October 15, 2014

The Golden Rule of Singing

Giovanni Battista Lamperti 
To know the result before we act is the "golden rule" of singing. 

When your tone emerges from silence into sound without effort, focussed, yet free, with sufficient energy to release, or restrain, back of it, you are one of the greatest singers.

To sing well you must be continually feel "hollow-headed," "full-throated," "broad chested" and "tight-waisted." 

Do not "hold" your tone, spin it. Hold your breath. 

No matter what the character of the voice be (bass tenor, contralto, soprano) it should feel high placed and sound high focused. 

Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti by William Earl Brown (1931) 


Such an interesting book Vocal Wisdom, which appeared a year before Marchesi's The Singer's Catechism and Creed in 1932. I pick it up often, and always have the queer feeling that I am reading it for the first time, even though I have a lot of it committed to memory. It comes from left field, right out of the zone, full of zen-like statements that make me stop and think. Feel too. And that is the point. 

I see Vocal Wisdom as being full of vestibular cues which give the reader a very clear understanding of the "singer's sensation," a term I find myself using when referring to "breath," which, for Lamperti, was something more than air in the lungs. 

Spin the tone by holding the breath? Hollow-headed, full-throated, broad-chested, and tight-waisted?

These cues can confound the student of anatomy and physiology, especially if said student believes singing to have a purely mechanical basis. All parts, no whole, I am amused by the student, who, when asked about breathing, proceeds to give a lecture about the muscles of the torso. 

"It's great that you know how they work!" I say. "But how do you feel when you breath?"

If they fumble for words, I know they 1) aren't in touch with their feelings, 2) aren't used to describing them, 3) lack skill, or 4) the ear is underdeveloped. Whatever the reason, progress begins when their feeling sense becomes as clear as their vowels, which amounts to the same thing. 

If they describe sensations of lift, well-being, extension, elasticity and buoyancy which pervade the body, we're good to go. If not, one of us has to do a lot of heavy lifting. 

Singing is a feeling. Listening is a feeling. The ear is the body after all. When the student feels "inspiration" from pelvis to top of head, they are ready to sing. 

October 14, 2014

Marchesi on the New Religion

Blanche Marchesi as Brunhilde 

There was once a laryngologist in New York called Dr. Curtis. He became the friend and helper of the whole singing crowd in that city, and especially of the singers at the Metropolitan Opera House. The complaints among the singers were numerous, the vocal accidents serious. Dr. Curtis began to collect material, people like Van Rooy, Ternina, and host of other German singers, principals and choristers, showing signs of similar affections. In most cases the vocal cords were actually injured. 

About the same time the voice of Edouard de Reszke began to fail, and Jean de Reszke, dissatisfied with his own voice, began to consult Dr. Curtis on both their cases. Jean de Reszke became a regular visitor at the private house of Dr. Curtis, and he would talk with his brother night after night, scrutinizing vocal methods and their consequences. 

Edouard de Reszke's case was similar to that of Rokinstansky, the bass of the Vienna Opera Company (mentioned in section on Nasal Method). After forcing the volume of his voice, he got into difficulties, being unable to reach his top notes as easily as before. He tried to save himself by singing through his nose. 

"The Triumvirate" decided after many conferences that it is the hit of the glottis which endangers the singer's throat. No doubt they were right on this point, as we fully agree that to hit the glottis in singing must be the source of many vocal troubles. But they could not distinguish between the hitting and the closing of the glottis, and at once decided to condemn every method that allowed singers to make their vocal cords meet when emitting them. 

Other singers were invited to be present at those discussions and some of our school, like Melba, Eames, Calvé, Suzanne Adams, and Sybil Sanderson, who had all been trained in the García-Marchesi Method, were shown the "bogey" of the "coup de glotte" and its terrifying consequences. At these meetings war was declared upon all followers of our method, and the artists' minds were worked upon passionately until they really believed that their way of using voices was perilous.

It was decided that vocal cords must be prevented form closing suddenly. This was the turning-point that brought about an error cultivated ever since. 

How could one sing without closing the vocal cords suddenly? Either by starting the note with an h (ha) which would make every fresh start sound husky air being forced through the vocal cords whilst a note is attacked (first you would hear and h, then a sound), or else by starting a note with the aid of a preceding consonant. 

All consonants were tried and, arriving at the letter m, they decided that this was fulfilling all their expectations. They thought they had here struck a gold vein in the dark labyrinth of their vocal ignorance. 

The letter m, if you will try it by sounding a note at the same time, starts like the French em, then, passing straight through the nose, a nasal sound follows. But they thought that even an e (French) preceding the m might be dangerous, and so they decided to start singing notes on m with closed mouth, which makes the sound immediately pass through the nose and resemble the mooing of a cow. Obviously, their funny-bone did not trouble them. Neither did they object to unaesthetic noises. 

I found to my profound astonishment that the male singers, whilst nervously pacing up and down the room were doing the most ludicrous exercises, producing noises belonging to a cattle farm rather than the green-room.  

Convinced that they had found a way to relieve the vocal cords of most of their work by avoiding the closing of the glottis in emitting sound, they decided to perform all exercises on the letter m with closed mouth and to try to sing otherwise through the nose as well. They thought that to send sound through the nose was to take a heavy weight from the vocal cords, whereas the exact contrary is the truth. A sound sent to a bad sounding-board throws the whole weight of the work back upon the vocal organ and makes it attempt greater efforts to obtain volume. 

This was the starting-point of this new religion, but did not stop there. 

