November 9, 2011

Self Help For Singers

You won't find it on Google Books unfortunately. Written in 1914 by David C. Taylor, who's two earlier works - The Psychology of Singing and New Light on the Old Italian Method - appeared in a previous postSelf Help For Singers is a slender volume (64 pages) with more than enough material to drive the ardent vocologist to distraction. Taylor was, after all, the high priest of the Empirical School during the first decades of the 20th century.

What the world is seeking now is some way by which it can return to the method of the old masters. That the voice cannot be satisfactorily trained by present methods is generally acknowledged, but people are a loss to imagine how there could be a system of voice training which would not involve the attempt consciously to manage the vocal organs.  
How can a vocal teacher train his pupils, if he does not teach them, or at any rate try to teach them, to manage the diaphragm and the vocal cords, to open the throat, and to place the tone in the resonance cavities? How else did the old Italian masters train the voice? What, in short, was the old Italian method?
All these questions were fully answered in the "Psychology of Singing." It was shown that the idea of consciously governing the vocal organs is a mistake. Convincing proof was given that the old Italian method was founded on the faculty of imitation, that is, on the instinctive obedience of the voice to the commands of the ear. 


How does one "open the throat"? Taylor insists that it can't be done by direct manipulation which would only stiffen the muscles of the throat. Instead, he says that, for the throat to be open, the student has to know how a correct tone sounds and imitate it. Then the throat will open instinctively.

Concurrent with the opening of the throat is the forward tone. According to Taylor, the forward tone has a quality which the old masters called "the vibrations of the voice," and is sometimes called "point" or "edge" in English. This is a vibrant, metallic quality that is understood as the Singer's Formant today. As an example of 'edge,' Taylor suggests listening to a cornet.

Even if the student has no opportunity of hearing a crescendo played on a cornet he will probably have no difficulty in detecting the edge quality in the voices of people around him. The vitality and carrying power of the voice are due almost entirely to edge. Let the student note carefully those voices, both speaking and singing, which have a pleasing vital ring to their tones, and he will find that the edge quality is very prominent in them. A voice may be badly used, yet if it have the right amount of edge it may still give pleasure to the listener. But a voice without edge is devoid of life and character.  

This is far from the Marilyn Monroe voice which seems to be the vocal fashion these days. And it's not just women who lack edge. I've heard quite a few men in the operatic world in the last decade sing classical repertoire with a crooning voice which was totally unacceptable twenty years ago. The influence of popular culture at work? Taylor's popular culture was vaudeville!

Many untrained singers, especially among those heard in vaudeville, unconsciously cultivate the edge quality. These singers feel instinctively that to make their voices carry they must have edge in their tones. Why many singers of this class use their voices so badly is easily understood. Striving unconsciously for edge the get it by main force, thus stiffening their throats and making their voices harsh. 

Edge as understood by Taylor is now known to have everything to do with the aforementioned Singer's Formant and the relationship between the glottis and the pharynx which assumes a 1 to 6 ratio. In Taylor's world, however, striving mechanically for this relationship by directly widening the pharynx would be folly, yet to observe the efforts made by many singers, this writer notes that the mechanical school is alive and kicking. Singers do want to control what they are doing and many a voice teacher is happy to help them do just that. This an anathema to Taylor.

To attain the correct use of the voice, the best and quickest way is this: —To practice singing correct musical tones, guiding the voice solely by the ear, and paying no attention to the operations of the vocal organs. 

Experience in the voice studio has shown me that helping a student acquire a ringing tone has little to do with getting them to shape their mouths in a certain way. Rather, the mouth will assume the right configuration when a ringing tone is emitted. If the student is the least bit self-aware, he may say that he feels such and such—as in the back of the throat now feels more spacious etc etc. Whatever the feeling, I am at pains to tell him that it is a result of his experience of audition and should not be controlled directly. But invariably this is not what happens. The new sensation is treated like a favorite toy and concretized. And when this happens, the singer is now far from the "thing" that created it. Better to listen—which is what brought about the sensation in the first place- and observe. Observation, it should be noted, is an acquired skill. One which takes a great deal of practice.

The yogi's tell us that the untrained mind wants to do one of two things at any given time, which is to be attracted or repelled by an object, both interior or exterior. When this happens, the mind is blindly reacting. To observe, however, is to see things as they are without manipulating or concretizing them. One then experiences a sense of spaciousness around mental objects. And this is what the voice student needs to acquire, specifically, the ability to listen to the tone before it comes into being. Then, whatever feelings or sensations are experienced can be seen in context.

Help yourself by listening to the edge and observing what happens.


Note: Since this blog post appeared, a great many historical vocal pedagogy texts have been added to the download page here on VoiceTalk Historical Perspectives on the Art of Singing, Taylor's 'Self-Help for Singers' being one of them. 

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article! What an insight to the importance of imitation. I have heard of imitation as a way to teach vibrato for sure, but to use it for other issues like opening the back of the throat is a great revelation to me! Thanks for the tips and great article! I'll be sure to pass this on to my students!

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