January 30, 2011

Mrs. Hart

She sang on Broadway in the 1948 premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia. Did you know that? Serious stuff for a gal who is mostly known for hamming it up with the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and her wit on To Tell The Truth. The real truth is Kitty Carlisle Hart (neé Catherine Conn) studied voice with Anna E. Schoen-René, a student of the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia and her equally famous brother Manuel Garcia. She practiced measured trills assiduously. Sang scales, scales, scales, and more scales. In fact that's pretty much all she did with Schoen-René. Not repertoire, but scales to built technique. How do I know this? I interviewed Mrs. Hart a few years before she died (NYTimes Obit here). Her phone number was in the book. So I called her up. She answered the phone.


"Hello.... Mrs. Hart?" I was told by a friend that she liked to be called by her married name.


"This is Daniel James Shigo. I'm researching Anna Schoen-René."

"My goodness! That's a name I haven't heard in a long while!"

"I understand you studied with her. I'd like to interview you about that if possible."


"Do you have a publisher?" The last syllable was Mid-Atlantic, with nary an R.

"If you speak to me I might!"

"Oh!" Her voice a mixture of curiosity and wariness.


"I don't have time right now, but call me again in a couple of weeks."


"Hi.  This is Daniel James Shigo.  We spoke a few weeks ago about Anna Schoen-René, and about my interviewing you about your studies with her. "

"Oh yes! I'd love to talk to you!  She was so good to me!"  The /a/ vowel on the word love was conspicuously rounded.

We set a date. I showed up at a grand building on Madison Avenue at 10 AM, where a white-gloved doorman escorting me to her third floor apartment in an gleaming brass-gated elevator. The door opened right into her vestibule which glowed like a jewel box with its red silk walls. A maid greeted me, ushered me into a book and award-filled living room with a piano in one corner, and asked me to wait. Mrs. Hart swept into the room 45 minutes later, dressed in a flowing caftan; eyes sparkling, black hair freshly coiffed, bright red lips and rouged cheeks echoing the entry.

"So...you want to talk about my dear Schoen?" She said, shaking my hand and standing tall. We sat and plunged into conversation.

Hart's first teacher was Estelle Liebling (Beverly Sills teacher), who played bridge with her mother. But that didn't work out so well. Hart didn't learn anything from her. Since her mother only sought out the best, Schoen-René was consulted. Their association was a revelation. Hart credited Schoen-René with giving her a technique that made it possible for her to sing. She still worked with a pianist every Friday morning (Hart was 93 at the time.)  

Schoen-René classified Hart as a Dugazon (dark colored soprano), took her to the opera often, and instilled in her pupil the idea that the singer had to work incessantly on the instrument. 

"It never stops. You have to be disciplined about it." 

Schoen-René Hart gave her a technical foundation. And the devil was in the details. It took her a long time to be able to master a measured trill, but she did. She also learned how to sing messa di voce, crescendodecrescendo, mezza voce. All the finer points of the Old School. Yes. Schoen-René had her sing on /a/. That was the main vowel. Yes. She emphasized 'placement' and the 'attack'. It was always in the 'mask'. The sound was always 'forward.' Without Schoen-René her career wouldn't have happened. She wouldn't have been able to sing The Rape of Lucretia. Britten's music wasn't a walk in the Park after all.  

"I owe her everything!"

We talked for a good 45 minutes, the conversation ranging from technical matters to current musical happenings, the failings of certain sopranos, how she idolized Rosa Ponselle, her involvement with the New York State Council on the Arts, singing at the Met, and her one woman show. Afterwards, I walked out onto Madison Avenue feeling like I had touched another era, one where art had a capital A, and rounded vowels were synonymous with real class.

January 28, 2011

Mommy..why are the high notes on the right side of the piano?

I learned a very curious thing after going to the Listening Centre in Toronto some years ago: there is a subtle yet profound difference in how the left and right ear actively process sound. Are audiologists aware of this and what it means for musicians?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that you have great hearing. You've been tested by an audiologist and your hearing- at least on paper- is excellent. In fact, your ears look identical on the graph. Does this mean that your left and right ear process sound in the same way when you vocalize or play an instrument? No. It doesn't.

When you have a hearing test you aren't making a sound. You aren't being active, that is, vocalizing in any way. You aren't talking, singing, sighing or crying. The sound is coming in, not going out. And this can be measured on a graph. But what happens when you make a sound? Is there a difference between the two ears? Yes. There is. It's not one, however, that can be measured on a graph, though it can be perceived, which is where science and art diverge. A simple exercise will show you what I am talking about.

Right vs Left Ear Exercise

1) Hold your right hand, palm facing you, up to your mouth. Hold it no more than two inches away. Your little finger will be in line with your nose. Now speak or sing slowly in a resonant voice into the heel of your hand. Listen to the quality of the tone.

