Nero Kept His Phonascus

Samuel Silas Curry has appeared on these pages before, his life spent deeply involved in the study and practice of elocution—a profession that is a shadow its former self. Think about it: Curry was involved in teaching voice long before the advent of the microphone, when projecting your message to a large audience meant knowing how to speak acoustically. Who does that today? British trained thespians mostly, while everyone else uses body mics. Now? It's a learning curve that is only undertaken by opera singers. 

Curry was a student of Francesco Lamperti. You can find his pedagogical thoughts on the Download page.

Elocution and Vocal Training—The Importance of Studying Their History
By Professor S. S. Curry 

[Paper read at the convention of the National Association of Elocutionists, June 10, 1897.]

Whowever wishes to make safe progress in any department of science or art must "hold the past firmly by the hand."

Everything has a history. Many ages of development made the bird's-nest possible. So far, however, as we can see, no oriole or bluebird improves its home consciously on account of the successes and failures of its parents or neighbors; but man can consciously appropriate the attainments of his race and use the successes and even the failures of men of all ages as stepping-stones to progress. The power to know history and to use its materials consciously is one of man's highest characteristics.

History is "the development of the collective spirit." The life of the race has a unity similar to that of the individual. Man can consciously use the materials of his fellow-men gathered to-day or ages ago. Nay, he who does not do so is weak. He who refuses to adjust his work to the cooperation and fellowship of his race ceases, in one sense, to be a man; at any rate, he cuts himself off from the greatest means of growth and support that can be found in the world. The man who first propounded the question, "Am I my brother's keeper ?" was a failure, and worse; and so has it ever been with all who have held the same doctrine of isolation. The greater the man the greater his ability to understand and appropriate the knowledge and the experience, the thought and the life of other ages and races.

Darwin, before he dared to state his hypothesis, became acquainted with all that was known in the realm of biology. His hypothesis was but a guess, an imaginative leap into the dark, but it sprang from the knowledge of all that the race had gathered to explain the processes of development. His life-work was devoted not only to the gathering of new facts but also to the examination of known facts in the light of his theories.

The historical method must be used in all departments of knowledge. No department of knowledge has ever been recognized as a science until its historical unfoldment has been traced, and its relations to other subjects and their history have been explained and established. 

Notwithstanding, however, the common acceptance of these principles there has long seemed to be a tendency among elocutionary students to ignore the history of their art. Many a teacher has seemed to desire the unconscious condition of the bird and to build his nest on some high limb as he thinks out of his own ideas without joining what little he can do to all that has been done before him. Many boast that they have not studied with anyone and seem to glory in the fact that they do not know the methods which have been arranged by others. 

It may seem strange, but men struggled with the problem of elocution and delivery long before our time. Oratory is as old as history. In Homer, "god-like speaking" was the highest characteristic of the hero. Speaking seems to be referred to by Homer as the greatest problem of education. The experiences and failures, the long and laborious training of Demosthenes, are referred to by historians and by himself in his orations as something to his honor and not to his disgrace. Cicero recorded the criticisms made upon him by the great teacher of oratory at Rhodes. How different from the modern speaker who often desires that no one shall ever know that he has taken a lesson in elocution! The delivery of the average speaker, as a rule, is such that he should have no anxiety on that score. His audience will never suspect that he has received assistance from a teacher able to read his needs and to apply such training as would develop his true personality and realize his possibilities.

Nero kept his phonascus, or vocal teacher, ever by his side when he gave his commands, to show him how to use his throat and to send forth tones. The Emperor Augustus rehearsed all his speeches to Livia, and the records of these men of later times are made in a way to show that such acts were customary and that the teacher of voice in ancient days was held in honor. The problem of delivery has received attention from some of the greatest minds. The teachers of the Greek age were all primarily teachers of vocal expression, and written expression was always secondary to spoken. The struggle to found and endow a school of oratory is as old as Protagoras. He who desires to avoid the failures of the past, to feel confident in his grasp of the truth, will not ignore the experience of other men and other ages.

