June 13, 2012


Manuel García by Sargent

In the world of arcane vocal pedagogy articles from the late 19th century, this one is quite interesting, if only because it contains an observation attributed to Manuel García that recalls the teachings of Francesco Lamperti.

Manuel Garcia told me correct breathing formed 75 per cent. of the whole work of a singer.

William Nicholl, a student of García has appeared on these pages before (the quote above appearing in an abbreviated article). His theory of the involvement of the false vocal folds in voice production has, of course, been disproven. This aside, his observations on the use of the gramophone, the mechanics of breathing, and the coup de glotte are still relevant.



I CAN only hope, in the time at my disposal, to touch on a few of the man branches which belong to voice production; and it shall be my endeavor to treat the subject in such a manner as will prove of interest to the speaker as well as to the singer.

My experience, as a student, singer and teacher, convinces me that the real art of voice production is yet in its infancy. The knowledge which enables a teacher accurate to diagnose all voices coming under his instruction is indeed rare, and it must remain so till those who teach have had practical experience, not only in the production of their pupils’ voices, but in the production of their own voice. The violinist does not profess to teach the pianoforte or the pianist the violin. These, and many other branches of music, are taught by those who have made a special study of the subject. Nearly every one, whether violinist, pianist, organist, or conductor, undertakes to teach the art of voice production. I would like it to be fully understood that, in my remarks on this subject, I am not advocating anyone‘s particular method.

Personally, I have a strong objection to the word method, as applied to voice production, when it, as is frequently the case, implies that an individual possesses some secret of producing good tone which is his own particular discovery, and must, therefore, be as carefully guarded as if it had been patented. Voice production is no secret. It is the result of a natural use of natural means in a natural way. Voice production on the part of the teacher demands first a knowledge of how to produce good tone, and secondly, a knowledge of how to obtain the desired quality of tone. Every instrument must possess at least three essentials in the production of toue—(1) motive power, (2) tone producing agent, and (3) the reinforcers of the intrinsic tone.

The violin, which I shall take as an example because it is more familiar to the majority than other instruments, possesses these three essentials in (1) the bow, (2) the strings, and (3) the violin itself. The bow we will liken to our breath, the strings to our vocal cords, and the violin to the resonators of our voice. Now the great difference between the violin and the voice is that in the violin we have the fixed resonators only, in the voice movable, in addition to fixed, resonators.

No doubt you have noticed that we can produce a variety of tones with the violin. The first efforts of the uninitiated are far from pleasant, even if made on the finest "Strad " in the world. Why should it be so? Because the player is producing, from lack of knowledge and practice, a bad intrinsic tone. The violin as a resonator is reinforcing the tone created by the vibration of the string or strings by faulty bowing. As the bowing improves the tone improves, we therefore find one thing only necessary to master in tone production on the violin, because the resonators are fixtures.

The intrinsic tone of the voice is produced by the vibration of the vocal cords. The size and shape of the resonators determine, to some extent, the quality of the voice. The quality is more materially affected by the adjustable resonators. Our first object in playing the violin is to master bowing; our first object in voice production is to master breathing. Manuel Garcia told me correct breathing formed 75 per cent. of the whole work of a singer.

Of the various methods of breathing, abdominal and costal are the best known. In abdominal breathing we have a decided increase in the region of the abdominal cavity, slight lateral expansion, no movement of the shoulders, and little or no expansion of the upper walls of the chest.

In emission of breath for tone we have the tendency to a downward pressure, especially toward the end of the breath; so much so in some cases that the voice suddenly collapses. This is not the result of shortness of breath, but of wrong application, and if we reverse the action, we find that we are enabled to produce a bright tone without taking a fresh breath. This alone is a strong factor in favor of costal breathing.

In costal breathing 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. It has been demonstrated that apart from greater control we have greater capacity; I cannot, therefore, imagine why there should still be any doubt on the subject, except from the fact that we are all more or less loath to give up old habits. Another immense advantage in costal breathing is that, through obtaining a greater quantity of air and greater compression, the tone is more strongly reinforce. It is almost needless to say that I advocate costal breathing, for both singers and speakers, and my reasons for so doing are based on the best of all reasons—practical work. I used abdominal breathing for the first eight years of my career, but when I adopted costal I obtained increased strength of all the adominal muscles, greater capacity and control of breath, and in the voice, increased brightness.

