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. 

November 4, 2011

Does Science Teach Singers to Sing?

The answer depends on whom you ask. If you ask a voice teacher that has been trained scientifically, that is, at a university where priority is given to scientific research, investigation and the accumulation of stacks of facts, the answer will be yes. However, if you ask an empirically-based voice teacher who is rooted in an historic vocal school like that of Francesco Lamperti, the answer will be no.

The scientific-based teacher rails against the voice teacher who uses metaphors, imagery and a steady diet of words like voice placement, while the empirically-based teacher demands to know who among the science-based students has learned to sing staring at a voiceprint and being able to name the muscles of the larynx.

Does one view-point have to be better than the other? I think not. My perspective is that both schools have their place: the scientific view being the most useful for the voice teacher who is already trained in his art. After all, Manuel Garcia - the father of modern vocal pedagogy - thought it better to refrain from confusing the mind of the student with unnecessary facts and anatomical jargon.

Do you teach a young child grammar so that he can learn to speak? Then why teach a voice student who can't sing a 5-tone scale what a formant is? The truth is: knowing everything doesn't solve everything. If it did, everyone would be a vocal genius. But that is not the case. Better to educate a student's ear by example, which is - believe it or not - how the 18th century teacher taught. While modern minds may think this method unsophisticated, it was the primary avenue of vocal training for more than two centuries. Stacks of facts are no substitute for a beautiful tone. Which - do you think-  is better remembered?

Ok, you say. What about the voice teacher who sounds like a god but can't teach to save his life? My response? The teacher who sounds like a god but is an ineffective teacher isn't doing his job. And what is his job? To teach his students to listen.

Listening, if you haven't figured it out already, is an empirically-based skill.

November 2, 2011

Bette Davis Eyes

Bette Davis in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte

I told you to get off my property!

From the screenplay by Henry Farrell and Lucas Heller

Imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery when the person isn't just imitating you, but rather, stealing your work. It's called plagiarism. In this case, not just a sentence or two, but last night's post on Tony Bennett. It wasn't just this post, but also another one from a couple of weeks ago. What to do? I contacted the offender - a self-proclaimed singing teacher - and told him to cease and desist. And while the posts have been taken down, I did have the the presence of mind to take screenshots of them. 

Have you no shame, sir? This site is clearly copyrighted. If you want to use any material from it, you need my permission, otherwise you risk legal consequences

See the quote above? I took the time to find out who wrote it and give them credit. That's what real scholars do. Do your own work and get your own credit, sing your own song and find your audience. But don't even think about stealing my work or my voice. 

Tony Bennett: singing to the center

Tony Bennett

When Tony Bennett was on Charlie Rose a few years ago, I heard him say that he was taught to get to the center of the note, and that this was the essence of bel canto singing. And you know what? He's right. Bennett also remarked that he studied bel canto vocal technique with Pietro D'Andrea, and credited his vocal longevity to the exercises and techniques he learned. 

So what does singing to the center mean? One way to answer this question is to listen to what Bennett does. Here he is singing The Second Time Around.  

One thing stands out: Bennett's vowels are clear, not nasal or guttural, which is what the great 19th century vocal pedagogue Manuel Garcia said should be avoided. Is that so hard to do? Yes, if you don't know what a clear vowel sounds like. Often, the voice student, when nudged and coaxed by a skilled teacher into making a clear vowel will say - when quizzed as regards the 'where' of the tone - that the vowel is 'out there,' gesturing with the hand a good two feet in front of the the face. Others will gesture towards the center of the head.

So which is it?  Outside or inside the head? 

How about both? 

We hear through air conduction and bone conduction. An effective mental image for this is a bow and arrow. Two directions, two places, two ways of hearing one's own voice: they can't live without each other. 

You have to go back to go forward, which applies as much to vocal technique as it does to musical tradition. As it is, Bennett is perhaps the last great 'crooner' alive before the Beatles changed the world of popular music, one who took the tools from a historic vocal school and made them his own. That he is still singing, and singing well is ample evidence that old traditions still have legs. I find myself telling young classical and musical theater tenors that if they want to hear great phrasing, clarity of diction and sheer thrill of sound, there is no one better than Bennett.