December 30, 2015

Technology in the Studio: The Laryngoscope

Karl Merz, the talented editor of Brainard's Musical World, replies to a correspondent as follows: 

The name of the instrument you refer to is 'laryngoscope.' It was Garcia, the singer, who first attempted to obtain a view of the interior of the human throat and its vocal organs. His aim was to perfect vocal instruction, to solve the problem of the human voice. Garcia's methods, however, were not satisfactory. For this reason experiments were given up, and for a while neither scientists nor artists paid much attention to the laryngoscope. The idea of this instrument did not, however, originate with Garcia. As early as 1807 physicians made attempts at laryngoscopic investigation, and physicians again took up the subject after Garcia had dropped it. The two men that distinguished themselves most in this field were Dr. Turk, of Vienna, and Dr. Czermak, of Pesth. Garcia had used sunlight in his experiments, and to this practice Dr. Turk adhered. Czermak, on the other hand, used lamps and reflectors, because daylight, in his opinion, was not always suitable for experimenting. There arose a bitter debate between these two opponents, which gradually attracted the attention of scientists and singers all over Europe. By this means the laryngoscope was once more brought prominently before the world, and from that time on it was never again lost sight of. The artificial light theory carried the day. 

Many experiments have been made with this instrument. Persons have sung and talked while they had the mirror in their mouths, the vocal chords have been watched, and much valuable information has been obtained, for all that musicians have not yet reached a uniform theory as to the voice and its registers, and the professors the doctors, and voice-builders, are still at variance. It is the opinion of not a few, that the laryngoscope is of no practical value to the vocal teacher, inasmuch as the person that is operated upon, having to stretch out the tongue, and a glass being placed in the mouth, cannot produce a natural tone. You had better let the laryngoscope alone. It is of far more importance for you to know what a pretty tone is, how to sing with expression, than to know how the vocal chords move or vibrate. From what information I could gather on this subject, it seems that the laryngoscope has done far better service to medical science than to musical art.

—Karl Merz, "The Laryngoscope," Werner's Voice Magazine, January, 1881: 3. 


You may think it strange, but I read articles like the one above and ask myself: Ok, so what has changed? 

A lot, certainly. 

Technology has progressed insofar as that examination of the vocal tract and larynx is not invasive, with scoping being done via the nose and nasal passage. But does this technological advance help the singer sing? I would say no. And therein lies the rub. 

Analyzing tone is one thing, while creating it is another. They aren't the same process at all. However, it's not uncommon to encounter the belief that knowledge of the muscles of the larynx and vocal tract enable greater control. Experience in the studio tells me, however, that this is an illusion. You can tell a student how the muscles of the larynx work, but this doesn't give them the means to sing any more than a knowledge of the muscles of the leg and foot help a person to walk or run.

"You can't control the voice. You can only control what it wants!" —Margaret Harshaw

Truer words were never spoken. 

Finding out what the voice wants? You need a really good teacher for that. Either that, or you are a canny autodidact. 

December 16, 2015

Rules for Training the Voice

J Harry Wheeler (1836-1909) 
To cultivate a voice it is of the greatest importance to ascertain as soon as possible, the real character of the voice. Some voices are so warped, the tones so misplace, the registers and quality so exaggerated, that at first it is sometimes impossible to tell what the voice is its normal condition really is. All voices should not be treated precisely the same. For example, if a voice is a soprano, it should not be treated as though it were a mezzo-contralto, even if the compass be the same. 

The voice should be cultivated in the clear timbre or quality. The strength of the voice is gained in this timbre. It should not be understood that the tone should be of a thin, flat quality; all tones should receive a certain degree of coloring from the first. The sombre timbre should only be used for emotional effects; if the voice has been properly cultivated it will become stronger and more sombre by usage and age. 

For the production of clear tones the air should be directed forward, and for the production of the sombre tones the air should be directed backwards. The quality of a tone is almost entirely owing to its resonance. In cases where the resonance is too far back, the vowels  ee as ee in deed, will be found to be the most favorable to bring the resonance forward. Practice with the word see will also prove of great advantage. The consonant s aids largely in placing the sound well against the teeth. 

During the singing, the position of the tongue for the different vowels should be as flat as possible, and projected forward. Great care should be taken not to draw the tongue backward. This fault may be overcome by practice before a glass; first drawing in the breath as in gaping, then vocalizing with ah, and the vowels a, e, i, o, u, the end of the tongue at the same time being pressed against the front lower teeth during the production of the tone. It will be found advantageous to sustain all the vowels to teach tone of the diatonic scale, the entire compass of the voice, and also the Italian syllables do, re, mi, etc., keeping the tongue forward during the sustained sound, and giving a similar quality of sound to all the tones. By this it is not meant that the volume should be the same throughout the scale; in every instance, the higher the tone, the less the volume. 

No fault in pronunciation is more common than that of dwelling upon the final l of words, as shall, fall, fail. While sustaining the l the free transmission of sound is interfered with by the curling of the tongue, thus producing a disagreeable tone. The sound should be sustained upon the first vowel of syllable of a word, and the vanishing part of the word given quickly and promptly. 

Aw and oo are the most favorable vowels for the production of sombre tones. The chin should be kept well back for all sombre tones, and under no circumstances should it ever protrude. The vowels a as in day, a  as in arm, e as in read, are the best suited for the production of a clear quality of tone. The sombre and clear qualities give color to the thought, and should be made with different degrees of intensity, corresponding to the different degrees of emotion. The words should suggest the quality. For example the words, "Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound," should at once suggest the sombre quality; while the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" should suggest the clear quality. But few singers give sufficient attention to the shading of tones. As all the emotions may be expressed by the face, without the utterance of speech, so many they all be expressed by colors of tone. Some voices are naturally full and sombre in quality, hence are physiologically adapted to oratorio music; while clearer, brighter voices are physiologically adapted to operatic music. Often this is so marked that the grandest oratorio singer may fail in opera, and the most brilliant opera singer may fail in oratorio. 

The vowels most favorable for the culture of the male voice are a as in art, ee as in deed, o as in don't oo as in doom, au as in aught, and the Italian notation syllables do, re, mi. No one vowel or syllable should be used exclusively for the culture of the voice, male or female, neither should the entire range of the compass be sung without shading. For example, if a as in art be used throughout the entire compass without a change of color, the upper tones will become thin, and the voice will eventual become weak and unmusical. The exclusive practice of e would cause the voice to lose volume, and the invariable practice with au, although it would give fulness, would fail to add strength to the voice. 

