The Parable of the Crayon

Misuse of effort is an everyday occurrence in singing instruction, and getting a singer to a place of freedom and balance forms much of the pedagogical content of voice lessons. Theodore Dimon (whose book The Elements of Skill – a personal favorite) tells a story about a student struggling with learning to write:

Many years ago, when I was first starting to teach, a child was sent to me by his mother, who said that when he wrote at school, he tied himself up in knots and couldn’t write legibly. His teachers, who felt that he needed more practice, encouraged him to work harder at his penmanship. He was also sent to a specialist who gave him a number of exercises designed to improve his motor coordination. In spite of this advice, however, no one had been able to help Josh, for the simple reason that his teachers were so focused on what he was doing— on getting him to do the right things— that they could not see how he was quite literally trapped by his own efforts. What made matters even worse was that all the help Josh was given by his teachers further reinforced his already harmful tendencies, with the result that his problem got even worse. By the time Josh came to me, he was struggling to form his letters, gripping the pencil so tightly and working so hard to control it that his letters had become even smaller and more illegible.

How this parallels the journey of so many singers! In an effort to do it right, we end up doing too much or doing the WRONG things in order to achieve the ends we wish to attain. Tightness, constriction, fatigue, loss of range and power all indicate results of end-gaining.

F. M. Alexander termed this phenomenon end gaining, which he defined as:

the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved.

Should vocal pedagogy focus on the object to be learned (good singing), or HOW the object is being learned? When performances, juries, or competitions loom over a singer, tricks and rushing become the means-whereby the student gains faster results in order to stave off the fear and insecurity of a recalcitrant voice during a performance.

SIDEBAR:

This has always been my criticism of the academic jury system of voice training in the United States. Regardless of a student’s particular vocal development, an impending jury causes all manner of end-gaining as the student struggles with new music, text, foreign language, technical skill – while under deadline. (Does nature work on deadlines?)  Students are rarely given lengthy semesters to explore, discover, or understand themselves through their voice. Combine this with a single-lesson week and the general level of stress the average student experiences, and it’s a wonder anyone learns to sing at all.

To all the above, a system of music practice is set up that encourages a repetitious drilling of music and exercise: a perfect recipe for constricted, muscle-bound singers literally teaching themselves the wrong things in every practice session. They are repeating (and therefore ingraining) errors. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT.

How did Dimon go about helping Josh learn to write?

Instead of asking Josh to write, I told him that I wanted to do some drawing; to this end, I asked him to gather a couple of crayons and to make some large circles. After he did this for a minute or so, I told him to try making the circles smaller and smaller, until he could make a very small circle without any sense of strain and struggle. This new strategy worked. By getting him to draw instead of write, he stopped using the tension he associated with writing and could then form letters without tying himself into knots.

At the simplest level, then, we can begin to unravel Josh’s problem by finding an alternative to his normal way of doing things. The problem in almost all forms of learning is that we get stuck by our own trying— stuck into ways of doing, into tension, into bad habits. The harder we try to make things right, the more we get in our own way. We have to learn instead to do something different, to focus our attention in a new way. We are then able to do easily what seemed so difficult.

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How does this apply to singing?

Let’s consider that singing a specific pitch is a form of ‘letter tracing.’ As singers, we learn over time to trace notes with our voices in scale-based exercises – a learned behavior.

Perhaps, like Dimon, we should categorize differences of approach as vocal drawing and vocal tracing. And taking this analogy even further: what if end-aims of methods and systems of voice training are (in their own way) types of fonts and calligraphy the student must learn to master? Perhaps we are trying to make our voices match a particular font (or style)? Helvetica. Palatino. Sans-serif. All methods of writing style (singing).

Like Dimon’s approach, a singer should be allowed to draw freely with the voice – move up and down, sliding, gliding, exploring (in a totally mindless fashion) the movements of the voice up, down, loud, soft, fast, slow – any number of explorations which are only limited by the student’s creativity.  What’s happening in the neck, shoulders, torso, jaw, tongue while all this free exploration is being done? Can we notice and make subtle changes during free play? Some singers have never been afforded play in singing.

This play requires a rather childlike submission to making sound. Intellectualism is not welcome here and will only serve to stifle the process and the creativity. Laughter may ensue – so much the better!

