March 9, 2015

Singing on the Breath

Franscesco Lamperti 
I HAVE always been told that the Italians are naturally and climatically an extraordinary singing people. It is not so. Take them in the mass and they have no more musical talent than the Americans, and do not evince one-half the love of pure harmony and sweet melodies that the Americans do. The great Lamperti says his best voices come from America. Out of eleven of his pupils here, I count six from America, and the leading star slngers of Europe are most of them Americans.

Whence, then, the celebrity of Italians in the vocal art? In the applied skill of a few extra gifted men, voice-philosophers, I might call them. These great men applied their superior gifts to the development and the training of voices till they have reached a perfection which commands the admiration of the world. But their pupils have been few and selected. They sought the best natural foundations to build on, and patience characterized their work. Three to four years' assiduous training was necessary for the highest success. Of these great “old masters," as they are called, Francesco Lamperti is the only one left, and indeed about the only man in all Europe or the whole world that continues to apply the old method. Why do other teachers forsake the true old method, which alone has given to the world the great star singers of the past? Simply because the method requires so much hard study and patient, long-continued labor, and the fact that pupils are impatient with it and rush for the prize unprepared. Signor Lamperti is bright and vigorous for a man 74 years old.

Will the old Italian method die with him? I think not. Very few will teach it for the reasons assigned, but there are some that can, one, at least, I know can and probably will. This is Mme. Sandri, Signor Lamperti's assistant. This lady is an accomplished musician, is thoroughly acquainted with the Lamperti method, having assisted him for thirteen years, and is enthusiastic in her calling. She will not set up an independent school while Lamperti continues to teach, but she will be earnestly solicited to do so when he retires. Lamperti is a very emotional man. To say that he is an enthusiast in his profession is to express it mildly.

The Italian people are the most loquacious people you ever heard, but their voices are right on the end of their tongues. They could not get them back far enough to make singers. Vowels as well as consonants are chopped up by the tip of the tongue and teeth, and are loud, rapid and harsh.

Singing with them is the natural and appropriate language of tragedy. They ridicule the American love of melody. They say this is childish and belongs to the nursery. Sing to them an American ballad, for instance “Way down upon the Suwanee River." When you sing “Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary," they instantly ask: “What did he do? Did he kill himself? Who wrote the plot? How many characters are there in it? Sing the rest of it and let us see how it ended." Singing is nothing outside of tragedy, though, to a limited extent, comedy has been popular. Vocal concerts would starve; oratorio would be too intolerably tame.

You may say that if such is the popular taste, singing is subordinate to acting on the stage. So it is, and most lamentably so. Wild passion is stimulated, but the people lose all the elevating, purifying and tranquilizing influence of pure, sweet song. Are they right? Is it true that singing is the natural language of tragedy? What incongruity! They tell us that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." In the next breath they tell us that it nerves the savage to ferocity and deeds of blood. Shakespeare tells us that “ the man that is not moved by concord of sweet sounds is fit for stratagcms, spoils and treasons," but these Italians claim that sweet sounds should nerve him to stratagems, spoils and treasons. The assassin on the stage sings himself into the fell purpose of slaying his victim. I witnessed here the performance of “Norma." The orchestral parts, by seventy pieces, were ravishing, but I was more than disgusted when. Norma sang herself into a purpose to murder her two babes. There was something so shockingly incongruous between the sweet melody and the fell deed, I then and there declared against the subordination of song to tragic. exhibitions. This feature of the Italian stage, connected with ballet dancing, makes the Italian theatre anything but moral and elevating in its influence, and nowhere else can you hear public singing but in the theatres, and there in opera and almost invariably tragic opera.

American singers, as soon as they get their voice-training, get out of Italy. A few sing a little here to get an endorsement which will help them in London; some to try their voices and return to the teacher if need be; but England, Germany and America are where good singing is sought and rewarded for its own sake.

Now, about American girls coming to Italy to learn to sing. Most of them, encouraged and flattered by friends, think all they have to do is to go to Italy ; and nine out of ten fall into the hands of mere mount-banks, who rob them of their money and do their voices no good, but even spoil them. After study with other teachers, some of them come to Lamperti to learn that they have been carried backward instead of forward. There are many sad wrecks, all for want of correct information before leaving home.

But does not Lamperti ever spoil a voice? May as well ask, does a knowledge of arithmetic disqualify a boy for business. But is the Lamperti system easy? Harder work, both physically and mentally, his pupils never undertook. It requires brain as well as muscle, intense application and patient continuance. No pupil ever comes to Lamperti merely to learn to sing for the social circle. He has no short course; he wants no pupils who do not purpose a public career, and turns away any one wanting in talent to make a successful artist.

Does the climate help vocal art in Italy? Undoubtedly. Yet Italy in winter is the coldest hot country I know, and in summer the hottest cold country. I never loved America as I do to-day.

J. R. Mershon, "Music in Italy," The Voice, July 1888: 117.


Articles like this one from The Voice—a monthly magazine published in Albany and New York City at the turn of the 20th century—tell the reader quite a lot for those who knew what they are reading. In fact, it contains an important paragraph for the student of historical vocal pedagogy which could easily be overlooked. 

The Italian people are the most loquacious people you ever heard, but their voices are right on the end of their tongues. They could not get them back far enough to make singers. Vowels as well as consonants are chopped up by the tip of the tongue and teeth, and are loud, rapid and harsh.

Not get them back far enough to make singers? That's the key phrase, which suggests to readers that the author of the article observed the great maestro's teaching. It's a familiar idea to anyone who has read Vocal Wisdom: The Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1931) which makes clear that Lamperti's son taught as his father did, which is that the voice must start from the center of the head.

Your voice is focused only when in its entire range it is intense enough to feel started and stopped in the same spot—in the center of the skull. 

That's far from the front of the mouth, wouldn't you say? However, the teaching of Lamperti did not limit itself to one "place," that is to say, the voice was also monitored at the lips (this includes the front of the face, what is called the "mask"); both "places" encompassing the two modalities in which audition takes place, that is, through bone and air conduction.

But here's the thing. This isn't a complicated matter, nor is it an esoteric one. However, the inquisitive student will find that many modern vocal pedagogues dissuade his/her students from listening to what is heard in the head (note: feeling is a vestibular aspect of listening). But this is exactly what students of the Lamperti School were taught to do, and quietly too—which makes one listen to what one is doing. How does one do this practically speaking? To use the language of Lamperti School, this involves singing "on the breath," which is something more than filling the lungs with air.

Old School voice teachers often talked about "singing on the breath" and—in the same breath—a "column of breath." To find out what they were getting at, I suggest you close your lips, separate your teeth, inhale slowly for a good 10-12 seconds, then suspend your breath until you feel every muscle in your body "lift."

Hearing/singing pure vowels on top of this column of breath? Well, you will probably need a good voice teacher to help you figure that out. 

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