It spread like a prairie fire, and all the ignoramuses, glad to find a new gospel at last, preached the pernicious discovery from the North Pole to the South. Dr. Curtis taught it to all his singing patients. He lad down in his book on the voice a curse against all those who teach the "coup de glotte." 

This naturally meant García and all his followers, including my mother and myself. But these were all idle words. The serous fact witnessed by the whole world was that Edouard de Reszke's voice failed completely when was still a fine, strong man. His instrument was beautiful, but the nasal method destroyed it. His brother Jean de Reszke one of the finest singers the world even knew, fell a victim to the same practice in the prime of his life. 

The tenor's voice succumbed more slowly but no less surely to these exercises, And so the most fascinating tenor had to retire from the operatic stage. Although they were the first victims of their "discovery," they grew enthusiastic over their new thought and, wishing to save all singers, drew more and more fellow-artists into their circle, thus causing havoc in the singing profession. 

One of the first to listen to them was my mother's pupil, Melba. Her voice was perfect, her legato of a rare quality, her staccato and trill perfection. They talked her over, explaining that attacking notes straight away, and especially staccato singing, would be her ruin. 

And so, as my mother told me, Melba returning one day from New York to work with her, as she did each year, suddenly started attacking all her notes with ha and avoided her lovely staccato. My mother immediately saw that she had listened to a new advice and showed her profound astonishment at the change. Melba owned timidly that the new religion had influenced her, explaining how dangerous some people considered the direct attack of notes. My mother, not knowing whether to be angry or to laugh, energetically countered the doubts suggested to her; in fact, she felt profoundly offend that, having given to the world such a perfectly trained voice, people should dare to dispute the method that had made that instrument so beautiful, especially after complete success had already been attained with this voice through her method. She was, however, able to dispel these doubts and to induce Melba to resume her former ways. After that, Melba remained faithful all her life to her teacher and her method, singing thus to a great age. 

Students who are working successfully in our school have often had to listen to violent attacks on our method from which they benefit. It may happen that they are not sufficiently clever to understand the ugly motives that my inspire such mean proceedings and fall victims to their weakness. Some have actually disappeared, never to be heard of again, after abandoning the only way of salvation. 

Jealously sometimes takes such queer forms that it becomes difficult to detect it. When the danger is understood, it is generally too late. The same happens with singers leaving school and starting a career; everybody tries to influence them and it needs a from character to remain untouched by the many idle words that spear dangerous advice. 

I have seen many of my finished pupils after years of perfect work and triumphant success, yielding to the poisonous insinuations of the Iagos who always lurk in the dark in the neighborhood of professional singers. 

When my mother began to reach a great age, Jean de Reszke started to teach. The nasal method spread, and all those who claimed to have worked under him with the aim of becoming teachers themselves insisted on imparting that new gospel. Although his studio in Nice had become a veritable Mecca for singers, very few artists prominent on he world's stages can be traced back to his teaching. 

The Singer's Catechism and Creed (1932) by Blanche Marchesi, p 91-95. 

October 13, 2014

Blanche Marchesi: Sounding Boards

Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940)
If you read my last post on the García School, you may have caught the curious suggestion made by Anna E. Schoen-René that her luncheon partners, Blanche Marchesi and Nellie Melba, were unaware that the great García was still alive when he approached one-hundred years of age. Now that seems curious, doesn't it? One of the most famous voice teachers of all time falling off the map? No wonder his centennial birthday celebration was reported in every paper on the planet. 

Madam Marchesi left her own mark on vocal pedagogy with her curious book The Singer's Catechism and Creed (1932) which I have written about before. Her main contribution is "sounding boards," a peculiar way of viewing the voice, and one that has definitely fallen by the wayside as modern vocal pedagogues have learned more about acoustics, the point being that the cavities of the head and chest have no part in making tone, the only resonator being the vocal tract. They are right of course. However, to stop there is to stop listening: cause and effect not being the same thing at all. This is something the Old Italian School understood quite well, though we consider them to be unscientific. Open Vocal Wisdom and you will discover that Giovanni Battista Lamperti believed the auditory sensations heard by the singer in the head to be an illusion. However, these illusions were cultivated to the nth degree. 

Long time readers of VoiceTalk will know that I perceive the illusion of placement as having everything to do with to the audition of bone conduction and the proprioception of physical feelings—a vestibular activity—which originate in the ear. I believe this experience is what Madam Marchesi is addressing when she writes about "sounding boards." Here is a long extract by Madam Marchesi from The Singer's Catechism and Creed (1932) dealing with the matter. 


In the section entitled "Sounding Boards," it will be seen how even the use of the wrong sounding-boards will injure the voice. 

When I speak of F# as the first head note for women, and of Eb, E and F, etc., for the covered tones of men, I always refer to low pitch. In high pitch, which makes a different semitone, the registers must be transposed accordingly. 

Can people possess voices and use them naturally without having been taught? 

Yes, there are a few exceptional voices in the world which seem to have been placed in the right positions by nature. They are the product of a perfect formation of the whole instrument and its surroundings, of a perfect relationship between voice and sounding-boards. With most singers however, teaching alone is capable of placing the voice correctly. 

Even where nature has placed a voice to perfection it must be trained, because, as it also lies within its capacity to do the wrong thing, the right method must be shown in order that singing, exercised with full knowledge of the rules, may maintain the voice in perfect condition until life is extinct or health fails. 


When the breath is properly taken and sound produced, where does it go? 

The air carrying the sound that leaves the inner larynx can escape through the mouth or nose. 

Which is the right channel to be used?

For singing, only the mouth.

Why not the nose?

Because the sound must find sounding-boards on its way out, and the inside of the nose annoy act as a sounding-board. 

The nasal bone, which, together with the frontal and facial bones, is a sounding-board, is not touched when sounds is sent through the front nostrils. Another reason why the nose must be avoided as an escape of sound is that the voice passing through this channel acquires an ugly, unaesthetic quality. 

What is a sounding-board?

A body capable of receiving sound and of vibrating when touched by the sound-waves. The material of which the sounding-board is made partly determines the quality and quantity of sound produced. Instruments constructed to make comic or weird noises have sounding-boards of various materials and shapes. 

What material is best for a fine, noble sound? 

Vibrating glass, brass, wood, or bone may form a sounding-board. Such materials as marble, cement, or stone kill sonority, as they cannot vibrate and thus repulse sound-waves. 

Cardboard, wooly or other soft materials are bad, as, being incapable of vibration, they deaden and muffle the sound that meet them. Consequently, sounding-boards of instruments are chosen from wood, metal, or bone. 

Which, then, is the sounding-board for the human voice? 

For the interior sounding-board there is only bone. 

For exterior sounding-boards the surroundings will vibrate according to the nature of the objects that fill the room. 

Which are man's interior sounding-boards used in singing? 

Every bone that lies in the vicinity of surroundings of the larynx serves as a sounding board. The chest and collar bones give sonority and vibrate with the chest notes of both men and women, where the larynx stands at its lowest. 

In the medium voice of women (second register) there would alway she a variety of impossible tone-colors of the sound were not sent straight to the hard palate (front palate behind the upper front teeth). 

The back part of the palate (bearing the uvula), being soft, cannot be used except for the production of certain effects demanding weak, colorless tones. 

What sounding-board is used for a woman's third, the head, register? 

By sending the head note high up at the back, opposite the uvula, the tones strike the vault of the pharynx connected with the nose and frontal bones, as well as with the whole skull. The head voice is so called because of its resonance in the head bones. 

Where do men's voices find their sounding-boards?

Man sings from his lowest to his highest note in his first, or chest register, all the vibrating chest and neck bones acting as sounding-boards. 

When he discovers this chest tones about Eb E natural, or F, the vault of the pharynx becomes his sounding-board, and partly the hard palate. If he uses falsetto, his tones also vibrate in the frontal, nose and skull-bones, like the head notes of women. 

Can one sing without sounding-boards?

Certainly not; no instrument can do without them. The singer, too, must look out for the most advantageous vibration, both interior and exterior.         

How does a singer find his sounding-boards? 

Only by being shown by a wise instructor, or if very clever, by following closely instructions put down here. 

The sounding boards are found in pronouncing certain vowels, and the voice must be trained to place every note in it's proper register, supported by its own sounding-board. 

In the first, the chest register, men and women must use the Italian ah. In singing out a full, deep note, on ah, the first sounding-board will be struck. If the hand is placed flat on the sternum near the collar-bone, the vibrations of these bones will be felt in the hollow of the hand. 

The vowels i, eu, and oh (Italian pronunciation) would crush the chest tones and produce an irritating pressure. The pupil must learn to manage all the vowels equal to ah in the chest register. 

This refers especially to female voices. Men, who sing their whole scale in chest voice, easily manage not to cover and accentuate dark vowels until they reach the point where covering is required. 

Women, who change into the medium (second) register on about E or F, sing a whole octave to the top F# exclusively in one register. In changing from chest to medium, they use the French u or German ü, resembling the Italian i, but placed behind the front teeth, keeping the lips limp and dropping the lower jaw. The higher they sing the side they must open their mouths, thus giving more space. for the vibrations to escape through contact with the hard palate. 

Passing into the head notes on F#, the chin must be dropped completely and the mouth opened wide. For this, the third register, a clear open ah must be pronounced in order to strike the third sounding-board (the bone forming the end of the spine, called the vault of the pharynx and connected with all the skull-bones). 

If this sounding-board is not struck, and force is applied, the larynx will fall back into second position, and the inner network of the arytenoid muscles and cartilages will be working in opposition to the muscles that decide the three positions of the larynx. Great effort will ensue, and the consequence will be vocal derangement. 

The inner workings of the sound-producing muscles must be in constant harmony with the working of the lift in muscles. 

The use of the wrong sounding-board is not so detrimental to the voices as the misapplication of the registers, but its avoidance is of high importance, as no muscles can develop unaided by sounding-boards. 

Men, in running up the scale, change their sounding-board but once and so find much less difficulty than women, who are faced with a threefold change of register and sounding-board. For men, the ah goes on undisturbed until they come to the notes which require covering. The change from open to covered chest notes will easily be acquired by changing the ah into a dark vowel like i (Italian), or e, o, or u (Italian). The vowel best suited to that purpose must be chosen, as the case may require. 

Should a man cover all his voice instead of only the top notes it will never develop, but shrink and deteriorate. If he opens his top notes using the first, or chest, sounding-board, he must lose his voice and in any case develop a terrific tremolo. 

If a woman covers her chest notes, the pressure thus exercised on the whole larynx to keep it in the first register and the use of the hard palate instead of the chest bones as sounding-board will muffle the voice and even produce laryngitis and other inflammations. If she uses her chest sounding-board on ah for the second register without leaving the first chest register, she will simply go up the scale in chest voice, like a man. If she uses the third sounding-board for the second register, she will sing medium in head voice, and if she uses the second sounding-board (the hard palate) by singing dark vowels on her head notes, she will ruin her voice by sending it back to the second (medium) position. 

It is because all these faults are committed that one constantly hears of voices which have been ruined. 


There is, of course, more to this passage, and, indeed, to Madam Marchesi's book, which I encourage the reader to find by seeking out a good music library. Barring that, the material above offers the student of the García School an essential teaching, which can be deduced from the similarity between Madam Marchesi's instruction regarding the use of ah, and those of Hermann Klein, the latter recording his thoughts in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia (VoiceTalkPubliciations, 2013) under the heading "Singing Position." There, Klein writes "the true singing position, or that adjustment of the vocal mechanism which will yield what we term a "good note" is found by uttering "the vowel "ah" in the speaking voice." He then goes on to say that "this sound should be done with firmness of utterance, not very loudly, but upon what seems to be a rather deep, reverberate sound" while also noting that the "singing position which gives the comfortable lower notes is precisely that which the voice requires throughout its entire range." Klein's words echo those of Marchesi, who cuts to the quick when she instructs the pupil to "learn to manage all the vowels equal to ah in the chest register."

This is an essential element of the García School of singing, as well as a feature of the Old Italian School of Singing, which finds expression in the teaching of Francesco Lamperti who reportedly said: "If you aren't singing ah from the bottom of the throat, you aren't singing!" It's a simple concept really. But getting the student to do it over and over again correctly is another matter, since ah can be, and often is, a most difficult vowel to sing and speak clearly. What brings about beneficial change? The use of Italian tonal values, which lead to the acquisition of "pure vowels," a concept unknown to many.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia: Blanche Marchesi as rendered by John Singer Sargent. 

October 9, 2014

What I learned at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

I started going to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the early 90's, after having a conversation with a colleague who encouraged me to write an article about a certain voice teacher. Of course, even though I had some idea of how to conduct research, I experienced a steep learning curve. Here are some of the things I learned along the way. 

  1. DETAILS MATTER. The more scholarly the enterprise, the more important this becomes. If you don't keep excellent records, you will waste an inordinate amount of time finding your way back through a thicket of information. Example: If you obtain a hard copy from microfilm, write down where it came from on the paper itself (ex: date, title, page, volume, journal, etc), then create a file determined by subject. The more organized you are, the better off you will be, especially if you have literary aspirations. 
  2. WIDEN YOUR VIEW. Let's say you are looking at a 1910 journal article about a famous voice teacher. Don't stop there. Take your time and look at the rest of the journal. What you find there may surprise you. However, if you zip in an out with a narrow view, you will miss that amazing bit of information that will set your hair on fire. Even if this only happens once or twice a year, it will be worth it. It's like panning for gold. You have to go through a lot of dirt. 
  3. USE A ZOOM LENS. This means learning to scan information quickly, looking for keywords, while letting the rest go. It's very much like listening to a particular instrument while hearing a symphony. The more your focus can zoom in and out, the more ground you can cover.
  4. CONNECT THE DOTS. Once you have amassed a certain amount of information, start looking for patterns within it. However, be careful not to create what isn't there. 
  5. ASK FOR HELP. Librarians are there to help you, and can make or break your search. Each has their expertise. Treat them with the utmost respect, even if they may not be able to help with your specific concern. As well, keep in mind that they aren't your personal valet. They are there to help you do the work. 
  6. KNOW YOUR DATABASES. When I first started digging around, Google was just getting going, and there was precious little to find there. While this has changed, you will find that the really important information is not online. You will have to find it using databases, old fashioned card files and books. Search terms are very important too. Knowing where and how to look for information is the name of the game. 
  7. BE METHODICAL. Once you know your resources, make a habit of going through them in a systematic fashion. This will help keep your view widened. Even if you think you won't find anything by doing so, do it anyway. You just never know. 
  8. BACK UP. If you have information stored on your computer, make it a habit to back it up. I make hardcopies of everything important and store it separately in file boxes. I mean: what happens when the lights go out?  
  9. USE YOUR INTUITION. I can't tell you the number of times I have discovered something important after having a gut feeling that I should go to the library, look at an interesting book, or return to a database with a new search term. There is an element of play involved in this: you know things are going well when you lose sense of time.  
  10. BE PERSISTENT. You have to keep showing up. It's as simple as that. You may search and search and search and find nothing, but eventually, if you keep at it, you will be rewarded, even if it takes years.

October 8, 2014

The aspirations of the American soul are not aesthetic

Angelica Catalani (1780-1849)

The Skilled Professors of Vocal Music in Europe. 

American Musical Aspirations 
The Scarcity of Tenors
High Prices of Foreign Teachers 
The Italian and the English. 

New York Star 

With the last eight or ten years American singers have felt a strong desire to visit Europe of the cultivation of their voices. If fortunate enough to have rich relatives, they go quietly to Italy and there place themselves under the care of a music master. If less fortunate the complimentary concert is invoked to aid them in their musical studies abroad. For a time it seemed that only ladies went to Europe. The embryo contralto and soprano were sure that once in Europe, with a home on the banks of the Arno, or in Milan or Paris, they would soon become a Catalani or Albani. This impression has taken so deep a root that today the musical pupils in Italy from this country number about four hundred, besides a large number who are in Paris, Vienna, Brussels and London. 

