January 9, 2019

García's Two-Straw Teaching

One could not become a capable singer without possessing the art of the control of the breath.

And so it is that Manuel García begins his essay on breathing in his groundbreaking A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1841 & 1872). * 

The heart of García's instruction is four breathing exercises, which he sets down as follows: 

  1. First, one inhales slowly and during a space of several seconds as much breath as the chest can contain. 
  2. One exhales that air with the same slowness as with which it was inhaled. 
  3. One fills the lungs and keeps them filled for the longest possible time. 
  4. One exhales completely and leaves the chest empty as long as the physical powers will conveniently allow. 

These four exercises, very fatiguing at first, should be practiced separately and at rather long intervals. The first two, namely the slow inhalations and exhalations can be practiced more regularly if one will nearly close the mouth in such a manner that only a slight aperture is felt for the passage of the air. 

I find this last sentence to be significant because Margaret Harshaw—whose own teacher Anna Schoen-René studied with Manuel García and his sister Pauline Viardot-García—taught that the singer should breathe as though through two straws placed behind the upper front teeth. She meant, of course, that this is how one breathed with the mouth open for singing.

Harshaw's instruction extends and amplifies her musical grandfather's instruction in terms of what is felt by the student when breathing with the mouth opened only a very little. It is a unique application of the "straw" in the voice studio, one which came long before its current conception and usage as devised by Ingo Titze. More than mere imagery, García's two-straw teaching has an effect on the breath as well as the vocal tract and vocal folds: specifically, a rounding of the vocal tract and a lengthening of the vocal folds.

For those who wonder whether García will have encountered the modern straw and integrated its proprioceptive affect with his teaching as outlined above, I point interested parties to the drinking straw's Wikipedia page, where one finds the following:

Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of paper, in 1888, to address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw. He came upon the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C.; the taste of the rye was mixing with the drink and giving it a grassy taste, which he found unsatisfactory. He wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. He later refined it by building a machine that would coat the outside of the paper with wax to hold it together, so the glue wouldn't dissolve in bourbon.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to that of the grass stems then in common use. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip.

You caught the last line, right? The two-straw bit?

Manuel García lived for eighteen years after Stone's invention, so it is entirely possible he encountered Stone's paper straw during soda fountain outings with his two young daughters (a product of his second marriage while in his 70's)—soda fountains being all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic (find an excellent article on the straw here). He was a curious man that spoke often about sticking close to nature; and what could more natural that the feeling of breathe through two thin straws—a feeling that amplified that of breathing through a small opening of the mouth?

I believe García's teaching as transmitted through Schoen-René and Harshaw achieves the very same ends as Ingo Titze's modern method; the cool thing being that in García's teaching, no external aid is necessary.

* A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part One (The Editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke), Da Capo Press, New York, 1984, page 33-35.

December 28, 2018

Year's End Musings

I've been blogging here on VOICETALK since 2009, and can hardly believe how fast time as zipped by—a curious thing considering the number of antique vocal texts I have read—time itself being rather malleable from this reader's perspective. 

The question I ask myself is this: Have things changed over time? 

From one perspective, one could say yes; they have, considering the technological advances that have been made since the invention of the laryngoscope in the early 19th century.

While Manuel García did not invent the laryngoscope, he was the first to use it for a practical purpose—his student Mathilde Marchesi noting that her teacher had a bad cold and wanted to see what was happening in his throat. Garcia's use of the laryngoscope had a life-changing impact even if he abandoned its use in teaching voice. Essentially, he confirmed his theories with it and moved on, and refrained from using scientific terms in the studio, observing that they only confused the student.

Are students that much smarter now?

It's quite common now to encounter a student with a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, acoustics, and physiology.  But all too often, these same students with advanced degrees have real vocal problems, problems that their knowledge base is helpless to address.

Then there are the gadgets.

It is now commonplace for a voice teacher to use acoustical data in the voice studio. Does this help the student? 

