September 28, 2011

Imagination and Fact in Vocal Culture

Frederic W. Root
The title comes from an article written by Frederic W. Root, who, among other things, interviewed Manuel García, taught in Chicago, and was a highly influential vocal pedagogue during his lifetime.

Written at the end of Root's life (he did not live long enough to read the proof before publication), his words are relevant for voice teachers today even though they were written ninety-four years ago if only because he dives into the divide between empiricism and science. It's a matter that is still with us. You still read articles where science types decry the use of metaphorical language (they call it flowery language), while the empiricists note that no spectral graph (ie voce vista) can tell the viewer if the tone is beautiful or not. In short, articles like Root's illustrate how singing teachers are faced with the same issues as a hundred years ago.

What has changed over the years? Information. There is a dizzying amount of information available as regards the anatomy, physiology and acoustics of the voice. Does it help the singer? Probably not. But it could help the teacher be a better teacher. That only happens—in my view—if the teacher in question is a trained listener. One doesn't, however, become a trained listener by learning facts. Instead, one becomes a great listener by listening to the nature of vowels and what they enable the singer to do. This is what the Old Italian School empiricists concerned themselves with. They had a non-verbal language of sound that was passed from teacher to student.

In addition to the presented article, an excellent dissertation on Root's teaching by David Christopher Grogan can be read here. Of particular interest to this writer is Chapter 5 which deals with the three root vowels, [i], [a] and [u], which I have written about in previous posts. My observation? These vowels—when sung purely—enable the singer to master any language. That said: you have to have your wits about you to accomplish this. Your ear has to be open! 

September 23, 2011

Goodbye to all that

Someday a curious historian with a big view will write the tale of New York City Opera with regard to its current travails. But don't expect it today or even in the next few months, and certainly not from me. While I've seen the unravelling up close as a member of the company for the past twenty-three seasons, my tongue is not ready to express the thoughts in my head. Others, however, have done just that, perhaps the sharpest voice being that of Julius Rudel (The People's Opera, in Peril) who was on hand to conduct Beverly Sills in Handel's Giulio Cesare, a role which catapulted her to stardom. I will say this however: I am very grateful to have had a two-decade career at Lincoln Center with a company that brought so many distinguished artists to the public. There is no substitute for that kind of stage experience.

As I write and teach, I draw on all that I have been given from the many gifted artists I have shared the footlights with and say thank you.

September 18, 2011

Laryngoscope: Invention or Idea?

Manuel García

According to Manuel García, it was the latter. You can read how the idea occurred to him here in an address he gave to the International Medical Congress in London in 1881. In point of fact, García wasn't the first to devise this type of instrument (see here and here), but was the first to use it to divine the inner workings of the larynx. Was that a big deal? Certainly. His investigations opened up a whole new area of medicine and originated the field of voice science. Researchers are still building on his findings.

September 16, 2011

German Singing & G.B. Lamperti

Giovanni Battista Lamperti 

The old master of "bel canto," Professor Lamperti, has been willing to give the Signale his views on the downfall of German singing. The question, what he held chiefly responsible for the present depressing conditions, he answered without a second's hesitation: "The repertory! Works like 'Don Pasquale,' 'La Fille du Regiment, etc., in a word, Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Mozart, tend more and more to disappear from the repertory, and thus the singer lacks the constant practice necessary to maintain the flexibility of the larynx. Then, too, such operas as 'Carmen' are given with spoken dialogue. What a monstrous thing! Speaking in the intervals of singing is extremely injurious to the larynx; it dries up the throat and wearies the voice in the middle range. Moreover, it is bad in style and in taste; it breaks the continuity and robs the performance of life and warmth."
He was asked if it was so much worse in Germany than in other countries. "Certainly, for in Germany they all have the single aim of becoming Wagner singers. Germany has no tenors any more, because they strain their voices in Wagner singing. They 'strangle' them. In Italy a tenor does not lightly decide to study Wagnerian roles, except purely lyric parts, like Lohengrin. And would it not be better if, in Germany, too, tenors with less robust voices entirely gave up the idea of singing Wagner? The tenor is the most delicate of all voices. Most tenors in Germany are to be classed as high baritones, anyhow; and since the Wagnerian tenor parts do not lie high, they believe they can manage them. The worst of it is, that they go into such difficult dramatic roles without previously making thorough studies in breathing, solfeggio and vocalization."
To the question, what method he recommended for vocal training, Lamperti answered: "No method at all. Voices are born, and singing teachers must likewise be born. The latter can accomplish nothing through any kind of artificial, special method. They must meet Nature and bring the material they find to a high point of development. The raw material must be cultivated. In this I include the perfect control of the breath, the support of the voice through the breath; only when mastery of this is obtained can a perfect legato be obtained. But singing must be learned in Italian, for Italy is the home of song and the Italian is unquestionably the most musical language. With Italian syllables, singing is an entirely natural process.
"But let none believe that they cannot interpret dramatic music if they have studied legato singing in Italian. I have already explained that the expression 'dramatic interpretation' is not to be confused with vulgar exaltation, by which the voice is forced, and the gestures which accompany it are exaggerated. Unfortunately, this belief is often held by artists. Richard Wagner says, in his writings about Mme. Schroeder-Devrient, 'She had no voice at all'; but she knew how to manage her breath so beautifully and let a truly feminine soul stream through it in such wonderful tones that nobody thought either of the singer or of the voice."
At the end of the interview, Lamperti, to the question how dramatic singing in Germany was to be elevated, gave an answer as promptly and decidedly as he had previously made the repertory responsible for the whole wretched condition of things. He declared that a return to the earlier light and graceful operas, especially in the style of opera bouffe, would bring a cure. The continual singing of such roles had at one time kept the voices of singers oiled, while they had now become rough and unmanageable through the continual use of the declamatory style. And he added, significantly, that this was also the case in Italy.
It is to be feared, says Mr. Spanuth, that in the last remark Lamperti is right, and that the dramatic singing will improve only if we go back to the old repertory. But any one who has any understanding of the development of taste will understand that such a return is impossible. A short, atavistic period may come as a natural reaction from a too violent progress; but on the whole, there can be no return of a period that has passed. But so long as the repertory gives the singer no occasion to exercise his voice in the manner of the Italian school, daily, so long will even the best schooled artist have the greatest difficulty in keeping his singing fine. A few whose voices, vocal technique, musical intelligence, willpower and industry, are far above the average, may be able to give us the finest singing, united with the most intense dramatic expression; but the great majority will'not be able to. The present situation, in which true singing is entirely pushed into the background by the disproportionate, excessive effort after dramatic expression, makes it clear that it is time to call a halt, that we need to renew again our understanding of and our demand for a beautiful singing tone.  

The New Music Review and Church Music Review by The American Guild of Organists, 1908