April 4, 2015

Tubbs Talks Turkey

Frank Herbert Tubbs (1853-1938) is such a curious fellow. Having appeared on VoiceTalk before (see his label below), he has the distinction of studying with both Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti, writing about the difference between their schools, as well as publishing a few books (which I will address in my next post), thus burnishing his own image as a teacher of teachers. In the article below from The Musician, Tubbs tackles a variety of subjects concerning the student of singing, starting with the still controversial coup de glotte.



Attack of tone is one of the three most important topics in voice culture and there are several ideas extant on the subject, Perhaps it was Manuel Garcia who called into general use the coup de glotte. His idea of it is not generally understood, however, judging from frequent examples which come under notice. With that apparent determination, which so many people have, to go to extremes, nearly every teacher who teaches attack by means of the glottic stroke goes far beyond Garcia in stringency of attack. They work the vocal bands with so much force that they strain them badly. Attack proper, means bringing the vocal bands together a short time before the air is exhaled upon them; rather, the vocal bands are brought together an instant before breath presses them. The purpose of using breath at the vocal bands is to set them into pulsation. Only a little breath is needed for this purpose and the degree of pressure upon the vocal bands determines the degree of pressure from the respiratory organs. If gentle pressure is made at one place the other will meet it with gentleness. All initial tone should be made with gentleness. Loud or dramatic tones should obtain their power not by increasing the action in making initial tone, but by extension of resonance through reinforcement. The error of teachers in using the coup de glotte is that they press the vocal bands so strongly together that they produce two bad effects; first, all tone becomes hard in quality and, second, the vocal bands become physically disabled. It would be interesting to know the reasons why the majority of persons stop singing after trying one or two years to learn to sing. Probably the larger portion of that army of unfortunates has been wrongly taught, and the chief fault in that teaching is in over working the vocal bands. Also, if physicians would tell the real cause of the necessity of visits of singers to them, which professional courtesy forbids, their story would be that of maltreatment of the vocal chords. The worst of bad treatment is in wrong attack of tone. This has led many teachers to abandon all care for production of initial tone, which is also wrong practice, and to give all attention to “placing,” ‘‘tone-quality” and other ideas which are part of the grand whole. This course is preferable to that of straining the vocal chords, but if attack is correctly done there need be no strain. Take all labor off the throat. Interpret that literally. Any movement of tongue, soft palate, jaw or neck which can be seen or felt (either by one's fingers outside, or by sense perception inside) while producing initial tone, is labor on the throat. When this labor is removed we can make the true glottic stroke as Garcia wished it.


Some singers believe that they sing best at night, others best in the morning. Pupils think they cannot practice at one time so well as at another. It leads to the question whether or not the body is in better working order at one time in the day than at another. After a night's rest one should, according to theory, be fresh, but that is not a favorite time for singing. After eating a hearty meal it is evidently not good for singing, because the forces of the body are concentrated upon digestion. It may be that the nourishment of the body influences a time for good or ill and that the accumulation of strength toward the close of the day gives the evening as the best time for singing. Probably, however, the body has less to do with this than the mind. As the day wears on mental activity increases. Under the inspiration of the evening light most singers do their best work. This is not a favorite time for practice but rather for artistic music. The labor of preparation comes best in the earlier part of the day. A well-known teacher says, “a half-hour of practice before eleven in the forenoon is better than two hours at night.” After eating be careful. Would it not be well for vocal training if singers would be sparing in the amount of food which they eat? A hearty meal-a daily sumptuous dinner—takes a whole day to digest. Yet most people eat three meals a day. For singers this is too much and unless we give the digestive organs a vacation now-and-then we must not be surprised if we have physical troubles, Very much of the constant anxiety about voice and of the labor to cultivate it would be obviated if we were less gross in feeding. Two meals a day are enough, and there should be very little meat used, especially those of the "hearty” kinds. Every one must, to get the best out of his day, practice and body, be a "law unto himself.” In other words understand what applies in his individual case. Then comes doing what one knows to be right. 


