July 17, 2014

Fact-Based Vocal Pedagogy: Then & Now

The human voice is produced by the action of the breath upon the vocal bands. Its tone is greatly reinforced (even as the phonographic record is reinforced) by the co-vibration of the air in the cavities of the chest, mouth and nose (perhaps even in the atrium of 
Highmore and the frontal sinuses) and by 
the resonance of the bones of the face.

This eternal principle is so old that it 
always seems new with each new generation. The old Italians insisted upon it 
strongly, although they used other words 
to express it. It is practiced by every 
ragman, every huckster, every itinerant 
preacher, every railroad train-announcer, every public speaker, every newsboy, indeed every man who uses his voice forcibly and continuously. These men learn 
to use their resonances, or they get 
hoarse, lose their voices and must seek 
other occupations.

Giuseppe Sbriglia, an Italian who spent his later years in Paris, was perhaps the most famous exponent of this principle, although it is very clearly shown in the work of almost every one of the great modern teachers, notably Marchesi, Stockhausen, Lilli Lehmann and Randegger. Sbriglia was neither a fine musician nor a remarkable scholar. He had, however, a marvelous feeling for tone, and an uncanny instinct which led him unerringly to the obstructions which prevented its proper emission. The singing world owes him many a debt, but perhaps his insistence upon the triple resonance of the chest, mouth and nose (head) cavities is his greatest legacy to posterity. It is not meant by this statement (nor did he teach it) that the amount of co-vibration remains constant in each of the three resonators with every note of the scale. Naturally the proportion changes with every note. There is more head (nose) resonance on the high tones, more chest resonance on the lower ones.

Each singer must find out by long and patient practice, by fasting and prayer, by constantly listening to his tone, just what proportion sounds best and is easiest to produce on each note of the scale. A high tone sung with only the head (nasal) resonance sounds too white. It needs a little more chest resonance to give it body. A low tone with only the chest resonance sounds thick and ugly; in the singers parlance it is "too far back." It needs mouth and head (nasal) resonances to give it bite and brilliance.

Most voices need the upper resonance most. Jean de Reszke, a supremely great artist, wrote "La grande question dc chant devient une question do nez"—“The great question of the voice becomes a question of the nose." Pol Plançon, one of the greatest vocalists that ever lived, used to spend hours in soft practice to get the resonance of the cavities of the face and head. To sing "Dans la masque" is a great thing; no singer can be great without it. And yet to sacrifice the chest resonance for it is to fail to use the complete vocal mechanism. 

Mr. Nicolas Douty, The Etude, Volume 35, 1917, 48. (Note: Duty gets Sbriglia's first name wrong in this article, a not uncommon thing I have found.) 


Those who keep up with the times understand that the vocal pedagogy of the past had a very different set of "facts" to work from than the "fact-based" pedagogy of today. For them, what was felt and heard took precedence over academic stacks of facts, the old Italian school teacher being guided by ear rather than eye awareness. Even García, who got the fact-based ball rolling with the desire to see what was happening in the larynx when he sang, was more of an empiricist that we suppose, though this doesn't sit well with the fact-based crowd today. No, García must be worshiped as all Greek and Roman gods are seen today, stripped of their original color, pristine and white, the polychrome of the past deconstructed into bland homogeneity. No wonder everyone sounds the same. 

I was given the very concepts Sbriglia taught his students, that being an awareness, a listening that is a feeling of three places: sternum, upper lip and bridge of nose. Where did my teacher acquire this knowledge? From her own teacher Anna E Schoen-René, who studied with Pauline Viardot-García and her brother Manuel García. Oh, but that's Schoen-René's teaching, the cynic says. You can't use this information to prove García taught any such thing; after all, there is his statement to Frederic W. Root which denies voice placement. Such constitutional originalists these self-appointed judges. If García didn't write it down in either of his works, it can't and must not exist! Yes, and we must not have gay rights, women must not vote, civil rights for blacks must be rolled back, and the South will rise again! 

How did modern vocal pedagogy become so segregated?

This marks VoiceTalk's 500th post. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments.