August 22, 2015

Classical Vocal Training in the Age of Information

Anna E. Schoen-René (1864-1942) 
Anna E. Schoen-René was perhaps the last of her generation to teach classical singing as it had been taught for generations, having learned both the art of singing and its vocal pedagogy from two eminent masters—Pauline Viardot-García and her brother Manuel García, from whom Schoen-René specialized in the teaching of men.

Her procedures were geared towards those who had—in her own words—"good vocal material." Having been accepted into her studio, the student then had to be able to speak and sing all five of the Italian vowels (e, i, a, o, u) in an open-throated and pure manner; that is, with no hint of a guttural or nasal timbre—the result, of course, being placement. For those with ears to hear, this was not a big deal. However, this requirement was a real THING, the starting gate through which every student had to pass or there was no going forward. And if you couldn't do it, and do it in a reasonable amount of time, Schoen-René would drop you like a hot potato. Tough? You have no idea. 

When the student had learned how to create a beautiful tone, he or she was then made to exercise the voice on scales and exercises for the better part of a year before any repertoire was given. Mind you, this took place in the environment of the Juilliard School—a prestigious conservatory which admitted only the very best students on a scholarship basis. (Schoen-René's private students—who sang both classical and popular music, were subjected to the same kind of training.) Sadly, this kind of approach simply does not exist in any conservatory today.

What do we have instead? Repertoire is required from day one, and instead of Italian tonal values being the beginning point, languages are studied as electives. Vocal pedagogy is a science heavy endeavor, with voice students learning about anatomy, physiology and acoustics, but next to nothing about the procedures of the old Italian school. Sure, some may hear the names García or Lamperti, but have they read their works or studied their teachings? No.

Knowing about has supplanted doing—at least in terms of the procedures of the old Italian school.  And there is a lot to know as a result of recent advances in voice science. Because of this, voice teachers today are seduced into approaching the teaching of singing in a mechanical manner, which, if anything, recalls the period of late 19th century when there was an explosion of knowledge about the vocal mechanism, and brought about what one writer (Edmund Myer) called the "local effort" school.

"Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principles of their art." —Anna E. Schoen-René 

We have our own "local effort" school, which is less about the direct control of muscles of the body (the late 19th century preoccupation) and more about control of the muscles of the larynx as evidenced in an obsession with the separation of registers, and the larynx's articulation of certain vocal qualities, including falsetto, chest, mix and belt.

This is what you get when you pull up the roots of the tree of singing. 

August 18, 2015

Signor Sbriglia and Some of His Pupils by H. W. Greene

Mr. J. Edmond Skiff, for a number of years associated with the Batavia State School of the Blind as musical director, has just concluded a year of study in Paris with that veteran maestro G. Sbriglia. Perhaps there is no teacher living at present more prominent in the public eye than this Italian-Frenchman, who has such unique, if not extreme views on tone-production. As I knew him in my student-days, he represented the very antithesis of the modern popular ideas on vocal technic, and my desire to ascertain the master's present attitude to the subject prompted me to ask Mr. Skiff for a short article. Mr. Skiff is not a stranger to the readers of the VOCAL DEPARMENT, and we welcome the following response to my request.—the EDITOR. 

In an unpretentious, though every comfortable apartment in the Rue de Provence, Paris, lives Signor Sbriglia, one of the world's famous voiceal teachers, whose renown has been largely gained through his work with Mr. Jean de Reszke, the great Wagnerian tenor. 

Sbriglia is a student of the Naples Conservatoire, form thence making his début in the opera "Brasseur de Preston,"  by Braci. After some time in Naples he toured Europe, singing in all the grand-opera houses, and in 1866 went to America, singing with the Italian and English Opera Company in the United States and Mexico. 

About Twenty-five years ago, he settled in Paris, devoting himself entirely to teaching. His first pupil he brought out in Paris was Otello Nonvelli, an Italian who made his début in the tenor rôle in "Martha," at the Italian Opera, which is now extinct, with Edouard de Reszke. His success was so great the Jean de Reszke, who was at that time singing baritone parts without success, being, in fact, so despondent that he contemplated leaving the stage, went to Sbriglia requesting lessons. Sbriglia assured him that his voice was one of the true tenor quality, and that he should give up baritone work. His study with the maestro covered six years, and all the word can now testify to the accuracy of Sbriglia's diagnosis. 

