September 30, 2014

The Marvelous Master of Voice Living in London

A celebration to take place in London next week will call attention to a famous family and make a revelation that will be a great surprise to many who think themselves well-informed about musical matters. On March 17, Manuel García, considered by most musical authorities the greatest teacher of singing who ever lived, will celebrate his ninety-ninth birthday. The great master retains all his love for and interest in his work and has not altogether given up instruction, criticising singers and giving expert counsel to teachers. 

A Minneapolis musician was asked the other day if any of García's pupils were numbered among the local musicians. The assurance was prompt and positive "Oh, no; his generation passed before any of us began to study." When attention was called to the fact that he is still living in London the statement was received with skepticism. 

The same question put to Fraulein Schoen-René brought a different reply. With quick enthusiasm, she rejoined "Well, I should say so, I have studied five summers with the dear old man, since he passed his ninetieth year. He is a marvel for whom it is worth while to celebrate. I have promised him that I shall be with him on his one hundredth birthday and I shall have to be thinking about that. For many years I have been with his sister, the equally famous teacher of Paris, Mme. Pauline Viardot, who was one of my principal instructors, on her birthday which comes in July. She is 83 now and, next to her brother, the most wonderful musician living. 

"So some of the Minneapolis musicians didn't believe you when you talked about Manuel García celebrating his birthday? They have good company in their ignorance. Two or three years ago, when I was in London coaching with Garcia, I had an engagement for luncheon following my appointment with him. Thru some delay of trains I was late and Melba and Blanche Marchesi, who were present, were left together and as they have no love for each other, the occasion was not comfortable. When I arrived I was reprimanded and an explanation asked. When I explained that García's home, where I went for my work, was in the suburbs, they both thought I was chaffing them and could scarcely be persuaded that the old master was living much less teaching. 

"Once convinced, Melba was eager to see him and to sing for him, wanting an expression of opinion from him of her voice. Well, she had her visit, for he was eager to hear her, but had never been able to attend the opera when she sang, for he was able to go only occasionally under exceptionally favorable circumstances. However, her visit was a disappointment and she complained bitterly about his 'grouchy' manners. I don't think, tho, that he was intentionally crabbed more likely dazed. He expressed himself freely enough afterwards about her voice and in a way that would have satisfied anyone. He could not say enough in its praise and he kept saying: "If Jenny Lind had only had that voice she could have done anything." In comparing the two, which was what Melba had been eager to have him do to her, he said that the Australian singer had ten times the beauty of voice of his Swedish favorite and famous pupil." 

Manuel García lives in a suburban villa embowered in a garden that is his great delight and about which he potters much of his time. Fraulein Schoen-René has a very different story to tell of his reception of Lillian Blauvelt. He immediately fell a captive to her delicate beauty and winning personality. He was so much taken up with that as never to think of her as a singer. He took her about the garden and showered kind attentions on her. "The prettiest compliment of all came as we were leaving," Fraulein said. "We found that he had plucked quantities of his choicest flowers and surreptitiously filled Lillian's parasol. 

"There is one point in which Manuel is truly feminine," fraulein continued, in a reminiscent strain. "He hates to have people think him old, and resents any allusion to his age. A few years ago he went to Italy to conduct one of his works. I was in Paris and saw him at Mme. Viardot's, in route. He told us that he was going there to show them that he was still alive and as young as ever. He scarcely writes at all on account of the tremor of his hands, so he told Viardot to write a joint letter saying that if anybody was entitled to represent the method of his family I was, as I had the fullest opportunities of learning it with both of them. You can rest assured that letter is one of my chief treasures." 

The letter and other autographs and letters of Viardot were examined with interest by the interviewer, especially the clause referring to fraulein's pupils as grandchildren of the Garcías. 

