Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

George Shirley

Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice from the University of Michigan, Opera Star, Singing Teacher


Opera Singer George Shirley was born on April 18, 1934 in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Irving and Daisy Shirley. By age four, Shirley had begun performing, joining his mother and father as a musical trio within the Indianapolis church community. After moving to Detroit, Michigan with his parents at age six, Shirley continued to build his musical talents, playing the baritone horn in a community band, and studying voice while a student at Northern High School. His musical acumen earned Shirley a scholarship to Wayne State University, where he performed in his first musical drama, Oedipus Rex, with the Men’s Glee Club in 1955. He graduated that same year, receiving his B.S. in Music Education.

He has recorded for RCA, Columbia, Decca, Angel, Vanguard, CRI, and Philips and received a Grammy Award in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the RCA recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

In addition to oratorio and concert literature, Mr. Shirley has, in a career that spans 49 years, performed more than 80 operatic roles in major opera houses around the globe with many of the world’s most renowned conductors (Solti, Klemperer, Stravinsky, Ormandy, von Karajan, Colin Davis, Boehm, Ozawa, Haitink, Boult, Leinsdorf, Boulez, DePriest, Krips, Cleva, Dorati, Pritchard, Bernstein, Maazel, and others).

Professor Shirley was the first African-American to be appointed to a high school teaching post in music in Detroit, the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus in Washington, D.C., and the first African-American tenor and second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years.

Mr. Shirley has served on three occasions as a master teacher in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program for Young NATS Teachers. He was also a member of the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School for ten years.

More on George Shirley:

George Shirley Wikipedia Page

The Carr Center (more history and videos of George Shirley)

Interview with
George Shirley

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?

Sharing techniques that enable students of singing to understand and gain mastery of their vocal gifts.

How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?

My formal vocal studies commenced when I was 14 years old. I began my professional career as a choral music director at the high school level. Following a three-year period of military service and subsequent entry into the singing profession, I began teaching individual voice lessons as a guest professor on the college level at 38 years of age.

What do you love the most about your work?

Sharing with students what I have learned from my studies with excellent teachers and my 60+ years as a professional singer with major opera houses and symphony orchestras internationally.

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

1. An ability to deliver pertinent technical information to each student in a manner that facilitates comprehension of what otherwise might, for some, be abstruse.
2. Rigor balanced with patience and compassion.
3. A teacher who realizes that, for every student who comes to the door, the teacher may or may not prove the right fit.

Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors? 

Mentors are essential in initiating and nurturing the development of potential. My parents, both amateur musicians – my mother a singer, my father an instrumentalist – were my first performing “colleagues.” My dad accompanied my mother and me at church events in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born. They taught me hymns, spirituals, and an occasional popular song, and I began my performance career with them at age 4. They did not teach me singing lessons but hired a piano teacher to start my tussle with the keyboard at age 5.

When I was six, we moved to Detroit, Michigan, where I was introduced to a public school music education system that was second to none in America. Each school at every academic level had a music teacher. By the 6th grade, those students who exhibited musical potential were musically literate, i.e., could read music. That instruction continued in junior high (middle school), and by the time one reached the high school level, the repertoire performed was at the highest plateau. At Northern High School, one of two black high schools, we performed Händel’s “Messiah” with an organ every Christmas and were joined by many alumni. I began singing the tenor solos for those performances in the 11th grade. On one of our Spring Concerts, we performed the “Dies Irae” from the Verdi “Requiem,” and I sang the tenor solo, not realizing that I was preparing for future performances of the Händel and the Verdi works with symphony orchestras internationally. I recall with gratitude the names of my public school music teachers: Mrs. Ostrowski (elementary), Mrs. Ruth Penn (junior high), and Mrs. Claire Weimer (high school). I also hold dear Mrs. Alberta Harris, the second organist at our church, Ebenezer A. M. E., with whom I studied piano and from whom I learned sacred and secular songs.

The exceptional mentorship of Mrs. Weimer convinced me to pursue a Choral Music Education degree at Wayne (State) University. I had already begun official voice lessons with a tenor named Amos Ebersole, who taught at The Art Center Music School, a private conservatory in the city. I continued to study with Professor Ebersole throughout my undergraduate work at Wayne. At one point during this time, I took advantage of the visit to Detroit of Edward Boatner, a legendary composer, and arranger of spirituals. He had just accepted Choral Directorship at one of Detroit’s large Baptist Churches, and I gained from a limited number of coaching sessions with him.

Themy Georgi, a tenor, was the teacher who taught me what was expected of a voice destined to perform operatically. My high school teaching career was limited to one year because of the military draft! I auditioned for The US Army Chorus, a new singing unit stationed with The US Army Band at Ft. Myer, Virginia, the official band labeled “Pershing’s Own.” Georgi was one of the private teachers in Washington, DC, with whom Chorus members took lessons to keep up their skills. At the insistence of one of my Chorus colleagues, Jack Gillaspy, aka John Gillas, I decided to study with Georgi even though I wasn’t interested at that time in pursuing a professional singing career. He felt strongly that I was destined for an operatic career, so I decided to follow that path which, much to my utter surprise, proved him to be correct!