Call me old fashioned, but I belief that the best technology available to the student and teacher is a great pair of ears. Educated ears at that, since not all ears are equal and even the best voice print can't tell you if the tone is beautiful or not. 

Lilli Lehmann believed it took a good six months for a student to recognize differences in vowel quality—and the more I teach, the more I believe she was right. How long does it take for the teacher? I'd say about a decade. 

Back to all those texts I've read and what has changed. Reading a lot gives one perspective. You see things come and go. You notice what sticks, what stays, and what melts away. What that in mind, here's what I think, which is not a novel idea by any means.

We have gone from an auditory age to an intensely visual one, which is ironic when you consider singing is an auditory phenomena. In terms of bel canto this means beautiful singing. It means that the genesis of legendary vocal pedagogy happened long before there were any movie theaters, televisions,  flatscreens, and iPhones.

No technology. No second hand visual stimulus.

Even the greatest recorded voice—a second hand auditory stimulus—is no match for the living sound of the teacher's voice in the studio—the voice itself transmitting a wealth of information, that is, if the teacher has been properly trained and knows how to impart said training.

Now, teachers and students look at graphs, computer screens, into their phones; instagraming, creating memes, and spending a great amount of time using visual tools to communicate auditory phenomena.

Yet, how hard is it to get a student to look in a mirror?

Very hard indeed! 

While texts from a hundred and fifty years ago can only give us a hint of how great singers sounded, they do tell us what tools they used— and yes, mirror work was required. Those same texts also tell us what thoughts those singers were taught to think (yes, this is where I trot out the term voice placement). Taken as a whole, they remind us what Beverly Sills is noted for saying: "There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going."

What are some of the vocal abilities that were required that you hear little about today?

Messa di Voce

Mezza Voce

The Trill 

To date, I have not encountered one student, who, with the knowledge of their advanced degree, can demonstrate these terms. Sure, they can talk about them with academic precision, but these vocal abilities are dead to them functionally-speaking. As a result, the freedom of voice that they seek eludes them.

Where does this leave us?

Before we get all in a dither about the latest technology and join the cult of the straw, how about we all master the simple hard path that legendary vocal masters have laid out before us?

  1. How about we stand in front of a mirror and accept ourselves? How about we all sing in that mirror with a pleasant expression? Mind you, the mirror is cheap and never lies. So why aren't you using it? 
  2. How about we all learn to sing a real honest-to-god trill and not that bleat that passes for one? Marchesi's students are exemplars of the trill. Go find them. Go read Hermman Klein's instruction on the Trill. Jenny Lind that some salient points too. 
  3. How about we all learn to sing a true mezza voce instead of crooning? Yes, I have heard quite a few male opera singers do it onstage—and not when they are singing Musical Theatre. This has been going on for about a decade now and was once considered unacceptable. It continues only because conductors and coaches allow it to happen. Sorry, but crooning isn't bel canto. 
  4. How about we all learn to sing a true messa di voce? The hardest thing to do, and yet the most rewarding. Read Garcia on how to go about it. 

Find a teacher who can demonstrate and teach these required vocal abilities and you may have found your voice. 

November 25, 2018

Muscle vs Brain

"If your vocal cords are ready, the real warm-up is in your brain." —Margaret Harshaw 

That's what I heard. That's what I teach. 

When the singer understands experientially what vocal technique actually is and how it functions in the body, the real warm-up is in the mind; and the older I get, the more I experience the meaning of what Harshaw taught. 

Yes, it helps that I teach all day. 


It's not only that my voice had better be coming out the right way for the student; when you do it enough times the right way you know where every muscle is and how it feels—especially across the genres. 

Yes, this means singing in different styles. 

It's not a big deal if you go the distance. But how many teachers do? How many know that there is a continuum of singing with cabaret at one end and Wagner at the other? And that they all come from the same place? 