Shortly after, Josephine de Reszke, a sister of Jean and Edouard, came to him. She it was who created the principla rôle in Massenet's opera "Le Roi de Lahore,"  at the Grand Opera in Paris. From Paris she went to Spain, where she had immense success. She left the stage to be married to Baron de Kronenberg; unfortunately she died in Poland a few years after her marriage, leaving tow little children. 

Among his other celebrated pupils have been Lillian Nordica, Sibyl Sanderson, Fanchon Thompson; Miss Phebe Strakosch, soprano, daughter of the impresario, Ferdinand Strakosch, and cousin to Adeline Patti, singing in Spain, Italy, London; Mr. Plançon; d'Aubign; M. Castleman, now first tenor in the Opera at Algiers; and Madame Aduing who sang at the Grand Opera, Paris, for  five years, and also in Italy and London. After singing all the lyric operas, she devoted herself to Wagner. She enjoyed much favor as the soloist at the Colonne and Lamoureux concerts. Among his present pupils is a Miss Markham, who has recently gone to Bayreuth to study Wagner rôles with M. Sen, a Swedish tenor; Mr. William Hughs, of Washington, D. C., a possessor of a magnificent basso cantante voice; Mr. Whitefield Martin, of New York, a tenor of much promise, who has given up a fine clientele of pupils to devote his time to study for the opera. 

Personally S. Sbriglia is very agreeable, a short man, with a very full chest, dark hair, and eyebrows, looking his nationality. In his teacher he sits at an upright piano with a large mirror on the wall back of him, while the pupil stands back of the piano, where he can complacently view himself in the mirror and also watch at the same time the various expressions of the maestro's face. He says very little during the lesson; his three great points being the extreme high chest, the voice placed entirely in the mask of the face, and the protruding of the lips. He places great stress on the very high, fully-developed chest, and the pupil's first lesson will in most cases consist partially in an admonition to at once procure a pair of dumb-bells, and an oft-repeated expression is: "Beauecoup de dumb-bells." 

When asked how he teaches his pupils to breath, he replied: "I don't breath; I build the chest." He points with pride to some portraits of his pupils taken "before and after," showing great development, and their names are familiar ones to the opera-goer. If one wishes to know thoroughly all the resources of the master, one must be content to stay with him a long while, for he imparts his information very slowly, and even the pupil must gain it more by intuition than by word of mouth. He is not a musician, but he does make his pupils sing as far as the mechanism of the voice is concerned; for interpretation and the higher art, he is quite willing the pupil should go to some of his "confrères." 

No article would be complete without a mention of Madame Sbriglia, who, by the way, is an American, for she is a very important part of the studio. She it is who arranges all the pupils' lesson-hours, attends to the financial part, and plays all the accompaniments except for the exercises at the beginning of the lesson, which he industriously plays (?) with one finger. Madame takes great interest in all the pupils, is always ready to help in any way possible, and in many cases smooths out the wrinkles that come from the master's presence. She is a busy woman, for she must be on call, as it were, during the entire teaching-hours, which, however, are not so long as in former years, as he now refuses to teach more than five hours each daily. These hours being from 9 to 11:30 and 3 to 5:30, and the pupil who has not engaged lessons early in the season must be willing to take a lesson when some regular pupil is unable to come, and there are always plenty of pupils waiting to fill in a vacancy.—J. Edmond Skiff. 

The Etude, May, 1902: 181-182 

Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi. For more information on Giovanni Sbriglia's teaching, see Margaret Champman Byers: "Sbriglia's Method of Singing" in "Historical Vocal Pedagogy Classics" by Berton Coffin, Scarecrow Press, 1989: 16. 


*****

I want to say a word or two about Sbriglia's "high chest," which this writer posits could also be understood as an "open chest," though, of course, it is possible to raise the ribs mechanically without having inhaled at all! Mechanics aside, Sbriglai's teaching can be understood from a very different perspective, that being the observations of Alfred A. Tomatis, the Christopher Columbus of the ear. 

It was Tomatis who observed that the chest expanded and lifted when the listening faculty was fully opened through the stimulation of high frequencies. He also observed that the face "opened" and the spine elongated. What is one to make of this? Well, for one thing, it should be clear that "listening" is an active matter which affects the whole body. 