Students who cannot match pitch will gain greater skill in singing if they are allowed some time to play and draw with their voices in meaningless patterns. They gain greater motor skill by being allowed to devise unique patterns with their voices instead of being forced to follow a pre-existing one. I often call this process ‘reconnecting the voice to the ear.’

To immediately demand a voice respond to a tracing process (in exercise or song) is to cause a voice to potentially end gain to achieve the goal. Getting a student to trace letters before they have good motor skills and understand how to use their hands (voice), works them into an end. This will only cause an increase in problems later on, not eliminate technical misuse.

But we are often blocked precisely because we want and need to accomplish something; our instinctive focus on “doing” brings into play the very habits that interfere with our capacity to learn. As an alternative to our usual modes of trying, we must find out how to transform our responses to the challenge into constructive means by shifting our focus and circumventing these harmful habits. This is when we forget about trying to “do” the right thing and start thinking creatively for our purposes. This is when we begin to learn how to learn.

 

 

Cited:

Dimon, Theodore. The elements of skill: A conscious approach to learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.

 

Inayat Khan on Voice for World Voice Day 2018

For World Voice Day I want to share the profound wisdom of Sufi Inayat Khan, the founder of the Sufi Order in the West in 1914, and teacher of Universal Sufism. Historian Edward Foreman has declared that Khan’s essay on voice is one of the single most important writings on the voice – which is rather laudatory when you consider the sheer volume of material that Foreman has read and covered in his research on singing. You may not find a more fully-fleshed, contemplative view of the voice’s role in our human experience than Khan’s remarks below.

Khan’s text is a meditation to savor, consider, re-read, contemplate and enrichen one’s philosophy of voice. As he concludes so beautifully, “If there is any real trace of miracle, of phenomena, of wonder, it is the voice.”

The voice is not only indicative of man’s character, but it is the expression of his spirit. The voice is not only audible but also visible to those who can see it. The voice makes impressions on the ethereal sphere, impressions which can be called audible; at the same time, they are visible. Those scientists who have made experiments with sound and who have taken impressions of the sound on certain plates — which impressions appear like forms — will find one day that the impression of the voice is more living, more deep, and has a greater effect. Sound can be louder than the voice, but sound cannot be more living than the voice.

Knowing this the Hindus of ancient times said that singing is the first art, playing the second art, and dancing the third art which make music. The Hindus who have found that by these three different aspects of music one attains to spirituality much sooner than by any other way, have discovered that the shortest way to attain spiritual heights is by singing. Therefore the greatest prophets of the Hindus were singers: Narada and Tumbara. Narada inspired Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana and the Mahabharta, the great Hindu scriptures.

There are three principal kinds of voices: the jelal voice, the jemal voice, and the kemal voice. The jelal voice indicates power; the jemal voice indicates beauty; the kemal voice indicates wisdom.

If you take careful notice in everyday life, you will find that sometimes before a person has finished his sentence you have become annoyed. It is not because of what he has said, but it is his voice. And you will also notice — perhaps not every day in your life, but sometimes — that you once heard someone say something that has always remained with you: it gives always a beautiful feeling, it is always soothing, it is healing, it is uplifting, it is inspiring.

A doctor coming to see a patient may, by his voice, frighten the patient and make him more ill if his voice is not harmonious. And another doctor may, by his voice, treat the patient so that before the medicine is brought he is already feeling better. The doctor gives the medicine, but it is the voice with which he comes to the patient that counts.

In the history of the world have not men marched hundreds of miles with strength and vigor, not knowing what they were going to face, on hearing the voice of their commander: “Quick march!’? It seemed that all fear, all anxiety were taken away, and all vigor and courage were given to them, as they were going to march. And again have you not heard of commanders who said: “Fire!”, and the soldiers turned back and fired at them? That is the voice too.

The voice, therefore, is a wine. It may be the best wine, and it may be the worst liquor. It may make a person ill, or it may uplift him.

There are five different qualities of the voice, which are connected with the peculiar character of the person.

  1. The earth quality of the voice is hope giving, encouraging, tempting.
  2. The water quality is intoxicating, soothing, healing, uplifting.
  3. The fire quality is impressive, arousing, exciting, horrifying; at the same time it is awakening, because very often warning is given in the voice of the fire quality. The use of the words “tongues of flame” in the Old Testament is narrative of that voice and word which were warning of coming dangers. It was alarming for the people to awaken from their sleep, to awaken to a greater consciousness, to a higher consciousness.
  4. Then there is the air quality of the voice. It is uplifting, raising a person, taking him far, far away from the plane of the earth.
  5. And the ether quality of the voice is inspiring, healing, peace giving, harmonizing, convincing, appealing; at the same time, it is most intoxicating.

