March 29, 2015

Tried & True

William Shakespeare (1849-1931)
All the exercises of the old masters were practiced on the vowel "ah," so typical of the open throat and freedom of the tongue. As these two masters did not refer at all to the note, we must conclude that they meant: when mastery over the breath and open throat during singing is attained, the note now unimpeded, looks after itself. 

This is the meaning of such expressions as "placing the voice," the voice "on the breath," or the "breath under the note," So the art of the singer, though a subtle one, is yet quite simple. He bring his notes one by one into the fold. Each sounds to its appropriate tone spaces automatically accompany it. 

Try the experiment of whispering the "Ah" softly for five seconds, then in the same breath increase the pressure to five seconds. Observe that on adding to the pressure, the breath is inclined to slip away. Practise the until you succeed in prolonging the "Ah" without losing command. 

Next prolong the "Ah" for ten seconds on the lowest sound of the talking voice, much lower than you usually sing. The cords are now brought nearer together; and being slightly tightened their edges offer some resistance to the breath pressure which sets them in vibration. The slackness of the cords, by allowing any uncontrolled breath to slip through, and the fact that while sounds such low notes we cannot hold the throat, makes the exercise valuable for strengthening the breath muscles and one which should be practiced often. 

The ancient Greeks accustomed their orators to recite the longest verses in one breath, on the lowest tones of the voice. They thus cultivated control over their respiration. Try this by counting up to forty on your lowest possible tones in one breath. It is a capital exercise. —William Shakespeare, Plain Words on Singing, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1924: 21-22


The use of "Ah" on the "lowest sound in the talking voice, much lower than you usually sing" is the very same teaching Herman Klein called "singing position," which appears in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method based upon the Famous School of Manuel García (VoiceTalkPublications 2013). We can gather from this that Old School voice teachers were far from  quixotic. Rather, their teachings were of the tried and true sort, having been gleaned from observing and following nature. 

Who you are and what you read

Readers of VoiceTalk are mostly from the continental United States, the Ukraine and Germany, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands—in descending order. How do I know this? Blogger has a "stats" page where I can keep tabs on who reads what when and how often.

Right now, about four-hundred of you visit this page every day, which renews my faith in the future of singing, even if the focus of VoiceTalk is in the past.

What do you read? Well, that's a curious matter. Like me, you have a taste for 19th century singers teachers and their students. However, the posts with the greatest appeal have been those about the wanton destruction of New York City Opera and its archives, which are followed by my oh-so-very-arcane post on "How Manuel García Taught Blending." This is followed in short order by "Blanche Marchesi: Sounding Boards" and "Nasality: The Wrong Idea of Voice Placement." "Kiri te Kanawa's voice teacher" is also in the top ten too, as is "Sex & Singing." No surprise there!

But what tops them all? A throwaway Valentine's Day post titled "Les chemins de l'amour." Of course, I have no idea why this is so: it could be zillions of students clicking on the title for their juries or love birds in Paris.

What don't you read? My posts on the work of Tomatis don't alway grab your attention, I am sorry to say, but that may have everything to do with the complexity of the subject matter. While the larynx has been studied extensively, the inner workings of the ear and its relationship to the voice have yet to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny—and therein lies the main difficulty. However, interest in the subject is growing.

As always, I am ever grateful for your feedback, comments, and emails, which come from everywhere and out of the blue. You have no idea how your words make my day.

Thank you for sharing my passion and reading VoiceTalk. 

March 28, 2015

The Look of Listening

Buddha at the Met
Buddhas and bodhisvattas. They're all ears depending on the country of origin. Why is this? The traditional view is that he or she is listening to the cries and suffering of the world with compassion—and you need big ears to do that. 

A somewhat more nuanced view is that the Buddha is listening to his Self, or that which is beyond the Self—an idea that finds expression in the work of Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud.

Tomatis referenced the Buddha's ears and face in a more practical sense, this being his description of "listening posture" which appears in The Ear and the Voice, and which I've written about repeatedly if only because it's the big elephant in the room. 

I first learned of the Buddha's "look of listening" from Paul Madaule, when I attended a workshop he gave at Westminster Choir College in the summer of 1999. We talked for a few minutes during a lunch break, and when I asked him what he meant by Tomatis' "listening posture"—where the singer opens the envelope of the ear to higher frequencies, he showed me with his hands and face what Tomatis had taught him: The face of the Buddha.

I knew right away what he meant since I'd had an interest in Eastern Philosphy, and subsequently realized that this "look" could be found in great singers, including my own teacher Margaret Harshaw, who's teaching came back in a flash. She told me that "The face feels ironed!" and "It's like a facelift," which Tomatis also refers to in his text

Now, there are many vocal pedagogues and audiologists who will assert that the singer doesn't need to focus on higher frequencies since they are above the level of sounds made in speech, but these folks unwittingly assume the audition of the singer to be a passive matter as well as synonymous with what can be seen on a voiceprint, since a good tone that isn't "noisy" cuts off around 4000 Hz.

According to Tomatis however, in order for singing to happen, the singer must move from passive hearing to active listening with an auditory system open from high to low. Having experienced his program of listening training and utilized his methods in the studio, I can only agree. Tomatis' observation becomes evident in the student who goes from singing from memory to reading a score. Even those who know the score and have excellent reading ability often experience a lessening of vocal quality and ease. Why? They're busy looking and have stopped listening, the "look of listening" having been lost.

Photo Credit: Buddha at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, snapped with Daniel's Dinky iPhone. Note: Paul Madaule has written an excellent article on "The Look of Listening" which you can find here.

March 27, 2015


  1. The doctrine, polity, beliefs and methods of worship of the Methodists. 
  2. (lowercase) the act or practice of working, proceeding, etc., according to some method or system.
  3. (lowercase) and excessive use or preoccupation with methods, systems, or the like. 

Methodism in singing has been around since there have been teachers. In fact, you might say that any book of scales or exercises is a method by virtue of its presentation of material and how it is used. If this loose description will not suffice, we have historic methods like that of Manuel García, who, I should point out, asserted that his teaching was not a method at all—which was something cobblers did, but rather—a science. 

What is the worth of a method, even one classified as scientific? I believe the answer lies in the nexus between knowing and doing, which is revealed in how one studied the art of teaching with the father of voice science and his sister Pauline Viardot-García.

To obtain certification from the Garcías, you had to be able to sing, that is, you had to be able to demonstrate the very thing you endeavored to teach. This working knowledge was then applied in the studio where the candidate prepared five students for a professional career, as well as an additional five students who had learned bad methods. All ten had to find their place as working artists. This took years of work. Only then was certification given.

Talk about a high bar! I don't know of any school or person who asks for this level of accomplishment today, one which Anna E. Schoen-René attained in the first decade of the 20th century. She published her letter of certification in America's Musical Inheritance: memories and reminiscences (1941), and also had this to say:

Scientific explanations can only be grasped by those educated in the principles of their art. 

Such a curious statement, is it not?

Being educated in the principles of singing as taught by the Garcías entailed something more than the acquisition of facts. The starting line? To use the terminology of García's time, this meant the ability of the student to wrap his or her ear around pure vowels. However, like other terms that were used by the old school, this is one that is little understood if only because it is tied to another term which is also considered obsolete: voice placement.

March 26, 2015

Visual Dictionary

It's always interesting when science confirms something you've been taught to do is actually true. That was the case recently when I came upon a scientific study which showed that the brain finds new words that have been learned as pictures rather than groups of letters. Well, I was taught to do that when I studied at Westminster College by a wonderful pianist and coach—Glenn Parker. 

Glenn taught me, genius that he was, to make a movie in my head when I sang a song, which not only enabled me to remember it, but also to give it life. A few years later, I took a class in meditation which taught the same concept. Visualization it was called. Now, who can you find using this approach? Foreign language programs like Rosetta Stone! 

Undoubtedly, this "wisdom" isn't anything new, but rather is part of how the brain has worked since the stone ages, when human beings were creating cave pictures.

So, science now knows that while your brain is reading the word "apple" on this page, it's really seeing something like the picture accompanying this post, even if you're not consciously aware of it. Fascinating, no? 

What is old is new again. Now go learn a song in pictures. Make it—and your audience—come alive.

March 25, 2015

Somatic Integration & Singing 3

Making the shift from passive awareness to active listening of sound is what makes singing possible, despite protestations by some vocal pedagogues that the singer should not listen to the voice, but should feel it instead. They are half-right insofar that listening, in addition to involving audition of bone and air conduction, also involves vestibular information. This is the third route of awareness of which many speak, yet few know that its true origin lies within the ear, which Tomatis addresses in his work. 

If you haven't yet studied Tomatis' The Ear and the VoiceI encourage you to obtain a copy and make your way to pages 86 and 87 (copyright infringement prevents me from quoting the text in toto), where you will find an excellent exercise for acquiring an open ear—what Tomatis describes as Listening Posture, and what I believe brings about the correct opening of the mouth described by Giovanni Battista Mancini in Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing (1777) as well as the "singing posture" described in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method based upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia (2013). 

