Who Are You To Say That?

I love this video. It spoke to me in the way that I see pedagogical discussions progress. It also (I think) sums up some of my apprehension regarding ‘science’ as the total salvation of all vocalkind….

We go to science because we don’t like relativism in teaching/pedagogy – but perhaps that’s where the richer answers to the singing equation rest?

Some of my take aways and impressions – from the transcript:

1. We, as voice teachers, are moving to science as a validator as a way to avoid uncomfortable, deeper conversations about singing.

2. @ 2:08 – we accept ideas if they’re scientific truths, but everywhere ELSE we are in the arena of RELATIVISM and “who are you to say thatism.” This is problematic, because some questions are outside the realm of science and can’t be solved with a formula or experiment.

3. That just because a question can’t be answered with 100% accuracy scientifically SHOULDN’T be a reason to not address it.

4. There CAN be examples of good and bad arguments OUTSIDE of science.

5. No one’s talking about trying to impose conclusions on anyone else in the way that the Pope or the Emperor used to do. It’s all about trying to make sound arguments proceed logically and attempt to persuade others of your cause through reason and a bit of charm.

6. Rational democratic discourse depends on people engaging with one another trying to figure out ideas and not running away from complex issues by dogmatically shutting everything down.


When Friends and Family Become Artistic Adversaries

Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse. This happens in any number of ways: beginning work is measured against the masterworks of other artists; beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.

Cameron, Julia. “The artist’s way: A course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” London: Pan Macmillan (1995).

There’s nothing like the feeling of working with a nascent voice, helping it to find new abilities and new ways of making sound. Giving the voice more volume, more range, more openness of expression. How many students have I personally worked with that come in with repressed throats, barely able to open their mouths or make even moderately loud sound?

Then these little vocal embryos go off to demonstrate these new sounds for friends or family. Maybe it’s a demonstration of an emerging head voice, or perhaps the greater power of an open chest sound…

All it takes is ONE person – ONE person – to make a comment or criticize the vocalism to send the poor fledgling singer back into the nest and destroy all their enthusiasm and self esteem. This psychological repair can take MONTHS – MONTHS? – sometimes YEARS to recover and rehabilitate. Sometimes it never happens, and the singer gives up – believing friends and family that they have NO talent for singing. That little bird never sings again.

People think I’m crazy, but this is precisely why I don’t think it’s psychologically healthy for many new singers to sing publicly before they can withstand this kind of criticism, especially if it’s from friends and family. It is so disconcerting and aggravating to pick up the pieces of a singer’s already fragile ego in the studio. In the Old Italian school, the singers never sang publicly on the stage until their training was complete!

The human larynx is the first site of repression on the human body.

Think about that for a while.

It is the first body part that we are told to control. We must BE QUIET as children. My own family told me “CHILDREN SHOULD BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD,””HUSH UP IN THERE!,””QUIET DOWN,” or my favorite (just kidding): “SHUT UP!” Many NEVER use their voices again because someone else in the family doesn’t like loud noise.

Studies by Kenneth Phillips in his book Teaching Children To Sing have shown that boys with awkward pubertal voices do NOT sing into adulthood if they are criticized or ostracized in singing groups. That is a loss of men’s voices on a scale that should make us all sad.

Beverly Sills once said that the reason her speaking voice was so low was because her parents told her to ‘lower her voice.’ Rather than get quieter, she simply dropped the pitch. A search of Sills on YouTube verifies this lower-pitched speaking voice, despite the fact that she was a high coloratura soprano.

Edward Foreman had this to say about development of the young voice:

The emotional life of the child causes a physical mechanical approach to the voice
which results in an actual shaping of the vocal organs. From the earliest years, before the child can make rational choices, fear and imitation cause the child to use muscular repression to shape the voice into an acceptable means of communication. This prerational use of the voice causes the vocal organs to adopt specific coordinations which are interferences and inhibitions to the free and natural use of the voice. The child will continue to control and limit the voice by this basic shape—which is a reflection of the personality of the child—until it’s changed by Transformative Voice.

For Foreman, the Transformative Voice was the fully potentialized human voice that changes the sense of self and frees the human from socially induced repressions. Is it any wonder that Cornelius Reid connected voicework to Reichian therapy, which attempts to free repressed emotions through muscular movement?

In our current turbulent times, consider how many people (gays, lesbians, minorities, transgender, women, children, the aged) have their voices SILENCED. Free speech is bound inexorably with VOICE. Consider how much we tie FREEDOM in general to FREEDOM of SPEECH!

So what is to be done? How can we nurture an emerging voice’s abilities?

We as teachers need to do better at helping our society understand the role of VOICE – in ALL ITS manifestations both physical and metaphorical. Training a voice is a time in which many sounds will be explored – perhaps not all of them good. Early efforts should not be judged against professional artists. Television talent shows have made everyone an armchair critic of what is good and bad in vocalism, yet children bring home finger paintings from schools and are always praised for their early efforts.

We need to view an emerging singer as a delicate child, and celebrate every new discovery, every new bit of art that they bring home. Perhaps students should be made a aware in lessons that they may receive criticism as they try new things and they need to know how to react when that occurs.

The slightest comment or criticism can SILENCE a voice for life.

Do we really want that on our conscience?

Mozart, Voice Teacher

No one could deny Mozart’s vocal works are an extension of the vocal tradition of the 18th century bel canto ideals. It is clear from his compositional style that he was highly influenced by the Italianate vocal pedagogy of his time.  In fact, Mozart took singing lessons from Giovanni Manzuoli.

