January 27, 2017

École Marchesi

Mathilde Marchesi taught in a class environment in her vaunted Parisian studio; each student singing for fifteen minutes during a three hour class that met twice a week. The tuition was steep and paid years in advance. If you dropped out, that was it. You didn't receive a refund. Tough, thorough and severe, Marchesi cranked out dozens of famous singers, the evidence of which I have seen with my own eyes at New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. There is an amazing Marchesi Archive there—a fascinating collection, which includes a list of fifty famous singers who celebrated the 50th anniversary of Marchesi's studio.

How tough was Marchesi?

Her method—if you can call it that—was the complete opposite of what is encountered today. Marchesi, like her own teacher, Manuel García, kept students on a strict diet of vocal exercises and scales for at least a year. Think about it. Who does that today? No-one that I can think of. And as much as I know about this old school approach, I confess to not doing it either—not in the strict sense anyway. Why? Students simply do not have the wherewithal to conduct themselves in such a manner.  We live in a very different time, one where the words discipline and sacrifice don't mean as much.

What do I do instead? Three-fourths of the lesson is spent on technique, which is then applied to repertoire.

This can be a two-edged sword depending on expectations, especially for the new student who arrives believing all he needs is a touching up, dusting off—just a little tweak if you please—but in reality does not have the skill necessary to sing at a professional level. (In Marchesi's day they called this "finishing," which recalls the last polish given to fine piece of furniture.) This kind of student more-often-than-not has an inflated view of his ability. And you can't tell him otherwise. Getting him to pay attention to what is coming out of his mouth is like asking him to climb mount Everest. It's just too much work. The ego bars the way forward.

And therein lies the genius of Marchesi: It was impossible to hide in her class environment. You couldn't fool yourself. There were at least five to seven other "ears" paying attention.

It also kept Marchesi on her game.

January 26, 2017

García's Tricks

In my personal association with Manuel García, I had to admire profoundly his sincerity and honesty. He impressed upon me the idea that the greatest part of a teacher's success depends not so much on his ability to develop singers of perfect execution as on his possessing the strength of character to refuse to encourage mediocre talent. Because most teachers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were of this integrity, the opera and concert stage presented truly great artists. There were few inferior singers then, for they had been discouraged from the outset from attempting anything but singing for their own pleasure. Even singers of first quality always had to keep themselves at their best, to hold their place amid severe competition. Teachers were fewer in number, but of a superior kind; in many cases, highly cultured in all branches of literature, history, and languages. Their pupils followed their advice with confidence, and in return were devoted to them. Teacher and pupil, possessing culture and intelligence, co-operatied for successful achievement. 

For that reason, Manuel García was deemed a wizard because of his success in developing great singers. He was able to diagnose perfectly the voices of those who came to him, and to obtain immediate results. Often, in humorous mood, he related to me incidents pertaining to his pupils, some of whom came to him to learn his "tricks," as they called his technique. They had learned, for example, that under him, Stockhausen—the first and incomparable German "Lieder" singer, also opera and oratorio—learned the trill in one lesson. The term "tricks" he naturally resented, and he also disliked hearing his teaching technique called "a method." As he said to me, "Any shoemaker or butcher can have a method of making shoes or cutting meat; we have a science of vocal production which has proved itself a true science by the results it has obtained." 

As a teacher, Manuel García was very patient in his explanations; he was exact and thorough. He was also completely modest, courteous and full of humor. His knowledge of the history of music and the art of singing of different epochs was without equal. Always kind and fair in his criticisms, he sometimes appeared to be severe, but that severity was only the honesty from which any true artist profits. 

In 1847, he published his book, Traité Complet de L'Art de Chant. It was immediately acclaimed and is still recognized as possibly the best treatise ever written on scientific voice culture. This publication was followed by a condensed treatment of the subject, called Hints on Singing. I must confess, however, that I feel it is impossible, and might even be injurious, to try to gain information only through books. Personal contact with the teacher is absolutely essential, for otherwise the student will receive theoretical impressions without the supervised test of practical experience.

Anna E. Schoen-René, America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941}: 97-99. 

January 17, 2017

García's Method of Voice Placement

The stroke of the glottis is produced by means of a sudden opening of the glottis. The air is first inhaled, and retired for a moment below the vocal cords, when the air, acting upon them abruptly, they suddenly open, producing a sound termed the stroke of the glottis. It is made upon precisely the same principle that a sound is produced when the air, having been located between the cheeks, the lips suddenly open for the pronunciation of the work pur. Persons having the habit of singing out of tune, often eradicate the fault by careful practice of the stroke of the glottis. The muscles controlling the vocal cords, however, may not a once obey the will. The brain often conceives the pitch of a tone, but the muscles controlling the vocal cords do not obey the dictates of the mind; hence the cords vary in tension, giving out tones of a varying pitch. When one sings out of tune from this cause, the difficulty can generally be entirely remedied, but when from a defective nerve organization relative to the hearing, it is impossible to fully eradicate it. There are those who can discern the slightest discord, but cannot sing the scale correctly; this proceeds from a physical laryngeal imperfection, or weakness, but as stated, can generally be cured; but when a person cannot notice any difference between high of low tone, the case may be considered almost hopeless. The practice of the study of the stroke of the glottis, should be carefully pursued by all persons intending to become singers, as it at once places the tones, thus preventing any possible change in the pitch, or quality of the voice; and the muscles are thus educated to instantly obey the will, and the requisite tension of the cords is gained for the pitch of the tone desired.

Wheeler, Harry J. Vocal Physiology, Vocal Culture and Singing (1883): 44-45. Student of Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti. Find this text on the download page in the right-hand column.