November 7, 2017

Remembering Margaret Harshaw



She died 20 years ago today, on the 7th of November, 1997. Remembered and mourned by countless students, colleagues, and the listening public, Harshaw was known for her full-throated, gleaming, silvery voice—the likes of which this listener has yet to hear again—and her strong influence on vocal pedagogy as the doyenne of voice teachers. Controversial, intelligent, quick-witted, authoritative, and possessing the best one-liner ever heard, she embodied the teaching of the Garcías through her studies with Anna Eugénie Schoen-René, who had been the student of both Pauline Viardot-García, and her famous brother, Manuel García—the first person to use the laryngoscope to view the vocal folds in action. Harshaw's strong influence ripples throughout the community of singers today; a bulwark against the boys with toys, teachers with credentials but no voice, voce-vista mad world we live in. A singer and teacher who lived and breathed bel canto, she was the pole star by which many found their way.


Photo Credit—Shigo Voice Studio, 1957 headshot. 

Drink, You Goose!

Though vocal music seems no longer to be the exact science it once was in Italy, though its methods have become unsettled, though its conservatories have declined in prosperity and discipline, though the enthusiastic reverence of the people for its interpreters has died down, perhaps for the scarcity of really great artists, though the masters who cherish the old traditions are fast passing away, the faith of the Italians in their own musical supremacy, their intolerance of other schools, their belief that vocal music can only live and breath through their language, that Italian composers and singers can alone worthily interpret the divine art, has not abated or declined on iota. Their latests, if not last, great composer, Ponchielli, has lately died here in Milan, and their greatest maestro has overpass man's allotted time. Judging fly his works, Francesco Lamperti, must be pronounced the master of masters. His career as a teacher is brilliant with stars. The list is too long to be given here. It runs from Campanani to Collini, from La Grange to Van Zandt, that poor, storm beaten little singing bird, now said to be dying at Cannes. Mohave had such unparalleled success, Lamperti must have possessed from the first, a sure, soft, consistent, thorough and philosophic method; and even now when they say that method has settled and stiffened into a hobby, I believe that a student who has the brains and will the will to master it, and not be mastered by it, the time and patience, and of course the voice to carry it out, cannot fail of becoming a good artist. But the process is long, and at first discouraging; for Lamperti has a peculiar, persistence idea that the voice must be kept back—subdued, and snubbed; gradually, very gradually, he lets it up and out, having an inexpressible horror of the senseless roaring and screaming of undisciplined singers. For a while, his pupils must walk by faith, almost forgetting the sound of their own voices. I was lately present at one of his lessons, and found it very interesting to watch the great master, white-haired, pallid, trial, seeming only alive, but all alive through music. No slightest error in time, tone, pronunciation or expression escapes his ear. He is a very plain-spoken old gentleman; and, his idea being that the voice can best be kept back and in the subjection by the action of the larynx used in swallowing, he frequently calls out to a young lady inclined to vocal forth-putting: "Bevete, oca!" which does not exactly mean "Drink, pretty creature, drink!" but "Drink, you goose!"

It struck me that this almost preternatural auricular alertness, this severe and often irascible exactitude and exaction must be very trying to nervous and sensitive pupils; but I am told that, with few exceptions, the earnest students take his discipline and drilling and even scolding serenely, bearing much from him because he is an old man, and more because he is "old Lamperti." Still, to go through and finish a good old-fashioned course with his exacting master, a singer must keep a stout heart and a "stiff upper lip," must turn a deaf ear to the dolorous "keeners" who are already holding a wake of Italian opera, must believe that he is at least gaining something which no musical mutations can take from him that splendid mastery and management of the breath, which is the foundation of singing, and which no master of our time has taught like Lamperti. In the relentless course of Nature, this doyen of masters must soon cease from his labors. It would seem that after fifty years of solfeggi, not unwelcome would be the thought of "the eternal silence." Who is to take his place? In Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Venice, are teachers of note, while here in Milan, their name is legion. Some are able and all are willing, but not a few, I am sorry to say, have proved themselves—to the American pupils at least—to be the merest charlatans—pretentious, mercenary, false, and grossly dishonest. Of one professor who has but lately taken up teaching, after a long and splendid career as a singer, I have heard from some of my young countrymen very good and honorable reports. This is Signor Giroldoni, still at sixty years of age in full possession of a magnificent baritone voice, which speaks well for his method. By the way, for this singer, Verdi wrote his "Ballo in Maschera." Very quietly, without advertisement of any kind. Signor Giroldoni has, in conjunction with this wife, also a celebrity, open, in his own house, a school of singing and given himself, with all his genius and accomplishments, heartily to his new work.