2) Hold your left hand, palm facing you, up to your mouth. Hold it no more than two inches away. Your little finger will be in line with your nose. Now speak or sing slowly in a resonant voice into the heel of your hand. Listen to the quality of the tone.

3) Repeat steps one and two at least three times. Write down your impressions. Experiment by slowly and resonantly intoning the 5 Italian vowels, or recite poetry and bits of verse from memory.

Is the quality of the tone the same on the right side as it is on the left? While you may not be able to put your finger on it immediately, you probably noticed that there is a qualitative difference between the ears. This difference is - for singers anyway - precious knowledge.

For those with excellent listening ability, the right side will sound higher and brighter, while the left side lower and darker. The left side can also seem closer, while the right farther away. In contrast to each other, the left hand seems to be missing something, while the right hand seems to be full of sound from top to bottom. This is because the right ear, according to Tomatis, actively processes higher frequencies faster. They are much more stimulating than lower ones, and have a huge impact on the voice and the acquisition of beautiful chiaroscuro tone. To paraphrase Duke Ellington: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that ring. And the singer's awareness of the tonal quality on the right side needs to lead the left, which enables the singer to establish true ring in the voice.

I've been onstage with quite few of singers who use the left ear to lead the voice (the trained observer can see as well as hear the difference). While the sound is often big, the voice doesn't touch (a vestibular part of listening) the listener in the same way as that of the right-eared singer. The left-sided singer sounds distant, as though coming from another room. Of course, this isn't limited to singers. I've also worked with a well-known conductor, a highly intelligent man, who gets frustrated because he isn't being followed properly. However, it's clear to the trained eye that the gentleman leads with his left ear and is behind his own beat.

How we process sound matters. It has everything to do with how we communicate with ourselves and others. For those with listening problems, the right ear can be awakened. While this would involve a full course of listening training with a skilled practitioner, the exercise above can be useful. I ask my own students who have difficulty obtaining a clear free tone to practice reading to themselves for 20 minutes a day with the right hand held close to the mouth as though holding a microphone. Though it is a pun it is no less true: this exercise can help make everything right.

January 27, 2011

The King's Speech

The Oscar race has already begun, and The King's Speech is one of the contenders. If you haven't yet seen the movie, it's about King George VI who overcame a stammer to deliver a radio address upon England's entry into WWII. The film's historical accuracy isn't what concerns this page, but rather, stuttering itself - or stammering as it is called in England.

The mechanism of stuttering is not clearly understood, though there are three theories currently being offered. The first suggests that stuttering is a learned behavior. Children are often 'disfluent' in language development, and criticism or punishment when stuttering is exhibited is thought to create anxiety which only exacerbates the problem. In the second theory, stuttering is considered a psychological problem, and is treated with psychotherapy. In the third theory, stuttering is considered an organic problem where the brain is neurologically different from the norm. 

There is a fourth theory, however, which offers a more nuanced perspective. Rooted in the work of Dr. Alred A.Tomatis, a French ENT who developed technology for the rehabilitation of opera singers, stuttering is understood to be a listening problem that involves the establishment of right ear laterality. Because 70% of the neural energy of the right ear goes to the language center located in the left hemisphere, Tomatis observed that problems occur when the right ear isn't able to 'lead'. 

Tomatis treated stuttering with filtered Mozart, that is, with the music's lower frequencies attenuated. (Curiously, Colin Firth's character in The King's Speech is also played Mozart while reciting Shakespeare.) Tomatis found that exercising the two tiny muscles in the ear in this way lead to greater audio-vocal control. The muscles are stimulated in two ways, through air and bone conduction, the latter being a key component in audio-vocal control in speaking and in singing. According to Tomatis, bone conduction (the feeling of the sound) precedes air conduction in the auditory cortex. This is one explanation for why singers don't stutter: they have better 'timing' because of the heightened degree of bone conduction involved. According to Tomatis, it is all about getting the bones to sing.

For a more in-depth perspective on Tomatis' work and stuttering, click here. A brief account of my own experience with Tomatis' Listening Training can found here.  

January 26, 2011

Signor Garcia takes a lesson

William Nicholl was a late bloomer and made something of a splash. I mean, what else can you call a guy who started serious vocal studies in his 40's, sang for the Queen - as in Victoria - not once, but twice, and went on to teach at his Alma Mater - The Royal Academy of Music? The British musical biography: a dictionary of musical artists, authors, and composers born in Britain and its colonies, caught up with Nicholl in 1897.

