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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 3

The Vocal Legacy of Owen Brown

by Claudel Callender / November 2, 2004

Considered a pioneer in the field of voice therapy, Oren Lathrop Brown was known worldwide for his immense knowledge of the voice. Aged 94 years, he passed away on March 6, 2004, in Northampton, Ma. Brown's particular approach to the voice, based on scientific facts, provided countless singers, teachers, actors and speakers with the technical savoir-faire to pursue their careers. For many, his legacy is monumental and his contribution to voice training unequalled.

Brown's eagerness to share his knowledge with others is in part what led to his writing, in 1996, of Discover your Voice. This testament on vocal pedagogy, now in its 6th printing, is the fruit of a long career during which Brown carefully developed a unique approach while working for many years with some of the best physicians in the field of voice science, including the late Wilbur J. Gould. "He was one of the first singing teachers to work regularly in a medical setting, collaborating with an otolaryngologist long before interdisciplinary approaches to voice training teams were popular," writes Dr. Robert T. Sataloff, M.D., chairman of the American Voice Care Foundation. "He recognized the value of enhancing traditional approaches to voice training, utilizing scientific concepts and methodology," says Sataloff of Brown's contribution to the field of singing. The foundations of this approach came while he was working at the Washington University School of medicine in St-Louis, where he served as a lecturer in voice therapy from 1952 to 1968. "They were looking for somebody who could help patients with functional voice disorders in which the voice becomes constricted or hoarse-sounding," he recalled. "In any given case, the most important starting point is to find out how to release the interfering tensions."

Brown typically started lessons with an old recording in order to make students aware of the tonal texture. Patiently, he would build the voice the old-fashioned way, using the five basic Italian vowels i, a, e o, u. Among his favorite singers were Kirsten Flagstad, Jussi Bjorling and Pol Plaçon. For Brown, these prominent singers embodied the ideal of vocal production.

Known to some as The Miracle Worker and others as The King of Voix Mixte (a French term describing the ideal of voice production by the French School of singing during the 19th century), Brown had an astounding track record of healing voices. "Many get into problems by mimicking other singers or the sounds they hear," he warned. "95% who start singing cut their career short due to overuse." The master firmly believed it was best to do little rather than too much. "A singer should not sing more than one hour a day and that hour should be broken into 15-minute periods," he advised.

In fact, Brown's goal was to recreate the vocal ideal of the Italian Bel Canto School of singing. His vocal exercises were designed to favor the perfect blending of the registers (supported falsetto and chest voice), which, in the span of six to ten years, depending on the individual, would produce a voice capable of exhibiting flexibility, power, and above all, dynamic control. Brown conveyed to his students the true meaning of the term messa di voce (the swell tone exercise), where the singer is invited to initiate a tone as softly as possibly and then swell this tone to a comfortable forte or fortissimo in order to conclude as he had started.

James King is among those singers who claim Brown helped them achieve the mastery of their art. A baritone, he first came to Brown in 1960 with vocal nodules, a potentially career-ending problem. Brown helped him surmount his difficulties and King went on to enjoy an international career as a leading Wagnerian tenor. Paul Helming, one of the leading Wagnerian tenors at present, also credits Brown's technique with helping him make the switch from baritone to tenor. Brown, however, did not limit himself to working with classically trained singers. Buddy Greco, Las Vegas crooner and jazz pianist, alleges he has not had a night off since Brown straightened out his singing-induced ulcers. Questioned about the difference between classical and others types of singing, Brown answered, "Finding the true natural voice is the key to healthy singing; the rest is a question of style."

His 72 years career as a voice teacher began in Boston in 1932 after he received a Bachelor's degree in music and a Master's degree in composition from Boston University. During World War II, he worked as musical advisor on the National staff of the USO while a member of the U.S. army serving overseas. The Juilliard School of Music in New York and the Mannes College of Music are among the prestigious institutions which welcomed him as a faculty member. During this time, Brown chaired on several committees and continued to teach privately in Europe, Canada, and the United States. In May 2002, he received an Honorary Doctorate in music from Utah State University and in 2000 he was awarded The Voice Research Awareness Award of Achievement by the American Voice Care Foundation.

Oren Brown gave his last master classes in the fall of 2003 in Germany at the age of 94. After retiring in Northampton in 1999, he kept teaching private students at the local Community Center. The mentor of many – at least sixteen of Oren Brown's students have sung at the Met, including renowned baritone Bo Skovhus – Brown will be remembered for his outstanding contribution to the field of voice therapy and voice teaching: "The foundations he laid have been invaluable not only in facilitating the evolution of voice into an interdisciplinary medical subspecialty, but also allowing voice pedagogy to evolve into a more sophisticated and scientific discipline," declares Sataloff.

Anyone who wishes to contribute to the memory of this great teacher can do so by sending a donation to the Oren L. Brown Memorial Voice Scholarship Fund, Office of development & Public affairs, Juilliard School, 60 Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023. For more information and comments on Oren Brown, please visit the New England Nats website: www.nats.org/newengland

(c) La Scena Musicale