Of course, it's a big deal to learn how to do this, taking more than ear even if ear is involved. 

It takes mind and mindfulness which happens in the brain rather than the voice box.

November 12, 2018

Seven Requirements of the Old Italian School

The chief characteristics of the old Italian school were clearness, smoothness, volume, intensity, compass, ease, and endurance—seven characteristics shown now as ever by our song-birds; and we, like them, have to obtain effortless, full sustained, and beautiful tone if we wish to sing well. In order to do this we must have our bodies right, and our minds must perceive Where to Will, How to Will, What to Will, and—what is most important—What not to will. A pianist cannot strengthen his third finger by using his fourth; and in like manner a student of song cannot strengthen his voice by falsely placing or falsely directing his Will. As before said, to one student who fails through want of ability, thousands fail through want of clearness or direction on the part of the trainer and imperfect perception on their own. A student must always keep in mind what he wishes to attain; it is not any sound that will do, but only beautiful sound, and beautiful sound is the result of clearness, smoothness, volume, and intensity. 

The old school was celebrated for these conditions, but especially of volume, a property modern singers lack. 

—Charles Lunn, Philosophy of Voice (1900), Ninth Edition, page 17. You can find Lunn's book on the Download page. He was a student of Vinceslao Cattaneo. 

November 4, 2018

Bel Canto des Wortes

A truly wonderful, insightful, and provocative book from a student of Francesco Lamperti—Cornelie van Zanten's Bel Canto des Wortes (1911) should be required reading in vocal pedagogy programs. Serious, real-deal, historically-informed old Italian school of singing, it puts to shame recent volumes that claim as much but offer far less.

Use a Google translation app to get your feet wet. Then swim.

Find Bel Canto des Wortes on VOICETALK's download page in the right hand column. 

October 30, 2018

The Ear is the Spine

"The ear is the spine: the spine is the ear." —Alfred Tomatis 

The Einstein of the Ear wasn't kidding either. Tomatis meant this literally. According to his observation, the ear has everything to do with how the spine articulates itself within space, which observant voice teachers know from long experience. No one has to conduct 10 studies before they accept this as fact. They see it with their own eyes. That's empiricism for you. 

High level classical singing? The singer's spine is a heck of a lot more extended than that of the cabaret artist. Tomatis would observe that this is a result of the sound—as guided by the ear—shaping the body. 

Now that's a different perspective. 

In our day and age of knowing everything about the vocal mechanism, we all too often think in terms of the garage mechanic; where muscles are manipulated and air is moved through a system. But if that was the case, we'd all be great artists, wouldn't we? Simply extend the spine and voila! A great opera singer is born! 

But it takes a lot more than that to make an artist. As the Halloween candy is handed out tomorrow, I am going to looking at all the skeletons, ghouls, and goblins and thinking about singing.

October 21, 2018

The Ten Minute Rule

Ten minutes. That's all you need. Just ten minutes. 

This is what I tell avocational singers who enter my studio. They have jobs. They work umpteen hours yet want to sing—and think I am going to ask them to practice for hours at a time. 

Ah no. That's not how it works.

Even vocational singers need only practice for ten minutes at a time. 

The difference? 

Avocational singers should be able to practice singing a few times a day—say twenty to thirty minutes, while the vocational artist needs to think in terms of two and a half hours broken up in multiple ten minutes practice sessions. 

The vocational singer should practice technique for at least four to five practices sessions and only then devote sessions to repertoire. 

The beginning vocational student? Nearly all of the practice sessions will be devoted to technique. We're talking about the formation of beautiful tone: pure vowels, messa di voce, mezza voce, crescendo, decrescendo, trills, etc, etc—the high goal being an absolute technique throughout a two octave range.

If this sounds hard, you would be right. It's certainly not easy. It can and does that years to attain full mastery of the voice. But the sooner you start, the sooner you attain that mastery. 

Why ten minutes? 

