May 28, 2011

Letters to Emi

There is a lot to be learned from letters from the past for those with ears to hear. Two such letters appear below. They were written from Pauline Viardot-Garcia to Emi de Bidoli, and are included in the latter's memoir Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (1946). Though undated, I believe they were written during the 1890's.

Pauline Viardot-García (1821-1910) 

The first letter is notable for what it tells the student and voice teacher regarding daily practice. Viardot-Garcia's students began with breathing exercises, then sustained notes in chest (that should make some heads spin), then high notes 'very softly' and with 'no effort' (head voice), then exercises of progressive difficulty. Simple enough, right? Now. Have you looked at Viardot-Garcia's exercise book? Not for the the faint of heart.

My dear child,
Thank you for having sent me such a nice letter. But you only tell me about your poor mother and don't mention yourself. How do you like the change of climate and life, habits, food, direction of thoughts and so many other things? Did you take up your daily practice? Has your mother heard you? What did she say? Is she satisfied with your improvements? 
When you take up your studies, start with breathing exercises, first of all. Then some sustaining notes in chest until MI, not any higher. The high notes very softly and without effort. Then take some little exercises to the 4th, 8th, and 10th. Use as much as possible my little book, "An Hour of Study," which is my best representative. I will not leave Paris before the middle of August.
Give my best regards to your dear mother. 
I embrace you very affectionately. 
Pauline Viardot

The letter below hints at something that was considered de rigueur during De Bidoli's day. And it is this: students of the Old Italian School were kept on vocal exercises to develop technique for an extended period before they were allowed to study repertoire. In most cases, this period lasted for at least a year, if not more. Can you imagine this being done at any conservatory today?

Viardot-Garcia also reveals the qualities she prizes: voices that are light and supple, clear and pure (are you remembering my previous post?).

My dear Emi, 
Come back to me as soon as you can. I'll make you work very hard. You have to prepare a nice repertoire. It would be too bad to drop your work just now when you are two steps from "trés bien." Take care of your voice, because such pure and clear qualities are becoming more and more rare. In singing so much modern music, people think it is not necessary anymore to make the voice supple and light- and how wrong they are. They don't realize that the more the voice is agile, the more it gains in volume and the better a person can sing expressively and sustained- and the less the voice becomes tired. This is true even in singing modern music, which is often very beautiful, but almost always fatal to the voice. 
Write me as soon as possible, my dear Emi, and receive my best wishes for yourself and your dear ones.
Pauline Viardot

And what was the modern music Viardot-Garcia warned about? I am betting they were composers like Faure and Debussy, and I will lay double odds on those like Mascagni. Modern composers aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Viardot-Garcia did indeed work her students very hard. After all, Emi de Bidoli was not one step from trés bien, but two.

May 27, 2011

Pure Vowels

Now that's two words you don't here together anymore. Funny that. I've researched and read a ton of old pedagogy texts, and from what I have gathered, the term 'pure vowels' stopped being used in the way it had been used when an older generation of voice teachers left the planet twenty years ago. So what did those old teachers mean when they used it?

Joy Clements & Seth Riggs
The King and I, 1960

Ok. Before I tell you, let me ask you a question.

Would they have meant - say - the early music soprano who sings with a 'straight' tone? Nope. To the voice teacher who had a connection with the Old School, a 'pure tone' or 'vowel' meant something very different.

Here are some of the characteristics of a 'pure vowel'.  A pure vowel is.....

1) A vowel that is clear. Not nasal, not guttural, not fuzzy, not anything but clear.
2) A vowel that has depth. Oh boy. Here we get into trouble. Do I mean darkness? Nope. That's something else entirely (here's a hint for you: depth is associated with the /i/ vowel).
3) A vowel that is rounded
4) A vowel that stays within its limits, that is, an /i/ stays an /i/ and isn't influenced by other vowels. It is itself and nothing but itself. Of course, this is a problem in English which is chock full of diphthongs. So how does the singer sing in English? By making each sound of the diphthong clear and distinct (of course the soprano has to 'fake' her closed vowels in her highest range which is an art unto itself). 
5) A vowel that is ringing
6) A vowel that is beautiful.  

Where can you hear pure vowels? In lots of older recordings for one thing. You just have to keep your ears open for them. Heck. I heard them tonight on my local radio station WQXR. They were playing a 1965 recording of Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land (which was given its premiere at The New York City Opera in 1954), and the voice of Joy Clements stood out remarkably for her clear pure vowels.

Ok, I hear you asking: aren't you really talking about diction? And my answer to that is great diction is a by-product of pure vowels. You don't get great diction by moving the parts of your mouth in a more vigorous way. You obtain great diction by first listening to the sounds you are making. And what sounds do you need to be making?  Pure vowels. When the vowels are clear the consonants generally take care of themselves.

