December 31, 2011

Eugénie García

Wife and student of Manuel García, Eugénie (née Mayer) García (1818-1880) sang with the Opera Comique in Paris and became a noted singing teacher. She left her husband after a few years, afterwhich he decamped to London, marrying an Englishwoman with whom he had two daughters after his estranged wife died at the age of sixty-two. Manuel and Eugénie's child, Gustave García, became an actor and wrote a book titled The Actor's Art.

Images from the New York Public Library Digital Library

December 30, 2011

The Vannuccini School of Singing: Part IV

Julia Stacey Gould

Successful Singing: The Method of Famous Teachers 

Vannuccini, Florence Whitney, BostonReaching back through themto the Italian School of Singingof a century ago.

Tone Resonance  

Explanation of Tone Resonance 

A violin string, by itself, produces only a small amount of tone. If the string is on a violin this tone is amplified by vibrations of the instrument. When the violin is played by an artist, this same string can produce a tone which can be heard in a large auditorium above an entire orchestra. 
We can recognize the vibrant quality in a vocal tone which we call resonance. If the tone is properly placed, we can feel in our own voice the resonance which comes from the vibration in the mouth and in the nasal cavities. The fundamental vocal tone, to have its full quality and color must have this resonance which can be produced in several ways. 
1. Resonance from the mouth. 
The natural sounding board of the tone is the roof of the mouth. The tone has been placed forward in the mouth against the teeth. From this position the tone receives resonance from the roof of the mouth. The roof of the mouth is bone, curved and arched in exactly the formation to reflect the tone and to project over the pulpit in an old church or the shell in back of the bandstand are examples of such a reflection of tone. The reflector in back of a bulb in an automobile headlight focuses and intensifies the light and throws it a long distance. In the same way the sounding board amplifies and directs the tone, this type of resonance which comes from the mouth can be felt most clearly in the speaking voice or in the singing or lower notes of the scale.  
2. Resonance from the face and head. 
As the voice is raised in pitch, the sense of vibration in the mouth grows less, and more resonance can be felt in the face and head.  
It can be seen by consulting any diagram which shows the nasal passages of the head that there are cavities in, around, and in back of the nose which are backed by bone structure. These facial cavities are several times larger than the mouth cavity. In producing a tone, part of the breath can be deflected from the mouth and directed up through these cavities. The resulting vibration adds resonance which gives roundness, richness, color, and quality to the tone. The fundamental tone has little carrying quality. A tone with this added resonance, however, will carry easily and with a rich quality throughout a large hall. No amount of effort can make a tone carry, but with resonance, the tone carries without effort.  
As the tone is raised in pitch, the resonance grows correspondingly higher in the head cavity until the vibration is felt above the eyes and all through the forehead and top of the head. This head tone is natural and should be unforced and free. In the open vowel sounds it is easily produced. Consonants are less easy to sing, and practice is necessary before words are easily pronounced in the higher resonance.  
The resonance in "the mask" or facial cavities can be sensed and built up most quickly by practicing and singing softy. In a descending scale or in a descending interval, resonance can be brought down from the higher tones to the lower tones. For this reason, descending phrases are most valuable for vocalizes. In ascending phrases, it is necessary to plan for the higher resonances. This is done by anticipating and by using the placement which will be called for at the higher part of the phrase. It is essential, however, that the lower notes are sung softly.  
In all instances, the resonance that is felt in the higher tones can be brought down through the lower parts of the phrase. The lower resonance cannot be carried into the upper tones with any success.  
The muscles of the face should be relaxed, and the upper lip should be in its natural position. The length of the lip allows all the resonance of the facial cavity to be utilized and gives added richness and color to the tone. (p. 24-25) 

December 28, 2011

The Vannuccini School: Part III

One has only to listen to Eleanor Steber for a few minutes to realize that she had one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. A glorious full-lyric soprano that excelled in Mozart and Strauss, Steber was a student of William L. Whitney at New England Conservatory in the 1930's. His school was that of Luigi Vannuccini, considered one of a handful of authentic Old School maestri in the latter part of the 19th century. Steber's studies with Whitney resulted in an international career and over 286 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. While in New York, she studied with Paul Althouse, a student of Oscar Saenger. But it was her studies with Whitney which provided the basis for her career.

Among the many YouTube video's of her singing, there are two which I find quite interesting. The first is of Steber performing Sempre Libera from Verdi's La Traviata, while the second is of her performing Depuis de jour from Louise by Charpentier. In the Verdi, one hears the bells and whistles of bel canto technique with its floated tone and ease of production. Remember: this is live television, and she wasn't a spring chicken anymore. Steber has the goods, out-singing many a would-be Violetta today. Do you see how open her face is?

The second piece had been recorded by Steber on a whim in London and she fairly astonishes in this performance that was given at the Continental Baths in the Ansonia at the age of 59 in 1973. It is full-throated singing with shimmering high notes and mezza voce phrasing, the crescendos and sudden diminuendos taking one by surprise: you think she can't give anymore and she does. 

A City Opera colleague who studied with Steber tells stories of lessons in a room with heavy carpets, curtains and cocktails. She was also his second mother. A complicated woman, Steber's voice was shot through with a fire that transcended vocal technique. The paradox, of course, is that only real vocal technique made this burning, gleaming, silvery tone possible.

