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Obituaries

Florence Birdwell, Voice Teacher to Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara, Has Passed Away

Birdwell served as a professor of voice at the Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University for more than seven decades.

Respected voice teacher Florence Birdwell, fondly known as a vocal teacher to Tony Award-winners Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara, has passed away.

An educator, musician, and singer, Birdwell taught musical theater and opera singing for more than seven decades as a professor of voice at the Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University.

Born Florence Gillam Birdwell, she was raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico and studied voice under Inez Silberg at Oklahoma City University, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.

After losing her own voice to a throat infection, Silberg encouraged Birdwell to turn to teaching instead.

She told The Oklahoman, "'When I called in tears to my teacher (she said) 'No, no, you must not cry. You cannot sing now, maybe, but you can certainly talk.' Well, I did. And I'm still doing that. I am talking. Can you hear me? Oh, yes. Yay!'"

Through her technical prowess and a warm but firm demeanor, Birdwell instructed her students through not only musicality but emotion, placing heavy emphasis on lyrical understanding to create truthful performances.

Chenoweth said of her mentor, "When I arrived at OCU, we had master class, where we all sang in front of the other people and we get critiqued by her. And I remember I sang 'New York, New York,' with jazz hands, and I got done and everybody clapped. I thought I really nailed it, and she said, 'Oh, I can't wait to teach you how to sing,' And I spent a week devastated with my heart at my feet not understanding what she meant, but of course, over five and a half years at OCU, I began to understand what she meant, which was, 'I'm going to teach you how to sing, yes technically better, I'm going to teach you how to sing from the heart, I'm going to teach you that it's not just about the melody, it's also about the lyric.'"

Birdwell remained fond and proud of her Broadway proteges throughout their careers, often traveling to see them perform and earning notable shout-outs in their Tony acceptance speeches.

She said, "'If they're actually performing, I just enjoy. I don't criticize them at all 'cause they've already got it, and they're on the stage and they're performing it. So that's where they are, and I sit in the audience, and I think, 'Yay! Hot dog! They're doing a very great job in that!'"

In 1985, she received the Governor's Arts Award from Oklahoma governor George Nigh, In 1990, OCU established the Florence Birdwell Vocal Scholarship Fund in her honor.

In 2004, she was honored as a Member Laureate of the sorority Sigma Alpha Iota. In March 2007, OCU hosted "Starry Night," a musical tribute to her lengthy teaching career to fund an endowed chair in Birdwell's name at the university.

Her other notable students include 1981 Miss America, Susan Powell and Broadway actor Lara Teeter.

O'Hara said of Birdwell, "It's been so much more than voice lessons. She's been my life teacher. She's gotten me through everything and I owe her everything."


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