Last March, Mark and I were perched on the comfy bar chairs in the WCLV Ideastream studio waiting for our interview to promote the premiere of Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-’54. Just before we went on-the-air, the host, Bill O’Connell, asked me whether Judy Garland’s singing technique was healthy. I replied, “Yes, but she wasn’t always healthy.” Then I had to add that her technique is very efficient, but also very athletic — so, essentially, “Don’t Try This At Home!” Just like you wouldn’t want to try to run a marathon without significant training and practice, you also wouldn’t want to try to sing the Carnegie Hall Concert at full tilt without thousands of hours of training and conditioning.
Judy was often quoted as saying she'd never taken a voice lesson. Well, like many things this master raconteuse said, that’s not precisely true. At age twelve, she certainly took some formal voice lessons with a cantor in Boyle Heights, California, with whom she worked “on the famous ‘Kol Nidre' and other emotional prayer songs.” (This according to Anne Edwards in her biography Judy Garland.) But this leaves out the fact that, as Judy herself said, “My father gave me my first singing lessons. They started about the time I learned to talk. When I began playing vaudeville engagements with my sisters, he helped coach us. He told me to put all my enthusiasm into a song. Doing that would make the audience like me, he said, even if they didn’t like the song.” Tennessee-native Frank Gumm was renowned for his beautiful voice, was a vaudeville singer, and was the main singing attraction in the family act. And with such a gifted singer crooning "Oh, Danny Boy" to put her to sleep every night, it's likely a gifted mimic like Judy picked up a thing or two just from listening. Then, there was her ambitious mother, Ethel Gumm, a pianist for silent movies and also a singer, although by all accounts not nearly as sweet-voiced as Frank, coaching Judy and her sisters — in fact, neighbors in Lancaster, California remember that Judy was always being called home from playing to rehearse their trio act. So maybe it wasn’t formal training, but it certainly was constant, and from a very early age!
In autumn of 1935, at age thirteen, she was signed to a contract at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which began nearly a year of daily song-styling sessions with the brilliant pianist and coach Roger Edens (a musical and personal partnership that lasted until his death). You can get some idea of how he helped to encourage her own style and phrasing by listening to this 1934 recording of “Bill,” made about five months before she began working with Edens, in which Judy is doing an uncanny imitation of the song’s originator, Helen Morgan. Fascinatingly, her mother, Ethel is accompanying at the piano.
Judy also worked regularly with singer and vocal arranger Kay Thompson — who coached such luminaries as Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra — when Kay came on staff at MGM, and continued to work closely with her during the concert phase of her career. The two became lifelong close friends.
Now we come to the "conditioning" part of the equation that I mentioned before, which we know a lot about from recent studies in the fields of sports medicine and vocal function and health. Judy’s first performance was at age two on the stage of her father’s theatre in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, with a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells.” John Fricke, in Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote, quotes a neighbor in Lancaster, California, where the family moved in 1927, as saying of young Judy's voice, “Loud! It blasted out in that theater without a microphone…we loved it.” By all accounts, she was filling theaters with her voice — remember, no microphones here! — on a more-or-less daily basis for the next few decades. Just a glance through Scott Schecter’s book, Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend, gives one a picture of how frequently Judy was performing in front of large audiences, sometimes multiple appearances in a day. By the time she began daily sessions at MGM, her vocal fold tissues and laryngeal muscles were already in the vocal equivalent of marathon condition. And when they’re in tip-top condition, those tissues can take more of a beating (to produce sound, the vocal folds ripple-wave and collide with each other) before they begin to swell and hoarseness ensues.
I happen to have a rather unique perspective on her singing because my day-job title is "Teacher of Popular Voice" at The Cleveland Institute of Music, and I've also spent years attempting to do with my voice what Judy does with hers — essentially, getting into her throat. I've actually sung 20 Garland songs onstage — in her style — many times, and lived to sing another day. So I know intimately how athletic her singing is and exactly what she’s doing technically, and can personally attest that it IS quite healthy and efficient. Judy herself could sing a whole concert, then go to a party and sing around the piano until the wee hours. (I'm not quite there yet, but ask me in a year...)
What continually floors me is that she was able to sing so beautifully, athletically, and really overwhelmingly consistently, while blithely ignoring nearly everything we now know about vocal health. First of all, like most singers of the era, Judy smoked cigarettes. In fact, MGM encouraged the habit to help keep her weight down. Some of the hoarseness and vocal distortion you hear in her last recordings could be chalked up to irreversible laryngeal tissue damage from smoking alone. Then there’s sleep — vocal fold tissues repair from the day’s use during sleep and she was a life-long insomniac, often getting up in the middle of the night to make Shepherd’s pie. Then there’s the importance of nutrition for tissue repair, but during the filming and pre-recording of some of her most wonderful musical numbers during the MGM years, she was restricted to a diet of chicken soup, cigarettes, and amphetamines, which are notoriously dehydrating; later, she would often go days subsisting on fruit juice with vodka — and alcohol is dehydrating. And hydration is absolutely key for vocal health. In the 1960s, her prescription was changed to Ritalin, which has the same dehydrating effect, and she was often taking ten times the maximum daily dose. Given the fact that your risk of catching a virus goes up precipitously when you get less than seven hours of sleep in a night and aren't getting adequate nutrition, it's no surprise that she was often ill. What's surprising is how frequently she performed anyway, not wanting to disappoint her fans.
In short, the fact that she was able to sing brilliantly despite a complete lack of care for her vocal instrument is, itself, a testament to how efficient her technique was and what kind of athletic condition her muscles and tissues were in.
You can watch the evolution of her singing in this video, from her first filmed performance with her sisters to her last MGM performance: