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May 31, 2016

So You Teach Bel Canto, Huh?

I recently read a post by a fellow blogger (goes with the territory, don't you know), who quoted the esteemed vocal pedagogue Richard Miller, who, half-in-jest, asserted that the master class teacher should avoid claiming to be a bel canto teacher. 

Ok, while I don't make that kind of statement in a masterclass, the late Mr. Miller might take issue with my studio website since I note that my teaching "integrates the principles of the old Italian school," and that I offer "comprehensive vocal training utilizing the principles of bel canto."

And I mean it too: I really do teach vocal techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation. But we're not talking proprietary information. Rather, we're talking about techniques that  have been discovered over the course of many years by teachers with open ears and eyes—techniques that can be rediscovered by anyone with equally open ears and eyes.  

While there no magic method called bel canto, there is a body of knowledge that has leapt flamelike from student to teacher, and can be heard in many recordings as well as found in many writers—the most interesting of which is Hermann Klein (he dropped the second "n" after the first world war), who came to America in the first decade of the 20th century to teach Manuel García's principles of singing. 

Klein wrote about García's teachings, and even utilized the gramophone to illustrate his meaning. His effort—which seems to have fallen on deaf ears—can be found in the side-bar on the right. 

Find it there and you'll also find the meaning of bel canto.

May 26, 2016

The Metal of the Voice

On this question of colour in the voice, the mastery writer and critic Legrouvé says: "Certain particular gifts are necessary if the speech is to possess colour. The first of these is the Metal of the Voice. He who has it not will never shine as a colourist. The metal may be gold, silver or brass; each has its individual characteristic. A golden voice is the most brilliant; a silvery voice has the most charm; a brassy voice the most power. But one of the three characteristics is essential. A voice without a metallic ring is like teeth without enamel; they may be sound and healthy, but they are not brilliant. . . In speech there are several colours—a bright, ringing quality; one soft and veiled. The bright, strident hues of purple and gold in a picture may produce a masterpiece of gorgeous colouring; so, in a different manner, may the harmonious juxtaposition of greys, lilacs, and browns on a canvas of Veronese, Rubens, or Delacroix. 

"Last of all the velvety voice. This is worthless if not allied with one of the three others. In order that a velvety voice may possess value it must be reinforced (doubleé) with "metal." A velvety voice is merely one of cotton. 

"It may be of interest to notice that the quality which in France is designated "timbre," is called by the Italians "metallo di voce," or "metal of the voice." Those who heard Madame Sarah Bernhardt fifteen or twenty years ago will readily understand why her countless friends and admirers always spoke of her matchless organ as "la voix d'or." 

Some singers control but two colours or timbres—the very clear (open) and very sombre (closed), which they exaggerate. In reality, however, the gradations between them can be made infinite by the artist who is in possession of the secret—especially if has the ability to combine Colour with Intensity. 

May 25, 2016

Seeing Your Sound

Dr. Tomatis did not look at the functioning of the ear in the same manner as his contemporaries. Typically the ear is considered to have three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear. Dr. Tomatis, instead, expressed the need to look at the ear as an external and internal ear. The separation is between the second and third bone of the ear in the middle ear cavity. He theorized that the function of the three bones is one of protection because they dampen (or muffle) the excessive vibrational energy coming from the ear canal. He also stated that the stapedius muscle is the most active muscle in the body. It is always working. 

Additionally, Dr. Tomatis theorized that hearing occurs because sound is transmitted through the bones of the skull and not through the three bones of the middle ears. Specifically, he felt that the temporal bone receives sound from the eardrum. The bone then vibrates, sending sound to the basilar membrane in the cochlea where the Organ of Corti is. From there sound is transmitted to the brain. 

He felt that the purpose of the three bones in the middle ear was for the pneumatic regulation of sound. They control the variations of air pressure between the outer and inner ear. The system is regulated but not through frequency. The stapedius muscle must keep vigilant to regulate the pressure in the inner ear. The tensor tympani must keep vigilant and remain tonic to outer messages. In order for the middle ear to work well, it must be able to withstand the higher intensities for longer periods of time. The stapedius muscle must remain vigilant and be maximally effective to do this. Because sound is transmitted through bone conduction, internal localization of sound can occur. This localization then makes the entire cochlea vibrate sending the necessary sound to the brain. Dr. Tomatis felt that the brain receives more stimuli from the ears than from any other organ. High frequency sound can bring about maximal cortical recharging. 

Dr. Tomatis also stressed the connection with the face. The facial nerve innervates the muscles of the face, including the lips. These muscles are important for intelligibility of speech, and the clarity of one's voice. The same nerve also innervates the stapedius muscle in the middle ear, and also the muscle that opens the mouth, the digastric muscle. The trigeminal nerve connects to the tensor tympani muscle in the middle ear as well as the master and temporal muscles that allow us to chew and close our mouths. Is it any wonder that Dr. Tomatis surmised an ear-face connection? 

Excerpt from Chapter 5, "Sounds Bodies through Sound Therapy," by Corinne S. Davis, director of the Davis Center.

A really good voice teacher can take one look and see what is going to come out of your mouth when you take a breath—even before you take a breath. Why? The face is inextricably connected with the ear, and the ear with the voice.

May 22, 2016

Antonio Sangiovanni

The name of Sangiovanni is esteemed not only in Italy, but in all countries where the divine art of song is appreciated. From England, Russia, France, Germany, Australia and America, people go to him to receive the instruction that he knows so well how to impart with judgment and skill.

Antonio Sangiovanni was born at Bergamo in 1832, but appears much older. His constant study in early life, his assiduous application to teaching later, his sedentary habits, together with his sensitive organism, made early inroads upon a delicate constitution. He received his rudimental instruction from his father, who was a distinguished singer in the church at Bergamo. Sangiovanni then went to the Conservatory at Milan, where he soon gave proof of great talent. Besides being a master musician, he was gifted with a beautiful tenor voice, which was brought to perfection in the art of song under the tuition of the celebrated Rubini, his uncle. It was Rubini himself who procured for the young man an engagement at the Italian Opera in Paris, where he made a successful debut, singing with such artists as Alboni, Ronconi, Lablache.

Sangiovanni’s career as a singer was a short one, on account of delicate health. But while he appeared it was a series of uninterrupted triumphs. From Paris he went to London, Belgium, Spain, and America, and everywhere met with most flattering demonstrations. He travelled for five years with Alboni as leading tenor and director, or more in the capacity of a maestro, or critic, for it was with him that this famous contralto studied scores. In 1860 he was appointed teacher at the Royal Conservatory, Milan. He gave such proof of skill in instructing as to attract the attention of the most celebrated foreign singers, who came from all parts of the world to study their operas with him, and gain that exquisite finish in expression and phrasing which perhaps no other master ever excelled. Sangiovanni has finished and brought upon the lyric stage more artists, perhaps, than any other master in any age. He is a finisher of the voice. Lamperti, who was also a teacher in the Conservatory, and who at one time was considered a rival, was a voice-builder, but Sangiovanni is a finisher. Although their methods were entirely different, they did not conflict. Each gave such a wealth of information that it was hard to give up either. I found it so, and did not give up either until I was obliged. Lamperti and his wife invited me to accompany them to their country villa on the bank of the beautiful lake Como. Then I parted with the "dear old master," Sangiovanni—the favorite expression of all his pupils, in their deep regard for him. He is as tender and kind as a father, and as gentle and sensitive as a mother. His wife, who is much younger and as fresh and blooming as a rose, is also a musician. She was his pupil when a girl. He has a daughter a musician, and a son, who spent a year in America for the purpose of learning the English language. One musically precocious son contracted consumption from an attack of pneumonia and passed away at the early age of 11 years. The death of this child nearly broke the heart of the devoted Sangiovanni.

