The Decline of Fine Singing

Sir,—I was very glad to read the article of Mr. Geoffrey Thompson in your last issue on 'The Decline of Fine Singing.'

As a student in the late eighties, and a practitioner since, and one who knew the de Reszkes and Plançon, and many continental artists since, I fully endorse his statement. The causes are many, and it is worldwide; but the root is the rapid growth of wealth in the world in general during the last seventy or eighty years, and the consequent rush of incompetent teachers, performers, agents, managers, and others anxious to get into the stream. Prior to about 1830 the teaching of singing was confined to the Italians, who, whilst knowing little or nothing about actual mechanism of the voice, had, about a century before, founded a school of singing whose fundamental found was quality of tone combined with ability to sustain the tone, and to enunciate. 

The actual mechanism of the voice is still a secret of nature's, as one can see by the many arguments and theories of production which appear in books and magazine from time to time. Eminent throat specialists have said the secret will never be discovered as there can be no means of watching or ascertaining the process. 

Actually, Manuel Garcia (who died in 1906 at the age of a hundred and one, and was the son of an illustrious composer and tenor singer, and the brother of the greatest singers Malibran and Viardot) was the first teacher of singing to apply the study of physiology to the vocal mechanism; and he also invented the laryngoscope—the instrument still in use. 

Unfortunately, Garcia's study was not deep enough, for, physically, he ruined his own voice by faulty production, and he had to stop public performance at about thirty years of age. Also, he had not discovered the use of nasal resonance. These facts I can substantiate, as I was a pupil of his for three years at the R.A.M. That nasal resonance as essential is confirmed by the two great facts of the nose containing the largest sinus or resonator, in the human, and the tube or pipe formed by the nose is such as is used in the organ (instrument) to give the best quality tone. 

Another reason for the decline in the art is the fact of learned thinking the art is easily acquired, and with little work. Instead of which, under all circumstances, is is difficult, more particularly as it is an unseen instrument, and thereof one's senses of feeling, hearing, and intelligence must be the more acute. The art requires hard work, close attention, patience, perseverance, persistence, and a lot of it. 

Caruso said it took him nine years, Chaliapin took ten years, and the de Reszkes not less. A true artist is rarely fully satisfied with his work. 

—Yours, &c, B. Mayne. 

 The Musical Times, "The Decline of Fine Singing," December, 1934: 1117

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Could I find out anything about B. Mayne? Nope. Not after spending quite a bit of time doing so. Not after searching database after database. No matter. The man (and I am assuming it is a man) writes two things that concern this writer: 1) García ruined his voice with faulty production, and 2) knew nothing of nasal resonance. Lucie Manén—a student of Pauline Viardot-García—made this same charge in her book The Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Song-Schools, Its Decline and Restoration (1987), having interviewed another student of the legendary vocal maestro, John Mewborn Levien, who told Manén that García did not teach the use of the nasal cavities as a resonator.

Let's take these two charges one at a time, shall we?

To the first: If García himself is to believed (and I wonder about that—which I will get to in a minute), his voice was ruined as a result of having to sing through puberty; that tricky time for a boy when hormones hit, the voice drops an octave and vocal range is limited for a period of time. While having to sing through puberty may have been an issue, the real problem is likely to have been his famous tenor father who was a bully as far as his son's aspirations were concerned. The clues are numerous with the elder García beating the crap out of his son on the deck of the ship that brought Italian opera to New York City, as well as the son's youthful attempts to escape his father by joining the navy and foreign legion. I have even come across a tale which places the son in Italy and singing very badly on purpose so as to send his father the reviews. Hello! What great voice teacher is going to piss on his brand by admitting to that? That said, kid García seems to have had a curious scientific bent about him, and merged the will of his father with his own after spending time in a military hospital where he observed the inner workings of anatomy as it related to breathing. My take? The younger García never wanted to be a singer, but did become a great voice teacher by following his own star.

To the second: Long time readers of VOICETALK will know that the introduction to Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García deals with the matter of voice placement (aka singing in the mask) in depth. They will also know that modern voice science considers the vocal tract to be the only resonator. The nasal cavities? They resonant only in so far as the soft palate is lowered and communication with the pharynx is achieved.

And there is this: Though García himself said next to nothing about nasal resonance in print, the daughter of his wildly successful student Mathilde Marchesi did. Writing in The Singer's' Catechism and Creed (1932), Blanche Marchesi had this to say:

The nasal method that has spread all over the world from Nice to New York is not only anti-aesthetic, but dangerous to the human voice. The section, "Foundation of a New Religion," in Chapter II, will furnish details of it. In sending sound through the nose instead of directly it towards the sounding-boards that give it beauty and life, we convey it through the very channel that should be avoided at all costs. It was given to us by nature for an entirely different purpose. The inner nose is formed of cartilage, which, like cardboard or wool, cannot offer any resonance. Singing thus without sounding-boards, we subject the voice to a cruel strain without obtaining any result, except that of destruction. Big, healthy sound sustained by the sounding-boards, on the other hand, is, as few people suspect, a great power. Vibration produced by the perfectly clear tone of a human voice can produce wonders. 

So, B. Mayne is correct on this one point: Manuel García did not teach nasal resonance! Look for my next post which will feature Blanche Marchesi's further thoughts on nasal resonance. 


  1. * thank you very much for enlightening me every time.
    * people tend to pay attention to what Garcia discovered, but one should learn what he learnt from his teachers. No one will disagree to what he had inherited from great singers, and that substance occupy almost 100% of his writing and his teaching practice.
    * 'nasal cavity or sinus' is the upper part of pharynx while mouth cavity the middle part. I tend to avoid using the word 'nasal' as it is associated with the nasal twang. singing voice is always clear and articulate, not that beautiful muddle.
    * insignificant misspellings: go age (of age), then years (ten years).

    1. Thank you for your comment, ytsujiDr. Copy-editing is appreciated and corrected—which Blogger's spell check missed in both cases—a clear case being made for "reading out loud" which I try to remind myself to do—and which catches everything. Actually, the upper pharynx is distinct from the nasal cavities, being separated by the nasal ports. There is a cool drawing of this in Manén's book.


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