March 20, 2014

time vs skill

Frederic W. Root 
Readers of VoiceTalk will be acquainted with Frederic W. Root, the American vocal pedagogue who had the distinction of interviewing Manuel García, and who also studied with Luigi Vannuccini, the famous Florentine maestro. As is my wont, I offer readers a record of a talk that Root gave to a meeting of voice teachers in Chicago in 1900, and which was published in Music, a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Art, Science, Technic and Literature of Music (vol 18, page 269-271). In it, Root mentions something I have turned over in my mind for a long while, which has everything to do with registration and the teaching of voice. 

Root's voice teacher in America was none other than Carlo Bassini, a violinist who came to New York to make his mark, but did not seem to have resounding success in that area. After a period of time however, he seems to have reinvented himself as a teacher of singing, and published a manual which contained exercises taken from García's treatise (you can obtain a hard copy here). It was a great success. Was he really a pupil of Crescentini and Zingarelli as he claimed? I cannot say, but it would be a very curious thing if proven to be true. Be that as it may, the thing that leapt out at me when I read the article is this: Root reports that Bassini and his followers were known to separate the registers "and then trust to time to heal the breaks." It seems Root may have thought this a questionable practice, if only because—in the next sentence—he is reported to have referred to Bassini's "peculiar" teaching on breathing, which, unfortunately, is not included. Perhaps I am making much of nothing, but the whole thing makes want me to know more about Bassini, his pedagogical roots, and why he would create a situation where the equalization of registers was left to time, rather than skill.


TEACHING OF VOICE — The round table discussion for teachers of voice in the Y. M. C. A. parlor was the most successful of all the eight thus far held, from the point of attendance and interest manifested. Karlton Hackett of Chicago presided and introduced Mr. Hall of Cedar Rapids, who spoke on "Enunciation of Vowels in Song."

Following Mr. Hall, Mr. Frederick W. Root of Chicago addressed the assembly.

Mr. Root spoke extemporaneously, treating of several important voice teachers with whom he had come in contact as pupil or otherwise, and who represented the various currents of musical thought and the different influences which are brought to bear on students of singing in all countries where a serious study of singing is made.

These names include teachers in America. England, Germany, France and Italy. The first one referred to was his honored father, George F. Root, who gave his son his first instructions in matters pertaining to voice. Dr. Root in his youth had nearly ruined his voice by misuse in the direction of forcing and using too somber a quality of tone. He recovered the use of his voice and placed it upon so solid a foundation that it retained its power and fine quality up to the day of his death by changing his method entirely to the thinner sounds of the clear timber, and was very radical in his teaching upon this point. The teacher who made this change for Dr. Root was Bassini, who fifty years ago was perhaps the most widely known teacher of singing in this country. To Bassini young Root was sent for instruction when his father had finished with him. Bassini paid special and almost exclusive attention to the registers of the voice, to an extent indeed which made his pupils, who in turn became teachers, feel that the correct way to treat voices was to break them into diverse registers, and then trust to time to heal the breaks. Bassini also had some peculiar notions regarding breathing, which Mr. Root described somewhat at length. Some years later he was sent to Italy to receive instructions and there was under the charge of Luigi Vannuccini, who was recommended to him by Mr. Myron W. Whitney, another of his pupils. Vannuccini's method was very simple and consisted mainly in keeping the pupil's attention directed to the region of the eyes and nose in forming tones.

Two teachers of whom he saw a little and who exerted some influence on his mind at that epoch were respectively a member of the Pope's choir in Rome and a teacher in the Leipsic conservatory, the latter of whom gave his opinion that a voice made resonant upon the lower notes should be forced upward in that same condition. Advice fraught with direful consequences if one should follow it, although Mr. Root mentioned a case where this had been done to conspicuous advantage.

Next upon his list was Mr. John Howard, widely known in this country as a teacher of singing by mail. Howard was eccentric and peculiar in every way, but he was a very intellectual man and tireless investigator of the facts of vocalization. His defect as a teacher seemed to be that he could not put these facts together acceptably.

Following them Mr. Root mentioned a lady teacher of great eminence with whom he had associated in work connected with the M. T. N. A.

Five years ago Mr. Root spent a year in Europe investigating voice culture in the conservatories and studios of the four principal countries there.

He referred with much commendation to the work of a German teacher who was a specialist in tone placing, conducting the work upon lines entirely different from those usually followed. His pupils never became very good musicians under his training, but they could always make very clear tones and could reach their high notes effectively.

He had an excellent opportunity to observe the voice work in the Milan conservatory where the professors pride themselves on keeping unbroken the traditions of the art for more than one hundred years past. He did not, however, find their work specially scientific. In matters of style and repertoire these instructors were excellent, but some of them forced voices unmercifully.

One of the private teachers in Milan, whose work he had good opportunity to observe, made a specialty of developing high notes, and one of the pupils was made to sing repeated notes on high F (fourth space above the staff.)

He was also admitted as a visitor to all of the classes of the Paris conservatory, and spoke at some length of the methods in use there; especially was he interested in the work of Mons. Giraudet, who is the only pupil of Del Sarte who was finished by that master as a singer and is now before the public. While with Del Sarte, Mons. Giraudet took copious note of the Del Sarte theory of vocalization, which notes Mr. Root had the privilege of reading. Del Sarte founded his philosophy of expression and tone production, and, indeed, everything he taught upon the Trinity, and his treatment of the subject of registers is entirely different from anything which has ever been taught in the musical world and points the way to advance in voice placing which is likely to be made in the course of time.

Among the private teachers of Paris that interested Mr. Root was the famous Delle Sedie, whose theory of the vocal scale is peculiar and original.

In London Mr. Root saw much of the work of several of the prominent voice teachers. The teachings of Mr. Shakespeare are familiar in this country through his recently published book and his lecture tour just finished. The nestor of music teachers, the greatest of them all, is Manuel Garcia, now living in London and having reached his ninety-fifth birthday. Garcia lives in a quiet home in the suburbs of London, a home which he calls Mon Abri or my retreat, and here he has in late years quietly dispensed the concentrated wisdom of his long career to many an investigator who has sought him.

Mr. Root closed by calling attention to the fact that the teachers ranged themselves under three headings and are either specialists, who depend on some one formula for the advancement of their pupils, or individualists, who have no method, but depend on their own personal magnetism and example to secure progress from the pupil, or educators who take into account all the various needs of the pupils and try to educate them symetrically by a definite system.

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