You can find a record of Whitney's teaching in a little known book titled Successful Singing. It's author, Julia Stacey Gould (1894-1976), studied with Whitney in Boston and recorded for Victor in 1921. Successful Singing was published in 1942 during a period of great uncertainty with Gould stating in the Preface that Whitney himself was involved in its preparation. Look for a copy at Wordcat. 

December 27, 2011

The Ballad of NYCO

The January issue of Opera News is on the stand and carries an authoritative article on New York City Opera that - frankly - reads like a eulogy. A swirl of images appeared before my mind's eye when I read it: Beverly Sills speaking at a NYCO gala and publicly excoriating then general director Paul Kellogg for trashing the State Theater's acoustics; Baby Doe freezing to death in a mind shaft; the current administration's logo of a black hole. 

Having witnessed most of the events written about, I can say that the author's accounting is as accurate as it is bleak.  

December 23, 2011

Make Merry

This past Monday a friend came to the City rather unexpectedly, so I threw an impromptu party for ten on 24 hours notice and I can't remember when I had so much fun. Most of the guests were friends from my Westminster Choir College days, so it was no surprise that we sang Christmas carols and anthems from sight in four part harmony after a homey dinner of Mac & Cheese (toast the mustard seed and use heavy cream!), Rustic French Pork and Chicken Pâté, Salad Greens with Goat Cheese, Dried Cranberries and Toasted Pecans in Mustard Vinagrette and Apple Bourbon Bundt Cake.

John Rutter's Nativity Carol made an appearance as did The Twelve Days After Christmas (Silver) which still makes me laugh though I learned it in High School. And refuting the perception that singers can't read music or play the piano, Muzetta, our guest of honor, transposed O Holy Night (Adolphe) into the soprano key for another guest using my low version and glorious high notes soared to the ceiling. She also accompanied Musetta's Waltz from memory. The joy and talent in the room overflowed as much as the champagne and wine, my friend and colleague Paulo calling to mind the Land of Song with a wonderful Prosecco.

Yes. I was cajoled into singing Johanna from Sweeny Todd (Sondheim) and Some Children See Him (Burt) but can't be objective about my efforts since my perception was undoubtedly affected by tiny bubbles. Oh but it was fun! When we weren't singing, holiday tunes were spinning in the CD player, which contained Nancy LaMott's album Just in Time for Christmas (you can hear one of the cuts here) as well a cracker jack What if Mozart Wrote Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

That the evening glowed only points out that that sometimes you just have to make merry.

December 18, 2011

The Vannuccini School in America: Part II

Fedele Fenaroli

How far back can one trace a lineage? It is this thought that keeps me digging on Google Books at odd hours and at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts even if the place is woefully understaffed since the financial debacle of 2008. (Have a question at the research division on the 3rd floor? You have to go down to the 2nd floor to find a music librarian.) The lineage in question? That of Luigi Vannuccini (1828-1911).

Vannuccini's School came to America through Annie M. R, Barnette, Myron W. Whitney, and his son William L. Whitney, the latter teaching at New England Conservatory. One of the younger Whitney's students was Eleanor Steber.

Vannuccini? His own teacher was a man named Pietro Romani (1791- 1877), who canny readers of this blog encountered in Barnette's book, Talks About Singing. She called him il babbo di tutti maestri- the father of all the teachers. (Barnette also compared Romani to Manuel Garcia II for his longevity.) Of course, because Romani was so influential, I can't find an image of him, at least not yet! Be that as it may, Romani taught singing at the Real Istituto Musicale in Naples and later conducted in Florence. He also composed two operas, il qui quo in 1817 and Carlo Magno in 1823, but is better known for composing an aria - Manca un foglio - for a performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia because the bass was unable to sing Bartolo's famous aria Un dottor della mia sorte. As you have undoubted figured out by now: all the Italian singing-masters composed as well as taught the art of singing. Who does that today?

Romani's teacher? He was a gentleman named Fedele Fenaroli (1730-1818). Fenaroli taught at the  Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Lereto in Naples, himself a pupil of Francesco Durante and Antonio Gallo. He is credited with maintaining the "purity of ancient doctrines." Gleaned from the second part of a fascinating and comprehensive account of the singing schools of Naples, you can read all three 1) here 2) here and 3) here.  (It took some seriously creative googling to obtain the proper links.) The third part also notes that Niccolo Zingerelli was one of Fenaroli's students, who, if memory serves, was reported as having tutored the aforementioned Manuel Garcia II. Degrees of separation anyone?

Reaching back even further, we find that Fenaroli's teacher, Francesco Durante, was a pupil of Gaetano Greco (1657- 1728) - one of the earliest singing masters in the Old Italian School in Naples. One of his pupils was Nicola Porpora. He also taught Leonardo DaVinci and Domenico Scarlatti. Hello! Genius alert. Greco's own teacher was Alesandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725). And going back one more step, we find that Scarlatti studied with Alessandro Stadella (1639 - 1682). He got his start in Venice, lived quite the life and came to a bad end. Who did he study with? The trail goes cold.

A bit overwhelmed? Try using this handy table to orient yourself. This link also delves deep into the history of Neapolitan conservatories. Just scroll up a few pages to the beginning. Fascinating stuff.