Every Jalal voice, Jamal voice, or Kamal voice has one or another of these five qualities predominant in it, and according to that, it creates an effect.

The most wonderful part in the study of voice is that from the voice you can find out a man’s particular evolution, his stage of evolution. You do not need to see the person, just his voice will tell you where he is, how far he has evolved. There is no doubt that the character of the person is apparent, is evident in his voice.

There is another most wonderful thing to be found in the science of the voice: that the fortunate person has a different voice from the one who is not so fortunate. If you gather five persons who have really proved to be most fortunate, and you hear their voices, you will find what great difference there is between their voice and the ordinary voice. When you compare the voice of great people – no matter what their line may be – with the voice of others, you will find that there is a difference.

But what is meant here is the speaking voice. When we come to singing it is quite different, because today the art of singing has become as artificial as can be. The whole idea is to train the voice and make it different from what it is naturally. The training of the voice does not develop what is natural in it, it mostly brings into it something which is not natural to it. Therefore when a person sings according to the method of the day he has a different voice. It is not his voice, it is not his character. He may have a great success, he may be audible to thousands of people, but at the same time he is not singing in his natural voice. You cannot see his stage of evolution in his voice. Therefore the real character of the person is to be seen in his speaking voice.

Then there is another thing to be understood: that is the softness and the loudness of the voice; that there are times when the voice is softer, and there are other times when the voice is louder. Naturally that shows the condition of the spirit at that particular time, because sometimes the spirit is tender, and with the tenderness of the spirit the voice becomes softened. Sometimes the spirit is harder, and with the hardness of the spirit the voice becomes hardened. In order to scold a person you do not need to put on a hard voice; the voice becomes hard naturally. In order to sympathize with a person, in order to express your gratitude, your love, your devotion, your affection to someone, you do not need to soften your voice; your voice is soft before you can feel it, before you can think about it. This shows that the voice is an expression of the spirit. If the spirit is soft, the voice is soft; if the spirit is hard, the voice is hard; if the spirit is powerful, then the voice has power; if the spirit has lost its vigor, then the voice loses its power.

Furthermore, I should like to tell you an amusing thing on this subject. Sometimes a person comes to you and begins to speak about something; and then he says: “Hm, hm”; next he says another word and then continues to say: “Hm, hm.” It may be that he has a cold, but it may be that he has not. Yet at that time he is doing this. Why? Because there is something that he is bringing forth from his mind, and it does not come quickly. The same condition that is going on in the spirit is manifesting in the voice. He wants to say something, but he cannot say it: the voice does not operate, because the mind is not operating. If in the mind there is some obstacle, some hindrance, then in the voice there is also something hindering.

Inspiration chooses its own voice, and when a speaker has to change his voice in accordance with the hall where he is going to speak, then inspiration is lost. Because the inspiration begins to feel: “It is not my voice”, it does not come. Then the speaker has to struggle twice: one struggle is that he must speak without inspiration, and the other struggle is that he must be audible to the number of people present. That cannot be done!

Nowadays people have adopted a new method of elocution. A person who has learned elocution can shout as loudly as ten people shouting at the same time, and everyone will think: “How wonderful!” But what impression has it made? None!

Nowadays radio technicians have made a kind of horn which they use at stations in the United States. A person takes that horn and on speaking into it his voice becomes twenty times louder. It is all right for trade and business purposes, but when you come to life itself, and when you come to conversation, to speaking to your friends, it is different.

It is a most psychological occasion when you speak to one person or to many persons, because something is taking place which has its echo in the cosmos. No word ever spoken is lost; it remains, and it vibrates according to the spirit put into it. If a person makes his voice artificial in order to convince people, in order to be more audible, and in order to impress people, it only means he is not true to his spirit. It cannot be. It is better for a person to be natural in his speech with individuals and with the multitude, rather than that he should become different.

