April 13, 2013

The García Lineage: Sir Henry Wood

Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944)
The creator of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts - otherwise known as the "Proms," Sir Henry Wood studied with Manuel García while a student at the Royal Academy of Music, London, with the express purpose of teaching singing. Possessing a "terrible" voice which García said could "go through a brick wall," Wood's memories of García as recounted in his autobiography My Life of Music (1938) are quite interesting.

"When I became accompanist to the operatic class I formed a lasting friendship with Gustave Garcia who directed it. I also accompanied singing lessons by Manuel Garcia, W. H. Cummings, Fiori, Edwin Holland, Duvivier, Randegger, Arthur Thompson and Fred Walker.  It was a great chance for me because I learned the traditional rendering of classical arias as taught by these great teachers. Young as I was, I realized that such experience would fit me for the future I had planned, for love of the human voice had taken hold of me just as the organ had done in my earlier days. Determined to be a teacher of singing, I took lessons from every professor available and heard every vocalist of the day. 

Accompanying for Manuel Garcia’s pupils was a privilege and an artistic experience for the greatest value- both in what to do and what not to do- but although I consider he was the finest teacher of his day, I must say he was at times quite violent with his pupils. It was nothing for him to fling a book at an unsuspecting head during a lesson. It never seemed to occur to him that the poor soul was in no fit state to learn anything further- at least during that lesson. 

Occasionally I came in for it also. A mezzo-soprano was singing I will sing of They great mercy (St. Paul) which she rather dragged.  So did I. 

“You’re dragging!” Stormed Garcia.

The next second he cannoned me on the to floor, taking the keys from under my fingers. The singer went on, and any onlooker might have thought it part of the game, so naturally was it done. David Hughes, a Welsh baritone, also suffered from Garcia’s book-throwing, but he had been trained as a boxer and always managed to dodge.

Garcia was a real character. One day he showed me an advertisement in a daily paper.

“Look at this, Henry!” He shouted …..”Voice production! What’s voice production? We teach singing here!”

I also remember a Welsh miner who came to the R.A.M. to study singing. He had a fine though somewhat throaty baritone voice and was nothing of a musician. However, Garcia did wonders with his voice in six months, mainly by giving him vocal exercises and training his ear to be alert to his own tone- certainly not by talking about voice production. Indeed, after four years’ study this man won several prizes.

It so happened that the students knew that Randegger sometimes offered engagements to baritones, especially if he were producing Saint-Saens’s Heavens declare, in which there is a baritone quartet, or perhaps for the double quartet in Elijah. This was an attraction, and it was the thing to get into Randegger’s class. I thoroughly enjoyed myself the morning the Welsh baritone approached Garcia and broke the news that he wanted to join Randegger’s class.

“Please, sir.” He said in a voice that was hardly robusto, “I’m sorry, but I want to leave your class at the end of the term and go to Randegger,”

I held my breath. I watched those fierce Spanish eyes flash fire, and prepared for the storm I knew must break.  Garcia stared at the man for a moment. Then, in a voice of thunder:

“Could you sing a note when you came to me?”
“N-no, sir!” (This very tremulously.)
“Had you any vocal technique?”
“Er…..n-no, sir!”
“Had you any repertoire?”
“N-no, sir!  (Hardly audible)
“Then GET OUT OF MY ROOM, and never let me see your face again.  Out you go or I’ll kick you out- even though I am very nearly a hundred!”
The Welshman fled.  Garcia followed him to the door.
“I’m a teacher of singing.” He roared, “not a concert agent!”

That taught me a lesson, too. I always told my pupils I could not undertake to find them engagements, and took care to inquire whether they were coming for real singing lessons or merely to try to make use of my influence."


Aside from García throwing books (you can't do that now, can you?), several things stand out in the passage above. One is García training his student's ear rather than talking about voice production. Another is the danger of blind ambition. The baritone who asked to join another teacher's class? Well, that was dumb on his part, wasn't it? However, I can tell you from experience that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I have all kinds of students as a private voice teacher: beginners, ardent amateurs, working professionals, and everyone in between. The ambitious student is still with us. Sometimes he lands on my doorstep, post music school, well into his 30's, stars in his eyes, not having the career he hoped for. His inability to sing basic 5, 9 and 11 tone scales with requisite ease and tonal beauty? He doesn't consider that a problem.

Sir Henry Wood also wrote a four volume treatise titled The Gentle Art of Singing (1927-28) which was abridged into one volume in 1930. Herman Klein had some acerbic things to say about the original version, which you can find here. I would have loved to interview Sir Wood. He seems a fascinating character. He also seems to be mixed-dominant. How does one discern this kind of thing? By listening to the voice and watching the body and face in action. The mouth 'pointing' to the left is a tell-tale sign (his left, not your left). The "terrible" voice? That's another.

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