Does this mean that you can change the student's listening ability through raw manipulation of the spine, ribs or face? Experience says no, if only because the impetus must come from within the ear. This is, of course, the conundrum of the well-educated voice teacher who knows all about the "parts" of the vocal mechanism, and whose language is oriented towards "function," yet cannot find the key to make the parts function in the desired manner. 

Singing is like running to meet your lover! 

How's that for an organizing principle? It's one my own voice teacher impressed upon me—the clear expression of which reveals Tomatis' indicators: open face and ribs, with an elongated spine. That she also taught Sbriglia's singing in the mask and the discipline of the lips should surprise no one. 

August 17, 2015

What Sbriglia Taught and How He Taught It by Perley Dunn Aldrich

Mr. Perley Dunn Aldrich, the editor of the Voice Department of THE ETUDE for the present month, has had an unusually broad musical training. He studied first at the New England Conservatory, where his teachers were Dr Louis Maas, Stephen Emergy, George Whiting and W. H. Daniell. Decidign on a career as a vocalist, however, he went abroad, studying with William Shakespeare and Georg Henschel in London, and Trabadello in Paris. Finally, while in Paris, he became a student of Sbriglia, the celebrated teacher of Jean de Reszke and others. His relations with Sbriglia were extremely close—in fact Mr. Aldrich actually lived with Sbriglia and acted as his assistant and accompanist. Mr. Aldrich has a fine, rich, high baritone voice and at one time appeared constantly in concert and oratorio. His devotion to teaching, however, has lead him from the public platform to his own studio in Philadelphia, where he is extremely successful as a vocal instructor. —Editor of the Etude. 

The death of Giovanni Sbriglia a few months ago recalls to his many pupils in various parts of the world a long list of eminent singers who came under his instructions for longer or shorter periods, and makes a most opportune occasion to tell the readers of The Etude something of his work. 

Sbriglia must have been at least eighty years of age when he passed away, for he sang in a performance of Martha in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1859, and for a period of nine years at this time sang in Cuba, Mexico and the United States in opera and concert. He took up teaching on his return to the continent. He was trained by Italian teachers in Naples and, naturally, followed the principles of the Italian school. 

He was eminently a practical teacher. He had very little theory and talked very little. He was not a good musician, played none to speak of on the piano, and, of course, knew nothing of the most modern operas. But he was a real teacher of the voice. He had that rare talent known as the "vocal gift." He knew when the voice resonated correctly, and he found original ways and means of causing it to do this. In fact, he was a genius in this one particular line. His teaching was empirical and intuitive. I believe he taught entirely as his intuition bade him, and sometimes this was difficult to follow, for his system would seem changeable to the student. He continually sought after a natural voice, but sometimes he would use unnatural means to gain this end. I mean, he would try to overcome a certain defect before he treated the voice as a whole. For example, I have heard him exercise a pupil vigorously on the sounds tee and tay, with the teeth, on the middle notes, to bring a strong resonance throughout the middle voice. He would use the Concone Fifty Lessons in the same way, making the pupil use sometimes one and sometimes the other of these vowels. When they sang them by the syllables I have seen change the fa to fee (or tee) for a pupil whose fa was weak and heady.  I have seem him carry this same work into the high notes, as far as possible, to cure a soprano of the bête noir of the soprano voice—a frontal register. Perhaps the next pupil would work entirely on the vowel o or oo to remedy a voice that was too white and reedy. 

A Firm, High Chest 

He insisted upon a firm, high chest for all pupils. For those who had weak chests he urged regular use of light dumb-bells and persistent effort to maintain a high chest. I have seen him make a student work hard to hold his chest as high as possible, and then bring the chin down towards it, day after day, as a physical exercise to develop the chest. This was very fatiguing for some pupils for a time, and backs and knees ached a bit, or even two bits. But the result usually justified the means. This brought about what he called the point d'appui  (point of support) just at the bottom of the sternum bone. Here, according to his idea, lay the support of the voice; and when the singer once understood this he could sing without fatigue and give every graduation needed for the tone. It was an understanding of this idea the enabled him to develop Madam Nordica's voice from a lyric soprano voice to a dramatic soprano voice. He insisted on this support so strongly that many of his singers, De Reszke, Plançon, and many of lesser note, wore abdominal belts to aid in supporting the chest. Of course, many pupils abused the power that this chest development gave, and "hollered" until the voice was worn. But this, I take it, was farthest from his idea. I feel sure, however, that many pupils came away with the wrong idea of this support," and gave a very wrong impression of the maestro's school of singing.