After all defects have been remedied, then the real culture of the voice should be commenced. The syllable ah, shaded into o or oo on the upper tones, will be found for general practice for all voices to be the most useful syllables. If the tones are not shaded on the upper part of the voice they will become thin and screamy. In shading the upper tones great care should be taken not to make them excessively sombre, otherwise they will be so muffled that there will be a loss of power and agility. Shading should be very slight at the beginning of a scale. The very low tones should be sung with ah, as more depth, power and brilliancy is gained with this syllable on these tones than with the syllable au. The male voice, in ascending the scale, should merge the ah with ah-au-oo combined, the difference between unshared and shaded tones will be easily observed, the tones produced with ah being unshaded, and those combing ah-au-oo being shaded. Unless great care is exercised in the production of shaded tones the larynx will sink to excess. 

The syllables ah, au, and the vowels oo and o, will be found to be the most favorable for the culture for the female voice. The process of cultivating the female voice is quite different from that of the male voice, from the fact that three registers are to be considered, and if either are exaggerated ruination of the voice will be inevitable. On the lowest tones the ah will be found to be preferable, the chin being allowed to fall downward and backward. If a full, sombre tone is desired, the syllable au or the vowels oo, with a vertical position of the lips, will be found favorable for the production of this quality of tone. On the high tones of the voice it will be found beneficial to allow the e to approach the sound of ah, with the chin well back, and the upper lip sufficiently raised to show the upper teeth as in smiling; by this mode the highest and best tones can be produced in the clear timbre. If the ah, as produced on the low, and sometimes on the middle tones of the voice, should be used on C, third space of the soprano staff, and the same quality continued above, the voice would in a short time become thin and weak. In singing scales, the shading of the chest-tones of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice should be commenced on C. The contralto voice should begin to shade on B. The shading of the tones of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voices, preparatory to their entrance into the head-voice, should be commenced on B. For the same purpose, the contralto should commence to shade on B flat. The tenor and baritone voices, preparatory to their entrance into the head-voice, should begin to shade on C. The bass, for the same purpose, should begin on B flat. 

In the female voice it is wise to cultivate the medium register first. In the first lessons, the medium or falsetto voice should be carried as low as possible. When these tones have become strong, the chest-voice should be studied. By this process the break between the medium and chest-registers will be so slight that they can be easily united. If the chest-tones are first cultivated, the break between the medium and chest-voice will be very conspicuous, and there will be much difficulty in uniting the two. Unless special attention is given to the medium tones in the lower part of the voice they will be weak and useless. One should be able to sing full medium tones from C, the first added line below the soprano staff, to B, the third line of the same staff. 

There are few faults more common with beginners in voice-culture than that of producing throaty tones. This fault may be remedied by vocalizing with the chin lowered and drawn inward. Another prominent fault among students is that of protruding the chin. This may be remedied by first placing the chin down and back, and then singing a tone with a gradual crescendo. Another excellent remedy is to move the chin downward and upward, as in mastication, during the production of a tone, endeavoring, at the same time, to jeep the muscles attached to the jaw relaxed. If these methods fail, lower the chin, place a strap about it, fastening it at the back of the head, and while in position vocalize the scales. 

The extreme limits of the voice should never be practiced. For example, in order to attain C in alt one should to practice above A or B flat. If the high C is in the voice, by practicing a few tones below this letter the voice will grow up to it. Even when the high C has been acquired, it should not be brought into daily practice. Its occurrences in arias and cadenzas will give it sufficient practice. What is said of the high tones is true in regard to the low tones, although the low tones are not susceptible to injury as are the high tones. 

—Harry J. Wheeler, "Rules for Training the Voice," Werner's Voice Magazine, January 1889: 6-7. 


It's not the first time J. Harry Wheeler has appeared on these pages (see here), though this is the first time he has done so in his own words. Like other pieces that have appeared on VoiceTalk, this one fell into my lap while I was looking for something else. Further digging revealed Wheeler gave a series of talks in New York City in 1904 on the very same topic, which indicates that he was presenting material which had "legs." In that regards, he seems to have been a teacher of teachers. 

Those who know their historical vocal pedagogy will be fascinated by Wheeler's instruction regarding clear and sombre timbre, if only because Wheeler was a student first of Manuel García and then Francesco Lamperti—García addressing the physiological difference between timbres in his great work A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847).

Shading, timbre, use of registers, eliminating defects, as well as the canny use of vowels: these are foundational elements of vocal training which rely on the ear of both teacher and student. Is there any better technology? 

December 15, 2015

The Fogs of Voice-Culture

Mme. Florenza D'Arona 
WERNER'S MAGAZINE has frequently urged teachers to explain their methods of voice-culture, saying this should be done for the benefit of all interested in the Art and Science of Singing, or words to that effect. In the July issue the question is asked, "If they cannot satisfactorily explain their methods of procedure are not such teachers empiricists?" and that "were a written report of the theoretical methods of New York's leading teachers written, not twenty would harmonize in their views." 

In the first place, singing can never be taught or satisfactorily explained by written articles or books, for no matter now lucid they may be, no human being can follow directions without the aid of a teacher, for the simple reason that set rules and directions in nine cases out of ten would not suit the case. A method to succeed must be adapted to each pupil and his own individual requirements, according to the judgement and proficiency of a teacher who appeals to the child nature with simple similes and easy explanations. No two explanations will suffice for two individuals, but the theory of sound focus, location of notes and the desired quality, can be termed in set phrases, if necessary, and drawn with the pencil to be seen as well as heard and reasoned out. But one who does not know his faults and attempts a new theory, while still unconsciously clinging to them, reaps nothing but failure, and brands as a humbug the method he has wasted as much time trying to work out alone. Illustration and a teacher's acute ear divine a means or reaching the difficulty, and comprehension of each individual brings him where he can see, hear, and feel the method, in its delicious difference from that which he has hitherto employed, either from ignorance or delusion. What appeared so contradictory, so downright senseless, is now understood as different forms of expression; and although many were used that were not useful in his case, he now sees them as so many channels leading to the truth, and treasure them in turn to meet the different difficulties and understandings of those who may some day study with him. The physician who conscientiously studies every one of his patients treats accordingly, so the teacher has to study each pupil many an hour outside of the lesson hour, if justice is to be done the voice in charge. Because we cannot teach every pupil alike, is this empiricism? 

Were teachers to write forever upon their methods, little good and much harm would probably be done, for students would experiment more than they do now even, and ruined voices and blasted faith in teachers generally would be the result. Taking another view of it, were it possible to teach, or benefit the people through written articles, why should vocal philanthropy be expected, of singing-teachers? Has it not cost the capable teacher a small fortune to gain his knowledge, and will a pupil pay for lessons that are printed broadcast throughout the land? Does not a manufacturer guard his secret of success, and is not the vocal teacher's method his secret of success and stock in trade?

Now I come to the various methods of vocal teachers and the many poor results of their teaching. Has it never occurred to the thinker that of all professions in this world the vocal profession is the most infringed upon? If discrimination were used, all who teach would not be termed " teachers." A few lessons from a good teacher or one lesson from every known teacher is sufficient, with the aid of an accompanist, to place the adventurer's and experimenter's name under the head of "vocal teacher," pupil of this or that celebrity, and nine cases out of ten sharp business tact will reap success.