December 17, 2011

The Vannuccini School in America: Part I

Myron W. Whitney

A student of Luigi Vannuccini, Myron W. Whitney (1936-1910) had great success as a leading oratorio singer, appearing in the bass role of Polyphemus in Handel's Acis and Galatea at Oxford University, which he sang in the original key to much acclaim. He had a son, William L.Whitney (1861- 1950), also a bass, who studied with Vannuccini. The younger Whitney also studied with the famous German pedagogue Julius Stockhausen, a student of Manuel García. William L.Whitney became one of the leading voice teachers in America, teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music where he taught Louise Homer and Eleanor Steber

December 15, 2011

Jenny in Three

Three images of the Swedish Nightingale grace a small case on the ground floor of the newly reopened New York Historical Society, which has been closed for more than a year. I snapped this image with my Iphone after having gone there to find the famous Healy portrait of Emma Thursby, who, interestingly enough, was known as the American Nightingale. I was hoping to make another post about Thursby, but she was not on view, and I couldn't find anyone who knew when she would make her return.

What is in the case? A snuff box, glasses case and a child's plate, which you can tell by the alphabet that runs around border. Lind caused such a sensation after her arrival in New York that her image was used to advertise everything and anything. I can't quite imagine that happening today, can you? Pavarotti selling cigars, snuff, soap and handkerchiefs? It's a marketing strategy that died out forty years ago, being seen as somewhat cheesy. But it lasted at least a hundred years, starting perhaps, with Lind herself. 

December 14, 2011

The Lustrous Voice of Emily Magee

Emily Magee

Spinto sopranos don't grow on trees. Some never even find their voices if they remain in the choir, which can stifle with the insistence on blending. But that fate did not await Emily Magee, an American who has had a career based largely in Europe. She found her way to Indiana University and into the voice studio of the great vocal pedagogue Margaret Harshaw after undergraduate studies at Westminster Choir College. Magee's voice is big, full, lustrous and beautiful, with a laser-like focus that echoes Ms. Harshaw's own singing.

You can hear Magee sing in the clip below (thanks to Paulo Faustini) in a concert performance of Salome, a work which demands that the singer be equipped to sing with declamatory production. This requires that the singer hold the vocal tube firmly in a lengthened position, not an easy thing to do by any means. It's also not a thing you start out doing at the beginning of your career, rather, it's reserved for your 40's when you have great stamina and strength. It's what Old School teachers taught their students: you start out singing lyrically and add dramatic roles as you progress- slowly of course. Say you start your career at 25: this means at least a decade of saying no to offers of roles that put you at risk, assuming, of course, that you have the kind of voice that evinces a dramatic arc. Obviously, Magee has the voice, training and smarts to run the gauntlet.

This lengthened position of the vocal tube? Manuel García called it Somber Timbre in A Complete Treatise on the art of Singing (First Part, Complete and Unabridged, The editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke, Da Capo Press, 1984).

The tongue, the base of which is drawn by the lowering of the larynx, represents an elongated arch, and the sonorous body has received a long form, bent at a right angle and rather contracted. The column of air which rises vertically strikes against the palatal arch. The sound is heard round, full, and covered; it is what is called mixed voice, or sombre timbre. 
This enlargement becomes especially perceptible when the singer gives to the voice all the volume which it can allow, although the tones are otherwise very weak; this fact merits being recorded. This exaggeration of volume can take place only in the conditions of the sombre timbre and with violent efforts.  

The danger of singing with sombre timbre coupled with great volume is, of course, the extinguishing of the voice itself. This is why great teachers like Pauline Viardot-García maintained that modern music (c. 1900) was "almost always fatal to the voice."

This is seriously solid and handsome singing. The kind that displays decades of learning and skillful use of resources. You don't get to this stage in your career by hurrying. You have to know what you are doing, and it is clear that Emily Magee does.

December 13, 2011

Kirsten Flagstad: Dido's Lament

Kirsten Flagstad as Dido

I came upon this recording of Kirsten Flagstad singing Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell this evening, and in listening to it, am reminded just how wonderfully full, clear, rich, even and effortless Flagstad's voice was - even at the very end of her career when this recording was made. Of course, those who have had their musical tastes formed in the last thirty years will assert that this kind of singing in this kind of music is much too much. This can't be bel canto they say. And I can only shake my head. When did Baroque performance practice become so small?

December 5, 2011

NYCO Archives in Jeopardy

Beverly Sills 

The history of America's beloved soprano Beverly Sills and the opera company she championed for a decade as general director is in jeopardy. Why? The New York City Opera is vacating its Lincoln Center offices by December 31st, and in doing so, is poised to throw out its archives. Not idle speculation, this knowledge was gleaned from two former archivists, one having left the company only recently. Both fear for the legacy, not only of Beverly Sills, who gave the company many of her scores, but of thousands of musicians, singers, directors, artists and conductors that have appeared with the company since 1943. Since current management is in the process of re-writing its mission statement, there appears to be little interest in preserving its past. Suggestions to donate the archives, which is comprised of scores, documents, correspondence, programs, audio and visual tapes, television and radio broadcasts, oral histories, historic photographs, casting records, set pieces and costumes to institutions like the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts and the New York Historical Society were rebuffed. This is unconscionable. To lose this information to a dumpster would be a tragedy of incalculable proportions.