Respiration consists of two acts, inspiration and expiration. The amount of breath we inspire is determined by the expansion of the thoracic walls. Breath should be inspired through the nose, and never through the mouth. Dr. Greville MacDonald gives the following results, in a treatise on “The Respiratory Functions of the Nose,” showing how the temperature is changed from the time it enters the nostrils until it asses through the pharynx just above the larynx. When inspired at 20° F. the temperature rose to 2°; at 40° F., it rose to 95°: at 53° F., to 96°. When inspired at 112° F1, the temperature was reduced to 92°.

The temperature of the blood is 98'4°. Before the air reaches the vocal cords it must have virtually attained this heat. Cases of obstruction in the nose and consequent deterioration of quality of voice are common, and in the majority of cases, due to faulty respiration. Many teachers are of opinion that breathing through the nose can only be indulged in when the voice is not being used. This is quite wrong, and either goes to prove the teacher‘s defective power of breathing freely through the nose, or his unbelief in the ability of others to carry out what he is incapable of carrying out himself.

Before leaving the subject of inspiration, I must say a word on the subject of corsets. It will be short and to the point. No woman who wears them can breathe properly. The lateral expansion I have mentioned in costal breathing is a closed book to those who do. If women would only realize that in the “abdominal muscles" they have the finest corset ever made, which only require to be developed by exercise, they would never wear them again. Some of you who have seen native women in the East can vouch for their splendid figures. They have never known any dress which has destroyed the figure. I believe the present popularity among the fair sex of bicycling is doing more to bring about a healthy form of dress than all the doctor‘s warnings or teacher‘s lectures on the subject.

From inspiration I am naturally led to say something about expiration, and again I must remark that practical experience, both as a singer and teacher, are my sole reasons for advocating the use of certain methods.

With the object of arriving at a solution to the problem of breath control, Dr. Wyllie, in 1866, made numerous experiments upon the exsected larynx, by which he demonstrated that “there is wit in the larynx a. double valve which is capable of controlling both the exit and entrance of the air.” Drs. Cash and Lauder Brunton confirmed the experiments made by Dr. Wyllie, and recorded in an article on “ The Valvular Action of the Larynx.” I will quote from this article:

"Our own investigations comletely confirm those of Dr. Wyllie. If the view that the function of the false cords or ventricular bands is to close the glottis during effort, and thus fix the thorax, is correct, we should expect them to be strongly developed in those animals whose habits render fixation likely to be serviceable; on the other hand, we should expect them to be absent in those animals in which fixation of the thorax would be of little or no service ; and this seems to be actually the case.”

The above points to the fact that all animals who have the power to lift, strike, or hug have the false cords fully developed, because, in order to get lifting power, force to strike, or to hug, the breath must be held in check ; the thorax then forms the point d’appui, or point of resistance. Those animals who have no such power have no false cords.

It is conceded by throat specialists that the false cords do close when a breath is held in check; but so far, with a very few exceptions, they have been unable to say if these cords can be governed so as to control breath. It must be remembered, however, that throat specialists make their observations under conditions which preclude the possibility of a pure tone being produced.

What further proof have we, apart from the observations of the medical men I have quoted, to show that the false cords will govern breath; and why should we want to prove they should? For the first step, in establishing this all important principle, I will take that which appeals to the majority of teachers and singers, viz., the exercise which is known as the “shock of the glottis." I prefer to call it attack, as the word shock is apt to give the idea of force. The famous opera singer, Maurel, in his lecture, delivered some years ago at the Lyceum Theater, laid great stress on the attack (coup de glotte) as an important factor in voice production. Let us analyze this attack.

