voice more
important than the words, you lose it and the audience knows it,” she
said. “They don’t understand why, but they’re just waiting for it to be
A 2008 interview says this about her:
Drawing on the disciplines of metaphysics, philosophy, math, technique
and practical insight, Birdwell is a professor of voice who shapes
students into stars.
But a thread that seems to run through Birdwell's teaching is the idea of getting out of your own way. Her own path was not clear, nor did it unfold according to plan. In that same 2008 interview, she talks about finding her passion at age 8, screaming wordlessly into a canyon. But when she was 24, an infection in her pharynx ended her dreams of being a singer. In the NYT, here's how that story goes:
“I had a wonderful voice, and I lost it,” she said. “My teacher said, ‘You can’t sing, but you sure can talk.’ ”
Birdwell talks a great deal about honesty. When telling the Times about her teaching philosphy: “Be more honest!” she said. “You have to open up a little bit of your insides. You have to learn about yourself as a person.” When speaking to NewsOK:
The hardest thing is absolute honesty. You have to work it out and think
about it and deal with it. Which things are you going to put first? Who
do you want to please? What are you trying to achieve in life? It has
to be your own inner power that takes you and decides these questions.
You have to do it for yourself and not for anybody else, otherwise you
give too much in too many different ways and you cheat yourself.
Cheneworth, talking about Birdwell in an interview with ChicagoPride:
She not only taught me to sing technically, but taught me to sing from the soul about what a song actually means.
Don't sing it if ya can't mean it!
Yes, Birdwell teaches the technique, the breathing, the control. But like all good and great teachers, she teaches her students how to be more fully themselves, how to be in the world, how to connect to something that both fulfills and transcends who they are. The NYT focuses on her star pupils, but I have to believe that there are a whole raft of non-famous non-Tony-nominee former students out there who are enjoying richer, fuller lives because they crossed paths with this force of nature. Isn't that the kind of teacher we would all like to be?