April 30, 2016

A Milestone for VoiceTalk

At some point in the next 24 hours, VoiceTalk will have had 500,000 visitors. Not too shabby for an arcane blog about historical vocal pedagogy, right? 

I started blogging in 2009 with the intent to share what I had discovered in my research—where my curiosity lead me—and have come to realize that it is a never-ending journey, one with its own internal markers along the way—numbers being the least of it. 

You have to know something to know something! —Margaret Harshaw 

What I know for certain: you can learn a great deal from a book if you have some practical experience and understanding of what you are trying to accomplish—and in this case we are talking about actual singing, not abstract baubles of thought. Like a gold miner, the seeker of vocal truth has to do quite a bit of sifting. (I will be bold and say there really are plain-as-day vocal truths to be discovered for those with open ears and eyes, and a developed sense of proprioception.) You have to know where to look and how to go about your search, and for VoiceTalk, this has meant a concentration on the teachings of two legendary schools of singing, that of Manuel García and Franceso Lamperti—together encompassing a great deal of scientific and empirical knowledge. There is also my own "take" on matters pedagogical. 

What can you find on VoiceTalk in weeks and months to come? More teachings and information from a fellow seeker. 

I hope you will continue with me on the journey. 

Thank you for reading VoiceTalk! 

April 29, 2016

The Soft Voice Fallacy

Practicing Softly Should Be Essayed Only After Artistry Has Been Adhered—The Case of Evan Williams—A Miraculous "Come Back"—"From Full Tone Develop the Soft Voice." —By W. Henri Zay 

One of the rarest and most beautiful effects in singing is a really lovely soft voice that has not only charm, but atmosphere, depth, sincerity and even breadth and dignity. 

Most of the soft tones one hears on concerts are breathy and superficial, cloudy or off key, or sound more like a whine than an expression of sympathetic charm. 

So many teachers are attempting to train voices starting with the soft voice, which, they claim, can be developed into the full tone, that the inference would be at least there ought to be many good exponents of soft singing, but where are they? 

Well, then! What is the "Soft Voice Fallacy?" It is the idea that voices can be developed, starting with the soft voice. I have met in New York many poor deluded students, who have been working for several years on soft voice, who couldn't sing a decent tone or pronounce anything intelligibly, to say nothing of eloquently. 

The wonder is the they are so gullible, and can be persuaded to continue such a futile course, even when their own common sense tells them that they are doing themselves no good. 

It sounds so plausible to say, "First get the right tone softly and then develop it up to the full tone," but it doesn't come off. They never get the "right tone." The old Italian masters did not teach that way, and none of the really great singers have been trained that way. I defy anyone to name any who have. The way to develop a voice is first to get a mental concept of a full, free tone, supported by a fully extended chest and torso, and finishing freely in the diction area in the masque of the face. Then sing an exercise full voice, not soft; neither should it be fortissimo, but as it comes, let it speak, as full as the breath support is strong—not forcing. Then a student has a chance to feel in a positive fashion what is taking place, and has a basis for self-criticism. With the soft voice the sensation is so slight that it deceives or confuses the singer, and usually, if it doesn't pinch and squeeze the tone, at least leaves it undeveloped and "namby-pamby." 

To be sure, if one sings full voice, one must know how to direct it to the masque resonance and keep it off the throat; then he will avoid forcing, also at the same time he will learn to pronounce not only the open vowels, but the closed ones as well, and still keep a round, musical tone. 

The wrong loud tone, of course, ruins the voice, the right loud tone develops it. Then, when the sensation is fixed and a standard of criticism established, begin to modulate the tone, and soon a beautiful soft voice will be found that has all the character and depth of the full tone. It will be expressive and lovely, and when a word like "deeper" is sung it won't give the impression of acid-like thinness or make the listening feel as if he had been pricked with some sharp instrument. When a student has learned to sing and becomes an artist, then he may practice softly, but is the last thing he learns, not the first. 

The career of the late H. Evan Williams was a grand illustration of this method. I believe I knew the man and his voice better than any other of his numerous friends. We began together in Cleveland. He came to New York, I went to London. When his voice broke down, he went home to Akron, and did not sing in public for three years, but worked as best he could to restore and develop his voice, and did very well. He then went to London to start over and establish a new reputation. He landed in London one evening, and next morning came to see me. 

His first greeting was a reference to my speaking voice; he ignored the commonplaces, and went straight to the fact that he heard in the tone of my greeting that my whole idea of voice and the expression of self had changed. He stayed in my house for about a year. The experience was most interesting. He was singing with a production which made far too much of the pharynx resonance, the result being a tone that was far back and of a hollow, chesty character. This tone sounds rather fine and big to the singer himself, but does not carry, neither does it lead up naturally into the head voice. 

Rescue of a Great Voice 

I told him it would not do, and set to work to convince him. It didn't take long; in two weeks he moved the voice forward, using the masque resonance instead of the pharynx, and getting his power and depth from body support. The masque resonance improved and invigorated his head voice as well, and made the voice even from top to bottom. I took him at once for six Chappell Ballad Concerts at Queen's Hall, and that was Evan William's "come-back" to the concert platform.

If ever a voice wanted careful handling William's did; his disastrous experience before had proven that it could not stand abuse. But there was no fooling with the soft tone with him; he went straight and strong at the full tone, and all the post-nasal resonance he could get into it, then he was soon modulating it so that he could reduce it to a whisper and still retain the intensity. 

It improved his pronunciation because the tone and pronunciation were in the same area. Of course, Williams had a wonderfully facile voice, he had an undoubted genius for tone, he could imitate any kind of sound. It was a great experience and a privilege to work with him, and I gladly acknowledge that I learned a lot in the process. 

Williams returned to America, and when he walked into Henry Wolfson's office and told him he had his voice back better than ever, Wolfson wouldn't believe it, but when he sang for him an oratorio number, Wolfson, astonished, declared," We'll have your success all over again." And he did, and more. Williams was certainly the greatest tenor, if not singer, that America ever produced. He certainly was filled at times with cosmic energy and inspiration, and maybe unconsciously was an instrument though which higher forces played. This is a high from of human development, which can only be experienced by one whose daily habit it is to take in and hold, with a stretch of his body, great, deep breaths. Thus is the connection with inspirational forces established. When the forces are not active, the subject becomes human again, but the effect of the temporary visitation, always remains, raising the average status high than it was before. 

This sort of feeling is never developed by timid, soft-voice trainers, and it has nothing to do with the size of the voice. A small voice may have it just the same as a big one, or a lyric just the same as a dramatic. Evan Williams's was a lyric voice, but how dramatic he was! Was it all by accident, or gift? No; it was developed. 

More Singers of His Type Needed 

We must have more singers of this calibre, men and women; they can be developed, not by feeble, insignificant and fussy humming and whining, but by tone properly directed toward the masque of the face, tone that is bold, full and free, supported by a full breath, controlled by an elastic body stretch. Through these activities the singer can become spiritually and emotionally strong, he can find himself and express himself, and become a fitting instrument to recreate the best moments of the world's best composers. 

Let not the little flat-chested whiners think they are artistic. Art is strong, virile, inspiring. In spiritual strength we find the greatest delicacy. The procedure is thus reversed. From the full tone develop the soft voice; Fallacy disappears and we find Truth. 

H. Henry Zay, Musical America, March 26, 1921: 41-42. 

Note: Find more about W. Henri Zay here. Lastly, Zay's approach is in keeping with that of Anna E. Schoen-René and her student Margaret Harshaw, Schoen-René having been a student of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García.

April 27, 2016

Physiology vs Psychology

Shortly before the advent of García, various attempts were made to establish a science of voice production based on the knowledge of physiology. This movement was given impetus by the use of the laryngoscope, and García's first belief was that his discovery would be a incalculable value and benefit in the synthesis of vocal development. Experience proved the contrary, and García's own opinion regarding its value to the vocal world was materially changed before the end of his career. 

Physiology, in its present accepted relation to vocal art, must be consigned to its proper position in the minds of men, and the true living principle be reinstated. The sciences of acoustics, physiology, and other kindred sciences have the analytical corroborative value, but the breath of vocal life—past, present, and future—was, is, and shall be the science of psychology. 

Warren W. Shaw, The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration (J. B Lippincott, Philadelphia & London), 1914: 132.


Digging into human nature. That is what I hear Shaw alluding too, rather than the actions of muscles and ligaments. While voice science has keep a steady space delving into the minutia of anatomy, physiology and acoustics since 1914, it has has only lately taken a deeper look into matters like motor learning theory which—surprise, surprise—observes that learning to sing has little to do with remembering facts and formants. It seems that singing teachers, while holding in their heads all that they are taught about the aforementioned subjects, have to figure out how to climb into the heads of their students and present experiences that enable them to sing—learning to singing being a procedural rather than a declarative process. 

Speaking of procedural learning: children who learn their native language (or even a second and third language) aren't taught the anatomy, physiology and acoustics of their mouths in order to speak properly. Instead, they are given the sounds of words. Complete bodies of meaning, children inculcate these words and sounds in the most simple way possible: through repetition, feeling—which really is listening—and association, the ear organizing the movements of the body. For all that I can tell, the most successful voice teachers do something similar, which is what every parent does for a child of three; that is, they chop up everything into bitable bits of doing, which avoids choking on facts. 

April 24, 2016

A Whole-Truth of Voice Culture

Luigi Vannuccini (1828-1911)
Here is one set of teachers insisting primarily upon tone being thrown forward in the mouth, directed against the front teeth, focussed upon the hard palate, as their different phraseology has it. Another set speaks of nothing else in this connection than throwing the voice into the head, or, as Vanuccini, one of my instructors, used to say, "Let the tone lean against the eyes." Which is right? Why, both are right. I will not stop to combat certain absurd notions of science generally mixed up with these instructions, but will admit that the phrases are convenient in teaching, and stand for real things. Putting the two departments together—that of bringing tone forward and that of putting it into the head—you have a whole-truth of voice culture. Use one of them exclusively and your voice is thin and hard, with a very imperfect upper register; or it is hollow and without power through most of its compass, and the lower register is much curtailed.

Frederic, W. Root, "The Half-Truths of Vocal Culture: Literary Fuge Written for the Session of 1881 of the Music Teachers' National Association at Albany, N.Y., July 6," The Voice, Vol. 3, No. 7, July 1881: 102

April 23, 2016

The Art of Teaching Singing by Agnes J. Larkcom

Agnes J. Larkcom (1865-1931)
The following is the text of a paper by Madame Larkcom read before the Society of Women Musicians. Madam Larkcom is one of the best-known and most highly-esteemed teachers of singing in London. She is therefore entitled to speak with authority on this much-discussed question.—Ed., M.T.

We have met together to-day to consider seriously some aspects of the art of teaching singing. This subject was brought forward prominently lately by the Society of English Singers, particularly in a kind of manifesto which appeared in the Musical Times for July, 1916, and which was issued apparently as an authoritative statement of the aims of the Society. In view of these activities, and considering that the subject generally seems to be arousing more interest and attracting greater attention than it has been favored with in the past, I have though that it would be desirable for women to arrange some sort of meetings for discussion in order to trash out from a woman's point of view some of the theories which obtain as to the foundations of good singing and teaching about which at present there is a diversity of opinion. I thought it would be a very fine thing if this study could be organized and set going by the Society of Women Musicians. The Society numbers among its members a good many women who have had wide experience both as performers and teachers, and I feel strongly that the moment has come when we ought not longer to sit down tamely and allow men alone to decide what we can and what we can not do, what is right and what is wrong, and in fact take up the position of final arbiters with regard to our development mentally and artistically. I consider women know best about their own physical powers and limitations, and I also think we ought to establish a standard of taste and excellent of performance for ourselves, and endeavor to help the younger members of the Society by giving them the benefit of the collective experience of those of us who have had wider opportunities. Women are apt to be timid and afraid to assert themselves—if they hold original views, they give them up too readily if a man comes along and attacks them. I am inclined to hope that if various aspects of the art of singing and teaching singing were dispassionately discussed here, we might feel more certain of ourselves and be able to inspire the less experienced members of the Society with greater confidence and enthusiasm. 

What Can Women Do? 

It has been asked by a good many persons 'What can we do?' or 'What are we ready to do?' Well, at the present time, when everything around us is giving evidence of the extraordinary capacity of women and the wonderful adaptability they have shown in taking up work of kinds hitherto deemed quite outside their sphere, I do not think we need fear to attack the problems connected with good singing or the teaching of singing. This at least is legitimately our business, and there is no reason for hesitation. 

The 'Public School Spirit' 

There is one thing, however, we ought to do if we hope to achieve good and lasting results. We ought to try and cultivate a good deal of what is sometimes called the 'public school spirit.' That is, we must be ready to give and take, play fair, enjoy the success of others, and as a result of real esprit de corps award generous recognition and appreciation to the work of our fellow-artists. We know that amongst scientists every profound thinker expects his theories to be subjected to severe tests and all sorts of criticism. When tests are applied or criticism is offered for the sake of advancing knowledge and discovering truth, no scientific worker id disturbed even if eventually he has to modify his theory and re-form his conclusions. The object he has to view is the unveiling of truth; he learns by making mistakes, and benefits by critical attitude of his fellow-workers. I am afraid in the musical profession there is not enough of this philosophic state of mind. We are many of us rather apt to take offense easily, we do not like criticism, and instead of welcoming suggestions from experienced persons, we sometimes treat them with a little less respect than they deserve. Now when the whole world is at war and we have before us such an awful lesson as to the evils of unbounded conflict, it is not possible that we, the members of this first little Society of Women Musicians, may work together instead of competing and endeavor to lift our art to a high or level than it has ever reached by united effort and friendly co-operation? 

It seems to me to be more in harmony with woman's nature to build up rather than pull down; at the bottom of our hearts we all prefer to construct rather than destroy. In order to do good work we must have definite aims, and before going into the details of the scheme of study I have in mind, I should like to say a little about the qualifications which we have a right to expect from students of singing, and the kind of knowledge which a teacher of singing ought to possess if she wishes to do work of real value and importance. 

Qualifications Necessary for a Singer 

I do not think we are nearly exacting enough with regard to the qualifications of the would-be singer. People seem to think that anyone can sing, and that a few lessons are quite sufficient to prepare a girl to sing prettily to her friends. I think it is time we asked for more, and began to try and make people understand that singing is a very difficult and beautiful art—that it is probably not a branch, but the very root from which music has sprung. It is certainly the most human aspect of music, and emotion expressed by the voice must surely enter more readily and intimately into the heart than when conveyed by an instrument, no matter how skilfully used. Let us, then, take an exalted view of the art of singing, and do our best to break down the prejudice which exists as to is value and beauty. 

With regards to qualifications which we should demand from the pupil in singing, there are five which I consider absolutely necessary. They are:

  1. A good voice;
  2. Musical aptitude; 
  3. General intelligence;
  4. Good health; 
  5. Character. 

I do not consider that we can ever make a good singer if the individual  being trained does not posses these qualifications in a very fair degree. I am afraid that two latter—health and character—are not considered nearly enough. By good health I do not mean merely general health, but the local well-being of the organs engaged in voice-production—the nasal passages, throat, lungs, &c. Teachers often strive for weeks and months to cure defects of production which arise from some local obstruction, and it is quite necessary for a teacher to train herself to recognize the peculiarities of sound which are caused by different kinds of diseases such as adenoids, granulation, enlarged tonsils, weak lungs, &c. They each have their own particular manner of affecting the voice, and it is useful to be able to detect the various symptoms. 

What I call 'character' is of the utmost importance—I mean the possession of the qualities of patience, perseverance, industry, self-control, and joy in overcoming difficulties which takes the pupil so quickly along the path of progress. I often think that 'character' is rarer than intelligence. So many students are clever, but flippant; they cannot, or will not, see the necessity for practice. They forget their breathing exercises, laugh at their diction exercises, and demand silly little songs or ragtime ditties instead of trying to understand beautiful music! 

The Teacher's Knowledge 

Now with regard to the kind of knowledge the teacher ought to possess before she can hope to deal successfully with the various kinds of pupils who will be placed in her care. What ought to be the fundamental idea which should underlie her work and direct her aims, and how can she best prepare herself to put in practice the theories which inspire her work? 

I think we are all probably agreed in believing that music has been a wonderful power of stimulating and enhancing emotion. When fine music is added to beautiful words we are all conscious of being able to enter with greater understanding into the inmost thoughts and meanings of the poet much more than when the words are merely read or spoken. In fact we most of us feel that music can convey to us degrees of emotion which lie beyond the region of words, and are too find and subtle for ordinary expression. The special art of the singer seems to me to consist, speaking broadly, in the 'adequate expression by means of the human voice, used in conjunction with music, of any or every kind o formation.' To attain to this power the singer music be trained in every way—patiently, methodically, and persistently. Without intelligent training I cannot think it is possible to arrive at really great and lasting results. 

Physical Training 

No one can teach anything without being observant, and we often learn from outside subjects facts which enable use to understand better our own particular study. It has always interested me to notice the effects of training on different persons and classed. Let us for example consider that which is very much in evidence just now, as revealed in our new armies. It is a mere truism to remake that under the server discipline of the sergeant-major, many a slouching, sluggish loader has been changed in a few weeks into a smart, alert, and active solders on whom it is a joy to look, and who has often improved mentally and morally as much as he has in bodily grace and perfection. Then let us look at the ordinary acrobat. I do not suppose that Nature has gifted the majority of these persons with particular or special powers: in fact I imagine most acrobats begin their training so early that there would not be time to find out whether they are specially gifted or not: they are made—not born, and yet we see from ordinary children of ordinary parents with unusual ability or exceptional physique, performances exhibiting the most remarkable agility, suppleness, and strength, showing frequently a perfectly beautiful physical development, and usually giving evidences of the possession in a remarkable degree of the moral qualities of courage, judgment and control. If these wonderful results can be obtained by discipline and training from the raw material of which so much of our splendid new arias is composed, and from the probably unscientific and not particularly sensitive persons who provide entertainments based on physical display, how much may we not expect to result to the student of singing, from careful training by informed and educated persons, of the organs engaged in voice-production. To my mind most of the failures we so frequently hear of in modern times—the inability to endure the strain of modern vocal music the harshness, tremulousness, and fatigue noticeable in so many voices—result from the want of sufficient technical training—both students and teachers are in too great a hurry. Instead of following patiently the long path of slow development, they ask for short cuts to excellence and only arrive at disaster and disappointment. The training which will fit the student to become a fine and successful vocalist must deal first with the physical, and then in turn with the mental, aesthetic, and sympathetic aspects of the singer's art. 

Training for the Expression of Emotion 

We will now consider in what this training should consist, and what ought to be the objects in the teacher's mind while striving to develop the powers of a student. In order 'to express adequately any or every kind of emotion,' the physical organs engaged in singing must first be brought to such a point that they can produce fine resonant tone, and endure hard work without fatigue.  They must be able to respond instantaneously and accurately to the mental images in the mind of the singer, and they must also be capable of reproducing at will the bodily conditions which would obtain were the artist actually moved by the emotional he is seeking to interpret. We must remember that every passing thought affects us physically and middies to a certain extent our physical condition. We must realize, too, that there can never be perfectly appropriate tone-color unless the organs concerned are brought into the state they would assume if the performer were really experiencing the emotions about which his is singing. These conditions will probably be obtained fairly easily by the individual when the subject deals with emotions natural to himself and with which he sympathizes, but those ideas with which he is unfamiliar, or to which he is opposed, will be more difficult for him to convey. In these cases mind and body are less alert, the vocal mechanism does not adept itself so readily to the will there is less flexibility and a slower response, because the desired conditions are unusual or dislike. From the physical point of view then, the organs must not only be developed as much as possible and made strong and healthy, but they must also be flexible, supple, and well under control.

Physiological Knowledge Necessary for the Teachers 

How are teachers to prepare their students for these conditions of strength, response and control? They must first have a certain amount of knowledge of the structure of the vocal organs, which consist of the lungs (the motive power), the larynx (or vibrating element), the pharynx (the chief reflector or resonator), and the mouth (containing the organs of articulation). Secondly, teachers ought to be so well-informed musically that they can select the best for their pupils out of the wide field of musical literature which lies before them, and by knowledge of musical structure prepare their pupils for intelligent phrasing. Thirdly, they should be educated so that they can appreciate the beauties and understand the importance and values of the words they desire to interpret. Finally, they should be sufficiently cultivated to enter into the spirit of the different periods and nationalities to which the music they are studying may belong, and sympathetic enough to understand the various states of mind of the different characters (particularly in opera) whose sentiments it may be necessary for the student to express. The whole art of vocal perfection rests fundamentally good breathing. In order the teachers may give stumble exercises for the development and strengthening of the lungs, they should study those organs in many and various ways; first, as to their texture—the sun substance is somewhat delicate, and can be easily injured; then their shape—it is well to notice in what direction expansion can most easily take place; then their size and surrounding framework. Breathing for speech and song differs from ordinary inspiration in that a new feature is introduced, that of voluntary control. In ordinary life the aeration of the blood is effected by action which is practically unconscious of subconscious, and goes very little beyond a slight movement of the diaphragm. In singing or sustained speech a larger movement ob breath is necessary and control is absolutely essential. This new aspect makes breathing exercises as necessary to the finely developed healthy person as to the delicate one; in fact, the outpouring of breath from a vigorous singer impinging on the vocal cords unchecked and uncontrolled is capable of doing a great deal of mischief in a short time. The teacher therefore must devise exercises which will develop the lungs so that their may be ample quantity of breath, then direct their action in such a way as to avoid interfering with the freedom of the neck or throat, then bring about a method of expansion which does not induce fatigue, and finally, by attention and concentration, gain such control of the intercostal and the diaphragmatic musics that there is not chance of work being thrown on the larynx of a kind for which it is undesigned or unfitted. The larynx, which we may take as the only organ engaged in the actual formation of sound, is a very delicate instrument. It must be trained and strengthened so that its movements may become both free and rapid. It must be capable of sustaining sounds steadily, and adjusting different degrees of tension so that attack may be pure and pitch accurate. It must also be able to modify its action in the way usually spoken of as 'changing the registers'—modifications which, in my opinion, are necessary to avoid strain, and desirable as a means of ensuring the best results both as to compass and quality. Above all things, teachers ought to be sure that no attempt to control the breath-pressure should be made by the larynx. It is enough to compare this tiny organ delicately poised on the top of the windpipe, with the large mass of the lungs with their heavy, bony framework and powerful muscles, to realize that unless the breath is controlled by the proper muscles, the vocal cords and little larynx are quite unable to resist the rush of air, and tremulousness, uncertainly, and strain are the unfailing effects of misdirection of energy and lack of proper control.


We now come to the pharynx and resonators. Resonance presents one of the most fascinating aspects of vocal art, but it is far too wide a subject for me to do more than touch on it. Suffice to say that although some of the resonating cavities are not subject to modification, the greater part of the pharynx is susceptible of change, and it is to this power of altering its shape that we owe the almost limitless variety to tone-color which is possible to the cultured singer. It is the pharynx and resonators which provide the characteristic which distinguish every individual voice and modify every sound from the deepest to the most acute. The organs or articulation are also much in need of training. The tongue, lips, and soft palate need to be brought thoroughly under control; and as neatness, quickness, and accuracy of adaption are essential for the production of good tone and distinct diction, exercises must be given which will bring about the facility and do away with the dullness which results from sameness of tone and badly-enunciated words. 

Patience, Intelligence, and Experience Needed

Briefly as I have touched on the necessity for training in the student and knowledge on the part of the teacher, I think i have said enough to show that it needs a good deal of time and a great deal of patience and intelligence to make a really good teacher of singing. Experience is of course a great instructor, but do we not sometimes gain our experience at the expense for the pupil? The vocal organs are so delicate, so liable to injury—they are living things which grow and can decay—if injured they can never be replaced. Sometimes the mere touch of the ignorant can inflict a severe wound. The Society of Women Musicians is alive to the difficulties which confront the teacher and the dangers to which the pupil is exposed, and it is suggested that a committee should be formed of experienced teachers and singers who would take various subjects connected with singing and by patient study and consultation endeavor to arrive at some conclusions which all felt to be true, and on that basis formulate some recommendations to young teachers which would perhaps assist the conscientious and enthusiastic beginner. 

After a time I have proposed that short lectures should be given by different members of the committee to members of the Society of Women Musicians, and free discussion invited. The subjects might include: 

Suggestions for Lectures and Discussions 


Breathing, from the point of view of: 

  1. Structure of the lungs;
  2. Methods of breathing;
  3. Exercises for development;
  4. Exercises for control.


The registers: 

  1. What they are;
  2. How to use them;
  3. How to blend and control. 


Beauty of Tone: 

  1. Characteristics;
  2. How to acquire purity and sweetness;
  3. How to acquire steadiness;
  4. How to improve resonance;
  5. Exercises for all these qualities.



  1. How vowels are formed;
  2. How consonants are formed—The difference between simple vowels and diphthongs;
  3. Exercises for pure vowels and vigorous consonants.


  1. The principles which underlie the art of phrasing;
  2. Good places for breathing, how to select;
  3. Light and shade;
  4. Variety of tone-color—its cause, effect, and means of attaining it.

The Testing and Certification of Capacity 

I suggest too that later on young teachers should have the opportunity go going before the committee from time to time in order to have their knowledge and capacity tested, and if found to be thoroughly well grounded in the art of teaching, to be given a certificate from the Society of Women Musicians to that effect. The certificate is no case to be given until the candidate had appeared several times. 

That young singers should also be given similar opportunities of singing to the committee, and if their voices were found to be well-produced, their method good, diction clear, and phrasing intelligent, they should be asked to perform at the Society's concerts, and perhaps recommended by the Society to different concert-managers. 

I believe that if we could establish a very high standard of excellent amongst our members we might in time find ourselves wielding a good deal of influence. I should make clear that our certificates or recommendation would never be given until the candidate had been tested again and again. The aim of the whole things would be to arrive at a very high level of excellence, and patient endeavor is in my opinion of the utmost value towards that end. 

If these meetings were successful it would be useful to study the general physiology of eh vocal organs, and try to get out some diagrams which would be useful to young teachers. I do not think those in existence quite fulfill their purpose. 

Interpretation of Standard Works

I should very much like in the future to see meetings arranged for the purpose of studying the interpretation of standard works of art, beginning with the classics and coming down to modern times. Recitative is not at all well understood, and my own opinion is that eh best and most appropriate phrasing is only to be learned if the works are studied in their original languages. Accurate translations could be given, and the styles appropriate to the different periods and nationalities could be studied, so the they might each be appreciated and understood. 


I hope I have made fairly clear the kind of knowledge I think a teacher ought to possess, and that you have been able to follow the details of my little scheme or work for mutual study and improvement; but it is well to remember that although you cannot be a good teacher without knowledge, it is quite possible to be very learned and yet fail to be able to impart. There is something needed beyond knowledge, and in this lies the great distinction between art and science. A science is only a science when everything about it has been tested and organized, but art seems to cease to be art when it can be explained. The best of teaching comes from a ready perception of the pupil's needs, and rests fundamentally on sympathy, imagination, and intuition; it is also to a certain extent creative. I believe it is as essential to a teacher to form a mental ideal and work towards its realization as it is to a composer or a poet. The singer's art, too, is largely creative, and probably it is the lack of appreciation of this point of view by modern composers and conductors alike which so greatly discourages the most highly-gifted and sensitive vocal artists of to-day, and gives too much importance to the loudly-vulgar singer who is so much in evidence.

Agnes J. Larkcom, "The Art of Teaching Singing," The Musical Times, June 1, 1918: 261-263.

April 19, 2016

Larkcom's Writ on Resonance; Or, Evidence for García's Teaching of Voice Placement

Agnes J. Larkcom (1865-1931) 


By Agnes J. Larkcom 

This lecture was delivered to the Society of Women Musicians, and should be read in connection with the article on ''The Art of Teaching Singing," by Madame Larkcom, that appeared in our June number.—Ed. M.T. 

Resonance is defined by Tyndall as the 'reinforcement of a sound, and it is impossible to overestimate the value of a clear understanding of the subject to very teacher of singing. 

In Prof. Tyndall's treatise on Sound, he shows how every tone good quality is rest result of a blend of the fundamental note with certain overtones. Every sustained musical sound produced by voice, so that when we listen to a full, rich tone, we are really enjoying the results of a combination of a great number of notes of different pitches. As white light can be slept up into all colours of the rainbow, so a perfectly beautiful tone could be resolved into all its constituent parts if we had the instruments by which to do so. 

The Reinforcement of Overtones 

The beauty of a musical sounds seems to depend on the reinforcement in special proportions of the overtones which harmonize best with the fundamental note. A great part of the part of the teacher, and the study of the student of singing, is consciously or unconsciously directed to the trained of the various resonators of the human voice in such a way that they shall be able to assume at will the shapes which are adapted to produce the quality which gives most pleasure to the ear, and best conveys the emotions which the singers desires to express.

The Resonators 

The resonance cavities, which for convenience I will always speak of as 'resonators,' may be roughly divided into two kinds—those which are fixed and unchangeable and those which can be varied and adapted at will. The first are, briefly, the hard palate, the back wall of the pharynx, the frontal sinuses, certain cavities behind the nose, and some even in the brain itself. Whatever the modifications in the quality of the voice which may be brought about by study and practice, there are always left characteristics which belong to each person which cannot be eradicated, and which in fact constitute the individuality of every human voice. The parts which are capable of modification in shape include the lips, tongue, soft palate, parts of the pharynx and cavities above the larynx, &c. These can be trained to produce almost endless varieties of shape and size, and if the powers which this adaptability gives are properly developed we can reinforce, enrich, and beautify our tones to an enormous extent, without in any way using greater energy or needing to exert any particular muscular effort. This is of course a very important aspect of the study of resonance, as one of the main needs of the professional singer is to avoid waste of energy and needless wear-and-tear. 

An Experiment in Resonance 

In order to show you how favorable resonance amplifies and improves any tone, I have brought a tuning-fork and three glass tubes with me, and I will give you a simple demonstration. It is so simple, that I hope you will not be offended at my showing it to you. You see these tubes are of difference sizes. It I strike the tuning-fork, and hold it in the air, you can scarcely hear it. There is no practically no resonance. If I strike it again and hold it over No. 1 tube the tone is very slightly improved both in quality and power. Now I strike the fork again and hold it over No. 3 tube. This dimension suits the fundamental note exactly and the tone rings out, strong, full, and sweet. 

What I want you to remark is that although we have three qualities and degrees of tone by these means, in all three the tuning-fork does exactly the same amount of work. The added fulness and strength are the result of something else working sympathetically, and if the teacher and student are wise and work on right principles they will when studying voice production, endeavor to train all the movable parts of mouth, throat, &c., to from cavities of suitable shape for every degrees of pitch and quality of vowel, so that these respond sympathetically lake the tube to the tuning-fork. 

Trained in this way each fundamental note produced in the larynx passes through a tube exactly the right shape, which resounds harmoniously, and automatically enriches and beautifies the tone without effort or exertion on part of the singer. 

The Problem of Vocal Resonance 

The next question is, how best can we train the vocal organs so that they can respond instantaneously to the will and adapt themselves most favorably to the production of beautiful sounds? The exercises I suggested when speaking on the necessity for training the medium region of the voice, are best to begin with. They include the exercises for general flexibility, and sustained notes on varying vowels used equally at very degrees of pitch throughout the medium voice. Every quality which we think of as a vowel sounds, is really the result of a certain shaping of the resonators. Each shade means that particular overtones are reinforced more than others. It is all a matter of modification. Flexibility of lips, tongue, soft palate, and throat are indispensable. Most exercises of diction also are helpful and improve resonance. They study of foreign languages ought to be encouraged. They different vowels, consonants and inflections, with are met with in every language with which we are familiar or unfamiliar, are simply the results of modifications in the shapes of the resonators and articulating organs, and their study therefore induced greater flexibility and command of variety of tone. 

The study of resonance then seems to resolve itself into a series of patient experiments. The student dies one quality after another until a satisfactory result is achieved. When the tone is good the attention should be directed to it. It should be repeated and fixed in the memory and practiced until it becomes automatic. Some students learn readily from imitation, but every one should be trained to listen to her own voice and judge what is good and appropriate. This takes time and should never be hurried. Different vowels practiced gently all over the medium of the voice will make the resonators flexible and amenable to the will. The soft palate is best exercises by breathing alternately through the nose and expelling then air though the mouth and vice versa.

Taste in Tone-Quality 

It is well to remember that the taste of the teacher has very great influence on the quality of the tone produced by her pupils. It is not so much that certain methods lead to certain results as that particular qualities are selected and encouraged. Hence some teachers' pupils are noted for brilliance of tone, some for sweeties, some fulness. It depends a great deal on the individual taste of the instructor, and not so entirely on methods, as people are part to think. Personally, I have known some teachers who positively gloried in producing tone which appeared to me to be ugly and objectionable; but we all know it is useless to dispute about taste. We can never satisfy everyone, so the wisest thing is to try to give pleasure to as many as possible. 

Physical Obstructions

I should like to refer briefly to the difficulties which aries from physical obstructions—such as adenoids, enlarged tonsils, and kindred ailments. Good resonance is impossible if the cavities are clogged up, colds of all kinds are fatal to brilliant tone; they interfere with the passage of the vibrations to the cavities behind the nose, &c., as well as by making the movable parts heavy and difficult to adjust. Health is always of prime importance, and fine tone is not likely to be produced unless all the passages are clear and free. Deep breathing and nasal breathing are of the greatest value, and once again we return to the importance of proper methods of breathing. 

The Natural Physical Effects of the Emotions 

There is still one more aspect of the subject of resonance which I think should be thoughtfully studied, and which I consider of great importance. It is the effect of the emotions on the physical condition of the individual. I have no doubt myself that every real emotion modifies more or less the shape and condition of the mouth and throat and the effects are immediately apparent in the quality of tone produced. 

Great artists are those persons who have the widest range of sympathies and the greatest capacity for reproducing voluntarily the physical condition which results from actual experience of the emotions they are endeavoring to express. We can, by careful study and thought, analyse the effects of emotion or states of mind on the vocal organs, and little by little build up the power or reproducing them. 

Intuition the Highest Gift of a Singer 

Some highly-gifted artists are undoubtedly snowed with intuitive perception, and to such the more laborious analytical and synthetical methods are happily unnecessary. Intuition is to me the highest of all gifts, and is from the spirit and beyond our understanding. No amount of work or study will every achieve what one flash of intuition can accomplish, but if we strive patiently and sincerely to develop our gifts and train our understanding, we can at any rate go a long way forward; and it seems to me that sometimes the earnest seekers after knowledge and truth are rewarded by occasional uprushes of intuition and inspiration, which might have seemed impossible before they entered on the thorny path of effort and created the steep and rugged hill which leads to perfection. 

Note.—Since writing the above, Mr. Daniel Jones, M.A., Lecturer on Phonetics, London University, has called my attention to an experiment he has recently made, by which some of the harmonics of the mouth can be isolated and reinforced. It is this: Sing a note on the consonant 'ng,' and while sustaining it move the lips about. The 5th, 8th, 10th, and even 12th can be plainly heard in turn according to the varying shapes given to the mouth. This experiment is particularly interesting to the student of singing.

Agnes Larkcom, "Resonance," The Musical Times, August 1, 1918: 369-370. 


The fascinating thing about Larkcom's address to the Society of Women Musicians is that she makes a case for a physiological basis for voice placement.

The resonance cavities, which for convenience I will always speak of as 'resonators,' may be roughly divided into two kinds—those which are fixed and unchangeable and those which can be varied and adapted at will. The first are, briefly, the hard palate, the back wall of the pharynx, the frontal sinuses, certain cavities behind the nose, and some even in the brain itself.

Her colleague and fellow student in Manuel García's studio, Herman Klein, echoed the statement above in The Bel Canto (1924), where he wrote:

The darker tone owes its peculiar qualities, be it remembered, to the deeper position of the larynx, to the enlargement of the pharynx, and to the more extensive use of the resonating cavities at the back of the nose.  

Anna E. Schoen-René, another student of García, further echoed these comments in America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941), which I dealt with more fully in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. 

Three students (and there are others) saying pretty much the same thing. Are they all drinking the Helmholtz Kool-Aid? Lost in pedagogical La-La Land? I think not. Rather, I believe the evidence for García teaching voice placement is irrefutable. 

April 18, 2016

Why Portamento is Important

It is the 5th exercise in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García, which is preceded by 1) sustained tones on Italian vowels, 2) blending of the registers, 3) the slow scale, and 4) changes of vowel-tone. Assuming the student has gotten this far—and that is assuming a great deal since the exercises are predicated on the ability of the student to breath and open the mouth in the correct manner and obtain the requisite "singing position" and "voice placement"—the practice of portamento isn't just some musty fuddy-duddy business intended to make the student sound like a swooping Florence Foster Jenkins—whose catalogue of vocal faults were the subject of Souvenir with Judy Kaye, and now a new movie with Meryl Streep.

Portamento—meaning "carriage" or "carrying"—is understood as the means whereby one note is united with another. As such, the ability to execute portamento leads to the fine art of singing "legato," which has nothing to do with the "bald tire" approach now heard on stages around the world—the voice shorn of its foundation hurtling through space as well as the singer's throat. A mighty racket it may be, but beautiful? Hardly.

The ability to sing portamento is not a matter of ornamentation. It's not a frill technique, something you pick up on a whim and wear when you feel like it. Rather, the acquisition of portamento enables the singer—as Manuel García understood it—to "equalize the registers, timbres and powers of the voice."

That's a big deal, don't you think?

Stay in my studio long enough, and I will make you do it. Get off track, and I will make you do it. Lurch from note to note, hacking away, thinking you are singing the finest fioritura, and I will make you do it. And make no mistake: CCM singers need it just as much as their classical cousins.

Will you like it? Perhaps not. Not at first anyway. It's not a hard thing to do for those with ears to ear, but often difficult for who shoot baskets with their eyes closed—and you'd be surprised how many sing with this approach.

But once you get a feel for it—and there is a distinct feeling involved with singing portamento—you won't forget it.

What will the practice of portamento teach you?

  • Enable you to obtain a "feel" for your voice. This involves "inspiration," which is more than the amount of air in your lungs, and has everything to do with what the old Italian school called the "singer's sensation."
  • The meaning of a neat "attack," which portamento requires. 
  • Reveal the size of your voice. If you sing too loudly, you won't be able to perform portamento correctly, the balance of registration having been thrown off. 
  • Show you that "vibrato" is a thing unto itself, and that you can't "straight-tone" your way through portamento. Oh sure, you can "siren" your way through a bunch of pitches, but that is not portamento, the art of bel canto having everything to do with singing full & free pure vowels. 
  • Enable you to sing "legato," and with "line. 

The ability to sing portamento correctly is one of the keys to singing bel canto. Janet Spencer does a great job of it, which you can hear here. 

April 16, 2016

Sotto Voce Chest Voice

J. Harry Wheeler (1836-1909) 
It is seldom that a fine artist is heard to use the falsetto register, except it be at the beginning or end of a crescendo or diminuendo. Although falsetto tones gain some strength by practice, still they always remain weak and effeminate, and when used on continuous words, produce a contrast between the two registers which is exceedingly disagreeable to listen to. Most singers who use the falsetto voice in singing the high tones, are those who have impaired voices, or who, from lack of a proper method, have not the ability to sing the chest tones softly and in tune, hence resort to the falsetto tones as a substitute for the sotto voce chest voice. All the tones of the male voice, except it be at the beginning of the crescendo or the end of a diminuendo,  should be in the chest register, and if the voice be properly educated, these tones will last as long as does the body; and the sotto voce or soft chest tones, will pass into the falsetto register without the slightest difficulty, producing the crescendo or diminuendo without a break. When the falsetto tone is used, care should be exercised to use the same quality as that of the chest tone. 

J. Harry Wheeler, Vocal Physiology, Vocal Culture and Singing (1883), page 51-52. Wheeler was a student of Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti.

April 15, 2016

The García Lineage: Agnes Larkcom

Agnes Larkcom (1856-1931)
Agnes Larkcom is one of the more interesting voice teachers here on VoiceTalk that you've probably never heard about. Of course, if you've been snooping around, you may have spied her The Art of Singing (1920) on VoiceTalk's download page which has grown substantially is the last year or so—and now features more than a hundred previously unavailable texts. That is to say: when I first started researching in the 1990's, more than half of the texts now available for download could only be accessed via a very good library. That has changed after Google began scanning and uploading documents that were in the public domain. 

