Bill Reed guides singers toward Broadway
SOUTH BURLINGTON – Bill Reed’s world changed in one moment as a graduate student.
Fifteen classical singers from around the world were in an Italian-music class at The Juilliard School, performing for a renowned teacher. All of the students sang an opera aria except for one, a huge man from Mississippi who Reed called a “towering figure.” The man was pacing and shaking, and started to groan more than sing when his turn came at the end of the class. Reed realized the man was working hard to find his voice as he sang not an aria but an old spiritual tune.
The performance wasn’t great, Reed said, but it was powerful. “I found I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him,” Reed said. “Jesus was sucked into that classroom.” The man became more confident, and Reed had his own hallelujah moment.
“I realized for the first time in my life I heard the human soul. It was who he was,” Reed said. “He taught me in that moment what singing was all about, and he taught me what a man was. I made a right-hand turn in my life sitting in that seat.
“The shift,” Reed said, “was that it’s not about the music for a teacher. It’s about meaningful discoveries by the singer who then develops the confidence and the courage to share.”
Reed broke off from a path toward classical singing to become a teacher of Broadway singers. His career has taken him from teaching at the well-known New York City theater school Circle in the Square to helping burgeoning Broadway performers from his home of the past three decades in Vermont. Local actors such as Liana Hunt of Morrisville (“Newsies”) and Kate Wetherhead of Burlington (“Legally Blonde,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) have found their way to Broadway after studying with Reed. Dozens more continue to learn from him as they pursue their own dreams of musical-theater stardom.
His methods focus not just on the art of performing but on the science of performing; he stresses to his students the need to understand how their bodies function to shape their work as singers and actors. He emphasizes what a student has to offer rather than making him or her solely into a prim-and-proper classical singer. He helps his students become Broadway belters, a genre he said is often derided in classical realms but is closer to a person’s natural singing voice than is opera.
“A ‘good’ singer or a ‘nice’ singer is a boring singer,” Reed said in a recent conversation at his home studio in South Burlington. “No one is going to pay $250 for a Broadway ticket for a nice singer. Don’t give me nice!”
Just as he was torn for a time as a young adult between classical and Broadway singing, Reed was caught between two worlds as a child in the 1950s and ’60s. “I grew up in a house outside Buffalo, N.Y., where the men sang and played ice hockey,” Reed said. “Those were burning interests.”
His father, Vernon Reed, understood that bridge between classical and Broadway singing; he was trained in opera but sang on Broadway in the original 1957 production of “The Music Man.” The Reeds moved from the northwestern corner of New York State to the metropolitan New York City area when Bill Reed was in eighth grade so his father could be closer to the heart of his singing career.
The younger Reed abandoned thoughts of becoming a hockey coach and pursued a singing career. He first came to Vermont in his 20s to sing and work on the staff of the Marlboro Music Festival as a stage manager who assisted the festival’s founder, Rudolf Serkin, and renowned cellist Pablo Casals.
He had his own two-decade career as a choral performer and with opera companies. He performed on stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo and sang at Lincoln Center. But as he started a family and began in his late 30s to recognize his limitations as a performer, Reed scaled back his singing appearances.
“I wasn’t compelled ever to perform,” he said.
He was compelled to teach. Reed established a private voice studio in New York City and was a founder of the musical-theater program at Circle in the Square. He moved to Vermont in the mid-1980s to spend time with his ailing father, who had moved to the Burlington area with his wife after buying stores in the state. The younger Reed was looking for a new start; he had turned 40 and his youngest daughter was battling illness.
“I hadn’t had a break of any kind since I was 16,” Reed said. “I had been Mr. Go Go Go Go Go Go.” He bought property in Hinesburg and commuted to work in Manhattan.
“I was always part-cowboy and part-city boy,” Reed said, “and the cowboy part wasn’t having any fun.” He vowed to keep his professional life in the city and personal life in the country separate.
The path to artistry
Gradually, though, aspiring Vermont singers found their way to Reed’s door, first in Hinesburg and later when he moved to South Burlington. Reed began building his local clientele in addition to his all-consuming work in New York. He has led a Musical Theatre Performance Intensive program for young singers and actors for 27 years in New York, Amherst, Mass., and the past several years in Vermont.
The most-recent of those programs took place in June, beginning with a Sunday evening “Rising Stars” concert in South Burlington at the Spotlight on Dance studio featuring more than a dozen of Reed’s young clients past and present. Ceara Ledwith, a junior theater major at the University of Vermont, sang Christine Lavin’s “It’s a Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind,” a comic song with lyrics focusing on a woman who tries to hide the disdain she holds for opera, skiing and sushi, all things the man in her life loves. Ledwith, who will perform next month in the Vermont Shakespeare Company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” acted at least as much as she sang, with her face and body language capturing all the humorous irritation and terror the woman in the song feels.
The final performance of the night came from Victoria Fearn, a 14-year-old soon-to-be freshman at South Burlington High School who sang a stunning version of “Let It Go” from the animated movie “Frozen,” with each note and each gesture finding the drama in the song without slipping into melodrama. If Reed wanted to hammer home the point that his incoming summer-intensive students could become commanding performers, he couldn’t have done so any more effectively than by having a 14-year-old nail that song every teenager knows.
