xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns# VoiceTalk

October 15, 2016

Imposto di Voce

Here, I return again to some of the questions by my pupils. Some ask whether they must practice with the mouth shut or the mouth open; whether to give the lips a smiling position, as in singing eh, or a round position, as in singing oh,—whether I admit the existence of the three registers in the human voice; whether I teach the falsetto voice or the chest voice, and other questions of the same kind, all requiring a patient answer, with examples sufficient to convince them and make them stop talking. It is my conviction that all these ideas came from their former teachers, who had used them as cornerstones on which they intended to build the voices of their pupils. 

The only builder of the human voice that I believe in is the Supreme Maker of all things in this world. Those who usurp the functions of nature, and pretend the they can build voices, claim power not given to man. These self-styled voice-builders had better leave their hobby, and carefully study the school which has not been the result of any one man's experiments, but which represents the accumulated experience of our ancestors. This school has given much to art and to artists, as we can learn by reading the annals of all the great theatres of the Old World. 

This art of educating the human voice consists first in sustaining separately each note of the diatonic scale, keeping well within the vocal range of the pupil, starting the sound very gently, and gradually giving the crescendo and diminuendo, being careful not to force or prolong the tone beyond the natural strength of the lungs. This, in Italian, is called the "study of the messa di voce," the placing of the voice. Lablache asserted that the main cause of the wonderful power and flexibility of his voice was the constant and daily practice of the sustained scale, with the crescendo and diminuendo

Next to this comes the study of the intervals, then that of the major, minor, and chromatic scales, then arpeggios, turns, syncopated notes, and finally the trill. This is the brilliant solitaire which adorns the scarf of a young dandy, and puts the finishing touch to his toilet. 

After the above, it is necessary to study vocalizations, selecting written melodies by the masters of the art, such as Crescentini, Righini, Busti, Concone, Panofka, Lamperti, and others. Of these exercises, the pupil should select those best adapted to his or her voice. This practice should never be stopped, no matter how far advanced the pupil may be, the old saying of the Neapolitan school being that whoever vocalizes sing ("Chi vocalizza canta."). This practice will instruct the pupil in the knowledge of musical phrases or periods, enabling him to sing them with correctness of breathing, of accent, of expression. Next to this comes singing with words. My teacher, Busti, used to say that, when the words are well pronounced, with pure accent, the piece of music is half-learned. I find the recitative the most fitting means for the beginner to acquire a good pronunciation. After this, he may take up songs. 

In vocalizing, we must use a compound vowel-sound made up of all the vowel-sounds of the Italian idiom. This is the mystery of the voice in which many ministers of the art are confounded to such an extent that they sometimes ruin voices by compelling them to adopt an unnatural vowel for the production of tone. This vowel-tone can only be communicated to the pupil by the expert teacher through the medium of his living voice; and when the pupil has imitated the teacher to perfection in this, then he first begins to sing. 

This compound tone should be formed within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth striking against the hard palate, with an inclination toward the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone. The cavity of the chest, and in fact those of the entire trunk, are of great assistance in giving fulness and roundness to the tone. 

By following this system of developing the voice there disappears any necessity of discussion concerning head medium and chest registers, which many teachers cultivate and impose upon the voice; and in this way the voice will acquire a homogeneous tone and character, enabling the pupil to express the inner sentiments of the soul, which will thus be spontaneously displayed by the singer, and not produced by any artificial means, which are often more disagreeable than pleasant to the ear. 

Speaking of registers, I may say that all voices have naturally three different registers, or timbres, or qualities. These are more perceptible in the soprano, and gradually less prominent in the mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass. There are two additional registers sometimes to be met with: the first occurs in exceptionally high soprano voices, and is called sopracuto;  the other, in deep bass voices, and is called doppiobasso. It is the duty of the skillful teacher, from the very beginning, to unite and mingle these registers by the study and constant use of the compact* sound formed by the five vowels of the Italian language. 

When the pupil, by following the foregoing system, has rendered his voice flexible and fitting to give with ease either the pianissimo or the fortissimo, I can warrant him that his voice can make itself distinctly heard among a hundred uncultivated singers, like a cornet among a hundred stringed instruments. This was shown at the time of the Boston Jubilee, when the voices of the leading artists were heard above the volume of the immense chorus. This system will secure to the pupil a correct emission of the tone, which the Italians call imposto di voce, assisting him to sing in tune and preventing his voice from cracking or breaking. The placing of the voice must always be accompanied in singing both forte and piano by a full supply of breath, which should be easily and flexibly taken and economically used. 

—Cirillo, Vincenzo. A Lecture on the Art of Singing (1882): 11-17.  Student of Alessandro Busti.

*The previous text indicates that the word "compound" may have been the intended word in this sentence.

