THERE IS NO teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfulsion takes place; he is you and you are he . . . -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
When Frederick Wilkerson was alive, the transfusion Emerson describes took place many times each day in his S Street studio. He poured his knowledge of the human voice and the history of the vocal art into artists like Roberta Flack, Bernice Reagon and, at one time, Paul Robeson.
As great teachers do, he created a sense of community among his students. There was a scholarship fund to help people further their studies. He cooked huge dinners where everyone could come together. As Joy McLain Bosfield, who studied and then taught under him, says, "He was determined that you would get what he had to give."
In April 1980 Frederick Wilkerson was murdered in New York City.
For almost two years Wilkerson's extended family did not come together. The scholarship fund drifted. Bosfield carried on the teaching tradition in her studio on 16th Street. Then recently she decided to get Wilkie's (everyone who knew him called him that) folks together for a day of workshops and clinics. In the evening, she planned to take a hall and have a concert. The logistics, i.e. money, proved difficult. Finally, she decided to just get everybody together.
Last Monday night, 50 of Wilkie's students and friends gathered in Bosfield's home to reminisce, drink punch and, of course, make a joyful noise. Some who couldn't get there phoned in.
Wilkie's technique could be applied to a wide variety of singing styles, and a wide variety of singers was there: gospel singers and Big Band swingers, a Jewish cantor and an opera-singing pediatrician. As Bernice Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, explained, "Wilkie worked on the instrument. Not repertoire."
Reagon said he could solve any problem, breathing being a major one for her. Once, while working on a spiritual, "I Cried," she could not get through the first line, "I cried and I cried, cried all night," without being completely out of breath. He said, "Well baby, let me see what you're doing." His advice was simple and correct: Change the vowel, how she formed the "i" sound. He told the big-voiced woman something else that has helped her maintain her career: "You're giving away too much sugar for a dime. Measure your voice out."
A guest at the gathering quickly sensed Wilkie's power to inspire when he met Deater O'Neill, whose life was turned around by the great teacher. O'Neill, who sings with the big-band Starlite Orchestra every weekend at the Top o' the Town and can be heard on WEAM, is from Michigan. She studied opera at the University of Michigan. She got into a production of "Hair" in Detroit and was promoted to the national company. When the tour arrived at the National Theatre she was "burnt out from doing eight shows a week." She met Wilkie through another cast member. The tour went on--but she stayed behind to study. She has lived in D.C. ever since.
Now it is time for music. Bosfield's living room is warm and will get warmer. It is painted blue, dominated by a black Steinway and a brightly painted portrait of Wilkie, brows knit in concentration, hands folded, head encircled by a silver Afro.
Reagon asks Bosfield for a book. She holds it flat against her body, beats a cadence with palm and finger tips and sings the spiritual "If I Had My Way." Dr. John Vroom, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children, sings arias by Mozart. O'Neill sings arias by Ellington.
Melvin Luterman, cantor at Oheb Shalom synagogue in Baltimore, sings "Vesti la Giubba" from "Pagliacci." The crowd demands a cantorial song and he obliges with a chandelier-shaking rendition of "Etz Chaim."
Later, as the guest leaves, he notices that the portrait of Wilkie has been taken down. It belongs to the Hines sisters, he is told. "They brought it so that he could be here."