November 7, 2017

Remembering Margaret Harshaw

She died 20 years ago today, on the 7th of November, 1997. Remembered and mourned by countless students, colleagues, and the listening public, Harshaw was known for her full-throated, gleaming, silvery voice—the likes of which this listener has yet to hear again—and her strong influence on vocal pedagogy as the doyenne of voice teachers. Controversial, intelligent, quick-witted, authoritative, and possessing the best one-liner ever heard, she embodied the teaching of the Garcías through her studies with Anna Eugénie Schoen-René, who had been the student of both Pauline Viardot-García, and her famous brother, Manuel García—the first person to use the laryngoscope to view the vocal folds in action. Harshaw's strong influence ripples throughout the community of singers today; a bulwark against the boys with toys, teachers with credentials but no voice, voce-vista mad world we live in. A singer and teacher who lived and breathed bel canto, she was the pole star by which many found their way.

Photo Credit—Shigo Voice Studio, 1957 headshot. 

Drink, You Goose!

Though vocal music seems no longer to be the exact science it once was in Italy, though its methods have become unsettled, though its conservatories have declined in prosperity and discipline, though the enthusiastic reverence of the people for its interpreters has died down, perhaps for the scarcity of really great artists, though the masters who cherish the old traditions are fast passing away, the faith of the Italians in their own musical supremacy, their intolerance of other schools, their belief that vocal music can only live and breath through their language, that Italian composers and singers can alone worthily interpret the divine art, has not abated or declined on iota. Their latests, if not last, great composer, Ponchielli, has lately died here in Milan, and their greatest maestro has overpass man's allotted time. Judging fly his works, Francesco Lamperti, must be pronounced the master of masters. His career as a teacher is brilliant with stars. The list is too long to be given here. It runs from Campanani to Collini, from La Grange to Van Zandt, that poor, storm beaten little singing bird, now said to be dying at Cannes. Mohave had such unparalleled success, Lamperti must have possessed from the first, a sure, soft, consistent, thorough and philosophic method; and even now when they say that method has settled and stiffened into a hobby, I believe that a student who has the brains and will the will to master it, and not be mastered by it, the time and patience, and of course the voice to carry it out, cannot fail of becoming a good artist. But the process is long, and at first discouraging; for Lamperti has a peculiar, persistence idea that the voice must be kept back—subdued, and snubbed; gradually, very gradually, he lets it up and out, having an inexpressible horror of the senseless roaring and screaming of undisciplined singers. For a while, his pupils must walk by faith, almost forgetting the sound of their own voices. I was lately present at one of his lessons, and found it very interesting to watch the great master, white-haired, pallid, trial, seeming only alive, but all alive through music. No slightest error in time, tone, pronunciation or expression escapes his ear. He is a very plain-spoken old gentleman; and, his idea being that the voice can best be kept back and in the subjection by the action of the larynx used in swallowing, he frequently calls out to a young lady inclined to vocal forth-putting: "Bevete, oca!" which does not exactly mean "Drink, pretty creature, drink!" but "Drink, you goose!"

It struck me that this almost preternatural auricular alertness, this severe and often irascible exactitude and exaction must be very trying to nervous and sensitive pupils; but I am told that, with few exceptions, the earnest students take his discipline and drilling and even scolding serenely, bearing much from him because he is an old man, and more because he is "old Lamperti." Still, to go through and finish a good old-fashioned course with his exacting master, a singer must keep a stout heart and a "stiff upper lip," must turn a deaf ear to the dolorous "keeners" who are already holding a wake of Italian opera, must believe that he is at least gaining something which no musical mutations can take from him that splendid mastery and management of the breath, which is the foundation of singing, and which no master of our time has taught like Lamperti. In the relentless course of Nature, this doyen of masters must soon cease from his labors. It would seem that after fifty years of solfeggi, not unwelcome would be the thought of "the eternal silence." Who is to take his place? In Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Venice, are teachers of note, while here in Milan, their name is legion. Some are able and all are willing, but not a few, I am sorry to say, have proved themselves—to the American pupils at least—to be the merest charlatans—pretentious, mercenary, false, and grossly dishonest. Of one professor who has but lately taken up teaching, after a long and splendid career as a singer, I have heard from some of my young countrymen very good and honorable reports. This is Signor Giroldoni, still at sixty years of age in full possession of a magnificent baritone voice, which speaks well for his method. By the way, for this singer, Verdi wrote his "Ballo in Maschera." Very quietly, without advertisement of any kind. Signor Giroldoni has, in conjunction with this wife, also a celebrity, open, in his own house, a school of singing and given himself, with all his genius and accomplishments, heartily to his new work.

