Ask Maria Zhorella what about her teaching differs from that of other vocal trainers and she is quick to answer, “Nothing. Many good teachers teach the same things.” While watching her in action, however, it becomes clear that she is referring to the principles of good singing. What she has neglected to mention is her uncanny ability, with a few deft strokes, to bring those principles alive for those with whom she works. Often, in the first session, a high C is effortlessly achieved, to the astonishment of a new singer she is training, and at age ninety-nine she has a clear soprano voice that she can still take to the highest registers.
About Maria Zhorella:
In 1915, she was born in Vienna, Austria to Luise Hubicki-Sas and Frank Brandstetter. When she was five, her strong-willed mother divorced her father despite society and the Catholic Church she attended forbidding it. And Maria was raised by Emil Prat, a step-father whom she adored. Vienna, ” City of Music” resounded with waltzes and symphonies; but as a child there was another music that also enchanted her, the trilling of birds. Their melodies would prompt her to get up, “when everybody was sleeping” and walk out onto her bedroom balcony where she would stand in the moonlight mesmerized by “the ideal, the singing of nightingales and other winged creatures… I was thinking about singing all the time… also Galli-Curci’s voice was always on my mind- the sweetness, the lightness, the emotion… ” As a young woman, she began training as a singer with Wolfgang Steinbruch, who “had the upper tones- I loved the sound. He taught me to sing with proper vocal technique- but with emotion! And he focused on the resonance, the vibration, and to always find the support. I loved this. He allowed me to fly!” Soon she was appearing on the radio performing Lieder and a cosmopolitan repertoire including folk songs in Slovakian, German, Hungarian and Czech. She also married Eugen Fodor, and transformed Fodor into the mellifluous stage name, Fedorova… It was becoming dangerous to be a Jew and although her husband had a high position in the Slovakian commerce and tourist bureau, his father was Jewish, therefore he soon had to flee their home in Bratislava for Sweden. And at the end of the war, while making his way back to Bratislava, by train, he was shot in the back and killed… At the age of twenty-nine, she was invited to join the Vienna State Opera, one of the premier opera houses in the world. At first she played small roles. Among those she most enjoyed was Lola in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and particularly the fat, ugly cook with big bosoms and false teeth in Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland (The Lowlands). Soon the Austro- Hungarian composer, Franz Lehar cast her in the title role of The Merry Widow; and when she played Angele in Lehar’s Count of Luxembourg the critics declared it her great breakthrough, praising her tremendous success in the role… From the onset of World War II, she had also been part of the underground, hiding Jews in her basement and providing them with forged papers. And because of these activities, she was becoming a target for the Gestapo who eventually imprisoned and tortured her. A few years after the armistice, during the 1950s, she and her second husband, George Zhorella, emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. The traumas of war had made it difficult for her to think about her past, including her life as a singer. It was only through the urging of friends that finally, in the 1980s, she was able to consider re-entering the musical realm. And that is how The Zhorella Method (of singing) came into use, at Yale University, and SUNY Purchase and currently in her Manhattan Upper West Side studio, where she receives trainees from all over the world and the bouquets they bring her, mostly of roses; and where she specializes in “repairing damaged voices.”
Sitting across from me, as we begin to discuss her teaching, is a youthful and beautiful ninety-nine year old. Her posture is erect, she wears no makeup and her white hair is pulled back in a tight chignon, which emphasizes her fine bone structure and high cheekbones. And although, in recent years, she has become nearly blind, the expression in her brown eyes is intense and penetrating. Yet even more striking is an integrity that draws people of all ages to her as to a magnet.
“What I love about teaching is to help people- to develop something and have it grow.”
The Zhorella Method:
As Zhorella’s method reflects her comprehensive knowledge of the voice and natural and healthy ways to use it, keep it young, and restore it, the following quotes, mainly by her, can only touch upon some of its aspects.
“The breath is the foundation of good singing. You must sing on the breath with emotion and the involvement of the whole body. These are the principles on which my teaching is based.”
