The writer was a pupil of the elder Lamperti, and of Vannuccini—direct descendants of the great masters of their Italian past—also of Shakespeare, Lamperti's principal English advocate, a man of fine intelligence, and of great musicianship and wider experience before the public than most teachers among his contemporaries.
The secret of the so-called lost art of singing he sought in vain among the mazes of physiological science, and never did he place much reliance upon these puzzling questions. He tried to show his pupils not only how to master the physical by close attention to it obvious demands, but how to guide all so as to bring about the purest and most artistic vocal results by means of the exercise of that higher mental quality which our author denominates the psychological principle.
Shakespeare seldom trained pupils for the stage; he taught them to sing. If they succeeded in oratorio, concert, or opera, it was because they knew how to sing, not because they were foisted upon the public and happened to succeed. He was heart and soul with the older Italians in discountenancing mediocrity. The lynx ears of Lamperti and of Shakespeare would not—could not—allow what they considered wrong in note or phrase, or ultimate inner sense to pass unchallenged.
Reliance upon the principles of physiology to correct physiological defects is, of course, essential; but the art of song is mental, and so is psychological in its higher development. When the body is in subjection to the mind, the will works its way with the world, and the spirit will hold sway over all things inanimate. By bringing to bear upon it the suavity of Italian vocal art, even the majestic roughness of the German tongue may be toned done without loss of strength and with positive gain of beauty.
The old masters never told you what to do nor how to do it, from any learned physiological or anatomical standpoint. In most cases, they did not know about these things themselves; and because they did not know, they were free from all possible deterrent influences of this kind. The result was freedom of tone.
The smiling mouth spoken of by the old masters was meant by them to be a manifestation of the happy spirit—joyousness. When this instruction was reduced to a mechanical principal by the consideration that the mouth should be in a smiling position, naturalness of expression was jeopardized. Another cart before the horse. The old Italian idea of "impostazione della voce," or placing of the voice, was accomplished by singing forward and focussing the sound, is of the greatest of the greatest value in establishing vocal poise. The idea of focussing the voice forward on the line or level, concentrating the attention upon the sound, is the greatest value in establishing vocal poise.
The old masters and singers were fully aware of the fact that the singer is at first incapable of correctly estimating the value of his own voice as to the quantity or quality, and hence the entire dependence of the singer upon the judgment of the master. By constant attention to the advice of the master, the singer's ear was educated to the recognition of both good and bad effects. The power of discrimination in the effect of their own voices was thus established. Coincidentally, familiarity with the physical effect upon the singer himself during the production of his own voice was an added factor in the consciousness of right and wrong production.
Manage the voice with the ear. Don't manage or try to mange the vocal mechanism.
Go into any large studio building and listen to the more than meaningless, the heartrending, almost inhuman sounds emanating from the throats of many students during their lessons. What a pitiful story is told in the plaintive efforts to find the way, and what a colossal monument stands, not mutely, to the benighted views of the day concerning voice-training, current among the hundreds of teachers who are the real perpetrators of the living outrage!
Witness among the vast numbers of students the seeming prostitution of their divine right to the exercise of just a modicum of common sense in the matter. The students sing their exercises or fancy that they sing them, but in the absence of any thought or intelligence or natural expression during the supposed singing, they are actually uttering sounds which could be more properly characterized as cat-calls, shrieks and howls, grunts and groans, which might be expected to be heard only in the corridors of an insane asylum.
Tell the operating surgeon—the voice teacher—or the willing patient victim—the pupil— of your impression, and you will be patronizingly told that all this is necessary to the placing of the voice. Yes, they are getting their voices placed in a position where it is incapable of expressive utterance either in truly powerful and intense mode or in the nuance or delicate shading.
The principal devices recommended are, first, the physical "lift" which is best accomplished by standing erect and gently stretching the body upward from the hips. The condition of elasticity as opposed to rigidity is imperative—hence the upward stretch of the body should not be overdone. This activity is conducive to a condition of flexible firmness of the immediate parts involved in tone production, that than a condition of relaxation.
The necessary tonicity of the voice can never be established while the muscular system is relaxed.
The second device is not physical. It is the singing on an imaginary line. This device is one which was used by many of the old Italian masters of my student days in Italy, and which was used by the old Italian masters who taught these singers and teachers. It was handed down by word of mouth and by precept and example—but I never found a lucid explanation of it in print. In my opinion, it is the most effective thought ever advanced by the representatives of the old Italian schools for promoting ideal conditions. I believe it to be one of the greatest secrets of the successful training of singers in the art of "bel canto."
The following diagram represents the idea, which may easily be understood. The vertical line is at the height of the forehead and at any distance whatever from the singer. The thought of the line of common level of all tones should be carried out in singing exercises, including all intervals—likewise in the singing of songs.
From The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration by Warren W. Shaw (1914)
Click on the label below to find my other post on The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration, which contains an additional photo of the Warren's concept of singing on the "line." This being one of the most fascinating texts in regard to the Old Italian School, the reader is encouraged to read Shaw's text in its entirety at the link provided at the beginning of this post.