20th Century Twaddle

(Video from my fellow bel canto scholar trrill’s YouTube Channel, which is a MUST view for anyone interested in the Old Italian School).

Several months ago, I posted a selection from an interview with Brenda Meek, soprano.  Her aunt was Gwen Cately, a soprano that made some truly beautiful recordings in the 1930s and 1940s which capture an earlier vocal style. It bears repeating here on the blog:

“She was taught very much along the old bel canto lines – everybody these days thinks they are teaching bel canto but in fact they have added on a huge amount of 20th Century twaddle which confuses the whole issue.  The very first thing Gwen said to me when I sang to her was that I was singing with my larynx too high.  This was a bit of a shock as I had always been taught that one should not think of the larynx at all.  But I was also relieved that she actually talked so much about the larynx and the vocal cords as I had always been mystified by it all.

She taught the notorious Garcia coup de glotte which has got a bad name these days but it was just a misunderstanding of the way one engages the vocal cords to make the sound.  She told me that she could never contemplate teaching in a conservatoire because they would have rejected her ideas as too radical – thereby a great many of the 20th Century teachers have missed the most important part of the plot.

Her vocal exercises were based mainly on the “ah” vowel and the “oo” vowel (no humming and no consonants which can mask the start of the note) and involved dare I say attacking the note cleanly on the cords.  Contrary to what you would think this is not injurious to the voice, and it actually strengthens the vocal cords and this is the way to sing pianissimo.  If you sing like this is is very economical of the breath and so one can almost forget about breathing.  The breath just becomes voice and resonates in the pharynx.  Ok, it also resonates higher up but you do not try to put the voice forward or into the mask, etc.

Once you have made the sound you cannot do anything about it so the all important thing is the attack.  She also made me do a lot of portamento octave jumps on “ah” and “oo” to make sure the larynx stayed down as you went up the octave and that is was done on the breath.  All the old singers have wonderful portamento which is so expressive.

Gwen was always very adamant that there was no other way to sing and she never clouded the issue with fancy imagery. Technique was straightforward – you do this and this and this and if you manage to put it all together correctly you get a rock solid technique.  She learnt all this from Julian Kimball and to begin with she went for a lesson every day to him until she had got the correct ideas – he did not want her practicing it all out again when she went home.  The other thing she taught me was the importance of impeccable diction – every consonant had to be there without spoiling the legato line of the vowels.”

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