“I bring singers back to the basics. They get away from them. Good tenors, for instance, always begin with a deep support from the diaphragm but, when singing an aria, can forget that’s where they began and start reaching for high notes. But someone who knows what he is doing always touches base before going to the high tones, even if it’s an intensive touch consisting of a short intake of breath. He will always renew the connection to the diaphragm with a jump, sometimes a big one, because he knows he will need that connection for the high tone. You have to touch base especially if you are about to sing a high C or higher. You have to stay in the position of the diaphragm and go very deep in the lower back to sing high.”
Sing Deep, Sing Back
“I was working with someone who was having difficulty singing on the correct, supportive breath and I said, ‘You have a baby, don’t you? Watch him when he cries. See where in his body those sounds come from, which is not from the throat but from the baby’s deep body, the lower part of his body, and you will find the natural and true seat of breath and sound.'”
“When you sing, imagine that a car tire is surrounding your body at the waist, all around it, front and back. Then fill it with air and sing with emotion on the breath from that tire. Always stay in that, never leave it, because there is where you have the deepest connection; and every sound you make must come from it. Also imagine that the size of the tire is flexible in one way: although it always hugs you at the waist, at times you will elongate it down from your waist, because to have the proper support, the higher the note the deeper down into your lower back and inner body the tire must go.”
When faced with a new trainee, Mme. Zhorella looks at their body- how they stand; sees how they breathe- how the breath enters the body; then tailors various kinds of exercises to best suit that particular person. For instance, the following three exercises are dissimilar, yet their purpose is the same: to establish the connection with the deep diaphragm, the lower back, and extended and open ribs, all for the deep support.
“Find a protruding surface. I ask people to push their belly with all their weight against the flat side of the upright piano I have in my studio, as if they want to push it away from them. Then, as they do this, I ask them to sing.”
“Sit on top of an exercise ball. It must easily hold you and your weight. Imagine that you have a sharp stiletto extending from between the cheeks of your behind down into the ball; and that you are trying to puncture the ball with that sharp blade. When you are doing this well it should feel as though you are sitting on the john and pushing downward. Then sing while trying to burst the ball.”
“Sit barefoot on a sofa; bend down to the floor; cup your toes in your hands and, gently pulling upwards, stretch for a minute or two until you feel more relaxed. Then straighten up, and sit on the arm of the sofa, your back to the area where people sit. And, keeping your back straight, move backward and down a little until you feel a tension in your back and then that your back is widening and opening away from the spine on both sides, which is what the baby is doing naturally. And also you should be feeling the way you do when sitting on the john and pushing downward. Then gently start to sing.”
“Her style of teaching is one of infinite patience. And she is relentless and time and again would say, “Do it again, do it again- sing deep, sing back, sing deep, sing back”. Once when we met at the Metropolitan Opera, she began giving me a lesson in the aisle. She asked, “Are you singing deep? Are you singing back?” And made me show her right there! She has changed my voice. Since I have established this technique with Maria I can sing and talk the night before and not be hoarse the next morning. And after five decades of performing, I recently achieved my first high C and did so with ease, under Maria’s tutelage. Her method enables a singer’s voice to stay young decades beyond what is considered its ‘normal’ life-span.” (Cabaret and Concert Performer, Steve Ross)
“Schmoozing”(what Viennese singers call Singing With Emotion or “Flirting With Sound”)
“Sing, sing, with your whole, whole heart, darling. It will lead to the real voice.”
“There should always be the free emotional impulse in singing.”
“Emotion begins with breath. You can only really sing when you are connected to your breath and your emotion.”
“The expression is in the breath and in the sound.”
“The emotion is all over, and everywhere within you.”
“I try to relax people so that the vibration (vibrato) comes through as that is everything. If you are tense there is little sound, little music. To sing with emotion you must be loose because without being relaxed one cannot sing emotionally. In fact one cannot do anything wonderfully without being relaxed.”
