November 26, 2011

Secrets of Preparation

John Mewburn Levien


A student of Manuel García, John Mewburn Levien was a noted singing teacher in England during the beginning decades of the 20th century and gave talks which were published-  an extract from one appears below. Titled The Singing-Master's Decalogue (1916), Levien's talk to the Incorporated Society of Musicians outlines the basic principles of bel canto singing. Of course, the curious thing regarding this slender 15 page document is that, after reading it, one is left with the impression that the issues facing the voice teacher of a hundred years ago are nearly identical to those faced today.

My old friend Charles Lunn, the author of "Philosophy of Voice." was always adjuring us to "define our terms." We will therefore begin, "and it please you." with an attempt to define the word "singing."  
Do we mean by "singing" any sort of attempt to make the words and music with one's mouth and throat? That ever-lamented humorist Dan Leno used to cause much amusement by giving a list of all sorts and conditions of eggs. But just as the good housekeeper, when she goes to buy eggs, does not look for those of the electioneering type, so I take it by "singing" we, here, mean not singing which is technically bad, but singing which is governed by the canons of Art, viz, That the voice should be steady; that the tone should flow out, and not be forced out; that it should be clear and carrying and properly focussed; composed, as it were, with the different proper proportions of brightness and somberness; that the vocalization, that is, the singing of two or more notes on a vowel sound should be smooth, and yet the notes distinct; that there should be a proper preponderance of vowel sound over consonant sound in duration; that the words should be plain; that the shakes, turns, etc., should be perfectly done as by good instrumentalists; that any gradation of tone should be at the instant command of the singer; that the voice should not suggest a slice of human anatomy, such as the throat or the nose; and that dramatic effects, tone-colour, etc., should for the most part be made within the limits of those canons, though of course for any special effect the artist might momentarily depart for any or all of them.  
Now these limitations are the corresponding limitations which we find in literature, in military and all other human affairs in which the trained human intellect has exercised itself; to the casual thinker they seem likely to hamper the artist's movements, but as a matter of fact they really enable him to reach heights unattainable in any other way- always supposing he has been born with the great gifts which are indispensable and without which cultivation is a mere waste of time.  
There are some people who have a kind of idea that singing is a natural thing. Let us consider the word "natural." I fancy that there is very often a slight confusion in the minds of people when they use the word; what they mean is, that singing should appear unforced- spontaneous, and in that way natural. But they think at the same time that this is a thing which is done without any instruction or conscious thought. No doubt there are things in singing which are done without any study or conscious thought, but no more can the most gifted know the whole collection of those things which are in the compound of the great singer, than can an absolutely symmetrical pearl necklace be made out of a handful of unsorted pearls, casually picked out of a bag straight from the fisheries. Some handfuls may be more or less symmetrical, but there must always be a good deal of choosing; and this has happened, I think, in the case of great singers.  
For the last thirty or forty years the public has shown a tendency to like only that which excites it. It is a retrograde- an atavistic propensity. Were that bent in the public mind intensified, Art would disappear and return to a state of uncultivated nature. It is therefore the duty of the expert to keep his hold, and retain the influence over the community, to guide them aright.  
There has been in all ages since music emerged from its infancy some natural singing, some singing which was artificial, which smelt of the lamp, and some which was governed by canons of art and yet appeared perfectly natural. The ratios in which these different forms of singing have been practised have varied at different times. The middle sort- the artificial - we need not trouble ourselves with; everybody must admit that to be to out of court; but we must make up our minds whether we are going more or less to take what Nature gives us, or whether we are to have a thing of as much fire and energy as you like, but a fire and energy which is under the automatic control of a technique which has become second nature.  
In certain instances this executive ability may be partly a heaven-sent gift. History, however, shows that in most cases it has been acquired by careful and methodical teaching, by diligent practice and study, and the minute observation of good models. It is only when technique illapses as part of oneself that it resolves into one's second nature. Unless we have thoroughly assimilated it, it is impossible to appear inartificial, unaffected, or to sing with abandon. It was by the art which conceals art that Jenny Lind achieved some of her greatest triumphs. With her, as with other phenomenal singers, miracles have been affected by accomplishing, with the ease of innocence, difficulties of the most intricate character.  
The public, with a morbid dread that singing cannot be interesting if it accords with rule, has no perception of our secrets of preparation. If the act of presenting an executive attainment is not conformable with certain underlying rules it is formless, inartistic and uncivilised. It is the work of the master to take care that technique and natural freshness run in double harness side by side, so that the one faculty stimulates the other, like a well-matched pair of horses. 

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