A student of Manuel García, Larkcom (Mrs. Herbert Levy Jacobs) studied with the great maestro from 1874 to 1884 at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and had a highly successful career as a concert artist before joining García as a member of the faculty in 1894—one year before García formally retired in 1895. That Larkcom passed on her teacher's principles seems clear, as indicated by Larkcom's obituary in the Musical Times August 1931, which notes that her personal methods were "coloured and systematized" by García's teachings before being passed on to a new generation of artists, one of them Florence Easton, who went on to study with Anna E. Schoen-René as a dramatic soprano. This will be evident to the reader in an address Larkcom made to the Society of Women Musicians which was published in The Musical Times in 1919. 

There is perhaps more controversy and disagreement about the Registers of the human voice than above any other part of the Art of teaching Singing.  
We have teachers who deny the existence of registers, teachers who say they should be ignored, teachers who insist on five, or three, or two; some who train the registers up, some who train them down, and again others who never think about them at all. 
I propose to put before you in as simple a manner as possible, the theory of registers as taught by Manuel García, and explained by him in a paper read before the Royal Society of Great Britain in 1855, after a long period of research accompanied by experiments on himself and others, conduced on absolutely scientific lines. 
I was permitted some years ago, by the courtesy of the Royal Society, to have a copy of the original address made, as delivered to them and recorded in their "Proceedings." The address is in exceedingly technical language, but I hope to make its main teaching clear without using many of the somewhat jaw-breaking terms which seem so dear to the medical profession. 
I think we are safe in taking for granted that every note produced by the human voice is formed in the larynx by the vibrations of the vocal cords. 
The ligaments in the female larynx are somewhat less than half an inch in length. 
As far as we  know the glottis alone has the power of varying the pitch of the voice, variations which have been known to extend in some exceptional voices to three or more octaves. 
How can such a tiny instrument as the larynx produce such a great variety of pitch without in some way, at some point, modifying its action? 
I expect we are all more or less familiar with the theory of vibrating strings as explained so beautifully by Professor Tyndall in his treatise on 'Sound.' By referring to that we shall see that in all vibrating strings the pitch of the sound produced is determined by these conditions—namely, the length, tension, thickness and density of the vibrating element. 
In passing I may as well remark that I am now dealing entirely with the pitch of sounds, not at all with quality. It is, in my opinion, as aspect of the subject with which the registers are most concerned.  
We find then that in all vibrating strings, a long, thick or heavy cord vibrates more slowly at a given tension than a short, thin, or light one. We have only too look at the inside of a pianoforte or at a violin to recognize that this principle underlies the mechanism of all manufactured stringed instruments in a violin there are four strings of equal length but different thickness. The pitch of each differs according to its thickness, and individually can be varied by shortening it by finger pressure. 
If a stringed instrument is out of tune we tighten (or stretch) the string to sharpen, or loosen it to flatten, but the principle is always the same.  
The human larynx seems to possess some of the characteristics of a stringed and some of the wind instrument, but the aspect of the case which is of such great interest and importance to us as teachers of singing is the fact that the vocal apparatus as a whole is provided with muscles which can thicken, make thinner, tighten or shorten the cords or vocal ligaments.  
Manuel García defined a register as 'a series of homogeneous sounds produced by one mechanism.' He recognized three registers in most female voices and divided the low lower into two parts. 
He taught that the mechanism employed in varying the pitch of the voice was of two kinds—one a closure of the cartilages, and the other a stretching of the ligaments. Both closure and stretching have be effect of raising the pitch.  
The glottis of vibrating element of the human voice consists roughly of two parts, one of cartilage (the Arytenoids or Pyramids) which close, and the other of the ligaments which stretch. The two parts into which he divided the chest and medium (or falsetto as he called it) registers, include the notes produced by stretching. The singer is not aware when the action changes from closure to stretching, and it is rarely noticed by the listener. Behnke used to call these divisions the 'Lower Thick and Upper Thick' and the 'Lower Thin and Upper Thin.' The definition is not elegant, but it expresses the physical condition very well.  
In the lowest registers (that which is usually called the 'chest' register), the whole glottis is thrown into loose, full vibrations. As the pitch rises the cartilages can be seen to close gradually; then when their work is done, the ligaments begin to stretch, and that goes on as long as it can be done without any feeling whatever of effort or fatigue.  
Signor García showed that the ligaments are connected with the outside of the trachea or windpipe by means of a fleshy membrane.  
All through this membrane are tiny muscular fibers of different lengths which seem to have the power of drawing the membrane towards the middle of the larynx, thus by contraction thickening the resisting element, and having the effect of making the cords vibrate slowly at a given tension.  
In producing a chest note we have therefore these conditions: the vocal cords made thick and heavy by the drawing forward for the membrane, a contraction of the larynx, and considerable resistance to the pressure of air from the lungs. The result is, or ought to be, a brilliant and powerful tone.  
Gradually the arytenoid cartilages meet and close and raise the pitch of each succeeding note, then they cease, and the work is carried on by the stretching of the ligaments. It is here that great care must be taken. 
The stretching movement must be continued only as long as it is perfectly easy. Directly there is the least sensation of tightness or effort the proper limits of the chest register have been reached or passed, and the modification called changing to the medium or falsetto ought to be brought about. 
This modification consists of relaxing the membrane so that a thinner surface is presented to the ascending column of air. The cords are loosened, the cartilages separated and the whole process is repeated, the only difference being that as the vocal ligaments are thinner, the tension necessary to form the last of the chest register, and there is no strain or fatigue. 
This registers can be used by the singer with perfect ease up to about C#, when most people being to experience the need for further modification. 
At or about this point, if the voice is being used with ease, 'stop closure' is supposed to begin. That is, the cords are closed, sometimes at each end, sometimes halfway, so that only a very short portion can vibrate and high notes are produced without difficulty at a quite moderate tension. If the medium is persisted in, the singer is using what Sir Morell Mackenzie used to call the 'long reed.' This method is tiring, but the notes are very strong. It is, however, dangerous to the majority of voices. 
My experience as a teacher has shown me that in the majority of voices the head notes are the last to be developed. We all know that they are generally the first to go. It would almost appear as if the production of true head tones depended on a certain power of 'accommodation' in the vocal ligaments which belongs to the prime of life only. Certainly the head tones of the most gifted singers tend to deteriorate at about the same epoch that the eye begins to lose its power of accommodation, at it is foolish to try to arrest their decay. The medium or chest notes are available for many more years, and sometimes remain beautiful even in advanced age. 
I have in several instances (I can recall at least six) noticed what appeared to me to be a fourth registers in the female voice, that is, a certain adaption which gave to high sopranos the power of singing the notes from D to A and even B♭ in alt, with precision and ease. It has seemed to me that these notes were produced by a kind of dampening process. They are, of course, unusual, but when the power exists singing these acute notes involves no effort, and causes no fatigue; in fact, exertion tends to spoil them. I expect many teachers and singers have also observed that sometimes when there is a slight cold, extremely high notes can occasionally be sung with ease and clearness. Manuel García when commenting on the phenomenon, suggested that perhaps a little mucous had collected on the vocal chords in such a manner that were 'dampened,' and the vibrating portion in a way artificially shortened, thus temporarily making very high sounds possible and easy. (Perhaps a node is formed and the resultant notes are harmonics.)  
So we see that if voices are trained carefully, and if the principles underlying the different adaptions are understood and acted on, the best possible use can be made of the vocal mechanism, and its wides compass used without fear of injury or strain. 
Actual observation of the movements involved in singing are so difficult that I think there will always be some things which are more or less matters of conjecture. The theory of adaption I have endeavored to explain offers at any rate an admirable working hypothesis. It rests on known scientific laws which can easily be tested in stringed instruments, and the teacher who bases here work on these principles and uses care and judgment in their application is not likely to do much mischief, and will probably obtain good results.  
The rather fashionable method very much to the fore to-day of making the medium registers do the work of three, though avoiding the difficulty of the change, sometimes miscalled the 'break' (it only becomes a break though misuse or abuse), tends in my opinion to limit the voice both as to compass and tone. Contraltos do not avail themselves of the brilliant resonant chest tones which form the most useful and attractive part of their special endowment, and sopranos do not develop the fluty pure head notes which are so beautiful and characteristic. The mezzo alone is fairly happy. 
The great principle which underlies everything is no doubt ease of emission based on deep and well-controlled breathing. If his is ensured, given that the teacher is dealing with a young unspoiled voice, there is not likely to be much difficulty. 
Unfortunately the desire which is so frequently present in the minds of both teacher and pupil to produce brilliant telling tone in a short time on the E♭, E, and F (first line and first space) and strong resonant notes for sopranos an octave higher, is a strong temptation to force up the respective registers. 
A steady, gentle, persistent use in the appropriate registers of sustained sounds on different vowels, 'Ee' frequently for the medium notes, and 'Oo' or "oh' for the first head notes, is almost certain to bring about equality of tone and satisfactory blending.  
When mischief has been down by misuse of the registers and the poor student is suffering from 'nodules' on the vocal chords (a frequent result of forcing up the chest register), rest is imperative for a time; then the medium must be trained down by means of over gentle exercise of the voice beginning above the point of difficulty and persisted in until control is regained, and the muscles have returned to their normal elasticity. The use of exercises for flexibility found in García's 'Art of Singing,' published by Leonard & Co., cannot be too highly recommended. These exercises help to blend the registers, to smooth over rough places and make transition easy; they also strengthen the throat and assist in obtaining breath control. 
Personally I think a singer ought always to know when and where she changes her register, but her aim should be to conceal it from the listener.  
There is a great difference in individuals as to the ease or the reverse with which the change is affected. Some throats seem to do it so easily that even the teacher has difficulty in detecting it. These cases are very 'gratefully and comforting' to the teacher, but are not so common as one could wish. In many the change is difficult and noticeable, and only patient practise can overcome the trouble. There is great divergence of opinion amongst voice trained as to the advisability of talking to students about their registers. Some teachers of high repute find they can do their work better and obtain finer results by not calling the attention of the student to the means by which these results are gained. Personally I have always preferred to explain my reasons and methods to my pupils. I like them to be aware of their dangers and to be ready to resist temptation through knowledge and understanding of the delicate mechanism they are using and developing. Still I have the greatest respect for the workers who differ from me in this, and recognize that the same ends may be attained by different ways.  
In bringing forth this simple statement of Manuel García's observations on the resists of the human voice, I feel I am offering something which may be useful in helping to solve the difficulties which are met with by young teachers when they first being to practise the delightful but difficult are of teaching of singing. 
Manuel García was a very old man when I had the privilege of studying with him, but up to the time of his peaceful and beautiful death in 1907, at the patriarchal age of 101 years, he never lost his interest in science, or relaxed his unselfish devotion to the highest ideals of vocal art. 
His intellect was keen, his taste severe. The length of his experience as a teacher have him unique opportunities for testing his theories and watching the results of their practical application.  
The methods of a master of such noble character, rare gifts, penetrating insight, and widespread and remarkable success, must always be or interest to every serious teacher of singing.  
Many theories have been advanced and advocated, and considerable matter has been written off the subject since the day when García's 'Treatise on the Art of Singing' first saw the light. But amidst much that is valuable and a good deal that is worthless, that wonderful work still seems to retain the place awarded to it when it first appeared. It remains to-day what it was a couple of generations ago, the classical manual for the teacher and the safe practical guide for the student in nearly all that appertains to the beautiful art of singing.  
Agnes Larkcom, "Registers," The Musical Times, May 1, 1919: 221-213. 

