Lena McLin, one of the most prominent African-American vocal pedagogues

Singing the Black Experience: Authenticity and social meaning in Lena McLin’s vocal pedagogy

(Milwaukee, 7 November 2014, Annual Conference of the American Musicological Society)

In this paper, I will try to position the teaching method – or, to be more precise, the teaching approach – of Ms Lena McLin within the discussion about perceptions and interpretations of the black voice or of singing styles that can be identified as black. Lena McLin has been into music since her early age, being the neice of Thomas A. Dorsey, also knows as the father of gospel, growing up in Atlanta and Chicago, and being exposed to the lively musical activities of those cities. She graduated from Spellman College, where she refined her performance techniques, and then she had a highly notable career as a composer, as well as musical director and conductor of the ensemble that she led together with her husband. As we will see, the most significant phase for her career was in the Sixties and early Seventies. Her cantata Free at Last, written for Martin Luther King Jr. – whom she had known – published in 1970, has been described, in The Black Perspective in Music, as “a sincere and strong memorial statement”. Although she has been known primarily for her compositions and her work as composer, Ms. McLin is now manily recognized as a voice teacher. In fact, her career as voice instructor has become legendary in the city of Chicago, especially at the Kenwood Academy, where she taught for 26 years, till 1992. The results of her previous students such as those of renown baritone Robert Sims are often mentioned to prove her ability (2 – picture of her, with Robert Sims and Tammy McCann). Similarly, students themselves pay tribute to her influence on their life or on early stages of their careers. This is true for jazz musicians such as Maggie Brown and Tammy McCann, with whom I had several conversations, but also for pop vocalist R. Kelly and Metropolitan Opera singer Mark Rucker. The latter mentions her in his website and recorded a disc with her compositions. Being an active and energetic woman, McLin still participates in celebrations in her name, and frequently receives awards that honor her work and life. In articles and speeches that presented such selebrations, she has been defined as “the woman who has launched a thousand careers” (McCaskey/Palmore/Pullmer, 2013) and “one of the Chicago finest arts teachers […] revered by literally thousands of musicians lucky enough to have studied with her over the past four decades” (Reich, 1996) (3).

In my investigation within the role of the singing voice in defining a cultural identity deemed as black, and within the role of traditional vocal styles in reshaping contemporary perceptions of identity, I was introduced to her by one of her former students. Although, as we will see, Ms McLin prides herself of having taught to a racially diverse group of artists, she is aware that their students are predominantly African-American. In addition, to my question about whether or not there is a specific singing style that can be defined as black, just like there might be an Italian way of singing, she replied firmly that there is, as – she explained – a singing style depends on the particular history. “It always depends on the particular time that you’ve lived in, from your birth until your death, I guess we can say. And being consistently, for example me and Martin Luther King, suppressed in society. Not able to get a drink of water downtown, because you had to go to the black fountain. Being particulary suppressed in the educational system, in which your parents knew that you were not going to receive the same standards of education that your caucasian friends received. All of this effects the attitude and the spirit and even the way you speak in terms of loudness or softness. And it also effects the way you sing” (4 – video). As I will try to demonstrate in this paper, her reply about a distinct black vocal attitude, or black vocality, is significantly consonant with her idea of what singing is and how to teach it, but beforehand I would like to briefly describe the discussion about vocal sounds that are considered as black.

Within this discussion, the work of Nina Eidsheim is particularly relevant. Working with voice teachers for her dissertation, in order to identify the tools – as well as the stereotypes – that they have elaborated to define a voice as black, she pointed out how a voice can be racialized mainly through the timbre. In other words, blackness in voice is mainly located in timbre (5 – Nina, Sell, Legg, Burdick). She also expanded on her work, analyzing the personal story of Marian Anderson and other singers, in an attempt to describe the way these tools and stereotypes have affected the lives of singers and musicians alike. The idea that personal stories are relevant, following a well-established tendency within ethnomusicology and more colloborative research, is also re-affirmed by the recent publication ‘Women singers in a globalized context,’ edited by Ruth Hellier. The importance of subjectivities is highlighted in most of the literature about vocality, as voice has usually symbolized the unique character of a person.

Although I will explore Lena McLin’s personal life more carefully, on the assumption that personal stories are important for teachers, too, I find the idea that voice is a pure expression of individuality at the same time fascinating, somehow obvious, and suspicious. What is engaging in McLin’s approach is that the voice as expression of individuality is the result of a continuous and complex process rather than a self-evident truth.

It is interesting to see how the conceptualization of black voice has been shaped within performance studies, too. For Mark Sell, whose attempt is to incorporate a philosophical investigation within the boundaries of performance studies, “the black voice as scream, shout, signifyin’ inversion, science-dropping soapbox crusade, Negro spiritual, tragic dramatic cry, street-echoing cackle, and a myriad of other vocal modes—is understood to be the crucial lever to unhinge the spiritual and material hegemony of whiteness”. Although Sell does mention a pallet of vocal expressions that he classifies as black, his focus is on the social role of the black voice, on its revolutionary power. And this, in my opinion, does not necessarily conflict with McLin’s ideas, despite several differences, partially based on her personal experience.

