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.