July 28, 2010

More Kiri: It's Easy to Remember

So you've heard Kiri the opera singer.  Now its time for the chanteuse, which she does very well, bringing a plush and pliant tone to Rodgers and Hart's It's Easy to Remember, a song which became a Standard when Bing Crosby sang it in the 1935 movie Mississippi that also starred W.C. Fields (who is currently featured in an exhibit at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center).  

What can I say?  The arrangement by Andre Previn is simply gorgeous, complete with its multiple key changes and low-key glamour.  And te Kanawa's 'mixed' voice, floated 'held' notes, and deft portamenti make one sigh for a style not heard much any more. And one that - believe it or not - has its roots in the Italian school (Christine Ebersole is a master of this style).  No slumming here.  Rather, Previn and te Kanawa bring great artistry to a great song.

July 27, 2010

The Sorceress: Dame Kiri te Kanawa

Utube has turned out to be one of the singer's greatest resources.  Lately, I've been listening to Dame Kiri te Kanawa in a 1993 made for TV production titled The Sorceress that has a plot loosely based on Handel's opera Alcina. (You can find more detail about the production here.)   Utube has eight of the fifteen segments, for which I have provided links below.  Te Kanawa's singing is, at turns, beguiling and bewitching.

What fascinates me about te Kanawa's singing is the apparent ease and absence of physical strain.  I watch and remember the admonition found in many an old manual which insists the singer refrain from making faces and contorting the mouth.  Beauty is as beauty does?  It would seem so. 

The album can be found here at Amazon.

July 24, 2010

The Power of Sound: Joshua Leeds

I'm re-reading a fascinating book right now: The Power of Sound by Joshua Leeds. What is the book all about?  Psychoacoustics, the field that Tomatis pioneered. Like me, Leeds benefited from Dr. Alred Tomatis' method of Listening Training. And he has salient things to say about sound, its healing as well as destructive properties. 


Fortunately, in the last decade or so, more orchestral musicians have become aware that exposure to loud sounds (above 90 decibels) impacts the ear. It's not uncommon now to see orchestra pits with sound baffles (usually protecting the wind player's ears from the brass and percussion sections that sit behind). The European union even has decibel level standards. Classical singers, in my estimation, are lagging behind in their awareness. All too often, they rehearse or have a voice lesson in a small room, singing at full force, and then wonder why the voice isn't responding so well (pop singers standing in front of a loud monitor are in trouble too). And why isn't it? Because the two little muscles in the ear - the same ones that guide the singer's audio-vocal control - are trying to protect the ear from the loud sound by shutting off! Instead of contracting in the right way, they actually relax. Here's the deal: the singer who is pumping out a lot of sound needs a lot of room! Of course, this is common sense, but you'd be surprised how this is ignored by the smartest persons. If only the ear could 'bleed'. But no. The little cells just die off, one by one, without anyone noticing (voice teachers take note: letting your student sing at the top his or her lungs a few feet away from you is probably harming you). And here's a curious fact. Did you know that 30 percent of the cells in the cochlea are affected before hearing loss shows up on a hearing test?  Sobering, isn't it?

Leed's book has a great deal of information on how and when to protect one's ears, the use of sound, as well as the many modalities for 'sound healing.' The attention he's given to the field of psychoacoustics is nothing short of groundbreaking insofar as he is the first writer to draw many strands within the field together. His research is up to date, provocative, and eye (one might say ear!) opening. 

I highly recommend this book! Look for the revised edition in September. As well, you might check out Leed's website for new information.

One last thought. I was reminded as I read Leed's book that singers in the late 19th and early 20th century were taught to observe vocal rest before a performance. This has traditionally been thought of as giving the vocal folds a rest. But what about the ear?  Have you ever been to the country for a few days and then returned to the city, only to find it very noisy? Why wasn't it as noisy before?  Because the ears and brain tuned it out, or even off. The admonition of taking vocal rest before a 'big sing' may just be what the ears need to become fully open so that the resulting performance will be as nuanced as possible.

July 22, 2010

Martin Roeder: a brilliant life interrupted

By all accounts, Martin Roeder had everything going for him as a composer, exponent of Francesco Lamperti, writer and author.

Born to Austrian parents in Berlin in 1851, Roeder was something of a renaissance man. He studied violin with Joseph Jaochim at the Königliche Hochschule, traveled to Italy where he studied voice with the Enrico Panocha, Antonio Trivulzi, and the aforementioned Francesco Lamperti; was appointed Choirmaster at the Teatro del Verme before resigning that post to become Ricordi's Editor-in-Chief at the Gazette Musicale; founded Italy's first choral society in Milan before becoming a respected operatic conductor; taught the art of bel canto to Lillian Nordica and Princess Sophia of Prussia; then headed the voice departments at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and the New England Conservatory in Boston.

Reoder was poised to become a leading voice teacher in America when he died suddenly in Cambridge, Boston in 1895.