Post-military life found me launching a career on the lyric stage and gaining insights along the way from E. Herbert-Caesari, with whom I briefly studied during a summer at Glyndebourne in the UK and whose book, “The Voice of the Mind,” became a prime source of wisdom; from Yvonne Rodd-Marling also in the UK whose book “Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ” co-written with Frederick Husler took its place as a prime source of reference in my library; and from Cornelius Reid, whom I consider the mentor whose scientific wisdom helped deepen my wellspring of understanding about things vocal. I wrote the Foreword to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Reid’s seminal work “The Free Voice.”

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

A breath that expands the lungs/floating ribs/lower back in a manner that automatically widens the throat and stretches the velum prepares the pharyngeal cavity to resonate efficiently. I can tell when my throat is properly prepared to phonate for singing when I feel my ears rumble as they do just before a yawn, and this can happen without having to open my mouth.

When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The larynx must float in a position that is not too high or too low. It must never be depressed/swallowed, or raised to a choking position. A lower back that feels like it expands from iliac crest to iliac crest automatically prepares the larynx and its surroundings for vocalization.

When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Strengthening the arytenoids through proper exercise of the falsetto is a time-honored must if one is to sing in the loft register with core and ease of production. Otherwise, there will be a tendency to over-sing/carry up too much weight/thicken the folds and force them to vibrate along more of their length than is required for pitches in the loft register.

When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The pharynx, oral, and nasal cavities can be linked together rapidly and efficiently by either a deep breath followed by an immediate expansion of the lower back, or by back expansion followed by a deep breath, or by back expansion alone, the latter providing not as much gas as the others for a long ride! The engagement and shaping of these cavities during performance ensures a result that resonates as richly as is possible given the singer’s anatomy and technical acumen.

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Those areas in the vocal scale that specifically mark the beginning of transfer from modal into loft register, the “passaggi” at which registration commences in each vocal category, must be identified and the sensations of change mastered interoceptively. The muscles of the torso, especially the lower back, flanks, floating ribs, diaphragm, and belly, play an essential role in facilitating this process. Properly engaged, they prepare the throat for full resonation of vocal tone and smooth transition of registers with little or no conscious physical manipulation of the muscles involved in phonation.

When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

1. Adequate sleep that enables the vocal mechanism to perform efficiently when energized by the mind and the respiratory muscles of the torso. Tiredness negatively affects every attempt to function effectively.

2. Proper hydration, so that vocal folds are not dried out. Atmospheric conditions that are optimal in the space in which one is rehearsing or performing, e.g., air properly humidified and cleansed of dust, temperatures not too hot or cold.

3. Proper diet and eating habits. Discover what foods/drinks negatively affect your health and, thus, your vocal fitness. Avoid acid reflux by having the last meal and drink of the day before 9:30 PM! If or when impossible to do so, make sure you stay up for at least two hours after eating, elevate the head of the bed on blocks of wood about 2″ thick so that the entire bed is on an angle, thus preventing regurgitation of stomach acid into the esophagus during sleep.

4. Adequate periods of vocal rest during rehearsals. It is essential when staging opera rehearsals to know that one is not required to sing full voice until having acquired a degree of ownership of the movement plan throughout the scene in question.

5. Don’t sing repertoire unsuited to your voice! Before committing to performing it, take the time to discover if a song, style, or role is right for you. Make sure you can sing it comfortably while meeting all of its demands and afterward feel as though you could continue… but don’t if you’ve just finished an entire opera, concert, or musical! Instead, do a vocal cool down and go to bed!

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Whatever the style, approach it with respect for what it is, making sure that vocally and interpretatively, you have the tools to do it artistic justice. Ensure that your vocal technique can handle the musical demands in a healthy fashion while producing the vocal sounds expected in that genre. Ensure that your command of the interpretative elements is flawless.

Don’t attempt to copy someone’s artistry; use your gifts to make your own mark.

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Imagine the back of the head gently against a wall in a manner that lifts and stretches the ribcage and gives access to the floating ribs and muscles of the lower back. The chin is not lowered or raised. Avoid singing toward the floor, but imagine singing toward the bottom of the balcony to keep the head level.

When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Know that you are dealing with an individual whose path to understanding is their own, necessitating on your part a need to better acquaint yourself with this person to ensure your delivery of technical and interpretative concepts is in a manner that facilitates their grasp of information required for their progress. Years ago, I asked one of the stellar tenors of our time what his technical thoughts were when he was singing. He replied that he “tried to keep the tone brown!” That worked magnificently for him; if I tried to do that, my tone would probably resemble a warm Hershey bar! Gaining access to as much of the musical intelligence of each student is essential in forming a pedagogical approach that resonates with that individual.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?

I mentioned books earlier that have proved meaningful along my path. Words of wisdom? Recognizing and honoring the present-day rules of respecting students’ personal space and sensitivities without retreating from standards that have proven their value in enabling students to gain ownership of their instrument and performance skills. And always recognizing the mind as the natural trigger of kinetic response. Imagination works wonders!


Please note that George Shirley is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!


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