Larkcom not only gives the reader García's theory of registers, she also instructs the reader on the manner in which the shift between registers should be made, which Larkcom insists must be done in a "perfectly easy" way. She also helps the reader understand the mechanism behind what contemporary vocal pedagogues call "superbelt," which can be understood as the extension of the chest/middle register far into the upper range. 

There is a lot more for students of historical vocal pedagogy to consider regarding Larkcom's address, but I'd like to close this post by suggesting that the reader ponder Larkcom's exegesis of Manuel García's teaching on vocal registration in light of Hermann Klein's teaching of "singing position" as set forth in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. As such, the Klein/García teaching of "singing position" is the basic setting for the vocal folds, one which is oriented toward vocal fold closure rather than stretching. The articulation of this essential technique suggests, among other things, that the García School eschewed a complete separation of registers as a matter of vocal development.

Expect more posts on the teaching of Agnes Larkcom.

Note: The paper that Larkcom refers to in her address is Manuel García's "Observations on the Human Voice" which can be accessed here. As well, it should be noted that García died in 1906 rather then 1907. Lastly, the photo is mine, taken from a lithograph purchased some years ago. 

April 12, 2016

The New Movement in Voice Culture

David C. Taylor was born in New York City, November 11, 1871. He attended public schools and College of the City of New York (A.B. June 1890), and followed mercantile pursuits until 1910. He was interested in music since early childhood; sang in Episcopal church choirs as a boy. Mr. Taylor began a theoretical study of voice culture in 1891, studying with several teachers in New York. His published works include 'The Psychology of Singing,' 'Self Help for Singers.' His theories of vocal control and training embodied in the "Psychology of Singing' aroused much antagonism at first, but in the last two years have been much more favorably viewed.—Editor of The Etude. 

Students of singing generally are only dimly aware that an entirely new direction has recently been taken by several prominent leaders of those in the field of voice culture. Thus far there has been no concert of action on the part of those in sympathy with the new movement. Concerted action has indeed never been a striking tendency in the vocal profession. Whoever makes a practice of attending conventions of voice teachers knows how strongly they are inclined to individual theories of instruction. But a striking aspect of the new movement is the fact that its leaders are all in fair accord as to the nature of the change they would like to see brought about. A concise summary of the new doctrines should therefore be of interest to all whose ambition is to master the art of singing. 

Many of the best written books published by vocal teachers within the past few years deal with various aspects of the new idea. Among these may be mentioned My Voice and I, by Clara Kathleen Roger (1910); Systematic Voice Training by D. A. Clippinger (1910); The Lost Vocal Art, by William Warren Shaw (1914); and The Singing Teacher, by Francis Rogers (1914). A work by the leading German exponent of the new movement, Prof. Johannes Messchaert, was announced a few months ago, and a summary of its doctrines was given in Die Musik. Unfortunately we do not know what success the German work has had. The writer's Self Help for Singers may also be mentioned in this connection. 

The Modern Art of Singing 

A brief review of the history of voice culture is needed to bring out in a clear light the purpose of the new movement. Our modern art of singing may be said to have its beginning in Italy about the year 1600. Vocal cultivation was perfected by the teachers of singing at that time, and brought to a standard of excellence never known before. A splendid method of instruction was devised by the old masters, through which singers were trained to conquer the most extraordinary difficulties of vocal technique. This system is now known as the old Italian method, and its superiority to most of our present forms of vocal instruction is now generally recognized. 

In the year 1855 a start was made in the formulating of a system of vocal cultivation, entirely different from that followed by the old masters. A number of scientists took up the problem of vocal control, and laid the basis for a method founded on scientific principles. Naturally the purpose was to find a system which should be an improvement on the old Italian method. The prediction was confidently made that a method of vocal control would be found by which a student could accomplish in a few months what took two or three years under the old system. Since 1855 all our methods of instruction have been based on scientific knowledge. 

It required a long time for the doctrines of the vocal scientists to be thoroughly worked out. But for the past thirty years they have been so widely disseminated the musical people are fairly well acquainted with them. Briefly stated, the scientific doctrine is that the student of singing must begin by learning the nature of the vocal instrument, in order to manage it correctly; and that the action of the breath, the vocal cords, and the resonating cavities must be carefully and intelligently regulated. In other words, the vocal scientists demand that we manage the breath in a certain way, and bring it to bear on the vocal cords with some definite degree of pressure; that we then adjust the vocal cords so that they vibrate as we tell them; and finally that we lift the tone off the vocal cords and place it somewhere in the mouth and head. 

