February 28, 2014

How Manuel García Taught Blending of Registers

Dig long enough and you find things. Things that blow your socks off. Such is the case of finding how Manuel García taught his students to blend the registers. You know, that curious exercise on page 52 of A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing, Part 1, translated by Donald V. Paschke and published by Da Capo Press in 1984, where García printed a stave with notes that have stems going up, alternating with stems going down. 

How did García actually teach this exercise to his students? I didn't know and didn't buy the idea—offered by many a vocal pedagogue, some quite important—that he had his students sing the lower note in chest voice, and then the upper one in falsetto. Yes, he used the term "falsetto" in his text; but did he really mean that hollow, throaty sound I associated with the word? I didn't think so based on what he wrote on the preceding page.

It is necessary to guard against reducing the brilliance and the strength of the chest tones, just as it is necessary to give to the falsetto all the energy which it can tolerate. One is tempted to think that it would be better to reduce the power of the strongest to the proportion of the weakest. That is wrong; experience shows that the use of the such a procedure would have the result of impoverishing the voice. The student will not give in to the tendency to aspirate the falsetto tones at the moment when she leaves the chest register, whether she is practicing on two notes nor only one. 

Isn't falsetto the essence of aspirated sound? That's what came to mind. So no, I didn't think García meant that kind of tone. So what was the student supposed to do? The first glimmer of García's teaching found its way to me in notes made by John Freestone on the CD jacket to The Harold Wayne Collection, Volume 25: The Marchesi School (1863-1940). Freestone had studied with Blanche Marchesi in London for two years, starting in 1938. Here's some of what he wrote.

Both Blanche and Mathilde taught that the female voice consists of three registers—the chest—the medium and the head. Beginners were always given exercises to place the chest voice correctly first, using an open "Ah" sound up to and including the lower E of the treble clef. The medium register was developed next, using the French U sound up to the high F. The head register, which was introduced last, on the "Ah" sound, starting always from F at the top of the treble clef. These were practiced until the registers were equal in quality, and then scales and arpeggios were given to ensure the matching of the tones. 
Blanche Marchesi continued to teach like her mother, but she also had male pupils. She claimed that all men sang in one register, covering the higher notes. To begin with pupils had to sing on the open "Ah" but the covered quality was obtained by singing the higher notes on the French "U" sound or the English "E" in the initial stages of instruction.
Breathing was taught on the "Lateral costal" principle, filling and expanding the lower part of the lungs and slightly pulling in the abdomen to give the necessary support.

Did you catch one big word change, that being the use of medium rather than falsetto, which avoids association with the hollow, throaty sound? Then there is a matter of using the French /ü/ in the middle register. Oh, so not Italian, I hear some cry! How could Marchesi have taught that? That can't be the Old Italian School! In answer, I simply quote García's own niece, Louise Héritte-Viardot, who wrote the following in the introduction to her memoir Memories and Adventures (1913).

I should like to take this opportunity of removing a widespread error. Some people think that the Garcia school of singing is a thing apart; others believe that is is exactly the same as the Italian school. Neither view is correct. It is true that Garcia's school is based on the Italian school, for in those days there was nothing else, nothing but Italian singers, Italian operas; but the Garcias, father and son, by means of their physiological discoveries, enlarged the scope of this school and improved and strengthened it. 

Enlarged the scope of this school? Well, the use of /ü/ in the middle register would certainly do that, don't you think?

Then there was the librarian to whom I am ever grateful, who planted a sheet of paper under my nose, not knowing its importance. On that sheet of paper, which consisted of diary notes from a García School student (the citation of which will appear elsewhere), was a rendering of the great master's method for blending the chest and middle registers. In keeping with Freestone's account above, the student recorded using /ü/ in order to give the entire scale the "resonance of both chest and middle" and gain access to the middle register. The explicit instruction was to use a "modified vowel," in this case umlauted /ü/, and then "later work back towards something more closely approximating the pure vowel," which would be /i/.

After learning this, I went back and practiced page 52 of García's book in a very different manner. Using his instructions as my guide, I sang /i/ on the lower note (in this case B natural below middle C, because I am a baritone and not a tenor),  then /ü/ on the same note, alternating them in tempo. With my ear as guide, the process took care of itself as long as I did not abandon my "Singing Position," which is part and parcel of García's teaching (you can find detailed instruction on "Singing Position" in Hidden In Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia)

Since we only learn by comparison, I suggest the canny student also practice García's exercise by staying on one vowel and going into falsetto on the upper stemmed note. Can it be done in strict tempo, without hiccuping and the larynx flying up? I think not.

