García's Two-Straw Teaching

One could not become a capable singer without possessing the art of the control of the breath.

And so it is that Manuel García begins his essay on breathing in his groundbreaking A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1841 & 1872). * 

The heart of García's instruction is four breathing exercises, which he sets down as follows: 

  1. First, one inhales slowly and during a space of several seconds as much breath as the chest can contain. 
  2. One exhales that air with the same slowness as with which it was inhaled. 
  3. One fills the lungs and keeps them filled for the longest possible time. 
  4. One exhales completely and leaves the chest empty as long as the physical powers will conveniently allow. 

These four exercises, very fatiguing at first, should be practiced separately and at rather long intervals. The first two, namely the slow inhalations and exhalations can be practiced more regularly if one will nearly close the mouth in such a manner that only a slight aperture is felt for the passage of the air. 

I find this last sentence to be significant because Margaret Harshaw—whose own teacher Anna Schoen-René studied with Manuel García and his sister Pauline Viardot-García—taught that the singer should breathe as though through two straws placed behind the upper front teeth. She meant, of course, that this is how one breathed with the mouth open for singing.

Harshaw's instruction extends and amplifies her musical grandfather's instruction in terms of what is felt by the student when breathing with the mouth opened only a very little. It is a unique application of the "straw" in the voice studio, one which came long before its current conception and usage as devised by Ingo Titze. More than mere imagery, García's two-straw teaching has an effect on the breath as well as the vocal tract and vocal folds: specifically, a rounding of the vocal tract and a lengthening of the vocal folds.

For those who wonder whether García will have encountered the modern straw and integrated its proprioceptive affect with his teaching as outlined above, I point interested parties to the drinking straw's Wikipedia page, where one finds the following:

Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of paper, in 1888, to address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw. He came upon the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C.; the taste of the rye was mixing with the drink and giving it a grassy taste, which he found unsatisfactory. He wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. He later refined it by building a machine that would coat the outside of the paper with wax to hold it together, so the glue wouldn't dissolve in bourbon.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to that of the grass stems then in common use. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip.

You caught the last line, right? The two-straw bit?

Manuel García lived for eighteen years after Stone's invention, so it is entirely possible he encountered Stone's paper straw during soda fountain outings with his two young daughters (a product of his second marriage while in his 70's)—soda fountains being all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic (find an excellent article on the straw here). He was a curious man that spoke often about sticking close to nature; and what could more natural that the feeling of breath through two thin straws—a feeling that amplified that of breathing through a small opening of the mouth?

I believe García's teaching as transmitted through Schoen-René and Harshaw achieves the very same ends as Ingo Titze's modern method; the cool thing being that in García's teaching, no external aid is necessary.

* A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part One (The Editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke), Da Capo Press, New York, 1984, page 33-35.

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