September 29, 2016

The Ear is the Spine 5

I am on the rowing machine at the gym, halfway through my 20 minute workout, when an elderly lady comes into the room with a balance trainer (a half-ball with a flat surface), and spends the next 10 minutes on it—standing on one leg, then the other. The extraordinary thing is that she looks decades younger while on it: spine elongated, face lifted with ribcage open—a really beautiful figure and stunning transformation. 

Then the most curious thing happens. She steps off the trainer and turns back into an old lady—the posture slumps, and the ribcage closes along with the face. Bam. Just like that. It's like someone waved a magic wand. First a young woman of 40 is before my eyes. Then an old lady of 80. 

My god, I think, as I get up from the rower. Why doesn't she keep the posture? Why does she let it go? What would it take to make it a part of her life? Does she have any idea what she has attained during the last 10 minutes? 

Of course, only she can answer these questions. Or maybe not. Maybe she is totally oblivious to the feeling of her body in space—much like the young voice student.

(Lift? What do you mean lift?

Mind you, the Old Italian School voice teachers insisted on an elongated/straight spine. Instead of saying—like Tomatis did—that the ear is the spine, and the spine is the ear, they understood that the spine was the voice, and the voice the spine. 

All this to say: The youth of the voice is expressed in the attitude of the spine, which originates in the ear.

September 27, 2016

The Art of Correctly Classifying the Various Voices

The art of correctly classifying the various voices demands deep knowledge and wide experience. Quality alone and compass alone will not solve the problem. It is possible to give only a few general rules, mainly those adopted by such masters as Manuel García and Lamperti. The basso-profundo and the deep contralto are the rarest types, and are recognized by the ease and increase of power and resonance in the lower notes and a corresponding difficulty in emitting the acute high notes. For the light bass, bass-baritone, and high baritone, questions of compass as well as quality have to be considered. The light bass exhibits a natural tendency to grave or heavy tone quality, and the frontale voice becomes blatant at upper C or C sharp, while the centrale voice is seldom reliable above upper E flat or E. One of the most popular light basses now before the public has earned an unenviable notoriety by the frequency of his "cracking" on the upper E flat. Though still partaking of the grave quality, the bass-baritone can use the frontale voice agreeably and with ease up to C sharp, and occasionally D, and the centrale voice will extend to upper F. Both the light baritone and high baritone can extend the frontale voice to E flat, the centrale voice of the former being serviceable up to F sharp, while the latter type is capable of using the centrale voice up as high as A flat, and occasionally B flat. 

An exceptional range of high notes in the baritone voice sometimes leads ill-informed masters to train it as a tenor, but, to alter slightly the words of the poet:—

"You may stretch, you may shatter the voice if you will, But the baritone timbre will hang round it still." 

In accounting for the scarcity of tenor voices the editor of a musical journal recently said that many men were singing bass and baritone who ought to sing tenor. The contrary, however, is the truth, especially amongst church tenors, most of whom are simply basses with the falsetto range of notes trained downwards. The saying that there are three sexes—men, women, and tenors—contains more truth than is dreamt of in the philosophy of most writers on the voice. 

The crucial test for the tenor is the ability to sing the top F in the frontale voice without strain to himself and pain to the hearer. The lighter tenor quality is at first not always in evidence and only a competent master can correct this defect. With tenors the centrale voice is amenable to great extension of compass; I have trained tenors up to E flat in alt. without any trace of falsetto—an abomination which is taboo in the Italian school of voice training. Another test of the tenor is the ability to enunciate clearly and easily on the upper notes. This was one of the methods of Lamperti, who also used a system of "master notes" for mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, the upper F and the upper G being the characteristic note for each type of voice. In addition to the foregoing tests the mezzo-soprano and dramatic soprano partake of the heavy quality of the contralto and mezzo-contralto in the range of notes below lower D. With these aids to guide him, in addition to wide experience, even a skillful teacher will sometimes be in doubt as to the type of voice at a first hearing. But the plan adopted by all successful trainers is to find the easy range of tones in the middle voice, and the type will reveal itself in the process of development.

—Cooke, Clifton. Practical Singing (1916): 19-22. Cooke was a student of Manuel García whose use of the terms frontale and centrale warrant further attention. 

September 26, 2016

Voice and Ear

The two primary necessities are, of course, voice and ear. Without voice a singer would be like a painter without paints. Without ear he would be in a parlous a state as a painter without eyes. 

The voice must be there, for, no matter what may be said to the contrary, no teacher can bring a voice into existence. He can show a pupil how to use the voice properly, and he can improve it by means of various exercises, he can instruct how it may be shown off to the best advantage, but he cannot create a voice. He is like a diamond-cutter, who given a rough diamond, can polish and cut it till it shines with all the brilliancy that lay hidden under its rough surface, but cannot take a piece of clay and polish and cut that till it shines with the dazzling lustre of the diamond. 