Teachers who assume the responsibility of bringing pupils before the public need to act with caution and to give very serious thought to their undertaking. This autumn has seen the apparent failure of several well-advertised singers. Where the blame lies is not evident, but as our column reaches so many teachers, may we be permitted to see if there is a lesson to this class of earnest workers. The chief desire of students to-day is to begin professional careers as quickly as possible. Naturally, teachers are anxious to aid them to quick appearances, for it gives so much more glory. In the haste too much risk is taken. This partly arises from the ignorance of the teacher. He or she knows that the pupil sings well at lessons, producing beautiful tones and giving tasteful renditions. The thought often comes, “I hear noted artists who cannot do so well as does my pupil. Why should she not also appear professionally and make success?” Could that question be calmly considered the reason of failure might be detected and guarded against. Has the pupil “staying powers?” That phrase is borrowed from the race-track, but our pupils are much like colts. Whether they can be depended upon is a question. Until they have been tested in many entertainments one cannot be sure of them. A voice which is so good in the quietness of the teaching room may give out under the excitement of a critical audience. Again, has the pupil the necessary personal qualifications for success? Is she beautiful enough to favorably impress at first sight a pitiless audience? The teacher is almost incapable of judging. Even our homely pupils become beautiful to us, because we have looked beyond the surface and have seen the real self. Outer plainness becomes illuminated from within and we think the lady beautiful, An audience has no time to learn her. It sees the surface. A very plain girl, though she sings much better than does the beauty, stands less chance of pleasing. When Mary Howe first sang in New York one of the critics remarked, “She sings like the d......I, but I can't write a word against such a vision as she is.” So Mary got good notices and sang on to experience and Success. Does the pupil know how to dress? The teacher, who is responsible for success, must supervise this. It is so important that the utmost care must be given it. Can she walk across the stage well and put herself into harmonious contact with her audience? If not, it is better for her not to try to sing publicly. Every effort to sing well becomes obnoxious to the audience, and the more the poor thing tries the worse off she is. One may say that the teacher should train the singer only. True, but the best trained singer cannot now please in cultured places with singing alone. What teacher dares assume responsibilities so great? He who can with safety, is he who has had much experience and dares to command his pupil as well as teach him. Bringing a pupil before the public is something totally different from teaching. It calls for different thought, and it should be paid for accordingly. That calls to mind that pupils accept from teachers this responsible work as a gift and hardly say “Thank you” for it. It is worth a thousand dollars to coach and supervise the first important appearance of any singer who aims at great and high position.


What is commonly called a failure contains within it the possibility of splendid success. One should never look upon apparent failure as the end, but the beginning. Whatever we do gains us experience, and no act in a worthy cause fails to contain the element of good. Sims Reeves, who, though an old man, makes every audience applaud with rapture, was hissed off the stage at his first appearance. It is said of Scoville that the first time he sang in Italy the audience hissed and the man in the box nearest the stage was so exasperated that he threw the cushions which were in the chair, at the singer and drove him off the stage. Yet in a few years Scoville was the best “Lohengrin.” to be heard. A failure, rightly used, is a great teacher. Through it we learn defects, and most of these can be remedied. If nothing more comes than to show the student that he has not studied long enough, even that is great gain. It is hard for a teacher to tell a pupil to wait another year. He is impatient and even fretful. We fear losing a pupil and let him attempt that for which he is not fitted. Be firm, however. But if he attempts and fails, do not be despondent, but pick up the loose ends and knit them firmly together. “True success,” says a certain preacher, “is to make the most of yourself and your opportunities.” Build up character and the noble creation will eventually speak out with no uncertain sound. The greater part of the music teacher's work is creating noble character. Every pupil has some one commanding gift. The idea which it contains has behind it magnificent power. Live upon and for that idea and use its power for betterment of the whole self.