—Extract from Grace Greenwood's "The Study of Italian Opera: Method and Masters," The Independent, October 14, 1886, page 38.

November 6, 2017

The Requirements of Bel Canto

Bel canto, beautiful singing! That has to do with tone quality: the voice must be trained for beautiful quality in all the details of forte, crescendo, decrescendo and mezzavoce (no fortissimo or pianissimo exists properly in singing, for that would take away from the true principle of execution), which we may classify as matters of technique. The student must first acquire the rudiments of perfect control, in order to be able to sing the plain cultivated style in Italian, German, and French; the plain style being the old Italian music where technical execution must be faultless. It is not easy, and requires complete control of the breath through diaphragmic support, tone production through vocalization, full even tone, and the flawless blending of registers, besides absolute knowledge of technique on the teacher's side—who must guide the pupil in the different stages of style. Then, after an absolute technique is acquired, whether for expression in music of the plain or florid type, sentiment must be expressed, without a trace of sentimentality, which is a passionate low expression of rubato. The pupil is then fitted to express even the true rubato, that is, the declamatory style in music.

We are hopeful today that the Garcías' intelligent production of the voice will continue to attract disciples to the tradition of bel canto, which has been acknowledge universally as the only technique for the singing of dramatic as well as lyric compositions.

—extract from Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941), page 94-95.

One reads the words above and begins to understand why Madam Schoen-René was called the "Prussian General." For her, bel canto vocal technique was not a personal elective, but an absolute matter that required discipline, commitment, intense study, and application. Enter her studio, and you would be kept on scales and exercises for a least a year. The result? She was noted as having more students at the Metropolitan Opera than anyone else, except for Oscar Saenger, who also held his students to matters of technique for a protracted period. What has changed since these two teachers were on the scene? Everything! 

November 5, 2017

Practical vs Scientific Knowledge

The sound now proceeds either through the mouth or behind the uvula, through the passages of the head. Now it is just at this point, the division between the two, that the tone of the well-placed voice should seem to be—this is the sensation point, forward as possible—reflected if I may so speak, by the pharynx (which extends from the base of the skull to the little bone at the root of the tongue).

This will assure us that the head should not on any account be thrown back. Now, for the voce di petto, the open tone, the uvula and velum palate should be raised, that the voice should come freely and with resonance through the mouth—not drawn back, else a throaty tone would ensue. This open tone through the mouth is capable of great delicacy and should be so cultivated. It should not be confined to loud and robust tones. Great care, however, is needed to find out its true natural limits, beyond which it should never be forced. These limits once well assured, cultivation should be kept within them, otherwise ti would be at the sacrifice of the voice. How necessary then for a master to have real practical knowledge of how to treat a voice, if he have not scientific knowledge!

But for the upper register, the voce di testa, or head voice—not falsetto—instead of the sound coming through the mouth it comes through the cavities of the head. When the sound leaves the back of the throat, that is, the bag of the pharynx, it passes over or behind the uvula, and thus through the passages of the head.

