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.


  1. Congratulations, Maestro Daniel!
    The Garcia method alternates vowel 'a' with closed vowels such as 'e' and 'i' is wonderful! And all this is well explained in Hidden in Plain Sight. Alternate the vowel 'i' for 'ü' obeys the same chiaroschuro principle (the French 'ü' is more closed than the 'i' italian). About falsetto, Garcia should have discovered that the physiology of the tessitura (vocal range) is not the same as the force (forza). Therefore, the student can more quickly expand your vocal range practicing pianíssimo (near the falsetto) vocalizes in high tones. This is, in fact, the only way the vowel 'a' preserve their quality and purity. Otherwise (ie, practicing with forza), the vowel 'a' migrates to [ᴧ] as in 'up', and even a [o].

  2. Thank you for your comment, Roger Ferreira! You know—Lamperti had his students sing sotto-voce, even making it a requirement in order to sing forte correctly. Of course, you don't hear about this much anymore. Thank you for raising the issue. Daniel


I welcome your comments.