March 30, 2013

Mathilde Marchesi: Correct Methods of Vocal Study

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913)
The art of song is in a wretched condition; it is sapped to the very foundations. One can no longer distinguish between good and bad. There is an absolute dearth of competent teachers, and the public lacks the exalted taste that might enable it to confer an education upon an artist. Nowadays everybody gives singing-lessons; every teacher of the violin or trombone undertakes to bring forth pupils in six months — or less. Only to touch upon the question of time, let me say that, in my judgment, at least two or three years of study are needed: two for the concert singer, three for the operatic artist. But nothing very definite can be set down in this respect.

If I were asked to describe a general plan of study, I should allot one year to working the organ; eighteen months to acquiring enunciation, sentiment — style, in brief; then Haydn, Mozart, and Gluck, the masters I love and revere, should be studied. In these latter days the coup de glotte, the glottis stroke, has been much discussed. I should do away with the term altogether; the word coup is brutal. I should call the operation serrer la glotte, drawing it together as the flutist and oboist draw their lips. The glottis and the vocal cords in the larynx are the seat of the voice. No musical sound can be emitted without closing the glottis; the air that passes through it when open takes away half the breath, lessening the beauty of the tone while making the breathing too short.

Teachers talk of working the voice three or four hours a day. A student should use the voice one hour a day, and the intellect the remainder of the time, carefully noting down in writing the instructor's counsels. The organ must be worked without words, so as to render it supple and even, that it may not include one weak tone. All the strings of the instrument should be good. After a few months' practice the pupil will be able to speak with the vocal cords in a state of tension, and not with the open glottis. The English system of education, which forbids a child to talk loudly, causes paralysis of the organ from want of use, whence the lack of good voices in England. Just now the finest voices come from Australia; the United States stands next for productiveness. In Italy, where the art of song has sunk to the very depths, the male voices are the best, and are much more easily handled than the female voices.

I referred just now to the incompetent teacher; I should have added that the bad results of his work have been helped by the physicians and surgeons that have of late interested themselves in the study of singing, and that give advice and even write out exercises for singers, which the latter would do wisely never to heed or study. Garcia's great discovery of the laryngoscope has worked much injury to the art of song, in that it has made ignorant instructors subordinate individuality, which is of capital importance, to physiological facts. Nowadays many people strive to build up mediocre voices; formerly, only good voices were chosen for cultivation. The student should be warned, too, against the new methods invented by teachers that seek to make themselves interesting. Knowing naught of the emission of the voice, some make the pupil attack the tone on "la-la-la," "ga-ga-ga," "ra-ra-ra," and so on, while others have the student close the mouth and sing "m-m-m" or "ping-ping-ping." All this is supremely ridiculous.

To unite the tone and the word, I recommend the practice of singing in Italian, for the emission of Italian carries the emission of the tone forward, and prevents its direction toward the soft palate. When the voice goes toward the soft palate, the voix blanche, the white voice, is the outcome. And lend no ear to those that advise you to practise with a smile. First of all, this gives the voix blanche; next, it causes the smile to become set, and one never gets rid of it.

The singers of the day sing the music, and not the words. To master the text, one should begin by speaking it aloud, seeking out the appropriate dramatic inflections that must afterward be imported into the song. The recitative is the test of all great artists; it must be brought forth naturally and without false intonations. The greatest artist is the one that comes nearest to nature.

What has the future in store for song and its representatives? A composer that will illume the darkness by music uniting vocalization—not vocalization in the ancient, exaggerated, and bad style, but pure song— with dramatic feeling and expression that will predominate without, however, excluding all else. As for incompetent teaching, why not combat its demoralizing influence by having instructors submitted to examinations as to individual talents and results attained through pupils of different types as to voice and characteristics? Freedom is a great boon, but freedom in the imparting of the art of singing too often means baneful license.


University Musical Encyclopedia : Vocal Music and Musicians  By Louis Charles Elson
Published by The University society, 1912
Item notes: v. 6, p. 39-42

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