I need not trouble you with any scientific statements as to the power of the trachea to elongate itself, or to contract its dimensions, or to the fact that it falls considerably when the di petto di voce ceases, and rises again for the bright tones—the voce di testa. I will simply observe that the seat of sensation of these two productions should be nearly as possible the same. There should be a note attainable from both registers, and it should be in the power of the singer to go from one register to the other and back again while on that note. (In an ascending passage, for example, requiring a note usually taken when alone in the head register, the progression would be improved by that last note being in the same register as the preceding one. This would prevent a sort of anti-climax.) The blending of the two registers here is a point I would urge as an evidence of the right placing of the voice. When they do not blend the production is usually not forward enough. When it is remembered that only the lower jaw moves in opening the mouth, I am at a loss to find out how it is that some persons throw the head back in the endeavor to reach a high note, when the several organs are in front. The result of this action rather impedes the sound from proceeding through the channels of the head, besides straining the muscles generally, and almost leading to the conclusion that a person so acting though the voice passage are the food passage, the larynx and the oesophagus were one and the same.

The bending of these two registers by some artists is so well done that is is at times difficult to say which is being used, the open or the "bright," as Braham used to call the voce di testa.

The fact that this upper register voice comes through the head should will suggest that the head should incline rather forward than otherwise, the back part of the tongue slightly rising to diffract the sound behind the uvula and soft palate and through the activates of the head; but for the tone generally, the tongue should lie flat in the bed of the mouth, so that the sound should not be impeded.

Acting in this way with respect to the voce di petto and the voce di testa, the singer will be free from the two great defects of nasal and throaty tone, and, which is a great desideratum, free from fatigue after a good amount of singing.

If, as is the case, some of the greatest physiologists speak with becoming hesitation on this difficult subject, owing to the complexity of the structure and the many functions the several organs of the voice have to perform, your present reader, who speaks with extended experience and close observation, may content himself with giving opinion and judgement (with respect to the production and the placing of the voice) on the ground of sensation, supported by such scientific knowledge as he could master.

Permit me to repeat—that the voice is best placed whose excellence is dependent upon its sensational proximity to the uvula and soft palate. Whether the sounds go through the mouth, or through the posterior nostrils by means of the ponticello (the little bridge), the sensation to the singer should be as nearly as possible the same.

—Excerpted from Frederic Penna's "Some Thoughts on Singing." Proceedings of the Musical Association, 16th Sess. (1889-1890). Penna was a student of Sir George Smart, a noted British conductor, vocal pedagogue, and exponent of the old Italian school of singing.

How far off Penna's insistent words about voice placement can seem, until one picks up the the latest issue of the Journal of Singing (Nov/Dec 2017) and finds, buried in an article about tone color: 

"The Singers formant cluster is tuned by the epilarynx and various micro adjustments along the vocal tract, and is also perceived/felt to be higher, often in the area of the nasopharynx and in the bony structures of the front quarter of the skull (the so called mask area). —Kenneth Bozeman, "The Pedagogic Use of Absolute Spectral Tone Color Theory," JOS, page 180. 

Huh, I think to myself: So glad you could catch up to Penna, Lamperti, Vanuccini, Nava, Sangiovanni, García, Viardot-García, Schoen-René, Harshaw, and many others who knew this before you were born. Mind you, the teachers of the old Italian school—and most emphatically that of Lamperti—would not say "often in the area of the nasopharynx and in the bony structures of the front quarter of the skull." No, they would insist on it. How to bring this phenomena about? That's a whole other matter, one which—for starters—involves a canny use of vowels. 

October 8, 2017

What Isn't Taught Anymore

In two words? Voice Placement. But oh, if you read the multitude of writers as I have from a hundred years ago, you would find the term, concept and idea of voice placement to be ubiquitous.

Why don't you hear about it now? Well, to put matters succinctly, modern voice teachers have been trained to think of the vocal tract as the only resonator. The sinus cavities? They can't resonate. Ergo, you shouldn't think about them buzzing with sound. That's elective. Personal. Like money, sex and religion. Not to be talked about in polite company.

However, this line of thinking operates out of a false premise. It assumes that a cavity must be involved. It also assumes that old Italian school voice teachers were naive and misinformed.

But what if the whole matter isn't about resonating cavities? Has anyone given much thought to the matter? Not that I can tell. Sure, voice science goes on about forced resonance, but this line of thinking proceeds from the same old assumption, which is that everything that happens vocally comes from the actions of the larynx. Ok. I buy that. But that is only half of the equation.