Nicholl, William, tenor vocalist and teacher, was born at Glasgow, June 30, 1851, and originally worked as an engineer in Glasgow and India. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, under Fiori, from January, 1884, to July, 1885, and gained the Parepa-Rosa gold medal, and the Academy bronze medal. He afterwards studied at Florence under Vannucini. He made his debut at Glasgow, in November, 1884, with Madame Georgina Burns' party. Since 1886 he has given an annual series of classical concerts in London, and has sung at Chester (1888), Gloucester (1889), and other festivals and concerts throughout the kingdom, such as the London Ballad Concerts, Crystal Palace, Richter Concerts, etc. He has appeared twice before the Queen, by command, and in 1895 he accompanied Mr. Gladstone in the "Tantallon Castle" when Sir Donald Currie was cruising in the North Sea. He is A.R.A.M. and has been a professor of singing at the Royal Academy of Music since 1891. Joint author with George Thorpe of "Text-Book on the natural use of the Voice," London, 1895, and has lectured on "Voice Production" at the Society of Arts, January 27, 1897.

What the British musical biography didn't mention was that Nicholl sought out Manuel Garcia after returning from Italy. Nicholl wrote about his first meeting with the great Maestro in a memoir.

From “Levels” to “Lyrics” being some passages from my life, by W. Nicholl, The Savage Club Papers,  by Savage Club, p. 152
So much for my life with the "levels." "Lyrics" must have their share of this brief sketch. Gifted with a quick ear and an aptitude for improvising, my musical education was left more or less to nature. I have lived to regret it. In India, music made me many good friends and a few enemies. I can sympathise now with the hoary- headed individual's disgust who one day found me in the throes of composition instead of being seated on a mud- bank in a grilling sun, superintending my workmen, who were busy on the foundation of a large pumping-station we were erecting for the Calcutta water-supply.
In '83 I resigned my berth, as prospects were not tempting enough, and came home with my wife and "bairns," convinced that with the influence I had a good berth would soon be forthcoming; but nine months of idleness opened my eyes to the fact that, like a good many other professions, Engineering was a glut in the market. An old Indian chum was the first to propose a musical career, and after thinking it over for a couple of months I sang to August Manns, J. B. Welch, and others, who gave me such a favourable verdict that I consulted Signor Randegger, who advised me to join the Royal Academy of Music.  So in January '84 I began a second "schoolboy" life. Eighteen months in that grand old Institution gave me a good grounding, and the bronze medal and Parepa-Rosa gold medal, to hand down to posterity. I then migrated to Florence, had a little more voice knocked into me, and a great deal of Scotch reserve knocked out of me. I continued my studies on returning home and among others had lessons from that grandest of old men in the musical profession, Manuel Garcia. My first lesson is worth recording.
The "maestro" was genuinely puzzled how to begin, for he said, "You have taught for some time and you have sung in public! What can I do for you?"
I could only assure him that I felt it not only a great privilege to meet him, but was convinced that every word he said on the subject of the voice would be of value. "Well," said Garcia, "I am much puzzled how to commence. ... Ah! I have it! You are no longer Mr. Nicholl, you are Signor Manuel Garcia—I am Mr. Nicholl. Now, Signor Garcia"—making me a profound bow—"will you be good enough to give me my first lesson in singing?"
A "tall" order, was it not ? However, my Scotch blood stood me in good stead, and I buckled to and did my best with the result that we became the best of friends. I look upon these lessons as one of the pleasantest memories of my musical career.

Garcia was "genuinely puzzled"? From the account above, the great Maestro knew something of the Art of War in having the presence of mind to turn the tables on his interlocutor. Nicholl's success in meeting Garcia's challenge may have been the first step towards his appointment to the faculty of The Royal Academy of Music; after all, Garcia was its most prestigious member. Nicholl's association with Garcia, I believe, surfaces in Text-book on the natural use of the voice, especially in Nicholl's description of 'costal' breathing which is in keeping with Garcia's instructions in A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847).

In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach. From the moment when you begin these two movements the lungs will dilate until they are filled with air. 

It should be noted that the phrase "set the hollow of the stomach" can be translated from the original French so as to suggest a retraction of the abdomen. Here is Nicholl's view on the matter which was given as part of an address. Like Garcia, he abhorred the notion of 'method' in the teaching of singing.

Mr. Nicholl on Voice-Production, The Musical Herald, May 1, 1897, p. 157
Mr. W. Nicholl, A.R.A.M., lectured last month before the Society of Arts, on voice-production, and we summarise the advice he gave. He said: “My experience as a student, singer, and teacher convinces me that the real art of voice-production is yet in its infancy.  One disadvantage is that nearly everyone, whether violinist, pianist, organist, or conductor, undertakes to teach the art of voice-production. I have a strong objection to the word ‘method.’ Voice-production is no secret.  It is the result of a natural use of natural means in a natural way. Our first object is to master breathing. Manuel Garcia told me that correct breathing formed 75 per cent of the whole work of a singer. I favor costal breathing, in which we have a flattening of the abdomen, great lateral expansion of the ribs, and an increase of the whole thoracic cavity, from collar-bone to diaphragm. The tendency for the voice to collapse towards the end of a breath is not the result of shortness of breath, but of wrong application, and if we reverse the action (costal instead of abdominal) we find that we are enabled to produce a bright tone without taking a fresh breath. In costal breathing, too, through obtaining a greater quantity of air and greater compression, the tone is more strongly reinforced. I used abdominal breathing for the first eight years of my career, but when I adopted costal I obtained increased strength of all the abdominal muscles, greater capacity and control of breath, and in the voice increased brightness.  