The history of the García family is one of the most remarkable in the whole record of music. The wonderful aged brother and sister are the third generation of teachers and grandchildren have inherited the family musical gifts and are prominent musicians. The first singing teacher of the line hailed from Rome. His name was Vicente, García being an adopted name of the family. His son, who became really famous, was born in Seville in 1775. He was a singer and composer and was manager of the Royal Opera-house in London when it was controlled by royalty. He sang in London shortly after Waterloo.

The second famous Manuel was born in Madrid in 1805. He became a singer and visited America in 1829. When his sisters, Malibran and Pauline, began their careers as angers, he decided that his voice did not compare with theirs and his fathers, and he abandoned the stage for the studio. He devoted all his great powers to the study of the voice and methods of developing its possibilities.

To Manuel Garcia belongs the credit of having been the first to employ the laryngeal mirror for physiological purposes. He was the first who succeeded in obtaining a few of his own larynx by means of a dental mirror. His brilliant researches in the anatomy and physiology of the larynx were published in 1855. The seed sown by García came to be the germ of many important results and discoveries.

Mme. Viardot, who shares with her brother the greatest honors as a teacher, began her career almost at birth. At 3 years of age her rather taught her singing, at 8 she used to accompany his lessons. She learned the piano with Liszt and played at several concerts in Germany. Of her marvelous singing and acting all the world has heard. It was she who created Fides in "Le Prophete" in Paris in 1848; again in 1851, "Sapho" (Gounod). Among her list of triumphs may be mentioned the never to be forgotten representations of Gluck's "Orpheus" and Beethovens "Fidelio" in Paris in 1859. Her compositions are numerous.

She married her father's successor as manager of the London opera house. M. Viardot was also manager of the imperial opera house in Paris and it was not uncommon for Mme. Viardot to sing in London one night and in Paris the next.  —Martha Scott Anderson.

The Minneapolis Journal, March 12, 1904.

See Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941) for another "take" on this story. Guess which one has more color and detail? As well, Schoen-Renee's accounting of the García family history is quite interesting in that she is the only source that I know of that asserts that Manuel García's (1775-1832) father (Vincente) was a singing teacher!

September 29, 2014

Beware the Dilettante

The Dilettante 

Dilettante — noun — a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. 


He goes to the opera, attends recitals, collects old recordings, has an opinion about everything, and tells everyone within earshot that his great-grandmother was a great singer; but of course, you haven't heard of her because she didn't record—her Victorian husband thinking it rather déclassé. And then there is his own voice, which he takes out for a spin from time to time, but singing teachers being such frauds, can't be too careful, can one? 

Avoid him (or her) dear singing teacher, as well as the flattery which falls from his lips. He will never amount to anything, arrogance of self-importance keeping him from learning anything despite learned degrees. For all you know, they're made up too, which 5 minutes of fact-checking will reveal.

Don't. Waste. Your. Time. 

September 27, 2014

Confessions of a Phrenologist: or Facts Stranger Than Fiction

A small pamphlet in an old book on breathing—tucked away for a moment, yet hidden for a century in the dark, slips into my hand; bright, strong and smooth to the touch. It's a fine example of a circular, which now arrives in the form of an email. Four books are given their due in this English advertisement. One concerns itself with reading the human face, while another deals with choosing and managing your servants—which was undoubtedly meant for the upper middle classes. 

Turning it over, one finds a book on success in marriage, still a hot topic, while the most interesting one—at least to these eyes anyway, is a title called "Confessions of a Phrenologist: or Facts Stranger Than Fiction." Wondering if it is floating around somewhere, I take a minute to conduct a search at Google Books and come up empty-handed. Of course it's out there somewhere: one just has to dig a little deeper.  

It's not the first time I have come across the subject of phrenology, which occupied the minds of singers and voice teachers in the 19th century along with everyone else. (While not at my fingertips, I  know of a book which contains learned opinions on the larynx by many well-known American voice teachers which was published by a phrenological society in the 1890's. In fact, I believe I've already referenced it on these pages.) Now considered a pseudo-science and an "important historical advance toward neuropsychology," phrenology is an ancestor to the "body-mind" research which occupies the attention of voice professionals today. Open a journal and you will find all manner of articles on brain function and neuroplasticity, which often include nifty color-coded images. 