What about the ear? If singing really is simply a matter of pushing air through the glottis, well, why aren't we all great singers?

We aren't all great singers because the role of the ear is even more hidden than that of the larynx, the knowledge of which Manuel García unleashed upon the world with his investigations. And the scientific community has remained there ever since, the role of the ear in singing being accorded second-class status. Sure, everyone pays lip-service to how the ear is involved in singing, but only one man—Alred Tomatis—has given any real thought to the matter.

Tomatis is the guy who first observed that a child in the womb can hear the mother's voice. And people thought he was nuts for saying that. Turns out he was right. He was also the guy who proved that the larynx can only emit a sound that is first perceived by the ear. But who is studying the repercussions of his observation? Very few people. Everyone else is still looking down the rabbit hole. As a result, the teaching of singing has degenerated into manipulation upon manipulation.

Who needs ears when you can push the hell out of your voice? Or croon away like a musical theatre singer on the operatic stage?

Rather than deny what has been taught for centuries, it would be better for voice scientists to open their ears and ask why old Italian school vocal pedagogues taught this principle (read Vocal Wisdom for starters). Hello. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Of course, many vocal pedagogues who consider themselves adherents to the teachings of the old Italian school of singing don't teach voice placement.

To this we've come.

October 7, 2017

A Modern Guide to Old World Singing by David Jones

You have to hand it to the voice teacher who puts his studio teaching into a book, especially one that focuses on historical vocal pedagogy. Why? Most of the teachers within this pedagogical stream are loath to talk about their teaching in great detail, and even fewer venture out onto the literary limb—which I observed as founding editor of VOICEPrints—The Official Journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association. Could I get historically-minded teachers to go on the record about what they did in the studio? Oh, that was a hard sell. Would they write about it? No one wanted to do that. The fact-based voice science teachers? They weren't so skittish, but then, their "just the facts ma'am" approach was not as interesting. The real problem as I see it? No one wants to stick their neck out when voice science claims to have all the answers, and boy—anything you say can be used against you. This is very true for voice teachers in academia. However, the author of this book is that increasingly rare bird—the private voice teacher who answers to no one but his students. 

David Jones, a noted New York CIty vocal pedagogue, recently presented at the International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT), and studied with Alan Linquest—a founding member of the American Academy of Voice Teachers. Linquest had been a student of Joseph Hislop and Haldis Ingebjart-Iséne, both students of Gillis Bratt, a doctor who had taught Kirsten Flagstad. While Bratt's' teachers were musical descendants Francesco Lamperti, Linquest also studied with two students of Manuel García—Albert Boroff and Theodore Harrison. While this reader was heartened to see this and other lineage connections being made, he was remiss in noting a dearth of dates for the personages involved—as well as a paucity of foot/endnotes overall. For some, this will not be a huge loss. They will simply read this book for the teachings presented. Others, however, will note the missed opportunity and documentation which wields a peculiar kind of authority.

Jones presents his material in a well-ordered 16 chapter format, ranging from breathing to concepts like open throat, vocal protection, achieving balance in registration, and applying technique to repertoire. Key vocal techniques are woven throughout the book, and serve both as a leitmotif and a structural feature, with vocal exercises providing a vehicle for their execution. 

Sum total: this is a book for the vocal pedagogy geek, technically-deprived auto-didact, and curious teacher or student who wants to learn something of a particular intersection of the García and Lamperti schools of singing. 

As a measure of one man's life work and meaning, David Jones has gone the distance. Find his work at Amazon. 

October 6, 2017

Singing Is Not a Mechanical Proposition

You'd be forgiven if you thought otherwise, especially if you have been immersing yourself in reams of voice science information. What happens? Since most of this information is about "parts," one is fooled into thinking that manipulating the parts is the thing to do. Push on this or that muscle, or—and I love this one—"move" the air—and voila!—one obtains vocal nirvana. 