But these are difficult demands to fulfill. But the vocal scientists have never undertaken to show us how we may obey their doctrines. They themselves have never attempted to sing artistically, for their understanding of the voice is purely theoretical. Most of them have been throat specialists, and not in any sense musicians. It is easy enough for the vocal theorists to dissect a throat, or to examine the vocal cords of a singer by means of the laryngoscope. But even when he knows how the vocal cords ought to act, he cannot tell us what we must do in order to make or vocal cords act in a correct way. That is the weak point of the whole scientific system. It tells us what we are supposed to do, but leaves us in the dark as to how we may do it. If some throat specialist would attempt to put his theories into practice, and to train his own voice by his method, he would soon see how impossible this is. 

What the Old Italian Master Taught 

The statement of the vocal scientists, that we have to learn how to manage the breath, the vocal cords, and the placement of the tone, is directly opposed to the principles of the old Italian masters. They held that all these things will take care of themselves, if the vocal student simply trusts to nature. They relied on the natural connection between the voice and the ear, something which the scientific doctrine overlooks entirely. This is indeed the vital point of difference between old Italian method and the modern system. The old masters taught their students how to manage their voices by cultivating the instinctive control which the ear naturally exerts over the actions of the voice. In the scientific system the student is taught to manage the vocal organs directly, by regulating the actions of the vocal cords, by expanding the throat, and by placing the tone in the mouth and nasal cavities.

The old masters taught their students how to manage their voices by cultivating the instinctive control which the ear naturally exerts over the actions of the voice.

It is, of course, true that the tone is produced by the vibration of the vocal cords, and that its quality is determined by the influence of the resonating cavities. Probably the old masters had some knowledge of this subject. But they did not base their method on this knowledge. They held that if the student hears clearly what quality of tone he is to produce, and sings naturally with the desire to produce this quality, the vocal cords and resonating cavities will adjust themselves automatically, without the student knowing or caring what they do. 

That the old masters were right in their belief can easily be proved. You will find, if you try to, that you can sing any quality of tone you wish to, without even thinking of your vocal organs. Listen to someone singing with a full rich tone, and then try to sing tones of this kind yourself. No difficulty will be found, for the tones will come naturally in response to the demands of the ear. Whatever the throat and mouth are required to do, they will perform of their own accord if you let them. So also with regard to the pitch of the note you sing, your vocal cords obey your ear directly. You do not need to tell them what degree of tension to take on, for nature has provided them with an instinct which tells them what to do, better than you can tell them yourself. 

The Value of Listening 

It was by listening to the quality of his tone that the old masters were able to tell whether a singer's voice was correctly produced or not. They knew that when the voice sounds as though there is any strain of stiffness in the throat, there is something wrong with the way the tones are produced. Their pupils were taught to listen to their own voices, and to hear whether the tones sounded right. Most important of all, they held that the way to make a voice act correctly is to know how a correctly produced tone should sound, and to practice singing with this quality of tone in mind. When this is done the vocal organs manage themselves, and need no help from the singer beyond the given by the ear.

Their pupils were taught to listen to their own voices, and to hear whether the tones sounded right.

Everybody interested in singing knows that the promise held out in the scientific system of vocal training has not been fulfilled. On the contrary, we can now see what a mistake was made when the old Italian method was abandoned. The new movement aims at a return to natural instinctive principles of vocal control. That these were the principles successfully followed by the old masters is the conviction of all those who have exposed the recent doctrine of progress. It is firmly believed that they will suffice equally well for us. 

Must the Singer Tell His Throat What to Do? 

One striking effect of the speed of scientific doctrines is seen in the fact that vocal students nowadays believe in the absolute necessity of doing something with their vocal organs, something for which nature has not provided. It is against this belief that the new movement is primarily aimed. Nothing of the kind was even though of in the golden age of Bel Canto. Teachers and students all knew then what vocal cultivation demands only a trained ear, a sound musical sense, and an appreciation of beautiful tone. They would not have understood the idea that a singer must tell his throat what to do. Nowadays students find it hard to understand that the voice will regulate itself, provided nothing interfere with its natural operation. 

So soon as a student of singing tires to open this throat, or to draw his tones up into his nasal cavities, or to apply any of the other rules of vocal science, he is directly interfering with the natural use of the voice. If a certain quality of vocal tone is produced by the expansion of the throat, the throat will automatically expand itself, in obedience to the demand of the ear for this tone quality. But when the student tries deliberately to expand his throat, he brings about a condition of muscular stiffness which interferes with its natural workings. Think of tone, not of throat, and everything will act correctly of its own accord. 

There never was any ground of the statement that the voice requires conscious guidance. The singer does not need to raise or lower his larynx, to adjust his soft palate, or to manipulate any other part of his vocal organs. What he does need is to sing naturally, to listen to himself, and to have a clear mental idea of pure, correct and beautiful tone. If he practices singing in this way, his voice will naturally adopt the correct manner of producing tone. Gradually and imperceptibly it will improve in all its aspects, until finally the mental idea of musical beauty and expressiveness will be realized by the voice. This is the system of vocal training aimed at by the leaders of the new movement. 

A Matter of Experience 

There is something absurd about the idea that vocal methods should be dictated by people who have never taught singing, or even learned to sing themselves. A throat specialist may know a great deal about the voice, on the scientific side. But that does not entitle him to say that the experienced vocal teacher knows nothing at all about the voice. As a matter of fact, much more of study and experience is required to understand the voice as a vocal teacher must understand it, than to master the anatomy of the throat. Would a physician be competent to try a beginner's voice, and to say whether all the talents necessary for a professional career are present? Could he tell by listening to a singer whether the voice is correctly produced? Could he sing perfect tones himself, in order to illustrate who a correctly used voice should sound? These are things which every competent vocal teacher can do. Very few throat specialists probably could ever acquire the vocal teacher's knowledge of the voice, for it demands musicianship, and the fine perception of tone qualities, things entirely outside their province. Years of study, and of experience in listening to voices, are represented by musical training and the cultivated ear of the vocalist. These are his professional equipment, and he may justly claim recognition of his attainments.

Opposition Expected 

The new movement aims at a revolt against the domination of the vocal scientist. It seeks to throw off the laws imposed on the vocal profession by people devoid of actual experience in training voices. Only those who have mastered the use of their own voices, and have successfully trained the voices of many other singers, are competent to formulate a method of vocal cultivation. When vocal teachers come to a general agreement on the basic principles of their art, a standard method will follow in due course. It is for the vocal teachers themselves to take the initiative in elevating the standards of their profession. What the vocal scientists have done for them is reflected in the present chaotic condition. There seems now to be a better prospect of agreement in favor of new doctrines than has been noticeable along any other lines for many years. 

Naturally the new idea will meet with opposition. But the sincere teacher will take his stand squarely on his conception of the merits of the question. It is not easy for use to shake off the mental habits in which we have been trained. Moreover there is something very elusive about vocal control. We may consciously guide our voices by our trained sense of hearing and our musical conception, and think we give them the benefit of our knowledge of breathing, resonance, etc. It may thus come about that an artistic singer will give the credit for his correct vocal management to his scientific knowledge, while it is actually due to his musicianship. 

A Simple Experiment 

A simple experiment may suffice to clear up any equation of this kind which may occur to the vocalist inclined to sympathize with the new ideas, yet withheld by a feeling of loyalty to the accepted doctrines. Let him select a competent judge of singing to listen to his voice. Without giving any explanation of the purpose of the trail, let him sing a few phrases in each of two ways; first, consciously building the voice, and attending to all the details of breath control, resonance tone placement, laryngeal adjustment, etc., but without listening to his tones or paying any attention  to the quality of his voice; second, paying no attention whatever to the mechanics of tone production, guiding the voice solely by the ear, and seeking only to sing pure and beautiful tones. Let the judge decide which manner of singing is the more satisfactory and pleasing. If he decides in favor of the singing performed under the influence of the artistic conception, the soundness of the new doctrines may safely be conceded. 

It is still to early to say what influence of the new movement well be. Should its ideas become widely known, and appreciated by the great mass of vocal students, there is little question that it would find a ready sympathy there. Teachers of singing would also have much to gain from a general acceptance of the new ideas. They would see their profession restored to is independence, and deriving its authority form the understanding of the voice which is their exclusive possession. 

David C. Taylor, "The New Movement in Voice Culture," The Etude, January 1, 1915: 57.

Note: Manuel García used a dental mirror in 1884 to see the action of his vocal folds while singing, and presented his "Observations on the Human Voice" to the Royal Society in 1855.