I once asked him why he did not write down his method. His reply was that this was impossible, as "what was good for one was bad for another." I have heard him declare emphatically more than once "I have no method. I teach people to sing. If the voice is too open, I shut; if it is too shut, I open."

He taught in the old-fashioned way by using the Cancone exercises on the vowel sound adapted to the need of the pupil (the Ah the last of all, usually). Then he would use the same exercises with the fixed do syllables. He would go over and over the same aria, day after day, and even week after week, using it as a vocal exercise, caring very little for the interpretation, but spending all the time and though upon the freedom of tone.

Singing on the Lips

For certain voices he insisted very much upon the use of the lips, especially on the closed vowels o and oo.  He often remarked, in his broken english. "Like you whiz" (whistle). "Singing on the lips" was another favorite phrase that he used over and over. This, combined with the strong chest, was the sun and substance of his teaching. For when he wandered afield from these ideas, he came back to them with renewed energy and with wonderful pertinacity. I remember very well a certain solfeggio by Guercia that he me sing with the syllables softly and very rapidly to keep the voice on the lips. "I fior di labbi" (the flower of the lips). He would say, over and over. "Ne pousee pas" (don't push) when the pupil would force the voice.

Singing in the Chest

Another idea on which he dwelt persistently was singing in the chest. He often told me that this was the secret of singing and a principle that almost nobody understood. I think few of his pupils thoroughly understood this, and he often said so. I know in my own case, it was, indeed, some years before I fully appreciated the principle and saw the almost breath-bereaving results I could obtain with it. It was very difficult to understand because it seemed impossible for a soprano to keep her high notes singing in the chest or for the tenor to keep his mixed voice there; but, like all real maestros of the voice, he could not abide the whoopy, heady tone, and tried to keep the voice down to its real and natural resonance. The result was that all his pupils who obtained an insight into this principle sang with a firm, vibrant tone.

It is difficult to put his ideas on paper, because they seem so spontaneous and intuitive—so like flashed of genius. They do not seem the same when written down as they do when illustrated by someone who understands them. But I have given a few ideas that I learned from watching him teach many different pupils hour after hour. I have need ceased to be grateful for this opportunity I had for observing his wonderful teaching; for I feel sure that whatever measure of success I have had has been largely due to his inspired teaching.


The Etude, February, 1917: 122-123

Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi. 


*****

When you read an article like this from The Etude, it quickly becomes apparent just how much the teaching of singing has changed, if only because voice teaching today proceeds from a very different basis. 

Let's take Sbriglia's "singing in the chest" for starters. A voice teacher who has been schooled in anatomy and acoustics won't know what to make of this at all. Why? He or she knows that the chest is not a resonating cavity—so why think of the chest? 

What this modern maven doesn't apprehend is that the spine does indeed resonant with tone, tone which is felt in the chest, which can be properly understood as a matter of bone conduction, and a by-product of pure, Italianate vowels. Oh, but that's a real trip too, since modern teachers don't think in terms of pure anything. Rather, their parlance is geared towards matters like vocal fold registration and formants.

My own teacher taught Sbriglia's concept of "singing in the chest," insofar as instructing her students to monitor the sternum area as well as the area of the upper lip, and bridge of nose. It's simple stuff really, and not hard at all if one begins from an acoustical basis (we're talking about an educated ear here) rather than a know-everything-about-everything one.

I would agree with Sbriglia: few understand his teaching. The irony is that it can be easily understood by those with educated ears, listening being a vestibular (feeling) as well as a cochlear matter. (How else do you think Mandy Harvey sings? While you are all busy yakking about formant this and vocal fold that, she is busy singing in tune via a finely educated vestibular system. Oh yeah—she's deaf too.)

Such is the difference of our times. 

The foundation of the Old Italian School was the ear. If you can wrap your head around what this means, you may amount to something. Sadly, I know far too many people with doctorates who are whip-smart, know everything about everything in terms of anatomy, physiological and acoustics, but can't sing. 

August 15, 2015

A Conversation With Signor Sbriglia by Perley Dunn Aldrich

Giovanni Sbriglia 

The Summer Home


The Chateau de St. Léger is delightfully situated on the edge of what in France must be considered an extensive forest in the department of Oise, about four miles from the quaint little city of Beauvais, noted for its tapestries and for its cathedral. It is well worth the two hours' journey from Paris to get a sigh of the magnificent choir which many consider the finest in Europe.