This summer will see another batch of musical pilgrims to this school of Cecilia. Musical instinct and genius do not belong to us as a nation. The aspirations of the American soul are not aesthetic. The practical turn of the American mind precludes a cultivation of a taste for the sublime, an attribute which belongs only to the higher class of vocal and instrumental music. So far in our history we have had no national music; no songs of the people, handed down from father to son; no songs for social circles, distinctly American. There has sprung up among Americans a strong desire to obtain musical fame. This desire has been stimulated by the enormous salaries received by those who have already reached the highest eminence in their profession, Sontag being paid $10,000 for one night: Nilsson, Patti and Lucca $1000 a night; Patti for one little song earning $250; Malibran making in ten weeks the sum of $28.000. Dreams are indulged in that they will one day be able to demand these large salaries, and while entertaining these hopes the head os many worthy young ladies have been turned, and they forget that in some instances the organ of the singer is phenomenal and a large application to study is necessary. Of those exceptional voice were Catalani, Persiani, Bastardella, Farinelli, Bernacchi, Pistocchi, Braham, and of male sopranos, Crescentini, and Velluti Tarquinus. At one time an artist's merit consisted generally in a finished style, and the highest cultivation of the falsetto register in tenor's voices, but there is not a tenor in this country today. If you hand him Rossini's "Stabat Mater" and ask him to sing the aria "Cujus Animam" he will immediately take the pencil and cross out the three upper notes of the last bar and only sing B flat. Yet singers of the latter part of the last century usually sang two notes higher than the score. Farinelli took F in alt, so did Braham, Incledon and Bernacchi. While tenors are thus scarce, sopranos and contraltos are scattered over Europe as plentiful as leaves in Vallambrosa. It would seems if the isothermal line served to class vocalists. The climate and food of the Italians seems admirably adapted to the full development of the voice. The fine sopranos, male and female, came from that country. Sweden, North Germany, North Italy and the north for France have been the birthplace of the finest sopranos—Nilsson, Sontag, Persiani, Jenny Lind, Damaneau, Cinti and M'me Demeric, De Muurska and M'me Gerster were from Hungary. The finest tenors have come from the heart of Italy and the south of France—Nourrit from Montpellier; Rubini from Bergamo; Duprez from Toulouse; Mario, Bettini and Gordono from the center of Italy. Salvi, Benedetti, Mirerate, Tambourini and Benentano were Italian.

The habit and manners of living in this country are not favorable to the development and preservation of the finer soprano and tenor voices. It will be seen that those countries in which fine voices are common to the majority, and remarkable ones are the most frequent, are those in which it is custom to make a moderate use of a pure and natural wine at meals, and where on one would dream of taking a lunch of pies and cakes and remain most of the day with no more substantial food. The peculiarity of the American voice in singing is, distinctively, mezzo-soprano or contralto or baritone. There is every prospect that this class of voice may yet reach that high development which will place Americans at the head of this quality of voice. Already a number of artists have been before the public who are fit representatives of the contralto voice, among whom are the sisters Adelaide and Mathilde Phillipps, Annie Louise Cary, M'me Sterling and Annie Drasdil. Of the finer sopranos we had had M'me Estcott and Albani and Emma Thursby. Many suppose that when young persons are discovered who have fine voices they should forthwith be sent to Italy, as though the air of that country has any influence to improve the vocal organs and impart to the individual in a short time something of the talent and vocal distinction that have been represented beneath its sunny skies. If that were the case America has, in California, a country as balmy and clear as Italy itself. When Colonel Mapelson returned from California, a few years ago, he said: "I never knew that a climate so pure and so much reviling Italy was to be found, as that of California. American has there, truly, an Eldorado for vocalists."

The principal teachers for singing in Europe today are San Giovanni and Lamperti, at Milan; Wartel Mara and M'me Viardot, in Paris, and García, in London. Besides these are M'me Marchesi, who has gone to Brussels, and M'me Artot, who has taken her place in Vienna. When it is considered that they have pupils constantly in attendance for instruction, it will be wondered that so so few artists come from their studies. A little over twenty-five years ago Manuel García turned out rare artists in Jenny Lind, Maria Malibran, M'me Marchesi and later Catherine Hayes, but with these exceptions of the hundreds of pupils who have been attending him no one reached the summit of vocal fame. Wartel has furnished only the following artist-singers Nilsson, Trebelli, and later Emma Abbott. M'me Viardot, of Paris, has but two successful singers, M'lle Artot and M'lle Orgeni. M'me Marchesi has produced two great singers in fifteen years, M'me Artot and M'lle Gerster. It will be seen that the teachers cannot create the talent in the pupils, and only really superior voices can make starts in the musical firmament.

These teachers will not accept pupils with common voices unless they are remunerated with large sums of money. The charges for a musical education in Europe are not small items. At the Leipzig Conservatory a good musical education may be obtained for $60 a year, while the Paris Conservatory is free to pupils who have obtained a certain proficiency. But, under a teacher, the expense will be about four times that of the conservatory. Some of the music masters in London charge at the rate of four dollars an hour. Few people knew, while listening to M'me Ricci (M'me Knox), at the Grand Opera House, and at Steinway Hall, lately, that it cost $25,000 to cultivate her voice. It will be seen, therefore, that to go for a musical education to Europe is quite an undertaking.  It may be asked, "Can a thorough musical education he had at home?" We answer yes, except for those who wish to go upon the stage where Italian opera is produced, and in such a case it is necessary to spend that last two years of study in Italy, where every opportunity may be given to catch the proper accent. With this exception, however, a complete musical education may be obtained in this city, where there are a number of eminent teachers who have made reputations in Europe, such as Max Maretzek, Carlberg, Bristow, Errani and M'me Siler, of Philadelphia, and one or two others.