He was 44 and had only been in America three years.  

Roeder left behind many compositions, songs, and larger instrumental/choral works. For students of voice, an anthology for tenor voice Italian song is still in print: Tesori Antichi: Sammlung Altitalienischer Arien Und Lieder. You can download it for free at American Libraries. Roeder undoubtedly studied these songs with Lamperti.  

Martin Roeder c. 1892

Roeder also wrote a singing manual with introductory text and progressively difficult exercises titled Fundamental vocal exercises known as the Italian method of singing (1892). This book, along with his position at New England Conservatory, gave him a foothold in America, a country burgeoning with voice teachers. Roeder must have gotten the lay-of-the-land, because he seems to have been a savvy self-promoter, writing letters to newspapers declaring himself the only certified exponent of Lamperti. His book only cemented that impression. The ad below appeared in a Harvard publication. One can only wonder what Roeder might have accomplished had he lived longer.

Addendum: May 17, 2013 

While researching at the NYPL today, I happened to enter Roeder's name into The Boston Globe database, and what did I find? Roeder's obituary. He perished at the young age of 44 two weeks after falling off an "electric car" and hitting his head, a ruptured blood vessel ending his life. Had he lived, it is very likely he would have been Lamperti's leading exponent in America. 

July 21, 2010

Vincenzo Cirillo and the Compound Vowel

You can learn the most fascinating things by following that little voice of curiosity that says, "I really should look that up." And this is exactly what I did a few days ago after reading John Franklin Botume's book Modern Singing Methods: Their Use and Abuse (1885) via google books (you can also buy a hard copy here). Botume was a voice teacher in Boston who learned the principles of the Old Italian School from a certain Signor Vincenzo Cirillo. Happily, Botume also informs the reader that Signor Cirillo also wrote a book titled The Neapolitan School: A Lecture on the Art of Singing (1882). Of course, I had to find it.

John Franklin Botume

A search at WordCat pointed me towards the New York Public Library Research Division at Lincoln Center where I found Cirillo's book on microfiche. Yea! So I went over to have a look at it.

I was astonished to find that Cirillo (1837?-1905) was a student of Allesandro Busti at the Conservatory of Naples before coming to Boston to teach at the National Conservatory (Cirillo left that post after a short while and began his private studio). Busti! I recognized the name immediately, but had not come across any of his pupils. Lucie Manén referenced him in her book Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Italian Song Schools: Its Decline and Restoration. (A Dr. Cathcart had given Manén a manual Busti had written titled Studio di canto: Methodo classici del Conservatorio Reale di Napoli. See my post on Cathcart here). And who did Busti study voice with? None other than the famous Girolamo Crescentini (1762-1846), one of the last great castrato sopranos, and teacher to Luigi Lablache, the great bass. And Crescentini? He studied with Lorenzo Gibelli (1719-1812) whose voice encompassed "the bass, baritone and alto ranges". His teacher was Martini. 

But I digress. Cirillo's book is remarkable, not only for the inclusion of vocal technique, but also for name dropping: Cirillo gives the reader the real names of many of the great Castrati, something I have not read anywhere else. That's the beauty of old books: You can learn things from them that you won't find anywhere else.

 And what about technical matters? Cirillo details the following:

In arranging modern languages categorically with reference to their adaptability for singing, I would first place the Italian, then Spanish, French, English, and German in order. The Italian language is easier to sing than the others, on account of the small number of vowel sounds in its alphabet, which are five: namely, a, e, i, o, u (ah, eh, ee, oh, oo). These vowel sounds are all formed in the mouth, none of them being in the slightest degree throaty or nasal, as are many of the vowels of other languages.

In vocalizing, we must use a compound vowel-sound made up of all the vowel-sounds of the Italian idom. This is the mystery of the voice in which many ministers of the art are confounded to such an extent that they sometimes ruin voices by compelling them to adopt an unnatural vowel for the production of tone. This vowel-tone can only be communicated to the pupil by the expert teacher through the medium of his living voice; and when the pupil has imitated the teacher to perfection in this, then he first begins to sing.

The compound tone should be formed within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth, striking against the hard palate, with an inclination toward the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone. The cavity of the chest, and in fact those in the entire trunk, are of great assistance in giving fullness and roundness to the tone.

By following this system of developing the voice there disappears any necessity of discussion concerning head medium and chest registers, which many teachers cultivate and impose upon the voice; and in this way the voice will acquire a homogeneous tone and character, enabling the pupil to express the inner sentiments of the soul, which will thus be spontaneously displayed by the singer, and not produced by any artificial means, which are often more disagreeable than pleasant to the ear. 

Cirillo's Compound Vowel is a concept that calls to mind Margaret Harshaw's instruction, which is that every "perfect vowel" is a combination of [a], [i] and [u]. As well, the idea of a Compound Vowel formed behind and above the soft palate is in keeping with the teaching of Giovanni Battista Lamperti as represented in Vocal Wisdom.