The reach S. Léger from Beauvais, we either take a voiture drawn by a horse whose most remarkable quality is his power of resisting the persuasions of the driver, who urges him on with stenos language, punctuated by a most active goad; or by a little railroad, which lands us within gunshot of the chateau at a lonely little station kept by a kindly old lady who cultivates beautiful rose and cheery smiles. Only the red roof of the chateau is visible above the tops of the trees, which surround it, sentineled by one splendid Lombardy poplar which towers majestically up into the rich, red gold of the dying day.

Here is this quiet and restful retreat Signor Giovanni Sbriglia, the eminent teacher of singing, passes his summers, taking a few pupils with him. Mme. Sbriglia, bringing her own servants from Paris, presides over the household with rare thoughtfulness and tact.

After the lessons of the day are over, never later than half past four, master and pupils stroll over across the fields, where the hilarious ones may play mumblety peg on the mossy ground under the fir trees, and the real giddy ones decorate themselves as brigands with stray burnt embers and improvise a comic opera with tragic effect.

During these walks the Maestro often became reminiscent and harked back to the days when he sang in the United States, both in the old opera companies and in concerts.

The Training of Great Singers


I shall not forget one day coming with him across the fields over the brow of the hill, and how beautiful the country looked in the approaching twilight. I asked him who were the well-known singers in Italy when he was preparing his career in opera.

"I was trained at Naples at the conservatory, under Emanuel Roxas and Busti—the latter of whom died only three years ago—in the strict old Italian school. When we went to the opera, we heard the most perfect models, such as Malibran, Alboni, Fessolini, Tardolini, Lablache, Cortesi, Mario, Rubini, etc. These great artists sang with natural emission of the voice, acquired after long study of the posing of the voice and a thorough course of solfeggi. Sometimes the masters kept their pupils for two years on exercises for the voice and solfeggi. Then they commenced the study of the simple arias from the repertoire.

"Did these old masters use the nasal exercises which are so popular at present?" I asked.

"No, they were never a part of the old school of singing. I have used them for certain special purpose with certain pupils, but they should be used with great care and caution, for they are often harmful and misleading. The object these old masters tried to attain was the natural flow of the voice sustained by the chest, the correct classification of the voice and then nothing artificial about its emission."

"And did these old singers have power of voice?" I asked. "Many people have the idea that their voices were beautiful but rather small."

"On the contrary," was the reply: "many of them gained great power, as, for example, Tamberlik, Mirati and Guilini. Of course, there were light tenors and the dramatic tenors also. But all the great masters trained the voice as a whole. Registers exist in nature, but the voices must be treated as a whole to obtain perfect equality throughout from top to bottom. It is the natural voice that is the beautiful voice."

By this time we had reached the big road and crossed the little stone bridge and were just entering the vine-covered stone gateway that led past the gardener's lodge. I turned to go over to the farm where I was stopping.

"You mustn't forgot to tell me about your experiences in America sometime," I said.

"Perhaps I will on Sunday; no lessons, you know, and the day will be long," was the reply.

Sbriglia's Trip to America


On Sunday morning the bell in the owed of the little church of St. Léger called the early worshippers at six o'clock and again at ten thirty. The little village is mostly street, but is rather picturesque, with its red tiled roofs behind the high stone walls. The peasants in their Sunday gowns make either way to church and gossip with each otters about the news of the day. In the little park bcd of the chateau I found the Maestro taking his morning smoke and reading the Figaro. I drew one of the big wicker chairs into the shade near him and reminded him of his promise to tell me some of his experiences in America.

"I was engaged in Florence," he began, "by Servadio, for an opera season in Mexico to sing the principal rôles. Both Nanmi and Madam D'Angri were to be in the company. I came up to Paris and then to Havre to set sail for New York. We were expected to sail on the steamer Austria, but by some mischance our berths were not engaged for us, and our place on the steamer had been taken. Fortunately, the North Star was to sail a few days later and we immediately engaged passage. We arrived safely in New York, and some of our friends embraced us with tears rolling down their cheeks. When we inquired the cause of this unusual demonstrating, we learned that the Austria had gone down with all on board, and as we were expected to sail on that boat it seems to our friends, who thought we were at the bottom of the sea, almost like spirits rising from the sea.

