January 26, 2011

Signor Garcia takes a lesson

William Nicholl was a late bloomer and made something of a splash. I mean, what else can you call a guy who started serious vocal studies in his 40's, sang for the Queen - as in Victoria - not once, but twice, and went on to teach at his Alma Mater - The Royal Academy of Music? The British musical biography: a dictionary of musical artists, authors, and composers born in Britain and its colonies, caught up with Nicholl in 1897.

Nicholl, William, tenor vocalist and teacher, was born at Glasgow, June 30, 1851, and originally worked as an engineer in Glasgow and India. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, under Fiori, from January, 1884, to July, 1885, and gained the Parepa-Rosa gold medal, and the Academy bronze medal. He afterwards studied at Florence under Vannucini. He made his debut at Glasgow, in November, 1884, with Madame Georgina Burns' party. Since 1886 he has given an annual series of classical concerts in London, and has sung at Chester (1888), Gloucester (1889), and other festivals and concerts throughout the kingdom, such as the London Ballad Concerts, Crystal Palace, Richter Concerts, etc. He has appeared twice before the Queen, by command, and in 1895 he accompanied Mr. Gladstone in the "Tantallon Castle" when Sir Donald Currie was cruising in the North Sea. He is A.R.A.M. and has been a professor of singing at the Royal Academy of Music since 1891. Joint author with George Thorpe of "Text-Book on the natural use of the Voice," London, 1895, and has lectured on "Voice Production" at the Society of Arts, January 27, 1897.

What the British musical biography didn't mention was that Nicholl sought out Manuel Garcia after returning from Italy. Nicholl wrote about his first meeting with the great Maestro in a memoir.

From “Levels” to “Lyrics” being some passages from my life, by W. Nicholl, The Savage Club Papers,  by Savage Club, p. 152
So much for my life with the "levels." "Lyrics" must have their share of this brief sketch. Gifted with a quick ear and an aptitude for improvising, my musical education was left more or less to nature. I have lived to regret it. In India, music made me many good friends and a few enemies. I can sympathise now with the hoary- headed individual's disgust who one day found me in the throes of composition instead of being seated on a mud- bank in a grilling sun, superintending my workmen, who were busy on the foundation of a large pumping-station we were erecting for the Calcutta water-supply.
In '83 I resigned my berth, as prospects were not tempting enough, and came home with my wife and "bairns," convinced that with the influence I had a good berth would soon be forthcoming; but nine months of idleness opened my eyes to the fact that, like a good many other professions, Engineering was a glut in the market. An old Indian chum was the first to propose a musical career, and after thinking it over for a couple of months I sang to August Manns, J. B. Welch, and others, who gave me such a favourable verdict that I consulted Signor Randegger, who advised me to join the Royal Academy of Music.  So in January '84 I began a second "schoolboy" life. Eighteen months in that grand old Institution gave me a good grounding, and the bronze medal and Parepa-Rosa gold medal, to hand down to posterity. I then migrated to Florence, had a little more voice knocked into me, and a great deal of Scotch reserve knocked out of me. I continued my studies on returning home and among others had lessons from that grandest of old men in the musical profession, Manuel Garcia. My first lesson is worth recording.
The "maestro" was genuinely puzzled how to begin, for he said, "You have taught for some time and you have sung in public! What can I do for you?"
I could only assure him that I felt it not only a great privilege to meet him, but was convinced that every word he said on the subject of the voice would be of value. "Well," said Garcia, "I am much puzzled how to commence. ... Ah! I have it! You are no longer Mr. Nicholl, you are Signor Manuel Garcia—I am Mr. Nicholl. Now, Signor Garcia"—making me a profound bow—"will you be good enough to give me my first lesson in singing?"
A "tall" order, was it not ? However, my Scotch blood stood me in good stead, and I buckled to and did my best with the result that we became the best of friends. I look upon these lessons as one of the pleasantest memories of my musical career.

Garcia was "genuinely puzzled"? From the account above, the great Maestro knew something of the Art of War in having the presence of mind to turn the tables on his interlocutor. Nicholl's success in meeting Garcia's challenge may have been the first step towards his appointment to the faculty of The Royal Academy of Music; after all, Garcia was its most prestigious member. Nicholl's association with Garcia, I believe, surfaces in Text-book on the natural use of the voice, especially in Nicholl's description of 'costal' breathing which is in keeping with Garcia's instructions in A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847).

In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach. From the moment when you begin these two movements the lungs will dilate until they are filled with air. 

It should be noted that the phrase "set the hollow of the stomach" can be translated from the original French so as to suggest a retraction of the abdomen. Here is Nicholl's view on the matter which was given as part of an address. Like Garcia, he abhorred the notion of 'method' in the teaching of singing.

Mr. Nicholl on Voice-Production, The Musical Herald, May 1, 1897, p. 157
Mr. W. Nicholl, A.R.A.M., lectured last month before the Society of Arts, on voice-production, and we summarise the advice he gave. He said: “My experience as a student, singer, and teacher convinces me that the real art of voice-production is yet in its infancy.  One disadvantage is that nearly everyone, whether violinist, pianist, organist, or conductor, undertakes to teach the art of voice-production. I have a strong objection to the word ‘method.’ Voice-production is no secret.  It is the result of a natural use of natural means in a natural way. Our first object is to master breathing. Manuel Garcia told me that correct breathing formed 75 per cent of the whole work of a singer. I favor costal breathing, in which we have a flattening of the abdomen, great lateral expansion of the ribs, and an increase of the whole thoracic cavity, from collar-bone to diaphragm. The tendency for the voice to collapse towards the end of a breath is not the result of shortness of breath, but of wrong application, and if we reverse the action (costal instead of abdominal) we find that we are enabled to produce a bright tone without taking a fresh breath. In costal breathing, too, through obtaining a greater quantity of air and greater compression, the tone is more strongly reinforced. I used abdominal breathing for the first eight years of my career, but when I adopted costal I obtained increased strength of all the abdominal muscles, greater capacity and control of breath, and in the voice increased brightness.  

75 percent of the work of a singer?  That's quite a statement! However, Garcia, like other Old School pedagogues, was wont to quote Anna Maria Celoni Pellegrini who intoned:

Chi sa respirare sa cantare. 
(He who know how to breath, knows how to sing.)  


  1. As humble as my own musical training may be, I must agree with the point on breathing. If your support and breath management are rock solid, breathing becomes the ground beneath your feet.

    But a point of clarification. The blog says he didn't start until he was in his 40s, yet the dates given for when he began studying indicate that he was in his 30s. Either way, that still is late blooming by today's standards. You don't often find people leaving "practical" career paths like engineering with the belief that they would fare better as a musician.

  2. Thanks for your comment Denise. Nicholl doesn't say when he started studying with Garcia, and based on his own time line of starting study at the Royal Academy with Randegger in 1884 for 18 months, plus time spent in Florence, on the outside he probably had his lessons when he was 35 or 36. Not 40 as I originally wrote, but yes, late blooming.


I welcome your comments.