March 21, 2015

Less Science and a Little More Nature

THE ART OF SINGING By Mme. A. Litsner de Fére.

THE progress made in an art depends largely upon the publicity given to the ideas and observations of those engaged in it. One idea suggests another; remarks call forth comment. With singing, as with every other art, it is desirable that those who have had experience should bring the results to public notice.

The course now generally followed by teachers in publishing methods of their own is, however, to be deplored. Garcia, Lamperti and other eminent pioneers have written methods fully expounding the principles of the art of singing. All subsequent methods are based on these works, and differ merely in some minor points of application or interpretation. The necessity for these later methods may be questioned. Are they intended for pupils’ self instruction, or is it supposed that a teacher will forsake the masters’ methods to adopt another teacher’s method—too often written with the sole idea of bringing the author’s name before the public?

To introduce some new feature, and lacking in really valuable matter with which to vary the fundamental principles of an art so simple in itself, physiology has been resorted to. Practically, it is now contended, in many methods, that an almost surgical knowledge of the vocal organs should be had by a pupil beginning the study of singing. Yet the task of training the voice is of sufficient importance in itself to justify a 3 or 4 years’ course, without adding an unnecessary study of physiology and anatomy. Puzzling breathing-exercises have also been devised, some of them harmless in themselves, but generally superfluous. In still other methods we find advocated sundry modes of “ voice-placing."

Notwithstanding all these various methods, the final test remains the same. The only proper method is that which makes the singing appear, to the audience, full, natural and pleasing; to the singer, easy, devoid of any strain or effort. The difficulty lies in the fact that methods assume that all voices should be treated alike. Physicians who diagnose a particular disease advise the use of medicines not intended for other ailments. But vocal instructors of the method writing class, who favor certain rules, proper, perhaps, in some special case, advocate their general application.

Every voice should be trained according to its nature, and only such treatment given as it is found, upon examination, to require. The voice must be cleared of all imperfections before the final touches of dramatic execution are given. Unfortunately, teachers are inclined to follow some fashionable system exactly as it is published, instead of using discretion with regard to the nature and requirements of their pupils’ voices.

Some 15 years ago the Italian method was the favorite one here. Speaking with a prominent teacher, at the time, about the Paris National Conservatoire of Music, where I had been awarded first prizes, I was astonished to hear him assert that the Conservatoire was no authority here, the ground for his opinion being simply that the French method was conducive to tremolo in the voice, and that no French singer seemed able to sing steadily. My remonstrances that this defect was due more to the excitable nature of the French than to their professed method were of no avail. Times have changed since then, and it seems now as though it were the turn of the French method to become fashionable. It has many advocates, at any rate, among others, Mrs. Thurber. Indeed, there is a tendency among prima donnas to go to Paris for study. Moreover, the free tuition offered by the Paris Conservatoire is an inducement to go there. One would be surprised to see the number of American students in the Conservatoire. It is a mistake, however, to think that vocal instruction abroad is so far superior to ours.

Stockhausen, Faure, Delle-Sadie and other modern foreign teachers have also written methods, and are just as partial to them as teachers here are to their methods. If the method taught at the Paris Conservatoire is so much superior to all others, how is it that most of the female singers graduated from that institution during the last few years have proved of no great account? How is it that at the last concours of the Conservatoire the results were so discouraging as to call forth from the Paris press unfavorable comments? There and here, the error is the same. Scarcely a perfectly even voice is met with; and by the indiscriminating application of their established rules, defective voices, that require special training, cannot be perfected. The chief cause of fault-finding with voices at the last concours of the Conservatoire was their weak medium register. I had an interview on this subject with a reporter of the Herald (Paris edition), and mentioned to him that I had been asked to remain and teach in Paris, and that if I ever did so, I intended to have as pupils some of our American young ladies with weak medium range. He remarked that I would have no difficulty in finding them, for they all seemed to be deficient in this respect.

The evenness of the voice depends, to a great extent, on the medium register. In its perfection lies the beauty of a voice. We sometimes find a naturally good medium voice in young ladies who have never had a lesson; but as soon as they begin to study, the teacher establishes the three-register system, tells the pupil on which note to change from chest to medium, recommends all the different exercises in breathing, and adds a course of lectures on physiology —whilst the poor girl’s voice is quickly ruined.

I have studied in the Paris Conservatoire. Two of its present teachers, Mr. Archaimbeau and Mr. Crosti, were in my class. My experience of the manner in which vocal defects and weakness in the medium range are generally treated has been that they seek to conceal them. So long as the singer's voice is young, its brilliancy of execution is all that is apparent; but when the voice has been used for a few years, its fundamental defect reappears and the voice, especially in the medium, instead of improving, becomes so weak that it is practically worthless.

I have continued to study the art of singing ever since I graduated from the Conservatoire, and as the result of my experience I would say that vocal art depends on a very few but important points. (1) The placing of the voice; (2) the quality of the tone; (3) the break in the voice from chest to medium; (4) the manner of breathing.

I. The placing of the voice embraces opening the mouth, and the throat. The only natural way of opening the mouth is as in a smile. The body should be perfectly quiet, and there should be no strain on the muscles of the throat or neck.

2. The quality of the tone its fulness and richness, is obtained by a proper placing of the larynx and correct management of the breath. First, practice with the vowel a (ah) on the whole compass. The voice depends on the quality of the tone. Only through intuition can the teacher be a competent judge of the quality of the tone. He must also be able to give a proper example; for as he judges of the quality of a tone by hearing it, so a pupil must receive a correct tone that he may know what to imitate.

3. By an erroneous interpretation of Garcia’s method, all pupils are made to come to F (first space) in chest. Garcia gives us a wide field wherein the change of the register may be made. He says that a soprano may reach even C (below the staff) in a rich quality of medium. This is never attempted, for the weakness of the medium in most voices will not permit it. The secret and the only reason why singers’ voices are not perfect lies right here. The break in the voice may be entirely avoided, unless a pupil has already studied the ruinous system of establishing changes of registers.

The way to breathe has been the subject of much scientific writing; but here, again, we want a little less science and a little more nature. Breathing, as Garcia tells us, is a slow inhalation and a gradual exhalation. This is the natural way to breathe, and any scientific method robs the singer of that feeling of freedom, composure and self-control, that is absolutely necessary to enable the singer to give expression to her song.

Were these simple, natural rules more carefully observed, and the older methods of Garcia and Lamperti applied, bearing in mind the nature of the voice to be trained, I think we should soon notice the difference in singers, and have as many “stars” as we had 20 years ago.

Werner’s Voice Magazine, Vol XII, No. 2, February 1880, Page 36-37.


While I have not been able to ascertain if Mme. Litsner de Fére was a student of Manuel García or not, she certainly sounds like one, doesn't she? The clues are many, one of them being the emphasis on "nature," which the great maestro referred to quite often. I love articles like this one, which tell the reader not only how singing was being taught, but also how it had been taught. 

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