What can you do? Write and call NYCO and let them know you want the legacy and history of the People's Opera preserved for future generations and made available to the public.

UPDATE December 5th, 2:20 PM

I got a call from a young lady asking me if I was the "blogger who wrote about New York City Opera." When I said yes, she wanted me to know that the information in this post was untrue. How? I asked. She replied that "we are taking it with us." Not knowing who exactly I was speaking with (I was in the checkout line of a local supermarket at the time), I suggested she was free to make a comment on this blog if she wished. "Why would I lie to you?" She said. I replied that I didn't know who she was.

When I got home, I called back the number on my Iphone and got through to an entity called HRA Advisors, which has Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts as a client on its website. I found no mention of New York CIty Opera however. I spoke with the young lady who called me previously and asked if she could please tell me where the archive would be housed and why it wasn't being made available to the public. So far, I haven't heard back. When I do, I will certainly let you know.

UPDATE December 5th, 11:45 PM

In the nearly 24 hours since this post was written, 1100 people have read it, which, if nothing else, shows the level of interest and concern with regard to NYCO and its legacy. My caller from earlier in the day has not contacted me.

One colleague forwarded a letter from a NYCO company member which asserts that this writer is a "mischief maker." If the preeminent concern is the welfare of the archives of a historic institution which has fired more than half of its employees; dispensed with the position of archivist and thrown away the dressing room name plate of every star to grace its stage; is not reachable through its own website because the email addresses are non-functional; has declared an impasse in contract negotiations with its orchestra and chorus; has vacated its long time home and chosen to speak through third parties, then indeed, one has to wonder what mischief is being made.

A closet in an office doth not an archive make. 

Though I have no personal interest in the archives of NYCO (they do not- strictly speaking- concern themselves with matters of vocal pedagogy), I have an appreciation of their value and importance since I have greatly benefited from many a keen-eyed archivist who knows his/her way around the block.

Archives are precious things since they can be lost through negligence and indifference. They require the oversight of those with expertise in the field who understand the complexities of conservation. Does NYCO have such a person on staff? Are they advertising that a position is available? Does NYCO have the space for the large amount of material that the archive currently comprises? What happens to the archive should NYCO declare bankruptcy? How is NYCO going to handle the many requests for access? Has a complete inventory been made? What steps towards transparency and accountability have been taken? All these questions remain to be answered.

Please convey your concerns to NYCO which will be relocating to 75 Broad Street, NYC, 10004. I understand the move-in date is December 16th. You might also contact Mayor Bloomberg which you can do here. His predecessor, Fiorello La Guardia, established NYCO as a public trust, forever emblazoning it in the minds of New Yorkers as the People's Opera, a moniker which many believe to be in doubt. 

UPDATE: December 6th, 2:35 PM

To those with a professional interest in the NYCO archives: please keep this writer informed as to their accessibility, status and condition. For those who have no idea what archives are and what archivists do, I recommend this site.

This writer firmly believes that access to information leads to true knowledge. This is why public libraries are so important: anyone can study what interests them. The professional researcher, however, functions on a different level: his/her interest shapes and informs a whole field of study which circles back to the public. To restrict access to archives serves no public good, and, ultimately, limits self-knoweldge and - in this case- Music herself.

UPDATE: December 7th, 11:00 AM

Questions have been raised about the veracity of this writer and his motivations concerning the NYCO Archives. To put these questions to rest, I remind the reader that the concerns on this page have been raised, not by the singers or musicians who have been in contract negotiations with the company, but rather, by former members of the company who were in charge of the archives. I have simply provided a vehicle for their voices to be heard. My own tenure as a member of the chorus with NYCO ended November 20th with my resignation, 11 days before NYCO declared an impasse. The reader who spends even a short amount of time on these pages will glean that I am interested in scholarship, not innuendo.

In conclusion, I wish to quote the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who so adroitly said:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 

FACT: This blog posted that the NYCO archive was in serious danger with its impending relocation from Lincoln Center and lack of an archivist.

FACT: NYCO subsequently announced via the NYTimes that it intends to house the archive in storage space at 75 Broad Street (a friend sourced NYCO's new address which I posted here the night before the NYTimes article appeared).

FACT: NYCO has not announced that it has hired an archivist or stated its intentions regarding the archive's administration. It has nine days in which to process a vast amount of information without -apparently- any guidance whatsoever. As "Jewel" has stated in the comments section:
Perhaps one might write to George:, but when people are asking, it seems that reassurances are being given but no details have been published. A friend writes: "Several years ago, private donated funds were designated for a major archive project which was to include an online database similar to the Met's, an oral history project, and the cataloguing of NYCO's massive holdings of documents, photos, and recorded materials. We had a p/t archivist (Susan Woelzl) for a short time and some volunteer support, but these efforts didn't get far and eventually ground to a halt during 'the time of troubles'. All the well-meaning folks asserting that NYCO is moving the archival material downtown must be told this: 
There's no way NYCO is currently equipped to preserve, catalogue, and curate those materials. Because of that the archives are A) useless and B) in peril

UPDATE: December 20th, 11:00 AM

I posted an open letter to Opera America CEO Marc Scorca last week which resulted in the assertion that NYCO was going to re-hire their former archivist who would oversee the transportation of the NYCO archives to their new offices. Unfortunately, this assertion could not be verified. As a result, I felt it necessary to remove the post and wish to apologize to Mr. Scorca for involving him in matters beyond his control.