—Extract from Grace Greenwood's "The Study of Italian Opera: Method and Masters," The Independent, October 14, 1886, page 38.

November 6, 2017

The Requirements of Bel Canto

Bel canto, beautiful singing! That has to do with tone quality: the voice must be trained for beautiful quality in all the details of forte, crescendo, decrescendo and mezzavoce (no fortissimo or pianissimo exists properly in singing, for that would take away from the true principle of execution), which we may classify as matters of technique. The student must first acquire the rudiments of perfect control, in order to be able to sing the plain cultivated style in Italian, German, and French; the plain style being the old Italian music where technical execution must be faultless. It is not easy, and requires complete control of the breath through diaphragmic support, tone production through vocalization, full even tone, and the flawless blending of registers, besides absolute knowledge of technique on the teacher's side—who must guide the pupil in the different stages of style. Then, after an absolute technique is acquired, whether for expression in music of the plain or florid type, sentiment must be expressed, without a trace of sentimentality, which is a passionate low expression of rubato. The pupil is then fitted to express even the true rubato, that is, the declamatory style in music.

We are hopeful today that the Garcías' intelligent production of the voice will continue to attract disciples to the tradition of bel canto, which has been acknowledge universally as the only technique for the singing of dramatic as well as lyric compositions.

—extract from Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941), page 94-95.


One reads the words above and begins to understand why Madam Schoen-René was called the "Prussian General." For her, bel canto vocal technique was not a personal elective, but an absolute matter that required discipline, commitment, intense study, and application. Enter her studio, and you would be kept on scales and exercises for a least a year. The result? She was noted as having more students at the Metropolitan Opera than anyone else, except for Oscar Saenger, who also held his students to matters of technique for a protracted period. What has changed since these two teachers were on the scene? Everything! 

November 5, 2017

Practical vs Scientific Knowledge

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 the 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 di petto, the open tone, the uvula and velum palate 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 ti 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 di voce 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 nearly as possible the same. There should be a note 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 endeavor to reach a high note, when the several organs are in front. The result of this action rather impedes the sound from proceeding through the channels of the head, besides straining the muscles generally, and almost leading to the conclusion that a person so acting though the voice passage are the food passage, the larynx and the oesophagus were one and the same.

The bending of these two registers by some artists is so well done that is 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 should will suggest that the head should incline rather forward than otherwise, the back part of the tongue slightly rising to diffract the sound behind the uvula and soft palate and through the activates 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 judgement (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 the 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.

—Excerpted from Frederic Penna's "Some Thoughts on Singing." Proceedings of the Musical Association, 16th Sess. (1889-1890). Penna was a student of Sir George Smart, a noted British conductor, vocal pedagogue, and exponent of the old Italian school of singing.


How far off Penna's insistent words about voice placement can seem, until one picks up the the latest issue of the Journal of Singing (Nov/Dec 2017) and finds, buried in an article about tone color: 

"The Singers formant cluster is tuned by the epilarynx and various micro adjustments along the vocal tract, and is also perceived/felt to be higher, often in the area of the nasopharynx and in the bony structures of the front quarter of the skull (the so called mask area). —Kenneth Bozeman, "The Pedagogic Use of Absolute Spectral Tone Color Theory," JOS, page 180. 

Huh, I think to myself: So glad you could catch up to Penna, Lamperti, Vanuccini, Nava, Sangiovanni, García, Viardot-García, Schoen-René, Harshaw, and many others who knew this before you were born. Mind you, the teachers of the old Italian school—and most emphatically that of Lamperti—would not say "often in the area of the nasopharynx and in the bony structures of the front quarter of the skull." No, they would insist on it. How to bring this phenomena about? That's a whole other matter, one which—for starters—involves a canny use of vowels.