The time necessary for a musical education is usually six years. It has taken ten months to learn the trill. A vocal artist who has spent the six years in study finds, generally, that his whole life afterward must be devoted to study; practice must be kept up regularly, and there is always something to learn.

By a proper selection pupils may be taught effectually music in their native English. The diet is also and important consideration in vocal study. In northern climates oleaginous food is indispensable, whereas, in warmer climates the free use of such food is dangerous. But in temperate climates a judicious combination of the two nitrogenized and carbonaceous food is highly necessary. Food is divided into two classes, and it is necessary for the singer to study carefully their nature. First, we have that which is easily assimilated with the blood, viz: flesh, the white of eggs, farinaceous articles, and milk. The second is composed of substances which contain a large proportion of carbon, such as the fat of meats, gum, sugar and claret wine. Impure wine will surely destroy the voice. The diet should consist of both nitrogenized and non-nitrogenized aliment in due proportions. Though oily food contributes little, if any, to the organization of the solid tissues of the body, it is indispensable for imparting heat.

The most necessary thing essential to a good singer is health. Albani, Grisi, Mario, Badiali, Brignoli, Amadio, Sim Reeves, Morelli, Paropa Ross, Beneventano Patti, Titiens, Nilsson and M'lle Gerster were and are types of good health and good spirits.

The artist-singer must be regular in his habits, prudent as to health, and must live on substantial food. He must practice moderation in all things, but not total abstinence. The singer uses tuple the amount of caloric of any other person, and this must, therefore, be adequately replaced by proper sustenance. If this is not done the loss of the voice will follow and possibly pythisis. The singers will, therefore, find real nourishment in the flesh of animals rather than in vegetables. From the second-class of articles of food he will secure carbonic acid and hydrogen. Fast walking, loud laughing, loud and long reading, skating and dancing, are all injurious to the voice. Exposure to damp air after singing is hurtful. If compelled to do this a small glass of water, with a little sugar and a little claret, will be an excellent preventive.

Public Ledger, Memphis, Tenn: Tuesday Evening, June 18, 1878. 


It's a odd thing really—to read an old article in a paper and find one's self copyediting it, as was the case with the one above. While I corrected some things like the spelling of "Farinelli," I let quite a few other things like "pythisis" stand on their own, if only because one obtains a whiff of the age by virtue of its idiosyncrasies, none-the-least of which is the preoccupation with food and climate. A little claret with water and sugar to chase away the damp night air? Who would have thought?

Everyone who was anyone is represented, that being the big teachers of the time, and if the writer doesn't get all his facts straight, that's interesting too. We forget, in our day and age, that facts are easily distorted by oceans of distance. The six-year figure for a vocal education? That rings true. Of course, this puts the instant gratification approach that many students have in perspective. Then there is the matter of the American soul and its aesthetic education, which I will let the reader ponder without comment. 

October 7, 2014

death to all vocal art

Francesco Lamperti 
Lamperti, the celebrated music master, places the Germans and the Italians highest in excellence as singers, and the Americans next to them. English voices are poor and unmanageable, he says, because of the manner in which English children are made to talk, and particularly English girls. They must speak in undertones or very subdued tones, and they clip their words in uttering them. Their nurses and governesses also speak in subdued tones and clip so that the young ears are formed to that kind of articulation which emasculates speech and is death to all vocal art. 

The National Tribune: Washington, D. C, Thursday, July 30, 1885. 

October 6, 2014

Why you hate your voice (and what to do about it)

You've seen the information floating around on social media, haven't you? The stuff about why we hate our own voices, like this YouTube video entitled "Does My Voice Really Sound Like That?" 

The trouble with this stuff is that it only gives the viewer and listener (ha) half the story. 

Yes, it's true that the bones and muscles of the head attenuate higher frequencies of the voice and boost lower ones. So what is one supposed to do with this knowledge? Stop listening? Hope for the best? Avoid the whole business? 

This is not the way of the singer. 

It is possible to hear one's voice objectively, that is, to know if the sound one is making is "good" or not—despite the horror one feels after hearing it on a recording. However, for this self-knowledge to become a reality, the singer (and speaker for that matter) must undergo a fundamental shift in awareness, that is, a reeducation of the listening faculty which is made possible through the audition of higher frequencies. What sounds carry these frequencies? Two vowels principally: /e/ and /i/. 

The Old Italian School was well-acquanited with this matter, insofar as teaching their students to take every sound from the aural and kinesthetic awareness of these two vowels, /i/ being perceived as more "forward" than /e/. In fact, the García School taught their students that every vowel must be taken from /i/. There was no getting around this. No personal preference, no kinda sorta maybe lip-trilling nonsense. You either learned to do it, or you didn't. And you didn't get anywhere if you didn't. 

What happens when the student starts to hear a ringing, open-throated /i/? Placement—that dreaded word which many modern pedagogues love to hate. Be it a buzzy business in the middle of the head, a very clear sound at the front of the hard palate and "mask," or 18 inches in front of the face, the singer experiences a real acoustical phenomena. 

For its part, the Lamperti School cultivated awareness of the middle of the head (which was acquired during during mezza voce singing), while the García School talked about forward placement. (That's the major difference between the schools if you want to get picky about it.) However, if you know anything about the ear (and have read this blog), you will know that what both schools were alluding to can be understood as the audition of bone and air conduction. Two sides of the same coin, both are necessary, and cannot exist without the other. 

Learning to sing, that is, learning to listen, entails a heightened awareness of the feel, sound and touch of tone, rather than a willful dulling of the senses, which is akin to closing one's eyes when shooting a basketball into a hoop. Now that's real smart, isn't it? 