As of this writing, the status, condition and location of NYCO's archive is unknown.

Note: The New York City Opera archives were irreparably damaged in hurricane Sandy, having been stored in the basement offices of the relocated NYCO under the direction of George Steel as reported in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (November 1, 2012). Barring updated information, the NYCO archives are presumed to be lost. 

December 4, 2011

Umbrian Serenades

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I went to Italy this past summer with the Umbrian Serenades 2011 program and had an absolute blast. Three wonderful concerts in amazing spaces with stunning acoustics, singing with the legendary maestro Joseph Flummerfelt, delectable meals, superb wines and the dolce sweetness of UmbriaIt was the experience of a lifetime. Really. No exaggeration. I think about being there this past summer and my heart stands still. It was such a wonderful experience. You absolutely must...


(The deadline is January 3rd so get busy!)

December 3, 2011

Fix Me!

Tools can harm or heal. What matters is whether they are used intelligently or indiscriminately. This last word is important. Beautiful singing entails a high level of discrimination. But all too often the student isn't ready to observe what they are doing and hearing even if they know something isn't quite right. Do they listen to their recorded lessons or work with a mirror? Nope. They want to be 'cured' of their vocal ills without lifting a finger, opening their ears or seeing what is before their eyes. Fix me! They cry to the vocal pedagogue. Give me the one tool, the secret technique given only to a few that will make everything right! But please don't ask me to observe myself! Just give me what I want!

Does the master carpenter give his apprentice a tool and tell him to start cutting away without thought to the what, where and how of what he is doing? Is one tool sufficient for every design? No. That is not the way of the master craftsman in any of the Arts, be they fine or otherwise. 

There are no quick answers or cures in learning to sing, which is not to say that it takes forever or is an arduous practice (if it is then something is wrong). But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The vocal techniques on these pages need to be applied with great care. They also require a living model in order to be fully understood. 

Sometimes the best tool is no tool at all.

November 29, 2011

Ingvar Wixell

Ingvar Wixell (1931-2011)

I've been involved in opera for most of my life and was only dimly aware of Ingvar Wixell until I came across his obituary and beautiful voice this morning. Such is the glory of the internet. You can read about and listen to a great singer within minutes. But I am kicking myself! How could I have missed him? Ok. So he won the Eurovision Song Contest when I was seven and stopped singing before I found my way to New York City Opera. But that doesn't seem like a good enough excuse. My first reaction to Wixell from the Utube video below? He was a great singer with Old School technique. Glorious singing! 

Opera Fresh has an excellent information on Wixell's career and studies. Curiously, his voice teacher, Dagmar Gustafson (1895-1989), also taught the noted voice scientist Johan Sundberg. My mind is already at work, wanting to know who Gustafson studied with (I won't be surprised to discover that she falls within the Lamperti School). Undoubtedly Mr. Sundberg would know since he belongs to an association that has compiled a book of her teaching. Unfortunately, I don't read Swedish. However, isn't that what google translation is for? 

If you really want to know something you have to leave no stone unturned. 

November 26, 2011

Secrets of Preparation

John Mewburn Levien

A student of Manuel García, John Mewburn Levien was a noted singing teacher in England during the beginning decades of the 20th century and gave talks which were published-  an extract from one appears below. Titled The Singing-Master's Decalogue (1916), Levien's talk to the Incorporated Society of Musicians outlines the basic principles of bel canto singing. Of course, the curious thing regarding this slender 15 page document is that, after reading it, one is left with the impression that the issues facing the voice teacher of a hundred years ago are nearly identical to those faced today.

