January 23, 2019

Viardot-García's Method

Mme. Viardot always commenced her lesson with an exercise in breathing. According to her principle, the full breath so filled the lungs that the chest elevated and distended with air, while the muscles of the abdomen drew in slightly. 

Her exercises began in the middle of the voice, upon the Italian a (ah) pronounced well forward in the mouth—which, by the way, she wished very wide open. They were alwasy sung piano, with a light elastic tone, invariably with the head voice. 

After one or two breaths, she would have me begin on a full chest, sing one of the exercises through several times until my breath was exhausted, after which she would have me stop, breathe deeply twice or thrice, and then repeat the same exercise, or else pass on to the next. 

Mme. Viardot required that every tone should be pure and even and in perfect tune—a point to which she devoted extreme care. 

If, during my lesson, for any reason an exercise was still imperfect after one or two attempts, she would pass on to the next, saying, "You must not force yourself." She made no rules as to diet or exercise, but wished me to practice by the half hour—in all, three or four times a day.


The text above, which gives the reader quite a bit of information about Viardot-García's method of breathing, was written by an anonymous student of Pauline Viardot-García in a beautifully produced magazine, circa 1896, which I found a number of years ago while searching Abehbooks. The main thrust of the article is about singing coloratura, and includes a facsimile of the exercises given to the writer, presumably a woman as indicated by notation on the page ((Viardot-García's main students were women, though she did teach a few men, including her grandson Albert). 

Back to Viardot-García's breathing method. If you click on Louise Hérittte-Viardot's tab (Viardot-García's daughter), you will find an essay which includes an identical description of breathing method as realized by a very simple and often overlooked old school teaching: deep breathing through the nose. 

Here's the deal: You can't obtain the action described above if you don't first shut your mouth when you breathe! Does this mean you have to breathe through your nose when you sing? Of course not. It does mean, however, that you have to retain the feeling and action of the breath that is learned with the mouth shut when the mouth is open.

Is this so hard? Not really. But experience reveals the majority of students do not give enough attention to the matter. That may be why Viardot-García had her students breathe consciously between exercises. 

The old school kept things simple, knowing that it's not what you know that's important, but what you do, the brain and voice needing action rather than abstraction. Towards that end, students of the voice are encouraged to incorporate the teachings on this page with those found in my previous post, keeping in mind that feelings (proprioception) are facts. 

Obtain the right facts and you can sing. 

January 9, 2019

García's Two-Straw Teaching

One could not become a capable singer without possessing the art of the control of the breath.

And so it is that Manuel García begins his essay on breathing in his groundbreaking A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1841 & 1872). * 

The heart of García's instruction is four breathing exercises, which he sets down as follows: 

  1. First, one inhales slowly and during a space of several seconds as much breath as the chest can contain. 
  2. One exhales that air with the same slowness as with which it was inhaled. 
  3. One fills the lungs and keeps them filled for the longest possible time. 
  4. One exhales completely and leaves the chest empty as long as the physical powers will conveniently allow. 

These four exercises, very fatiguing at first, should be practiced separately and at rather long intervals. The first two, namely the slow inhalations and exhalations can be practiced more regularly if one will nearly close the mouth in such a manner that only a slight aperture is felt for the passage of the air. 

I find this last sentence to be significant because Margaret Harshaw—whose own teacher Anna Schoen-René studied with Manuel García and his sister Pauline Viardot-García—taught that the singer should breathe as though through two straws placed behind the upper front teeth. She meant, of course, that this is how one breathed with the mouth open for singing.

Harshaw's instruction extends and amplifies her musical grandfather's instruction in terms of what is felt by the student when breathing with the mouth opened only a very little. It is a unique application of the "straw" in the voice studio, one which came long before its current conception and usage as devised by Ingo Titze. More than mere imagery, García's two-straw teaching has an effect on the breath as well as the vocal tract and vocal folds: specifically, a rounding of the vocal tract and a lengthening of the vocal folds.

For those who wonder whether García will have encountered the modern straw and integrated its proprioceptive affect with his teaching as outlined above, I point interested parties to the drinking straw's Wikipedia page, where one finds the following:

Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of paper, in 1888, to address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw. He came upon the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C.; the taste of the rye was mixing with the drink and giving it a grassy taste, which he found unsatisfactory. He wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. He later refined it by building a machine that would coat the outside of the paper with wax to hold it together, so the glue wouldn't dissolve in bourbon.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to that of the grass stems then in common use. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip.

You caught the last line, right? The two-straw bit?

Manuel García lived for eighteen years after Stone's invention, so it is entirely possible he encountered Stone's paper straw during soda fountain outings with his two young daughters (a product of his second marriage while in his 70's)—soda fountains being all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic (find an excellent article on the straw here). He was a curious man that spoke often about sticking close to nature; and what could more natural that the feeling of breath through two thin straws—a feeling that amplified that of breathing through a small opening of the mouth?

I believe García's teaching as transmitted through Schoen-René and Harshaw achieves the very same ends as Ingo Titze's modern method; the cool thing being that in García's teaching, no external aid is necessary.

* A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part One (The Editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke), Da Capo Press, New York, 1984, page 33-35.