Now coming to the subject of singing: there are certain things which must be retained in the voice. However much the voice may be developed, however great its volume, however far reaching it may be and should be made by practice, at the same time one must feel responsible for keeping one’s natural voice through every stage of development – that the natural voice is not hurt by it. It does not mean that one should not have a far reaching voice, it does not mean that one should not have a voice of a larger volume, that one should not have a voice that is vigorous and flexible. Everything that enriches the voice is necessary and must be developed by practice, but all the time keeping in view: “I must not sacrifice the natural quality of my voice.” For every person, every soul must know that there is no other voice like his. And if that particularity of its own voice which each soul has is lost, then nothing is left with it.

Besides this, every person is an instrument in this orchestra which is the whole universe, and his voice is the music that comes from each instrument. Each instrument is made distinct and particular and peculiar, so that no other voice can take the place of that particular voice. If then – with the instrument that God has made and the music that God has intended to be played in the world – one does not allow that music to be played and one develops a voice which is not one’s own, naturally that is a great cruelty to oneself and to others.

For those on the spiritual path, thinkers, students and meditative souls, it is of the greatest importance to know the condition of their spirit from time to time by consulting their voice. That is their barometer. From morning till evening one can see the weather – the weather created by oneself: whether it is warm or cold, or whether it is spring or winter. One’s voice is that barometer that shows to us what is coming, because what will come is the reaction, the result of what is created, and the voice is indicative of it.

Those who think still more deeply on this subject will be able to see how, step by step, they are progressing in the spiritual path, if only they consult their voice. Every step in the spiritual path brings about a little change. By a distinct study of the voice you will find that it is so. When you go back, you will find by the change: “I had gone so much further, and I have gone back again.” The voice will tell you.

There is another point which is most wonderful about the voice: that once you have worked with the voice and have cultivated it, deepened it, widened it, and it has become invigorated, and then you have left it, you may leave it for months and years, and the voice may take a different shape and a different appearance, but at the same time what you have once developed remains with you somewhere. It is just like a kind of deposit kept in a bank. You do not know of it, you have forgotten it perhaps, yet it is there. The day when you will touch it again, it will come back in the same way and it will take very little to complete it.

If the voice has developed a spiritual quality and one finds later that it has lost that spiritual quality, one must not be discouraged or disappointed. One has not lost it. One must correct oneself and want to go forward again, and be sorry for having gone backward, but never be discouraged, never be hopeless, because it is there; it only wants a little touch. It is just like a little candle which has gone out, but once you strike a match it is lighted again; it is a candle just the same. The voice is light itself. If the light has become dim, it has not gone out, it is there. It is the same with the voice. If it does not shine, it only means that it has not been cultivated. You must cultivate it again, and it will begin to shine again.

Question: Is it advisable to train one’s voice, if one has not much of it.

Answer: One might ask: Is it advisable to do physical exercises when one is very thin? If one is thin, it is even more necessary to do physical exercises. So if there is no voice, it is more necessary that one should develop it.

Question: Does the voice change through the different ages?

Answer: Yes. Every age, infancy, childhood, youth, and more advanced age changes the pitch of the voice. The advanced age is an expression of what a person has gained, and so the voice is also indicative of his attainment. No doubt, as with every step in the age of a person, so with every step forward in spiritual evolution, there is also a difference in the voice. Every experience in life is an initiation. Even in the worldly life it is a step forward, and that experience changes the voice.

Question: Do the words one has spoken in the past continue to affect one’s life?

Answer: Certainly, certainly.

Question: Which is more powerful: to say something mentally or to say it aloud?

Answer: If you say it mentally and do not speak, it is powerful. If you speak and do not say it mentally, it is powerless. If you say it mentally and speak it at the same time, it is most powerful.

Question: Would you say a few words about the modern art of declamation or recitation?

Answer: There is little to be said about it. Very often people think that, when they have to recite, they must have a different voice, they must become a different being. A person does not want to remain what he is, he wants to be different. There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more convincing and appealing and impressive than reciting in one’s own natural voice.

Question: Would you tell us how it was that Tansen kindled candles by singing?

Answer: It is told that Tansen, the great singer, performed wonders by singing. Tansen was a Yogi. He was a singer, but the Yogi of singing. He had mastered sound, and therefore the sound of his voice became living, and by his making the voice live everything that he wanted happened.

Very few in this world know to what extent phenomena can be produced by the power of the voice. If there is any real trace of miracle, of phenomena, of wonder, it is the voice.

“Mindsets” of Cultivation and Production

Art consists in knowing where nature directs us, and to what we have been destined. By understanding the gifts of nature, and by cultivating them, man can perfect himself. How sure is harvest for the attentive farmer who has observed and understood the different seeds, which are fecund in different types of earth.