Your voice does not need you to "move" air, lip-trill, or press on your abdomen, or any such nonsense. That's like shooting a basketball into a hoop with your eyes closed. In auditory terms, we're talking about the ear being closed. 

What is one old-school approach? Calling with the clear desire to communicate. Calling to the friend across the street that you are surprised to see, haven't seen in 10 years, and can't wait to greet. Calling with quality, that is, with the intention to be heard clearly. (Need I mention that this isn't yelling?) Do this, and you will likely find that your ear will coordinate the parts without interference. Do this on a lower pitch and you will discover "singing position." Do this on an Italianate [a] — not easy if you speak in your nose or throat — and the throat will "open." 

To be sure, old-school voice teachers have their tricks of the trade which one might be seduced into thinking are mechanical aids, but they aren't that at all—which one learns with long experience. What does one observe instead? That these same methods can be understood as involving a global response of the auditory system—a system which organizes the parts unconsciously. 

September 20, 2017

Nothing but Technique for Months

Miss Gilberg is preparing for a song recital which she will give in the Grand Opera House some time in February, the proceeds from which will enable her to give her time entirely to the study of the voice preparatory for the stage. 

She is a pupil of Mrs Nellie Quinton Adams. Mrs Adams has had thirteen years of study under the best teachers and is thoroughly schooled in the old Italian method. She holds a teacher's certificate from John O'Neill, Nordica's teacher, to whom Nordica gave the credit of making her voice all that it was. O'Neill was a pupil of Manuel Garcia, the greatest of old Italian masters. Madam Marchesi was also a pupil of Garcia's, and every pupil of Garcia and his pupil's pupils, have his technique, which can only be gotten in this way, as it is not in print. So those who study with Mrs Adams get this same technique and training that has made the world's greatest singers. And her pupils have that assurance as the fact is established through the line of the world's greatest teachers. 

Mrs Adams says: "Our old Italian masters taught their pupils to sing naturally, but because they were Italians their manner of teaching is called "the old Italian method." Garcia, Lamperti, Marchesi, and all of the old masters gave their pupils nothing but technique for months, that the tones might be properly placed, the breath controlled, the registers evened, and for a certain amount of development and execution. Many things can only be acquired through technique. So those who attempt to sing songs before the proper technique is mastered meet with failure."

"It is an established fact that classical music is enjoyed by everyone when it is sung by one with pleasing voice, who sings correctly and with the soul of the master. The fault is not with the unschooled ear, or the masses, but with the singers. The voice with the abominable tremolo due to forcing of lack of support: The voice worn and broken from wrong singing; The voice that is always off key: The baritone who presumes to sing tenor: The Singer who resorts to contortions of the body to effect a climax: The singer who tightens and forces so that he is obliged to take quiting powders for his throat: The quartette composed of voices that never blend or harmonize and could not get past a critic on the first point raised: The playing of the church organist who plays the same voluntary many Sundays in succession because she has had but one organ lesson: The pianist who plays with no soul are the things that have prejudiced the masses against classical music because they do not know that it is the rendition of the music and not the composition that has displeased them. So it is the performer who needs to be educated, and not the masses. Narrow, self-centered, fakes and grafters, are responsible to a great degree for existing conditions. So that now genuine artists only can ever raise the standard of music."

Excerpts from "A Benefit for Miss Rose Gilberg, at the Grand Opera House in February," The Topeka Daily State Journal, January 9, 1916, p 8. 

September 19, 2017

When the Parent is the Problem

Did you know that Kiri te Kanawa was given a lifetime achievement award by Gramophone Magazine? Watching the presentation, I was struck by her words at the end. What did Te Kanawa say? She thanked her parents for the sacrifices they made. And where did my mind go? It contrasted her words with the recent experience of having a parent contact me about preparing a child for an audition at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Never mind that I hadn't worked with the kid for more than 6 months—and only sporadically before that. Never mind that the music for the audition displayed repeated high B flats and C. Never mind that I had never heard the kid sing those notes. Never mind that the audition was in three days. Never mind that the kid was being set up for failure. Never mind any of that. Never mind that I told all this to the parent. 