M. Augusta Brown, “Antonio Sangiovanni,” Werner’s Magazine, June 1984, Page 225.

Note: Antonio Sangiovanni was the teacher of the great American dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, and one of a handful of eminent old Italian school singing masters, including Manuel García, Francesco Lamperti, Gaetano Nava, Domenico Scafati, and Luigi Vannuccini. 

May 18, 2016

Avoid Quick Training

ALBERTO RANDEGGER, who died in London a few days ago, is the type of musician who will be sincerely mourned. As a teacher of singing, Randeger was as successful as Francesco Lamperti and Manuel García, and his method of instruction, like that of the Italian and Spanish maestri, was based upon principles of voice development that should be studied daily by all vocal teachers. Above all, the modern teachers ought to remember that Randegger, Lamperti and García never practiced any of the quick training methods prevailing to a large extent in this country and Europe today. With few exceptions, the greatest singers of our times did not impress any one at the beginning of their student days by their phenomenal voices, but they reached the goal by a system of patient hard work year after year. 

Musical Courier, "Avoid Quick Training," The Etude, April 1, 1912: 282

Note: Find my previous post on Alberto Randegger here, and his book, "Singing" on VoiceTalk's download page. Regarding the method of Randegger, García and Lamperti: It was quite common for students to sing scales and exercises for the better part of a year before essaying repertoire. 

May 17, 2016

The Great Paradox

Modern technology has proven to be incredibly useful in connecting people over vast distances, as well as providing them with information. Take the download page here at VoiceTalk. There was a time when only a fraction of the texts could be found on the web. To read them, you would have had to go to a major music library, put in a 'call slip,' and then wait for 20-30 minutes before one was put into your hand. Then you had to put it into your head. It all took time. Now this information can be beamed into your brain via Google Glass.  

How does reading a real book compare with reading the same text on the computer screen? I would say there is a subtle, but very real difference, if only because the eye and mind behind the eye prefers the real thing, and interacts with it differently. That's the great paradox as I understand it: We may have access to a great deal of information via the our iPhones, computer screens and iPads, but this very means has distinct limitations in regard to communication and creative expression. Consider the following. 

  • Phonecall's are a heck of a lot better than texting.
  • A voice lesson on Skype does not have the same impact as one in the studio.
  • The writer finds greater connection to himself and his material when he writes long-hand.
  • The TV or the movie screen can't deliver the visceral experience of live theatre. 

What is the difference, qualitatively-speaking? Greater involvement of the ear—in particular, long-hand involving the silent audition of sound at a speed which promotes creativity rather than mere word processing.

Speaking of limitations: Legion are the voice teachers who intone that you can't learn to sing from a book. They are right, of course, since autodidacts are few and far between, and the majority of students must be led by the hand—not because anyone is stupid, but because learning to sing is a procedural rather than a declarative process (click on the label below for more info). The student who can design and deliver this process to him/herself is the rare bird indeed. 

Seeing is not believing, not for this boy anyway. The eye can—and does—trick, which the voice professional understands all too well after a fair amount of experience, the observation being that singing with a score under your nose is not the same as having that same score in your head—or as they say—by heart. It's just not—which is why many voice teachers insist that the music you sing in your lessons be memorized—that is, be taken in through the eye and put into the brain using your ear. 

If the page, computer, and movie screen provide access, it is the mechanism of the ear which creates greater connection—not only to another person, but to one's Self.

See Brainpicking's recent post for an eloquent reflection on the matter. 

May 15, 2016

Madam Pauline Viardot

It was in London, at (the late) Her Majesty's Theatre, that in the summer of 1839, and at the age of eighteen, she made her début on the lyric stage, in the character of Desdemona in Rossini's Otello. The timid, shrinking novice was literally pushed on to the stage by the Otello of the evening, the warm-hearted, fatherly Lablache, always as good as he was great, who accompanied the act by another, that or making the sign of the cross on her forehead. 