Mancini, Giambattista. Practical reflections on figured singing. Vol. 7. Pro Musica Press, 1967.

The understanding of voice training as an agrarian process appears to date to the early texts of Tosi and Mancini. The directive of ‘observing Nature,’ ‘following Nature,’ and ‘Nature’s Laws’ appear throughout most of the early writing on singing, as witnessed by the Mancini quote above.

Ideas of cultivation are one of the reasons why a reader will find many books using the term Voice Culture. While this prima facie may mean the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group, it could also be a nod to the understanding of cultivation, the process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill.

Cornelius Reid notes in his Essays:

At first, an analogy between voice and a harvested crop may seem far-fetched and implausible. In the twentieth century we are more comfortable with concepts associated with manufacturing, with producing things, whereas in an agrarian economy it was more natural to think in terms of cultivation, whether it be crops, the mind, manners, habits, behavior, friendships or voice. The concept of the voice being in nature, therefore, was a very different way of looking at things. In essence, the voice organs were viewed as an ecosystem (the relationship between a living organism and its environment), and believed to be directly influenced by the quality of the surrounding with which they interact, i.e., a vocal exercise, song or aria.

Edmund J. Myer, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, drew a distinction against two pervasive ideas in pedagogical competition at that time – as I will demonstrate below. Pedagogical philosophies of that time seem to have been formed along lines of either cultivation or production:

Nature is the great teacher and not man. Man, when he bases his teaching upon his own ideas of voice, is artificial; hence, artificiality. Witness the many ridiculous things singers are now taught to do. With such the effort is to make the voice, to compel it, instead of allow it. The voice is in nature, and by a study of nature and nature’s laws the voice is allowed to develop; is allowed or induced to reveal itself instead of being made, compelled or forced.

Sir Henry Wood, the English conductor who wrote The Gentle Art of Singing (1900), was very condemnatory in his beliefs on voice production:

I can hardly make my warning against the voice producers strong enough…Each of them teaches his fad. Walk through the passages of fashionable teaching studios and listen to the exercises and the quality of tone you hear through the green baize doors. A walk in the Zoo is more soothing to the ear and mind.

You can make a list of pet fads: excessive nasal resonance, the placing of the tone in the mask, over-blowing and violent forcing, learning to sing like Caruso, low diaphragmatic breathing, sucking air quickly through the nose, bleating vowels, a three-inch tremolo, placing favourite notes in the head, no registers – as if a one stringed fiddle could ever be a success! If you open a green door you will be introduced to a thousand other little fancies, too numerous to mention…

…I cannot recall one singer who has devoted the best years of his student life only to voice production and has taken any position in the operatic or concert world. All these voice producers’ pupils sing off the pitch.

Cultivation and production are two separate phenomena and carry a particular and specific mindset when approaching the training of voice. These mindsets filter down to the experience of the student and influence how the voice will be trained. Here are two lists of mindsets as they relate to processes of cultivation versus production.

Production Cultivation
Speed prioritized Speed contingent upon external forces
Standardization; conformity Unique variety of specimens
Factory Farm
Mechanical Manual
Pre-planned result Unknown result until growth achieved
Automated By hand
Multiple similar copies Unique, one of a kind results

Cultivation and production clearly have completely separate and diversified aims. They are not the same. It is my belief that this is a point worth considering because these mindsets could explain some of the argumentation and struggle over ways and means of teaching voice throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From the historical record, some teachers adopted a production mindset on training while others took contrasting views of cultivation. These contrasting mindsets set up thinking that was inherently opposed  – potentially causing argumentation and strongly held pedagogical views, as we see reflected in the historical record. These conflicting mindsets may very well explain the battle lines for many of the skirmishes amongst late nineteenth and twentieth century vocal pedagogues, singers, and writers.

To acquire more understanding of these two concepts, I wanted to track usages of the terms voice production, voice culture, and cultivation of the voice from the written books in English of the past 300 years. To do that I needed a software that would extrapolate selected terms from the extant literature to provide me with some hard data that I could use to interpret the data.

Here were my questions:

  • Is there a correlation between voice production and voice culture/cultivation, and if so, what was it?
  • Did the term voice production occur as believed during the time of the Industrial Revolution?
  • When did voice culture/cultivation disappear from the lexicon?

Along comes the N-gram!