This is when the parent is the problem.  

Kids don't know jack. They only know what is presented to them. The hoops they need to jump through to sing at a high level are provided by a teacher who knows what they are doing.

The parent's role is to fully support their child over the long haul that real tuition demands. But too few understand this, thinking that learning an art form is nothing more than entertainment, like pulling up Netflix and downloading a video game. Sure. Singing and playing the piano can be—and is—highly enjoyable. But true enjoyment comes from self-sacifice, which leads to self-mastery—and involves both parent and child.

What was the parent sacrificing? Nothing that I could see. What was she teaching her kid? That you can shoot for the moon without any real preparation whatsoever. 

Yeah. She took her kid to the audition having—presumably—found someone else to work with him. I know this because she posted photos of him standing outside the stage-door. (Don't you just love social media?) Her words? "It was a great experience."

So, that's what it's all about, I thought. Chasing fame and likes.

The Muse is not amused. 

August 21, 2017

From García's Drawing-Room

SIR,—Twice a week for three years I sat in Manuel Garcías drawing-room at Cricklewood from 10:30 a. m. till the time of my own lesson, 1.30, and listened to his teaching. May I be considered qualified to reply to your correspondence 'J. M. L.,' on one or two trifling points? 

He says 'the mouth was only opened sufficiently to admit the tip of one finger between the teeth.' Señor García insisted on the width of two fingers for the proper opening for Ah (all the exercises were sung on Ah). For words, of course, one had to adjust the aperture, but he never told us to make it as narrow as possible. One of his favorite cures for a stiff jaw was to make the student hold a little piece of wood between the teeth while singing exercises (on Ah). 'While you are biting upwards,' he would say, 'you cannot push the jaw downwards.' He would cut a little post for this purpose, with an old knife from a stick of firewood, and it was always quite one and a half inches high. The 'tip' of nobody's finger is that width. 

To forestall misapprehension I add that he never intended this application to be used much. It was merely to convince students that they could sing without a rigid jaw. They were then expected to reproduce the sensation in their own practice. 

Again, 'J. M. L." says 'the lips (were) allowed to retire slightly at the corners when the vowels permitted it.' I never heard the maestro advocate this. On the contrary, I have heard him say: "The quack-quack of the duck is the ugliest sound in nature. A sideways movement of the mouth is a grimace, and brings the tone nearer to the quack-quack. Think of the bull with the deep bass voice. Corners of the mouth forward, lips loose, and the carrying power is doubled.' This I have demonstrated in my own teaching many times. Drawn-back corners of the mouth produce the scrannel-pipe tone so common to-day. 

As for 'J. M. L.'s' rider 'When the vowels permit.' I would answer, 'The vowels never permit.' Every vowel can and should be sung with forward-pushing, loose lips, and no closing of the teeth. Anyone can try this, and will get a uniformly rich sound, emotional tone instead of a different tone of each vowel which many singers seem unable to avoid. 

García said very little to us about breathing, beyond 'Chi sa respirare sa cantare,' and never used voiceless breathing exercises. But he considered it of the utmost importance. We were made to practise sustained notes (were we not!) and he kept one at 'Porgi amor' (my first song with him) for six or seven weeks. After that he seemed to think my breathing was all right, though we still had ot begin every lesson with sustained notes. 

About anatomy, he used to say, 'The singer does not need to know. The birds, what do they know? They sing. That is all.' I am sure he was right. I have had pupils who would have been ruined at once as singers had I talked anatomy to them. But if one would teach, one must study anatomy. I had to go elsewhere for it. 

Señor García was fond of telling the Porpora-Caffarelli story, but I always thought he did so with his tongue in his cheek. He had a very sly humour, and no one knew better than he how ill-equipped a singer would be to 'conquer the world' who could sing only exercises. 'J. M. L's' ingenious explanation is probably correct and at any rate makes the story credible.—Yours, &c., JEAN HUNTER REES-PEDLAR, Gouroch, Renfrewshire. 

—The Musical Times, "A pupil of García's on his teaching," April 1937: 358.