The beginning of the tone (mis-called "attack") can be practiced only when vibration starts focused in the centre of the skull (sphenoid sinus) without effort or muscular impulse.

It is a "Free-ing" and not a "hitting" process. The tone seems to come out of the head, instead of the throat.

The "dark-light" tone demands this central start. It has all degrees of emphasis according to the energy of compressed breath to produce it. This cushion of breath must never be exhausted, but renewed at every opportunity.

When this beginning of vibration is inherent in the singer's head, each higher tone is drawn to its pitch, without muscular push, yet with adequate energy: each lower tone finds its pitch without relaxing energy, keeping the intensity of the higher tones.

Intense vibration only will awake this sphenoidal focus. Resonance is but the streaming of these vibrations from the focus toward lips, throat and chest- according to the registers of the voice.

After I got home, I did more hunting, and found that Cirillo's book is also online at American Libraries, an online datebase. Ha! I could have stayed home and downloaded it while having breakfast. Which is what you can do here.

July 19, 2010

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music

This kind of information that makes my heart beat faster!  What am I talking about?  An online archive of American sheet music that has been made available by the Library of Congress.  Finally, your tax dollars are going to something worthwhile!

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 consists of over 47,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1870 to 1885. Included are popular songs, piano music, sacred and secular choral music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and music for band and orchestra.

The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful to Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The goal of the Library's National Digital Library Program is to offer broad public access to a wide range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning.

The Library of Congress presents these documents as part of the record of the past. These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers. 

What's up with the warning of offensive material?  I think that has something to do with music written a century before civil rights.

How to use the site?  You can browse around for starters.  If you are looking - say- for songs by Stephen Foster, entering his name as a 'search' which will lead you to interesting material. It was very common for a composer's work to be arranged for other instruments or arranged for voices.  And Foster's very popular music was no exception.  Here is his evocative Beautiful Dreamer arranged for piano. 

When you find something you'd like to copy, all you have to do is drag the image off the page and then print it out.   Simple as that.

Stephen Foster?  That is a sad tale.  Beautiful Dreamer was published after his death at the age of 37. (As America's first songwriter, Foster hardly saw a dime from music published in his own life-time, a fact which undoubtedly contributed to his poverty and death.) Marilyn Horne has had a particular association with this song.  And I have not forgotten hearing her sing it on a program at the McCarter Theater in Princeton in the 1980's.  Here she is singing it in recital with the excellent Marvin Katz at the piano at Covent Garden.   Beautiful indeed!

Stephen Collins Foster

I hope you have fun searching Music for the Nation.  The material there is part of our history.  And should not be forgotten. 

July 17, 2010

Peter Dawson

I've always thought of Peter Dawson (1882-1961) as a model singer.  His voice had range, burnished beauty, and impeccable diction. At one time considered 'the most popular baritone in the world', Dawson was the subject of a biography which used this appellation, all the more fitting considering he sold more records than any of his contemporaries. However, Dawson's world - where Bing Crosby was a young upstart and WWII a decade away - is rapidly receding from living memory. Do baritones in their 20's even know he existed? If not, they should. He has a lot to teach them. 

A student of the great Victorian baritone Charles Santley, himself a student of Manuel Garcia and Gaetano Nava, Dawson's unforced beauty of voice was captured by the new technology of the gramophone. He recorded prolifically, making more than 1500 titles between 1904 and 1958. 

Peter Dawson c. 1904

A native of Australia, Dawson's voice extended from low E to high A, enabling him to record a vast amount of repertoire. As such, he was the first singer to popularize Australian song for which he became famous. Songs like On the Road to Mandalay and Waltzing Matilda became bona fide hits. Other recordings like O Ruddier than the Cherry, Honour and Arms and Oh My Warriors reveal his bel canto training: rock solid coloratura, soaring high notes, clarity of vowel, and depth of tone. Simply listening to how Dawson navigates into the upper register is an education.

This kind of singing takes time and effort in order to create and sustain it over the long haul. And Dawson seems to have done just that.


The Smith & Burgis biography is well done and contains extensive information, including Dawson's discography as well as the curious fact that he learned to sing in the upper 5th of his voice from a 'Professor Kantorez,' a Russian singing teacher in London. 

Now there's a person I am curious to find out more about.  

July 16, 2010

The Ray Self Voice Placer

I've come across some peculiar things while researching historical vocal pedagogy, this late 19th century ad being one of the more strange and fascinating items. Funny too.

This novel invention, of which mention was made in these columns several weeks ago, emanated from the brain of a talented tenor singer, lightening the burdens of all who desire to sing properly, thus making the life of the vocal student a pleasure rather than a dreary monotony. The inventor claims that its use aids the student to "place the voice" in a few weeks, instead of through weary years of diligent study, and it is creating much inquiry among vocal instructors and their pupils.