75 percent of the work of a singer?  That's quite a statement! However, Garcia, like other Old School pedagogues, was wont to quote Anna Maria Celoni Pellegrini who intoned:

Chi sa respirare sa cantare. 
(He who know how to breath, knows how to sing.)  

January 24, 2011

Margaret Harshaw: Low to High

She was considered a teacher of teachers, and one of the last touchstones to the school of Manuel Garcia and his sister Pauline Viardot-Garcia, having studied with their student Anna E. Schoen-René at The Juilliard School in the 1930's.

Margaret Harshaw sang more Wagner roles than anyone in history as a result of having moved from Mezzo-Soprano to Dramatic-Soprano. She made her debut in 1942 as the third Norn in Wagner's Ring, and sang Contralto/Mezzo-Soprano parts until 1951 when she went on for an indisposed colleague as Senta. The change in repertoire was foreshadowed in a NYTimes review of a 1939 Juilliard School production of Dido and Aeneas.

The outstanding work of the evening among the singers was done by Margaret Harshaw as Dido. She has a voice, not only of immense potentialities, but one whose achievement is here and now. It is a mezzo-soprano of rich substance and velvety texture, with an extensive range; in fact, the middle and top tones have the impact of a dramatic soprano. More important, Miss Harshaw has musical instinct, and she sang the role of Dido with a nobility of line and a wealth of feeling that were well beyond the realm of student work.

The reviewer, Howard Taubman, was not alone is his assessment. The great conductor Walter Damrosch heard her the same night and startled the young singer after the performance by prophesying that she would later sing Wagner's Brünnhilde. The great pedagogue had her own thoughts on the matter which were documented in an interview with Bruce Duffie in 1994 (see the whole interview here).

BD:    You had a long and distinguished career, starting as a mezzo soprano and then moving to soprano.  Why did you decide, or was it imposed upon you, to move from the mezzo range to the soprano range?

MH:    Oh, my voice decided that!

BD:    Completely?

MH:    Completely.  I never was a mezzo.

*  *  *  *  *  * 

BD:    You started your career singing mezzo roles, but you say you never really were a mezzo?

MH:    No, I never really was.  I came along at a time when there were some fantastic mezzos, but they were getting tired.  I had a high voice, which was easy for me, and it was never noticed that I probably didn’t have that other thing that many of them do on the bottom, which is an open chest sound.  I had the height and the middle, and of course a solid sound, so I moved into those roles and then through Ortrud and Brangane.  That was the process that led right on.

BD:    Did you know even when you were singing traditional mezzo roles like Amneris that you would eventually be singing Aïda?

MH:    Yes.  Oh, yes, I knew that almost to the year, because Schoen-René told me.  She said, “Somewhere between thirty-eight and forty, you will probably move into that area.”  And it was just around those years. 

One of those fantastic mezzos was Karin Branzell, who also studied with Schoen-René, and sang at the Met until 1944. It has been reported to this writer that she was not as enthusiastic as others about Harshaw's steep climb to Valhalla. Was this because she made occasional forays into the heights herself, and knew the difficulties and potential cost involved? Whatever the case, it should be noted that Harshaw made the change without the assistance of Schoen-René, who died the same year that Harshaw made her Met debut.

Interestingly, quite a few recordings of Harshaw are now available on Utube.  I've grouped them into two categories below so you can make your own comparison.


Dramatic Soprano

I would have liked to post more Soprano offerings, but the three above at least give the listener some idea of the difference between Harshaw's singing as a Mezzo and a Soprano. My own thoughts on the matter? Harshaw's Soprano voice is astonishing in its projection and authority, but too often lacks the velvety quality that is evident in the Mezzo recordings (the '59 Ortrud/Lohengrin might be considered the exception since it came well after the her soprano career had begun). However, this listener hears this earlier quality in the umlauted vowels- an interesting matter, no?

There is one recording which isn't present here which is perhaps the most telling. And that is a performance of Tristan und Isolde ('46).  Harshaw sings Brangäne to Helen Traubel's Isolde (Kirsten Flagstad's successor), and there are times when it is hard to tell the two voices apart- they are equally opulent and share the same character. Was this the quality Schoen-René hoped her pupil would have when she reached the heights?