A query which has often come to mind is, “Have the masters who have had noted pupils had one definite method?” Study of history of voice culture goes back to Porpora, who flourished about 200 years ago. He it was who made the great singers, Caffarelli and Farinelli, and a host of others less famous. No account of his way of teaching is to be found, and the exercises written by him only show that he sought great flexibility and facility in introducing embellishments. An incident concerning Farinelli shows that he must have trained the respiratory organs thoroughly. A German instrumentalist had reached Venice, where Porpora, then taught, who was famous for the length of time he could hold his tone. Porpora wrote music in which the player and singer were assigned a duet. At the public performance the singer easily outdid the player in the matter of sustaining the tone in one breath. This is not, however, evidence enough to show that Porpora based his teaching upon breathing. It would seem that he impressed a wonderfully strong personality upon each of his pupils, and that through is individual influence he made his pupils sing. What became of this man's work? Can a line from it be traced down to the present time? Farinelli evidently became, in his later years, a vocal teacher. This was not from necessity, for he was wealthy. He settled near Bologna and had choice pupils from all the country round about. He established a set which influenced the singing of the whole country. Born into this was Rossini. His early years were spent in the theatres, assisting his father who played in the band. When he began to write operas, which was at an early age, he found few persons who could sing what he wrote. He trained them to do it, however, and while he never gave singing lessons (except to Madame Alboni), he coached the singers in ways which had been handed down from Porpora. Rossini's operas were universally sung for a half century, and in their best form they were given in Northern Italy. Training for them was very thorough and it created a wonderful class of singers. Into this training Lamperti was born. Here was a man, also, who could make his pupils do almost anything. Happily, he lived long enough to stamp a definite method upon a great class of singers. Although he claimed only a half hundred of the great artists of our generation, nearly everyone of great reputation came under his influence in one way or another. The thought comes, “Did he hand his methods to one who can continue the line from Porpora?” I, myself, heard him advise pupils to go to Mr. Shakespeare, and in a manner which left no doubt in my mind but that he considered Mr. Shakespeare his successor.

It is evident to one who studies the history of method that the “individual” contributed, in every case, more toward the success of pupils than did “method.” Herein lies the valuable suggestion to every teacher. Seek not so much a method as the secret of developing the “teacher” in you, and make that felt by the pupils. There is yet another line of great teachers which began with the opening of our century with the elder Garcia and which has had earnest advocates. The character of earnestness is what makes it successful. Both lines of teaching, although different in essentials in method, have given very excellent results. This is quoted as evidence that the teacher's individuality is more powerful than method.


It is somewhat amusing to be told that a vocal teacher needs exercise; that he is in the house all day and his work is of such nature that he ought to get away from it and get out of doors. Popular understanding of the singer's work is decidedly wrong. A teacher whose time is well filled with lessons, or a student who practices faithfully, gets about as much physical exercise as does any laborer. He brings into use every muscle of the body. The seat of all strength is the diaphragm, and its labor is against and drawing upon all the muscles of the chest, sides and back. These, in turn, call into use the arms and shoulders, while the standing position, which should be taken during practice, calls the legs and hips into use. The blood is freely oxygenated and recreation of tissue is active. The nerves are kept in constant vibration. The whole body is “toned up.” As a therapeutic agent nothing is better for man than is vocal practice. How little people know about the singer's work is shown by their thoughtless comment. However, perhaps they are not altogether at fault, for so many singers treat our great art so lightly. They care to become able to sing a few ballads and, possibly, get a few dollars a Sunday for singing in churches but without themselves comprehending the great thing which they have touched. Certainly, if they don't show what singing is the public cannot know. It is great physically, as well as otherwise.

—Frank Herbert Tubbs, "The Musician," Volume 2, 1897: 21

Note: "Talk Turkey" is an idiomatic saying, meaning to talk frankly; mean business.

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