“When the expiratory muscles are used as in expiration, and at the same time the escape of breath is prevented by the closure of the false vocal cords, the air in the lungs becomes compressed. . . . When these cords are opened slowly, an unmusical sound is produced, and when they are opened suddenly a sharp, resonant, explosive sound is produced.” In releasing the air the sound of the letter "u," as in the word “utter,” is heard. “The little explosion accompanying the sound of escaping breath we shall call the attack (usually called ‘shock‘) of the glottis. The force of the escaping breath which follows the attack should be varied by altering the aperture between the false cords until the student gains full control over them….. We not only obtain breath control by this exercise, but we also learn to produce a perfect intrinsic tone, i. e., a tone produced by the unimpeded vibrations of the vocal cords, a tone which is free, pure, rich and sonorous.” In the breathy falsetto voice the false vocal cords are nearly as wide open as in expiration, and the vibration of the vocal cords is confined to the thin edge. Here we have one force at work (the breath), and we find it an impossibility at first to change this voice into full voice without a break. This break would be called a change of register by those who believe in registers. The possibility of converting the breathy falsetto tone into pure voice without a break can only be achieved by the development of the false cords, and the ability to gradually close them from the full open position until the vocal cords begin to vibrate in an air of equal density.” Did we not possess false vocal cords, we should, as Dr. George Cathcart said at the meeting of the Incorporated Society of Musicians at Scarborough, a few years ago, “not only cough like a cow, but sing like a donkey. ’

I have mentioned the word “registers." That there are frequently breaks in a voice we must all concede, but that these breaks arise from natural causes or belong to such a perfect instrument as the human voice I utterly disbelieve. Teaching on the system of registers is the cause of much mischief. I am glad to see from correspondence and articles in some of our leading musical magazines that not only are the false cords as a breath controlling medium taking a healthy hold in teachers’ minds, but that registers are slowly but surely being ignored in voice culture. It is quite enough to have to deal with faults which we find in a pupil, without adding a host of complications. When a singer has studied sufficiently to have good command of his voice, there should be no undue effort of mind or body. The work should be as freely and as easily accomplished as the ordinary speaking voice. In such a case not only will the singer feel absolute freedom and ease, but the listener will be spared the pain of having to witness facial contortions, and the many other means the badly taught artist employs in order to get his notes out. The compass of the voice will expand both up and down, and three to three and a half octaves will not be looked on as phenomenal, as it is now.

Taylor, in his "Sound and Music,” says that, “when astounding body causes another body to emit sound, we have an instance of a remarkable phenomenon, called resonance."

“The second body, in such a case, is called the sympathetic resonator. There are two kinds of such resonators of the voice, fixed and adjustable. To the first belong all the fixed bones situated above the abdominal cavity; to the second, the walls of the chest, the trachea, larynx, tongue, lower jaw, soft palate, lips, cheeks and nostrils.“ A perfect management of the voice depends on the knowledge of how to use the resonators. It is immaterial to the singer which he possesses, and, to quote the late Sir Morell Mackenzie, in his “Hygiene of the Vocal Organs," the difference between artistic and inartistic production of the voice depends far more on the management of the resonators than on the adjustment of the vocal cords.

So far we have treated of breathing and the balance of breath and tone. Many artists can produce good tones in their vocal exercises which suffer considerably the moment they attempt to apply language to these tones. I shall, therefore, say something on the subject of balance of language and tone. It is the second great branch of a vocalists work, and what applies to vocalists equally applies to speakers.

Melville Bell says the voice organs and the articulating organs are entirely separate and independent; that “the quality of clear cut articulation depends on the due separation of the functions of the vocalizing and articulating organs. The vocal sound seems to be unbroken because the actions of the tongue and lips, while interwoven with it, do not interfere with it. All singers and all speakers may attain this bright excellence of articulation by forming consonants with the economic impulses of the pharynx instead of the wasteful explosion of breath from the chest. The element of audibility in oratory, as in singing, is the voice, but the voice carries with it to the remotest corners of church, hall, or theater, the articulations of the mouth, which of themselves would be inaudible over such an area. Let the fact be noted that this beautiful result when most perfectly attained does not involve laborious effort, but, on the contrary, is accomplished with a minimum of labor and fatigue on the part of speaker and singer.”

Now I will give you a few examples of what we hear when the condition are not such as Melville Bell avers they ought to be. We hear the first line of our national anthem rendered "God save our gracious (s) queen." The chorus in the Messiah sing "For (r) unto us a child is born.” In a very beautiful song, by the late Goring Thomas, we get "Time, gentle-handed driver, his (s) piteous (s) team compels." And the tenor tells us he “calls life‘s (s) crew together," in Dibdin‘s immortal “Tom Bowling." Study Melville Bell, and you will find that it is possible to get rid of these difficulties to the great benefit of both language and tone.