It is the first and most important step for the student of voice, while also being the most difficult for those lacking the necessary audio-vocal control: one which facilitates all styles and timbres of the voice, and enables the "imposto" which is part and parcel of the teaching of the Garcías. 

How to practice Tomatis' exercise from a practical standpoint? My humble suggestion is that the student understand his instruction as being initiated before inhalation, sustained during exhalation, as well as involving the elongation of the spine and the opening of the ribs—for therein lies the full expression of the open ear. 

Somatic Integration & Singing 2

If the pupils opened their mouths incorrectly, I would show them how to do it right; and by many practical demonstrations, I have finally fixed a general rule which I will give here. This is: every pupil must shape his mouth for singing, just as he shapes it when he smiles. The upper teeth show a little, and are slightly separated from the lower ones. With many proofs and still more examples and much patience, I always obtained the desired result of discovering the necessary execution or such a rule. Besides, it is very easy, and in conformity with the best methods of the best schools. Let the teachers follow this method with their pupils and I dare to promise them the most satisfactory results. In giving them practical demonstrations, they can emphasize still more the truths of these rules by making their pupils pronounce the Italian vowels A-HA, E-A, I-E, O-OH, U-OO. With the above indicated position on the mouth, they will see that this position is not changed in going from one one vowel to another, except in pronouncing O and U.

—Giovanni Battista Mancini, Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing, Milan 1777, translated by Pietro Buzzi, Gorham Press, 1912: 93-94


Legion have been the singers who have attempted to integrate this teaching and have failed. Why? As indicated in my last post, the "smile" is applied from without rather than being an expression of the ear. Yet the truth is always before us: if it sounds right it will look right too. And this can be the hardest thing to learn. Why? More often that not, the student cannot look and listen at the same time; that is, he can't see what he looks like when he's singing well or correct it when he's not. As such, his auditory-vocal control is not yet functioning at a high level. 

This lack of control is evident in the student who is instructed to stand in front of a mirror and observe or correct what he sees, and right before the sound comes out of his mouth, looks down at the top of the piano or to the floor. Why? The ear, which must focus just as much as the eye, is still learning to do its job.  

It takes courage and skill to face your Voice

Somatic Integration & Singing

Neurologically speaking, two systems are at work in the middle ear.  

The first is under control of the facial nerve which innervates the muscle of the stirrup,

The second system is under the control of the trigeminal nerve, or forth cranial nerve, which innervates the muscle of the hammer. 

This is extremely important when we use a neurological approach to understand how the ear functions; we realize that the human ear is decided into two parts and not three as usually thought. The first part includes the inner ear, which is regulated by the muscle of the stirrup. This muscle is located in the middle ear and is innervated by the facial nerve, which simultaneously controls all the muscles of the face and the platysma of the neck. The second part includes the external ear, in particular the tympanic membrane or eardrum which is regulated by the muscle of the hammer. This muscle is innervated by the trigeminal nerve, which also controls the muscles of mastication. 

So, on one hand, the stirrup and its muscle maintain a stable pressure of the liquids within the ear. On the other hand, the hammer and anvil regulate the tympanic pressure in response to the sounds that one wishes to perceive.  

—Alfred A. Tomatis, "The Ear and the Voice," Scarecrow Press, 2004: 59 


The action of the muscles of the face and neck are integrated with the muscle of the stirrup? Really? Are you kidding me? 

No, I am not. 

The student who comes into the studio after a really bad day, and looks and sounds terrible is not making things up. Rather, the ear of the student had been impacted by events, auditory or otherwise, that keep the envelope of the ear from opening which it must for singing to occur. 

Where am I going here? It's simple really: Many old school manuals indicate that the opening of the mouth must be towards a smile. In Tomatis terms this instruction can be viewed as an expression of an open ear. It's not any more complicated than that until the student imposes this position onto his face in mechanical fashion. 

The truth is, the ear can't be fooled, which is easily deduced by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. The tell-tale sign? The conformation of the eyes. You've seen this when meeting someone who really doesn't want to meet you, and their mouth moves into a smile while their eyes stay dead. Listen carefully and you'll hear a dead tone too. 

Believe it not, this illustrates the huge difference between the modern school which too often in relies on positioning and the old school which—literally— relied on the ear.

Helping the student's ear to open? That takes great skill and patience on the part of the voice teacher. Learning how to keep it open and give expression to real feeling in spite of the vicissitudes of life? That's the real art.