January 23, 2011

Master Words

"Don't shout and bellow" said Lamperti, "but fill my rooms with tone!" 

Guilia Valda, Werner's Voice Magazine, 1898

January 22, 2011

Vocal Secrets of the Ancients

Some of the most interesting books I have come across have been all but forgotten. That is certainly the case with Evelyn Hagara's Vocal Secrets of the Ancients (1940). Hagara was a student of Giulia Valda (Julia Wheelock of Boston), a soprano with a near three-octave range who studied with Francesco Lamperti.

Valda had a flourishing career in Europe and America, making her debut in Milan in 1879 with Lamperti at her side (he also accompanied her to Paris and London). She subsequently sang lead roles in Verdi's Traviata, Ernani and Aida, along with forays into Wagner's Lohengin and Mozart's Don Giovanni, though considered her strongest role to be that of Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. In 1886, she returned to New York to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi's Louisa Miller. After a twenty-year career, Valda opened the Lamperti-Valda School of Singing in Paris with Lamperti's widow in 1901. Hagara found Valda in the City of Lights when the latter was 90.* Despite her advanced age, Valda was able to impart to Hagara one of the essentials of Lamperti's School: the attack.

Giulia Valda (1850-1925) 

This grand old lady was truly an artist of the old school. Though ninety years of age, she possessed a vitality and magnetism of spirit seldom equalled. From her I learned the attack and the place of attack, the very fundamentals of vocal technique. Her age had created a vagueness in her own mind upon certain of the technicalities, but to her I owe the greatest gift which one person can give to another- in spite of her own limitations, she was able to open my mind to the intricacies of vocal production and create an awareness in me of those things which I needed to discover for perfection. It was her teachings which provided the clue to the knowledge that I had been seeking. (p. 16)


There are two places of attack within the flute (larynx), one for chest voice and one for head voice. These two registers were taught by the ancients, and even by some of the more modern teachers. Jenny Lind, in a letter to one of her pupils, has stated, that she went to Berlin to study with Garcia expressly to learn the two places of attack, and it was not until after she learned this knowledge that she achieved her greatest success. 
After inhalation, the singer must prepare for the attack by pausing briefly so as to fill the flute with poised air which dilates the ventricles. Then, for the chest attack, a quick mental 'ah' is said at the base of the voice box. This releases the vocal lips and throws their entire lengths into vibration. When produced correctly, a remarkable vibration in the chest-box itself can be noticed. Lamperti said: "Open well the base of the flute, then attack the vowel 'ah'. The voice will soar out limpid, sonorous, and well 'appoggiata', in the pianissimo as well as in the forte. The is the most important to obtain, as the greatest part of one's career depends upon this knoweldge."
For this chest attack, the flute must be dilated horizontally and perpendicularly. The attacked "ah" must be sustained mentally for the duration of the note. When the vowel is attacked and sustained in this way, there will be no physical cramping or rigid holding of the vocal instrument, and it will be possible to move from note to note with a flexible ease which is felt by the singer and audience alike. The old Italian singing masters liked to refer to these evenly and freely produced notes which seem to spring instantaneously from one to another as "pearls on a string." This perfect joining of attacks produces the legato in singing. And Tosi, in 1723, lad down the axiom, 'He who cannot join his notes, cannot sing." (Chi non lega, non canta.)
The chest voice must emulate the organ, resounding and vibrating with great mellowness and depth of tone, and this can be produced only by rightly controlled breath. As explained before, this is the warmed breath, controlled by the trachea, and is sustained on the chest muscles. To "appoggio" (lean) is the term constantly stressed by the old masters. The chest tones are the foundation of the whole voice, both male and female, from basso to coloratura, and they support and impart strength to the entire vocal organ. 
The head voice differs in character from the chest voice. It is produced at the top of the flute.  Its tone possesses a flutey quality in the female voice and the so-called falsetto in the male voice. By this quality we know that the ventricle pockets at the top of the flute are dilating upward correctly. In a woman, this is the natural voice and easily regulated. In a man it is more difficult to attain mastery of these head muscles; but, once their correct manipulation has been acquired, tremendous power results. In the head-voice the cords shorten, thus increasing the number of vibrations. This gives a great carrying quality to the voice, permitting it to penetrate throughout the largest theatre and rise above the most powerful orchestra. At the same time the breath consumption is reduced, and it becomes possible to sustain these high flutey notes indefinitely. This ability to sustain the tone is one manner of determining if the tone is produced by the pure flute. These tones spring only from the top or head of the flute. The neck muscles must never hinder their production by contracting towards the larynx. On the contrary, these muscles must dilate from it perpendicularly and permit perfect freedom and flexibility of the vocal box. This is the mechanical production of tone. It represents only one-half of the final process and, in itself, does not result in beauty of quality. This only follows after the vibrating column of tone- tone, not breath- has been directed mentally to the very summit of the pharynx. Here it is amplified and reinforced as the many resonant cavities pick up the reverberations set into motion in the flute, and the phenomena of the head-tone, in all is aesthetic perfection and ethereal lyricism, result. (p. 36-40)

Notwithstanding the fact that Manuel Garcia did not teach Jenny Lind in Berlin, but rather, Paris, and the letter Hagara mentions remains to be found, I find it plausible that Valda's teaching on the attack is that of Francesco Lamperti (the reinforcement of tone at the top of the pharynx a 'Lamperti-ism'). Oral tradition, even when skewed, has a peculiar weight.

