Practicing Softly Should Be Essayed Only After Artistry Has Been Adhered—The Case of Evan Williams—A Miraculous "Come Back"—"From Full Tone Develop the Soft Voice." —By W. Henri Zay
One of the rarest and most beautiful effects in singing is a really lovely soft voice that has not only charm, but atmosphere, depth, sincerity and even breadth and dignity.
Most of the soft tones one hears on concerts are breathy and superficial, cloudy or off key, or sound more like a whine than an expression of sympathetic charm.
So many teachers are attempting to train voices starting with the soft voice, which, they claim, can be developed into the full tone, that the inference would be at least there ought to be many good exponents of soft singing, but where are they?
Well, then! What is the "Soft Voice Fallacy?" It is the idea that voices can be developed, starting with the soft voice. I have met in New York many poor deluded students, who have been working for several years on soft voice, who couldn't sing a decent tone or pronounce anything intelligibly, to say nothing of eloquently.
The wonder is the they are so gullible, and can be persuaded to continue such a futile course, even when their own common sense tells them that they are doing themselves no good.
It sounds so plausible to say, "First get the right tone softly and then develop it up to the full tone," but it doesn't come off. They never get the "right tone." The old Italian masters did not teach that way, and none of the really great singers have been trained that way. I defy anyone to name any who have. The way to develop a voice is first to get a mental concept of a full, free tone, supported by a fully extended chest and torso, and finishing freely in the diction area in the masque of the face. Then sing an exercise full voice, not soft; neither should it be fortissimo, but as it comes, let it speak, as full as the breath support is strong—not forcing. Then a student has a chance to feel in a positive fashion what is taking place, and has a basis for self-criticism. With the soft voice the sensation is so slight that it deceives or confuses the singer, and usually, if it doesn't pinch and squeeze the tone, at least leaves it undeveloped and "namby-pamby."
To be sure, if one sings full voice, one must know how to direct it to the masque resonance and keep it off the throat; then he will avoid forcing, also at the same time he will learn to pronounce not only the open vowels, but the closed ones as well, and still keep a round, musical tone.
The wrong loud tone, of course, ruins the voice, the right loud tone develops it. Then, when the sensation is fixed and a standard of criticism established, begin to modulate the tone, and soon a beautiful soft voice will be found that has all the character and depth of the full tone. It will be expressive and lovely, and when a word like "deeper" is sung it won't give the impression of acid-like thinness or make the listening feel as if he had been pricked with some sharp instrument. When a student has learned to sing and becomes an artist, then he may practice softly, but is the last thing he learns, not the first.
The career of the late H. Evan Williams was a grand illustration of this method. I believe I knew the man and his voice better than any other of his numerous friends. We began together in Cleveland. He came to New York, I went to London. When his voice broke down, he went home to Akron, and did not sing in public for three years, but worked as best he could to restore and develop his voice, and did very well. He then went to London to start over and establish a new reputation. He landed in London one evening, and next morning came to see me.
His first greeting was a reference to my speaking voice; he ignored the commonplaces, and went straight to the fact that he heard in the tone of my greeting that my whole idea of voice and the expression of self had changed. He stayed in my house for about a year. The experience was most interesting. He was singing with a production which made far too much of the pharynx resonance, the result being a tone that was far back and of a hollow, chesty character. This tone sounds rather fine and big to the singer himself, but does not carry, neither does it lead up naturally into the head voice.
Rescue of a Great Voice
I told him it would not do, and set to work to convince him. It didn't take long; in two weeks he moved the voice forward, using the masque resonance instead of the pharynx, and getting his power and depth from body support. The masque resonance improved and invigorated his head voice as well, and made the voice even from top to bottom. I took him at once for six Chappell Ballad Concerts at Queen's Hall, and that was Evan William's "come-back" to the concert platform.
If ever a voice wanted careful handling William's did; his disastrous experience before had proven that it could not stand abuse. But there was no fooling with the soft tone with him; he went straight and strong at the full tone, and all the post-nasal resonance he could get into it, then he was soon modulating it so that he could reduce it to a whisper and still retain the intensity.
It improved his pronunciation because the tone and pronunciation were in the same area. Of course, Williams had a wonderfully facile voice, he had an undoubted genius for tone, he could imitate any kind of sound. It was a great experience and a privilege to work with him, and I gladly acknowledge that I learned a lot in the process.
Williams returned to America, and when he walked into Henry Wolfson's office and told him he had his voice back better than ever, Wolfson wouldn't believe it, but when he sang for him an oratorio number, Wolfson, astonished, declared," We'll have your success all over again." And he did, and more. Williams was certainly the greatest tenor, if not singer, that America ever produced. He certainly was filled at times with cosmic energy and inspiration, and maybe unconsciously was an instrument though which higher forces played. This is a high from of human development, which can only be experienced by one whose daily habit it is to take in and hold, with a stretch of his body, great, deep breaths. Thus is the connection with inspirational forces established. When the forces are not active, the subject becomes human again, but the effect of the temporary visitation, always remains, raising the average status high than it was before.
This sort of feeling is never developed by timid, soft-voice trainers, and it has nothing to do with the size of the voice. A small voice may have it just the same as a big one, or a lyric just the same as a dramatic. Evan Williams's was a lyric voice, but how dramatic he was! Was it all by accident, or gift? No; it was developed.
More Singers of His Type Needed
We must have more singers of this calibre, men and women; they can be developed, not by feeble, insignificant and fussy humming and whining, but by tone properly directed toward the masque of the face, tone that is bold, full and free, supported by a full breath, controlled by an elastic body stretch. Through these activities the singer can become spiritually and emotionally strong, he can find himself and express himself, and become a fitting instrument to recreate the best moments of the world's best composers.
Let not the little flat-chested whiners think they are artistic. Art is strong, virile, inspiring. In spiritual strength we find the greatest delicacy. The procedure is thus reversed. From the full tone develop the soft voice; Fallacy disappears and we find Truth.
H. Henry Zay, Musical America, March 26, 1921: 41-42.
Note: Find more about W. Henri Zay here. Lastly, Zay's approach is in keeping with that of Anna E. Schoen-René and her student Margaret Harshaw, Schoen-René having been a student of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García.