The Teacher’s Duty

From Edward Foreman’s essay Modern Pedagogy (unpublished):

 

In order to accept payment for teaching voice, the teacher should:

  1. Understand the mechanics of the voice, not in the abstract anatomical sense, but in the practical sense from his own experience
  2. Understand that while all voices are mechanically the same, no two singers can be taught quite the same way in this day and age
  3. Understand the difference between being able to sing the notes and being able to sing the composition as a whole, with style appropriate to its historical period, language, and genre
  4. Understand that the relationship between the person and the voice is the single most intimate relationship of all, and respect that relationship, in order to heal any breach between the singer and his voice.

Some teachers hasten to point out that they are not psychologists, by which I take it to mean “trained in psychology,” or “holding a degree in psychology.” It is impossible to teach voice without learning a great deal of practical psychology through observation, and it is a wise teacher who arms himself with some rudimentary behavioral information at the outset of his teaching career. This is not to be confused with psychological therapy or counseling, but the teacher who does not take into account the psychology of the student will never be able to help the student fully unlock the mass of interferences and inhibitions which the modern student brings with him into the studio.

This work must be done through vocal exercises, which are the teacher’s province, and not through analysis, which is not. There is abundant evidence—from early Antiquity—that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” The various powers ascribed to music include its value as therapy, and the teacher must realize that this is happening in voice lessons, whether he likes it or not, and learn to deal with it accordingly.

In this society at this time, there is no excuse for being unaware of the therapeutic activity which takes place in a voice lesson, which must be guided, understood and utilized to the student’s benefit. It is no longer appropriate to deal only with the voice as though it were an abstract study happening outside the context of the whole person. Simple logic requires that we understand the integrated nature of all human activities, and learn to utilize that understanding in helping the student to fulfill his potential.

This view of vocal pedagogy was gradually emerging at the end of the 20th century. It is too early to predict what advances the study of human nature and behavior may contribute to stabilizing the chaotic condition of pedagogy in the 21st century.

While we cannot go back and revive the actual pedagogy of the 17th and 18th centuries—which would require 17th and 18th century Italians as students, and reversion to the musical styles of the period, and would prove inadequate to the vocal demands of modern music and performing conditions—we might take note of the salient features of that pedagogy which are relevant in the modern world: Time, discipline, simplicity of method, and a stress on the artistic expression of vocal musical ideas.

The pressures on the average academic student of voice do not permit the kind of focus necessary to master the art of singing, either as vocal emission or as interpretive art. In addition to a course load unrelated to music or performance, the regular requirements of juried examinations, grading “progress,” opera workshop participation, and the generally stressful pace of modern life distract the student from the kind of attention he needs to pay to the simple act of vocal emission, much less the art of singing itself.

The private teacher—an almost endangered species—has the leisure of avoiding academic entanglements and distractions, but financial considerations often reduce the amount of time he can devote to a single student. Unless the student has a patron able to provide relief from the necessity to work two jobs and afford him enough time in actual personal study with the teacher, the present conditions will prevail, with the results which can be heard all around us in poor vocal emission and unformed artistic expression.

Something to Consider…

Nellie Melba, the famous Australian soprano, studied the role of Marguerite in Charles Gounod’s Faust under the supervision and guidance of the composer himself.

Melba’s use of the chest register in the bottom of her range is (if history is to be believed) apparently what Gounod WANTED in this aria – otherwise, Melba would not have sung it this way. We can probably take on faith that Gounod wanted these lower pitches sung in chest, not a pulled-down head voice. Sopranos, take note: Gounod likely wanted the aria to sound this way.

The ready availability of chest register on the bottom of the range was much more apparent in the Old School sopranos, as evidenced by this recording. Why change voice emission if the composer HIMSELF wanted the music sung this way? #morechest

Check out the chest register Melba utilized throughout the COLORATURA aria “Air des bijoux,” known in English as the Jewel Song:

The Center of the Action

A summer re-reading of Mancini’s Practical Reflections coupled with a cross-examination of a Rossini biography by Herbert Weinstock led to some interesting discoveries on shifting musical and pedagogical values of the nineteenth century and gave me further indication that the nineteenth century was indeed a period of pedagogical pandemonium.

Weinstock quotes from an essay by Andrea Delle Corte, Fra gorgheggi e melodie di Rossini, Musica I, Florence, 1942. In it, he describes the chaos of the early nineteenth century.

It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibility of Rossini leaving opera composition due to the expanding influence of Romanticism and its effect on singing. Rossini understood the slow and laborious training of the Old School (he had heard the castrati and was himself a singer) – so he may have come to the conclusion that his style of Italianate composition was on the wane. Or, more frankly, he may have been disgusted by the whole affair, as we know he was by the singing of Tamberlik’s infamous high C#, telling the tenor to leave it on the coat rack when he came to visit. (Tamberlik was assured that he could pick it up again on his way out). Rossini detested the do di petto (introduced by Gilbert-Louis Duprez in Guillaume Tell) calling it the “shriek of a strangulated capon.”

