March 21, 2014

Phoebe Dinsmore teaches rounded tones...

Phoebe Dinsmore & Lina Lamont

You've seen it, haven't you, the scene in Singing in the Rain where Kathleen Freeman as voice teacher Phoebe Dinsmore, gives a voice lesson to Jean Hagen's character Lina Lamont to hilarious effect?

I love this scene, not only because it's so damn funny, but also, because its quite instructive in understanding the how classical vocal production is produced. They key word that Freeman's character utters? The word rounded. And what word does Manuel García use in his text to describe the correct formation of the pharynx in the study of tones in A complete treatise on the art of singing? You guessed it!

Herman Klein reiterates this teaching on page 17 of Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia (2013): 

Now, while there are many shades, they divide themselves, broadly speaking, into two distinct kinds of timbres, viz., the dark and the light. The dark color is produced by the act of narrowing and elongating the pharynx and generally "rounding" the vocal tube (as Garcia called combined mouth and throat): and this is also known as "covered" tone. The light color is formed by a wider shape, a more relaxed muscular control, with a more exclusive use of the "forward" resonating cavities. 

Reading this passage, the modern reader needs to keep in mind that classical production was considered the norm when Klein was writing his manual in 1909. By the time Singing in the Rain was made in 1952, there had already been a sea change in public awareness, one which has changed even further, with popular music and vernacular speech winning the day. 

To be sure, a student of vocal history will observe that a classical approach to vocal production held sway until after the second World War, when cultural forces brought about a rainbow of expression. All this to say: Phoebe Dinsmore's rounded tones hardly sound sombre to educated ears today, yet to those not inculcated in classical tonal values, they go too far, which bespeaks of how far our culture has shifted away from a personal expression of culture and refinement.

No. We don't have divas anymore who speak with rounded mid-atlantic diction, even though they were born in Brooklyn. That mold has been broken. Rather, we want to see behind the curtain, but all too often find everyone to be Lina Lamont. 

To round your tones isn't to be stuck up, better than your classmates, or elitist. No. Its just bel canto.  

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