April 15, 2016

The García Lineage: Agnes Larkcom

Agnes Larkcom (1856-1931)
Agnes Larkcom is one of the more interesting voice teachers here on VoiceTalk that you've probably never heard about. Of course, if you've been snooping around, you may have spied her The Art of Singing (1920) on VoiceTalk's download page which has grown substantially is the last year or so—and now features more than a hundred previously unavailable texts. That is to say: when I first started researching in the 1990's, more than half of the texts now available for download could only be accessed via a very good library. That has changed after Google began scanning and uploading documents that were in the public domain. 

A student of Manuel García, Larkcom (Mrs. Herbert Levy Jacobs) studied with the great maestro from 1874 to 1884 at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and had a highly successful career as a concert artist before joining García as a member of the faculty in 1894—one year before García formally retired in 1895. That Larkcom passed on her teacher's principles seems clear, as indicated by Larkcom's obituary in the Musical Times August 1931, which notes that her personal methods were "coloured and systematized" by García's teachings before being passed on to a new generation of artists, one of them Florence Easton, who went on to study with Anna E. Schoen-René as a dramatic soprano. This will be evident to the reader in an address Larkcom made to the Society of Women Musicians which was published in The Musical Times in 1919. 


There is perhaps more controversy and disagreement about the Registers of the human voice than above any other part of the Art of teaching Singing.  
We have teachers who deny the existence of registers, teachers who say they should be ignored, teachers who insist on five, or three, or two; some who train the registers up, some who train them down, and again others who never think about them at all. 
I propose to put before you in as simple a manner as possible, the theory of registers as taught by Manuel García, and explained by him in a paper read before the Royal Society of Great Britain in 1855, after a long period of research accompanied by experiments on himself and others, conduced on absolutely scientific lines. 
I was permitted some years ago, by the courtesy of the Royal Society, to have a copy of the original address made, as delivered to them and recorded in their "Proceedings." The address is in exceedingly technical language, but I hope to make its main teaching clear without using many of the somewhat jaw-breaking terms which seem so dear to the medical profession. 
I think we are safe in taking for granted that every note produced by the human voice is formed in the larynx by the vibrations of the vocal cords. 
The ligaments in the female larynx are somewhat less than half an inch in length. 
As far as we  know the glottis alone has the power of varying the pitch of the voice, variations which have been known to extend in some exceptional voices to three or more octaves. 
How can such a tiny instrument as the larynx produce such a great variety of pitch without in some way, at some point, modifying its action? 
I expect we are all more or less familiar with the theory of vibrating strings as explained so beautifully by Professor Tyndall in his treatise on 'Sound.' By referring to that we shall see that in all vibrating strings the pitch of the sound produced is determined by these conditions—namely, the length, tension, thickness and density of the vibrating element. 
In passing I may as well remark that I am now dealing entirely with the pitch of sounds, not at all with quality. It is, in my opinion, as aspect of the subject with which the registers are most concerned.  
We find then that in all vibrating strings, a long, thick or heavy cord vibrates more slowly at a given tension than a short, thin, or light one. We have only too look at the inside of a pianoforte or at a violin to recognize that this principle underlies the mechanism of all manufactured stringed instruments in a violin there are four strings of equal length but different thickness. The pitch of each differs according to its thickness, and individually can be varied by shortening it by finger pressure. 
If a stringed instrument is out of tune we tighten (or stretch) the string to sharpen, or loosen it to flatten, but the principle is always the same.  
The human larynx seems to possess some of the characteristics of a stringed and some of the wind instrument, but the aspect of the case which is of such great interest and importance to us as teachers of singing is the fact that the vocal apparatus as a whole is provided with muscles which can thicken, make thinner, tighten or shorten the cords or vocal ligaments.  
Manuel García defined a register as 'a series of homogeneous sounds produced by one mechanism.' He recognized three registers in most female voices and divided the low lower into two parts. 
He taught that the mechanism employed in varying the pitch of the voice was of two kinds—one a closure of the cartilages, and the other a stretching of the ligaments. Both closure and stretching have be effect of raising the pitch.  
The glottis of vibrating element of the human voice consists roughly of two parts, one of cartilage (the Arytenoids or Pyramids) which close, and the other of the ligaments which stretch. The two parts into which he divided the chest and medium (or falsetto as he called it) registers, include the notes produced by stretching. The singer is not aware when the action changes from closure to stretching, and it is rarely noticed by the listener. Behnke used to call these divisions the 'Lower Thick and Upper Thick' and the 'Lower Thin and Upper Thin.' The definition is not elegant, but it expresses the physical condition very well.  
