March 30, 2015

The eye is the mirror of the voice

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE IN AMERICA

THIS eminent London vocal teacher, whose visit to us is the present sensation in the New York vocal world, declares that the art of singing reached its highest point at the middle and end of the last century, but since then, owing to the development of instrumental and orchestral music, it has been comparatively neglected. There is no longer a school of composers who write especially for the voice, although the human voice will, when properly used, never cease to be the most beautiful of instruments.

Mr. Shakespeare is a pupil of the elder Lamperti, and, like his master, makes much of the breath in vocal culture. According to him, the two principal signs of correct singing are: (I) that very little breath is used in producing a note, and (2) that the action of the larynx should be automatic and unconscious. With proper breath-control there is freedom of tongue and of other organs, and there is a sensation as if the voice came floating out on the breath. Wrong voice-production, on the other hand, brings with it a constricting of the throat, an embarrassing of the tongue so that the vowel and consonantal sounds can not be clearly produced, and the perverted action manifests itself in rigid lips and cheeks and in protruding eyes. The jaw also becomes rigid, and the singer is unable to produce artistic tones. Mr. Shakespeare maintains that in singing the jaw should be entirely independent of the movements of the tongue, and that it would be “ possible to learn to sing merely by producing the voice with the jaw absolutely loose combined with a right breath-control.”

The smiling expression during singing is an excellent way to bring the various muscles concerned in the vocal act into right adjustment for freedom of action. The eye is the mirror of the voice, and a person is singing rightly if the eye conveys the intended expression. To quote Mr. Shakespeare’s words, “Every emotion of the mind has an appropriate facial expression. As long as the face remains inanimate, so long will the sound of the voice be dull and monotonous; where—as vivacity of the features is invariably accompanied by life and brightness in the tone of the voice. Whenever on the dramatic stage the expression of ardent love is desired, but through absence of vocal skill the face becomes fixed, the result reaches the ear as vehemence and anger rather than affection."

Mr. Shakespeare may be considered as the last prominent exponent of the old method of teaching singing. He clings to the traditions of his masters, claiming no special originality of his own, but dimly following out of the instructions he has received. Last winter we had Mme. Blanche Marchesi and now we have a singing teacher almost equally famous. It remains to be seen if Mr. Shakespear will fulfil the expectations that his reputation has aroused. It is difficult for a teacher to adapt himself to new surroundings, especially when in the new surroundings will be critics on the alert to discover any defects either in theory or in practice. When at home, Mr. Shakepeare's foreign pupils are those who seek him out because they have full faith in him, whereas, in this country, which he visits for the first time professionally, he will find a more critical and unfriendly atmosphere. In Werner's Magazine, however, he will have an impartial and accurate reporter. It will be our endeavor to tell our readers a full account of Shakespeare's lectures, so that those of our readers who are unable to attend them in person will profit by this distinguished London teacher's visit.  —Werner's Magazine, 1900: 475-476

*****

The eye is the mirror of the voice? This snippet of text reminds me of something read in an old manual, which was expressed as not having tension around the eyes. Mancini? Nathan? Or someone else? Suffice it to say, it's an old idea, one that can get lost in our "source" and "filter" view of vocal pedagogy. 

You see, it all goes back to this whole eye/ear matter, which isn't complicated at all. All you have to do is have a student experiment by tightening the muscles around the eyes while singing, and then not tighten them and note the difference. Hello! The song that is squinted through will sound quite different than the one that is not. 

But this has nothing to do with the ear, you say: it's just a matter of squeezing or not squeezing the throat! 

To be sure, one does feels the impact of tenseness or lack thereof within the throat, but the ardent critic would do well to reflect on nature and her response to various stimuli.  

What can be observed when a loud unexpected sound is made? The listener squints, recoils and contracts, while the face becomes fixed in an effort to protect the listening faculty: all things opposite to that which takes place in the executive singer, who's listening faculty is open and extended. 

Readers can find out more about this "listening posture" in Alfred A. Tomatis' The Ear and the Voice, Scarecrow Press, 2004. 

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