A Good Potato

Norman Gulbrandsen

I have been thinking a lot lately about my voice teacher, Norman Gulbrandsen, who died five years ago. Interestingly, when I think about mentors and teachers who had the greatest impact on me, voice teachers are every bit as important as choral conductors—and Norman is right at the top of the list. One would be hard-pressed to ascribe a method or technique to him—mostly, he listened and commented, and had you try it again. His ear for what you should be doing, for what your voice and body should be accomplishing, was his great gift. It was almost unerring. And he never gave in, at least with me-- I was by no means one of his more gifted singers, but he always took me seriously, pushed me, encouraged me to exceed my limitations and personal expectations, recognized my strengths and supported my accomplishments. I always looked forward to my lessons, was happy to see him; and I always regretted I could not be a better singer, and give him more of what he wanted.

Norman and I shared Norwegian heritage—and this was a constant source of good-natured banter. He would address me as Norske gute (Norwegian boy) when I showed up for my lesson, and ask what obscure Grieg song I wanted to work on this week (I had a lot of them). More than the banter, though, we shared a certain, typical outlook toward quality of work. He was always critical of the more precious expressive habits I picked up through listening to recordings and attending master classes, and would tell me, “Just put one note in front of the other, and make sure they are all good notes.” One memorable day he really dug deep, and said, “I love potatoes. Good potatoes. Give me a good, solid potato every time; I don’t need any gravy on it. In fact, the older I get, the less I care about gravy at all, and the more satisfied I am with a solid, good potato.” Knocked me flat. I remember the day, his face, the face of the accompanist, Kit Bridges-- a Joycean epiphany. I understood, like I had never understood before then. He was talking about Elly Ameling’s iron fist in the velvet glove; about Robert Shaw’s count singing; about Weston Noble’s insistent, repetitive lining up of vowels and tuning of chords—but in a language which was peculiar to where I came from, language my parents and grandparents would have understood. Just give me the real potato; the rest will follow.

He had a strange faith that musical sensitivity and expressiveness were innate-- that if a singer really understood the words—not just literally, but poetically--, understood the harmonies, understood the melodic direction, the music would just happen; his job was to train and refine the physical mechanism through which this mystical thing could be accomplished. Week after week he would tell me, “You don’t have to convince me that you are musical; you over-express when you try to do that. And that bends your voice out of shape. Trust yourself and your love of these words and music. Just put one note in front of the other, and you’ll be fine.”

More than a guide to good singing, his illustration was a life lesson. Be solid, be straightforward; stand behind your work. Know where you stand, and be unassailable in that place. Don’t hide shoddy work under gravy—and don’t be fooled by anyone elses gravy, either. He gave me a lot of courage, when I needed that encouragement most sorely. I grow quite a lot of potatoes in my garden, each summer, in honor of him; and when I come across a particular beauty, I think of him. I’d love to be able to take it to his studio and hand it to him—a good, solid potato. I stand behind this.