In the lowest registers (that which is usually called the 'chest' register), the whole glottis is thrown into loose, full vibrations. As the pitch rises the cartilages can be seen to close gradually; then when their work is done, the ligaments begin to stretch, and that goes on as long as it can be done without any feeling whatever of effort or fatigue.  
Signor García showed that the ligaments are connected with the outside of the trachea or windpipe by means of a fleshy membrane.  
All through this membrane are tiny muscular fibers of different lengths which seem to have the power of drawing the membrane towards the middle of the larynx, thus by contraction thickening the resisting element, and having the effect of making the cords vibrate slowly at a given tension.  
In producing a chest note we have therefore these conditions: the vocal cords made thick and heavy by the drawing forward for the membrane, a contraction of the larynx, and considerable resistance to the pressure of air from the lungs. The result is, or ought to be, a brilliant and powerful tone.  
Gradually the arytenoid cartilages meet and close and raise the pitch of each succeeding note, then they cease, and the work is carried on by the stretching of the ligaments. It is here that great care must be taken. 
The stretching movement must be continued only as long as it is perfectly easy. Directly there is the least sensation of tightness or effort the proper limits of the chest register have been reached or passed, and the modification called changing to the medium or falsetto ought to be brought about. 
This modification consists of relaxing the membrane so that a thinner surface is presented to the ascending column of air. The cords are loosened, the cartilages separated and the whole process is repeated, the only difference being that as the vocal ligaments are thinner, the tension necessary to form the last of the chest register, and there is no strain or fatigue. 
This registers can be used by the singer with perfect ease up to about C#, when most people being to experience the need for further modification. 
At or about this point, if the voice is being used with ease, 'stop closure' is supposed to begin. That is, the cords are closed, sometimes at each end, sometimes halfway, so that only a very short portion can vibrate and high notes are produced without difficulty at a quite moderate tension. If the medium is persisted in, the singer is using what Sir Morell Mackenzie used to call the 'long reed.' This method is tiring, but the notes are very strong. It is, however, dangerous to the majority of voices. 
My experience as a teacher has shown me that in the majority of voices the head notes are the last to be developed. We all know that they are generally the first to go. It would almost appear as if the production of true head tones depended on a certain power of 'accommodation' in the vocal ligaments which belongs to the prime of life only. Certainly the head tones of the most gifted singers tend to deteriorate at about the same epoch that the eye begins to lose its power of accommodation, at it is foolish to try to arrest their decay. The medium or chest notes are available for many more years, and sometimes remain beautiful even in advanced age. 
I have in several instances (I can recall at least six) noticed what appeared to me to be a fourth registers in the female voice, that is, a certain adaption which gave to high sopranos the power of singing the notes from D to A and even B♭ in alt, with precision and ease. It has seemed to me that these notes were produced by a kind of dampening process. They are, of course, unusual, but when the power exists singing these acute notes involves no effort, and causes no fatigue; in fact, exertion tends to spoil them. I expect many teachers and singers have also observed that sometimes when there is a slight cold, extremely high notes can occasionally be sung with ease and clearness. Manuel García when commenting on the phenomenon, suggested that perhaps a little mucous had collected on the vocal chords in such a manner that were 'dampened,' and the vibrating portion in a way artificially shortened, thus temporarily making very high sounds possible and easy. (Perhaps a node is formed and the resultant notes are harmonics.)  
So we see that if voices are trained carefully, and if the principles underlying the different adaptions are understood and acted on, the best possible use can be made of the vocal mechanism, and its wides compass used without fear of injury or strain. 
Actual observation of the movements involved in singing are so difficult that I think there will always be some things which are more or less matters of conjecture. The theory of adaption I have endeavored to explain offers at any rate an admirable working hypothesis. It rests on known scientific laws which can easily be tested in stringed instruments, and the teacher who bases here work on these principles and uses care and judgment in their application is not likely to do much mischief, and will probably obtain good results.  
The rather fashionable method very much to the fore to-day of making the medium registers do the work of three, though avoiding the difficulty of the change, sometimes miscalled the 'break' (it only becomes a break though misuse or abuse), tends in my opinion to limit the voice both as to compass and tone. Contraltos do not avail themselves of the brilliant resonant chest tones which form the most useful and attractive part of their special endowment, and sopranos do not develop the fluty pure head notes which are so beautiful and characteristic. The mezzo alone is fairly happy. 
The great principle which underlies everything is no doubt ease of emission based on deep and well-controlled breathing. If his is ensured, given that the teacher is dealing with a young unspoiled voice, there is not likely to be much difficulty. 
