June 23, 2014

The Elder García's System

Manuel García (1775-1832)
Garcia’s method of teaching singing was formed on the excellent model of those old musicians, the traces of whose style are daily vanishing even in Italy. This system did not consist of directing the practice of the pupil to a variety of fioritura, which, like the fashions of the day, enjoy an evanescent favor, and are soon forgotten. Garcia’s system of instruction was founded on principles whose superiority has been acknowledged in all ages of the musical art; those principles which have been studies by Grassini, Colbrand, Pisarono, Pasta, and other distinguished ornaments of the Italian stage. To those principles, seconded by high intelligence in their application, we are indebted for the most brilliant talent that has shed lustre on the musical drama of the present day—the talent of Maria Malibran.

The first objects to which the young singer should direct attention are: To equalize what may be termed the instrument of the voice, by correcting those imperfections from which even the finest organ is not exempt; to draw breath quietly and without hurry; to prepare the throat for emitting the tone with clearness and purity, swelling the note gradually but boldly, so as to develop the utmost power of the voice, and finally to blend the notes in such a manner that each may be heard distinctly, but not abruptly. In regard to practice, Garcia use to say; “Those who wish to sing well should not practice without knowing how to practice. It is only by learning the secret of practice well that there is any possibility of learning to sing well.” The student should be careful not to fall into the defects of the old French method, by which one note was allowed to die away with a false expression of languid tenderness, and to fall, as it were, en daillance on the succeeding tone. To blend the tones of the voice according to the best Italian method, the note should first be emitted in a straight line (to employ a figurative expression), and then form a curve, the intermediate tones being given merely by sympathetic vibration, and the voice should again fall on the required note with decision and clearness. It is very difficult to give a perfectly clear and satisfactory explanation of the operation of a mechanism, the hidden motion of which can only be guessed at from the vague observations of singers themselves. All conclusions, therefore, respecting the phenomena of the voice, must be drawn from very obscure sources. All persons, except singers, must regard these conclusions as mere metaphysical obscurities, and even to the majority of those who practice the art of singing, the management of the voice is rather the result of mechanical dexterity than of observation or reasoning. Whatever be the quality of the voice, the singers should take special care for the upper notes, and avoid too much practice upon them, for that part of the voice being the most delicate, its quality is most easily injured. On the contrary, by practicing more particularly on the middle and lower notes, they acquire strength, and an important object is gained (which is in strict accordance with one of the essential principles of acoustics), namely, that of making the grave tones strike the ear with the same degree of force as the acute tones.

To the adoption of this rational rule is ascribed the great superiority of the Italian to the French school of singing. By softening the upper tones, and giving strength to the lower and middle tones, either by dint of the accent of the voice, or the accent proper to the words, the ear is never offended, and the music penetrates to the soul of the hearer without any of the harshness which shocks and irritates the nerves. In like manner the demi-tints in a beautiful picture, by blending the colors one with another, charm the eye by producing a vague appearance of reality.

Exercises for strengthening the low and middle notes of the voice are more important for sopranos than for voices of any other class; first, because, in general, that part of the voice is most flexible; and next, because the transition form voce de petto to the voce di testa tends to deteriorate the purity of some tones, and to impart a feebler, or, if the expression be allowed, a stifled effect to others. It is, therefore, requisite to keep a continual practice of the defective note with the pure note which follows or precedes it, in order to obtain a perfect uniformity in their quality. This practice was one of the greatest difficulties which Maria Garcia had to surmount, the lower notes of her voice being strong and well tones, while the notes of transition were feeble and husky.

One important point in this method is the secret of developing the voce de petto in soprano voices. Garcia was convinced that breast-tones existed in all voices of that class, but that the only difficulty consisted in the art of developing them.

In proportion as the voice of the pupil improved, it was Garcia’s custom to prescribe exercises more and more difficult until every obstacle was surmounted; but he rarely noted done a set passage for his pupils. His method was to strike a chord on the piano, and say to them: “Now sing any passage you please;” and he would make them execute a passage in this way ten or twenty times in succession. The result was, that the pupil sang precisely that which was suited to his voice, and suggested his taste. Solfeggi exercises, performed in this way, presented a character of individuality, being suggested by the feeling of the moment. Another advantage of this mode of practice, was that the pupil gained a perfect mastery over his voice by dint of exercising his own aspirations, and that he was at liberty to follow the dicates of his own taste without fear or hesitation.

Garcia never permitted his pupils, whilst they were in the course of tuition, to sing vocal compositions with words; he confined them strictly to solfeggi. But when he considered any one of them sufficiently advanced he would say: “Now you are a singer: you may try anything you please—like a child out of leading-strings, you can run along.” It may be added, that Garcia invariably applied his principles most rigorously to those pupils to whom he found the highest hopes.

Werner's Magazine, March 1885: 38


When reading through an old journal like Werner's Magazine, one often encounters articles like the one above which appear without attribution, yet contain information that suggests the writer knew, or talked to someone, that had intimate knowledge of the subject at hand. In this, the researcher has to be on his game. I knew this passage sounded very familiar, yet could not remember where I had encountered it before. The answer came in the curious business about the formation of tones, which sent me in search of Memoirs and Letters of Madam Malibran (1840) by the Countess de Merlin, who was a student of García. Turning to chapter four in volume one, I saw that Werner's had quoted a long passage. You can read both volumes by using the links below.

Lastly, it is my observation that García's teaching of voce di petto is, conceptually speaking, the very sum of Herman Klein's "Singing Position," which is contained in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia, and forms the basis of García's method. 

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