April 3, 2017

By Their Throats Ye Shall Know Them

THE SUBJECT I have selected is so little considered in general, that I find it rather difficult to treat of in a way that can be easily comprehended by every one.

Clara Brinkerhoff c. 1865
Voluntary attention must be looked upon as quite a different thing from spontaneous attention, which is natural to our senses. Voluntary attention is, therefore, a graft, as it were, built upon or growing out of the natural attention by means of will-power; a thing to learn, we may say, yet rather a state or condition intellectual and soulful, to be developed through willingness to be interested. It may claim to be the one thing that makes a student of singing great in his art, when he has really attained such an intellectual condition, or spiritual state that he is in a receptive, absorbing mind-concentration, that he not only learns by listening, but the natural sequence is a growth and fructifying of words and ideas sown by the teacher in all earnestness, that the pupil’s studies advance rapidly and well; a vocation for the rest of his life.

This condition of attention is always attained by great singers. It enables them to listen to sounds, compare and examine their own and other voices with undisturbed thought, and continually enrich their vocal art.

Ribot, the French writer, says: “The power of fastening the mind upon non-attractive objects can only be accomplished by force under the influence of education derived from men or external things, till lasting habits are formed; acquired attention becomes second nature, and the artificial process is complete." The ego, or will, of the pupil during the study of singing, must yield true obedience, and desire to do so, in order to draw out the full talent of the teacher as well as that of the pupil, for voluntary attention is the product of the highest civilization, and does not exist in crude states. I judge Ribot has no personal experience common to most teachers of singing. 

I will show that astonishment will inhibit or arrest the breath. The pupil sees that, and can learn from that simple example to arrest or inhibit, by voluntary act, the breath, when necessary for good phrasing or perfect control of the vocal apparatus in inhalation or exhalation. 

I always begin in one way. The mind’s eye must be brought to bear upon the great central nerves that connect with the belt—I say, for lack of a better word. The first control of pitching the voice, I teach not with tone or scales, but with attuning the vowel sounds in discrete notes or concrete passages; that is to say, in martellato utterance, then flowing as in song-voice. Until this work is done no pupil should be allowed to sing. First, because the cultivated attention is not strong enough to watch and listen to the sounds of song-voice, which can be cultivated only through the ear. Secondly, because true attuning—that is, correct pitching—can only be done by the study of vowels uttered but not sung. Here the attention gets control of the action of the diaphragm, supporting the stream of continuous breath, that can be inhibited or arrested in the chest before a tone issues, while the main column of air acts as a part of the impetus or force received from the diaphragm, which will send the sound swinging through the air with the certainty of a well-directed ball, or an arrow from its bow. There is no such thing as artistic tone where there is no mental direction. That is to say, all tone is common-place, vulgar, also comparatively colorless, that has not a mental and spiritual condition for its basis. The grafted attention necessary for high artistic attainments, through eye, ear, touch, or the noble song-voice which represents the very essence of the being who sings, is able also to create for itself a refined and rare musical atmosphere, much better than the possibilties of foreign study, with its dangers, can give by attrition.

Deep breathing is a sign of power and mind-concentration, and can be taught in singing to all who can learn voluntary attention, and is a part of its formation as an attribute. I find the ear docile in training the attention that is to be grafted on the natural spontaneous attention. But the ear for music can be only cultivated rapidly and well by creating the soulful intellectual condition which permits an aesthetic growth quite independent of the will. This growth goes on unfettered by sleep, or even by busy cares; that is to say, work impossible to do to-day is done some following day, and at no interval produced or practiced through voluntary attention. I think the impression of the great importance of artificial attention to the song-voice is soon attained by those pupils who meet the teacher daily; so rapid is the progress, that one would say that the art of the teacher was capable of being transfused into the minds of those pupils who lay down their will for the time, receiving in return the concentrated knowledge and experience of the teacher, as a power, a glowing substance, that will awaken a noble zeal for study.

There are many ways of doing this. My plan is very simple. The untrained mind, no matter what the age may be, must yield perfect obedience, in doing the work in hand. I find it necessary, sometimes, to listen to the pupil in another room and make corrections from there; for sometimes self-consciousness is disturbed and offended; but it is a good place for the pupil to lay down his will and yield obedience, so necessary to the success of fine art. In all strong physical natures, we find the short middle register or laryngeal wire and its octaves, very assertive; in fact, in many cases it creeps up and makes an offensive mixed quality, causing the next register to be variable and impure in quality.

This is the real key to our personal character. “By their fruits ye shall know them." I say by their throats ye shall know them; for the greatest sign of a highly-cultivated attention makes itself felt by clear forward articulation and fine vowel utterances that hold the entire scale of expression in their prismatic tints and soul-touching power. Correct dynamics come from the inspiration of thought.

—Clara Brinkerhoff, "The Art of Acquiring Attention For the Study of Singing, " Werner's Magazine, September 1890, Page 223.


Born in London, Brinkerfoff inculcated the principles of the old Italian school of singing from her mother, Clara Rolph, who was a student of Domenico Corri, himself a student of Nicola Porpora, considered the deepest root of all vocal instruction. At odds with the teaching of her own time, Brinkerfhoff taught that there were three registers: mental, moral and physical. Find more on her teaching in subsequent posts. 

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