And yet we have no such history. We have hardly any attempt at a historical outline of the methods employed or the services rendered, or of the discoveries made or of the triumphs achieved. Mr. Murdoch has a few points in his "Plea for Spoken Language," on the subject of history, but this work is simply a plea for Rush, as he frankly confesses, and has many mistakes. The book by Hill, for example, he says was published in 1779. It was published nearly forty years earlier. He calls the author Aaron Hill; the British Museum says J. M. Hill. He exaggerated, also, the importance of Walker, simply because Walker's system was the beginning of the mechanical view or school which Rush's work followed. Mr. Murdoch called Walker the father of English elocution. He was only the father of mechanical elocution. Mr. Murdoch, however, was perfectly right in conceiving the importance of history and in feeling the necessity of appealing to it to prove his views. Though we may disagree entirely with his conclusions and often with his dates and alleged facts, yet he deserves honor for his example. 

No one who has struggled with the problem will fail to realize how difficult it is to write such a history. Vocal expression is the most subjective of arts. The first art we learn is speaking. So few facts have been recorded, so few investigations into the real nature of speaking have been made, so personal have been the methods of developing oratoric delivery or dramatic expression, that we have seemingly small basis for such a history. Every teacher of elocution who has ever amounted to anything has studied with other men; has received his traditions face to face with those who preceded him. Professor Monroe was taking lessons from others the last year of his life. The true teacher never refuses to be taught by others, never adopts some little system founded upon some temporary expedient that may have proved helpful to some individual; or bases his methods on his own natural endowment, his success in some contest. The earnest teacher seeks in all ways to form a true conception of his art. He does more than listen to people lecture, visit classes or see someone teach for an hour. Even the reading of books is only an adjunct; for delivery is a personal art, that has been perpetuated only by personal contact, personal instruction, and the personal mastery of exercises. Vocal expression requires example, requires the awakening of the spontaneous, even the unconscious impulses of the mind and must be studied face to face. There must be assimilation of the whole man, or all becomes mechanical and superficial. 

But granting all this, every teacher-and student needs to have the whole field illuminated; and the only light which will serve as a safe guide must come from the study of elocutionary history. In fact, the study of history is the most effective means of leading the teacher and the student to realize the very fact that delivery and all vocal art is personal and must be improved by a present mirroring of a soul to itself by another soul. 

For the last eighteen years I have devoted some study to the history of vocal training and vocal expression, and the methods which have been adopted in different periods of the world's history. I have consulted foremost professors of Greek for assistance and light upon those early methods which produced the greatest results that have ever been known. I have gathered and had translated some references and extracts from different Greek and Latin authors, which had not previously been rendered into English. Hence, when your committee invited me to speak, I suggested, in an unguarded moment, "Greek Ideas of Elocution or the First Period of Elocutionary History," as a topic upon which I should like to address you. When, however, I came to wrestle with the material, I found it impossible to present the facts which I had gathered and their adequate interpretation in the period of time to which each speaker at this conference must necessarily be limited. 

I desire, therefore, to present to you certain advantages which may be gained from the study of the history of vocal and elocutionary methods, and I do this especially with the hope that I may inspire others to come forward and volunteer to aid in making investigations. For, while a history of elocution is needed, the publication of such a volume will not be sought by publishers. Such work has usually fallen to some society. The Chaucer Society, the Shakespeare Society, the Shelley Society, the Philological and other societies have published invaluable books which could not have been printed except by the support of such associations. Those who attend this conference are supposed to have mastered and to be following some one method, for all are supposed to be practical teachers. No teacher can come here and give a lesson. The true teacher must always see that his point is understood. He must make a definite diagnosis and see that the remedy is adopted and applied. He must report and call for individual practice under his eye. Hence, in such a gathering all can best unite in studying those broader and higher facts in regard to our work, such as its history or its general needs.

Allow me, therefore, to present to you certain advantages which may be gained by the application of historic methods to various departments of vocal training, and vocal expression.

1. Such a historical study, were the materials accessible, would prevent mistakes. Ignorant people must live over again all the old exploded heresies in theology, in finance, in educational theories, simply because they do not look into history and find the light of experience which shows the natural result which follows certain conditions and causes.