The ear is doubly necessary, first for regulating pitch and this enabling any one to sing in tune; secondly, for hearing and reproducing the various timbres of the voice. The habit of listening critically to one's own voice and to the voices of others is of the utmost importance. 

—MacKinlay, Sterling Malcom. The Singing Voice and Its Training (1910): 9-10.  MacKinlay was one of the last four-year students of Manuel García, his mother, Antoinette Sterling, having studied with the great master.

September 24, 2016

Do It Otherwise

The famous vocal teacher, Trivulzi of Milan, said: "To be a good vocal teacher depends on one's refined ear." 

It was he who brought forth into the musical world so many celebrities, including the tenor Rubini, the soprano Frezzolini, and others. Frezzolini was not far from seventy when I heard her sing divinely and with a fresh young voice, the aria from "La Somnambula," vocalizing with greatest ease the runs and trills in the cadenzas. At this age, was that not proof that she had the correct tone-production and that it is possible to preserve the voice through a life-time? 

Lamperti, as a youth, was the accompanist of the famous vocal teacher, Trivulzi, and in listening to the well-produced, perfect tones of Trivulzi's pupils, his ear being naturally refined, he became Trivulzi's successor, at the latter's death, and in his turn, made celebrities from common singers, thereby gaining renown as a vocal teacher. Lamperti did not say to pupils: "For this or that tone, use the crico, or thyroid, or arytenoid cartilage," but to correct a bad tone, he said simply, "Do it otherwise," and was not content until the pupil had found the right way of tone-production in a perfectly free elastic vowel, not stiffened in the throat. 

Could Trivulzi and Lamperti hear of these modern anatomical teachings, they would have a good laugh in their graves.

—Cappiani, Luisa. Practical Helps and Hints for Perfection in Singing (1908). Student of Francesco Lamperti, and founder of The National Association of Teachers of Singing, later known as The New York Singing Teachers Association. 

September 20, 2016

Life is Expansion

The first expression of life is expansion. Almost every student in beginning the development of the voice is tempted to make too much effort. In nearly all cases this will be misplaced. He will especially tend to accentuate contraction, with little or no sympathetic expansion. Resolution and earnestness will normally cause expansion, for at first the contraction is simply an added expression of control. To begin with contraction violates nature's primary law. 

The first effort accordingly must be to stimulate activity in the extensor muscles. The student must realize that any awakening of his imagination and feeling, and genuine quickening of his interest, must first cause sympathetic expansion, especially of his torso. It must also kindle his face and increase his pulsation of life through his whole body. Imagination and emotion, when natural, first affect the muscles concerned in the sympathetic and harmonious actively or expansion of the body. 

The whole torso must be expanded. This gives room for free action of the lungs and diaphragm. It also establishes the primary condition for normal sympathetic vibration. Thought, imagination, and emotion attune the whole body as the sounding board of the voice, and this work is initiated by a harmonious expansion and a certain unity of all parts of the body. 

—Curry, Samuel S. Mind and Voice: Principles and Methods of Voice Training (1910): 28. Student of Francesco Lamperti. 

August 28, 2016

Dear Madam Secretary

I heard your speech this past week, the one where you very adroitly framed your opponent using his own words. But what concerns me here is how you used your voice. All went really well until the last few minutes when you tried to make a big impression, and unfortunately ended with something of a yell. Not a good finish!

Listen. I want see you win, vocally speaking. That's why I am writing this. So, I am taking the liberty of giving you a few pointers.

I've read you practice yoga in the morning. Great stuff! I do too. This tells me that you probably know something about breathing. What you probably don't know is how singers and speakers were taught to use the breath, that is, by wildly successful voice teachers like Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti.

What did they teach their students to do?

They taught their students to practice inhaling with the mouth shut for up to 18 seconds. Yes, you heard that right: 18 seconds. Seems like a long time, and it is if you are in a hurry. But stay with me here.

All you have to do is be gentle with yourself. Don't be in a hurry. Inhale gently for about 10 seconds, and then work your way up to 18.

Why is this done?

To obtain full vocal control for your voice, you need to keep the sensation you have while inhaling with your mouth shut when it is open. To put it another way: Once you learn how to breath with your mouth shut, keep the same feeling when it is open. The 18 second margin will teach you what you need to know.

What will you feel when inhaling with your mouth shut?

You will feel your ribs expand and open, your spine elongate, and the muscles of your body—including your abdomen, back, upper chest, neck, head and face—come alive. With practice, these sensations are felt regardless of the amount of air in your lungs. In fact, true vocal readiness means having these feelings before you inhale. This is not hard to acquire. You can do it every time you get in your transport and have a few minutes to yourself, or while you are practicing yoga in the morning.