The alternation of vowels makes the whole matter rather simple. Elegant even. And isn't that the point?

So, what about the other vowels, such as /a/ and /e/? Well, I'm sure you can take the principle involved, which involves the interplay between the face, lips, soft palate, ear and vocal tract, and figure things out.

Note: Interested students can find Francesco Lamperti's method of blending registers here.

The Folly of Falsetto 2

Alred A. Tomatis 
Blogs are funny things. I never know what readers are going to comment on in the form of an email, or in the comment section below a post, but when it happens, I am always grateful: it means someone out there is actually reading the words I've tapped out on my Macbook Pro. Such was the case when I wrote a post about falsetto that generated quite a few comments. 

No, I haven't changed my position on García's teaching since I wrote that post. From the evidence that I have found, he did not teach his singers to sing in falsetto. In fact, he only allowed tenors to use it in one tenor aria—on a high C.

Of course, I bring my own understanding to the word falsetto to the discussion, which needs further clarification. 

When I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999, one of the more curious experiences was hearing a vocal quality in my voice that I hadn't heard in a long time. Mind you, I was there because I was concerned about the affect minor hearing loss might have on my voice, and had the sense that there was something not quite right with my audio-vocal control. What quality did I hear in my voice? Head voice. That's the term I use for it on this page because, that's where I heard it. In my head. I appeared during my second week of training, after I had been listening to high frequencies, and had experienced a lengthening of my spine, as well as a release in the muscles of my tongue and throat. I was playing around with singing softly, and there it was—a ripple of vibration coursing through my body from the center of my head like a beam of sunlight finding its way through dark clouds. At first, I could only produce it when I had my headphones on and was being stimulated by Tomatis' Electronic Ear. Eventually, as I worked at home, establishing my right ear as leading ear, it reasserted itself. In time, I came to understand the sound I heard as the essence of mezza voce singing, since it could grow into a full-throated tone and back again—the messa di voce. It was quite extensible, reaching far past my usual register break at E above middle C, and went all the way down to low B, where my chest register would then reassert itself even at a soft volume. It was a very different vocal production than the one I associated with falsetto, which came from the throat and sounded hollow.

My colleague Justin Petersen recently quoted Tomatis' thoughts on falsetto from The Ear and the Voice (2005) in a post on his blog, which you can find here. Petersen's post reminded me of a conversation I had with Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre in Toronto, who asked me what I thought about his mentor's words, and I remembering telling him that the passage was confusing because Tomatis' use of falsetto did not jive with my understanding of historical vocal pedagogy even if he did describe my experience. Heck. Even García himself thought the word difficult.

My ear had just been opened. I could sing in head voice into the stratosphere and back again. My voice sounded young, vibrant and agile. What did that have to with the hollow, throaty sound male altos pushed through their throats in steam pipe fashion? It made no sense to me then, and still doesn't.

February 25, 2014


Francesco Lamperti


Acareful study of tone reveals the fact that it does not require great labor to establish normal vibrations. When there is too much effort noise is the result. Tone is pleasant in proportion to the economy of the breath used to initiate the vibration. In the voice, especially, all huskiness or lack of purity of the primary vibrations is associated with waste of breath. Breathing must not only be centred but we must carefully attend to the sympathetic and elastic retention of the breath.

In developing this retaining action it is first necessary to become conscious of the dual actions of breathing in making tone. Of the breath taken into the lungs in preparation for tone, by far the larger part is retained as a kind of sustaining condition of activity during tone production, while a small portion is used to pass between the vocal bands and initiate the vibration.

In producing tone the student can direct his consciousness either to the passive conditions resulting from the right reserve of the breath or to the small amount of breath released. Usually students think too much of the active outgoing breath and fail to realize the great importance of that which is held in passive, sympathetic reserve.

Various sensations have been suggested to students to co-ordinate this marvelous complexity in the action of the diaphragm. One teacher in Paris, with whom I studied, taught that during the making of tone we should have a sense of "sinking" in the middle of the body. Of course we can explain this by the fact that the breath reserved acts in opposition to that given up or actively controlled in a kind of column to pass between the vocal bands. The breath retained forms the drum; the small amount passed through the vocal bands is analogous to the stick of the drum that initiates the sound and brings the whole instrument into vibration. The full active chest forms the bell; the small amount given up, the hammer that initiates the sound. The breath reserved acts as the violin; the vocal bands are the strings and the small stream of expelled breath corresponds to the bow.

