January 14, 2018

A Few Hints for Amateurs

"Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
The best is that of singing; which so few do well." 

There are few exclamations more frequently heard than the despairing one, "How I wish I could sing:" but it would become as rare as it is now common, if the the proper methods for developing and controlling the voice were more generally understood; if the would-be singer would enter upon her studies with a correct idea of the length of time necessary for accomplishing any favorable results, and if more intelligence were brought to the work. 

Katharine Evans von Klenner 
The cultivation of the singing voice is especially beneficial to those in the dramatic profession, for nearly all the new plays to to-day require of some one of the case, a certain knowledge of music, and many engagements have been lost because of the inability to sing some simple ballad. In presenting one of the most successful pieces of the day, it has been necessary to utilize a hidden voice in order to present in the most realistic manner the author's ideal. What would Trilby be without Ben Bolt? 

With few exceptions every human being has a voice which is used with more or less facility as a means of communicating the different states of the mind. Any voice which can express varied emotions in language, can, without great difficulty be taught to express them in song; the singing voice differing from speech only in being a higher development of the same power. Singing is simply musical speaking. Of course, radical defects in ear, or inability to keep correct time, would prevent satisfactory results in training a voice which might otherwise be of most pleasing quality. But even a defective ear may be trained if the pupil has sufficient perseverance and intelligence. 

As a nation, we Americans are in too great a hurry; and although American girls are universally acknowledge to have musical talent and versatility in the highest degree, still almost without exception, they lack the ability to "make haste slowly." In fact this characteristic is so universally acknowledged by the most celebrated European teachers, that the first question usually asked by them of a new American pupil is, "How long do you intend to study?" And I can even now see the look of surprise in the face of Mme. Viardot-García—my own teacher—when I replied to that question: "Until you think I am prepared to do you credit." Whereupon Madam said, "My dear child, that may require years." "Very well," I replied, "let us commence." 

If singing pupils were less impatient and would consider that all must be undergone, all the privations, all the disappointments, and heartaches, there would be fewer failures. They would willingly go step by step, not expecting to become great singers in a few months, but willing to devote years to the work, interested in the daily advancement and improvement, not constantly thinking of the end,—the final triumph. 

More steadfastness of purpose is another quality which students need to cultivate. Select your teacher only after due consideration, and then remain with her. Two years with one method is worth five spent in trying all the "splendid teachers" suggested by your friends. For when you have finished your investigations you have neither one method nor another, and your time has been worse than wasted, for the continual changing brings the pupil to that point she knows not what to believe, and with spirit broken, enthusiasm gone, money vanished, she gives up study altogether and puts all singing teachers down as charlatans and frauds. 

Correct breathing is the foundation of all good singing, and the excessive use of breath is the great and almost universal cause of bad singing. Until thoroughly conversant with the art of breathing, and able not only to take, but also to retain the air so that no portion escapes except as used in tone graduation, it will be impossible for a singer to produce that evenness, purity and roundness of tone which distinguishes the cultured artist. As the ability to control the breath is entirely muscular, it is a question of daily and unremitting practice as necessary as the daily training needful for the development and strengthening of any other set of muscles in the human body. 

As has been tersely said:—"Breathing is practice, tone production knowledge." When the voice is perfectly placed, it always remains, but the breath must be conquered day by day. 

Another fault which I would point out to our would-be singer is the desire to attempt selections entirely beyond her capacity, forgetting that while the limitations of the voice may make it impossible for one to sing dramatic arias, she may still make a great success in the interpretation of German Lieder, French chanson or the English ballad, to sing which well, requires the greatest art. This is an age of specialties. The student in Germany is asked, "What are you, a dramatic, lyric, or lieder singer?" And the honor is given, not to character of the voice, but to the proficiency of the singer. 

The question of ballad singing brings us to one of the glaring faults of the day—poor enunciation. What is more provoking than to hear a singer, with a voice beautifully placed, singing a language which is not English, French or German, but which has become so universal as to be called the "singers' language," Too much time and attention cannot be spent upon the correct production of the tones with the words. The ah and oh are practiced for hours, but how much time is given to the e, i and u, and the keeping of all the different vowels of the same artistic value throughout the entire compass of the voice? How many pupils can sing a scale without changing the vocal shade? 

It is known to almost everyone how exact the educated foreigner is in enunciating the English language. Indeed it is sometimes almost painful to hear the slow, careful attention given to the proper value of each vowel and syllable. The intelligent foreigner when once he has acquired the English language undoubtedly speaks it, so far as enunciating individual words is concerned, much more distinctly and accurately than the average Englishmen or American. This, with equal justice, must be believed of an American speaking any one of the European languages. It is almost impossible for us to acquire the habit of slurring over words and even whole phrases and of running one word into the following words which so commonly characterizes the native speaker. We unconsciously exercise much more care in enunciation when speaking an unfamiliar language. This is even more apparent when singing. There can be no doubt that the average English vocalist sings much truer in Italian, or instance, than in his native tongue, and simply because his enunciation is more careful an accurate, each vowel and syllable being given its full an complete tone value. Could the pupil exercise the same care in enunciating his own language, English, the improvement would be marvelous. But we cannot; we are too familiar with our own language. To produce accurate enunciation and to perfect a pupil in this respect I insist upon her learning at least the rudiments of Italian, that is shall be correctly pronounced and read, even though understood only sufficiently to realize the sentiment of the song words, and thorough and honest practice of all exercises using Italian words.

The question of tone color, is one calling for much attention from pupils, who as a rule do far too little thinking while studying. One of the best requisites of a good teacher, is the ability to make pupils think, for when that is brought about, good singing will be the rule, and song shall become in a higher degree than any of her sisters, "the universal art." 

Katharine Evans von Klenner. "A Few Hints for Amateurs," The Vocalist, 1896: 53-56. 


After her aristocratic husband of Austrian descent died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19, Klenner (1858-1949) adopted the title of baroness and never remarried. She had been a student of Pauline Viardot-García in Paris, and while still a young woman, became Viardot-García's representative in America, teaching only women in New York City, and in the summer at Chautauqua, NY. 

Swimming in society, Klenner founded the National Opera Club of America which met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, taught private voice from her apartment on West 57th Street near Columbus Circle, and dove deep into spiritualism with the publication of The Greater Revelation in 1924.

Find out more about her by clicking on her label below. 

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