The tendency to force the voice represents the culmination of the vocal crisis between 1820 and ‘40, and also an element in the crisis of musical taste imposed by artistic expressions of the fullness of romanticism. In Italy, in France, in Germany, the very cultivators and worshippers of a way of singing which was, above all, delicate, soft, shaded, which had preserved the best part of the singing of the eighteenth century—that is, its substance—these very men observed that one of the strongest of spiritual evolutions was in progress and that the feeling of life and art was promoting manners different from and daily more antithetical to their predecessors. Faced with romanticism, which invaded and transformed everything, Rossini abandoned the field. The singer was one of the many instruments of the new expression. The libretto, the scenography, the melody, the harmony, the orchestration, the dramatic and operatic conception—everything was changing. Impetus, vehemence, pathos, which were pushed—as happened in the corruption that was not long in accompanying and damaging the new ideas—which were pushed to exaggeration, to exasperation, characteristics of the romantic sensibility, were put at the service of the new democratic public that could throng the large theaters. Loud playing and singing became the most banal expedient. In what earlier period had the tenor had occasion, let us say the pretext, to attempt the emission, the launching, the explosion, of high sounds of unprecedented violence, sufficient, as Rossini ironically said, to break glasses and mirrors? An investigation of the factors in the crisis, lighting up the reciprocal accusations of orchestration and singing, the brutality of the effects that pleased and excited the crowd, the adherence of composers to the new mode, and so forth, would be interesting nevertheless. In the end, as we have said, they would be accepted as corruption and at the same time as inescapable necessity.

Rossini had pointed words towards the new style of vocal emission that was developing through the ascendance of Romanticism, turning opera into a blood sport:

The old florid style is replaced by a nervous one, the solemn by shouts, the affecting sentiment by hydrophobic passion. The question is entirely one of lungs. The singer who feels in his soul, and vocal splendor, are forbidden.

I was tickled to read Rossini’s assessment that singing had become a ‘question entirely … of lungs.’ It indicates a kind of singing overtaken by breath, breath, and more breath. More importantly, we can trace the attention of pedagogy shifting from the larynx (as will be seen in the Mancini quote below) to a focus dominated by breath and the proper WAY to breathe.

In the place of an Old Italian school was one erected upon ‘hydrophobic passion,’ wresting the utmost from the vocal instrument, which grappled not only with extended range and volume but with a shortened period of training. It’s important to remember that singers were doing MORE on LESS training in the 19th century. Accounts of ‘uneven voices’ were recorded often in accounts of operatic productions of the period.

If we think today that the idea of singing being ‘a matter of the lungs’ was shared by the Italian belcantists, Mancini had opposing beliefs: in his Practical Reflections from 1774, he placed attention in a different physiological neighborhood – the larynx.

Mancini:

The common people believe that he who has an elevated chest, and can yell loudly, has the qualities to come out a good singer. The strength of the voice depends, it is true, upon the quantity of air which is pressed out from the lungs, depending upon how ample these are; and if the trachea is broad, and the larynx, so the tone of the voice is great, which is born from the pressing out of the air from the cavity of the thorax. It is also true, as the physiologists say, that the two lungs are instruments that contribute to speaking and singing with greater or lesser force as required, in as much as they and the chest are more or less ample and capacious for receiving and expelling the air introduced into them; but at the same time, one must say that it is just as certain that the lungs are not the true organs which form speech and voice. These are formed in the throat and in the mouth by the flowing back and forth of the air in passing through these parts at the time of inspiration and expiration. The air from the lungs works over the larynx in singing in the same manner as it works over the head of the flute, which one leans against the lips to play. It is not the lungs which sing; these do nothing except provide the material, that is, air; in the same way it is not the air that renders the tone of the flute pleasing, but the fingers which give it the diverse modulations. Thus the organs of the voice are the larynx, the glottis, the uvula, the palatal veil, the tongue, the teeth, and the lips, and these are the parts which give the diverse inflections to the voice in singing.

The better these parts are organized, the more beautiful, strong and clear will be the voice. It will open in singing through varied pitches, high and low; it will stop, and it will vibrate through the many inflections, that is, in the various manners in which the air is expressed through the larynx. In speaking these organs are quiet and natural, but in the action of singing they are held to constant toil, and the most fatigue is in the muscles of the larynx: these direct the voice, condensing to produce the high notes and dilating for the low notes. A proof of what I say is to be clearly found in birds. Those birds that have the narrowest and most compact epiglottises are those that sing well: those that have large ones in proportion to their bodies do not sing at all, but simply shriek.

And so I conclude that the elevated chest alone, and the power to shout at high pitches are not qualities sufficient for good results in singing. It is necessary that the organs of the voice be perfect, for if these are imperfect by nature, or through some illness which is not correctable, the singing will always be bad; that child who is directed by a good master has much more hope of good results to the extent that the organs named are well-formed.