Ok. What's next?

Once you have a handle on how to use the breath, you need to be aware of a few things:

  1. If you want to have a more powerful oratorical style, you need to let the feeling of the breath intensify when you use more volume or speak in the upper range. I'm not talking about pushing air. I am talking about anticipating the feeling of the breath that you've acquired from the instruction above. It's a whole body feeling. The body—all of it—swells when scaling the heights.
  2. The higher you go, you must hear your voice as coming through your face: Rooted in your chest, clear as a bell at the front of your mouth, and coming through your face. Without this, you are yelling from the throat. And this you do not want.

Guard the feelings you've acquired while breathing. They will bring you great control with practice.

August 24, 2016

Your Purpose for Practicing

Being able to understand and perform professional-level singing gives a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, even if a career in music is not being pursued. When listening to music or observing a virtuoso performance that fills one with awe and exhilaration, we are the effect of the music. Imagine what it would be like to be the cause of that awe and exhilaration—to reach the ability level of the musicians who have inspired us, and then cause the feeling in other and ourselves. 

Before you being studying singing, follow these steps: 

  1. Decide to be a singer, regardless of your current ability level. This is the foundation of your involvement with music. Stay true to your intention—it is the fuel that will keep you going.
  2. Ensure the intention to be a singer is yours and yours alone. It must come from within, not from others pushing you to be something that you do not want to be. 
  3. Keep your focus. Do not let the problems of life overshadow your musical goals. 
  4. Be wary of people who discourage your singing goals in the guise of being concerned for your well-being, perhaps suggesting you should do something that "isn't so risky" or "will earn you a better living." Your goals belong to you. 

Adapted from "Piano Practice and Performance" by Barry & Linda Wehrli.

When I was just beginning my life as a singer, I had a teacher who thought I would make a better conductor. She wasn't exactly wrong seeing that I had conducted, and was even quite good at it. But I hungered for something else, so didn't listen to her. Instead, I followed an inner voice which led me to a teacher who changed my life, and resulted in a multi-decade career at New York City Opera. 

No one can listen to your inner voice but you. 

August 21, 2016

Let's get five notes right

Is it really necessary to point out that vocal exercises are useless unless you know how to sing them?

Apparently so. 

This past week, a young voice teacher wrapped in post-graduate degrees got in touch with me, having heard the Janet Spencer vocal exercises that appear in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. (They can be found at Soundcloud and Youtube.) The conversation went something like this: 

Could you send me a copy of the recordings? 

Sorry, I am not able to do so. But thank you for your interest in the book. 

Yes. I know about the book. It's on my list. But I have so many other things to read first. 

Let me get this straight: You want me to drop everything and send you an audio copy of the exercises, but know nothing of their context, and aren't in a hurry to find out? Don't you know that vocal exercises are useless if you don't know how to sing them, which is what the book provides? 

But you misunderstand me. 


Offline, I thought to myself: No, I don't think I misunderstand you all all. Like Maya Angelou noted: When someone tells you who they are—believe them

I believe you haven't a clue, but hope you can find your way onto the learning curve that is staring you in the face.

He reminded me of another fellow who called me up having read my post on Lilli Lehmann's exercises, begging me to teach them to his daughter. They would make her famous! 

If only it were that simple, I replied. 

Subsequent discussion revealed that he was hell-bent on the matter and would hear of nothing else.

No. That didn't go well either. 

Exercise collectors exist. They may be fine, good people. But don't expect them to know how to make use of what they hoard. 

Exercises aren't magic. And more is not better. 

As Margaret Harshaw would often say: "Let's get five notes right!"

August 6, 2016

Manuel García I at Pere Lachaise

He wasn't hard to find since I had been to Pere Lachaise two years ago. That time, however, I didn't have a camera with me.

Paying homage to the great singer and teacher who died in 1832, I found Manuel García's resting place fronted by a motorcycle which belonged to a gentleman working on a tomb across the path. "Would you like me to move it?" He asked in perfect English. "No." I said. "That won't be necessary." He went back to painting, and I went about picture-taking, a metaphor forming in my mind of the old and new sciences of voice co-existing rather than cancelling each other out.

But here's something to consider: Manuel García has been tomb-raided. At least, that's what the upside down lid—which is slightly ajar—suggests. I came to this conclusion having noticed that the lettering on the rear end of the tomb is upside down, the words in question being Consession a Perpetuite—burial plot held in perpetuity.

And this thought came to mind: It's one thing to raid the teachings of a great lineage (Manuel García the Younger set about recording his father's teaching) for one's devices, but another thing entirely to encounter them on their own terms.

Having been traveling in Europe for a month, I am now back in Manhattan teaching García's principles.