“Were you inspired? Weren’t they amazing?” Reed asked the 50 students — including Victoria — at the start of classes at the dance studio the following morning. “And they all started right here.”
He deferred to Sally Olson, managing director of the Bill Reed Voice Studio, who led a series of yoga exercises she said “helps you focus on being in the moment” while performing. Reed returned a few minutes later when the students were relaxing in the “dead body” yoga pose, and kept the reflective, mellow mood going.
“I’d like you to keep floating … floating … and have complete trust that Mother Earth is going to hold your body,” Reed said quietly as he stepped just as softly across the room. He was reinforcing the idea that performing is about trust in fellow actors as well as trust of a performer in his or her own abilities.
He led the students in breathing exercises meant to help control their voices. “Watch what’s happening with your body,” he said in a soothing tone. “What’s expanding? Pay attention. Out through the lips again. Observe your body. Let it teach you.”
The students broke into smaller groups for afternoon sessions. Reed led one for 20 young performers, revealing his fastidious nature in the process. “I’m kind of a neat freak,” he told the students as they lined up chairs for the start of the class, “so we need to have even rows or it’ll drive me kind of crazy.”
He was about to lead a session on voice and diction, but began with a science lesson. “The human voice is an acoustic musical instrument,” Reed said. “You don’t need to plug us in to make us work.” He referred to Bernoulli’s principle when describing how vocal cords work by being sucked together and vibrating when people sing.
“We organize the air into waves,” Reed told the students. He noted that a person can’t sing when letting the air out all at once; it would be like a balloon that flies chaotically into the sky when all of its air is released.
Victoria was in the class, and Reed asked her to sing in her belting voice and then in an operatic voice. She sounded much stronger in her belting voice; Reed said it puts less pressure on vocal cords than opera.
“Your belt voice is your natural voice,” Reed said. He compares the belting voice typical of Broadway to how people call out to get someone’s attention, whereas the classically trained voice was an artificial medieval creation.
Reed aimed to set the tone for a week of classes earlier in the day when he told the students that the topics he was talking about — learning trust, gaining confidence, treating a song not as pure entertainment but as an attempt to create a believable moment — would serve them well. Learn those things, he said, and “you’ve started down the path of being an artist.”
Victoria’s older sisters Clarise Fearn, a musical-theater student at Ithaca College, and Isabella Fearn, a senior at South Burlington High School, have also taken lessons from Reed. Victoria, who lives with her family in South Hero, said Reed’s attention to detail strikes a chord with her.
“He just knows so much about teaching people how to connect to the song that you’re singing and teaching you how to build your voice and make your voice better,” said Victoria, whose professional experience includes an appearance last summer in “Fiddler on the Roof” with the St. Michael’s Playhouse. “It’s thinking of all the tiny things that will make your voice better.”
Burlington High School graduate Kate Wetherhead studied with Reed during and after college. She worked with him in Vermont, and said after moving to New York City as a “scared little country mouse” to attend Circle in the Square she studied again with Reed.
Wetherhead reached her Broadway dreams, appearing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and more recently in “Legally Blonde.” She still remembers the lessons Reed taught her.
“Bill is an excellent teacher,” Wetherhead said by phone last week from Long Island while on break from rehearsals for the play “Clever Little Lies” featuring television veterans Marlo Thomas and Greg Mullavey. “He just does a lot of practical approach to singing. It’s all about relaxation and breath control and giving you easy, accessible physical exercises or techniques that enable you to sing better. He’s not a witch doctor; it’s really practical lessons.”
He knows the art as well as the science, according to Wetherhead, a 1994 BHS graduate. “Also what’s good about Bill is he understands the importance of good acting to a song as well,” she said. “That’s as important as strong vocal technique.”
She said he also understands the importance of not putting square pegs in round holes, that lesson he learned with the man from Mississippi at Juilliard. “Some teachers want to take your voice and steer it in a direction that doesn’t sound like you anymore,” Wetherhead said. “I think there is something to be said for taking what you have and making it work for you, making it better.”
Though she’s emphasizing acting over singing these days, Wetherhead said Reed’s lessons still come in handy. “I don’t do as much musical theater these days,” she said, “but even now if I have to rehearse for something those exercises are in my blood. I can hear Bill’s voice in my head on how to relax my shoulders and my neck and how to stand.”
Reed has scaled his career back a bit. He stopped working in New York after heart surgery in 2006. He misses that glamorous lifestyle of hobnobbing with composers and Tony Award-winners, but he said he appreciates what he has in Vermont.
Reed is 69 but with his trim physique and upbeat energy seems at least 10 years younger. “I attribute that to being careful with exercise and diet,” the former hockey player said.
He also attributes his youthful ways to his clientele that continues to visit his studio in South Burlington. “I am humbled by every student that comes through the door,” Reed said. “I’m with young people all the time. I’m always happy to see the next singer come in.”
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.