Voice as an Instrument and How It is Used by Giulia Valda

Giulia Valda (1850-1925) 
The art of singing may be likened to a flight of stairs up which the pupil ascends slowly. Each step of these stairs has a special meaning, and the pupil must understand that meaning perfectly before being allowed to go up to the next one; must know each step in order and understand it to get results. 

Teachers and singers very rarely consider the human voice as an instrument. How often we hear a person say, "I have a voice, I will sing." Or some thoughtless friend says, "You have a lovely voice, you must sing." And then if the person has any musical knowledge or intuition he starts off, as do many instrumentalists, to sing by ear, to catch a tune or if he gets to a teacher, to imitate that teacher. 

Singing is an art, a science. An instrumentalist has the advantage of having an instrument upon which he plays. He has, of course, to understand his instrument. which is mechanical and ready for him to play upon, and he has to earn how to play on it. Both of these are scientific (that is, the instrument and the faculty of playing it) and he has to study both.  It is already conceded that to become proficient upon any instrument requires much time and labor. 

Now when a person decides to take up playing of an instrument, the first fact that is impressed upon him is this very fact that time and labor are necessary. He does not expect to become a great player in a few months. He know that with the greatest diligence with daily work and practice, not only months but perhaps years must be spent gaining the control of the particular instrument his is studying, and he also knows that it is not allotted to every one, no matter how studious, so thoroughly to overcome all the difficulties as to become masters of an art.

The greatest pianists and other instrumentalists do not cease to work after they have achieved greatness, many of them practicing for hours daily to retain their proficiency, even if they do not make and perceptible advance. 

Why is it, then, what while people are willing to devote all this time to learning to play a mechanical instrument, knowing what is necessary and the only way to learn, when it comes to the voice and its use they are not considered in any practical or rational way and no scientific principle is considered a requisite? Of course, I am speaking now of recent years, when every one seems to think that the old 'bel canto' is lost. Why is it lost or considered as being lost? It is because the average teacher does not teach it, nor the average pupil want to work for it. They must have some shorter road- because they think there is one. Never was there a greater mistake. There is no short road to fame in any of the arts. 

The first thing to teach students is to explain and show them what their instrument is and its relation to the voice. Then, when it is understood what the instrument is, the teacher must show them how to play upon it or use it. To do this the teacher must understand the law governing the instrument. 

The instrument itself is composed of human muscles and they are few and simple; they are only three sets which have to be considered and studied. 

First, the lowest abdominal muscles which govern the breath or act as a support for the breath, called in Italian the appoggio—the great appoggio. Secondly come the shoulder muscles supporting the chest and lungs. Thirdly, the jaw, facial and throat muscles. These muscles comprise my instrument, or all that a singer should recognize or study in relation to voice production.  That is the physical part; all the rest is mental. 

By knowing or by studying to use the jaw and throat muscles we open the throat, an essential and fundamental necessity, for no one can sing correctly with a closed throat. This is more difficult for the Anglo-Saxon race, for their throats are closed by their language, or rather by the way they speak it, custom having brought about a carelessness in proper speaking or enunciation. The English people speak English better than the Americans do, but they also speak with closed throats, due to the predominance of consonants in their language. In my next article, which will be upon diction, I shall go into particulars of enunciation. If pupils do not speak correctly, the teacher must also train the speaking voice. Singers must sing as they speak, so they must speak correctly in order to sing correctly; they must know the art of speaking. 

It requires much study and practice to understand this so-called instrument. The student must have a perfect knowledge of how to hold these muscles and must also understand their action before attempting to play upon them. That takes time. The playing on this instrument must be absolutely mental.

The instrument in place, thoroughly understood and controlled by the pupil, gives an open channel through the throat for the column of air—of which Lamperti speaks so much in his "Art of Singing"—to pass uninterruptedly, and it is upon this column or air that the voice floats. The attack and sustaining of the voice is entirely mental and must be produced without the physical use of the breath in order to have the tone perfectly pure. That is, the tone must be carried on the breath and not with it, when it will produce the wonderful legato which is so much talked of and attained by so few.

This instrument when in place (that is, the third set of muscles, those of the jaw and the throat), give the foundation of a principle sounding board which rests above the soft palate, and attacking a vowel, principally the vowel "A" is pronounced by the Italians (like a in the English word "far"), helps to open the throat. This would be pronounced up and in on the breath, which produces a reflex action instantly on the facial resonances, giving a perfectly round, pure tone.

Most teachers, not understanding or knowing this, teach the pupil to attack in the frontal resonance—to use a French expression of the French school, "dans la masque" (in the face)—not knowing or realizing that this frontal resonance should be a result emanating solely from the attack on the back sounding board, another instance of mistaken cause and effect which I have mentioned in my previous articles.

The perfection of the playing upon this instrument depends entirely upon the development and the continued application of the pupil under the guidance of a teacher who understands these principles thoroughly.

The mental attitude is of the greatest importance is of greatest importance because the principle work outside those muscles which comprise the machine, and which is the only part of singing that is purely physical, is, as has been said and repeated, entirely mental, and the pupil must accept these principles as set forth by the teacher, and work them out out from a mental standpoint, without personal opinion or opposition. In other words, the pupil must be in entire sympathy with the teacher and with the instruction that is being given, and be in an entirely receptive mood. To have a mental opposition to what the conscientious teacher is laying down as a law, a law that experience has shown to be absolute, only hinders the progress of the pupil, who should, if studying seriously, acknowledge and appreciate that the teacher is using all the skill and knowledge of experience to further the interests of those studying with her. Half hearted allegiance to a teacher is discouraging from every point of view. Take your teacher's instructions and opinions upon trust, believing them implicitly until you find from your own experience and progress how absolutely they are founded in the truth. In this way alone can rapid and satisfactory progress be made.

There are the fundamental principles of the playing on this instrument, which we call voice. As with any other instrument, as soon as the pupils gain a knowledge of the working the instrument they see its unfolding possibilities of varying and enlarging that knowledge, and so are led by the teacher through all the various gradations, ever advancing onward until they reach the goal for which the teacher has aimed, knowing it was there to be found, the goal for which they have sought and worked earnestly and faithfully.

What can be a great reward for a teacher than to see the growth of this human instrument, and to watch its development to its highest and greatest power? To see the mental powers develop, to see the mind unfold and conquer the physical, to see the instrument so manipulated and played upon that it shows how thoroughly each step in the progress has been understood, repays and rewards the teacher for many of the fatigues inseparable from the lessons.

The next article will be upon Diction, which will take the work another step further, enlarging all that has gone before in its proper order.

Musical Courier, March 8th, 1917

Note: This article is the third in a series of five written for the Musical Courier. You can find the other four here.