2. The historic method enables us to appreciate what is really new in the theories of the present time. If we know the past we can realize the advances that are being made, we can distinguish the true discovery of principles, from what is mere ingenuity or oddity or the result of mere vagaries, and what is really far behind the methods of other days. It is only by a broad and careful study of history that men are able to see what is really new in any department of science or art. If we kept thoroughly posted in the history of our work, we should know that the revolving mirrors, which were invented or discovered by Helmholtz had been tested in relation to the voice over twenty years ago and found to be of no special advantage in vocal training, because the qualities of the voice appeal to the ear, and are too subtile to be presented except in the most general way to the eye. My own voice was tested with them twenty years ago by Prof. Alex. Graham Bell. The new point of photographing the waves of light adds nothing that makes it any more practical in vocal training. The historical method is the greatest test of truth. A slavish following of history, an isolation of history from intuition and nature may, at times, tend to make men conservative, but the real reformer is one who feels all history at his back, who knows what has been done before, and in the light of the past can distinguish what is a step forward.

3. One who is familiar with the struggles of the past will be able to feel the needs of his own time, and having come to understand and to feel the current of history, and having seen the mistakes of the past and realized the struggles of other days to advance his work, he will be able to grapple with the probem of his own age more effectively; he will be.less subservient to any particular system, less liable to ride a hobby. He will be able to look at his work from many points of view, he will be able to realize its need in general and to meet each 'individual case more adequately. Besides, he will be able to realize the true hindrances to his work; he will understand why it is not making greater advances, why it is not better appreciated. He can feel the remote causes of the difficulties which he has to face now, and above all he will be able to feel wherein the greatest dangers lie.

4. The study of history gives hope. When discouraged, and feeling at times the lack of cooperation, or when the teacher feels the great difficulty of meeting adequately the needs of some earnest student, what can give him more encouragement than a realization of what Demosthenes conquered? What reveals to us better the possibilities of such training than the account of the first failure of Sarah Siddons and her final triumphs when she passed into English history as the typical muse of tragedy?

5. The historical method prevents egotism. The man who holds some little idea and, thinking that he has something that no one else in the world has ever known, imparts it to students as if it were the greatest secret in the universe, when he finds out that what he is trying to teach is more than three thousand years old and has been applied by thousands of teachers, such a light breaks into his narrow and egotistic soul that he is really able to see beyond his little sphere. The light of historic research leads a man to measure himself as a part of a great army of workers and as a true member of his race. He receives courage and is more apt to acquire that modesty which characerizes all noble students and investigators.

6. A study of the history of his art broadens the mind of a teacher or a student and enables him to realize its relation to other departments of knowledge and other forms of instruction. He realizes better the true nature of his own art, its limitations, its possibilities, its function and its true power. He will be able to look upon his work from more than one point of view. He will be able to see that his work has had a part in the great problem of education. He will realize that elocution is concerned with the revelation of the soul. He will feel that as breathing consists in taking in and giving out breath, so education consists in the taking of ideas and giving them to others; and unless the balance of these two is preserved, there will be something abnormal in the development of every human being. He will see the true educational value of his work and he will see its failure when separated from educational principles. He will see his own work as an art and its relation to all other arts. He will awaken to the character of the natural languages and of the relation they bear to the imagination and the artistic culure of the soul. He will be inspired, also, to cooperate with teachers and educators and artists in other departments of life and enter into a true sympathy with the great struggle of human development.

7. There would be an appreciation of the changes that have taken place in the style of speaking and of acting and of public reading, the causes of these, and the lessons entailed regarding the new methods for their development.

8. A history of elocution would show its true place in education. The ignorance, the perversions due to a total lack of culture, have had a most deleterious effect upon the estimation which educated men have in regard to our work. Would not a true history of elocution serve to show educators the true educational value of vocal training and vocal expression?

9. Such a history would aid in establishing and securing recognition of voice and speech as departments of science and of vocal expression as a department of art. All educated men would have the means of judging of the true nature and function of the various sciences and arts associated with vocal expression. Artists could realize the relation of the art of vocal interpretation to other arts. Such a history would give students and teachers a conscious and unconscious respect for their work. Such a history would tend to establish the tendency, common in other departments, of giving credit to others in quotations and of giving honor to thinkers in the profession.

10. Such a history would do justice to the noble army of workers who have had a most important influence in education from the time of the Greeks to our own day. The world might be brought to see something of what we owe Thomas Sheridan and his plans for the reform of education 150 years ago. The elocutionists form an army of which we need not be ashamed. They have been reformers in education from Sheridan to Monroe.

Curry, Samuel Silas. "Elocution and Vocal Training—The Importance of Studying Their History," Werner's Magazine, a magazine of expression, volume 20, 1897-8, September-February: 87-93.