May 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Beverly Sills

It was the happiest day of my life. No kidding. There I was, singing my heart out like it was the most important audition of my life (it was) on the stage of The New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. Beverly Sills sat in the tenth row all by herself, listening intently. I finished singing Mozart's Non piu andrai from Le Nozze di Figaro feeling like I was shot out of a cannon, and she smiled that famous beaming smile of hers and said: "Thank you very much!" While her head nodded emphatically as she spoke, it was her tone of voice that made me want to jump up and down like a kid at Christmas. Instead, I smiled, nodded in return and said: "Thank you!" An internal Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! screamed in my head as I left the stage. The next day I got the call that I was now a member of New York City Opera's thirty-two member ensemble. And so began my two-decade journey.

What a woman. You got within twenty feet of her and the air vibrated differently. A frank talking gal from Brooklyn, she knew how to run a company and raise a bundle of cash to keep her beloved City Opera going, all the while setting hearts aflame.

As Horace Tabor said in Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe: "You were always the real thing, Baby."

May 24, 2011

Christine Brewer: Every Town Needs a Diva

It may be because I taught public school music (elementary, middle school & high school) before I got into singing, vocal pedagogy and the world of opera, but my heart leapt when I read a recent blog post by Christine Brewer at NPR. What is the Wagnerian diva doing? Working with Nancy Wagner's sixth graders at a school south of St. Louis, imparting a love and knowledge of music (Bewer also taught music before appearing on the operatic stage). A recent project? Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, a work which resonates with kids whose parents are serving in the military. The lesson here? The classical arts can be- and are- relevant. It's just a matter of connecting the dots. Speaking of which, a different article has evidence that musicians may have better brains. There is no doubt that Wagner and Brewer are using theirs. The future of classical music and beautiful singing depends on it.

May 16, 2011

Hope Glenn

She was a student of four voice teachers who have appeared on these pages: Frederick W. Root, François Wartel, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Francesco Lamperti. But unfortunately, as with so many who studied with eminent voice teachers of the late 19th century and did not become famous, we don't know all that much about her (I have yet to find her dates). The little that we do know of Hope Glenn (see here and here) indicates that she was poised on being the leading contralto of her day, that is, the successor to Annie Louise Cary. However, this wasn't a sure thing. The letter below to American girls indicates how hard it was for a woman - alone in Europe with hardly any support - to forge a career as a singer.