Those who have read or heard of this invention have written to the studio for further particulars, and the inventor believes there can be no doubt that in a short time it will simplify the much vexed question to tone placement.  

The manager of the Ray Self Voice Placer says that thousands of prospectuses and many Placers have been sent out during the past week. There is no previous record of singing of any mechanical device to place the tones of a singer, as the impression has always been that anything mechanical used in singing would detract from the artist. Voice placing is purely psychological or physical, and as no artistic effects can possibly be produced until the voice is thoroughly placed, a singer can readily appreciate the labor and time saved by an invention of this kind. Proper voice placing to the singer is what technic is to the piano performer. The Voice Placer is built on very simple lines, nothing complicated or hard to understand. 

From The Musical Courier, c. 1897.  

July 15, 2010

Enrico Delle Sedie

One of the leading Old School pedagogues in Paris during the late 19th Century, Enrico Delle Sedie (1822-1907) taught at the Paris Conservatoire and wrote two highly influential books on singing, Arte e fisologia del canto (1876) and  L'estetica del canto e dell'arte melodrammatica (1886). This second book was published in English in three parts, the first of which, titled Vocal Art, can be read here. Delle Sedie then fused and condensed both treatises together which was published as A Complete Method of Singing (1894).

The Library of Congress contains three of the four titles above, however, Delle Sedie's last work is not among them, so it's not possible to have them copy it for you. However, there are 16 copies in libraries around the country. Search OCLC for one near you. Hopefully, more of Delle Sedie's work will find its way onto google books. However, this site has the book available for download for a fee.

America was hungry for vocal treatises during the late 19th and early 20th century, and publishers in Boston and New York translated many Continental works into English. Delle Sedie's work was attractive because its forthright manner clearly explained vocal methods that were often veiled in secrecy, or, in Manuel Garcia's case, placed in scientific terms. A Verdi baritone, Delle Sedie furthered Garcia's observations on the use of vowels in ascending the scale, that is, vowel modification, which had a lasting influence on American voice teaching, principally in the work of Berton Coffin.

Why, I have done it. I made a reduction of the whole treatise especially for Americans (A Complete Method of Singing), according to the needs of those who came to me as pupils.  But I religiously guarded the two distinct departments of Technic and Aesthetic in art production as two halves of an entire subject. 

You see, pupils must first get a conception of that upon which they are to enter.  Understanding must go in by the brain, as it is from the brain that all ideas proceed. It is useless to begin things until the ideals are formed. The other way is as if a disorderly housekeeper should begin cooking before she had planned her menu or gathered her materials about her.  

Why have I written so much? Because I talked little. Joy I always shared; trouble never. A quoi bon? Your best friend cannot remove trouble. All may be shadowed by it. Why share it?

In boyhood I used to write it out on paper and then destroy it. 'We know only half of you.' my parents used to say. But when I came to art I sang these things. Ah, voilá, a friend! Ah, what a delight to express in music, what a relief to tell in song! What a friend music is to the musician! I could not keep the source of this pleasure to myself. I must impart it to other artists, to my pupils.  
Interview with Delle Sedie for the Musical Courier, 1895.

Delle Sedie was the first pedagogue to give the student an idea of the attack using notation. Essentially, the singer thinks of the upper octave and the 'head' register when singing a tone. The preparatory exercise for this in Vocal Art is mastering the decrescendo.

Once the singer has mastered this exercise, the tone is then started with the head voice 'leading' the lower tone.  

An elegant method that the autodidact will want to experiment with!

Allesandro Bonci was one of his students.

July 13, 2010

The Divine Sarah

She was one of a kind, Sarah Bernhardt.  Possessing an extraordinary presence, she also astonished with her voice.  That much I gathered after hearing a recording last summer at a friend's house - La Mort d'Izéil (The Death of Izéil) (1903).  We played it on my Victrola, which I've had since I was a kid.  Unfortunately, since I can't find it anywhere online, a verbal description will have to suffice. 

Bernhardt as captured by Nadar

Did Bernhardt have a beautiful voice?  No.  That's not how I would describe it.  Her lower mezzo-soprano tones were unforced and full, quite luminous actually, while the higher declamatory passages became shrill in an Edith Piaf kind of way.   Even so, her tone filled the room with a crackle of electricity.

The existence of Sarah Bernhardt remains the supreme marvel of the nineteenth century.  The astounding range she exhibited as an actress baffled the imagination of the public. Her words boomed and crashed with a superhuman resonance which shook the spirit of the listener like a leaf in the wind.  The unique sound of her voice has often been raved over; but in Sarah Bernhardt's voice there was more than gold; there was thunder and lightening; there was Heaven and Hell.  
Edmond Rostand, Le Cinema, 1923

Bernhardt at Edison's studio

Words of exultation! However another listener, the great pianist Paderewski, had a somewhat different view.

