November 9, 2012

Singing not Surgery

Charles Santley

Manuel Garcia is held up as the pioneer of scientific teachers of singing. He was—but he taught singing, not surgery! I was a pupil of his in 1858 and a friend of his while he lived, and in all the conversations I had with him, I never heard him say a word about larynx or pharynx, glottis, or any other organ used in the production and emission of the voice. He was perfectly acquainted with their functions, but he used his knowledge for his own direction, not to make parade of it before his pupils, as he knew it would only serve to mystify them, and could serve no good purpose in acquiring a knowledge of the art of singing. My experience tells me that the less pupils know about the construction of the vocal organs the better; in fact, as I heard a master once remark, "better they should not be aware they had throats except for the purpose of swallowing their food." I am confident that great harm has been done by mixing up "singing" and "surgery." From The Art of Singing and Declamation by Charles Santley, 1914. 

Now, isn't that a kicker? I shake my head every time I think of this quote. Not because I don't believe there is no virtue in singing teachers knowing everything that can be known about the voice from a scientific standpoint, but because I see the evidence in my studio of knowledge run amok. Students arrive thinking they must control every note that comes out of their mouths based on the information they have acquired. It doesn't help them however. Someone has to unpack the box, even put it in the closet for awhile—to be taken out later after the voice has been put through its paces. What does that mean, practically speaking? All kinds of exquisite tortures (scales and exercises) devised and supervised by the teacher, who, of course, holds the student's hand every step of the way. Doing, not knowing, is the order of the day.


  1. Thank you for this Daniel. It seems to most often be teachers who never really performed on stage who try to make up for it with anatomical bells and whistles. Not only does it not help, it actually hinders the student. What would happen if a tennis coach taught his students about every muscle involved in a simple volley? They would have a hard time hitting the ball, much less becoming competitive athletes. It's not that much different with us.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Alan. I hear you referencing 'The Inner Game of Tennis.' This is why I find Lamperti's perspective in Vocal Wisdom quite interesting, since he encourages the student to keep his/her eye on the tone, the tone in this case being akin to the ball. You are right: knowing everything about the arm doesn't help you play. Nor does knowing everything about the larynx help you sing. A radical thought for some.


I welcome your comments.