It is very easy to yell

But we are now in the transition period from the old school of music to a new one and we have not yet adjusted ourselves to the change. The new school music demands dramatic singing at the expense of cantabile singing. Modern opera is nothing if not dramatic, and it seems as if the prevailing defect of our work today is the yielding to the irresistible desire for being dramatic at the beginning. Nearly every teacher will recall the applicant who roars through an aria from Wagner or Verdi under the impression that he is doing something dramatic, and who is quite grieved when he is told that he is not singing, but yelling.

Modern music and many of our recent singers increase this tendency among the younger singers. It is very easy to yell but very difficult to sing beautifully; and, too frequently, the teacher allows the former to the detriment of the latter.

This failing it seems to me is the greatest evil tendency we have at present. We are so ambitious, both as students and teachers, to develop power of voice that we sometimes overlook the fact that expressiveness, and not loudness, is the vital principle of art. A singer is great according to the expressiveness of his voice and not in proportion to the size of his tones. The high pressure that we assume when we force our voices expresses nothing but vituperation, coarseness, sarcasm or the embarrassment of the singer, and surely this is not art. The high pressure also causes a tremolo when certain condition obtain, which, once established, is difficult to eradicate.

This high pressure singer, as I have said, seems to be the root of most of the vocal evils that are prevalent, for it is apparently the cause of many serious defects. It must not by any means be inferred from this that we do not need power in singing, or that power should not be taught. Power needs to be taught just as much as beauty and adjustment. But what I desire to present for our consideration is this: that power should be the natural growth of the correct adjustment of the voice. The complete structure upon the solid foundation of a perfect adjustment. This, of course, leads us to consider the question of what this adjustment is, and we must turn to the Italian school for our answer. To make my own explanation I should say: we must attain the utmost delicacy in the action of the forces that produce the voice. The vocal instrument in the throat is played upon by the breath and until we attain the most delicate adjustment of the breath to the vocal instrument we should not attempt power. But as soon as we have attained this adjustment we may put on power as fast as we can and still retain the delicate adjustment.

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The fundamental requirement of a vocal teacher is a very sensitive ear; and the one thing we need to cultivate is this musical sensitiveness that accepts only the quality of tone that indicates a fine adjustment of the voice. However excellent our theories may be our final test must be what we hear. And, certainly, the only explanation we have to offer of the fact that eminent teachers with conflicting theories are sending out well trained singers is that they all have a musical sense which recognizes good tone.

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We must acknowledge that the process of teaching singing by relentlessly insisting upon beautiful tone and the perfect legato as the vital principle, is not a rapid one, and that it requires great patience and skill to get the voice under such control that it expresses all the sentiments and passions without disturbing the adjustment. Art is not natural in any form, and singing does not differ from its fellow arts, except in one respect. We do sing when we are happy, and the older masters based their teaching unconsciously upon this fact to a greater or lesser degree. The only natural phase of the art of singing is the fact that we do really sing to express joy and happiness. But do we sing when we are angry or sad? 

Why should we teach people to express these unnatural things in the voice at the beginning? It is too difficult. Aside from this, if we insist on power we get an uncertainty of pitch, and we must lay down the rule from the beginning that a note that does not tune correctly cannot be admired for an instant. If the voice is out of tune there is something radically wrong, and it is our business to find out why.

—Perley Dunn Aldrich,  "Present Condition of the Vocal Art," extract from The Musician, January, 1897, vol 2, no 1, page 20.


And there you have it: a warning from the past which rings true in the present.

Perley Dunn Aldrich (1866-1933) was a baritone, composer, choral director, and writer who graduated from the New England Conservatory, then studied with William Shakespeare in London (see my previous posts on Aldrich using the labels in the margin). A life-long student of the voice, he became Giovanni Sbriglia's studio assistant in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century. The first chairman of the vocal department at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Aldrich was also the chorus master for the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

Aldrich's primary concern for students and teachers was that vocal power before expressivity, beauty of tone, and the "most delicate of adjustment" between breath and voice is achieved is anathema to the art of singing. The music he was referring to in 1897 that required a thorough training in bel canto principles of singing would have undoubtedly been verismo opera like Cavalleria Rusticana, which was the first of its kind in 1890.

It must not be forgotten at Aldrich was the product of an old school training which was conducted in the following manner. First you had to acquire pure vowels in Italian. Then you proceeded to scales and exercises for an extended period; graduating—if you can call it that—to a simple song in Italian. This might take a year. You weren't allowed to yell through your Wagner aria day after day, your voice teacher massaging your throat to get it open and giving you endless affirmations. Tonal beauty—il bel canto—was a feature of vocal training at the outset. The next step in the process only took place once the previous one had been mastered.

THIS. IS. HARD.

The process isn't made any easier by the multitude of scientific facts that can be stuffed in the brain. In fact, they can get in the way—just like the doctor-in-training who convinces himself he has the disease he's researching. The mind is a very powerful thing. Being mono-directional in many respects, it can get lost trying to obtain the very thing it seeks. This is why I tell students that they must learn to think two things at once if they are going to get anywhere. If you can manage three, four, five, even six things? Well then, you have multiple aspects of triangulation and may achieve something. But they have to be the right things, and only a qualified teacher can know and suggest what these things should be for any given student.

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