"Meanwhile, between the time of the collecting of the company in Italy and our arrival in New York, a revolution had broken out in Mexico and the theatre was closed. Max Maretzek told me about it and gave me an engagement with his company. I made my début on 14th St. in "Lucia," with Garzia as "Lucia." The same season I sang in New York at the operatic début of Patti.

"After that season I went to Havana for three or four consecutive seasons and then for one season I went to Mexico, the revolution having been settled. From Mexico I went to California, where we produced, among other things, Meyerbeer's 'prophète' with a ballet from Europe and with costume and scenery of unusual magnificence. We also sang the repertoire of the lighter works, "Sonnabula." "Traviata,' etc. I afterwards arranged a company for California myself, to open the Academy of Music in Montgomery St., San Francisco. The theatre was managed by a rich gambler named Maguire—a man of wealth and influence—although a gambler.

Adventures in Mexico


"You would find traveling in America very different now," I remarked. "I imagine it was none too comfortable then."

"Indeed, it was not, but nevertheless, we had happy times and many amusing episodes. When we went to Mexico we went to Vera Cruz by boat. From there to the City of Mexico we went by diligence, taking five days for the trip. During the third day's journey we were waylaid by brigands and robbed of every cent we possessed. When I reached the City of Mexico I owned just the clothes I had on and nothing more. I remember very distinctly the chief of the brigands. He was a tall, fine looking man, beautifully dressed and treated us in a most courtly manner, assuring us that he was not a thief, but a gentleman, who simply relieved people of unnecessary baggage—but he took the money all the same. In both of my trips to Mexico I was robbed by these gentlemanly brigands."

The Maestro resumed his cigarette and was silent for a long time. It was evident from his face that he was no longer living in the present, but lingering in the shadow of the past. One by one the great singers of that day flitted before his memory and he saw them and himself once move amid their triumphs hard won and well deserved, because of their great knowledge of the bel canto.


About Certain Singers 


The sun was beating down upon the chateau across the lawn and the trees seems to shrivel silently under its withering rays. The Maestro moved his chair further back into the shadow of the trees, lighted another cigarette and awoke form his reverie. "Ah! but there were some fine singers in those days," he mused. "There was Gazaniga, dramatic soprano; Gazia, lyric soprano; Adelaide Phillips, contralto; D'Angri, contralto; Berthoud, who was Maretzek's wife; Amodio, a baritone with a magnificent voice; Brignoli, tenor; Madam Parodi, dramatic soprano; Susini, bass; Madam La Borde, lyric soprano; Madam Colson, soprano; Steffani, tenor; Mazzoleni, tenor, and many others. Then was was Carlotta Patti, who had a most exquisite voice extending to A in alt. It was even a better voice than Adelina's. Unfortunately, Carlotta had one leg shorter than the others, and limped painfully when she walked. Of course, with this deformity it was impossible for her to sing on the operatic stage. This was such a great disappointment to her and her family that an Italian doctor in New York by the name of Cecherini arranged some kind of a contrivance that strapped to her knee and which enabled her to walk without limping. Carlotta tried it in private with success, and believed she could appear on the stage. It was arranged that she should appear in 'Sonnambula' and she got through two acts, but at the end of the second act she fainted in my arms. The strain had been too great for her nerves, and she had to give up her hope of singing in opera. It was a great pity, for her voice was beautiful.

"Another excellent singer was Errani, the tenor. His voice was not large, but very good and he afterward became a excellent singing teacher in New York.

"Still another that I remember was Stiegel, who sang the tenor rôle in the 'Jewess' splendidly. Ardavana, the baritone, had a very fine voice and the two Barillis were good singers."

Singers' Habits


"Tell me something about the personality and habits of some of the singers," I asked.

"That reminds me of Steffani," he laughed. "Steffani had a dramatic tenor voice of great power and beauty. Every night when he sang at the opera he drank two or three bottles of Bordeaux wine during the performance. Every time he came off the stage and between the acts he made straight for his bottle, so that frequently at the end of the opera he was quite drunk.

