May 10, 2016

The Eye is the Mirror of the Voice

Washington has been entertaining William Shakespeare.

To us in America the name Shakespeare is generally thought of as reserved exclusively for the famous Elizabethan playwright. As a matter of of fact, the name is not unusual in England. As there is some mystery regarding Will Shakespeare's descendants it is impossible to say definitely which, if any, of the Shakespeare of today are of his line. 

The William Shakespeare who is stopping in Washington is a short, sturdy old gentleman of 72 years, with snowy white hair and mustache and a goatee, not unlike that attributed to the sixteenth century Will. He is one of England's most famous teachers of singing. 

Here is a man who knew Jenny Lind, Patti, Rubinstein, Liszt, and Brahms. These artists were born just a few decades too early to have their music preserved in phonograph records, and the most vivid pictures of them that we can get are through their few surviving friends. Mr. Shakespeare knew them well and their names, are constantly recurring as he reminisces or talks about the art of singing. 

He was a little puzzled, though, that any one should ask especially about the little things that the immortals said and did, but with old school politeness he conjured his brain and began to tell us how Rubinstein bewailed to him, "When I could play no one would listen. Now I am old and have lost my skill, and people call me the greatest pianist in the world." 

Before we could ask him more about Rubinstein, he had risen to show us a photograph of Brahms when he presented it to Mr. Shakespeare, but the notes have been somewhat blurred. 

"That ink," said Mr. Shakespeare disapprovingly, "got blurred when I lent the picture to a newspaper that wanted to reproduced it." 

But his distrust of the shortcomings of the press was soon forgotten as he seated himself comfortably and drew a little silver pencil from his pocket. 

A Friend of Jenny Lind 


"You have asked about Jenny Lind. She gave me the for singing at her house at a concert in honor of the King of Sweden. The inscription is nearly worn off because I carry the pencil all the time." 

Jenny Lind's sweetness and charm have been the subject of so many stories that you are not surprised when Mr. Shakespeare tells one more. 

"Soloists often think they cannot afford to waste their votes by singing in a chorus. If they cannot be stars they will not be satellites. Jenny Lind was not like that. Once, when I was a soloist at a Bach festival, I though the choir back of me was singing remarkably well, and I glanced back and saw Jenny Lind singing unnoticed in the chorus. That was after she retired from the concert stage. Her husband conducted the Bach choir and she often led the choruses." 

But Mr. Shakespeare is more interested in the song that in the musician. His theories on technique should be interesting not only to the singer but to any one who lies to know what, besides a beautiful voice, constitutes good singing. 

"The great thing about voice culture is breathing," he explained. "So many singers breathe noisily and heavily. That is wrong. The breath should be taken imperceptibly. If the singer breaths rightly he will be able to control the breath, giving it out slowly while he emits the notes. Then he will not have to gasp and take a new breath in the middle of a phrase. 

"Singers in Europe used to practise for hours with a lighted candle or a mirror before them. If the candle flickered from the force of the breath, or if the mirror became tarnished, while they sang, they knew that the breath was not under sufficient control. 

"Common of the breath is difficult. But then, learning to sing properly is not easy. Yet—and it sound like a paradox—the vocalist must pour forth his notes with perfect freedom. The throat should be open so that there is a sense of freedom at the vocal chords. The singer should be relaxed, because if the shoulders, jaw, tongue, and eye are fixed, the tones cannot be clear and soft. 

Sing With Your Eyes 


Lamperti, my teacher in Milan, always said that the eye is the mirror of the voice, and that vivacity of expression is always accompanied by brightness and life in the voice. The voice cannot be used independently of the body. You cannot scowl—so—and sing a lullaby properly, and you cannot slouch and sing well. I have always insisted on my pupils standing in a balanced position." 

Mr, Shakespeare paused, and his blue eyes began to twinkle. 

"I remember one pupil who held her head so stiffly, and nothing I could say would make her bow a bit. As a last resort, I made as if to seize her by the short hair over her forehead, and she dropped her head gracefully, just as I had wanted her to do. After than, I had only to lift my hand towards her hair to remind her, and instantly she bowed. 

"I was puzzled over the inevitable success of the experiment until her sister confided to me the secret. She wore a false bang. 

"So then, when posture, relaxation, and breathing are correct, the foundation is laid for right tone production. The good singer hits each note more clearly in the middle of the sound. He does not let out the mote a little flat and scoop up to a burst of good sound—a common fault. Nor does he attack the notes too high and slide down to the proper pitch. His tones are pure and emitted with assurance, and what is of importance, the syllables are clear. When a song is a jumble of meaningless sounds it is not well sung. I remember hearing Patti sing in a hall so enormous that she looked like a pygmy on the stage. We were at a great distance from her, and yet from the first note, every word of her songs was distinct." 

Mr. Shakespeare's life from boyhood has been dedicated to music. As a boy of eleven, he played the outran in an English church. 

"I did not like to practise," he says naively, "but after some years of study I became a pianist and came up from my country town to London." 

Here he took a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music for piano playing and composition, and wrote a concerto which Gounod pronounced beautiful, and which won him the Mendelssohn scholarship to Leipzig. There he was told that his voice had possibilities, and he went to Milan to stay with the famous teacher, Lamperti. 

When he came back to London, he was instantly besieged with requests to sing at this and that oratorio concert, and pupils began to come to him, so many of them that finally he gave up his career as a singer and devoted all his time to teaching his art. 

Frederic Haskin, "The Haskin Letter—An Interview with Shakespeare," The Great Falls Tribune, Saturday, January 29, 1921: 4.


Note: This article is an expanded version of one that appeared here. I welcome your comments and observations. If you like what you find here, please share. 

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