March 23, 2015

The Problem With Placement 2

"Voice Placer" c. 1890
Vocal pedagogues have been peddling the idea of voice placement for a very long time, perhaps the most famous being Francesco Lamperti, who taught his students to listen to the center of the head whilst singing sotto voce. 

It's a controversial concept, if only because voice science has rightly determined that the cavities of the head do not contribute to vocal tone, which is made in the vocal tract. Yet the idea has had a very long shelf life. What accounts for this? The simple answer is that singers keep talking about it, one good example being the well-known tenor Matthew Polenzani, who, when asked where he felt "words and vowels" replied: 

For me, I feel everything out in front of my eyes. Everything I do happens in this focal point [indicates just out from the eyes]. For me, the voice starts inside of the body and it ends up in front of my eyes. And in front of my eyes, this focal point, that's where the projection happens.  —Leslie Holmes, "A conversation with Matthew Polenzani,"  Journal of Singing, Vol 63, No. 4, March/April (2007): 477 

Here's the thing, and my thing about this whole thing: Should Mr. Polenzani be robbed of his audio-vocal control—that's what we're dealing with here actually—because science tells him the vocal tract is the only resonator, and that his facial cavities make no contribution to vocal tone? Should he stop listening to his voice in front of his eyes?

I do not believe so. Unlike some of my colleagues, I take Mr. Polenzani's self-observation to be an actual phenomenon rather than a matter of self-delusion. What accounts for it? The short answer is the ear, specifically in how it processes and perceives vocal tone.

I tackled this matter head-on in my introduction to Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method based upon the Famous School of Manuel García (VoiceTalkPublications 2013). There, I demonstrated that García, Lamperti's great rival, recognized the "effect" of voice placement even if he focused on its "cause."  I also showed—for those curious enough to read the footnotes that accompany my text, that voice science, i. e. acoustical research, is catching up with historic teachings.

Note: The "voice placer" image comes from an issue of "Musical Courier," and illustrates the lengths to which teachers of singing have mistaken cause for effect. 

March 21, 2015

Less Science and a Little More Nature

THE ART OF SINGING By Mme. A. Litsner de Fére.

THE progress made in an art depends largely upon the publicity given to the ideas and observations of those engaged in it. One idea suggests another; remarks call forth comment. With singing, as with every other art, it is desirable that those who have had experience should bring the results to public notice.

The course now generally followed by teachers in publishing methods of their own is, however, to be deplored. Garcia, Lamperti and other eminent pioneers have written methods fully expounding the principles of the art of singing. All subsequent methods are based on these works, and differ merely in some minor points of application or interpretation. The necessity for these later methods may be questioned. Are they intended for pupils’ self instruction, or is it supposed that a teacher will forsake the masters’ methods to adopt another teacher’s method—too often written with the sole idea of bringing the author’s name before the public?

To introduce some new feature, and lacking in really valuable matter with which to vary the fundamental principles of an art so simple in itself, physiology has been resorted to. Practically, it is now contended, in many methods, that an almost surgical knowledge of the vocal organs should be had by a pupil beginning the study of singing. Yet the task of training the voice is of sufficient importance in itself to justify a 3 or 4 years’ course, without adding an unnecessary study of physiology and anatomy. Puzzling breathing-exercises have also been devised, some of them harmless in themselves, but generally superfluous. In still other methods we find advocated sundry modes of “ voice-placing."

Notwithstanding all these various methods, the final test remains the same. The only proper method is that which makes the singing appear, to the audience, full, natural and pleasing; to the singer, easy, devoid of any strain or effort. The difficulty lies in the fact that methods assume that all voices should be treated alike. Physicians who diagnose a particular disease advise the use of medicines not intended for other ailments. But vocal instructors of the method writing class, who favor certain rules, proper, perhaps, in some special case, advocate their general application.

Every voice should be trained according to its nature, and only such treatment given as it is found, upon examination, to require. The voice must be cleared of all imperfections before the final touches of dramatic execution are given. Unfortunately, teachers are inclined to follow some fashionable system exactly as it is published, instead of using discretion with regard to the nature and requirements of their pupils’ voices.

