I’ve been having a great time reading old copies of The Etude, a magazine specifically for musicians with articles by prominent musicians and teachers of the early 20th Century. Published by Theodore Presser beginning in 1883, the magazine lasted up until 1957. My grandmother, a music teacher in Kansas City for thirty years, gave me an enormous stack of them which have been a real treat to study and explore in further depth for vocal wisdom and ideas on singing.
Over the next several days, I’ll be posting a lot of articles from this magazine, as their scholarship has been largely forgotten in the 21st century, and these writers and singers worked very closely with major teachers and important pedagogues of their day.
It turns out that vocal ‘quacks’ in the profession existed even at the turn of the last century! I’ve underlined some of the article below that really spoke to me as a teacher and affirmed the particular approach I take to voice training along ‘Old Italian’ lines.
Of particular interest is the assertion that singing in falsetto in the Italian school was not intended for performance, but only as a method of exercise of the vocal mechanism. This is in complete agreement with how I work the head/falsetto of men’s voices, who often lack this registrational function. It is not a performance tone, anymore than a bicep curl is a ‘move’ on the football, basketball, gymnastic, or skating arena. Conditioned and coordinated muscles work better than non-conditioned muscles, and therein lies the benefit of exercising falsetto in a man’s voice.
The author below, J. Henry Wheeler, also wrote a book which is available for free from the Google Play Bookstore, another trove of old singing manuals and books.
From The Etude, April 1901:
There are three national methods of vocal culture, viz.: the Italian, French, and German. The Italian method is that by which nearly all the famous singers of the past and present have been educated. The French school of voice culture is similar to that of the Italian, the difference being a tendency of the last-named school to give to the female voice excessive brilliancy. The German school of voice-culture cultivates in the male voice the falsetto tone, for the purpose of using it in singing. This school also gives to the male and female voice immense volume of tone, and also exaggerates the extent of the registers in the female voice, thus causing it to become screamy, and robbing it of its full compass. In the Italian method, the falsetto of the male voice is studied as a means to an end, but not to be used as a tone in singing. The Italian method gives to the male and female voices equal power with the German, but less volume, thus enabling the voice to sing its entire compass, to gain all possible agility, and to give to it a lasting quality.
In addition to these national methods, there are teachers who claim a method of their own; a method which they absurdly assert will, in a few months, enable one to sing with a voice beautiful in quality and fully developed. These persons are charlatans, and should be avoided as much as should “quack” doctors of medicine. There is no method, neither will there ever be one, superior to that which has made the most celebrated artists of the past and present. In no department in the curriculum of musical instruction are found so many impostors and ignorant teachers as in that of voice-culture. Upon the voice-teacher more depends than upon any other teacher in the department of musical education. An ignorant teacher not only fails to improve the voice, but often utterly ruins it, and also the health of the pupil. Among these so-called teachers are many scheming, sensational men and women who use certain peculiarities as “stock in trade,” and many earnest students are led into their snares. To illustrate. The following examples I know to be facts concerning certain teachers: One teacher tells his pupil to produce his tone from his diaphragm; another to sing on one vocal cord while he rests the other; still another, for the production of a certain quality of tone, says the air should be directed against a certain tooth; another has his pupil bend nearly double when vocalizing (this is supposed to place the head-tones); another teacher has the pupil lie down while vocalizing, with a pile of books upon the chest (this is done to keep the chest from rising and to induce abdominal breathing); another has the pupil sit on the piano- stool, with the toes placed against the under part of the keyboard, throwing the body backward as nearly horizontal as possible, then rise to a sitting position (this is done to cultivate abdominal breathing and strengthen the respiratory muscles); still another has the pupil lie upon a lounge and vocalize, with a tumbler filled with water placed upon the chest (this is to admonish the pupil not to move the chest while vocalizing, and woe betide the singer if the admonition be not heeded!). Another teaches the crescendo, diminuendo, and explosive tone by means of an umbrella, the extent of the crescendo and diminuendo being in agreement with the opening and closing of the umbrella, the explosive tone being illustrated by the sudden opening of the umbrella. Another gives only breathing lessons for the first three months, the second three months being devoted to the making of tones produced just above a whisper, the pupil being told that after these six months his voice will be powerful, of a beautiful quality, and perfectly placed. But of all the charlatan, sensational practices, is the contemptible one used by certain teachers to make it their “stock in trade” to browbeat and abuse their pupils by using indecent language, not hesitating even at profanity. These men stalk about the room with their hands over their ears, stamp, rave, and swear at their pupils, calling them idiots, fools, and any other invective they can call to mind. If they can induce a woman to cry, they feel that they have produced an effect which will not fail to impress the student with their superior ability, and importance as teachers. The influence of such teachers is demoralizing; they are a disgrace to the profession, and should be spurned and despised by every student of singing, and every father and mother who would give to their son or daughter the refining influence of a musical education. It is an easy matter to learn if a teacher be courteous in deportment; there are plenty of good men and women in the profession whose influence tends to build up the moral and esthetic nature of their pupils, and who make the study of vocal music what it really should be: a stepping-stone to a higher and purer life.—J. Harry Wheeler.