Manzuoli (1720-1782) was a soprano castrato, who later in life changed Fach to become a contralto. What I find fabulous is the quote on his singing from Charles Burney:

Manzuoli’s voice was the most powerful and voluminous soprano that had been heard on our stage since the time of Farinelli; and his manner of singing was grand and full of taste and dignity….The lovers of music in London were more unanimous in approving his voice and talents than those of any other singer within my memory….His voice alone was commanding from native strength and sweetness; for it seems as if subsequent singers had possessed more art and feeling; and as to execution, he had none. However, he was a good actor, though unwieldy in figure, and not well made in person; nor was he very young.

Smith, Horace. Festivals, games, and amusements: Ancient and modern. No. 25. J. & J. Harper, 1831.

There it is again: the observation that these Italian baroque bel cantists sang with DRAMATIC vocal qualities. The stereotype of singers of this age lightly twittering away is patently false if we are to believe those who HEARD this singing. Let’s also remember that Farinelli won his singing battle against the trumpet – not the harp or flute.

Mozart studied with Manzuoli when he was eight years old. (So much for not taking singing lessons until after puberty!) Mozart additionally wrote specific ornaments for Manzuoli to sing in J. C. Bach’s opera Adriano in siria of 1765.

As a composer, Mozart wrote his compositions for the particular abilities of his singers. And what singers! Judging from his work, the kinds of singers available to him must have been staggering in their vocal prowess. Nonetheless, Mozart was not looking to create a new style of vocalism or vocal emission. He merely summarized what had been the prevailing vocal technique of his time.

I want to share a composition that he wrote for his wife Constanze (née Weber). Constanze was born into a musical family, and her three sisters, Aloysia, Josepha, and Sophie were all trained as singers. Josepha created the role of the Queen of the Night, and Aloysia sang Donna Anna in the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni. Several of the Mozart concert arias were written specifically for Aloysia.

Mozart’s K. 393, written in 1782 and dedicated as “per la mia cara consorte” (for my dear wife), is a collection of three vocalises with accompaniment, with an additional “exercise” as a coda. Perhaps the exercise at the end of the composition was the ‘warm up’ for the extensively demanding vocalise?

I find the composition fascinating because it is a glimpse at a way of singing that is a clear outgrowth of the Italian compositional vocal styles of the 18th century. This music was the exemplar of advanced, virtuoso vocalism that represented the true bel canto schooling. The influence of the castrati is everywhere in this composition, which shows that the ‘natural voice’ was held to a similar standard.

Examining it today I’m struck by several things:

  1. Every Italian composer of any merit composed solfeggi for singers. This means that Mozart, as a composer, would most likely have been a highly competent voice teacher. He understood the demands and stylistic requirements for the singers of his time.
  2. Mozart’s vocal style was HEAVILY influenced from Italian, rather than Germanic models.
  3. If Constanze Mozart sang this composition as Wolfgang intended, she must have had an enviable vocal ability and technique, despite not being an active performer.
  4. The composition features aspects of deep low chest register and high head, which would indicate that these two registers were to be utilized in a single composition.
  5. Therefore, the idea that high sopranos wouldn’t sing in chest lacks veracity within the light of this composition.
  6. The coloratura facility of the composition is breathtaking in its skill and audaciousness. Obviously the demands of singers of this time placed artistic and pedagogical value upon MOVEMENT.
  7. High notes are not a climax, but merely woven into the fabric of the composition (the long sustained high note virus wouldn’t strike until after 1840).

I’m including for the reader’s enjoyment and perusal the score of the solfeggi, as well as a digital re-creation of what these would have sounded like in a human voice. They provide a tantalizing glimpse at a vocal emission that would disappear in the mid-19th century, to be replaced by a more dramatic compositional style.

Score: http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg/e/ea/IMSLP81499-PMLP166051-Mozart_Werke_Breitkopf_Serie_24_49_KV393.pdf

Here is a stylized recording of these vocalises with a digitally reproduced voice.

I hope you will find this composition as exciting and fascinating as I have – it provides a late 18th century example of the summation of the requirements for singers of that age.

Quote of the Day

The ‘scientific’ teacher must bear a large share of the responsibility for the chaos into which the teaching of singing has fallen because, mainly at his insistence, the modern singing-master has been persuaded to jettison the rich store of technical history and tradition which was his own professional heritage, and to do his building upon a foundation which will not carry the weight that he tries to put upon it. He has sacrificed ‘know-how’ in exchange for a smattering of abstract knowledge. As a result, he no longer knows whether he is on his head or his heels. There is nothing he can be sure of, nothing concerning which he can reach agreement with his professional colleagues; if professional scientists cannot manage to agree, how much less can the sciolists – the ‘half-knowledge’ men? Singing is the most subjective and personal of all the arts; yet it has been submitted to the overriding objective judgment of a science which, in nine-tenths of his work, has no competence because it does not deal with subjectivity. The sooner he returns to his proper allegiance and reasserts his own supreme authority in his own field of work, the better for the singing-master and the art he teaches.

Kelsey, Franklyn. “Science and the Singing-Master.” The Musical Times 93.1316 (1952): 446-449.

Quote of the Day

The great problem facing teachers is the lack of time for concentration on the simple routine of learning how the voice works most efficiently with the least effort on the singer’s part. The demands upon teacher and student both in the academic context of the majority of teaching defeat the necessarily slow and meticulous interaction which produces healthy vocalism.

No book can reduce the time it takes to learn vocal emission. There are no shortcuts—on this most authors agree even while they disagree on the means of learning—but the non-musical demands on the student’s time create an unsettled climate within which the voice struggles for its necessary primacy.

Edward Foreman