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.