"Mario, the tenor, had a most charming voice, not large but of most beautiful quality and he sang with great style and finish. Such airs as 'Spirto Gentil' from 'Favorita' he sang exquisitely, and people often flocked to the theatre just in time to hear him sing this one song. He used to sing in 'piano' with an exquisite quality of voice. He was such an inveterate smoke that he had a cigar in his teeth the last moment before he went on the stage and every moment between the acts. As for me," he added, "I smoked very little, and on the days I sang I dined about three o'clock and need drank anything at the theatre expect occasionally some weak coffee, when my throat felt dry; but I always swallowed a couple of raw eggs between the acts and found them very beneficial."

A Unique Performance of "Martha" 


"Do you remember singing in Boston," I asked.

"Oh, yes, and I remember a very amusing performance of 'Martha' that we gave there once. Uhlman, the director, told us one day that we would sing Martha the next night. We all knew the opera, but I could only sing it in Italian, La Borde could only sing it in French, Philips sang her part in English, and Karl Formes sang in German. But, strange to say, it had a great success.

"That reminds me of Formes. He had an extraordinary voice of such enormous size that he never could control it properly and often sang flat. His voice was never properly schooled and he never sang his exercises to keep in good form, and when he sang he became so interested in his part that the emission of his voice never occurred to him. In the opera of 'Martha,' Formes, who had an extraordinary breath power, used to hold the low E at the end of the run in the 'Drinking Song,' it seems like five minutes, while he went around among the chorus clinking glasses with the men and chucking the ladies under the chin. The effect was irresistible.

Sbriglia to the Rescue


That afternoon I was sitting under the trees reading, when I saw Mons. Sbriglia approaching with a merry smile on his face. As he approached he began—"Did I ever tell you how I saved Maretzek one night? You see, I was a very useful tenor for a manager, for I knew nearly forty operas, and being possessed of an exceptionally retentive memory, I could sing nearly every one without a rehearsal. It was so easy for me to learn an opera that I could commit one to memory on a train.

"I arrived in New York for a season in Havana one afternoon, and as I went up to town to the house where I usually stayed, I saw by the bills that Medora and Mazzolini were to sing 'Il Trovatore' that evening.

"I was very anxious to hear this famous tenor in the part of Manrico, so after my dinner I went over to the theatre and took my place in a box. Mazzolini was in a very bad voice, and at the end of the first act his voice failed him and it was evident that he could not go on. Maretzek had seen me in the box and he came running in in great tribulation and begged me to come and finish the opera and save him from ruin. There was a theatre full of people and to turn them away and pay back the money meant financial ruin to him. "I will pay you a thousand dollars if you will come and sing the rest of the opera," he said. So I went to the dressing room and put on the costume and sang the rest of the opera. But, I have never received the thousand dollars. One time I saved Uhlman in the same way. Brignoli broke down in the opera and was unable to go on. Uhlman gave me six hunted dollars to finish the opera. That was a very large sum for those days, and I actually got the money.

The Old Style of Singing


"Ah! those were indeed great days, for the art of singing, for nearly all the artist were trained in the good old school. But it was a poor business, for we had to sing for months sometimes to make what can now be made in one night. In those days there were more good singers, and it was a lesson to students to attend the theatre and hear the artist sing, for they sang the legato style, which was the glory of the bel canto. This was true partly because the music they sang was of a kind that had to be sung and not declaimed, the music of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Cimarosa and Bellini. But with the advent of the music of Verdi and Wagner it was no longer necessary to sing, and the artists simply had to declaim over the accompaniment of a large orchestra, so that the beautiful effects,—the nuances of singing—which were its chief beauty, were impossible for the singer. The delicate action of the voice is just as necessary for its beauty as for its preservation. Whoever cannot sing piano is not an artist. I remember very well the great tenor Fraschini, one of the greatest artists of his time. He had a glorious natural voice, which he constantly forced. One night he went to the theatre and heard the tenor Basodonna sing 'Spirto Gentil' in 'La Favorita.' He was so captivated by the singer's beautiful quality of voice that he retired from the stage for six months and practiced daily on this one air, singing each phrase over and over again, the fior di labbri (the flower of the lips). He then returned to the stage and became one of the leading tenors in the world."

"Ah!" he said, "I sometimes think the days of the bel canto are over. People no longer have time to study long enough to master this great and beautiful art." And the Maestro sauntered away shaking his head.


The Etude, August, 1906: 488-489

Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi.