From Wikipedia:

An n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., “British English”, “English Fiction”, “French”) over the selected years. Since Google Books has thousands and thousands of scanned books in their databases, extrapolating this data is a cinch, and can be visualized over a period of time.

Below is a chart showing frequency of the following three phrases:

  • voice cultivation
  • cultivation of the voice
  • voice production

All phrases were taken from scanned English books printed over the past three hundred years.

In examining this graph, the term voice culture spiked in the early eighteenth century, from 1720-30 and is the first term to appear followed by the phrase cultivation of the voice in the late eighteenth century.

The term voice production first entered the lexicon in the late seventeenth century and skyrocketed into use in the twentieth century. These potentially could correlate to developments coinciding with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. According to Wikipedia, the Industrial Revolution began from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Clearly, we can see from this chart that the term voice production had more occurrences in print than the term voice culture, despite the latter being the older term.

 

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To access this graph, click this link

 

Several observations from this graph:

  • Voice production has been a more popular phrase than any of the three terms searched.
  • Cultivation of the voice reached its peak in popularity from (roughly) the 1770s to the 1880s and was the most frequently used term for a period of about one hundred years.
  • Voice culture and voice production tracked together in a significant rise, with the latter outpacing the former, as more writings on the voice became available.
  • Voice production, once introduced, historically outpaced voice culture.
  • Cultivation of the voice stagnated and dropped significantly from the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Cultivation seems to have been the dominating training phrase known before production occurred. and during the age of musical composition known as bel canto.

Considering repertoire performed during the apogee of bel canto premiered during the early part of the nineteenth century (Bellini’s opera Norma premiered in 1831), this graph seems to show that dramatic changes in voice terminology and mindsets were reflected in the literature on singing. The ascendance of voice production would tend to support a view that training became more oriented along those lines, despite the fact that singers and teachers of the early bel canto era were operating under an assumption of principles and understanding of cultivation.

Continuing research on this topic is required to gain a greater understanding of these terms but the data collected does suggest a shift in thinking which can be directly tied to the late nineteenth century, continuing to the present day. Voice cultivation has fallen from favor and may reflect a diminishment of those terms when associated with voice training.

Link to NGram on Google Books.

Marchesi, Salvatore. A vademecum for singing-teachers and pupils. G. Schirmer, 1902.

Myer, Edmund John. Position and Action in Singing: A Study of the True Conditions of Tone: a Solution of Automatic (artistic) Breath Control. Boston Music Company, G. Schirmer, 1911.

Reid, Cornelius L. Essays on the Nature of Singing. Recital Publications, 1992.

Sending The Soul Through Time and Space

A lively and rewarding conversation with my wonderful teaching colleagues centered on ‘chronological snobbery,’ a term coined by C. S. Lewis to indicate an argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority.

I wanted to replicate my ideas here with a few amendments, mainly as a safeguard for my own reference and continuing path of discovery as I learn more about singing and teaching. I close with a poem that speaks to my heart very deeply about our connection to the past by the poet James Elroy Flecker.

Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford who has written about chronological snobbery said:

But what Lewis found—and what reading old books makes very clear—is that every age works with a large set of assumptions that seem to it so self-evident that they are never questioned. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we find it almost impossible to get a real sense of the water we inhabit, and can thus be blissfully unaware of how faddish our beliefs are. It is very tempting for me now to don the grand airs of a sage cultural critic and attempt to list what our unquestioned assumptions are today. But anyone reading this in fifty years’ time would only chuckle at the profound issues I had overlooked. They are simply part of the air we breathe every day, and as such are quite invisible to us.

This allies in toto with historical pedagogy and the research that I continue to uncover on the subject. The ‘self-evident’ subjects for the Old Italians seem to have been centralized on the topics they included and equally OMITTED, most tellingly on the subject of breath management and resonance (the latter term being coined in the early 20th century according to Herbert Witherspoon, writing in 1925). The oldest writings say nothing on these matters – taking breath management or resonance as SELF-EVIDENT.

(SIDEBAR: To give a modern spin, I’m immediately reminded of the usage of ‘self-evident’ in our United States Constitution – “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” we continue to battle over the term ‘self-evident’ as the Founders understood the term in this preamble – drawn into sharper relief when considering that these men owned slaves).