The following three examples recently came to my notice: While on an engagement in a western city a celebrated teacher there called on me. He stated who he was, and informed me that several of his pupils were coming that day to induce me to give them lessons during my stay there, and he added: ''Now, Mme. d'Arona, let me off easy with them, and permit me also to study with you so as to head them off." He begged me to keep his confidence, and, in answer to my inquiries, told me he had been to Italy, and had taken one lesson from Lamperti, and had since used his name to give him prestige. Observing my disgust, he added quickly: "Come, now, Mme. d'Arona, I am the right man in the right place. A great teacher would not be appreciated here, and you would not earn your salt, while I am getting rich." Early last winter a New York teacher came to me and wrote down every word I said without asking for explanations. On reprimanding her, she said: "I've got to teach, Mme. d'Arona, and if I can just memorize your terms of expression, etc., my pupils will think I know it all even if I don't explain to them." This same teacher (?), on hearing Melba and Calve sing, said to me: "Oh pshaw! Mme. d'Arona, I'd rather go to the circus." Last month I received a letter from a vocal teacher in a seminary down South, asking if she came to New York for ten lessons if I would give her a certificate. I could cite many similar examples.

Again, there are good musicians, orchestra leaders and excellent pianists, who give singing-lessons. Why? Because they have applicants, and think they can do something for a pupil any way, from a musician's standpoint. So by degrees piano teaching gives way to vocal teaching. As well go to the pianist to study the violin as to entrust the vocal instrument to a pianist. Harmony, contrapoint, musical history, anatomical throat-studies, sight-reading, etc., are all well enough, but why pay a singingteacher's price for cheaper studies, when to learn to sing is the desired object?

In selecting a teacher a pupil may go from one teacher to another, thinking he knows well what he wants; whereas, if he would but reflect, he would see that the teacher who made the best impression upon him in an interview might not necessarily be the best teacher. The would-be student's readings upon the voice, etc., give him the idea that from a doctor's book to one on thorough bass must necessarily be included in the singing-lesson, and under this erroneous impression goes to the teacher who teaches everything but singing! Becoming dissatisfied after a while, he leaves; and, going this time to a genuine singing-teacher, is inclined to be suspicious and doubtful especially when, like the physician, the teacher tries to take his mind off his disease (wrong impressions or pet-hobbies) to cure him, and when giving him other food for reflection, he glares and thinks he detects ignorance. A work is before the conscientious teacher that cannot be done in a day. Many lessons may be lost before confidence is gained, and without confidence nothing can be done.

Singing is the study of a life-time. After a pupil leaves the studio for public singing, he only then graduates to another school. His voice is now placed, to be sure. He has a good repertoire of memorized operas, oratorios, and concert selections. He sings with style and finish, but breadth, abandon, confidence in his own ability, footlight inspiration and an experience of years before the audiences of many nations aie necessary for him to develop to the fullest extent.

The reason why the results of teachers' work are so unsatisfactory, lies in the fact, that where in Europe only those whose voices are pronounced superior by competent persons study singing, here in America it is the fashion, and all who love it, and many who do not but crave popularity, study, or rather they take finishing lessons, each one secretly anticipating phenomenal success, which the display teacher humors to an incredible degree.

Outside of the profession, the standard of a perfect tone is most pitiably at variance in this country. I much question if it is ever analyzed. The public generally judge a voice from its style and finish, and the selection rendered. As well buy a sofa whose pretty covering conceals poor upholstering, or wear an elaborately trimmed dress before the seams have been stitched. Something is bound to give way and in these instances everybody knows it.

When a pupil commences to study singing, that is the time she should say good-bye to singing, and under the guidance of a good teacher never open her lips while the necessarily delicate work is going on. The contrary is the rule. As soon as a few lessons are taken everyone asks pupils to sing and looks with contempt upon any teacher who is, as they put it, afraid to let a pupil be heard. Another fact: In Europe a teacher is not obliged to work quarter after quarter upon peculiarly personal faults. I often wonder what European teachers would do with some of the pupils American teachers are expected to make prima donnas of! The first thing done in Europe is to send pupils to the opera for every performance, which, with lessons, is a boon to both pupil and teacher.

Crowning all these difficulties for the advancement of our pupils in America is the lack of encouragement and appreciation accorded their painstaking efforts by the American public itself. There never was a nation of students (I refer to the genuine student) with greater determination to surmount all difficulties and succeed than are Americans. There are no people on the face of the earth more intelligent, more persevering than are our struggling American vocal students. That all of our famous American singers and artists, such as Albaui,Van Zandt, De Lussan, Emma Eames, Nordica, Valda, Hope Glen, Belle Cole, etc., etc., made their reputations in Europe and now live there, is plainly significant.

I now touch the point of the much doubted truth "of there being a vocal science," because vocal teachers' views upon the subject seem to clash. I repeat "seem to clash," for of all the teachers represented by my pupils, many misunderstandings have been cleared away by the pupils themselves recognizing what some previous teacher tried to explain to them. That there are differences in methods, is only too true. That there are different theories and that the apparently most successful teachers are not the best, is also a fact, but not a greater fact than that all bona fide teachers work for the same results. It makes little difference how you get there, if you only arrive. It is the result which tells.

The fundamental truths of the art of singing are based upon the European standard of the old masters, and the truths so much discussed as new discoveries were taught many, many years before present-day discoverers were born. That these latter-day theorists are not indebted to the old masters for their knowledge, may also be true, for study and experience are great teachers as is proved by de Rialp's book which, in some points, is the very Lamperti method through and through. The points in said book of "mother tone," "pitch," etc., are solid truths, which by the clothing of expression confuses many. De Rialp is wise in offering no further explanation of his terms, since only those who have had these points viva voce illustrated, and themselves put them into practice by the side of a keenly observant teacher, can fully comprehend their meaning. So it is with many of the expressions of vocal teachers which seem so at variance. That these erroneous ideas concerning their methods are so prevalent, is due almost entirely to the teachers themselves, who from intense greed, jealousy, and the foolish idea that they must be the first and the only perfect teachers living, has so blinded them that they will not acknowledge as correct one point written or taught by any other teacher.

That the best American teachers are the best teachers in the world to-day, there is not the slightest doubt; that they understand American faults, needs, temperaments, and ambitions better than any foreigner possibly can understand them, is also a truth, but that it is a difficult task to steer a pupil through ignorant home influence and prejudice and insulting opinions openly expressed by rival teachers and their allies, is another truth, but one that could be easily relieved if teachers would only unite in observing a little professional courtesy toward one another, as is shown among physicians. Then, although we might all wish for the steamboat to success, the chip, if only started in the right direction, would feel secure, knowing powerful and friendly aid was on either side; and no matter what difficulties it encountered, with a guarantee of good will to unite all interests, the success of conscientious and honest achievements would be assured.

