February 18, 2015

Mr. Wheeler's Rounded Pyramid

T he room in which Mr. Wheeler teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music is in striking contrast to his beautiful studio on Tremont street. It is well lighted, but besides the grand piano and chairs, there is no other furniture. A few Japanese trifles are about the only attempt at decoration. As the class take their places at the side of the piano, Mr. Wheeler seats himself and talks to them. He tells them the two great principles of Voice-cultivation are these: First, as you diminish the tone, open it; and, second, make the voice round as you ascend, that is, pyramidal in shape, broad at the base, round at the top. No matter what the voice, whether bass or soprano, thin or sombre, these two things must be studied constantly. The great representatives of the Italian school, Garcia, Vannuccini and Marchesi, all agree on this point.

The exercise used for opening the voice as the tone is diminished is oh, blending into ah, sustained up and down the scale. This distributes the force equally through the throat and head. In an experience of 30 years’ teaching, he has almost always begun a lesson with this exercise. It is sung by the class, within the medium range of the voice. “Be careful not to close the month until the sound has entirely died away,” he cautions, and repeats his opinion of the value of the exercises: “If I were to die and could leave only two things on record about voice-culture it would be those two," are his earnest words.

An exercise for rounding the voice follows arpeggio and scale. It is sung to the syllable ah, trying to make the upper notes round. “Do not try to make the position of your mouth like that of any other person’s. Let the ear be the criterion. Forget you have a throat; sing naturally. When the tone sounds right, it is right.”

Mr. Wheeler begins to speak of embellishments, but is interrupted by a message. He then goes on: “Sing the common turn.” The scale introducing this ornament is sung, and a little exercise containing it is written in the notebooks. (Let me state parenthetically that each pupil sings the exercise alone, as well as in company with the others.) “There are two turns in general use, the common turn and the attack turn. In the common turn the accent is on the first note; in the attack turn the first three notes are sung rapidly. There are seven different turns, but it is essential to consider these two only.”

Then the study of Vaccai's exercises are taken up. The class practice reading Italian at first, then sing the first four exercises “Try and infuse some sentiment or feeling into everything you sing, be it scale, song, or study," is his advice.

The lesson ended, Mr. Wheeler recapitulates tersely what he has said. One young lady asks if it is a sign that she is singing wrongly if her throat aches after singing. Mr. Wheeler replies: “If you have been singing in a wrong manner and have come to a sensible teacher, it is only natural that the muscles should tire easily when the method is changed. If sore throat sets in, it is a sign that you are singing wrongly, or that your throat should be in the hands of a physician. Never sing with a sore throat.” The bell rings, the class pass out, and the lesson is over for the day.

Susan Andrews Rice, "A Lesson in Voice-Culture by Mr. Lyman W. Wheeler," Werner's Voice Magazine, November, 1891. 

Note: Lyman W. Wheeler was a student of Manuel García and Domenico Scafati, a highly successful tenor, and faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music. For more information, click on his label below. 

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