Hope Glenn c. 1895

An American Singer
Advice to Ambitious American Girls
In spite of the many years of my life which I have spent in Europe, says Hope Glenn, in a letter from London to the Inter-Ocean, I have never for a moment forgotten that my real home lies across the Atlantic. Had I ever been tempted to do so the splendid welcome which I met with in all parts, when I made my first public appearance in the United States, some five years ago, would be in itself a lasting claim on my affection. As it is, I feel encouraged to hope that some of my friends may still remember me well enough to be interested in the following slight sketch of my professional career in England, which I have been asked to write. 
It was a great shock to my people when I first announced my aspirations towards a professional career, and it was only after a prolonged struggle of a year's duration that I won the day so far as to be allowed to settle in Chicago under the care of the well-known teacher, Frederick Root. Encouraged by him I subsequently crossed the ocean and studied for a year under Mme. Viardot-Garcia in Paris, and then at Milan under Lamperti, where it so happened that I fell in with my two compatriots, Miss Van Zandt and Mme. Giulia Valda. I, too, at that time, aspired to the operatic stage, and on the completion of my training I accepted an engagement to sing for a season at the new opera house in Malta, which was successfully carried out. But it must be remembered that I was literally alone in Europe, without friends or protectors of any sort. I was dismayed at the immense difficulties and dangers which inevitably hamper a young artist on the operatic stage, and, changing my plans, I came to London, determined to devote myself to oratorio and concert singing. 
At this point the real struggle of my life began, and if I dwell upon a little it is only that I feel American girls should know what they must be prepared for when they hurry over to Europe in the expectation of making an easy and rapid fortune. Unless a girl has a balance at her banker's to draw upon, a professional career is by no means all wine and walnuts, as the saying goes, in its earlier stages, even when success awaits one later on. At the moment of my arrival in London my father was ruined by the treachery of a business colleague, and I was left with barely the traditional half-crown in my pocket. Since that day I have depended on on one but myself. Fortunately, besides having a voice, I was lucky enough to possess two essentials to success- good health and kind friends, and with their help I struggled through the first years. My earliest friend in England was the great conductor, Sir Julius Benedict, the lamented friend and advisor of so many musicians. After hearing my voice he strongly advised me to persevere in my career if I could count on remittances from home, warning me that it took three years to make a reputation in England as a concert singer. Almost the next day I heard of my father's misfortune, but I determined, nevertheless, to stick to my work. 
Another piece of encouragement, which I like to look back upon, came to me about that time from America, from our great contralto, Annie Louise Carey. She sent me a present and wrote: "Come home and I'll give you my shoes and my blessing." 
One of the most powerful as well as one of the kindest of my musical friends has been- and indeed still is - Sir Arthur Sullivan. In recent times I have often had the pleasure of singing in his great dramatic cantata, "The Golden Legend," while Sir Arthur himself conducted. Another old friend is Sir Charles Halle, who, by means of his wonderful orchestra, which he has conducted and managed for so many years, has turned Manchester into one of the most musical centers of England. Here I have had considerable successes, and I am always happy to retune there. 
One of my most delightful professional reminiscences is connect with the visit of the great Abbe Lizst to this country, a visit which unhappily proved to have been beyond his strength. His first reception took place at Sydenham at the really palatial residence of Mr. Lyttleton, of the great music publishing firm of Novello, and himself an enthusiastic love of music. The large music hall was closely thronged with members of the nobility and the leading representatives of music and art in the kingdom, eager to do honor to the revered master; and I shall never forget the thrill of enthusiasm which passed through us as the Abbe appeared in the hall, with his beautiful, dignified face and flowing white locks. To me had fallen the honor of singing one of his own beautiful compositions. "Mignon's Song," and the charming grace with which at its close he pressed my hand and expressed this thanks in a few courteous words made it easy for me to realize the wonderful fascination which all through his life he exercised over the weaker sex. The news of his death, only a few weeks later, came with a terrible shock to all who had enjoyed the privilege of meeting him during his short visit among us. 
Although so far I have spoken principally of oratorio singing, I devote myself nearly as much to ballad singing. Indeed, there is nothing I enjoy more than singing a good homely ballad. 
I have left for the end all reference to my American tour in 1883, which I made in company of Mme. Christine Nilsson. It is needless to say that under the able management of Mr Abbey we enjoyed every luxury that special railway cars and the best hotels could provide, and I hope it is needless, too, for me to say what an immense joy it was to me to find myself singing once more to a real American audience, while the warmth of my reception quite surpassed all my expectations. During all those months I found Mme. Nilsson a most pleasant traveling companion. She has always had rather a reputation for sternness: so I should like to give a little instance of her real goodheartedness which came under my observation. 
One cold day we heard a small child singing in the street under the hotel windows. The prima donna immediately sent for her, and after talking kindly to her and making her promise to go home and take care of her voice she presented the astonished and delighted little girl with a sovereign. 
I have also been for concert tours through England with both Albani and Patti. The latter, with all her greatness, still manages to retain a charming simplicity and youthfulness of manner which captivates all hearts. 
When my advice is asked, as it is constantly by young girls who are ambitious to shine in the ranks of prime donne, I feel bound to warm them against the almost insurmountable difficulties to be encountered by a young artist without relatives near at hand, and no balance at the banker's. At the same time I can never for a moment regret that I myself acted in contrary to my own theories. Just now, above all others, I feel that fortune is smiling upon me, for it is only a few months ago that I added one more link to my connection with America by my marriage to Mr. Richard Heard, of Boston. On that occasion, Sir Arthur Sullivan, in the inevitable absence of my relations, took my father's place before the altar, while my friend Mme. Nordica took the leading part in the choral service. I have had many offers to engagement in the United States, and before very long we both look forward to crossing the Atlantic together and renewing acquaintance with all my old friends. 

The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music, March 1890, page 59.

Glenn's career had its beginnings on the operatic stage, but after touring in England, she decided to make her mark there in oratorio. Unfortunately, Glenn's marriage proved to be difficult, and when she separated from her husband, her career aspirations ended. She remained in London for the rest of her life, occasionally returning to Atlanta Georgia to visit her sister, from whom she received assistance. What went wrong? It is hard to know from our vantage point, but lack of financial resources may have been only one factor. However, it is still the sticking point for many a talented singer who is working as a waitress while taking lessons and going to auditions. Having a career is never easy, especially if you are pursuing it alone without a support system.

And what about Glenn's training? A little digging revealed a letter with a few precepts of François Wartel, one of her teachers. The letter - written by a Mrs. C. I. Baker to Arthurs Illustrated Home Magazine (1877) regarding Glenn's study in Europe - reads like an advertisement for an up-and-coming singer.  Baker quotes Wartel as remarking:

For after all, what is singing? Singing is a gymnastic of the lungs. My maxim is to obtain the greatest force by the gentlest means. Above all, there must be no compression whatever of the top of the throat; it must remain open in the very highest notes. Nay, more than this, the higher the voice ascends the more the throat must open. We call that lowering the tone. It gives roundness, a fullness, a depth not to be obtained by any other means, and it preserves the voice intact; it prevents it from wearing out. 