For teachers that attempt to solve the large portion of vocal problems through the management of breath, an investigation of the larynx as the locus does have historical precedence and merit. Mancini centered singing in the throat in the eighteenth century, Rossini observed in the nineteenth that it was centered on the lungs.

As more fact-based pedagogy comes to light, it continues to delight me that we find our way back to an understanding that was clearly grasped as late as the eighteenth century but became lost in a mare’s nest of theories, speculation, nincompoopery, shenanigans, mischief, and charlatanism.

Could it be possible in our fact-based pedagogical age we are returning to an empirical knowledge and understanding of the “center of the action” that was grasped as late as 244 years ago by Mancini?

A Freudian Voice Lesson

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Freud’s famous couch. From here patients could talk out of sightlines with the therapist.

The classic image of Freudian analysis is a patient lying down on a couch with a therapist seated behind. The benefit of this approach is to assist in “free association.” Free association is the procedure by which the patient says everything that comes to mind—without censoring, without filtering, and without judgment.

The couch eliminates the habit we have of relying on visual feedback of face-to-face interaction when creating our dialogues with others. The removal of this visual feedback gives a patient a sense of temporary discombobulation, of being set adrift into themselves. Deprived of facial response, the patient is liberated to explore the innermost corners of the psyche. The therapist remains in the room, guiding thoughts and encouraging exploration of ideas or concepts discovered in the session.

What does this have to do with voice training? 

Removing the visual stimulus of a teacher’s facial/physical responses could provide a more liberating and exciting way of training the voice. How many students respond to the completion of a vocal exercise with “Was that right?” – immediately looking for approval! Students can become addicted to the visual feedback in the same way that a little puppy becomes fixated on receiving its next treat after it has performed a ‘trick.’

Here’s a suggestion for this week: turn your students away from you visually so that they cannot see you in their sight lines. They can look at a wall, a painting, out the window – wherever – they just cannot look at you or rely on any visual input from you. They should be encouraged to do the exercises and sing while noticing what the experience is like without visual input.

Deprived of visual stimulus from the teacher, the student might:

  1. Turn inward, becoming more present to their experience
  2. Evaluate and notice things happening more astutely or imaginatively
  3. Develop analytical listening skills and improve the ear and kinesthesia
  4. Take more ownership of what’s happening as they do the exercises or repertoire
  5. Rely less on the teacher and more on their own intuitions and experiences
  6. Replicate an experience that mirrors independent practice and performance

This “turning away from teacher” could be liberating for singers who have become dependent on visual feedback of the teacher (smiling, frowning, nodding, furrowed brow, cocked head, closed eyes, gestures, body language). Students will unconsciously interpret every single one of these stimuli, even if the teacher is not aware of it. These (mis)interpretations could affect the student’s complete experience of voice training! Think how often we rely on another’s face to tell us ‘how we’re doing.’ 

The teacher can guide verbally from the piano without being seen – giving cues with the voice or the piano – (for instance, gradually repeating a pitch at louder or softer volumes and having the student trace the contrast). Exercises can be constructed in the same way as before and the student can play with those concepts on their own, much like a child at creative play. If the teacher has a grand piano, the student can stand in the crook and look into the room or space and only turn to the teacher in moments of conversation between exercises or phrases. This has the added benefit of replicating the independence of performance as well.

Being ‘alone’ with the teacher’s voice and piano might yield interesting pedagogical discoveries for students who have come to rely on visual feedback as part of their singing education. It’s worth considering as an alternative to the ‘face me’ teaching style that has become so prevalent in modern studios!

Try it out and see what you discover when you can be ‘on your own.’

 

Rossini’s Exercise to Balance the Registers

“When I went back to stay in Bologna after abandoning my theatrical career, I was entirely taken up with the teaching of singing at the Liceo. I just mentioned homogeneity of timbre, equalization of the registers. Here, for example, is a model of the exercises that I prescribed, thanks to which I obtained astonishing results. It is simple, and the pupil himself, given a good ear, came to be able to correct himself.”  Then, sitting down at the piano, the Maestro struck the following notes:

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“After which the same exercise was continued through ascending semitones C-C-sharp, D-D-sharp, E, etc., to the limit of the voice’s tessitura, variable according to age and to the progress of the martyr or victim,” Rossini said, exchanging a smile with his illustrious former pupil Alboni.

“Without that first discipline, aimed at developing equality of timbre over the whole range of the organ, a voice, no matter how richly endowed by nature it may be, always will remain completely defective. Isn’t that the case, what’s more, with the brain, the most generous innate capacities of which demand long, studious effort if they are to acquire their full value?”

 

Michotte, Edmond, et al. Richard Wagner’s Visit to Rossini (Paris 1860): And, An Evening at Rossini’s in Beau-Sejour (Passy) 1858. Translated from the French and Annotated, with an Introd. and Appendix, by Herbert Weinstock. University Press, 1968.