April 1, 2017

Breath & Brains

Reading antique articles on historical vocal pedagogy is not without its challenges for students of vocal art, especially for modern vocal pedagogues whose brains are filled with facts pertaining to anatomy, physiology and acoustics. Mind you, facts are important, very important indeed in our day and age (don't get me started on our current political scene here in America), but one has to learn how to deal with them when reading articles like the one below.

The writer quoted by Werner's Magazine of Expression is none other than Giulia Valda, a student of Francesco Lamperti. Her words about the diaphragm will undoubtedly confuse those who think they know better. My advice? Don't get hung up on the diaphragm. Keep in mind that the empiricism of the old Italian school of singing involved a highly developed sense of touch—which, if you don't know, involves the ear. What is to be avoided entirely? The sort of criticism heard from those who enter conservatory on fire and then leave burnt out and looking for someone or something to blame. Nothing is good enough, least of all themselves.

Valda gives the reader quite a few "hints" in this article. To fully understand their meaning, you'd have to work with a teacher who knows what she is talking about. 

Mme. Giulia Valda's paper on the "Method of Francesco Lamperti" was received with the respect and attention due to such a master. In the main these were her words:

"Bending his ear the closest to nature's mode, to the tone-bloom from the throats of the birds, Francesco Lamperti learned his secret for successful song. Bending his ear the closest to the artless art of the king of instruments, he determined to make the voice like the violin, the instrument that is closest of blood to the bird. Lamperti's method was based on one interwoven principle: Breath and brains.

"Francesco Lamperti was the last exponent of the old Italian school. He was the confrere of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti. Often in their hours of comradeship and communion, Lamperti dictated right imperiously to those masters of composition: 'You must get such and such intervals in, or you can not get the pure violin quality in the voice.'

For twenty-eight years Lamperti was the president of the Conservatory of Milan, which was supported by the government. Lamperti preferred to instruct the pupils of this conservatory, because, said he,' they are bound to do as I say.'

"The roll-call of the illustrious names that studied under him comprised such singers as Albani, Sembrich, Valeria, Stolz, Waldman, La Grange, Artot, Paganini, the Van Zandts (mother and daughter), Collini, Galassi, Campanini, Bispham, and many others.

"Campanini was second tenor in an insignificant position outside of Milan. A baritone pupil of Lamperti was singing with the company. He came to the maestro and said: 'There's a great voice in our company. You would make a good tenor of him.'

"'Bring him along,' answered Lamperti. The maestro taught him gratuitously; and Campanini made his debut at La Scala.

''Now, what was 'the system of teaching' and ' the true art of singing', which these great names of the lyric stage and in musical composition so enthusiastically recommended above all others? His idea was first, to follow the golden-throated little birds, in their natural tone-idea; second, to give to the human voice the tonal ladder of the violin, and, therefore, its brotherhood with the birds.

"Do you realize why the violin is called the ' king of instruments?' The violin gives the enharmonic scale,— that Greek musical scale whose intervals were quarter tones and major thirds. Our diatonic scale proceeding by tones gives only the seven tones; our chromatic scale proceeding by semitones, the twelve tones. But the enharmonic gives that Greek musical scale that gave thirty-six tones in the scale. To illustrate: On our piano we play C major. That C is also the home of D double flat and B sharp. We hear only one tone struck for these notes. The enharmonic scale, which the violin produces, gives us each of these tones separate and individual.

"This, first, is the violin-voice of the Lamperti method. It will give the whole shading or color of the old Greek enharmonic scale, which shook the soul of the antique world, agaze upon Homer's lips, or as it listened to the silver flutings of Sappho.

"Second, the violin is what is called legato singing, which means combining and uniting tone without slurring. In hearing the violin, your ear seems to pass from one note to another with no division or hiatus, as it were.

"Without the Lamperti method, the voice chops along like your downcast remembrances of the English Channel! Verily, if an inhabitant of Mars should encounter many of the present 'tone-methods,' he would sadly be persuaded that in these convulsive emissions of tone he was listening to abdominal pain and not to abdominal power.

'"Don't shout and bellow,' said Lamperti, 'but fill my rooms with tone.'

"Lamperti had a great idea of the true art of tone-production. How did he accomplish it? As Plato wrote in golden letters over the entrance to the akademeia at Athens, where he would teach the philosophy of the soul: 'He who knoweth not geometry, let him not enter here,' so Lamperti wrote over the entrance to the school where he would teach the philosophy of tone-production: 'He who will not learn how to breathe, let him not enter here.'

"Lamperti applied the truth of the old Vedantic philosophy: 'The spirit is the rider, the body is the car,' by saying: 'The breath is the car on which the tone, the master, travels.' Yes, and deeper still, Lamperti said: 'It is true you must have breath, yes, breath.'

"But that is, after all, only a mechanical process. You must have brains, too,—breath and brains, the two factors which, when multiplied together, produce the given quantity and quality of tone.

"'Voice, voice, voice alone," cry musical theorists, and their cry is a false one. Of course, there must be the God-given quality of tone, the feu sacre of temperament. But, in the human, the God-gift has to be guided, developed, unlike the birds, the untutored tribe that mate their notes with heaven. So 'Voice, voice, voice alone' will not do. Breath and brains have to supplement it.

"Lamperti's idea was the management of the breath. Breath is the guiding-star. Not one person in a thousand knows how to breathe. Believe me, it is true. If the lungs were stretched out to their full capacity, we should have miles of breath. Do you realize it? Now, what moves the breath? The use of the diaphragm. I want to write this in capital letters upon your consciousness. It is abdominal breathing alone. 'He who knows how to breathe well knows how to sing well,' said Lamperti. It is the use of the diaphragm.

"Said Rossini: 'Whoever sings in the Italian way sings all his life long."

'"In truth,' said Lamperti, 'in former days people succeeded in attaining that ideal song which, as Dante says, "touches the soul." ' Of such is the kingdom of Sappho, of Sophocles, of Shakespeare; for singing is but an extension of speaking. You can not support notes that express rage, irony, hate, or love, as the masters supported them, but by the natural respiration on which Lamperti insisted. Breathe from the diaphragm.

"After placing the voice on a level by breathing from the diaphragm, then you sing on your level. The mouth, the trachea, are simply a well through which the tone comes. Raise the diaphragm, by commencing to breathe, filling the lungs; the tone departs and the tone grows. The head-tones take care of themselves. I take my breath correctly, and then I sing on that platform. Begin the tones on that breath, crescendo, diminuendo, and take another breath. Be careful not to force the wrong muscles of the diaphragm. In doing that, pupils injure themselves, when, instead of inflating the lungs by drawing up the diaphragm, they inflate the lungs and push the diaphragm out. Therefore, they tire the muscles of the diaphragm. I use the natural method of breathing: As low as possible, from the abdomen. If you watch a baby, you will find one of the most natural forms of breathing. Other forms of breathing shove the glottis.

"Attach the breath to the diaphragm. You must control breath and tone.

"If you are going to sing, you must have breath and brains. You must have brains. The mind holds on to the breath. Concentrate the tone. You must think of your tone as climbing a ladder. You must think of it as descending a ladder. Your breath is the ladder. The rungs are the tones.

"Our maestro's conception from melodious Italy, from the very heart of its lily upon the Arno, is the florescence of the tone-world of the human voice."

Werner’s Magazine: a Magazine of Expression, August 1898, p. 487

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