Coming back to the subject, a tantalizing clue to breath and resonance perhaps rests in the importance they placed on long tones and the messa di voce, but that is merely my conjecture as to how this may have been tackled from the evidence (messa di voce being a combination of breath management and resonance into a gestalt). What they INCLUDED shows what they valued, in particular, vocal style and the delight (“delitto”) of the listener. An early treatise states that the goal of singing is to ‘muovere gli affetti’ (move the emotions), this tracks with the visual evidence we have from Baroque art, which became a high point of EMOTION in artistic expression, as evidenced in the sculptures of Bernini, depicting scenes of high emotional content through movement.

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Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Dafne at the Villa Borghese Gallery in Rome is a wonder of Baroque artistic sensibilities. The raised foot of Apollo is a miracle of creation and construction. The use of MOVEMENT to create drama or emotion was the hallmark of the Baroque style. In architecture, the Baroque church gives one a sense of spectacular movement writ large. The sculptures and painting SPRING to life, in what might be considered a ‘special effect’ of the Baroque. Vocal composition followed suit as singing expressed its emotional truth through a vast language of melismatic singing and embellishment – movement. This stands in contrast to the Romantic era, which aimed to express emotion through high notes, and louder, dramatic singing.

Tosi and Mancini operated on completely different sets of assumptions than Garcia, and later Vennard (although I think there are others during the span of those years equally important but unmentioned here). But understanding assumptions is the first step in understanding the wisdom of previous generations because, despite their assumptions, the human singing voice flourished – as the historical literature, treatises, and surviving music demonstrate. (Lest I find this vexing to my current set of modern assumptions and sensibilities, a recent visit to Italy to see the remnants of previous generations gave me even greater respect for their efforts – Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence being a particularly staggering example to me of achievement without modern technology. One felt connected to him through space and time in a way that could only be described as ‘mystical.’)

 

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Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, Italy, was built without the aid of computers or modern drafting technologies – convincing me that beautiful objects could be built without recourse to modern knowledge. So, too, voices could be trained and ‘built’ upon similar principles and simplicity – coupled with an ingenious eye and ear.

Combatting one’s tendency to fall prey to chronological snobbery is given a cure by Lewis, who beautifully wrote that ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

Writing in the introduction to On the Incarnation, by Athanasius (London: Centenary, 1944; repr. Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1998), 5.:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. . . . Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

 

As benediction, I’m including Flecker’s poem as a meditation on the traditions of our vocal past.

The great vocal pedagogues of the past wish to speak to us. They carry messages of importance and inestimable value.

Will we be willing to listen?

 

“TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE”

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

By James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

Postcard from Milan: Lamperti, Listening, and Speed

Clara Kathleen Rogers, also known as Clara Doria, was an American singer, composer, writer, and music educator. She is buried here in Boston mere steps from my home in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’ve covered her before on my blog before:

Ten Conclusions from Clara Doria

Memorial Day Reflections…

Artificial Methods of Breathing

How To Execute the Messa di Voce?

I recently opened up a copy of her biography Memories of a Musical Career which can be read for free at this link.

Two parts that struck me were her assessment of Lamperti and his allure as a teacher. We venerate Lamperti today, but taking into consideration Doria’s observation, it shows Lamperti in a very different light. She rather pointedly states that the overwhelming interest laid at the feet of Lamperti was in large part due to the fact that he ran an operatic agency. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose…

For Doria, she knew she had technical limitations and wanted a teacher that could help her solve her vocal problems, and not necessarily land her a career. So in 1861, she went to Milan from Berlin with her sister. They were in hot pursuit of a teacher and believed their options would rest upon Lamperti or San Giovanni.

From her account on page 226:

One of the first things to be decided on when we were settled in our apartment was which of the two teachers we should elect to study with, —Lamperti or San Giovanni? De Lorenzi, who undertook to obtain a consensus of opinion as to their relative merits, reported that what he had gathered was that the greater vogue of Lamperti, whose name was so frequently associated with successful singers, was largely due to his control of the most active operatic agency in Italy, which caused numbers of ready-made singers who wanted to be launched to study with him for a few months in order to obtain his interest in getting them engagements to sing in good opera houses; that Lamperti, as a musician and interpreter, did not compare with San Giovanni, who had been for many years coach to the celebrated contralto, Alboni, and constantly in attendance in all her travels, which gave him the opportunity to hear all the greatest singers of the day and become familiar with their interpretations.

