October 5, 2015

Blanche Marchesi: Visible Motors of the Voice

Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940)
What are the principle motors producing the voice? 

The heart is the first. It is the principle source of action. The lungs are the second. 

If the heart is the motor of life, the lungs by procuring breath act as the driving power and by pumping the air keep the first motor going. 

The third motor is the vocal instrument itself. Sound is formed by the glottis, the details of which are explained in another section. 

The production of sound necessitates that all organs of the human body should exercise their normal functions, but the three mentioned above are the direct motors without which nothing an be done, nor a sound be produced. It goes without saying that the nerve centre of the brain controls the movements executed by the body. It is the power station of motion. Altogether, not one part of the human body can act unaided. The larynx is subject to the same law. It does not, as many people believe, stand alone in the throat, like a tree on a mountain. It is as complete and complicated as a watch. As there we see wheels within wheels, so here muscles and nerves react upon each other. Some connect the larynx directly and indirectly to the smaller and larger motors. Disconnected from any one of the motors, the voice fails to act. 

Can we alter or interfere with any part of throat or chest belonging to the production of sound? 

We not only can, but we must know our throat, and all that appertains to the production of sound, so thoroughly and intimately as to be able to influence, for better or worse, different parts of the vocal organs, and their subordinate parts. 

Can the windpipe be altered at will? 

The windpipe, if subject to illness or wrongly uses, will produce a noisy breath. If it is healthy and left undisturbed whilst a deep diaphragmatic breath is taken, and every part of the throat relaxed, there will be no involuntary noise produced at all. But the wheezing and indeed all forms of audible breathing caused by ill-health can be artificially produced by deliberately squeezing the windpipe. 

Can we alter and interfere with any other part of the throat? 

Yes, several more. 

The larynx, in its movements, obeys our will. We can change its position quickly or slowly, and we can be right or wrong in doing so. 

The vocal cords can be used both in the right and the wrong way. We shall be right in closing them firmly but gently, wrong in not closing them, thus letting the air through, or closing them with a violent jerk, hitting one against the other, so to speak. This fault is disastrous. 

The palate, that is, the soft back part of the palate which has the uvula for its centre, can at will be left alone or strongly contracted and let down like a sail on a boat, as vocal production may demand. This last process is called "covering." When the female voice uses head register the soft palate lifts slightly.

As women possess a capacity for covering their chest tones also, so, like men, they can change the condition of the soft palate and contract the pharynx. 

Tonsils, like every other part of the throat, can be lift alone or altered. By lifting the root of the tongue and letting the soft palate sink. contracting the whole pharynx violently, we may draw the tonsils out of their position, making them approach each other and is some cases meet. This may be observed chiefly in men who do not know the use of their upper notes and try their best to reach them by squeezing their tonsils. This produces a bad, if not comic effect, and should never be allowed. 

The pharynx, which is the whole box containing the vocal instrument relaxed at will or used to perform certain functions necessary to singing, provided that the correct registers and sounding-boards are employed. 

The back nostrils, through which the nose conveys the air received through the front nostrils, are of the highest importance, a fact that cannot be sufficiently emphasized. They play a serious part in the formation of beauty and power in the human voice. Like the other parts forming the whole vocal instrument mentioned, the back nostrils may be manipulated at will; they can be opened or closed. 

When the singer suffers from an acute cold, the back nostrils are generally inflamed and swell to such a degree as to leave no space for the air to come and go. In some cases they are completely closed. The same effect is produced when chronic inflammation, adenoids, or any growth obstructs the passages, and the air finds its way with great difficulty. or not at all, until the hindrance is removed by cure or operation. 

Perfectly healthy back nostrils it lies absolutely in our power to close or open. To use the detestable and impossible method of singing through the nose, which is an offense to any musical ear, is to leave the back nostrils wide open in emitting sound. No greater mistake could be made. Men and women equally must keep the back nostrils closed when singing. The inside of the nose may be compared to a dead lump of cotton, and the way to it must be barred while tone is produced. 

Tone cannot be made without a sounding-board and, I cannot repeat it often enough, must find in in whatever register happens to be in use. The back nostrils, therefore, can only yield when the pronunciation of certain consonants like m or n imperatively compel the singer to open the nasal passage for an instant. The consonant having been pronounced, the back nostrils must be immediately contracted again. 

These seven parts of our vocal instrument we can an must specially control. 

Whilst singing, no muscles of the throat must be made to work except those actually required. All must begin by being completely slack, so that as the notes are taken the required parts may contract and again relax whilst other in turn contract. But, needless to say that, when running through the whole scale, the instrument will never be entirely relaxed. 

Singers should always avoid crying of laughing violently. The air passages change shape, the blood-vessels of the larynx are flooded, and congestion is created. One of the great endeavors of a singer must be to avoid congestion. 

Blanche Marchesi, The Singer's Catechism and Creed (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1932): 57-60. 


Who talks about the back nostrils today? No one that I know of. More commonly, one hears of the manipulation of the soft palate, right? And then there is the matter of the larynx, which is nowadays referred to as being in a "neutral" position (of course, I can't help thinking of a car that's going nowhere). Not so the method of García, which correlated tonal color to that of laryngeal height within the vocal tube. 

Methinks Madam Marchesi was trying to get her reader to listen.

My own teacher dealt with the matter of back nostrils, though they were never called that. Instead, the student heard her refer to "oo space" in tandem with demonstrating an inward breathing technique not unlike the yogic maneuver called "ujjayi." But nothing mystical was meant. Rather, the student was simply given instruction that made one—again, like Marchesi—listen. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia: Blanche Marchesi as rendered by John Singer Sargent. 

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