She was a marvelous actress, who always made upon me the same impression as the great French Orator, Jaurés.  There was the same lack of material strength.  She had a very limited voice in spite of her power.  In moments of calm recitation it was incomparable.  When she became very dramatic, on profoundly emotional moments, the voice became shrill and harsh and even hoarse.  She was unable to speak in a very loud tone.  I could never understand why they spoke of her voice as "golden."  In my opinion it seemed to be exactly the opposite of golden.

But Sarah Bernhardt had enormous magnetism.  It drew and held in complete thraldom her audience, wherever it was.  In that respect she was impeccable.  A divine gift of the gods!  
The Paderewski Memoirs, 1938

Magnetism vs tone?  That is something to consider.  There have been plenty of performers with ample tone who failed to move the listener, as well as others who thrilled with no voice at all.  The ideal?  Magnetism and tone together.  

Interestingly, both Paderewski (who was known for his tone) and Berndardt were friends with Manuel Garcia's representatives to America; Anna E. Schoen-René and Herman Klein.

It's a small world?

July 12, 2010

Maggie Teyte: The Pursuit of Perfection

While studying the teaching of Jean de Reszke, the famous Polish Tenor (who will be the subject of another post), I learned that one of his students was the English soprano Dame Maggie Teyte.

Teyte's operatic career stretched over four decades, from her debut in 1906 as Zerlina to Lilli Lehmann's Countess when she was 18, to her farewell to opera in 1951 at the age of 63, singing Belinda to Kirsten Flagstad's Dido. She also memorably sang the title role in Debussy's opera Pelléas and Mélisande at the fledgling New York City Opera in 1948.  Her last concert appearance was in 1956.  

What a life! Teyte learned the role of Mélisande from Debussy himself, coached with Reynaldo Hahn (whom she adored), knew Melba, Tetrazzini, Garden, Flagstad and Fauré,  Ravel and Puccini, was married thrice, and counted Sir Thomas Beecham and George Enescu as her lovers.

Most readers, however, will know Teyte from her recordings of Mélodie, which won her great acclaim.

Here she is singing Debussy's L'heure exquise in 1945. The voice is still luminous and effortless.  And here she is singing Voici ce quil Pelléas in recital a year before her debut with New York City Opera. It takes one's breath away, knowing that she sang so beautifully for so long, doesn't it?  There are quite a few recordings, broadcasts and interviews posted on Utube which you can can peruse your leisure. The Melodié are considered a model for interpretation.  One is a recording of  Duparc's Phidylé which can be found at cantible-subito, a wonderful site.

How did she do it?

Teyte credited her vocal longevity to her technical studies with Jean de Reszke, which are outlined in a most excellent biography, The Pursuit of Perfection, written by Teyte's grandnephew Gary O'Conner in 1979 (Teyte's autobiography, Star on the Door, was published in 1958).

That de Reszke's pet little pupil, this "pink and white rosebud" should receive her first public challenge in Mozart, under Hahn, could not have been more auspicious. Learning Mozart was one of the first disciplines de Reszke set his students and finding her tessitura or vocal range was crucial to Maggie during those formative years, as it had been earlier to de Reszke. The traditional Italian practice of cementing a range out of two different methods of voice production- the chest voice, the voix de poitrine, and the head voice, the high soft palate- were rejected by de Reszke, as their effect was to weaken the chest of cords at their limits; and so he had to find what Maggie called a "medium" to bridge these "breaks" without harming the chest of cords. This he found by putting the sound in these traditional passages through the nose.  Maggie gradually settled down into the difficult tessitura of the lyric soprano (her voice, much to her disappointment, never had the weight of the full dramatic roles of Carmen and Tosca) by linking the three placings for the voice- the natural or speaking voice (or baritone, in a man), the chest voice, and the head voice- by "blending" them through the nasal passages.   From The Pursuit of Perfection by Garry O'Connor, p 64. 

Though I understand what O'Connor is getting at, I think he mistakes registration for matters of 'tonal placement,' a term which canny readers of this blog will know as not being outside the provenance of bel canto teachers. Simply put, there is a great difference between singing in the 'mask' and singing in the 'nose', the latter to be avoided as much as guttural timbre. Of course, this is a paradox: how does one sing in the 'mask' without singing in the nose? The answer (if one is not an autodidact) is to have a teacher who can teach the difference between the two via demonstration, which is what de Reszke undoubted did (hint: de Reszke has been credited with having the student sing while holding the nostrils closed so as to ascertain the difference).   

O'Connor's biography of his famous great-aunt is a witty, engaging and quite entertaining read. It also contains an appendix with de Reszke's exercises, a full discography of Teyte's recordings, an interview with Debussy, as well as Teyte's observations on singers and singing.  

Nothing less than perfection.