My old friend Charles Lunn, the author of "Philosophy of Voice." was always adjuring us to "define our terms." We will therefore begin, "and it please you." with an attempt to define the word "singing."  
Do we mean by "singing" any sort of attempt to make the words and music with one's mouth and throat? That ever-lamented humorist Dan Leno used to cause much amusement by giving a list of all sorts and conditions of eggs. But just as the good housekeeper, when she goes to buy eggs, does not look for those of the electioneering type, so I take it by "singing" we, here, mean not singing which is technically bad, but singing which is governed by the canons of Art, viz, That the voice should be steady; that the tone should flow out, and not be forced out; that it should be clear and carrying and properly focussed; composed, as it were, with the different proper proportions of brightness and somberness; that the vocalization, that is, the singing of two or more notes on a vowel sound should be smooth, and yet the notes distinct; that there should be a proper preponderance of vowel sound over consonant sound in duration; that the words should be plain; that the shakes, turns, etc., should be perfectly done as by good instrumentalists; that any gradation of tone should be at the instant command of the singer; that the voice should not suggest a slice of human anatomy, such as the throat or the nose; and that dramatic effects, tone-colour, etc., should for the most part be made within the limits of those canons, though of course for any special effect the artist might momentarily depart for any or all of them.  
Now these limitations are the corresponding limitations which we find in literature, in military and all other human affairs in which the trained human intellect has exercised itself; to the casual thinker they seem likely to hamper the artist's movements, but as a matter of fact they really enable him to reach heights unattainable in any other way- always supposing he has been born with the great gifts which are indispensable and without which cultivation is a mere waste of time.  
There are some people who have a kind of idea that singing is a natural thing. Let us consider the word "natural." I fancy that there is very often a slight confusion in the minds of people when they use the word; what they mean is, that singing should appear unforced- spontaneous, and in that way natural. But they think at the same time that this is a thing which is done without any instruction or conscious thought. No doubt there are things in singing which are done without any study or conscious thought, but no more can the most gifted know the whole collection of those things which are in the compound of the great singer, than can an absolutely symmetrical pearl necklace be made out of a handful of unsorted pearls, casually picked out of a bag straight from the fisheries. Some handfuls may be more or less symmetrical, but there must always be a good deal of choosing; and this has happened, I think, in the case of great singers.  
For the last thirty or forty years the public has shown a tendency to like only that which excites it. It is a retrograde- an atavistic propensity. Were that bent in the public mind intensified, Art would disappear and return to a state of uncultivated nature. It is therefore the duty of the expert to keep his hold, and retain the influence over the community, to guide them aright.  
There has been in all ages since music emerged from its infancy some natural singing, some singing which was artificial, which smelt of the lamp, and some which was governed by canons of art and yet appeared perfectly natural. The ratios in which these different forms of singing have been practised have varied at different times. The middle sort- the artificial - we need not trouble ourselves with; everybody must admit that to be to out of court; but we must make up our minds whether we are going more or less to take what Nature gives us, or whether we are to have a thing of as much fire and energy as you like, but a fire and energy which is under the automatic control of a technique which has become second nature.  
In certain instances this executive ability may be partly a heaven-sent gift. History, however, shows that in most cases it has been acquired by careful and methodical teaching, by diligent practice and study, and the minute observation of good models. It is only when technique illapses as part of oneself that it resolves into one's second nature. Unless we have thoroughly assimilated it, it is impossible to appear inartificial, unaffected, or to sing with abandon. It was by the art which conceals art that Jenny Lind achieved some of her greatest triumphs. With her, as with other phenomenal singers, miracles have been affected by accomplishing, with the ease of innocence, difficulties of the most intricate character.  
The public, with a morbid dread that singing cannot be interesting if it accords with rule, has no perception of our secrets of preparation. If the act of presenting an executive attainment is not conformable with certain underlying rules it is formless, inartistic and uncivilised. It is the work of the master to take care that technique and natural freshness run in double harness side by side, so that the one faculty stimulates the other, like a well-matched pair of horses. 

November 11, 2011

Nicola Porpora's Inspiration

Nicola Porpora 

Considered the father of bel canto, Nicola Porpora taught the great castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli. He also taught Giovanni Ansani, who reportedly instructed Manuel García the Elder in the precepts of the Old School. While Porpora did not record his instruction for posterity, his student Domenico Corri did, publishing something of his master's precepts in a treatise titled The Singer's Preceptor in 1810. It can be found—along with a treatise by Corri's student Issac Nathan—in The Porpora Tradition which was published in 1968 by Edward Foreman (Pro Music Press). A very hard-to-find book, I was fortunate to obtain a copy via Abebooks some years ago. Here are Corri's instructions on practice which undoubtedly reflect those of his illustrious master. 

Begin by half an hour at a time, increasing more and more in proportion to the age and strength of the constitution on an average from two to three hours each day, until it is acquired, after which you may relax the exertion, but must never abandon it totally as long as you wish to improve and preserve your voice.  
The best time for practice is considered to be after breakfast, the Lungs then being in the happiest state to bear the exertion; during this progress you must abstain from all other Singing, because, for this appointed Exercise, all your power should be reserved.  
1st. Place yourself near a Piano Forte and before a Looking Glass, standing, you will thus possess more strength.  
2nd. Keep the Head and Body upright which gives free passage to the Voice.  
3rd. Open the mouth in an oblong form, as smiling, so that the lower Lip may not rise above the Teeth, which otherwise will damp and weaken the tone of the Voice. 
4th. Take as much breath as you can, draw it with a moderate quickness, with suspiration, as if sighing, use it with economy, and at the same instant sound the letter A as pronounced by the Italian or Scotch, thus ah. 

Did you catch the word Corri uses for breathing, that is, suspiration? It is a more sophisticated directive than the usual instruction to 'take a deep breath.' A kinesthetically-oriented word, suspiration calls to mind feelings of contentment and repose. I've come across it only one other place, and that is in Luigi Lablache's treatiseInteresting what one word can do, no?  

Addendum: Find Issac Nathan's text on the Download page here at VoiceTalk. 

November 10, 2011


Your voice is focussed only when in its entire range it is intense enough to feel started and stopped in the same spot- the center of your skull. - Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti by William Earl Brown (1931) 

Is there any way to explain what otherwise seems to be nonsense? After all, it's been determined that the sinus cavities of the head are not resonators.

I can think of one thing: bone conduction. The well-known pedagogue Richard Miller wrote about this aspect (see here) in his book The Art of Singing.

Miller notes that monitoring sensations in the head is to be encouraged with the caveat of refraining of trying to put those sensations there. And this makes logical sense. Though the Old School may have talked about a column of air extending into the head, the larynx is the final arbiter. Air cannot 'go' anywhere but out of the mouth unless the voice is nasal and the soft palate lowered. Then the nasal cavity does play a part, but hardly one that is desirable since the nasal voice was considered one of two chief defects by the Old School (the other chief defect is the guttural voice). Miller, like James Stark in Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy, suggests that whatever is felt by the singer is personal and therefore unreliable. Stark even called sensations in the head 'resonance imagery.' Imagery - by definition - is imaginary, and using this word takes the phenomena out of the range of what can be legitiimized since what is imaginary is not real.

