February 25, 2018

The Foundation of a New Religion

There was once a laryngologist in New York called Dr. Curtis. He became the friend and helper of the whole singing crowd in that city, and especially of the singers at the Metropolitan Opera House. The complaints among the singers were numerous, the vocal accidents serious. Dr. Curtis began to collect material, people like Van Rooy, Ternina, and hosts of other German singers, principles and choristers, showing signs of similar affections. In most cases the vocal cords were actually injured. 

Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940)
About the same time the voice of Edouard de Reszke began to fail, and Jean de Reszke, dissatisfied with his own voice, began to consult Dr. Curtis on both their cases. Jean de Reszke became a regular visitor at the private house of Dr. Curtis, and he would talk with his brother night after night, scrutinizing vocal methods and their consequences. 

Edouard de Reszke's case was similar to that of Rokintansky, the bass of the Vienna Opera Company (mentioned in section of Nasal Method). After forcing the volume of his voice, he got into difficulties,  being unable to reach his top notes as easily as before. He tried to save himself by singing through his nose. 

"The Triumvirate" decided after many conferences that it is the hit of the glottis which endangers the singer's throat. No doubt they were right on this point, as we fully agree that to hit the glottis in singing must be the source of many vocal troubles. But they could not distinguish between the hitting and the closing of the glottis, and at once decided to condemn every method that allowed singers to make their vocal cords meet when emitting sounds. 

Other singers were invited tone present at those discussions and some of our school, like Melba, Eames, Calvé, Susan Adams, and Sybil Sandersen, who had all been trained in the García-Marchesi Method, were shown the "bogey" of the "coup de glotte" and its terrifying consequences. At these meetings war was declared upon all followers of our method, and the artists' minds were worked upon passionately until they really believed that their way of using their voices was perilous. 

It was decided that vocal cords must be prevents from closing suddenly. This was the turning-point that brought about an error cultivated ever since. 

How could one sing without closing the vocal cords suddenly? Either by starting the note with an h (ha) which would make every fresh start sound husky, air being forced through the vocal cords whilst a note is attacked (first you would hear and h, then a sound), or else by starting a note with the aid of a preceding consonant. 

All consonants were tried and, arriving at the letter m, they decided that this was fulfilling all their expectations. They though they had here struck a gold vein in the dark labyrinth of their vocal ignorance. 

The letter m,  if you will try it by sounding a note at the same time, starts like the French em; then, passing straight through the nose, a nasal sound follows. But they thought that even an e (French) preceding the m might be dangerous, and so they decided to start singing notes on m with closed mouth, which makes the sound immediately pass through the nose and resemble the mooing of a cow. Obviously, their funny-bone did not trouble them. Neither did they object to unaesthetic noises.

Convinced that they had found a way to relieve the vocal cords of most of their work by avoiding the closing of the glottis in emitting sound, they decided to perform all exercises on the letter m with closed mouth and to try to sing otherwise through the nose as well. They thought that to send the sound through the nose was to take a heavy weight from the vocal cords, whereas the exact contrary is the truth. A sound sent to a bad sounding-board throws the whole weight of the work back upon the vocal organ and makes it attempt greater efforts to obtain volume.

This was a the starting-pint of this new religion, but did not stop there.

It spread like a prairie view, and all the ignoramuses, glad to find a new gospel at last, preached the pernicious discovery from the North Pole to the South. Dr. Curtis taught it to all his singing patients. He laid down in his book on the voice a curse against all those who teach the "coup de glotte."

This naturally meant García and all his followers, including my mother and myself. But these were all idle words. The serious fact witnessed by the whole world as that Edouard de Reszke's voice failed completely when he was still a fine, strong man. His instrument was beautiful, but the nasal method destroyed it. His brother Dean de Reszke, one of the finest singers of world ever knew, fell a victim to the same practice in the prime of life.

The tenor's voice succumbed more slowly but no less surely to these exercises. And so the most fascinating tenor had to retire from the operatic stage. Although they were the first victims of the "discovery," they grew enthusiastic over their new thought and, wishing to save all singers, drew more and more fellow-artists into their circle, thus causing havoc in the singing profession.

One of the first to listen to them was my mother's pupil, Melba. Her voice was perfect, her legato of a rare quality, her staccato and trill perfection. They talked her over, explaining that attacking notes straight away, and especially staccato singing, would be her ruin.

And so, as my mother told me, Melba returning one day from New York to work with her, as she did each year, suddenly started attacking all her notes with ha and avoided her lovely staccato. My mother immediately saw that she had listened to new advice and showed her profound astonishment at the change. Melba owned timidly that the new religion had influenced her, explaining how dangerous some people considered the direct attack of notes. My mother, not knowing whether to be angry or to laugh, energetically countered the doubts suggested to her; in fact, she felt profoundly offended that, having given to the world such a perfectly trained voice, people should dare to dispute the method that had made that instrument so beautiful, especially after complete success had already been attained with this voice through her method. She was, however, able to dispel these doubts and to induce Melba to resume her former ways. After that, Melba reminded faithful all her life to her teacher and her method, singing thus to a great age.

Blanche Marchesi, The Singer's Catechism and Creed (1932): 91-94

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The New Religion? It's still with us, especially on Broadway, where it is considered the "natural" voice. Not too long ago, I went to a showcase of young singers who were studying with a certain coach, and every last kid sang through his or her nose. No one batted an eye. Could they sing up the scale? Nope. Could they belt? Sure. Was there anything attractive about their voices? Not really. But no one seemed to care. 

I call this approach bottom barrel. There is no where to go but up, but there is little interest in doing so since everyone is on the same low level. All together now! Lets sing through our noses! It's the American way! The sound shoots out without discrimination, awareness, or self-reflection. Ugly Americans all, claiming their right to sound as bad as the next person—and they'll be damned if you try to take away their guns—I mean tone. 

Shoot me. 

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