Rules for Training the Voice

J Harry Wheeler (1836-1909) 
To cultivate a voice it is of the greatest importance to ascertain as soon as possible, the real character of the voice. Some voices are so warped, the tones so misplace, the registers and quality so exaggerated, that at first it is sometimes impossible to tell what the voice is its normal condition really is. All voices should not be treated precisely the same. For example, if a voice is a soprano, it should not be treated as though it were a mezzo-contralto, even if the compass be the same. 

The voice should be cultivated in the clear timbre or quality. The strength of the voice is gained in this timbre. It should not be understood that the tone should be of a thin, flat quality; all tones should receive a certain degree of coloring from the first. The sombre timbre should only be used for emotional effects; if the voice has been properly cultivated it will become stronger and more sombre by usage and age. 

For the production of clear tones the air should be directed forward, and for the production of the sombre tones the air should be directed backwards. The quality of a tone is almost entirely owing to its resonance. In cases where the resonance is too far back, the vowels  ee as ee in deed, will be found to be the most favorable to bring the resonance forward. Practice with the word see will also prove of great advantage. The consonant s aids largely in placing the sound well against the teeth. 

During the singing, the position of the tongue for the different vowels should be as flat as possible, and projected forward. Great care should be taken not to draw the tongue backward. This fault may be overcome by practice before a glass; first drawing in the breath as in gaping, then vocalizing with ah, and the vowels a, e, i, o, u, the end of the tongue at the same time being pressed against the front lower teeth during the production of the tone. It will be found advantageous to sustain all the vowels to teach tone of the diatonic scale, the entire compass of the voice, and also the Italian syllables do, re, mi, etc., keeping the tongue forward during the sustained sound, and giving a similar quality of sound to all the tones. By this it is not meant that the volume should be the same throughout the scale; in every instance, the higher the tone, the less the volume. 

No fault in pronunciation is more common than that of dwelling upon the final l of words, as shall, fall, fail. While sustaining the l the free transmission of sound is interfered with by the curling of the tongue, thus producing a disagreeable tone. The sound should be sustained upon the first vowel of syllable of a word, and the vanishing part of the word given quickly and promptly. 

Aw and oo are the most favorable vowels for the production of sombre tones. The chin should be kept well back for all sombre tones, and under no circumstances should it ever protrude. The vowels a as in day, a  as in arm, e as in read, are the best suited for the production of a clear quality of tone. The sombre and clear qualities give color to the thought, and should be made with different degrees of intensity, corresponding to the different degrees of emotion. The words should suggest the quality. For example the words, "Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound," should at once suggest the sombre quality; while the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" should suggest the clear quality. But few singers give sufficient attention to the shading of tones. As all the emotions may be expressed by the face, without the utterance of speech, so many they all be expressed by colors of tone. Some voices are naturally full and sombre in quality, hence are physiologically adapted to oratorio music; while clearer, brighter voices are physiologically adapted to operatic music. Often this is so marked that the grandest oratorio singer may fail in opera, and the most brilliant opera singer may fail in oratorio. 

The vowels most favorable for the culture of the male voice are a as in art, ee as in deed, o as in don't oo as in doom, au as in aught, and the Italian notation syllables do, re, mi. No one vowel or syllable should be used exclusively for the culture of the voice, male or female, neither should the entire range of the compass be sung without shading. For example, if a as in art be used throughout the entire compass without a change of color, the upper tones will become thin, and the voice will eventual become weak and unmusical. The exclusive practice of e would cause the voice to lose volume, and the invariable practice with au, although it would give fulness, would fail to add strength to the voice. 

After all defects have been remedied, then the real culture of the voice should be commenced. The syllable ah, shaded into o or oo on the upper tones, will be found for general practice for all voices to be the most useful syllables. If the tones are not shaded on the upper part of the voice they will become thin and screamy. In shading the upper tones great care should be taken not to make them excessively sombre, otherwise they will be so muffled that there will be a loss of power and agility. Shading should be very slight at the beginning of a scale. The very low tones should be sung with ah, as more depth, power and brilliancy is gained with this syllable on these tones than with the syllable au. The male voice, in ascending the scale, should merge the ah with ah-au-oo combined, the difference between unshared and shaded tones will be easily observed, the tones produced with ah being unshaded, and those combing ah-au-oo being shaded. Unless great care is exercised in the production of shaded tones the larynx will sink to excess. 