“There should be engagement at every moment, never anticipation. At every moment there should be a focused realization of what you want to say, in order to express yourself with emotion from the voice.”
“If she were willing to tell the tale she would make the sounds of a century ring in the ear of a listener. Maria’s ideal is a pure one that comes from the heart of the singer through a well-modulated instrument, lifts over an orchestra and lands in the heart of a listener. In today’s world we hardly know what a singer truly sounds like until we hear them live. Maria’s method of singing is pure in its focus on the human rather than electronic transaction of singing.” (Opera Director, Stephen Kennedy Murphy)
Involving The Whole Body
“First the body moves with the filling of the body with breath, then comes the sound.”
“The whole body has to breathe, not only the upper chest. Most of the people who come to me breathe in and breathe upwards. This is the most damaging thing they can do to the voice, because when you breathe up it strains the vocal chords and the more you do this the greater the strain. Instead you must breathe down and make the deep connection with your body. Then the sound will be healthy.”
“Your entire body is your instrument.”
“There are people who have a natural connection with their body. For those who don’t I focus on how to find the best connection for that person.”
“In order to free people to feel the rhythm of the music, the rhythm with another singer, the rhythm with a conductor, I might say, ‘Do you like to waltz?… Come dance with me… And now sing!’ I was working this way with a girl who exclaimed, ‘Oh it’s so easy- now it all comes out!’ The purpose of this is to free you- free the whole body.”
“A singer sings, feels an impulse, like turning on the ignition, and expresses her emotion from the center of her body. Then she must let the emotion fill her entire physical being.”
“Your resonance comes from the deepest part of the deep, deep diaphragm. The whole body is involved. You can feel where this takes place when you cough. Then you feel that everything is shaking. You have to be relaxed, that’s one thing, and let the body take over.”
“The support is deep, the approach to singing the first note- the attack, is high. That’s the principle. Think of a church bell ringing. Like a rector, you are pulling the bottom of a rope (where your deep connection is) and as you do this the bell rings high up in the steeple (where your high palate is). This is a combination, a balance one has to learn.”
“I am told that no one else does this analyzing, not only of the voice but of the body, to- ‘Get the balance right.'”
During a training session, in which Zhorella is intensely and totally absorbed in what she is hearing and seeing, her hands are particularly important as she properly aligns a singer’s posture and, through deeply directed touch, makes him/her feel those regions of the body that must be involved to bring body and voice into balance.
Working Differently With Each Singer
“It is the person that interests me first, then the singer.”
“Every voice and everyone’s body is uniquely natural, not standard, and so I do not work with any two people in the same way. At the beginning, when we are babies, we are what nature meant us to be and we have our real voice. I help each singer return to that beginning.”
“The way she works is different from other teachers. I feel that she can see each person, can see each voice. A voice to her is a sound, it’s a color and it’s a thing that is alive; and because she has an idea of what a perfect sound is, she can get each person to their perfect sound, to their most beautiful real voice. And what is unique about her is that she understands that that thing, that sound, is completely different for each singer… Once I was having difficulty making the deep connection so she asked me to turn away and sing through my back to her and I immediately found it again… To use her method you have to become strong, you have to get into the habit of speaking differently, of breathing differently, of holding yourself differently, even- so that when it’s time for you to sing, the singing just comes out- the method is second nature… During the twenty years I have studied with her, I have never missed a performance. I’ve been sick with fevers yet I have been able to sing and that’s no small thing… Through the years my voice only becomes more supple… ” (Vocalist and Performer, Helga Davis)
A Quest for The Real Voice
“I work with each singer to discover their natural and most splendid sound. You have to find where the voice sounds soft and beautiful and free – totally free… This can take years and great patience.”
“People kill the real voice through forcing. The vibration (vibrato)- the overtone, which is the quintessence of it, must have a shine. A shine is a luster- it gives it a softness. Singers have to love the vibration. They have to feel that to sing is to vibrate. And then when they have the vibration, where does that lead? Does it lead high? I have a soprano with whom I am working. In the beginning I thought she was a mezzo, there was something very deep- then I thought, ‘No, there is something more.’ Now I think she is a dramatic soprano and that is something that has to be developed. Also, I have been working with someone who was a tenor and went from that to being a baritone, then to being a bass. This took place over many years, and our sessions were on the telephone, since he lived far away. I heard a bass note one day, found his real voice and began building on it.”