Unfortunately the desire which is so frequently present in the minds of both teacher and pupil to produce brilliant telling tone in a short time on the E♭, E, and F (first line and first space) and strong resonant notes for sopranos an octave higher, is a strong temptation to force up the respective registers. 
A steady, gentle, persistent use in the appropriate registers of sustained sounds on different vowels, 'Ee' frequently for the medium notes, and 'Oo' or "oh' for the first head notes, is almost certain to bring about equality of tone and satisfactory blending.  
When mischief has been down by misuse of the registers and the poor student is suffering from 'nodules' on the vocal chords (a frequent result of forcing up the chest register), rest is imperative for a time; then the medium must be trained down by means of over gentle exercise of the voice beginning above the point of difficulty and persisted in until control is regained, and the muscles have returned to their normal elasticity. The use of exercises for flexibility found in García's 'Art of Singing,' published by Leonard & Co., cannot be too highly recommended. These exercises help to blend the registers, to smooth over rough places and make transition easy; they also strengthen the throat and assist in obtaining breath control. 
Personally I think a singer ought always to know when and where she changes her register, but her aim should be to conceal it from the listener.  
There is a great difference in individuals as to the ease or the reverse with which the change is affected. Some throats seem to do it so easily that even the teacher has difficulty in detecting it. These cases are very 'gratefully and comforting' to the teacher, but are not so common as one could wish. In many the change is difficult and noticeable, and only patient practise can overcome the trouble. There is great divergence of opinion amongst voice trained as to the advisability of talking to students about their registers. Some teachers of high repute find they can do their work better and obtain finer results by not calling the attention of the student to the means by which these results are gained. Personally I have always preferred to explain my reasons and methods to my pupils. I like them to be aware of their dangers and to be ready to resist temptation through knowledge and understanding of the delicate mechanism they are using and developing. Still I have the greatest respect for the workers who differ from me in this, and recognize that the same ends may be attained by different ways.  
In bringing forth this simple statement of Manuel García's observations on the resists of the human voice, I feel I am offering something which may be useful in helping to solve the difficulties which are met with by young teachers when they first being to practise the delightful but difficult are of teaching of singing. 
Manuel García was a very old man when I had the privilege of studying with him, but up to the time of his peaceful and beautiful death in 1907, at the patriarchal age of 101 years, he never lost his interest in science, or relaxed his unselfish devotion to the highest ideals of vocal art. 
His intellect was keen, his taste severe. The length of his experience as a teacher have him unique opportunities for testing his theories and watching the results of their practical application.  
The methods of a master of such noble character, rare gifts, penetrating insight, and widespread and remarkable success, must always be or interest to every serious teacher of singing.  
Many theories have been advanced and advocated, and considerable matter has been written off the subject since the day when García's 'Treatise on the Art of Singing' first saw the light. But amidst much that is valuable and a good deal that is worthless, that wonderful work still seems to retain the place awarded to it when it first appeared. It remains to-day what it was a couple of generations ago, the classical manual for the teacher and the safe practical guide for the student in nearly all that appertains to the beautiful art of singing.  
Agnes Larkcom, "Registers," The Musical Times, May 1, 1919: 221-213. 

Larkcom not only gives the reader García's theory of registers, she also instructs the reader on the manner in which the shift between registers should be made, which Larkcom insists must be done in a "perfectly easy" way. She also helps the reader understand the mechanism behind what contemporary vocal pedagogues call "superbelt," which can be understood as the extension of the chest/middle register far into the upper range. 

There is a lot more for students of historical vocal pedagogy to consider regarding Larkcom's address, but I'd like to close this post by suggesting that the reader ponder Larkcom's exegesis of Manuel García's teaching on vocal registration in light of Hermann Klein's teaching of "singing position" as set forth in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. As such, the Klein/García teaching of "singing position" is the basic setting for the vocal folds, one which is oriented toward vocal fold closure rather than stretching. The articulation of this essential technique suggests, among other things, that the García School eschewed a complete separation of registers as a matter of vocal development.

Expect more posts on the teaching of Agnes Larkcom.


Note: The paper that Larkcom refers to in her address is Manuel García's "Observations on the Human Voice" which can be accessed here. As well, it should be noted that García died in 1906 rather then 1907. Lastly, the photo is mine, taken from a lithograph purchased some years ago. 

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