However, what if we take G.B. Lamperti at his word? He tells Mr. Brown that the voice is focussed when it is "intense enough to feel started and stopped in the same spot- the center of the skull." What would cause the voice to be intense enough to be felt in the head? That seems to be the question to ask. And that takes us back to bone conduction. It also takes us back to my posts on the opening of the ear and the neurological connection between the face, inner ear and the stapedius muscle (see here and here).

My thinking goes like this: if the muscles of the face and head (in fact the whole vocal apparatus) have a part in innervating the muscles of the ear as regarding intensity of sound, would this not affect the perception of bone conduction by the singer? As well, might the acquisition of a ringing tone give the singer the illusion - an auditory mirage if you will- of resonance in the head for the simple reason that the ear canals are highly sensitive to this range of frequency and are centrally located?

More questions than answers of course.

When I showed my young boy soprano how to 'call' and then vocalize on [i] he spontaneously told me that he heard a buzzing. Where? I asked. He pointed to the center of his head.

"It sounds like bees!"

You can't argue with a nine year old.

November 9, 2011

Self Help For Singers

You won't find it on Google Books unfortunately. Written in 1914 by David C. Taylor, who's two earlier works - The Psychology of Singing and New Light on the Old Italian Method - appeared in a previous postSelf Help For Singers is a slender volume (64 pages) with more than enough material to drive the ardent vocologist to distraction. Taylor was, after all, the high priest of the Empirical School during the first decades of the 20th century.

What the world is seeking now is some way by which it can return to the method of the old masters. That the voice cannot be satisfactorily trained by present methods is generally acknowledged, but people are a loss to imagine how there could be a system of voice training which would not involve the attempt consciously to manage the vocal organs.  
How can a vocal teacher train his pupils, if he does not teach them, or at any rate try to teach them, to manage the diaphragm and the vocal cords, to open the throat, and to place the tone in the resonance cavities? How else did the old Italian masters train the voice? What, in short, was the old Italian method?
All these questions were fully answered in the "Psychology of Singing." It was shown that the idea of consciously governing the vocal organs is a mistake. Convincing proof was given that the old Italian method was founded on the faculty of imitation, that is, on the instinctive obedience of the voice to the commands of the ear. 

How does one "open the throat"? Taylor insists that it can't be done by direct manipulation which would only stiffen the muscles of the throat. Instead, he says that, for the throat to be open, the student has to know how a correct tone sounds and imitate it. Then the throat will open instinctively.

Concurrent with the opening of the throat is the forward tone. According to Taylor, the forward tone has a quality which the old masters called "the vibrations of the voice," and is sometimes called "point" or "edge" in English. This is a vibrant, metallic quality that is understood as the Singer's Formant today. As an example of 'edge,' Taylor suggests listening to a cornet.

Even if the student has no opportunity of hearing a crescendo played on a cornet he will probably have no difficulty in detecting the edge quality in the voices of people around him. The vitality and carrying power of the voice are due almost entirely to edge. Let the student note carefully those voices, both speaking and singing, which have a pleasing vital ring to their tones, and he will find that the edge quality is very prominent in them. A voice may be badly used, yet if it have the right amount of edge it may still give pleasure to the listener. But a voice without edge is devoid of life and character.  

This is far from the Marilyn Monroe voice which seems to be the vocal fashion these days. And it's not just women who lack edge. I've heard quite a few men in the operatic world in the last decade sing classical repertoire with a crooning voice which was totally unacceptable twenty years ago. The influence of popular culture at work? Taylor's popular culture was vaudeville!

Many untrained singers, especially among those heard in vaudeville, unconsciously cultivate the edge quality. These singers feel instinctively that to make their voices carry they must have edge in their tones. Why many singers of this class use their voices so badly is easily understood. Striving unconsciously for edge the get it by main force, thus stiffening their throats and making their voices harsh. 

Edge as understood by Taylor is now known to have everything to do with the aforementioned Singer's Formant and the relationship between the glottis and the pharynx which assumes a 1 to 6 ratio. In Taylor's world, however, striving mechanically for this relationship by directly widening the pharynx would be folly, yet to observe the efforts made by many singers, this writer notes that the mechanical school is alive and kicking. Singers do want to control what they are doing and many a voice teacher is happy to help them do just that. This an anathema to Taylor.

To attain the correct use of the voice, the best and quickest way is this: —To practice singing correct musical tones, guiding the voice solely by the ear, and paying no attention to the operations of the vocal organs. 

Experience in the voice studio has shown me that helping a student acquire a ringing tone has little to do with getting them to shape their mouths in a certain way. Rather, the mouth will assume the right configuration when a ringing tone is emitted. If the student is the least bit self-aware, he may say that he feels such and such—as in the back of the throat now feels more spacious etc etc. Whatever the feeling, I am at pains to tell him that it is a result of his experience of audition and should not be controlled directly. But invariably this is not what happens. The new sensation is treated like a favorite toy and concretized. And when this happens, the singer is now far from the "thing" that created it. Better to listen—which is what brought about the sensation in the first place- and observe. Observation, it should be noted, is an acquired skill. One which takes a great deal of practice.