The ear—like the eye—can focus, and must be trained to do so, inasmuch as the painter must learn to see.

October 2, 2014

Amalie Materna on Singing Wagner

Materna as Elisabeth

Frau Materna Describes the Effects of Singing Music Drama. 


The Prima Donna Says Too Many Girls Rush, Half Prepared, on the Stage. 


There are few women on the lyric stage to-day who have oftener stretched out the hand of good fellowship to struggling young artists than Frau Materna. She is always ready with a word of valuable advice or whole-would encouragement, when her professional work brings her in contact with young and talented singers, but woe betide the young person of slender talent and big ambition, who stumbles across Materna's path, for she never flatters mediocrity. 

Materna was asked yesterday to say a few words of wisdom about Wagnerian singing, and its effect on the voice, for who is so qualified to speak on the subject as the woman who created the roles of his heroins for Wagner himself? "Ach! that is the thing I love most to talk of," said Materna in her genial frank way, for there is nothing haughty or commanding in private life about this terrible Brunhilde, though she positively overpowers one with her majesty on the stage. When you talk to Materna, though, you forget that she is a celebrity. If she had spent her life in knitting stockings and concocting stews, you could not feel more at home with her, or more assured that she is the sort of woman who would sympathize with you if you were in trouble. 

"I am so sorry that I speak not English better," said the prima donna apologetically. "German is the tongue I have always sung in even when I was singing 'Fidelio,' 'Africanna' and the other operas of the old repertory. 

"You ask," 'Does singing Wagner music wear out the voice?" I must answer 'no.' Twenty-five years ago, when I began to sing the master's music, all the people said to me, 'Oh! my dear Materna, in five years you will have no voice; you will have screamed it all away.' Well, that is twenty-five years ago, and my voice is as strong as every and the high tones are clearer. I was a mezzo-soprano when Wagner first began to teach me his roles. His music wants very high and very low notes. Af first I would say, 'Oh, no, not so high as that,' but he would say, 'That must be sung, try,' and always I found he knew best. 

"There is one mistake that many people who try to sing Wagner's music make. They think it is loud and strong, and that so they must always practice at full voice. That wears out their voices. I have always practiced mezza voce, for, if you can sing a thing with the half voice, to yourself, you can always sing it with the full voice when you are before the public. 

"Much depends upon the conductor. A man who knows and understands Wagner subdues the orchestra so that the sound does not overwhelm the singers. How great poor Hermann Levy was for that. It was a joy to sing 'Parsifal' to his conducting,"

Materna as Ortrud
Materna was alluding regretfully to the great Wagnerian conductor who is reportedly lately to have become insane and who has been forced to retire from the conductorship of the Hof Theater in Munich. 

"But anyway, a singer who produces her voice properly can never force her tones," contented Materan thoughtfully. "If she produces it so," and the disciple of Wagner gave a deep guttural roar, "her voice must wear out very soon, for she is straining the muscles of her throat: but if the sound reverberates so," and this time Materna emitted a tone that rang forward on her palate, after which she added complacently, "that sort of production does not wear out the voice," 

Wagner's great motto, according to Materna, was to make his artists sing as they spoke. "No faces, no contortions, he abominated all those unnatural things. Oh! it is terrible to see the way some singers twist their mouths out of shape, when they might sing as easily and naturally as they talk if they would only try. But I will tell you what is the first real essential for Wagner singing, and that is to have the bel canto before you begin to study the music dramas. All the time I see poor girls going on the stage with one three or four tones in their voices and they sing Elsa and Eva and Senta. Poor little things; they are almost children and they have not studied half enough. In two years their voices are gone, but it is not singing that ruined them: oh, no it is because they began to strain their voices in difficult parts before they had acquired enough school to know how to use them. It is terrible nowadays how many unprepared young ladies go on the stage."

Frau Materna says that she attributes her own success in the music dramas largely to the fact that she understood bel canto and could sing Mozart's florid arias before she began to study Wagner's music. She scorns the idea that there is no bel canto in Wagner, however. "Elizabeth's role, is that not all singing?" she asked. "And Elsa, and above all Isolde. When Tristan lies dead and Isolde sings her dying lament over him till her voice grows fainter and dies away, who can say that swan song is not bel canto?" 

When the singer was asked for some personal reminiscences of the master whose music she had parsed so much tears swelled up in her kind eyes and she answered quickly: "No, I cannot talk of him. When I sing his music my whole heart goes out into it, but when I think that so good a man, so great a composer is dead, then—excuse me," and Materna tried to smile away some big tears and hastily turned the conversation to her pleasure at being in the golden California sunshine. 

The San Francisco Call, Friday, March 13, 1896.  

September 30, 2014

The Marvelous Master of Voice Living in London

A celebration to take place in London next week will call attention to a famous family and make a revelation that will be a great surprise to many who think themselves well-informed about musical matters. On March 17, Manuel García, considered by most musical authorities the greatest teacher of singing who ever lived, will celebrate his ninety-ninth birthday. The great master retains all his love for and interest in his work and has not altogether given up instruction, criticising singers and giving expert counsel to teachers. 

A Minneapolis musician was asked the other day if any of García's pupils were numbered among the local musicians. The assurance was prompt and positive "Oh, no; his generation passed before any of us began to study." When attention was called to the fact that he is still living in London the statement was received with skepticism. 