August 7, 2015

Surviving Tinnitus 2

Ponte delle Torri, Spoleto, Italy
Well....I've been on vacation for the last couple of weeks, singing in Italy with Umbrian Serenades, a wonderful choral ensemble that was founded by Paulo Faustini ten years ago. That's where you see me in the photo, crossing Ponte delle Torri—Spoleto's aqueduct, which leads to Monteluco mountain, which takes about 45 minutes to climb via a pretty steep trail. I went up and down 6 times. In silence. 

That's not something I could have done after my tinnitus onset, which took place in the Spring of 2007. No sir. I couldn't be in a silence environment for more than a year. Which brings me to the point of this post. 

A gentlemen who read my original post on surviving tinnitus called me up yesterday, having just experienced his own sudden onset not more than 3 months prior. His questions were numerous and to the point. 

Would the loudness change? Would he be able to have a life again? Would he be able to continue to work? 

Yes, yes and yes came my reply. 

"Think of yourself as two people" I said. "The first is the person you were before tinnitus, and the second is the person who has survived tinnitus. You aren't going to be able to be that first person again, and not being that person means going through grief. That's the deal. Grief has five stages. Just know that you are going to go through them all, and you will probably bounce back and forth between them. This is normal. If you practice some simple steps, you will come out of it Ok, but it's going to take a while as well as involve having a "practice," which is not the same thing as taking a pill." 

What are the simple steps to surviving tinnitus? 

The biggie is learning to deal with your emotional and psychological response to the tinnitus signal. If your onset was a big deal, your response will need to be in equal proportion to it. If you heard bells and whistles and crashing and banging going off like I did, you are going to have to deal with your response in a systematic way with hammer and tongs. Why? This will be the only way to reduce your awareness of the tinnitus signal and get your life back.  

Five tools helped me deal with my emotional/psychological response, and thus change my brain's response (neuroplasticity) to the signal itself. 

1) The first and perhaps most effective tool for me was the practice of Tonglen—which is a Buddhist meditative technique. How does it work? As you inhale consciously and slowly, you visualize whatever thought or feeling you are having as black smoke which enters your heart. When you exhale consciously and slowly, you beam rays of bright light out from your heart. Guess what takes over? The thought you are having, which could be "damn, I hate, hate, hate this, why me?" loosens up and becomes workable. With practice, this leads to a reduction in awareness of the tinnitus signal which is—measurable speaking, only 15 decibels—half of a whisper. Of course, the mind can ramp this signal up big time. The practice of Tonglen is—hands down—the best practice I can give to anyone who asks me about how to deal with their onset and reaction to it. The practice itself means literal warm-heartedness with a great sense of equanimity (space). Thoughts about the signal and the response to it became de-concretized and thus workable over time. As a result, awareness of the signal changes.

2) Listen to music. Don't be in a silent room. Play music so that it mixes, but does not cover the tinnitus signal. I did this for a couple years after my onset. This same principle is used in an App called "Tinnitus Pro" which I've known about for a while now, but haven't used much for the simple reason that I've habituated to my tinnitus signal. 

3) A little cognitive behavior therapy goes a long way. In my case, I read about CBT and thought, "Gee, this sounds like Tonglen but with fancy words added." 

4) Use a sound generator at night (mine was from Brookstone). Find a sound that mixes in with the signal but does not mask it completely (the sound of water usually works well). I did this for about 2 years, then forgot to turn it on one night, and realized that I didn't need it anymore. 

5) Have fun! Sounds simple, but if you are in the wake of a big emotional response to your onset, this can be difficult if not impossible at first. I told my caller something that stuck with me, which was the realization of utter silence during the first time I made love after my onset. Why? My brain was one-pointed with pleasure—so much so that I didn't hear a thing, that thing being the tinnitus signal itself. When Robert Campbell told his students to "Follow Your Bliss" he wasn't kidding. This axiom has practical consequences. 

The truth of the matter is that you are going to have to deal with your self in a way that may seem foreign and uncomfortable, especially if you are the kind of person who breezes through life without much care or thought. That will have to change. You are going to have to become pro-active. 

My tinnitus signal is always loudest in the morning, especially if I have had a couple of glasses of champagne or proscecco the night before. Do I let this stop me? Are you kidding? I had a grand time in Italy, singing and having fabulous dinners where the wine flowed freely. And I climbed up Monteluco mountain to the sacred forest, relishing the silence along the way.