The yogi's tell us that the untrained mind wants to do one of two things at any given time, which is to be attracted or repelled by an object, both interior or exterior. When this happens, the mind is blindly reacting. To observe, however, is to see things as they are without manipulating or concretizing them. One then experiences a sense of spaciousness around mental objects. And this is what the voice student needs to acquire, specifically, the ability to listen to the tone before it comes into being. Then, whatever feelings or sensations are experienced can be seen in context.

Help yourself by listening to the edge and observing what happens.

Note: Since this blog post appeared, a great many historical vocal pedagogy texts have been added to the download page here on VoiceTalk Historical Perspectives on the Art of Singing, Taylor's 'Self-Help for Singers' being one of them. 

November 8, 2011

Julie gets her voice back?

Julie Andrews 

If you've been keeping up with Julie Andrew's singing over the last decade, you already know that she sustained an injury to her vocal folds after being treated for the removal of nodes after appearing on Broadway in Victor/Victoria. The surgeon who did the operation was sued. Andrews then sought out Steven Zeitel, a surgeon at Harvard University who is on the forefront of being able to deliver a revolutionary treatment, one that mimics the action of the folds themselves. Will Julie get her voice back?

Let's think this through for a minute. Assuming the treatment works, and gives Andrew's folds the ability to vibrate normally, will she have her voice back as it was when she sang in the Sound of Music more than 30 years ago? Of course not. The voice tends to darken with age and the upper range is reduced even in the best singers. For that reason, I certainly wouldn't expect to hear notes above the staff. What is a best case scenario? A middle range that blooms upwards to D and E.

Another singer without vocal problems may show the way, and that is Barbara Cook. A soprano like Andrews, Cook's voice is still very much intact even if the higher range is rather limited in comparison to her Glitter and Be Gay days (I heard her in concert for her 80th birthday). It's quite common, and even expected, that repertoire will be transposed downwards. There are compensations however. The singer who has been around the block many times has access to interpretive depths that no 30 year old will ever have.

On a personal note: hearing Andrews in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins when I was a child made me want to sing. And sing I did. I hope she gets her inspiring voice back.

November 7, 2011

Clear Calling

To call to a person a long way off, you project your voice with the intent to communicate clearly which gives it ample resonance. Yelling, however, is stuck in the throat because the emotion that produces it is out of control. Calling - on the other hand - is vibrant and cool under the collar. You want to connect with someone, not bludgeon them with sound!

Why is calling the subject of this post?

Calling was used by the Old School to open the throat of the student. It is an auditory phenomena rather than a mechanically imposed action. You don't open your throat to call. Rather, it opens when you call- a very different thing.

Calling joins three aspects of historically oriented vocal function together in one seamless action.

1) breath/appoggio

2) open throat

3) resonance/projection.

Try calling on [i] or m[i] and you'll get an idea of what resonance/projection is. If you hear it buzzing in the center of your head, clearly in the front of your mouth and in the 'bubble of sound' around you, you're on the right track. If this is stable and successful, practice calling on every pitch and dynamic level, sliding up and down without loss of clarity or buzz.

That's technique.

November 6, 2011

Shut Up

hat's the cure for a great many vocal problems even if it is hard for many to follow. You may have been reading about Adel's vocal problems. One person in the article talks about how fragile the voice is. Well...that is one perspective. Fragility is only an issue when the singer doesn't understand the limitations of the voice.

The Old School taught that the singer could sing for about two to two and a half hours and day and then basta! No more. What makes a voice fragile? Singing for three hours and then going to a party and talking. That's what does one in. Those old singers would even shut up for a few days before a important performance. And no coughing either. They were taught to refrain- if at all possible - from coughing which brings the folds together like a hard slap on the face. Think that doesn't hurt?

Vocal health isn't that complicated if you follow the rules.

1) Plenty of hydration, and I am not talking vodka! Alcohol and caffeine can wreak havoc with the vocal folds. The singer needs at least eight glasses of water a day. Going out on the town? Have a big glass of water before you go to bed.

2) Plenty of sleep, which is perhaps the greatest aid of all.

3) Food that doesn't give you reflux (do you really want to be burning your vocal folds?)

4) No more than two and a half hours singing! If you have to do more than this you are risking injury which no amount of technique can help.

5) No yelling ever. While Pavarotti once called singing refined yelling, the reader should observe the word refined in the sentence. To yell is to compress the vocal folds in a marked manner. Even as little as a few minutes can have an adverse affect. In short: if you are going to get pissed off and have an argument, keep your wits about you and use your singer's voice.

6) Shut up! The simplest and most effective route to vocal health is to refrain from talking and singing when unnecessary. For the extroverted singer, this is often very hard.

Hints on Singing

What's that? You haven't read it? You have your doctorate and know who García is but you haven't read him? Too old you say? Titze is better? Really? So young that you think you know everything, huh? Who do you think Titze owes everything to?

Too busy you say? The Father of Modern Vocal Pedagogy distills his work into one concise volume and you're too busy to pick it and and see what's in it? You were watching re-runs of Lost? Are you kidding me? Jeez! What is the world coming too? The world of bel canto is going to be lost if you don't get your act together.