My old maestro the elder Francois Lamperti, was called a "shyster" by one who did not understand what he meant because he taught that in giving out tone we should have the sensation of drinking.

Lamperti never explained this. Some people thought he meant to make a tone as if taking in the breath rather than giving it out. Even with this view of it students were led to retain or economize the breath while making tone, especially at its initiation. In my own case I have found this sensation connected  not only with the sympathetic or elastic retention of the breath but with a simultaneous feeling of openness in the throat. It has been far more helpful to me than the sensation of sinking which was purely local in the middle of the body, while in this way we may unconsciously secure something of co-ordination.

Both of these sensations are founded upon the fact that in making tone much breath is retained in the lungs. In the teaching of nearly all of the great masters there has always been some step, often a simple expedient such as these, to awaken in the student just the right action that will retain the breath without cramping it in the lungs, but allowing simultaneously with the retention an easy control over the small emission which makes the tone.

February 19, 2014



Yes, before you ask: I can do this pose. It's not that hard really, that is, if you can pull your legs up over each other—and I can. The rest is lifting yourself off the floor with your hands, and gazing at a spot on the ceiling. Gazing may seem like the least important part of it, but it's not. It's actually quite important, since gaze, breath and intention hold everything together.

Regarding gaze. It's simple really—not that we think of it, but it's true nevertheless: the eyes are connected to the ears via the same cranial nerves. If the eyes are "off," it's a sure sign that the ears are "off" too, which organize the vestibular/physiological part of singing. That's the perspective of Tomatis anyway, who observed that the two tiny muscles of the ear integrate with the movement of the muscles of the body—movements that extend to the eye. 

I first heard about gaze during one of my lessons with Margaret Harshaw. She said quite succinctly:

The eyes look, but don't see. 

I wasn't practicing yoga until some years later, but when I did, her words came back to me. "Yes," I thought. "It really is like that." 

Yoga recognizes that there are two points of focus which become one with practice. While one is gazing at a point of focus outside the body, one is also gazing inward, which enables one to hold the pose together. The stronger the gaze, the more the yogi is aware of the processes taking place within his body/mind, as well as his orientation in space. It's the same with singing, of course, since we hear ourselves via bone and air conduction. This is why reading music is dangerous for the young singer, since the visual processing of information can swamp audio-vocal control. To feel yourself singing in just the right way (a very desirable thing) has everything to do with the audition of bone conduction, which—if we believe the assertions of Tomatis—must precede that of air conduction. If you can look without seeing, you know what this means. 

February 15, 2014


Not a pretty picture with all those muscles exposed, I suppose. However, I freely admit that I am fascinated with anatomy. I even have an anatomy coloring book lying around somewhere, which I spent serious time coloring with a box of crayons—all the better to visualize the muscles of the face and body. My pursuit, of course, was initiated by the experience of proprioception, which simply means that I feel things when I am singing. That said, I'm not under the illusion that I can control these feelings, at least, not directly—not that I haven't tried! I mean, who hasn't at one time or another? Young students, especially, are prone to operating under the belief that they can—and should—exert direct control over their physiology. Oh, the hours spent trying to raise one's soft palate, find enough support, tighten this or relax that muscle. Once you enter the labyrinth, it can be difficult to find your way out. One liberating thought was uttered by my teacher:

You can't control the voice: you can only control what it wants. 

I came to the conclusion that the "what" of "what it wants" was the key to understanding her thought, one I have found to be extremely helpful. With that in mind, what is one thing the voice wants? 


You thought I was going to say a good breath, didn't you? Ha! That would be too easy.

If you've been reading these pages, you know of the Lamperti School teaching of inhaling for 18 seconds. You also know that I've suggested the student pay attention to the feelings that arise once 10 or 12 seconds have been reached. Why is this important? Because, the good stuff happens after that. That's when the "ear" of the body is fully engaged: when the spine extends in both directions and the ribs fully open. When I ask students how their muscles feel at just this moment, they utter one of two words: lifted and inflated. Sometimes they even say: "My muscles are standing up!" When I ask them to tell me where they have this feeling, they report that it is a global one. Once they have a moment to take their own words in, I suggest to them that this feeling is independent of the amount of air in their lungs, and can be felt throughout the process of inhalation and exhalation. Of course, they hardly know what I mean until I blow out all the air in my lungs (there is always some left—it should be noted), and sing a scale in full voice that ends with a trill. 