The same question put to Fraulein Schoen-René brought a different reply. With quick enthusiasm, she rejoined "Well, I should say so, I have studied five summers with the dear old man, since he passed his ninetieth year. He is a marvel for whom it is worth while to celebrate. I have promised him that I shall be with him on his one hundredth birthday and I shall have to be thinking about that. For many years I have been with his sister, the equally famous teach of Paris, Mme. Pauline Viardot, who was one of my principal instructors, on her birthday which comes in July. She is 83 now and, next to her brother, the most wonderful musician living. 

"So some of the Minneapolis musicians didn't believe you when you talked about Manuel García celebrating his birthday? They have good company in their ignorance. Two or three years ago, when I was in London coaching with Garcia, I had an engagement for luncheon following my appointment with him. Thru some delay of trains I was late and Melba and Blanche Marchesi, who were present, were left together and as they have no love for each other, the occasion was not comfortable. When I arrived I was reprimanded and an explanation asked. When I explained that García's home, where I went for my work, was in the suburbs, they both thought I was chaffing them and could scarcely be persuaded that the old master was living much less teaching. 

"Once convinced, Melba was eager to see him and to sing for him, wanting an expression of opinion from him of her voice. Well, she had her visit, for he was eager to hear her, but had never been able to attend the opera when she sang, for he was able to go only occasionally under exceptionally favorable circumstances. However, her visit was a disappointment and she complained bitterly about his 'grouchy' manners. I don't think, tho, that he was intentionally crabbed more likely dazed. He expressed himself freely enough afterwards about her voice and in a way that would have satisfied anyone. He could not say enough in its praise and he kept saying: "If Jenny Lind had only had that voice she could have done anything." In comparing the two, which was what Melba had been eager to have him do to her, he said that the Australian singer had ten times the beauty of voice of his Swedish favorite and famous pupil." 

Manuel García lives in a suburban villa embowered in a garden that is his great delight and about which he potters much of his time. Fraulein Schoen-René has a very different story to tell of his reception of Lillian Blauvelt. He immediately fell a captive to her delicate beauty and winning personality. He was so much taken up with that as never to think of her as a singer. He took her about the garden and showered kind attentions on her. "The prettiest compliment of all came as we were leaving," Fraulein said. "We found that he had plucked quantities of his choicest flowers and surreptitiously filled Lillian's parasol. 

"There is one point in which Manuel is truly feminine," fraulein continued, in a reminiscent strain. "He hates to have people think him old, and resents any illusion to his age. A few years ago he went to Italy to conduct one of his works. I was in Paris and saw him at Mme. Viardot's, in route. He told us that he was going there to show them that he was still alive and as young as ever. He scarcely writes at all on account of the tremor of his hands, so he told Viardot to write a joint letter saying that if anybody was entitled to represent the method of his family I was, as I had the fullest opportunities of learning it with both of them. You can rest assured that letter is one of my chief treasures." 

The letter and other autographs and letters of Viardot were examined with interest by the interviewer, especially the clause referring to fraulein's pupils as grandchildren of the Garcías. 

The history of the García family is one of the most remarkable in the whole record of music. The wonderful aged brother and sister are the third generation of teachers and grandchildren have inherited the family musical gifts and are prominent musicians. The first singing teacher of the line hailed from Rome. His name was Vicente, García being an adopted name of the family. His son, who became really famous, was born in Seville in 1775. He was a singer and composer and was manager of the Royal Opera-hgouse in London when it was controlled by royalty. He sang in London shortly after Waterloo.

The second famous Manuel was born in Madrid in 1805. He became a singer and visited America in 1829. When his sisters, Malibran and Pauline, began their careers as angers, he decided that his voice did not compare with theirs and his fathers, and he abandoned the stage for the studio. He devoted all his great posters to the study of the voice and methods of developing its possibilities.

To Manuel Garcia belongs the credit of having been the first to employ the laryngeal mirror for physiological purposes. He was the first who succeeded in obtaining a few of his own larynx by means of a dental mirror. His brilliant researches in the anatomy and physiology of the larynx were published in 1855. The seed sown by García came to be the germ of many important results and discoveries.

Mme. Viardot, who shares with her brother the greatest honors as a teacher, began her career almost at birth. At 3 years of age her rather taught her singing, at 8 she used to accompany his lessons. She learned the piano with Liszt and played at several concerts in Germany. Of her marvelous singing and acting all the world has heard. It was she who created Fides in "Le Prophete" in Paris in 1848; again in 1851, "Sapho" (Gounod). Among her list of triumphs may be mentioned the never to be forgotten representations of Gluck's "Orpheus" and Beethovens "Fidelio" in Paris in 1859. Her compositions are numerous.

She married her father's successor as manager of the London opera house. M. Viardot was also manager of the imperial opera house in Paris and it was not uncommon of rMme. Viardot to sing in London one night and in Paris the next.  —Martha Scott Anderson.

The Minneapolis Journal, March 12, 1904. 

See Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941) for another "take" on this story. Guess which one has more color and detail?

September 29, 2014

Beware the Dilettante

The Dilettante 

Dilettante — noun — a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. 


He goes to the opera, attends recitals, collects old recordings, has an opinion about everything, and tells everyone within earshot that his great-grandmother was a great singer; but of course, you haven't heard of her because she didn't record—her Victorian husband thinking it rather déclassé. And then there is his own voice, which he takes out for a spin from time to time, but singing teachers being such frauds, well.....one can't be too careful, can one? 

Avoid him (or her) dear singing teacher, as well as the flattery which falls from his lips. He will never amount to anything, arrogance of self-importance keeping him from learning anything despite learned degrees. For all you know, they're made up too, which 5 minutes of fact-checking will reveal.

Don't. Waste. Your. Time.