"Kids don't want to hear about me," Wesla Whitfield says of the many students she's been teaching for the past four years at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif. , the one with the brushed cymbals in her voice who modestly described herself in an O magazine interview some years ago as "a classical singer trying desperately to move as quickly away from that as I can." Having accomplished that goal -- she hasn't sung opera for decades now -- she's helping ambitious young people pursue their aims in the college's musical theatre department. This year she's guiding 27 students twice a week on song interpretation, mostly. She also helps three private students once a week with voice production. What are their goals? "They're going directly to stardom, directly to Broadway," Whitfield says of the way they present themselves. To help them get there -- or at least part of the way -- she predicates her mentoring on the conviction that "the whole point of standing up and singing is to communicate. That's the magic word. That's what we do over and over until the light dawns."
To that end, Whitfield has developed a series of steps for her song interpretation class. Initially she says there are seven or eight of them, but then she decides there are four crucial ones with offshoots. "The first thing we do," she says, "is have each one of them memorize a lyric inside and out, so that even if they were lying on the ground with rocks on them, they could speak the lines as if in a play. They say it so many times that they eventually sound conversational."
Step two? "I get them to look at what the music is trying to do. If there's a syllable of a word we really don't want to emphasize, looking at five ways to get around that." In this step she also wants students "to think about what they're saying. What is this song about? What are you thinking about? I tell them there is no wrong answer. That's when they start having a little fun."
And step three? "We look hard at the phrasing. They all read music -- can at least plunk out the tune on the piano. They understand the musical phrase and begin to see phrases as being a thought." For step four, she tells them, "Okay, I want you to think about the song night and day, night and day. You're going to change the way you think about the song. Come back and sing the song for me in 10, 20 years. There are 10,000 different ways." Whitfield, who seems to have tested those 10,000 ways in her own singing, has any number of other tips she dispenses -- such as explaining to her charges that there "is the one word we never, ever emphasize: the." Prepositions are only sometimes worthy of vocal stresses, she says, then insists, "I really try to get them not to sing on the consonant but sing from vowel to vowel. Lots of people hold er or an n or l." Is there ever a situation in which a singer might push those? Whitfield responds instantly: "For me personally, no. It makes me want to cringe."
In her private sessions on voice production, she underlines the importance of breathing. "Because kids are so young," she says, "they forget to breathe. I remember doing that. Now, of course, I'm plotting out from breath to breath." (Whitfield says she's "61 and a half.") Further explaining breathing techniques, she mentions that she often brings up Rosemary Clooney, who at the end of her career "breathed every fourth word, and look how she made it work."
Asked whether today's musical theatre students come to her with bad habits she has to break, Whitfield lists a few, though she hastens to add, "It's not their fault, because nobody's ever pointed it out to them." Among those habits, "breathing in the middle of phrases just because they felt like it" is one she quickly mentions. "They've never thought of a lyric on its own. They come in with 'Listen to my voice.' They're kids. They love the fact that they can sing. They take the joy, which is good, but they need to connect it to the lyric. Another big thing is they put equal emphasis on every syllable of every word." Her aspiring singers "never thought of the possibility of dynamic variations. It's all loud, belting. They don't analyze it that closely. They just want that sound."
A lover of singers, Whitfield introduces her students to recordings of some favorites, few of whom are familiar to them. She mentions Carmen McRae and Christine Ebersole, who's "the shining light for me of the person who communicates like mad." As for herself, she says, "I try not to sing, but if it comes to that, yes, very rarely. Maybe a whole semester goes by."