November 3, 2014

The Old Italian School & Bone Conduction

In a series of letters on the state of music in Italy and France, written in French by I. A. C. Bombet in 1814 and published in 1818, we found a curious footnote on voice placing. The author says:
The first thing requisite is to place the voice at the back part of the throat, as it is done in pronouncing the vowel A in the word ALL. A second position may be formed by means of the same vowel as pronounced in the word ART, and a third, upon the sound of the diphthong EA in the word EARTH. 
I did not know what to make of this, as many vocal teachers talk about placing the voice well in front of the mouth. French teachers usually direct their pupils to "sing in the mask." Other teachers insist on resonance in the nose. Some instructors try to get the tone on the lips. I took the book to my life long friend Whitney Mockridge, and asked him his opinion. 
"Yes," said he, "that is the old Italian method. Lamperti told his pupils to sing from the backbone. Battistini, whom I consider the greatest living exponent of the old bel canto, says he always thinks of his voice as floating over the spinal column like the little ball that dances over a jet of water."
On another occasion I asked Whitney Mockridge why it was that everybody talked about placing the voice well forward whereas the old Italians apparently placed the voice well back.
The reason is that most persons mistake effects for causes. The voice that feels to the singer as if placed back upon the spinal column will sound to the hearer as it was placed in the very front of the mouth. The singer hears people talk about the tone being well forward and he tries to place his voice there, as vocalists say."
I remember Whitney Mockridge telling me a long time ago about the counsel Adelina Patti gave him at the beginning of one of his concerts tours with her:
"Never try to sing big. Think only of quality. I always address myself to the front rows only and let the back of the concert hall take care of itself. I would much rather give a perfect miniature than make a big daub."
I have heard Patti sing in the huge Albert Hall in London when by no act of courtesy she could be called anything but an old woman. Yet the quality of tone in the notes that were left, was there, and her voice carried to the remotest seats of the vast concert room. She had no flannel around the sound of her vocal tones. Her voice did not arrive by telephone or by the tubes of a ventriloquist. Perhaps she did not know exactly where she placed her voice. Perhaps she did. At any rate, she was as much a born singer as Liszt or Rubinstein were born pianists. If she did not know where she placed her voice, and if she could tell not one who to place a voice, she at least had the intelligence not to ruin the natural beauty of her voice by trying to make it bigger than it was. She was content to remain a rose and leave to others the ambition to swell into cauliflowers and cabbages. 
—Extracts from "More About Singing" by Clarence Lucas, The Musical Courier, August 24, 1922. 

Whitney Mockridge was a student of the 19th century vocal pedagogue Francesco Lamperti, who is considered the last great empiricist, while Clarence Lucas, the author of the extract from an article which appears above, was Mockridge's friend. 

What is curious to me, of course, is this idea about singing from the backbone. If I didn't know better, I would say it was positively nuts. However, because I do know better—and about the work of Alfred Tomatis in particular, I hear Lucas and Whitney as discussing the auditory perception of bone conduction. As such, the matter is really about where one puts one's attention. As my own teacher once said: "It's like a bow and arrow: go back to go forward." It is also, I dare say, a matter of how one sings one's vowels. 

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