—Florenza D'Arona, "The Fogs of Voice-Culture," Werner's Magazine, September 1894: 314-5. 


Florenza D'Arona was a student of Francesco Lamperti, the Milanese martinet who taught his students to sing based on what his ear told him rather than his understanding of anatomy, physiology and acoustics—the latter only becoming a subject for study after his death in 1892. He was highly successful empiricist, taught in a class environment, and held his students to one concept at a time, often allowing them only one aria for more than a year. 

As Lamperti's pupil, D'Arona outlines many of the issues that voice teachers and their students still face today. Her criticisms of teachers and students alike still holds true, which may say more about human nature than anything else. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same! 

December 11, 2015

Anyone Can Whistle

Without going deeply into the Yogi theories of sound-production in speaking and singing, we wish to say that experience has taught them that the timbre, quality and power of a voice depends not alone upon the vocal organs in the throat, but that the facial muscles, etc., have much to do with the matter. Some men with large chests produce but a poor tone, while others with large chests produce tones of amazing strength and quality. Here is an interesting experiment worth trying: Stand before a glass and pucker up your mouth and whistle, and note the shape of your mouth and the general expression of your face. Then sing or speak as you do naturally, and see the difference. Then start to whistle again for a few seconds, and then, without changing the position of your lips or face, sing a few notes and notice what a vibrant resonant, clear and beautiful tone is produced. 


Aside from the fact that "Yogi Ramacharaka" was in actuality a gentleman by the name of Willam Walker Atkinson who published a great many books on the occult and oriental philosophy, the exercise in question is one worth trying. As Alfred A. Tomatis observed, the stapedius muscle in the ear has a connection to the face via the facial nerve, the innervation of which is reflected in the ear and voice. Of course, you can't make a face and sing. That's not the point. However, it should be noted that the experiment outlined above has a clear resonance with what Lucie Manén described as "imposto," and which Margaret Harshaw illustrated by using a curious expression (click on the labels below to learn more). As well, voice teachers of Atkinson a.k.a. Ramacharaka's period like Anna E. Schoen-René (who taught Manén and Margaret Harshaw) and Frederic W. Root (who interviewed and probably studied with Manuel García) also talked about starting the tone from behind the bridge of the nose, which this writer understands as a sensation arising from the aforementioned innervation of facial muscles.

But enough theorizing. Go stand in front of a mirror and see what you can make of it. After all, anyone can whistle.

Photo Credit: 

December 9, 2015

Ear Psychology

The The Ear and the Voice: Workshop presented on December 5th, one of the exercises given to participants explored the perceptual difference between the left and right ear. They aren't the same! But of course, I didn't tell participants this. That would be leading the witness. Instead, I simply had them execute the exercise one by one, and then let them tell each other what they perceived. 

To a man (the participants were all male), everyone had near identical perceptions; the right ear seemed higher, brighter and more present, while the left ear—in comparison to the right—hugged the body,  and was lower and darker. 

Interesting, no? 

These perceptions point out what Tomatis observed, which is that the right ear processes higher frequencies faster. Why is this important to the singer? There are several reasons actually, but if we are going to talk about the tonal product, the most important matter is clarity and ring. If we are going to talk about the manner in which the singer navigates the world of sound, there is the need for the right ear to lead (which has been discussed on these pages at length). And if we are going to talk about the difference between the ears in terms of their innate psychological setting—and they are different in this regard too, we have to talk about the difference between the Editor and the Achiever. 

The Editor sits back and comments on everything that is happening, while the Achiever is too busy being engaged to think about such things. The Editor is discursive in nature and excels in picking things apart to make them better—a very necessary aspect which has everything to do with analysis, while the Achiever revels in living in the moment, doing the deed, and walking the talk. The Editor thinks about love, while the Achiever is in love—a huge qualitative difference. 

While we need both the Editor and the Achiever to learn how to sing, it is the Achiever that needs to be in the drivers seat.

Guess which psychological aspect Tomatis observed as being expressed in each ear? 

December 7, 2015

Ear First, Mind Second

Claims made from the past. What do we do with them in light of what we know today? What happens when they don't fall within our current understanding? 

For instance: What do we do with the assertion made in Vocal Wisdom that the tone must start in the center of the head, especially when it is known that the vocal tract is the only resonator? 

I can think of several possible scenarios. One modern response is that since the vocal tract is the only resonator, anything that is perceived in the head is not "source" material and is therefore suspect, ephemeral and should be ignored. 

Another response is that whatever is uttered by revered vocal pedagogues of the past must be accepted without question. Get it in the head, baby! Doesn't matter what you do, just get it there!

Both views miss the mark in my estimation. 


Accepting information without question isn't very smart. In fact, it's rather stupid. That's the blind leading the blind, and befits the acolyte who worships the self-appointed priest, one who often brooks no opposition. However, discounting historic teachings out of hand because they don't fit current understanding isn't helpful either, if only because that too stops inquiry. In both cases, one remains at a surface level of experience and understanding. 

To go deep, you have to dig. And that is hard to do when you see what you are looking at through a particular lens, worldview, or set of facts. To change how you see or how you think, there has be a paradigm shift. This involves incorporating new information. 

I gave a workshop recently where the example in question was explored in a practical and systematic manner, and while I didn't for one second suggest that participants send tone into their heads (that would be stupid), they experienced what is talked about in Vocal Wisdom. That and more. 

How was this made possible? 

I gave them exercises which opened their ears! Their minds followed in due course. 

December 2, 2015

Madam Blanche Marchesi at Home

With a very strong individuality and intense emotional artistic temperament, Madame Marchesi enters absolutely into the supreme characteristic mood of every song, and the gods have gifted her so that she is able to transfer it to her audience with simple directness and power. She has been described as the Sarah Bernhardt of singing, and perhaps this is true, because she is always a fine actress. And here one must leave a woman who boasts, indeed, many parts, so many that one ventured to ask her what she considered the greatest qualification needful to the career of a successful singer. Madame Marchesi makes many demands upon Mother Nature when she declares herself in favour of thirteen stringent rules. 

“First,” she says, “not an extraordinary voice, but the possibility of a good voice, and that is: the right muscles, the proper shape of the mouth, and so on. Secondly, a teacher who not only knows her work, but has interest in her pupil. After that, place health, untiring perseverance, thoroughness, presence, which means more personality, I think, than beauty, magnetism (and this is a great essential in taking an audience with you), a graceful charm of manner on the platform and away from it, good fortune, individuality of character, again individuality—individuality—doesn't that make the number?” the singer finished, with a smile. 