July 11, 2010

Mackinlay on Voice Teaching

Singing is an art: let the teacher be careful not to make it appear a "Black art."  By this I mean, let the pupil be encouraged to ask questions, whenever difficulties arise or whenever any phenomenon occurs which seems to demand an explanation.  The technical side of singing rests on a scientific basis, the artistic side on certain broad principles, and the teacher should not attempt to wrap in mystery those things about which no mystery is really attached.  Let him avoid scientific or technical terms as far as possible, and where it is necessary to use them, let him supplement them by a simple explanation, seeking for some illustration from the common phenomena of everyday life which will bring the matter before the pupil's eyes with vivid clearness.  Let him clear up all question as far as possible as he goes along, for points which are once misunderstood will only continue to crop up again and again in the future, causing endless confusion.  

A teacher, to be successful, must have been a good vocalist himself; he must be able to show the pupil with his own voice what to do and what not to do. As the old Italian maestro Peregrino Benelli said: "Per un cantante necessario un maestro che sia buon cantante." ["It is necessary for a singer to have a master who is himself a good singer."] He must be able to show with his own voice the difference between singing with too much pressure of breath and with the proper amount, between ringing and veiled tones, open and rounded notes; and in addition he must be something of a mimic- able to reproduce faults of hie pupils, always exaggerating them somewhat in order to make them more noticeable. As a good doctor is able to tell from a patient's symptoms what is the nature of his illness, and what parts of the interior organs are affected, so too a good teacher should be able to tell from the quality of tone emitted what faults are being made.  He must be able to recognize unerringly all the possible differences of tone, good and bad, and he must have complete knowledge ready at his finger-tips of the best method by which a faulty tone may be recognized and the weak spots in a voice strengthened.  He should, moreover, make a practice of explaining the exact cause of every defect, the exact reason for every correction, the exact results aimed at by every exercise.  There must be no working in the dark on the part of the pupil.  Everything which is done throughout the training has a reason, technical or artistic, and there nothing gained by concealing it. 

One of the most important things to be realised by a teacher is that pupils will be found to differ, both in voice and in temperament.  Consequently, they must not all be treated alike.  There cannot be any hard and fast method of training.  There are certain general principles to be followed, but these should be adapted to the capacity of the individual and to the special peculiarities of his voice.  The teacher must aim in all cases at developing a well-equalised voice, firm, strong, flexible, of good compass and of perfect intonation, but in order to attain these results, he will have to treat each individual voice differently.  By his knowledge he will be able to make the most of the pupil's material, strengthen it where it shows signs of weakness, and do all that is possible to conceal the deficiencies.  For instance, where the voice proves unable to sustain fortissimo effects in the higher notes, he will point out how in the interpretation of a song in may be feasible to treat a passage in such a way that the expression chosen will call for softer musical effects.  

The teacher should be most careful never to make remarks as to the methods of a fellow-teacher.  If a new pupil arrives from another fresh from another master, with faults which should have been eradicated, let the teacher do his best to correct these faults as soon as possible, but let him make no remarks.  Should he be unable to say anything in praise of the previous instructor, let him emulate the example of Brer Fox in "Uncle Remus, who, it will be remembered, "lay low and said nuthen."  His skill will be best shown by his method of conducting exercises, and of adapting himself to circumstances.  He should, as far as possible, avoid the use of scientific terms; above all, where the finds that a pupil can do anything correctly at once without difficulty (e.g. breathing, taking a swelled note, or rounding a vowel), let him pass the matter over without any explanation of the mechanism by which the effect has been obtained, for otherwise he will merely make the singer self-conscious, without much possible good, and with very probably harm resulting. 

The teacher will sometimes find himself confronted with a certain difficulty in classifying the voice of a pupil at the earlier lessons, especially when it is as yet quite untrained, and is in a very undeveloped condition.  Voices are classified according to their quality instead of range, but this natural tone-colour is sometimes not at once immediately apparent.  In such cases considerable caution must be displayed, and for the first few lessons the pupil should be limited to a range of six notes, a hexachord, in the middle part of the voice, the principal work being confined to eradicating faults of emission.  Increase of compass should be temporarily postponed.  It will be quite easily seen on trying the voice which hexachrod the pupil can sing on with greatest ease and freedom, and these notes will be found to have more natural fullness than those outside that range.  In the case of a male voice, from the A below middle C to a sixth below will probably be found best; and in a female voice, from the Eb above middle C to a sixth above.  After a few lessons, a few weeks at most, the timbre will become more pronounced, and after taking some higher notes piano for a time, the actual classification of the voice will make itself apparent, when the normal development of compass and of forte and fortissimo may take place.  

It is a great mistake to study entirely on the vowel A, which is apt to develop an unpleasant throaty quality of voice.  The other vowels should be practices as well, for the O develops richness in the voice, the U places the voice forward, while the I, calling for a high position of the tongue, prevents the root of the tongue pressing on the epiglottis and causing guttural quality.  The E is not so useful as the others, but must be studied equally with the rest, since it is one of the most necessary vowel-sounds when we come to songs.