We are a curious species. 

September 25, 2014

The Ear is the Spine 3

There are two muscles embedded within in the ear. One of them—the tensor tympanum—sits behind the eardrum, while the other one—the stapedius—inserts into the stirrup, the last of a chain of three bones within the inner ear. According to Tomatis, these two tiny muscles integrate with the muscles of the body, regulating the processes of extension and flexion.

Oddly enough, I first learned about this from Margaret Harshaw, long before I knew anything about Tomatis' work.

"The vertebrae separate!" She said, her right hand motioning from her upper back to the top of her spine.  "Here, I will show you." Whereupon she motioned me over to her, placed my hands on the back of her neck, and "opened" it with something more than a yawn—the likes of which I have not experienced since, the distention of her neck and spine being of immense proportion. "Now you do that!" She said. My eyes blinked and mind boggled. Try as I might, it was not something I fully understood until I had undergone Tomatis' listening training and experienced the extension of my spine from the inside out.

Was this one of the García School "throat" exercises her own teacher Anna E. Schoen-René had been given by Anna Schultzen von Asten in Berlin, the latter a student of Pauline Viardot-García; exercises which Schoen-René had been asked to demonstrate to Viardot-García, which she recorded in America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941)?

Respectful and awed, I stood at last before that great and wonderful woman admired by the whole musical world! With a beautiful smile of encouragement, she turned to the piano and began my accompaniment. Playing from memory from "La Sonnambula" by Bellini, she watched me closely as I sang. 
"Sing the last aria you studied with Anna Schultan von Asten," she said, "for I can hear that you have not studied this aria with her;" and so it was. During my last three months in Berlin, on the recommendation of Schultzen von Asten and Hermine Spies, my patroness, in order to be well prepared from Mme. Viardot, I had studied Italian opera with Martini, assistant and coach to Francesco Lamperti of Milan, and oratorio, with Professor Ferdinand Sieber.
I sang the aria from "Mignon": "Connais-tu le pays." Mme. Viardot was very complimentary, but asked me to show her my breathing and throat and singing exercises. Then she said: "Now you are producing your voice again correctly. Forget that coach! I want to hear some German Lieder." After I had sung these, she liked my interpretation, my good middle register,—which she always considered the most important asset for a singer, and the quality of my voice. "A soprano with mezzo color—a real Rhenish voice!" she exclaimed, greatly pleased. 

The short answer is: yes. Based on my experience at the Listening Center in Toronto, which I have written about quite a bit on these pages,  I am certain that what I was shown was nothing less than the body's response to a fully-opened ear, which is necessary for beautiful singing, this very expression finding expression in the García School. However, it's something that has to be understood within the context of a student-teacher relationship, one that avoids positioning and manipulation—a paradox to be sure, since the exercise itself is nothing but manipulation, showing and knowing not being the same thing at all. 

September 22, 2014


Rembrandt Self-Portrait c. 1659
According to her student Anna. E. Schoen-René, Pauline Viardot-García sent her students to the Louvre to see great master paintings to obtain an aesthetic education. What would they have observed? Color, line, composition, form, balance and proportion. The painters? Rembrandt, Titian, and Michelangelo, among many others. What do they have in common? Chiaroscuro. Light and shade combined: the essence of il bel canto. 

It's an easy enough idea to convey through demonstration. However, in practice, what usually happens? The student falls into a well of darkness, not understanding that the eye is drawn first to light.

"It's a nasty sound in a closed position." My teacher once said to me. 

It's the nasty element that freaks out many students—the buzz that is heard in the head on a free and full /i/ giving pause, this vowel being the most ringing and "forward" of them all. That's when I pull out my "tinnitus talk." 