—Emmie and Blossom Keddell, "Madam Blanche Marchesi at Home," Cassell's Magazine, Illustrated, 1909: 440-446.

Find the complete article here. It's a fascinating read. Click on the label below for more information on Blanche Marchesi and her teaching. Then go listen to her recordings at Youtube.  It's great stuff! 

November 30, 2015

The Cross of Voice Science

Giovanni Clerici (1861-1924)
Observe that the sounds must appear to the singer to be reflected in the back part of the head; he must feel them there, rising as the note rises, falling as it falls.  —Giovanni Clerici, Perfection in Singing (1906): 15. 

He's right, of course. But try telling that to the moderns who are trained to think about the vocal tract as the only resonator. According to them, one should not think about sensation in the head. They take García's statement about sensation of tone literally (you know the one I am talking about right?—which is discussed in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García) and consider voice placement to be a vampire to which they must hold up the cross of voice science.

We go back to go forward! That's what my own teacher would say—a statement which makes a hell of a lot of sense from an auditory perspective (and has everything to do with the awareness of bone and air conduction), and is nonsense to the modern who only knows what he sees.

While moderns busy themselves with looking at their voiceprints, the ancients were busy listening. 

November 26, 2015

The Ear is the Spine 4

Singing requires no powerful effort, but the point of support should fall where it is least apparent and least felt. The attitude of fear, of uncertainty and doubt, namely the drawing in of the body below the waist, with the limp back, results in clavicular breath so laborious to control, because all effort is thrown upon the chest-muscles. How often we see a great artist when singing at his best, bear forward on the right foot, showing the straightened condition of the spine. And these are the voices that thrill with expression; these are the singers that carry an audience with them! There is no pretense to originality in this "secret" referred to in the interview with The Voice. It was learned from Italian masters but has been corroborated in later years by reading more than once in different works of physiology that the straightened backbone frees the respiratory machinery.  

—Sabrina H. Dow. "Further Talk Upon Methods In Teaching Singing." The Voice, 1886: 165-166. 


The elongated or "straightened condition of the spine" does more than free the respiratory system. It is also an expression of an open ear, which enables the singer to sing. You can learn how to obtain it—that is—how to find your voice—at The Ear and the Voice: Workshop in New York City on December 5th, 2015, where participants will rediscover the teachings of the old Italian school from a revolutionary perspective.

November 24, 2015

Vocal Wisdom & William Earl Brown

Margaret Harshaw was loath to recommend any book on singing—insisting that you couldn't learn to sing from one, but if she could be persuaded to name one, you would hear her mention William Earl Brown's Vocal Wisdom which contains the maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti, son of the great Italian maestro Francesco Lamperti.

"You have to know something to know something!" she would say. What she meant, of course, was that you would better understand Lamperti's teaching if you had been around the block a couple of times. If not? Then you had better start running. 

The chief function of the head in the producing of a singing tone is that of a reflector. William Earl Brown, The Musician, 1932.  
William Earl Brown, a teacher of singing for more than half a century, who had a residence and studio at 57 West Seventy-Fifth Street, died on Tuesday of a heart attack in Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 82. He was active as a teacher and was at work on the manuscript of a book on his profession to supplement an earlier volume, "Vocal Wisdom." Mr. Brown studied singing in Austria, Germany and Italy, his teachers including Lamperti. Suriving is a niece, Mrs. Kelsey Flower of Deerfield, Mass.  —NYtimes, May 17, 1945.

November 21, 2015

The Throne of the Pharynx 4

Now take your position—stand firm so that you may change from one foot to another. Put your tongue in place, resting in the bottom of the mouth and throat. Drop the jaw. Remember the voice is your instrument, but you are the director, inspirator, guiding power; you formulate, control with your will, intelligence, emotions. Now assume control of your throne as a singer, at the throne of the pharynx—the cerebellum back between the ears. Put your finger on the little tip in front of the ear and press lightly, partially closing the ear. Take the word Alm, or Hum, and let it resound through the head cavities. This will show you where sound is focused. No matter how high or low the note, always place it at this point—behind the ears. Never higher. It will correct the effort of reaching up when that is always its first place. The mistaken effort of reaching up is what prevents its placing itself. 

—Student of Francesco Lamperti, Manuel García and Antonio Sangiovanni c. 1890

November 19, 2015

Lamperti's Method & Noise-Machines of the Modern Age

To sing well is to breath properly. Sufficient attention is not given to this important fact. Respiration may be decided into three kinds: The diaphragmatic, the lateral and the clavicular. It is a false idea that women should use only the lateral, which calls into action merely the ribs and the breast-bone. Women who lace tightly adopt lateral breathing because they are forced to do so, and thus destroy the action of the diaphragm. Clavicular breathing is employed by raising the shoulders, leaving the diaphragm in repose. This is the most superficial and hurtful mode of breathing, often noticed in persons whose lungs are not developed or are naturally weak. Diaphragmatic breathing is distinguished by the contraction of the diaphragm, the thorax and shoulders remaining in complete repose. This is the only kind of respiration that should be cultivated by singers. By so breathing the larynx remans in a natural position, and is not strained. 

To obtain a proper singing breath, the pupil must assume an easy, unconstrained posture, standing upright but learning the head forward in a persuasive attitude. It is the first attribute of a good singer to be able to develop sympathy between himself and his audience. Singers often allow the mouth to assume an unpleasant, even repulsive expression. This is wrong. A smiling position of the mouth, the lips touching the teeth, the chin kept back naturally, and never elevated or pushed forward; these important details are all essential; and form a proper adjunct to perfect breathing. 

Another fact which commands attention is after taking in breath, to keep mouth and chin perfectly still while singing exercises. From neglect of this many errors arise, such as slurring and false intonation. Moving mouth and lips is a bad habit, and must be avoided. A singer who indulges it will never attain success, but it places a check upon the most splendid powers. The next and shoulders must always retain an easy position. A slight cause is sufficient to prevent breathing—even raising the shoulders wrinkling the forehead, or depressing the head. Any motion which shows effort, causes wrong breathing and produces tones lacking in power and purity. Notes resulting from bodily exertion lose all their beauty. The pupil should stand while practicing, and must take in breath slowly through the nose, so as not to dry the throat, and obtain the deepest inspiration possible. A gymnastic exercise of the breathing organs may be practiced without singing, and is both desirable and healthful. 

After taking a full breath, the pupil should prevent the larynx changing position, by keeping down the back part of the palate. The tongue should be slightly hollowed in the middle, the mouth assuming a smiling position, not too widely opened sideways, and of an oval shape. The lower jaw must not be stiff or the throat will be contracted. The freedom of the chin depends upon the easy position of the neck and throat. By keeping the opening of the mouth in an oval shape and raising the lips, so as to show the upper teeth, the wave of air will break against the roof of the mouth and the voice will vibrate more powerfully. 

Breath must be taken in slowly, which will cause a sensation of coldness at the back of the throat. When this ceases, the Italian vowel a or the syllable la is to be sounded. The vowel a should be neither too close nor to open, but have the sound which belongs to the word l'anima. This vowel must be wholly founded upon the breath, and will become too open if the breath escapes before the sound is produced. The color of the voice depends upon a correct method of breathing. This study, as before stated, is the first and most important lesson and indispensable to success in singing. It is the only true foundation to build upon. The pupil must be careful, when attacking the sound, to hold the breath by imagining that he is still taking in more breath, so that the voice may lean upon it and be sustained by the column of air. The note will then be pure, with no slurring. Breath must be slowly taken in, in order to be slowly given out. The strength and duration of the sound depend upon the elasticity of the lungs. To test whether the breath is taken and expended rightly, the experiment of holding a lighted taper close to the mouth may be tried. If the flame does not flicker during the emission of the sound, it proves that the air is gently emitted and the pupil breaths correctly. Great care must be taken to avoid noisy breathing. It is very injurious to the singer and distressing to the listener. This fault is caused by not commencing to take breath through the nose. It is highly important that the breath should be sustained after the voice is taken off, just as if the note were still sung. This is done by expanding the diaphragm, and will assist and accustom the singer to broad phrasing. When a full breath has been taken, the note must be attacked immediately. Delay causes the bad habit of slurring, so common among singers. 

Voice, though most precious and necessary, is not all. The pupil must possess not only voice, and a fine ear, but also an artistic instinct, a musical temperament, and an excellent memory. No one should devote him or herself to this art who is without the first requisite, which is "voice." Or, if anyone possessing a strong voice and musical feeling (both natural gifts), after sufficient trial, should find it impossible to sing in tune, it would be folly to waste any further time and money in study. Persons having thin, weak voices, of small compass, should not be encouraged to study or expect to attain success, unless their age be such as to give hope of acquirement of further volume and compass. Art does not give more voice to any individual than nature has furnished him with. A pupil may study with all his energy, and with every care; he may succeed in learning to breath properly, but this does not give him more voice. Art does wonders in educating and bringing it out, but can never accomplish the miracle of reconstructing the organ of voice-production. Still art can do more than one would suppose. Pupils with small musical talent but good ear, have been trained, after acquiring a perfect system of breathing, to fill a fine position on the lyric stage. Of these, the women began study at about eighteen, and the men were not over twenty, as a rule. Young pupils of great musical ability, yet with small voices, have also found sympathetic audiences, and, after some years of practice, have developed their voices with good success. But a beautiful and powerful voice is useless unless educated by the rules of art—otherwise it will be nothing but one of the noise-machines of the modern stage. —Freund's Music and Drama

Hattie A. Farnsworth, "Lamperti's Method," Werner's Magazine of Expression, January, 1886: 4-5. 

November 18, 2015

The Smell of Fear

I can smell it in the air, just like I did after 9/11.

Fear with a capital F.

Students walk in the door with the faint whiff of why am I doing this circling them.  

What does this fear make us do? Check out locks, call our kids to tell them we love them, cancel vacations and rein everything in until we feel safe enough to stick our necks out again. 

It stops us cold. And we lock our breath. 

Some of us have a hard time recovering, that is, getting back to where we feel free enough to be ourselves again, while some of us never get going again. 

Who wins then? 

As this article in the NYTimes suggests, the response to the attack in Paris on the part of those in Fashion and Art has been to scale everything back, mute it down, and maintain a let's-not-toot-our-horn-just-right-now approach.

There’s a temptation, when confronted with fear, sadness and human loss, to turn away from luxury; a natural instinct to dismiss frivolous subjects as inappropriate at such a serious time. —NYTimes 

Likewise, are opera, cabaret, dance, theatre, rock & roll, Broadway and music lessons a luxury that must be discontinued in the face of fear? I mean: shouldn't we be making bombs instead? 

No! I say—a thousand times No

Whatever the actions of others, let us not rob ourselves of our humanity.

Photo Credit: Pinterest 

November 17, 2015

The Lamperti School: Albert B. Bach

Albert A. Bach (1844-1912)
The art of singing is, in spite of the great progress we have made in science, still based on empiricism. Originally the old Italians built up the whole art upon it; and only in our time has it received a more scientific foundation through Helmholtz, and especially in his 'Vocal Theory." ....Even Laryngoscopy has hitherto been of very little use in the development of the vocal art, as the formation of tone cannot be properly taught by its means; observations on the vocal chords can only be made on the vowel ae, and then it is necessary to have a foreign body in the mouth. The formation of tone under such conditions is too mechanical, and is indeed unnatural; the higher intellectual conception of tone is wanting. But the tone ought to be noble, poetical, and animated, and to be produced through inspiration, as only thus can we do justice to the art of singing.

It is unwise to break with our empirical traditions, and to look down upon the old Italians with disregard, as to overlook the progress which the art of singing has made through science. We must, however, not overestimate the latter. Let us go impartially through the different sciences, examine and investigate how far they are of practical use in the art of singing, and then we shall find that empiricism must always help us in our studies.

Hypotheses which have repeatedly served to explain certain phenomena are considered laws, but they cannot permanently have the necessary authority, and are displaced by higher hypotheses. It is indeed a wise ordinance of Nature that without mechanical instruments we cannot see the working of our voice apparatus, and we can only feel what we produce with it; for, after all, Art is entirely an outcome of Feeling.

The most important thing in the art of singing—I mean the colour of tone—cannot be described; we must hear good and cultivated singers, and they must in our studies enlighten us, and be our ideals. If the teacher be only a good musician, and not at the same time a good singer, the proper study of tone-formation is out of the question. It is such teachers that we have to thank for the new but false theories—that the learned ought to begin the tone-formation with the vowel u, and that there are five registers to equalize the human voice.

The excellent results we have obtained by the old method, in which Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Albani, Santley, Sims Revves, Lloyd, Lasalle, and others have been instructed, prove that, we should still cultivate and honor the old method, and adopt from the new only what is good and useful.

The vowel a (ah) is and remains forever the king of vowels; poor u has, after a service of centuries, not reached the position of a chamberlain, since it still fills, literally as well as figuratively, only the humble function of a "door-closer."

As to the registers, I will here only say that in some voices we observe feeble notes, which sound weak and contrast greatly with their stronger neighborly notes. Such, like all uncultivated voices, we can equalize by the true Old Method, which consists of piano singing.

In our studies we must never leave the ground of experience, and lose ourselves in speculations. The scientific foundations of singing—namely, acoustics, physiology, and anatomy—I have not fully treated, confining myself to such an exposition of them as I consider to be useful for the singer and musician. The ear, however, I have treated with particular care, as it is well known to be the best guide and teacher in our studies.

—Albert B. Bach, The Principles of Singing: a Practical Guide for Vocalists (1885): xi-xv.


The traditions of the old Italian schools have been bequeathed to Caselli, Aprili, Bordogni, Ronconi, Concone, Marchesi, García, Lamperti, Varesi, G. Engel, Seiber, Stockhausen, &c. All these masters taught, and some still teach, the old Italian method; but it is no longer Italy alone that teaches good singing. Every country has some intelligent teachers who are singers, and who have accepted and studied the old Italian method; and every town should have such masters, as these only can foster and further true vocal art.


Albert Bernard Bach (1844-1912), Hungarian baritone and author. He was born at Gyula and studied under Marchesi at the Vienna Conservatory in 1869-70, and later with Cunio, Weiss, and Gansbacher. He gave his first concert as a bass-baritone in Vienna. Later he studied in Milan (1876-77) under Lamperti, Ronconi, and Varesi, and sang at La Scala in 1877-78. He taught in Britain and German after 1886, and also sang there in oratorio and concert.

—Brian Tyson, Bernard Shaw's Book Reviews (2008), Vol 1: 117.


Art is entirely an outcome of Feeling. So wrote Albert B. Bach, and I could not agree more. This is literally true from the perspective of Alfred A. Tomatis, who observed that the vestibule of the ear regulates the feeling of the body within space. As such, singing is not only a matter of emotional feeling, but also physical feeling. To sing—and to sing well—the body must feel extended, lifted up, and innervated—even if you are singing the blues. These feelings, which Tomatis understood as the product of an open ear, was understood by old school voice teachers as the Singer's Sensation, and was discovered and refined through inhalation through the nose with the mouth closed or only very slightly open. You know you are finding your way forward when you can feel the muscles of your head move; and when these muscles move and are maintained from the get-go—rather than after 10 or 12 seconds of inhalation—every vocal technique will be within your reach, including the messa di voce, mezza voce, staccato, trill and coup de glotte of García.


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November 13, 2015

Mme. Schoen-René Sails on the Orbita

Madam Schoen-René c. 1921
Among the musicians sailing on the Orbita on Saturday, May 21, from New York was Mme. A. E Schoen-René, widely known as a vocal instructor. Mme. Schoen-René is on her way to Berlin, where from June 1 to Sept 15 she will hold master classes in voice, including both concert and opera répertoire. It is her plan to teach there during these months and return to New York in October, teaching here from then until May, 1, 1922.

For many years she has had prominent pupils in the opera houses of Europe, where she has long be recognized as an authoritative teacher. In New York this season she had among her professional pupils Florence Easton, soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, Mary Kent, contralto, known both in the concert field and as a member Scotti Opera Company at Ravinia Park, Ill. George Meader, who studied with Mme. Schoen-René abroad, has worked here with her also and has now been engaged by Mr. Gatti-Casazza as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company beginning next fall. Francis Maclennan, the operatic tenor, who has appeared with the Chicago Opera Company in Chicago and with the Society of American Singers in New York, has been studying with her and recently won a brilliant success as Radames in "Aida" at the Hamburg Opera.

Musical America, June 11, 1921.  (Note: Francis Maclennan was the husband of Florence Easton,  while Marie von Essen took the stage name of Mary Kent.) 


Two years before being invited to join the Juilliard School faculty, Madam Schoen-René was spending her summers teaching in Berlin, where she worked with Lucie Manén, who has appeared on these pages and recorded something of Schoen-René's teaching in Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Italian Song Schools; It's Decline and Restoration (1987). Her word for this teaching was "imposto," which is a invented term for impostazione della voce—the placing of the voice.

Manén supposed that the singer could influence the action of the vocal folds by compressing the anterior nares of the nose together, which initiated a "ventricular mechanism" in the larynx. Of course, this had voice scientists running to disprove the idea, which is understandable, since no direct connection between the nose and the larynx is known to exist, nor is there some kind of switch behind the nose even if it feels that like to some (the nose is in the middle of the face and its muscles, don't you know). However, the savvy reader of this blog will know that there is a direct neural connection between the face and the ear, and that the ear plays a role in the action of the muscles of the body, which includes those of the larynx. This is the work of Alfred A. Tomatis.

If you really want to know what Manén was trying to describe, I encourage you to inhale slowly and gently through your nose (lips together teeth apart) for 12 to 18 seconds, suspend your breath and feel what is happening in the muscles of your head and face.

Click on the labels below to learn more. 

November 12, 2015

Florence Easton: Grandchild of Viardot & Garcia

Florence Easton (1882-1955)
To the Musical Courier: 

It gave me a great deal of pleasure to read the wonderful article about Pauline Viardot-García in a recent issue of the Musical Courier. My teacher, Madame Schoen-René, studied with Viardot for twenty-five years, first as a singer and later as a teacher; and from 1897 until the summer before he died, Madam Schoen-René studied with Viardot's brother, Manuel García, as a teacher of male voices. One of Schoen-René's most treasured possessions is a letter from Viardot (which I have seen), saying: "You are not only one of my most beloved pupils, but you are absolutely competent to teach, mine and my brother Manuel García's method of singing. Your pupils may call themselves our grandchildren." Madam Viardot wrote many very lovely songs most of which Schoen-René studied and sang with her. I have studied some of these songs with Schoen-René this summer and will sing them in America during the coming season. I am very proud to be able to call myself a grandchild of Viardot and García. 


Berlin, August, 1921 

The Musical Courier, Volume 83, September 1, 1921: 37.

November 11, 2015

Perfection in Singing by Giovanni Clerici

Giovanni Clerici (1861-1924)
It took a bit of creative sleuthing to find basic information about Giovanni Clerici, a highly regarded singing teacher in London. 

Conducting a careful search using Google Books and historical newspapers, I found Clerici's death and birth date after entering his name and the city of his last known residence, which happened to be Torquay, England—known as the "English Riviera."

Such an interesting fellow, Giovanni Clerici. He wrote a one act operetta—Lorraine—which was given its premiere at the Theatre Royal in Torquay in 1898, and also one of the more interesting and enjoyable books I have come across.

While I haven't yet been able to ascertain who Clerici studied with yet—assuming, of course, he studied with someone, his book—Perfection in Singing (1906)contains the kind of advice one expects from an old Italian school maestro. It's also excellent advice too. 

One of Clerici's students was a Jamaican gentleman by the name of Louis Drysdale, who sang in England as a member of the Kingston Union Choral, and rather than return to Jamaica, stayed in England and took lessons with Clerici and Gustave García. "Dri" as he was called, became a very good teacher in his own right—his most famous student being a young Marion Anderson.

Perfection in Singing is very much worth your time—Clerici's opening gambit alone worthy of attention. 

To the Teacher  

Cultivate all sorts of desirable moral qualities. 

Thus, be gentle, yet firm; genial yet dignified; eager yet patient; learned but not pedantic; versatile but not delusory; systematic but not inflexible; reverent to all classic things, but not bigoted or narrow towards all new things that are good. Finally, cultivate a kindly and friendly relation between yourself and your pupils. Make them feel as though you are taking them by the hand as children, to travel into a land of "fairy," as Spencer said:  

"Music does demand much toil and many weary hours of drudgery from her votaries, but how wondrously does she reward the brave and faithful who endure her trial. 

While notions of fairyland may make the reader smile, that same reader should not forget how music made his heart open, soar, and even brought him to tears. That it has this power is certain. Learning to wield it is a whole other matter. 

Perfection in Singing is an excellent resource. 

November 9, 2015

What do the muscles of the middle ear do?

from "The Ear and the Voice" 
There are two tiny muscles in the middle ear, the tensor tympanum, which is associated with the hammer, and the stapedius which is associated with the stirrup.

What do they do?

Using a compact description from brtbalu's otolaryngology, we see that the contraction of the stapedius fixes the stirrup and 1) reduces the "transmission by up to 30 dB for frequencies less than 1-2 KHz," while both muscles serve to 2) "dampen unwanted resonances in the middle ear system causing spoken words to be heard with clarity." These two muscles also 3) protect the ear from "damage due to excess noise" and 4) attenuate the low frequency sounds from within the body.

This is the standard view.

However, it should be pointed out that the four points above outline a passive rather than an active perspective, this being the difference between hearing and listening, the latter the observation of Alfred A. Tomatis, who had very different ideas regarding the role of the muscles in the middle ear arising from his astute observation that there is a space between the stirrup and the cochlea which does not permit the full transmission of frequencies. As such, his view —as I understand it—is that the middle ear acts less like a transducer than it does an antennae, the actual transmission of sound taking place via the bone in which the anatomy of the middle ear is encased.

Excellent listening is most likely when accompanied by exceedingly functional hearing. Fitness of muscles in the middle ear makes possible the optimal use of hearing. This requires an ongoing coordination between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. Under optimal conditions, these muscles act synergistically rather than antagonistically. Their reciprocal actions induce an optimal tone resulting from a balance between the flexors and the extensor muscles. 
The muscle of the stirrup is an extensor; the muscle of the hammer is a flexor. The muscle of the stirrup regulates the inner ear. It is the last of the extensors to have developed and controls a set of synergies that will be described in the chapter about posture. 
The regulatory system controlled by the ear impacts the whole body and prepares it for singing. In fact, to "prick up one's ears" is to open them. Moreover, it also opens the entire body by acting on all the extensors.  
—Alfred A. Tomatis, The Ear and the Voice: 52. 

Tomatis was the first person to observe the integration of the muscles of the ear with those of the body, specifically the interplay of the extensors and flexors. It's a matter which many singing teachers perceive intuitively by observing how the student enters the studio. The student who enters upright with an open countenance and resonant speaking voice (they go together don't you know) is going to have a very different lesson than the student who enters with head hanging and mouth mumbling. In the case of the latter, a teacher who can enable the student to extend is nothing short of a miracle worker.

November 8, 2015

Henderson's Three Words

William James Henderson (1855-1937) 
Three words must be kept in mind when thinking of breathing in the art of song: These words are "slow," "gentle," "deep." All the old masters insisted that breathing in song should be of the character described by these three terms. If the reader desires the names of some of these masters, here they are: Nicolo Porpora, Antonio Bernacchi, Antonio Pistocchi, Leonardo Leo, Domenico Gizzi Francesco Durnate, Guiseppi Amador and Francesco Brivio. The fundamentals of the method taught by these masters were the pure legato and sonorous, beautiful tone. To this they added training in vocal agility, but it must be ever borne in mind that this training was superimposed on a course of instruction in breathing and tone formation. 


Henderson was a highly regarded music critic at the New York Times, who, along with his colleagues Henry T. Finck, Henry E. Krehbeil, James G. Huneker and Richard Aldrich (who translated Lilli Lehmann's idiosyncratic Mein Gesangskunst into English), dominated the New York musical scene—and thereby influenced national standards—from 1880 to 1920.

There is much to learn from Henderson's criticism (and his book The Art of Singing), if only because he wrote about singers and singing in a way that is not done today. Here is one except from his column at the New York Times:

Occasion has frequently been taken to comment in this place on the bad singing of opera singers. Certainly most of them ought to stay as far way from the concert platform as possible. The stormy applause audiences of the Sunday night concert audiences means nothing. The is proved every year as soon as the opera season comes to an end. Throughout the Winter, while the opera is in full blast, the Sunday night concerts at the Opera House, where the singers of Mr. Grau's company display their vocal shortcomings, are attended by great audiences. These applaud and cheer the just and the unjust alike. But the instant that the opera seasons ends and the worshipped singers depart to that mysterious region known and "the road," some venturesome manager gives Sunday night concerts at the Metropolitan and brings forward singers not known to the opera mob, or instrumental performers of the first rank and forthwith there are empty seats. 
What does this mean? Simply that the Sunday night audiences are not composed of the music lovers of New York, but of that separate and singular class to which an opera singer is a sort of divinity. To the unbiased mind there is something pitiable in this attitude of prostration before the opera singing, and to those who have opportunity to peep behind the scenes of musical life it is contemptible. We are all weak and puny mortals, but none punier than the opera singer. But I shall be told that the worship of opera singers is not personal: it is for their God-given voices, their marvelous talents, their unique accomplishments. 
Well, it is true that most of them have uncommonly good voices. It is true that a few, a smaller few, have real talent, and it is also true that two or three of them have actually not buried those talents, like the man in the parable, but have, like the other man, doubled or trebled them by their industry. These are the singers whom the thoughtful commentator on musical doing delights to praise. But it is also true that there are opera singers who have neglected to cultivate their talents, who have not mastered the art of rightly using the voice, and who have not done anything whatever toward refining their taste, deepening their perceptions, broadening their conceptions, or disciplining their emotions. These singers break almost every law of art every time they appear upon the stage, but they are applauded to the echo. 
New York Times, Sunday, March 23, 1902 

You know what? My ears tell me that Henderson's criticism, written more than a century ago, could be made today.

Henderson studied singing with the noted bel canto maestro and voice teacher Angelo Torriani, wrote a librettonovel and textbook for yacht-sailing, and took his own life at the age of 81, three days after the death of his long-time friend and colleague Richard Aldrich.

Find out more about Henderson here, as well as at Justin Petersen's blog, which you can find here.

When you are done tooling around, you might take up Henderson's teaching; go sit somewhere quietly, shut your mouth, and breath slowly, gently and deeply. 

Photo Credit: New Jersey Biographical Dictionary (2008)