From The Singing Voice and Its Training (1910) by Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay, a student of Manuel Garcia.

July 9, 2010

Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay and Vowels

If you've rummaged around this blog, you may have noticed a book in the Library section titled The Singing Voice and Its Training. Written by Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay (1876 - 1952), the son of Antoinette Sterling (see previous post), The Singing Voice and Its Training was the first book to appear after the death of Manuel Garcia in England which detailed the latter's method from a technical standpoint.

A concert artist who embarked on a career as voice teacher, Mackinlay published his 189 page book on singing in 1910 at the age of 34.  (Curiously, 1910 was also the same year that Manuel's sister Pauline Viardot-Garcia died.) While quoting liberally from Garcia's writings, Mackinlay also clarifies certain matters.  One is "rounding," that is, the use of the soft palate in singing. 

 The Placing of the Voice

If the hints be followed and the faults avoided which have been given on the preceding pages, the pure emission of the tone which will result should in itself bring a correct "placing" of the voice.  All that remains is to follow the old Italian advice, "Bisogna cantare sul fior delle labra:" form the tone, as it were, on the very edge of the lips.  By this it is meant that, when the voice is properly placed, there will be a sensation of the tone vibrating in the front of the mouth above the middle teeth.

It will be found that by the air striking the hard palate above the front teeth, with the tongue lying motionless, a very rich volume of tone will result, and the cavity of the mouth, acting as a sounding-board, will enlarge with the wave of sound. In order, therefore, to have the voice properly placed, we must try mentally to get a sensation of directing the tone to the front of the mouth and of singing on breath.  An aid to this may found in humming sustained notes, by which means the vibrations in the front of the mouth will make themselves very noticeable.  After doing this, open the mouth and repeat the same so as to obtain similar sensations.  It should not be long before this results in the proper placing of the voice, after which it will be well to abandon all further humming, as this practice is not considered a good one for singers. 
As already explained, the various vowels are formed by the tongue taking certain positions in the mouth.  In speaking of the rounding of notes, we will for the moment confine ourselves to the "first" primary vowel, A, which is formed by the tongue being kept flat and limp.  Now it will be found that the A is capable of certain varying shades of quality or timbre, which principally depend of the height of the soft palate.  When the palate is lowered, the vowel attains a clear, open quality, and when it is raised, as in yawning, the vowel takes on a dark, closed timbre, resembling aw.  It is possible as an exercise to start a not on a very open quality of A, and then gradually to raise the palate till it reaches its top limit.  During the process, the vowel will gradually take on a darker, more closed quality, till finally it reaches aw or o.

The process of raising the soft palate we term "rounding" the vowel, and that of lowering the palate we term "opening" it.

If we take the other vowels, we shall find that they are capable of similar changes.  Thus, if we take E with a clear timbre and then gradually raise the palate, the vowel will be rounded more and more till it approximates to the French eu (as in "her"); I, similarly treated, approximates to the French ü (German = ü); while O approximates to oo, as in "who." 

The darker, closed timbres of vowels display much richer quality of tone, and for this reason there are singers (usually with low-pitched voices) who adopt it entirely, singing invariably in "closed" timbre.  Others, again (usually with high voices), sometimes pin their faith entirely to "open" timbre, and never sing except with "clear" notes.  I have indeed heard two singers, champions of such opposite methods, discuss the matter thus— 

"What style of singing do you go in for?"

"I always sing with closed production."

"Oh, do you?  You ought to go in for the pure Italian method of singing with open production."

Of course nothing could be more ridiculous than such remarks, which merely display the speaker's ignorance on the subject of "open" and "closed" timbres.  As singers we do not adopt very "open," or very "closed," or a middle course of fairly rounded tones, but we make use of all the possible shades of quality lying between the two extremes, according to the expression of the various phrases.  

The reason for this is, that every feeling which we experience has for its expression a certain definite quality of voice, and this quality, if we analyse it, consists of a certain definite degree of "open" or "closed" quality, combined with a certain definite degree of "ringing" or of "veiled" quality. The former effect, as we have seen, is brought about by the degree of raising of the soft palate, the latter by the action of the vocal cords, and the degree of their perfect or imperfect closing between the vibrations.  Hence, in one phrase the singer may be using an "open ringing quality." and in the next a "closed veiled quality."  It all depends on the feeling to which we wish to give expression. 

Let it not be thought that these various qualities are entirely confined to the singing voice.  On the contrary, they are equally a part of the speaking voice.  If we are happy, our speaking voice involuntarily takes on an "open" ringing quality; when we are miserable, it takes on a very "closed" veiled quality.  We do not think of the mechanism by which we transmit the feeling into the voice, but we do it naturally.  So equally all the other feelings have a definite quality of voice by which they are expressed: love, anger, fear, hope, etc. 

