June 15, 2014

Resonance in Singing and Speaking by Thomas Fillebrown

Thomas Fillebrown
When a youth it was my lot to be surrounded by examples of faulty vocalism, such as prevailed in a country town, and to be subjected to the errors then in vogue, having at the same time small opportunity for training in the application of principles, even as then imperfectly taught. At middle life I had given up all attempt at singing and had difficulty in speaking so as to be heard at any considerable distance or for any considerable length of time. Professional obligations to my patients, however, compelled me to take up the study of vocal physiology. This I did, guided by the ideas current on the subject. 

About 1880 I became satisfied that many of the current ideas were incorrect, and determined to start anew, and to note in detail the action of each organ used in vocalization and articulation. To this end I sought vocal instruction and advice, which, modified by my own observations, have produced the most satisfying results. 

Up to that time it had been held that the nasal cavities must be cut off from the mouth by the closing of the soft palate against the back of the throat; that the passage of ever so little of the sound above the palate would give a nasal twang, and that the sound was reinforced and developed in the cavities of the throat and mouth. My practice in Oral Surgery coupled with my own vocal studies exposed this fallacy and revealed to me the true value of nasal resonance. 

The late Mme. Rudersdorff had begun to recognize the effect of nasal resonance, but she left no published record of her conclusions. It does not appear that she or her contemporaries realized the true value of nasal and head resonance as reinforcing agents in the production of tone, or appreciated their influence upon its quality and power. 

There are perhaps few subjects on which a great variety of opinion exists that on that of voice culture and few upon which so many volumes have been written. Few points are uncontested, and exactly opposite statements are made in regard to each. 

Formerly great stress was laid upon the distinction between "head tones" and "chest tones" and "open tones." The whole musical world was in bondage to "registers of the voice," and the one great task confronting the singer and vocal teacher was to "blend the registers," a feat still baffling the efforts of many instructors. 

Many teachers and singers have now reached what they considered a demonstrated conclusion that registers are not a natural feature of the voices; yet a large contingent still adhere to the doctrine of "register," depending for their justification upon the unreliable evidence furnished by the laryngoscope, not realizing that there will be found in the little lens as many different conditions as the observers have eyes to see. Garcia himself, the inventor of the laryngoscope, soon modified his first claims as to its value in vocal culture. 

On this point we have the testimony of his biographer, M. S. McKinley; 

"As far as Garcia was concerned, the laryngoscope ceased to be of any special use as soon as his first investigations were concluded. By his examination of the glottis he had the satisfaction of proving that all his theories with regard to the emission of the voice were absolutely correct. Beyond that he did not see that anything further was to be gained except to satisfy the curiosity of those who might be interested in seeing for themselves the forms and changes which the inside of the larynx assumed during singing and speaking. " 

Of similar purport is the word of the eminent baritone, Sir Charles Santley, who, in his Art of Singing, says:

"Manuel Garcia is held up as the pioneer of scientific teaching of singing. He was—but he taught singing, not surgery! I was a pupil of his in 1858 and a friend of his while he lived; and in all the conversations I had with him I never head him say a word about larynx or pharynx, glottis or any other organ used in the production and emission of the voice. He was perfectly acquainted with their functions, but he used his knowledge for his own direction, not to parade it before his pupils." 

The eminent London Surgeon and voice specialist, Dr. Morell Mackenzie, says of the laryngoscope, "It can scarcely be said to have thrown any new light on the mechanism of the voice."; and Dr. Lennox confesses that, "Valuable as has been the laryngoscope in a physiological, as undoubtedly it is in a medical sense, it has been the means of making all theories of voice production too dependent on the vocal cords, and thus the importance of the other parts of the vocal apparatus has been overlooked." 

Not only in regard to "registers" but in regard to resonance, focus, articulation, and the offices and uses of the various vocal organs, similar antagonistic opinions exist. Out of this chaos must some time come a demonstrable system. 

A generation ago the art of breathing was beginning to be more an object of study, but the true value of correct lateral abdominal breathing was by no means generally admitted or appreciated. It was still taught that the larynx (voice-box) should bob up an down like a jack-in-a-box with each change of pitch, and that "female breathing" must be performed with a pumping action of the chest and the elevation and depression of the collar bone. 

Fortunately, teachers and singers recognized a good tone when they heard it, and many taught much better than they knew, so that the public did not have to wait for the development of accurate knowledge of the subject before hearing excellent singing and speaking. Yet many singers had there voices ruined in the training, and their success as vocalists made impossible; while others, a little less fortunate, were still handicapped through life by the injury done by mistaken methods in early years. Jenny Lind's perfect vocal organs were quite disabled at twelve years of age by wrong methods, and they recovered only after a protracted season of rest. As a consequence her beautiful voice began to fail long before her splendid physique, and long before her years demanded. Singers taught in nature's way should be able to sing so long as strength last, and, like Adelaide Phillips, Carl Formes, and Sim Reeves, sing their sweetest songs in the declining years of life. Martel, at seventy years of age, had a full, rich voice. He focused all his tone alike, and employed deep abdominal breathing. 

The whole matter of voice training has been clouded by controversy. The strident advocates of various systems, each of them "the only true method, have in they disputes overcast the subject with much that is irrelevant, thus obscuring its essential simplicity. 

The "scientific" teachers, at one extreme, have paid too exclusive attention to the mechanics of the voice. The "empiricists" have gone to the other extreme in leaving out account fundamental facts in acoustics, physiology, and psychology. 

The truth is that no purely human function, especially one so subtle as singing, can be developed mechanically; nor, on the other hand, can the mere apse dixit of any teacher satisfy the demands of the modern spirit. 


The positions here advocated, because they seem both rational and simple, are: 

  1. That the singing and speaking tones are identical, produced by the same organs in the same way, and developing by the same training. 
  2. That breathing is, for the singer, only an amplification of the correct daily habit. 
  3. That "registers" are a myth. 
  4. That "head tones, chest tones, closed tones, open tones." etc., as confined to special parts of the range of the voice, are distracting distinctions arising from false education. 
  5. That resonance determines the quality and carrying power of every tone, and is therefore the most important element in the study and training of the voice. 
  6. That the obstacles to good speaking and singing are psychologic rather than physiologic. 
  7. That, in the nature of things, the right way is the easy way. 

Resonance in Singing and Speaking by Thomas Fillebrown, 1911, 1-5. 


Thomas Fillebrown was one of the more curious fellows of the Victorian age, being at once a dentist and student of Florentine maestro Luigi Vannuccini, who's teaching was described by Frederic W. Root as being a simple matter of "keeping the pupil's attention directed to the region of the eyes and nose in forming tones." Fillebrown wrote three books pertaining to the art of singing; The Relations of the Teeth and Palate in Vocalism (1888); The Physiology of Vocalism (1898) and: Resonance in Singing and Speaking (1911), which was published posthumously.

Among the interesting personages in this first chapter from Resonance in Singing and Speaking, Erminia Rudersdorff was credited with bringing Manuel García's method to America by Anna E. Schoen-René in her book America's Musical Inheritance (1941). It should be noted that García's remarks about singing in the "mask" echo Vannuccini's instruction to Fillebrown, which, if anything, find expression in the term "voice placement." As such, it seems reasonable to assume that Fillebrown, who placed great emphasis on resonance and the cavities of the face, was seeking a rational basis for the teachings of the Old Italian School. 

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