December 21, 2016

Seat of Sensation

But in the expirations of breath, what is its course? It comes from the great reservoir, through the trachea (the windpipe), then through the larynx to the glottis, the ligaments constituting the vocal chords; it is then guided by the epiglottis (which is in perpendicular position) to the pharynx at the back (when the musical tones are formed in accordance with its dimensions); it next comes to the uvula and soft palate. 

The sound now proceeds either through the mouth or behind the uvula, through the passages of the head. Now it is just at this point, the division between the two, that the tone of a well-placed voice should seem to be—this is the sensation point, forward as possible—reflected, if I may so speak, by the pharynx (which extends from the base of the skull to the little bone at the root of the tongue). 

This will assure us that the head should not on any account be thrown back. Now, for the voce de petto, the open tone, the uvula and velum palati should be raised, that the voice should come freely and with resonance through the mouth—not drawn back, else a throaty tone would ensue. This open tone through the mouth is capable of great delicacy and should be so cultivated. It should not be confined to loud and robust tones. Great care, however, is needed to find out its true natural limits, beyond which it should never be forced. These limits once well assured, cultivation should be kept within them, otherwise it would be at the sacrifice of the voice. How necessary then for a master to have real practical knowledge of how to treat a voice, if he have not scientific knowledge! 

But for the upper register, the voce di testa, or head voice—not falsetto—instead of the sound coming through the mouth it comes through the cavities of the head. When the sound leaves the back of the throat, that is, the bag of the pharynx, it passes over or behind the uvula, and thus through the passages of the head.

I need not trouble you with any scientific statements as to the power of the trachea to elongate itself, or to contract its dimensions, or to the fact that it falls considerably when the di petto voice ceases, and rises again for the bright tones—the voce di testa. I will simply observe that the seat of sensation of these two productions should be as nearly as possible the same. There should be a note equally attainable from both registers, and it should be in the power of the singer to go from one register to the other and back again while on that note. (In an ascending passage, for example, requiring a note usually taken when alone in the head register, the progression would be improved by that last note being in the same register as the preceding one. This would prevent a sort of anti-climax.) The blending of the two registers here is a point I would urge as an evidence of the right placing of the voice.

When they do not blend the production is usually not forward enough. When it is remembered that only the lower jaw moves in opening the mouth, I am at a loss to find out how it is that some persons throw the head back in the endeavour to reach a high note, when the several organs are in front. The result of this action rather impedes the sound from proceding through the channels of the head, besides straining the muscles generally, and almost leading to the conclusion that a person so acting thought the voice passage and the food passage, the larynx and the oesophagus, were one and the same.

The blending of these two registers by some artists is so well done that it is at times difficult to say which is being used, the open or the "bright," as Braham used to call the voce di testa.

The fact that this upper register voice comes through the head will suggest that the head should incline rather forward than otherwise, the back part of the tongue slightly rising to direct the sound behind the uvula and soft palate and through the cavities of the head; but for the tone generally, the tongue should lie flat in the bed of the mouth, so that the sound should not be impeded. 

Acting in this way with respect to the voce di petto and the voce di testa, the singer will be free from the two great defects of nasal and throaty tone, and, which is a great desideratum, free from fatigue after a good amount of singing.

If, as is the case, some of the greatest physiologists speak with becoming hesitation on this difficult subject, owing to the complexity of the structure and the many functions the several organs of the voice have to perform, your present reader, who speaks with extended experience and close observation, may content himself with giving opinion and judgment (with respect to the production and the placing of the voice) on the ground of sensation, supported by such scientific knowledge as he could master.

Permit me to repeat—that voice is best placed whose excellence is dependent upon its sensational proximity to the uvula and soft palate. Whether the sounds go through the mouth, or through the posterior nostrils by means of the ponticello (the little bridge), the sensation to the singer should be as nearly as possible the same.

Penna, Frederic. "Some Thoughts About Singing," Proceedings of the Musical Association, 16th session,  (1889-90): 41-62.


Penna was a student of George Smart, a British conductor and voice teacher who was steeped in the Old Italian School, taught British aristocracy (he was busy into his 8th decade), coached Jenny Lind in Handelian oratorio singing—his own father having observed the great master at work, and conducted Maria Malibran's last performance before her death. Students of singing will note Penna's insistence on placement at the top of the pharynx, which echoes the teaching of Francesco Lamperti. 

December 17, 2016

Crescendo & Diminuendo

The crescendo and diminuendo of a tone should not be attempted until the sotto voce comes easily. The diminishing of a tone is something that is acquired gradually. It should be cultivated thruout all the exercises in the degree that the tone should be allowed to finish easily and naturally. The student will very soon appreciate this artistic idea.

In diminishing a forte tone into the mezza voce by decreasing the intensity so that the farthest listener can just hear clearly the full, round sound, the tone, if still further dimingished, must begin to pass into the sotto voce. The intensity of tone and the fullness of tone are two different things. The life, or amplitude, of a sound wave depends on the intensity with which the sound is created. The fullness of a sound wave depends on the form. The intensity gives the sound wave power to reach the listener. The greater or less fullness of a wave form gives the wave a bigger or finer structure. A very fine spinning tone on the lips may have the same intensity that is given to a full, round sound.