In gospel music, the line between a cultural origin of a black voice and the vocal production itself appears more delicate. On the one hand, Andrew Legg – trying to create a taxonomy of musical gestures in gospel music – signals vocal devices such as song speech, moans or grunts as common repertoire for every gospel singer despite their race or national identity. On the other hand, work such as the investigation of the black gospel scene in Sao Paulo by John Burdick, seeks to reshape the discussion on black voices around differences in the vocal apparatus. According to the Brazilian singers he interviewed, the vocal instruments of black people would be more fit for the requirements of gospel vocalization. Burdick goes so far as to affirm that what in the US would be considered a taboo (the idea that black people have a different instrument) is something comparable to a common sense in Brazil. What Burdick shows is interesting as I came across similar positions many times in Italy, too. It is important for me to affirm that I do not support such a view. Quite the contrary, I look at the experience and method of Lena McLin as an interesting case study that proves a specific way to define, consider, and perform the singing voice that has nothing to do with a given apparatus, but nevertheless can have effects on the way one’s body is utilized and on individual perceptions of physical structures “that always depend on the particular time and particular situation.” This perception can lead to the search for a sound that finds its resonance in the whole body, and that can project very far. McLin considers that resonance as something that she acquired through her life experience rather than just practice, in her words: “what Italians call bel canto, and that I have naturally. And not only I have naturally, but it’s part of a social experience (6 – video)”. For her, the way to utilize and perceive the body, in fact, although not separated from a specific experience, is not just dependant on one’s race, as Lena McLin explains when she affirms that her black students and white students “are not different, they are people. I teach them how to be people.”

It is in this context that we can understand the use of the mirror during her classes. I found that both Lena McLin and her students over-emphasize the role of the mirror in the learning process. According to what Ms. McLin affirms, she makes her students stand in front of mirrors until they understand who they are (7 – video). Chicago-based jazz singer Tammy McCann recalls a same memory. In her account, the mirror became an element all around the lesson-space, a three-wall mirror, in which she could find a sense of presence, the reason for her to stand in front of an audience. It is interesting that the mirror is not used to correct the posture of the body or positions of the mouth, or similar technical aspects. The mirror is there for them, so they can have a look at themselves, and realize who they really are. To cite another expressions that Ms. McLin uses frequently, to “become real.” The importance of becoming real resembles the teaching methods of a quite accomplished contemporary teacher, Stephen Smith, who used to teach at Juilliard and has described his method in an acclaimed book called ‘The Naked Voice.’ For him, learning how to sing is a process that requires the singer to look at his/her own self, but also to take responsibility for the voice and for the person that produces the voice. Comprehending the potential of a voice through a more profound perception of the body is a method that is becoming the most used and successful. In this context, I will not go into too many details in the musicological discussion around body, music, and singing voice, nor I can discuss the various methods in vocal pedagogy that use a holistic approach to the body, but – as McLin refers her teaching to bel canto – I will briefly mention some results from an Italian research group, composed mainly by physicians, whose research objective is to look at the bel canto technique from the point of view of their specific disciplines, that of medicine. In the territory of breathing, for example, where the bel canto technique has tended to focus on the appoggio and on the role of diaphragm, the research led by Prof. Franco Fussi emphasizes a new approach that looks at breathing as an act that does not only involve the muscles of diaphragms (they use the plural), but it actually requires a more complicated system of muscles throughout the body that they call chains of muscles (8/9). According to this change of perspective, the research points out the importance of a more complete physiological perception of the respiratory act, but also the importance of the many possibilities for this act to be accomplished in an effective way. The researchers therefore suggests that a deeper consciousness of personal body structures indeed facilitates vocal production.

Both Smith’s method and the research of the Italian scholars seem to substantiate the teaching approach that Lena McLin has been using for several decades.

At this point, we can understand more clearly how Lena McLin’s vocal pedagogy has been developed. I now turn to what the press said about her during the Sixties and the early Seventies to clarify the way in which she articulated her techniques and her practices at the beginning of her career. While McLin was developing her teaching approach, she was simultaneously making an impact by performing with the McLin ensemble, both within the Chicago area and nationally.

Chicago newspapers, in particular the Chicago Defender, narrated her development in a number of articles published during that time-frame. Portraying her as “one of the Chicago’s most gifted composer-arranger-teacher-musicians,” the Defender often pointed out the importance of the McLin ensemble, initially composed exclusively of African-Americans, in fighting against prejudices. In a 1963 article, journalist Bob Hunter affirmed: “A glaring and wholly unfounded misconception is haunting America and the world. There is in existence today a small opera company composed almost entirely of Negroes. And what’s more – they are good”. In another article of the same year, the author pinpoints the main characteristic: “the most unique feature of the group is that it is, and has been since 1960, an integrated group under the management and direction of Negroes. (10/11)”

In an article titled ‘She wants her students to be human,’ (12) published in 1971, in the february issue of the journal School Musician, McLin is celebrated for being an innovator in teaching, using a “conceptual method” which has been prefered to the traditional teaching of reading the notes, since – as the article says – you don’t need to read the notes or be a singer to join her choral class, “you just need to be human.”

