August 17, 2015

What Sbriglia Taught and How He Taught It by Perley Dunn Aldrich

Mr. Perley Dunn Aldrich, the editor of the Voice Department of THE ETUDE for the present month, has had an unusually broad musical training. He studied first at the New England Conservatory, where his teachers were Dr Louis Maas, Stephen Emergy, George Whiting and W. H. Daniell. Decidign on a career as a vocalist, however, he went abroad, studying with William Shakespeare and Georg Henschel in London, and Trabadello in Paris. Finally, while in Paris, he became a student of Sbriglia, the celebrated teacher of Jean de Reszke and others. His relations with Sbriglia were extremely close—in fact Mr. Aldrich actually lived with Sbriglia and acted as his assistant and accompanist. Mr. Aldrich has a fine, rich, high baritone voice and at one time appeared constantly in concert and oratorio. His devotion to teaching, however, has lead him from the public platform to his own studio in Philadelphia, where he is extremely successful as a vocal instructor. —Editor of the Etude. 

The death of Giovanni Sbriglia a few months ago recalls to his many pupils in various parts of the world a long list of eminent singers who came under his instructions for longer or shorter periods, and makes a most opportune occasion to tell the readers of The Etude something of his work. 

Sbriglia must have been at least eighty years of age when he passed away, for he sang in a performance of Martha in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1859, and for a period of nine years at this time sang in Cuba, Mexico and the United States in opera and concert. He took up teaching on his return to the continent. He was trained by Italian teachers in Naples and, naturally, followed the principles of the Italian school. 

He was eminently a practical teacher. He had very little theory and talked very little. He was not a good musician, played none to speak of on the piano, and, of course, knew nothing of the most modern operas. But he was a real teacher of the voice. He had that rare talent known as the "vocal gift." He knew when the voice resonated correctly, and he found original ways and means of causing it to do this. In fact, he was a genius in this one particular line. His teaching was empirical and intuitive. I believe he taught entirely as his intuition bade him, and sometimes this was difficult to follow, for his system would seem changeable to the student. He continually sought after a natural voice, but sometimes he would use unnatural means to gain this end. I mean, he would try to overcome a certain defect before he treated the voice as a whole. For example, I have heard him exercise a pupil vigorously on the sounds tee and tay, with the teeth, on the middle notes, to bring a strong resonance throughout the middle voice. He would use the Concone Fifty Lessons in the same way, making the pupil use sometimes one and sometimes the other of these vowels. When they sang them by the syllables I have seen change the fa to fee (or tee) for a pupil whose fa was weak and heady.  I have seem him carry this same work into the high notes, as far as possible, to cure a soprano of the bête noir of the soprano voice—a frontal register. Perhaps the next pupil would work entirely on the vowel o or oo to remedy a voice that was too white and reedy. 

A Firm, High Chest 

He insisted upon a firm, high chest for all pupils. For those who had weak chests he urged regular use of light dumb-bells and persistent effort to maintain a high chest. I have seen him make a student work hard to hold his chest as high as possible, and then bring the chin down towards it, day after day, as a physical exercise to develop the chest. This was very fatiguing for some pupils for a time, and backs and knees ached a bit, or even two bits. But the result usually justified the means. This brought about what he called the point d'appui  (point of support) just at the bottom of the sternum bone. Here, according to his idea, lay the support of the voice; and when the singer once understood this he could sing without fatigue and give every graduation needed for the tone. It was an understanding of this idea the enabled him to develop Madam Nordica's voice from a lyric soprano voice to a dramatic soprano voice. He insisted on this support so strongly that many of his singers, De Reszke, Plançon, and many of lesser note, wore abdominal belts to aid in supporting the chest. Of course, many pupils abused the power that this chest development gave, and "hollered" until the voice was worn. But this, I take it, was farthest from his idea. I feel sure, however, that many pupils came away with the wrong idea of this support," and gave a very wrong impression of the maestro's school of singing.