Very simply: the mind goes to mush after ten minutes. Learning to master the voice means having to stimulate a very different response than the one associated with most activities. It's athletic, very active, and incredibly uplifting. Most young students have trouble finding the degree of innervation involved and then sustaining it for more than ten minutes at a time. It takes time to build up one's stamina—which is as much mental as it is physical. 

Training to be at a high level is an art unto itself. You have to start where you are going. So, if you are spending twenty minutes out of thirty at a lower level, that is what your practice is giving you. 

Be smart. Follow the Ten Minute Rule which reflects the tenets of neuroplasticity: if you want to change the brain you have to inundate it with overriding energy. This is much easier to do for shorter periods. 

September 20, 2018

My Trick

During a new student's first lesson, I will—at some point—place their hand on my solar plexus (after asking for permission), blow all the air out of my body—and sing a long phrase with full voice. 

Eyes go wide. Mouths gape. The student stammers: "How do you do that?"

How indeed. 

I am singing on the residual air in my lungs—but it's more than that: I am singing on breath than is compressed by my whole body. Paradoxically, I don't need to breathe to compress the air. It happens even before I inhale and involves extension. 

I can croon or sing like a Wagnerian on this breath.

Real control. It was taught to me by my teacher during my first lesson, or, I should say—it was a result of that first lesson—a lesson that it took me a long time to learn. 

To have full control you have to be fully alive. You aren't thinking about thinking. That's what academics do. They think about stuff. Good luck trying to get a room full of them singing! They have no breath whatsoever, their thinking depriving them of any real voice. 

Singers live on another level. One that is instinctual, sensual, full of pleasure and being. 

Full of the strong desire to sing and touch the listener.

September 11, 2018

Remembering 9/11

It was a Tuesday.

The opening night of New York City Opera's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

But it didn't happen.

I was listening to WQXR during breakfast and heard an announcer say that all the airports were closed: it was a national emergency—a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Stunned, I turned on CNN to see a plume of smoke coming out from one the towers; then later, bodies falling through the air. My mother called to see if I was Ok and I said: "I'm sorry I can't talk right now!"

It was surreal. The phone lines were nuts. But I did manage to call a colleague at the opera who lived in Brooklyn to tell her not to take the subway to rehearsal—as if she hadn't figured that out already.

Everyone was helping one another. Reaching out. Being fully present.

The Flying Dutchman opened that Saturday, the company assembling in front of a raised curtain with the flag hanging overhead; me standing far stage left—your right—in the front row—shaking. We sang the national anthem—and I swear, it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The arc of emotion coming from the audience was so huge and overwhelming that I stood facing a wall afterwards in an effort to pull myself together. All I wanted to do was bawl my eyes out. And it's really hard to sing when you are sobbing.

Weeks later, pictures of fireman from the firehouse near Lincoln Center started appearing in the hallway backstage.

People stopped buying subscriptions. They found it hard to commit to a future when the present was so heartrending. Ticket sales dropped. Management made some really bad mistakes and NYCO left Lincoln Center; selling off the company's costumes and sets—its archives drowning in a basement on Broad street courtesy of hurricane Sandy—and wandering the streets of Manhattan like a beggar before declaring bankruptcy.

Yes, the company is back—a mere shadow of its former self—the diaspora of the original NYCO meeting for luncheons across from Lincoln Center: remembering, connecting, laughing, loving.


Bound together on a Saturday night.

June 24, 2018

Summer Recess

Rose Room, New York Public Library, 42nd & 5th Avenue 

Dear Reader,

I am taking a summer recess to work on important project. Look for more posts in the Fall. In the meantime: Please have some fun, get outside, and stay active in your community. 

Also: The world needs beauty right now, especially here in the United States of America. Please do what you can, ok? That includes acts of nonviolent resistance—a truly beautiful thing. 

Lastly: Need to be in touch? Contact me via my website(s) in the right hand column. It's always good to hear from you. 

Be well,  Daniel