That gets their attention.

February 13, 2014

managing muscles

You're going to hate me for saying this, though, come to think of it, you may love me too, if only because it lets you off the hook. What's that? The simple fact that you can't manage your muscles. Yes, you can watch what they do from a safe (mental) distance, but you are fooling yourself if you think you can control them directly.

Let's take the inner muscles of the larynx. They respond to thought, not manipulation. And by thought, I mean your mental conception of tone, that is, what you hear in your head.

Funny. I never tell a student to listen, which may sound strange since I emphasis "listening" a great deal on these pages. No, I don't insist that students listen, which would make them self conscious and shut down the very ability I endeavor to awaken. Rather, I simply give them exercises and experiences which develop their listening skill—a very different thing.

Regarding this matter of managing muscles: most singers and singing teachers don't think of it this way, but experience has shown me that the ear determines the "shape"of the body and mouth of the singer. Pushing on this and that muscle? That's like trying to shove a tree back into the acorn after it's burst open and and grown thirty feet into the air. To be sure: you can manipulate your way when you sing, but that's taking the long road. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Motor-learning research has borne this out as well: Trying to control physiology directly takes three times as long! This makes sense actually, if only because, if you are trying to "do" something your eye isn't on the ball anymore. And what is the ball? The vowel you are singing—for god's sake

Think about it. Can you fix a tone when you get off track in the middle of a phrase? Nope. To make things right, you have to stop, take a breath, and start all over again. That's how it works. All that pushing on your abs may give you the feeling that you are doing something, but believe me, it's not. You are simply tying yourself in knots. 

Want to know what gets your voice going?

Try this.

Investigate the feelings that arise when you breath in through your nose slowly for 18 seconds. When you get past 10 or so, you will feel very specific changes in your body (if you can attend to your feelings, and not 1) freak out, or 2) zone out).

My advice? Don't mess with your feelings. Don't intellectualize them. Just let them be. However, do be able to access those feelings, the same ones you have after you reach 10 or 12 seconds when inhaling through your nose for 18 seconds. Be able to access them during a whole phrase, a whole song or aria—even during the silences. Many feel "lifted" during this exercise, both physically and psychologically. Of course, the Old Italian School had its its own term for this body/mind event: inhalare la voce. In Tomatis terms, this is nothing less than an expansion of the listening capacity of the ear and brain. 

He who knows how to breath and pronounce, knows how to sing.  —Anna Maria Celoni Pellegrini

February 11, 2014

The Alchemy of Umbrian Serenades

Maestro Joseph Flummerfelt at Convento Parrocchia San Domenico, Spoleto, Italy

This summer, I am traveling to the Land of Song to sing with Umbrian Serenades for the fourth time. Thirteen glorious days and nights singing a cappella music in the Green Heart of Italy: amazing spaces with fabulous acoustics, wonderful friends, food, wine and song making for the perfect vacation. But it's more than that, really. 

You've seen the study about the minds of musicians synchronizing, haven't you? And the one about choir members who synchronize their heartbeats

(There is also an interesting study which shows that musicians use more of their frontal cortex.) 

What do you think happens when you are singing in rehearsal every day with a master conductor surrounded by 17th century frescos, then attend a delectable dinner with really wonderful friends? (Yes—you will make life-long friends on this trip.) 

Alchemy. That's what. 

Spoleto Duomo

I kid you not. 

I'm not ashamed to say it (and have even written it here before): I cry every time I am in Spoleto. I really do. From the sheer beauty of the experience, in an I-can't-believe-I-get-to-experience-this kind of way. In an I-know-what-I-have-to-do-when-I-get-home kind of feeling. Oh, I've been around the block onstage, have done a lot, seen a lot, performed with famous artists, which is a kick. But this program is different than those experiences, as wonderful as they are. It reaches you at a core level, right down into your heart and soul, which, I gotta say, you don't always experience when you are singing professionally onstage (there's no business like show business—hello). 

Singing with others who know the score is transformational. 

San Francesco Museum, Trevi, Italy

Umbrian Serenades is designed to change your life. And it does. You think you are there simply to have a great time, and then you find that you've been kicked up the ladder. You find yourself in touch with your passion, or at least you come to know that you can't live your life without it. If you aren't doing that, Umbrian Serenades will lead you to it. And you'll want to do something about it when you get home. 

I swear.  

Get ready for singing in Italy to change your life.