Of course, I've been curious about Hagara, but haven't as yet found any biographical information. A few fascinating things have been accounted for however: Hargara, with knowledge learned from Valda, was able to sustain a tone for three minutes, which was duly recorded in by Robert L. Ripley of Believe It Or Not fame. She also starred in the 1936 Western "Señor Jim".

I obtained a copy of Vocal Secrets of the Ancients at Abebooks.com (actually, I have two, which says something about my bibliomania, doesn't it?) which is signed - To a glorious voice, Jack Dennis, Sincerely, Hagara, Nov. 20 '40 Portland Oregon. The text is scribbled full with annotations, presumably by Mr. Dennis, which compliment and clarify the text. You can't do better than that.

*Since this post was written, I've learned Valda's birth and death date which indicate that Hagara misjudged her teacher's age: Valda died at the age of 70 and did not teach into her 90's. Of course, this leaves one with more questions than answers.

January 21, 2011

The Focus Vowel

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my post on Compound Vowels where I mentioned Margaret Harshaw's teaching that every "perfect vowel" is a combination of three vowels: /a/, /i/ and /u/. The last two posts dealt with /i/ and /a/. This one will deal with /u/, what Miss Harshaw called the "focus vowel." 

Of the three, /u/ is most difficult to wrap one's head around. This may have everything to do with the fact that the sound of /u/ in English (on both sides of the pond) is quite guttural and muffled. It may also have to do with the fact that it is the polar opposite of /i/. While /i/ brings the vocal folds together, /u/ has the tendency to pull them apart—a good thing to know if a student is grating their folds together.

What does the thought of /u/ do?  It focuses the tone by lengthening the vocal tract. The soft palate is felt to rise while the larynx descends ever so slightly, the two working in opposition (see my post on movements of the soft palate here).

What can aid the student in obtaining a clear and resonant /u/? Two things. The first is the following instruction: when you sing /a/ think of /u/, and when you sing /u/ think of /a/. The second is having already acquired a resonant /i/ vowel. It is the vowel that is the most "forward."  /u/ needs this influence.

If you want to beautify the tone, think of /u/. If you want to make a vowel more resonant, think of /i/. If you want to free a vowel, think of /a/. Of the three, /a/ is the center on which the other two hinge—a triptych of sound.  

January 20, 2011

Open Throat

It's a term that has a long history, like that of 'voice placement' and 'support'. Of course, all three have to be experienced to be understood. Why? Because they refer to physical and auditory sensations rather than actual physical events. Confused by that statement? You aren't the only one. I remember being fascinated years ago when I learned that there is more physical space in the pharynx made by an /i/ vowel than /a/.

In the confusion that can arise in obtaining the experience that a term implies, it should be understood that mechanically 'making space' to experience an 'open throat' is as counterproductive as pushing or pulling the abdomen this way and that to acquire 'support', or 'sending' the vibration of the voice to the hard palate in order to obtain 'voice placement'.

Regarding 'open throat'. What did Old School pedagogues teach? That it was acquired through an /a/ vowel and exhibited a free and full tone. And what is a 'free' tone? One that gives both the listener and the singer the perception that the throat/pharynx is not obstructed in any way, specifically, that the tone is neither guttural or nasal. This is expressed in the Old School saying:

The Italian Singer Has No Throat!

This means, practically speaking, that the singer's audition of free & forward tone so monopolizes his/her attention that the throat doesn't even come into awareness.

The /a/ vowel is the pattern vowel for all other vowels. As Domenico Corri, a student of Nicola Porpora (who is considered the greatest vocal maestro of all time) recorded in 1810 in his book The Singer's Preceptor...

...Porpora, whose decided opinion it was, that solfeggio were not properly understood; the improvement of the voice he maintained is best acquired by sounding the letter A- the position of the mouth in uttering this letter being most favorable to produce a free and clear tone. 