I once asked him why he did not write down his method. His reply was that this was impossible, as "what was good for one was bad for another." I have heard him declare emphatically more than once "I have no method. I teach people to sing. If the voice is too open, I shut; if it is too shut, I open."

He taught in the old-fashioned way by using the Cancone exercises on the vowel sound adapted to the need of the pupil (the Ah the last of all, usually). Then he would use the same exercises with the fixed do syllables. He would go over and over the same aria, day after day, and even week after week, using it as a vocal exercise, caring very little for the interpretation, but spending all the time and though upon the freedom of tone.

Singing on the Lips

For certain voices he insisted very much upon the use of the lips, especially on the closed vowels o and oo.  He often remarked, in his broken english. "Like you whiz" (whistle). "Singing on the lips" was another favorite phrase that he used over and over. This, combined with the strong chest, was the sun and substance of his teaching. For when he wandered afield from these ideas, he came back to them with renewed energy and with wonderful pertinacity. I remember very well a certain solfeggio by Guercia that he me sing with the syllables softly and very rapidly to keep the voice on the lips. "I fior di labbi" (the flower of the lips). He would say, over and over. "Ne pousee pas" (don't push) when the pupil would force the voice.

Singing in the Chest

Another idea on which he dwelt persistently was singing in the chest. He often told me that this was the secret of singing and a principle that almost nobody understood. I think few of his pupils thoroughly understood this, and he often said so. I know in my own case, it was, indeed, some years before I fully appreciated the principle and saw the almost breath-bereaving results I could obtain with it. It was very difficult to understand because it seemed impossible for a soprano to keep her high notes singing in the chest or for the tenor to keep his mixed voice there; but, like all real maestros of the voice, he could not abide the whoopy, heady tone, and tried to keep the voice down to its real and natural resonance. The result was that all his pupils who obtained an insight into this principle sang with a firm, vibrant tone.

It is difficult to put his ideas on paper, because they seem so spontaneous and intuitive—so like flashed of genius. They do not seem the same when written down as they do when illustrated by someone who understands them. But I have given a few ideas that I learned from watching him teach many different pupils hour after hour. I have need ceased to be grateful for this opportunity I had for observing his wonderful teaching; for I feel sure that whatever measure of success I have had has been largely due to his inspired teaching.

The Etude, February, 1917: 122-123

Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi. 


When you read an article like this from The Etude, it quickly becomes apparent just how much the teaching of singing has changed, if only because voice teaching today proceeds from a very different basis. 

Let's take Sbriglia's "singing in the chest" for starters. A voice teacher who has been schooled in anatomy and acoustics won't know what to make of this at all. Why? He or she knows that the chest is not a resonating cavity—so why think of the chest? 

What this modern maven doesn't apprehend is that the spine does indeed resonant with tone, tone which is felt in the chest, which can be properly understood as a matter of bone conduction, and a by-product of pure, Italianate vowels. Oh, but that's a real trip too, since modern teachers don't think in terms of pure anything. Rather, their parlance is geared towards matters like vocal fold registration and formants.

My own teacher taught Sbriglia's concept of "singing in the chest," insofar as instructing her students to monitor the sternum area as well as the area of the upper lip, and bridge of nose. It's simple stuff really, and not hard at all if one begins from an acoustical basis (we're talking about an educated ear here) rather than a know-everything-about-everything one.

I would agree with Sbriglia: few understand his teaching. The irony is that it can be easily understood by those with educated ears, listening being a vestibular (feeling) as well as a cochlear matter. (How else do you think Mandy Harvey sings? While you are all busy yakking about formant this and vocal fold that, she is busy singing in tune via a finely educated vestibular system. Oh yeah—she's deaf too.)

Such is the difference of our times. 

The foundation of the Old Italian School was the ear. If you can wrap your head around what this means, you may amount to something. Sadly, I know far too many people with doctorates who are whip-smart, know everything about everything in terms of anatomy, physiological and acoustics, but can't sing. 

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