In this context, it became clearer that McLin’s focus on talent rather than identity goes hand in hand with her focus on teaching students to find their own personal approach, rather than to just follow a set of pre-determined rules. And, according to the article, this specific approach was already well shaped and in operation at the beginning of the Seventies, just a few years after she started her appointment at Kenwood Academy.

But, reading her writing during the early 1970s, and in particular the article “Black Music in Church and School” written by Ms. McLin and published in Black Music in our Culture, edited by Dominique René de Lerma, another aspect is illuminated: that Lena McLin insisted on the importance of making students aware of history. The idea of history is a political and cultural statement about identity, and it defines the main tool to make people aware of their humanity: it’s knowing your history that will make you understand who you are.

The two things are therefore part of a complex strategy deployed by McLin. On the one hand, she aims at encouraging students to invest in their individuality, to become a person to which they can give voice, on the other hand she stimulates them to look at a bigger picture, to understand that they are part of a more elaborate social structure, they are part of a history. We can also see that she addresses her predominantly black students teaching them to become part of a bigger world, while carrying their history. To know history, therefore, simultaneously provides a motivation and a critical tool to evaluate the willingness to sing. In other words, knowing history is needed since it helps to find a position before the mirror, from which vocal sounds come out. And by position here I mean both a place in a space and a posture of the body.

In an interview with Helen Walker-Hill, Ms. McLin mentioned something that she also repeated in the conversation we had, she said that “students are historically dislocated.” “Historically dislocated” is an expression that describes a rift both in time and space. Students, in her view, have been separated from the social fabric, and this – for her – is also caused by teaching methods that are not valuable. To fully embrace the experience of singing, teachers need to address this dislocation. To teach history is then a fundamental part of her approach. A task to which she dedicated both a book, called Pulse (13), intended to be an introduction to music history from an American perspective, and many of her compositions, for example I’m Somebody I am, in which singers can also represent historical characters to better understand their role in history, or the cantata Free at Last. It is in this perspective that we can better understand her definition of singing. For her, “singing is the expression of an internal feeling. But it is not just a feeling, it is a thought, a review of that particular situation that led to that feeling.” (14 – video)

What Lena McLin so succesfully taught is also a sense of community that the voice – as explained by philospher Carlo Serra – brings to a physical space. According to his studies, a vocal sound substantiates the simple act of vocalizing by bringing an echo of the community, that can help the vocalist to overcome his or her fear of being in a public space. The sense of community that Lena McLin ultimately aims at creating suggests a politics of the singing voice that is specifically black American. By teaching the classical vocal technique while instilling a sense of pride, Lena McLin associates herself with the activities of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) as they appear in the work of Marti Newland, who has studied the vocal pedagogy and practices of vocality at Fisk University looking at how the singing voice can foster a sense of identity and ideals of social success within African-American communities. Lena McLin herself studied at Spellman College and it is possible that her activity at Kenwood Academy was influenced by her years in a historically black college.

In conclusion (15), I have looked at the teaching method of Lena McLin to investigate how stereotypes, or basic assumption about the way a voice can or should sound black, are questioned and contested by a teacher who had been able to teach operatic singers, jazz vocalists, and pop stars. I have focused this presentation on the image of the mirror, that McLin incorporated in her pedagogy not to show the proper techniques but as a metaphor of the search of a real self. The presence of the mirror is further complicated by the teacher, who requires the student to recognize, in that reflection, the history (that is to say, the history of people of African descents in the US). Although McLin does not mention it, the mirror probably symbolizes a public eye as well as the social pressure and expectations that it bears. Only if the student acquires the skills to stand in front of the mirror, will they be able to sing. Moreover, crucial to her pedagogy, therefore, is the necessity to instill a sense of a social and personal existence, developed through what she calls “a continuous review of personal experiences.” Drawing from articles and books of the Sixties and Seventies, I think I have shown that her own teaching style is rooted in her experience as a black woman in her particular historical period. Trying to define the political role of a distinct black vocality, Farah Jasmine Griffin affirms:

the black woman’s singing voice can signal a crisis in the spectacle of national unity; it can even invoke such a crisis by mobilizing dissent and forging a space of resistance. Representations of the voice suggest that it is like a hinge, a place where things can both come together and break apart.

Lena McLin expands this definition, by giving us the possibility to look at the black vocality from the point of view of who is singing, or who is learning to sing. In the room with Lena McLin and the mirrors, a student learns that a vocal performance encompasses both the search for justice and a representation of its denial, that a vocal performance can denounce inequalities and at the same time it can represent a disruptive power. A young black woman or a young black man learns the right way to perform the role of such a vocality, by visualizing that role in her or his own body attitude, while the singing itself constitutes what Griffin defines as “the place where things can both come together and break apart.” This delicate process of learning can be seen as a ritual, through which the individuality of a vocal grain is sought for, through which a student structures a vocal image that will be recognized, and performed, also outside that protected space of a lesson, within that longer and more complicated experience that is called life.

©Gianpaolo Chiriacò_2015