These two, then, have the same intensity but differ in fullness. The fine, thin sound, however, altho it has the same intensity as a mezza voce tone, is not accepted by the ear as a mezza voce tone. For a mezza voce tone is a tone in its full, round form with an intensity just great enough to make it heard clearly by the farthest listener. In the mezza voce we have the least loud sound of the full, round tone—in the diminishing of the sotto voce we are constantly approaching closer and closer to the element of tone.

When the intensity is lessened more and more after the mezza voce tone passes into the sotto voce, it will have power only to travel a less and less distance, so that the listeners farthest away will soon no longer hear the sound. - Therefore, in order to have a diminishing tone heard by the farthest listener, the intensity of the tone must be kept sufficiently strong to create a wave amplitude that will carry the sound vibration of the full, rounded tone of the mezza voce to the most distant part of the resonant space. By bringing the lips closer together, however, the artist can make his tones less full, and, hence, diminish them without diminishing the intensity, or the wave amplitude. The degree of loudness, i. e., intensity, must always be in proportion to the resonant space. By bringing the lips gradually closer together, the tone can be diminished to the very last thread of its fineness. If the lips are kept open as they are for a full, round tone, the sound, after it has passed from the mezza voce into the sotto voce, with the lips still in the same open position, will no longer be audible to the listeners farther away, and finally will be lost even to those nearest the singer. The singer, when he keeps his lips open, diminishes only the intensity and not the fullness of the tone. To diminish the intensity of a forte tone into a mezza voce is well and good as long as the tone in the mezza voce can be heard by the farthest listener—but when the artist passes from the mezza voce into the sotto voce, the intensity may no longer be diminished; for if the intensity, or wave amplitude, is diminished, the tone will die out before it reaches the most distant listener. A spinning tone is a very fine tone and is made with the lips close together. In order to diminish a mezza voce tone gradually into the finest of spinning tones, the lips must be brought dexterously closer and closer—this lessens the fulness of the tone more and more until it finally reaches the last thread of its sound.

The crescendo and diminuendo should be practiced on the tones which can be created most easily on the lips. Not until the crescendo and diminuendo can be accomplished on these notes should the student try to do the same on the higher and lower ones, else he will be apt to misplace them. A crescendo or diminuendo, or both, should be used to a greater or less degree on the same tone and surely in successive tones in the same rhythmic beat. Especially in dramatic work should this crescendo and diminuendo be felt very strongly. This must be left to the development of the artistic comprehension of the student. Crescendo and diminuendo must not be confused with vibrato. Even tho tones are expressed very dramatically with close vibrato it does not say that there may be no crescendo and diminuendo. The vibrato belongs to the body and form of the wave. The vibrato is the constant increase and decrease of amplitude or intensity in one wave — the crescendo and diminuendo is an increase and decrease in amplitude or intensity of successive waves. The crescendo and diminuendo in its greatest form passes from the finest tone to the roundest, fullest sound and back again into the fine, thread-like tone.

In the stolid work, where the notes are held a long time and are given with great intensity, the beginner will find that he can vocalize every particle of breath and increase he duration of his tone by bringing the lips closer together as his breath gives out. Finally, of course, there is never any want of breath, for a little breath, if vocalized, makes a tone of very long duration. It is not in reality a question of breath capacity, but it is a question of vocalizing breath. There is really no control of breath, for if the syllables are produced on the lips, the breath cannot help but be vocalized. The composer must leave to the imagination of the artist the use of the crescendo and diminuendo in the interpretation of the vocal setting. In order to properly express the emotions the singer must increase and diminish his tones, for in this he will find one of the greatest aids to interpretation and dramatic effect.

Preetorious, Carl. The Tone Placed and Developed (1907): 77-81. Student of Mrs. P. J. Brown, herself a student of Vincenzo Cirillo.

December 4, 2016

The Art of Donald Gramm

If you don't know the art of Donald Gramm—you really are missing something. He was on my radar as a young man of 17, when I started taking lessons in the late 70's, but slipped away before I could hear him live, dropping dead of a heart attack in his dermatologist's office at the age of 56. There is some strange consolation, however, in that we both sang with the New York City Opera. Suffice it to say: I really wish I could have known him. 

Gramm was a great singer. He sang on his "timbre" with impeccable diction, never yelling, never trying to be someone or something he wasn't. Whether soft or loud, his voice remained gleaming and vibrant, carrying to the back of the hall with an equal measure of metal and plushness. Dare I say it? You heard his placement. 

He also was a technical singer, and planned on giving master classes that focused on technique as much as interpretation—a prescription that is boring for an audience but necessary for the artist. 

Here he is on TV in the early 1960's, singing the songs of Charles Ives, with narration provided by Aaron Copland.





And here is Gramm singing Ned Rorem's glorious "Early in the Morning" with the composer at the piano.





Find more of his singing at Youtube. 

December 1, 2016

Margaret Harshaw as Donna Anna

How often do you hear a soprano sing with such intensity, gleam of voice, security, and  consummate authority today? Such was the voice and training of Margaret Harshaw, who studied with Anna E. Schoen-René—the musical daughter of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel Garcia, and began her career as a mezzo-soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, before ascending to dramatic soprano roles. Say what you will: few have done what she did with the skill with which she did it!