“Once you have the real voice you begin working out from there, expanding it through all the notes, until the entire voice radiates it- giving the sound and the connection of the body a deep, deep and inspiring emotional impact.”
“Working with problems, that interests me. I am not only interested in beautiful voices, you know, like a million good teachers in the world. I am interested in really helping a person who has problems. When I have two pupils to take, and one is perfect whereas the other has problems- it is the person with problems I will choose to work with. And I am usually able to find the Achilles heel and strengthen that weakness.”
“There are places in the body with which to support the breath- where there is a weakness. These places differ for each singer, but he/she will sense, ‘Here it is.’ It may be a leg, or a rump, or a knee, etc. Let the tire fill that place with energy. You are not replacing the tire. You can never do that as it is your sole source of deep support. Instead you are expanding its reach to give yourself greater strength.”
“I was training someone who was having trouble with one of his legs. I brought him to the realization that the problem leg was just as important as the rest of his body even if it was unwell. It was a reminder that he had to sing with his whole body. He was out of touch with his voice, which was thin and high. I asked, ‘Why is it like that?’
He had complexes because of his father; he had always wanted to please him. ‘Please him then, I said. Please him! Say, Father, here I am! Oh here I am Father! Open up to him! Say it with the leg, the whole body- involve the arms too- everything!'”
“An exercise that was of help to him is one I call Step On It. ‘While singing, walk backwards, with the largest steps possible, but without over-reaching, and with each step land firmly on your heel and fill that leg with energy from the tire.’ This gave him a feeling of being balanced and secure, which contributed to his singing undergoing a transformation.”
“You needn’t have a physical weakness for Step On It to be of use. After doing it a few times in my studio, I am accustomed to students saying, ‘I feel so confident.'”
An Added Element
This feeling of increased self-confidence is mentioned often by the people whom Mme. Zhorella trains, not in reference to one exercise but in response to the entire Zhorella Method and its governing principles.
And although she makes nothing of it, there is more to her teaching than just training the voice. Through her vocal instruction she heals.
One of her students had suffered a series of traumatic brain injuries and tells of being able to return to teaching and singing, only as a result of taking vocal lessons with Zhorella: “When Maria puts the student in touch with the deep connection, the true deep voice, and the deep breathing that brings oxygen to the whole body, that person can feel released and blocks can fall away.” Another says, “She is someone who has taken me out of darkness. As important as my voice is to me, the most important thing is that through being taught by her and learning her method she gave me myself.” Yet another was freed of a feeling of intense shame about her body that had halted a stage career she has now been able to resume. And these are only a few examples.
“I think Mme. Zhorella holds the key, through her method, to the singer’s fountain of youth. I never thought that at age fifty-seven I would not only sing again but that I would flourish. I recently sang an F Flat almost without realizing it, it came so easily… At the beginning of the training she had told me, ‘I want you to sound like a bird and you are singing like a dragon. You have so much energy, it’s all there, but I don’t want that, I want the little bird.’ Later on she said, ‘I don’t want you to sound like anybody else. You have to find the sound only you have. Every person has it.’ And then the last time I saw her, she explained, ‘Now you have found it, this is the sound that belongs to you. And this is the voice that people will want to hear.’ Before I began studying with Mme. Zhorella, whenever I wanted to make a beautiful sound I would manipulate it. But now that I have found the voice that is inside me, there is no need for that. Her sensitivity and understanding of human nature play a major role in her work. She teaches you to sing from your soul.” (Soprano, Sonia Papp)
“Teaching is my life.” Maria Zhorella, New York City, 2015
With gratitude to Mme. Zhorella for so generously giving of her singular insights and her time.