Manuel Garcia distilled this vocal wisdom into physiological terms in his groundbreaking work A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (part one: editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke).
The Study of Tones
The Stroke of the Glottis [Coup de la Glotte]. Hold the body straight, quiet, upright [d'aplomb] on the two legs, removed from any point of support; open the mouth, not in the form of the oval O, but by letting the lower jaw fall away from the upper by its own weight, the corners of the mouth drawn back slightly, not quite to the point of the smile. This movement, which holds the lips softly pressed against the teeth, opens the mouth in the correct proportion and gives it an agreeable form. Hold the tongue relaxed and immobile (without lifting it either by its root or by its tip); finally, separate the base of the pillars and soften the entire throat. In this position, inhale slowly and for a long time. After you are thus prepared, and when the lungs are full or air, without stiffening either the phonator [1872: throat] or any part of the body, but calmly and easily attack the tones very distinctly with a light stroke of the glottis on a very clear [a] vowel. That [a] will be taken well at the bottom of the throat [1872: right at the glottis] in order that no obstacle may be opposed to the emission of the sound. In these conditions the tone should come out with ring and with roundness.  

Lest the singer become involved in convoluted efforts to obtain the physical conformation above, it might helpful to know that Garcia's instructions are better understood if awareness of a vibrant and resonant tone is kept in mind rather than one's muscles. It's the difference between breathing through a tone and breathing to make a tone. In the first instance, the mind's eye is focused on the tone—not unlike how a tennis player's eye is kept on the ball. I like to think of the matter this way: tone first, mechanics second.  

One thing is worth noting regarding Garcia's instructions: at no time does he tell the student to mechanically lift the soft palate to make space in the pharynx. This happens—it would seem—as a result of taking a deep breath and opening the mouth in the prescribed manner (that the larynx also descends slightly is a given). To think of it another way: when do you take a deep breath as a matter of course? When you have something important to say, and want to 'make it clear'.   

January 19, 2011

The Concentration Vowel

My previous post made much of the Italian language as being part and parcel of the language of singing. What does that mean exactly? Let me answer using the terminology of older pedagogues: pure vowels. Of course, these two words do not mean what they were understood to have meant a hundred years ago. Now, when a student hears these words, he/she may think of a sinusoidal waveshape, the voice of a choirboy, a male alto, or The Tallis Scholars. None of these, examples, oh dear reader, is evidence of pure tone, at least, not in terms of the Old Italian School. For that, one has to appreciate something else entirely. And what would that be? Dark and light together. Chiaroscuro. Tonally speaking, a pure vowel in the Old Italian School has depth, which is not possible in falsetto singing or that of boys and women who aspire to sound like them. It's not the same aesthetic at all. An old pedagogue would say that the latter, as attractive as it may be, has no 'vibrazione', which alludes to a ringing, affecting quality that also has depth. What instrument comes close to this? The violin.

Dance of Death Alphabet- Hans Holbein

And what vowel did the Old School use to concentrate the singer's tone and acquire depth? The Italian /i/. Not the guttural and closed-throated /i/ that is heard from Americans and our British cousins across the pond, but rather, a vibrant sound that, when emitted through an open throat (the Italians used /a/ in this respect), seems to spring from the upper chest, hard palate and face. All other vowels were taken from this. Of course, this vowel has to be 'heard' to be understood, that is, the singer has to be exposed to it many times. Such is the manner in which the language of singing is learned, that is, through repetition. English speakers always want to make a diphthong out of it, which it is not. Lilli Lehmann's teaching was based on it. Margaret Harshaw, the doyenne of voice teachers, would say that "EE is like a T! The top part is across the eyes, and the stem goes down into the sternum." A proprioceptive instruction if there ever was one. 

January 18, 2011

The Language of Singing

I'll make no bones about it: I rather like David Clark Taylor's books. Why? He was intent on a reexamination of Old Italian School precepts at a time when gains in voice science threatened to overshadow rather than add to Old School teachings. While we aren't experiencing the same thing in our time (if anything, our understanding of the Old Italian School is growing), the linguistic currency of older pedagogues, breath support, open throat, forward tone, were, in Taylor's eyes, falling prey to the dangers of 'local effort', the idea being that the vocal mechanism can and should be controlled mechanically. Taylor faults Manuel Garcia for this, or rather, those who took what Garcia discovered and subsequently believed that the study of voice entailed an understanding of anatomy and physiology on the part of the student (that García refrained from using anatomical terms in his studio should tell the reader something).  

The problem (as I have alluded to in an earlier post) is that learning to sing isn't a matter of learning stacks of facts about the functioning of the larynx any more than learning to speak involves an intimate understanding of grammar. Of course, after the child can speak and the singer can sing, well, that is a different matter.  My point here is that all too often the cart is put before the horse. This was what David Clark Taylor decries in his works.

Though Taylor doesn't exactly express it in this way, his writings suggest that singing is a language. It should not be forgotten that, pedagogically speaking, bel canto singing is based on Italian tonal ideals, that is, the sounds contained within the Italian language. If there is a danger in a student's ability in learning to sing, it is the mistaken belief that the mechanics of singing are somehow divorced from any language. This ignores the obvious: the Italians developed the Old Italian School, not the Germans, French, English or Americans!