Our linguistic faults are, as a rule, traceable to imitation at infancy. A boy who shows musical aptitude, if he takes up the piano or violin, commences his studies at the age of five to seven years. When he is 17 he has, if properly trained, mastered all the difficulties and avoided bad habits. The poor voice, however, has been allowed to go its own sweet way, and has year by year increased its load of faults, so that at 17 or 18 we have to deal with an instrument which has been wrongly used, and, in some cases, so badly treated that it is impossible to cure the disease. In such cases it is the rule to condemn the instrument, which might have turned out, if properly looked after, a priceless one. You may possess a “Strad," but it is easy to produce bad tones if you are ignorant as to how it should be played. In such a case we blame the player. In the majority of cases of bad voices we blame the voice. We ought to blame the user of the voice.

I would draw your attention to the table of consonants and vowels, and I will go over them and give their true articulation. The three voice consonants, B, D and G, I use as exercises for development of the mouth, pharynx and trachea. B develops all three, D) the two last, and G the last only.

In the breath consonants notice how the consonant, if produced by a puff of breath from the lungs, destroys the vowel, and how, if produced with the air in the mouth, is strong without injuring tone. Try and sing “show” with a clear tone on the "oh,” separate “sh” from “ow,” and you will see what I mean — "show” —giving “sh” its articulation and “ow" its tone. Now join the two, and see if you still preserve the tone you got on “ow” alone; if you do, you have solved the problem of good articulation in breath consonants.

Now I contend that such work as this ought to be taught in our schools. Do you know a boy or girl who can articulate a consonant if you asked them? I do not. I find that they do not even understand what you mean by articulation. As for adults, if they understand you, it is a matter of time and patience to attain any degree of facility, simply because the organs employed have got stiff and rusty from want of use.

Flexibility of lips is rare among untrained voices and flexibility of the tip of the tongue still more so. We work with our throats and the base and root of our tongues. Why should there be such a difference in tone quality when such conditions are present? Sound, like light and heat, travels in straight lines. It is commonly (in the case of the voice) supposed to roll out of the mouth. Well, it does not. We begin, we shall say, with one line of sound starting at the vocal cords. The condition of the throat above the vocal cords determines how few or how many lines and angles the sound takes before it leaves the lips. The two diagrams on the board will illustrate what I mean. In one you have a case in which the tone strikes soft substance many times before it comes to a bright resonator, therefore the whole tone would be a woolly one; the second gives a more equal balance of bright and soft resonators, and the tone therefore would be full, round and sonorous. I will illustrate the action of the resonators with a tuning fork, first resonated on this book, secondly on the piano, and thirdly on the book placed on the piano. The first is a muffled tone, the second incline to be hard, and the third has the combination of both, and gives a good round tone.

You will notice that the closer I make the contact of the book to the piano, the better the tone; in fact, we seem to hear a “crescendo,” and without any more effort, so far as the intrinsic tone is concerned. So in our voice, the admixture of hard and soft resonators, under ordinary conditions, gives a round, agreeable tone.

Before I conclude I think it will interest you to hear something about the phonograph and the lessons it teaches us. I made experiments on both singing and speaking voice on one of Edison’s phonographs for two years. At first, I was under the impression that loud tones could not be recorded with satisfaction as to the result heard when the record was repeated; but I found that bad results were only due to force. If anything approaching a pure tone was made, however loud, a good record was the result. This applied to both the singing and speaking voice. In looking at the cylinder (which takes 100 lines of record in its circumference to the inch) it was very easy to tell if any word or tone had been forced. The particular part of the line with a forced 'word or tone always showed a broader scratch than the other fine indentation which the needle had made. It was always a fine example of  “how little we hear our voices as others hear them,” to listen to the remarks made by the individual who made a record and then listened. The singer jeered at the idea of that being a bit like his voice; although when he heard someone else make a record and then listened, he was amazed at the truthfulness of the instrument. The reciter not only failed to recognize his own voice, but did not believe that he dropped his voice at the end of sentences as the phonograph did. We most of us know how an untouched photograph not only tells the truth, but seems to exaggerate it. The phonograph seems to exaggerate to a still greater degree, but, I think this is only due to the concentration which listening to its records necessitates. If we cultivate that much neglected “concentration,” we find we hear many things we were unable to detect. How few take the trouble to cultivate it.

Scientific American Supplement, January, 1898

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