We call that lowering the tone? That's an interesting statement.

Wartel also stated that Glenn had a brilliant future ahead of her. From all accounts, she had a very beautiful voice and the training to make it happen. But that wasn't enough. If there is a moment in Glenn's letter which is the most revealing, it is the crossroad she faced in traversing the operatic stage as a single woman. Too bad she couldn't read this book: The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield. It might have given her the gumption and courage to deal with her resistance and accomplish great things on the big bad stage. Would it have helped? Perhaps. And perhaps not. During her time, women didn't have the right to vote, and were trained to be submissive as the 'weaker sex.'

It takes a lot of effort to go against the grain, stand up through yourself and become the person you were meant to be.

May 14, 2011

Cymatics & Singing

Cymatics is one of those curious phenomena that makes you open your mouth in wonder. I mean, all you have to do is watch and listen to the video below to see what I mean. Of course, you may be wondering what the study of visible sound and vibration has to do with singing and the Old Italian School.

Ok then. Here's something to wrap your head around. 

Singers and teachers more often than not occupy themselves with shaping their bodies in order to make vowels and various tonal qualities. However, what if the reverse is true? That is, what happens if singers and teachers think in terms of the vowel/tonal quality shaping the body?  

To anticipate the "feel" of resonance (vowels) before singing, and to keep the sensation during pauses and after singing, is the lost art of the Golden Age of Song.   
From Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti by William Earl Brown (1931). 

I've never forgotten the moment I was watching a video of a performance of a concert that had a quartet of excellent soloists standing in front of an amateur chorus. What caught my eye? The soloists had their heads screwed on differently. Guess who looked more aligned?

A really beautifully resonant vowel/tonal quality commands the audience to listen. What happens if it also molds the body into the shape that produces it?

For more on cymatics, see here and here

May 11, 2011

National Jukebox

There is big news today for those interested in music and the voice - both classical and popular - with the unveiling of The Library of Congress' new online collection of recordings. With the back-to-the-future title of National Jukebox, it makes an incredible amount of recordings available. My own quick search using the word 'Caruso' brought up 178 recordings of the great tenor which can be listened with the touch of a key. Ready to dive into its digitized depths? You can do so here. I can only imagine that this resource is going to expand further, which should excite the living daylights out of every music lover as well as give hope to those who bemoan the death of the classical arts. Heck. At the very least, if you can get to a computer in a public library you can hear great singing for free.

Enrico Caruso

May 10, 2011

Four Diaphragms

You thought you only had one didn't you? Nope. You have four, which is what this nifty video reveals. Of course, this puts a whole new spin on your teacher's instruction to "breath from your diaphragm." You can now say: "Which one?"

Of the four diaphragms in the body, perhaps the least known is the one which moves the bones of the head. How to get a feel for this? I am reminded of the Old School teaching of Margaret Harshaw, who instructed her students to breath as though through two straws from the upper lip to the center of the head, the idea being that the breath went up before going deep into the body. Of course, it sounds like a nutty idea. After seeing this video it makes perfect sense.

Many thanks to my Facebook friend and colleague Katherine Goeldner (a most excellent Carmen) for posting this information.


May 1, 2011

Inner and Outer Muscles

Inner and Outer Muscles
The inner muscles of the larynx (those directly connected with the action of the vocal-cords) cannot function properly and freely in producing vibration and pitch of the voice, until the outer muscles of throat and neck are busy with pronunciation and resonance of tone. 
In fact, these muscles are continually in a state of elastic tension (tonacity) in connection with the rest of the body. 
The inside muscles attached to the vocal ligaments and cartilages of the throat (larynx) are tensed only while producing sound. They are not used during silences. 
These inside muscles are compelled to do double duty if the outside muscles connecting head with torso do not know and perform their allotted work. 
Of course these neck muscles are like-wise helpless, unless those of head and torso cooperate with them. 
Only when the external muscular envelope of the whole body acts as a unit, can the internal muscles of the voice, untrammeled, function. 
The diaphragm is also an inner muscle that can control breath, only when the abdominal and pelvic muscles co-operate with hose of chest, neck and head. 
The feeling of co-ordination from head to foot is that of being stretched in all directions at the same time. 
Inner muscles act instinctively when outer muscles assist co-ordinately and continually. 

From Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti by his pupil and assistant William Earl Brown (1931).