These qualifications appealed to my father, for Alboni had been a name to conjure with in England and the names of the great artists who composed the casts of the operas she sang in —such as Pasta, Donzelli, Tamburini, La Blache, Rubini, and a host of others —were guarantee that San Giovanni had the traditions of all that was best in Italian operatic art.

As a sidebar –  I wanted to share this little vignette in which she describes the palmy days of the Milanese musical world of the nineteenth century. It’s so enchanting to imagine such musical life in an Italian city, perfumed with music from every window.

As one trod the streets of Milan song was in the very air. From almost every open window there issued vocalized arpeggios and scales, with frequent strains from some opera of Verdi or Donizetti. Milan was like one huge conservatory of singing. Teamsters, errand boys, and workmen hummed or whistled tunes from the operas as they went on their way. The potential “Prima Donna,” tenor, or baritone was in evidence at every turn.

Coming back to Lamperti, it’s fascinating to read of Doria’s comments. Perhaps a re-evaluation of Lamperti is in order. Especially if those singers he engaged only worked with him for several months before landing roles in opera. No voice is built in six months to such a degree to prepare it for the professional operatic stage. Was Lamperti a true voice builder in the Old Italian fashion or merely a teacher-cum-impresario? Vocal wisdom indeed…

It’s vexing since it appears from the historical record that the Lampertis were the first to foist ways and means of breath management (appoggio, a concept on which many old treatises are mute) upon the pedagogical literature. In this fast-paced pedagogical Zeitgeist, could Lamperti’s breath techniques be some of the first proofs of direct-control to accelerate voice training in his career-minded clients? The Old Masters said nothing about breath, let alone had a method or system for its management or control.

San Giovanni came to Doria’s apartment three times a week for lessons! Interestingly, he didn’t spend much time with the sisters on voice building but preferred to focus on coaching the repertoire. However, to his credit:

He laid particular stress on the value of constantly hearing good singing and becoming familiar with the sound of fine voices. He wished us therefore to be regular subscribers to La Scala, where all the best singers were to be heard because adequate salaries were paid by means of an ample subvention from the Government which rendered the success of an ambitious impresario an assured thing. Accordingly we attended, from the first, every performance, which means that we heard the best singers in all the current operas every night of the opera season, except Fridays, during the year and a half that we studied in Milan. What an opportunity! We occupied nightly the same seats in the orchestra —Mamma, Rosamond and I —and our devoted friend De Lorenzi, who, as he also was in the habit of subscribing, constituted himself our escort and companion.

And here we have a living proof that a part of Doria’s education was done IN TANDEM with listening, and listening to plenty of singers at that! How very right San Giovanni was to send Doria to the opera. Listening should always be one of the most important practice modalities for any singer or musician.

On her confrontation with the singing at La Scala, she rather emotionally decries:

The singers at La Scala had no such fluctuations of voice as I had. They sang night after night with the same fluency —the same security —the same spontaneity — the same control of expression. How did they do it? I would have been willing to give up ten years of my life to any one who could tell me the secret. But there was no one! I heard from time to time much talk about the right emission of tone, but when it was a question of what it was or how to get it, no one seemed to know!

How I worked! How I strove! How I listened to those great ones at La Scala with devouring ears in the effort to extract their secret from them! How I watched them to see what was happening at the throat and chest, never suspecting that what I saw was not the cause of what I heard; that the cause was hidden and invisible, because it was of the musical sense —of the mind and spirit. The more I tried to imitate what I saw, the farther I seemed to slip from my bearings.

And so things went on from month to month without any conspicuous change, although there was some added substance to my voice, due, no doubt, to the impres- sions received from the voices I heard at La Scala.

Clara was obviously in an enviable position historically to hear those great singers, but she knew that the most important element of her musical education was a grounding in the fundamentals of her art. She mentions “the aged [Gaetano] Nava – a famous teacher in his day,” but notes that his “laborious method was ill-suited to the prevailing impatient spirit of the modern student.” Apparently, Nava’s work was clearly more aligned with Old Italian principles – slow and steady cultivation of the voice over many years. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution had taken its toll on the mid-nineteenth-century singer, and speed was in full swing –  the sine qua non of voice training.

As a footnote to this last point: in Clara’s later book My Voice and I, she goes on to say that Nava was probably one of the great teachers of the past, including in that same list Porpora, Tosi, Mancini, and Cattaneo. Apparently, after a life of seeing speed-oriented singing, she realized the true value of the slow and steady Old Masters.