I tell them what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night and hear bells ringing, the sound of water crashing, and the roar of a jet engine inside one's head. Do I have their full attention? You bet. Do I need their sympathy? No! My point is to show them that the brain is capable of neuroplasticity. 

Science tells us that the tinnitus signal itself is only 15 decibels, that is, half of a whisper. But what does the brain do with this explosion of sound in one's head? Make it bigger than god! It's no different than the glinting metal of /i/ when first acquired. The brain can have an inverse reaction to it since it can be perceived as a dangerous element. However, the brain, being neuroplastic in nature, can get used to it—indeed, must get used to it, but it takes time. 

"It feels hard." My teacher also said, describing the mind's reaction. 

No kidding. 

"Get used to it." I tell them. "Go listen to your lesson and tell me what you think." They come back and sheepishly tell me that they sound really good. 

I grin and say: "You don't say!"

Then the fun begins. 

September 20, 2014


Pauline Viardot-García
How many voice teachers work on vowels these days? Can I see a show of hands please? Yes, that's what I thought. Most of you had to think about it for a minute since you spend a great deal of time—especially if you are in academia—teaching repertoire for juries. Isn't that right? Yes, I see you nodding your heads. 

Guess what? I have news for you, especially those of you who complain that everyone sounds alike. This rush for repertoire is not how the Old Italian School did things. Oh sure, teachers like Pauline Viardot-García and her bother Manuel gave their students a repertoire. But first, they held their students to scales and exercises for as long as it took to get their voices "placed." (Yes, I know you don't like that word, but that's how they thought of it.) Of course, do you have the luxury of using this same approach? No, that's what I thought. Most of you are blinking your eyes or looking at the floor. Yes, I know. You can't adopt their approach, can you? There's no time for it. Too many requirements. Too much to know. 

What did the Old Italian School voice teachers focus on? Vowels. Getting each one working in tandem with the next, mining their gold. They all had to be right, every single one of them, and spent most of the lesson on them. They worked on them because, well, their perfect "placement" allowed "legato" to happen, which was a by-product rather than an affectation. 

Have you looked at some of the old manuals on the download page on this blog? Go take a good look. You will find that the exercises in those manuals feature practice on vowels. Vowels, vowels and more vowels.

The García School used them without a consonant, while the Lamperti School used "L" and "M," which made the start of the tone a great deal easier. Either way, the Old Italian School teachers did one thing at a time for as long as it took to get things right—and one of those things was vowels. There was none of this letting the student pass on to a new skill before completing the one that was given. 

"Can't I sing down the scale once?" The younger García implored his father after being given a diet of ascending scales. The answer was no. 

September 17, 2014

The Ear is the Spine 2

Manuel García (1805-1906)
I admit it. When I first started conducting historical vocal pedagogy research, I was mechanically minded. I mean, how could I not be after drinking the you-must-move-your-muscles-just-so kool-aid that has coursed through the teaching of singing for the last one hundred and fifty years or so? 

Ever since Manuel García looked down his throat and described the physiology of various timbres and the adduction of the vocal folds, voice teachers and their students have been seduced into thinking the voice can be controlled through some kind of manipulation. Mind you, he didn't teach in a mechanical fashion, refraining from inundating his students with anatomical terms and fistfuls of physiology, but that hasn't stopped modern meddling, has it?

It doesn't matter where you land on the pedagogical spectrum: dyed-in-the-wool empiricists (an increasingly rare species) and fact-based pedagogues have an insatiable desire to control the voice mechanically. 

"Her soft palate isn't high enough!" Intones the important pedagogue at jury. "There isn't enough AT activity!" Says another, as if the singer can somehow make these things happen at will.

We think, because we know more about anatomy, physiological and acoustics, that our knowing will give us more control, which strikes me as a rather Freudian approach; after all, how does knowledge of—say—the muscles of the larynx teach the student to change their vocal behavior anymore than delving into the dysfunction of childhood change destructive behavior patterns? Knowing "why" doesn't automatically translate into "how." Clearly, something more is required.

You can't control the voice: you can only control what it wants! - Margaret Harshaw

That's what the doyenne of voice teachers thought. Of course, there are many ways to define what the voice "wants," but if you were to ask an Old Italian School voice teacher to boil this statement down, you would probably be left with these terms: Breath, Open Throat, Placement. Interestingly, all three refer to an aspect of auditory function. 

For the Old Italian School voice teacher, breath was more than the air in the lungs. It was a feeling of buoyancy and lift throughout the body, and brought about through inhalation. Viewed through the perspective of Tomatis, feelings of bouncy and lift involve extension of the spine and an open ribcage, which are a clear expression of an open auditory system; one that is fully engaged—the muscles of the ear being poised to navigate the world of sound from the top down, that is, from high frequencies to low, these same feelings of extension arising through the ear's vestibular function. 

What does an open auditory system lead to? Simply put, it involves the exploration of closed and opened vowels, which bring about a multitude of vocal behaviors for those who know how to mine their gold. 

For their own part, the Old Italian School voice teachers insisted that /a/ was the vowel which had to be mastered since it enabled the singer to sing with an open throat—an auditory experience that was accompanied by the auditory awareness of placement. Again, from a Tomatis perspective, I believe this vowel is the hardest to master because it involves self-mastery of the forces of extension and flexion (see Tomatis' The Ear and the Voice for more detail regarding the integration of the muscles of the ear with those of the body). 

Breath, Open Throat, Placement. You can't separate one from the others. They exist like a stool with three legs. Take one away and your ass is in the grass. 

Either the spine elongates and the ribcage opens or it doesn't. Either the ear and face are open or they aren't. Mouthing, making faces, and pulling and pushing on this and that muscle won't make it happen. In the end, the canny and aware student, after long and patient practice, realizes the ear is the spine.

It's an odd thing really. A teacher can, through various means help the student's ear to open, which will immediately stimulate a response. And what does the student usually notice when this happens? The response rather than the stimulus, which they will then try to control. 

To know the difference is to know everything. 

Note: I wrote another post with this title on May 13th, 2013, which you can find here

September 3, 2014

The Kingdom of Singing

You must be like a kid to enter the kingdom of singing.  

Now that's a highfalutin' statement! Think I am exaggerating? I am not. It's just my observation after having taught for a long while now. What have I noticed? Students who do really well from the get-go have two things going for them: 1) they know how to play, and have 2) excellent imitative abilities. In other words: they have great ears. Give them a tiny bit of demonstration and they will run with it, their fine-tuned proprioception enabling them to both feel as well hear the sounds they are making. Give them a new tool to play with and they will tell you exactly what is happening both auditorially and physically. This is heaven for the skilled voice teacher because a great deal can be accomplished in a short time. It also makes the process simple.

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking. 

"It's easy to work with someone like that. However, the real teacher is someone who can take a person with average ability and make something out of them." 

My answer? That's great advertisement. 

The truth is that cream really does rise to the top, notwithstanding the hilarious observation made by my teacher that poop also floats on occasion. Yes, you can train a person's listening ability over time, but you can't magically change it into something it isn't. Singing depends on listening ability, which involves active participation on the part of both teacher and student, and a hell of a lot more than the acquisition of stacks of facts. 

My point here is that muscles follow the ear, rather than the reverse. Even those who pride themselves on changing the "function" of the muscles within the larynx are—in the end—seeking to change the student's listening ability. It's an audio-vocal loop after all, one that is self-sustaining. 

You can't get into the kingdom of singing through analysis, that is, with a closed face and dead eyes—a sure sign that the ear is turned off.  Rather, you get there through joy. 

Photo Credit: Bosco Sacro, Monteluco di Spoleto, Italy.