The syllables ah, au, and the vowels oo and o, will be found to be the most favorable for the culture for the female voice. The process of cultivating the female voice is quite different from that of the male voice, from the fact that three registers are to be considered, and if either are exaggerated ruination of the voice will be inevitable. On the lowest tones the ah will be found to be preferable, the chin being allowed to fall downward and backward. If a full, sombre tone is desired, the syllable au or the vowels oo, with a vertical position of the lips, will be found favorable for the production of this quality of tone. On the high tones of the voice it will be found beneficial to allow the e to approach the sound of ah, with the chin well back, and the upper lip sufficiently raised to show the upper teeth as in smiling; by this mode the highest and best tones can be produced in the clear timbre. If the ah, as produced on the low, and sometimes on the middle tones of the voice, should be used on C, third space of the soprano staff, and the same quality continued above, the voice would in a short time become thin and weak. In singing scales, the shading of the chest-tones of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice should be commenced on C. The contralto voice should begin to shade on B. The shading of the tones of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voices, preparatory to their entrance into the head-voice, should be commenced on B. For the same purpose, the contralto should commence to shade on B flat. The tenor and baritone voices, preparatory to their entrance into the head-voice, should begin to shade on C. The bass, for the same purpose, should begin on B flat. 

In the female voice it is wise to cultivate the medium register first. In the first lessons, the medium or falsetto voice should be carried as low as possible. When these tones have become strong, the chest-voice should be studied. By this process the break between the medium and chest-registers will be so slight that they can be easily united. If the chest-tones are first cultivated, the break between the medium and chest-voice will be very conspicuous, and there will be much difficulty in uniting the two. Unless special attention is given to the medium tones in the lower part of the voice they will be weak and useless. One should be able to sing full medium tones from C, the first added line below the soprano staff, to B, the third line of the same staff. 

There are few faults more common with beginners in voice-culture than that of producing throaty tones. This fault may be remedied by vocalizing with the chin lowered and drawn inward. Another prominent fault among students is that of protruding the chin. This may be remedied by first placing the chin down and back, and then singing a tone with a gradual crescendo. Another excellent remedy is to move the chin downward and upward, as in mastication, during the production of a tone, endeavoring, at the same time, to jeep the muscles attached to the jaw relaxed. If these methods fail, lower the chin, place a strap about it, fastening it at the back of the head, and while in position vocalize the scales. 

The extreme limits of the voice should never be practiced. For example, in order to attain C in alt one should to practice above A or B flat. If the high C is in the voice, by practicing a few tones below this letter the voice will grow up to it. Even when the high C has been acquired, it should not be brought into daily practice. Its occurrences in arias and cadenzas will give it sufficient practice. What is said of the high tones is true in regard to the low tones, although the low tones are not susceptible to injury as are the high tones. 

—Harry J. Wheeler, "Rules for Training the Voice," Werner's Voice Magazine, January 1889: 6-7. 


It's not the first time J. Harry Wheeler has appeared on these pages (see here), though this is the first time he has done so in his own words. Like other pieces that have appeared on VoiceTalk, this one fell into my lap while I was looking for something else. Further digging revealed Wheeler gave a series of talks in New York City in 1904 on the very same topic, which indicates that he was presenting material which had "legs." In that regards, he seems to have been a teacher of teachers. 

Those who know their historical vocal pedagogy will be fascinated by Wheeler's instruction regarding clear and sombre timbre, if only because Wheeler was a student first of Manuel García and then Francesco Lamperti—García addressing the physiological difference between timbres in his great work A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847).

Shading, timbre, use of registers, eliminating defects, as well as the canny use of vowels: these are foundational elements of vocal training which rely on the ear of both teacher and student. Is there any better technology?