Some 15 years ago the Italian method was the favorite one here. Speaking with a prominent teacher, at the time, about the Paris National Conservatoire of Music, where I had been awarded first prizes, I was astonished to hear him assert that the Conservatoire was no authority here, the ground for his opinion being simply that the French method was conducive to tremolo in the voice, and that no French singer seemed able to sing steadily. My remonstrances that this defect was due more to the excitable nature of the French than to their professed method were of no avail. Times have changed since then, and it seems now as though it were the turn of the French method to become fashionable. It has many advocates, at any rate, among others, Mrs. Thurber. Indeed, there is a tendency among prima donnas to go to Paris for study. Moreover, the free tuition offered by the Paris Conservatoire is an inducement to go there. One would be surprised to see the number of American students in the Conservatoire. It is a mistake, however, to think that vocal instruction abroad is so far superior to ours.

Stockhausen, Faure, Delle-Sadie and other modern foreign teachers have also written methods, and are just as partial to them as teachers here are to their methods. If the method taught at the Paris Conservatoire is so much superior to all others, how is it that most of the female singers graduated from that institution during the last few years have proved of no great account? How is it that at the last concours of the Conservatoire the results were so discouraging as to call forth from the Paris press unfavorable comments? There and here, the error is the same. Scarcely a perfectly even voice is met with; and by the indiscriminating application of their established rules, defective voices, that require special training, cannot be perfected. The chief cause of fault-finding with voices at the last concours of the Conservatoire was their weak medium register. I had an interview on this subject with a reporter of the Herald (Paris edition), and mentioned to him that I had been asked to remain and teach in Paris, and that if I ever did so, I intended to have as pupils some of our American young ladies with weak medium range. He remarked that I would have no difficulty in finding them, for they all seemed to be deficient in this respect.

The evenness of the voice depends, to a great extent, on the medium register. In its perfection lies the beauty of a voice. We sometimes find a naturally good medium voice in young ladies who have never had a lesson; but as soon as they begin to study, the teacher establishes the three-register system, tells the pupil on which note to change from chest to medium, recommends all the different exercises in breathing, and adds a course of lectures on physiology —whilst the poor girl’s voice is quickly ruined.

I have studied in the Paris Conservatoire. Two of its present teachers, Mr. Archaimbeau and Mr. Crosti, were in my class. My experience of the manner in which vocal defects and weakness in the medium range are generally treated has been that they seek to conceal them. So long as the singer's voice is young, its brilliancy of execution is all that is apparent; but when the voice has been used for a few years, its fundamental defect reappears and the voice, especially in the medium, instead of improving, becomes so weak that it is practically worthless.

I have continued to study the art of singing ever since I graduated from the Conservatoire, and as the result of my experience I would say that vocal art depends on a very few but important points. (1) The placing of the voice; (2) the quality of the tone; (3) the break in the voice from chest to medium; (4) the manner of breathing.

I. The placing of the voice embraces opening the mouth, and the throat. The only natural way of opening the mouth is as in a smile. The body should be perfectly quiet, and there should be no strain on the muscles of the throat or neck.

2. The quality of the tone its fulness and richness, is obtained by a proper placing of the larynx and correct management of the breath. First, practice with the vowel a (ah) on the whole compass. The voice depends on the quality of the tone. Only through intuition can the teacher be a competent judge of the quality of the tone. He must also be able to give a proper example; for as he judges of the quality of a tone by hearing it, so a pupil must receive a correct tone that he may know what to imitate.

3. By an erroneous interpretation of Garcia’s method, all pupils are made to come to F (first space) in chest. Garcia gives us a wide field wherein the change of the register may be made. He says that a soprano may reach even C (below the staff) in a rich quality of medium. This is never attempted, for the weakness of the medium in most voices will not permit it. The secret and the only reason why singers’ voices are not perfect lies right here. The break in the voice may be entirely avoided, unless a pupil has already studied the ruinous system of establishing changes of registers.

The way to breathe has been the subject of much scientific writing; but here, again, we want a little less science and a little more nature. Breathing, as Garcia tells us, is a slow inhalation and a gradual exhalation. This is the natural way to breathe, and any scientific method robs the singer of that feeling of freedom, composure and self-control, that is absolutely necessary to enable the singer to give expression to her song.

Were these simple, natural rules more carefully observed, and the older methods of Garcia and Lamperti applied, bearing in mind the nature of the voice to be trained, I think we should soon notice the difference in singers, and have as many “stars” as we had 20 years ago.

Werner’s Voice Magazine, Vol XII, No. 2, February 1880, Page 36-37.


While I have not been able to ascertain if Mme. Litsner de Fére was a student of Manuel García or not, she certainly sounds like one, doesn't she? The clues are many, one of them being the emphasis on "nature," which the great maestro referred to quite often. I love articles like this one, which tell the reader not only how singing was being taught, but also how it had been taught.