"Il m'a porté bonheur" (It brought me luck), says our heroine, of whom Chorley graphically relates the complete success of her arduous undertaking. "This new García," records this experienced connoisseur and critic, "with a figure hardly formed—with a voice in no respect excellent or equal, though of extensive compass—with an amount of sensitiveness which robbed her of half her power, came out in the grand singers' days of Italian opera on London, and in a part most arduous on every ground of memory, comparison, and intrinsic difficulty—Desdemona, in Otello.  She looked older than her years; her frame (then a mere reed) quivered this way and that; her character-dress seems to puzzle her, and the motion of her hands as much. Her voice was hardly settled, and yet—paradoxically as it may seem—she was at ease on the stage, because she brought thither instinct for acting, experience of music, knowledge how to sing, and—consulate intelligence. There could be no doubt what any one who say that Desdemona on that night, that another great career was begun."

Her opening scene was one introduced and written for her in lieu of the original, by Signor, now Sir Michael, Costa, and at once placed her extraordinary musical skill and powers of execution beyond dispute. The reputation won in Desdemona she sustained in her second rôle La Cenerentola of Rossini. The impression she produced was even greater in the concert-room, though here she had to contend with the great popularity of Madama Persiani, then at her height. They sang duets together from Tancredo and Semiramide, the introduced cadences to which were marvels of art and execution, and which would have excited still greater surprise had it been generally known the they were composed and combined by the younger singer, a mere girl in years.

In the winter seasons of the same year Madlle. Pauline García performed at the Théatre aux Italians, Paris, with equal success, the parts of Desdemona and Cenerentola, in which she had been so favorably received in London, appearing also as Rosina in Il Barber  and Tancredo,  a part in which her late sister, the gifted Malibran, had won such renown.

The applause and favour that welcomed her efforts was more remarkable and gratifying from the circumstance that the Grand Opéra of Paris possessed at that particular period a galaxy of talent such as it would be difficult to collect throughout the world at the present day, numbering among its members Mario, who had just made his début, Grisi, Persiani, Lablache, and Tamburini, and also because of the memory of Malibran was so fresh in the memory of the Parisians as well as the London public.

"Madame Pauline Viardot," writes Chorley, "is one of the greatest first-class singers of any time—a woman of genius particular, inasmuch as it is universal." And it is in this respect that she deserves to be cited as a unique example in the history of singers—namely, her capacity of adapting herself to all styles, the result partly of natural gifts, and partly of incessant labour and study.

Of Italian and Spanish parentage, and born in Paris, she yet spoke and sang, when in Germany the language of Schiller and Goethe with a purity of accent which astonished the Berlinese themselves, and this universality of genius it was that enabled her to interpret with equal force and expression the compositions of Palestrina, Mozart, Gluck, or Rossini; to breath the tender melancholy strains of Desdemona, or the bible and pathetic accents of Orpheus; to impart equal effect to a cavatina of the Barbiere or Tancredi, or to those Russian or Spanish airs which she sings with such characteristic vivacity and expression.

Madame Viardot reappeared in the February of this year at St. James Hall, at the second of Mr, Henry Leslie's concerts, on which occasion she sang selections from the historical and classic compositions of Carissimi, Scarlatti, and Gluck in her own chaste and incomparable style, causing a deep feeling of regret that so perfect and skilled a musician and singer should now so seldom be heard. Great in all she undertakes, it is in interpreting the works of the classicists that Madame Viardot specially excels. 

In private life she affords a striking illustration of the fact that, in spite of all that cynics say, a woman may be at one at the same time the greatest of artistes and the most exemplary of wives and mothers—that she may, in fact, unite all the graces and amiable qualities of her own sex with the high aspirations and independence of character possessed by the other. 

From "Madame Pauline Viardot," The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, London, Sunday, October 1, 1871: 208.

Note: VoiceTalks' patron saint and muse was of Spanish parentage and died in Paris in 1910. See here for my visit to her resting place.