When an accomplished student like Antoinette Sterling went to Pauline Viardot-Garcia after studying with Mathilde Marchesi, and wanted to sing German art song, she was kept on Italian songs and arias. Why? It is the language of Bel Canto. When you can 'speak' Bel Canto, that is, have inculcated the sounds that comprise it, you can sing in any language, which is exactly what Viardot-Garcia told her young charge when she bid her adieu.

Click on the links below to read Taylor's works.  

January 12, 2011

Simply Wonderful: Margaret Whiting

I learned Margaret Whiting died today from a friend on Facebook who works for the a news agency.  And now, some hours later, her obituary has appeared in The New York Times.

If you didn't heard her live in concert, you missed something.  The first time I heard her sing was in 'Margaret Whiting and Friends', in Plainfield New Jersey in 1986.  I was bowled over. She stood there with legs rooted in the ground, head tilted back slightly, and out came this full-throated voice that made you shiver. A dame with class, and a way with words that went straight to your heart as much as your head, her joy in singing was palpable. Everything was clear without excess: tone, diction, and musical line. The voice had deepened like fine cognac with the weight and wisdom of experience, and she took great care with her art, but at the same time held it lightly- which is an art in itself. Consummate artists have a way of making time stand still. And she did that. Like you can't believe.

Addendum 1/13/11

There is a very good article on Whiting in The New York Times this morning (yep...I read it every morning...it's delivered to my door...how much longer is that going to last do you think?) by Stephen Holden. You can find it here.

January 6, 2011

Sutherland & Horne at Juilliard

A friend's status on Facebook brought these Utube selections below to light, that is, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne talking technique with Will Crutchfield at The Juilliard School  in 1998.  I was there, sitting in the balcony.  It was quite something to see the two of them in action.  And I remember these two vocal giants not quite agreeing about how to breath when singing: Dame Joan was an ' abdomen must go in' gal, while Horne was a 'you must push your diaphragm out' person.  Whatever one makes of that, I am ever thankful to Dame Joan for one thing: it was from her that I learned about Herman Klein and his connection to Manuel Garcia. That bit of knowledge opened up a whole world.

January 1, 2011

Wartel's Hum

In researching vocal lineages, one sometimes comes across the most curious things, and that is exactly what I encountered in the case François Wartel. You see, Wartel, a tenor and highly influential voice teacher (one famous student was Christine Nilsson), studied with Adolphe Nouritt, himself a tenor and student of Manuel Garcia the Elder.  Of this three tenor lineage, one might say that Wartel was Garcia's musical grandson. What did I find most curious about Wartel? His method of teaching voice. It seems that he was known for using an unorthodox method, which amounted to having students practice with a closed mouth, that is, by humming. As one student recorded...

Whoever cannot endure singing, sings badly—bad in so far that his singing is artificial, not natural; that is, he does not employ the splendid means nature has placed at his disposal. In this condition I found myself when I went to Wartel for instruction. To whom I owed the good luck of being able to use my voice naturally again, and to whom I shall ever be thankful, I knew on leaving Wartel. The means of my restoration remained a secret to me.
Wartel, who was then about 70 years old, and who still often delighted his pupils with his full, rich voice, had a very mysterious and ingenious method which, as he said, was taken from the old Italian masters. He had us sing certain exercises with closed mouth, in order to bring us unconsciously to the end he had in view, viz.: to attack every tone in one and the same place and to employ deep, abdominal breathing.   
Deep Breathing: As a Means of Promoting the Art of Song, and Curing Weaknesses and Affections of the Throat and Lungs, Especially Consumption By Sophia A. Ciccolina, 1883

The Lamperti School forbade students to hum (see Vocal Wisdom), and there are reports that the Elder Lamperti threw students out of his studio if they did. But what about the Garcia School? Manuel Garcia the Elder's daughter, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, remarked in an interview to the Musical Courier that she did not observe her father use it with his students (he died when she was eleven).  That should settle the matter I suppose. I thought as much until I found another Garcia exponent who also used 'closed mouth' exercises.  And who would that be?  None other than Erminia Rudersdorff, the mother of Richard Mansfield, a famous Anglo-American actor, and the teacher of Emma Thursby. Here's the kicker: Anna E. Schoen-Rene (1861-1942), a student of Manuel Garcia and Pauline Viardot-Garcia, remarked in her book, America's Musical Inheritance (1940)that Rudersdorff was the first person to bring Garcia's method to America. Was Garcia the source of Rudersdorff's 'closed mouth' exercises? We may never know, but the present thread of evidence makes me wonder.

Note March 25, 2017: You can now find Ciccolini's text on the download page.