For the ordinary practice of exercises in technique (scales, etc) the student will choose a middle quality of vowel, inclining to the "open," rather than to the "closed," but he will find it advisable occasionally to practice with other degrees of open and closed qualities, and to use the already suggested exercise of passing from one extreme of a vowel to the other on the same note, A to o, E to ue, etc; only by this can proper preparation be made for the expressive rendering of songs which is the final aim of the singer.  

From The Singing Voice and Its Training by Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay, p. 123-127

If you are like me, you are probably going to try this exercise out, which is very revealing.  As a prerequisite, it might be good to keep in mind Mackinlay's instructions on how each vowel is made.

For A, let the tongue be flat and limp, the vocal arch expanded.

For the open E, expand the vocal arch and raise the tongue slightly in the middle.

For the closed E, the tongue should be still further raised, and it's edges should touch the upper teeth at the sides.

For I, (ee), the distance between the tongue and the palate should be still further reduced, while its edges are pressed between the upper and lower teeth at either side.

For the open O, the vocal arch is expanded and the tongue hollowed at the back.

For the closed O, there is a very slight rounding of the mouth, and considerable expansion of the vocal arch.

For U (oo), the mouth is slightly rounded as in O, and the vocal arch is still further expanded, the soft palate being rather more raised.

It will be observed that in the proper formation of these vowels, the tongue does all that is required, excepting in the case of A, O, and U, where it receives assistance from the expanding of the vocal arch.  It will be found a good plan to learn to think the vowels without moving the parts of the mouth which produce them, since this mental preparation helps us when we come to the actual singing of them.

From The Singing Voice and Its Training by Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay, p. 103-104

The careful reader will notice that Mackinlay makes the assertion that raising of the soft palate effects the ringing quality of the voice, while the action of the vocal folds (they were called cords or chords before scientists starting referring to their appearance when fully open) is responsible for its veiling. It's now known that the formation of the vocal tract and the action of the vocal folds are interdependent.  Specifically, it is the narrowing of the glottis in relation to the size of the pharynx (1 to 6) that enables ring, also called the Singer's Formant.  Of course, Mackinlay is correct: it is possible to raise the soft palate and at the same not bring the vocal folds closely together, thus bringing about a veiled, even breathy, quality (yes- in case you are wondering the larynx does descend a bit for the singer to pull this off).  What is this called?


Crooning is a wonderfully warm & engaging sound, which singers like Bing Crosby & Max Raabe have excelled.  Amplification makes this style possible.  But it's not Bel Canto where great amplitude with ease is sought at every dynamic level.  

If you can find Mackinlay's book at your nearest library it is well worth the time and effort.

July 8, 2010

Antoinette Sterling and The Middle Voice

Though she was known as an English ballad singer, Antoinette Sterling was born in America. Originally a student of Carlo Bassini in New York, Sterling went to Europe to study with Manuel Garcia and the famous Centenarian's sister Pauline Viardot-Garcia.  She also had lessons with the renowned Garcia exponent Mathilde Marchesi.  Her voice?  A pure clear contralto which excelled in German Lieder, Oratorio and music which displayed depth of feeling.

Antoinette Sterling's first lessons with the great maestro saw her being upbraided for singing in all of her range- a full three octaves. 

Until the American vocalist commenced her training under him she used the full extent of her voice, singing from the D below middle C to the top soprano C sharp, a range of three octaves. She sang all the contralto arie from opera and oratorio, and at the same time felt equally at home with the soprano roles.

The first thing that her new master did on hearing her was to make the remark, " If you continue as you have been doing, do you know what will happen ? Look at this piece of elastic. I take it firmly at the two ends, and stretch it. What is the result ? It becomes thin in the middle. If I were to continue constantly to do this, it would get weaker and weaker, until finally it would break. It is thus with the human voice. Cultivate an extended range, and keep on singing big notes at both extremes, and the same thing will occur which we have seen with the elastic. Your voice will gradually weaken in the middle. If you persist in continuing long enough, it will break, and the organ be rendered useless." For this reason he strongly advised her to abandon the higher notes, confining herself to genuine contralto music. Moreover, with the reduced range, he told her strictly to avoid practising on the extremes, to use them as little as possible, and build up her voice by exercising the middle portion of it. It is an invaluable hint for all singers. His pupil realized the wisdom of what he said, and from that time onwards ceased to use the top half octave of her voice.
From Antoinette Sterling and other celebrities by Malcom Sterling Mackinlay, p 177-178 

What leaps out at me in this passage is Garcia's keen ear which told him that Sterling's voice was not that of a soprano, but rather, a contralto.  How might have he discerned this?  By listening to Sterling's middle voice, it's depth of tone and color.   It is here that problems first appear, not in the extremes of the voice.  Take care of the middle and one takes care of the low and high range?  It would seems so.

Sterling's son, Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay, wrote his mother's and Manuel Garcia's biography (Antoinette's is quite entertaining), and had the distinction of being one the last students undergo Garcia's four-year course of study.