A Letter to the Editor on “Falsetto”

The following letter to the Editor was featured in Etude Magazine in July of 1897. I’ve underlined particular points of interest, and comments that I sometimes make in my own studio with male singers.


Editor of the Vocal Department:—

Dear Sir.—It is with much interest and pleasure that I have read the article in the May Etude regarding development of the so-called ”falsetto ” voice, and heartily agree with every point excepting the statement that by this means the so-called “chest” voice is done away with.

This has not been the case in my experience, but the result has been that the so-called “falsetto” voice (a term which should not be used, as it is misleading) has been so developed and strengthened that it has merged into the chest voice, thus bridging over the break; and in singing I have no consciousness in my throat of any change, and neither can any change be heard. To give a full history of the way in which I have come to this conclusion would exceed in length the proper limit of an article for publication, but I will endeavor to give a few suggestions which may throw light on the subject. In the effort to overcome the break I endeavored to carry the “head” voice (I prefer this term to “falsetto”) down the scale as far as possible. At first I used the syllable “loo.” By experimenting it will be found that this syllable can be sung lower down the scale in head voice than any other. I was careful to sing it far forward on my lips, having them rounded and elongated in a whistling position. At first the tones will be weak and breathy, but the more the student gets away from all self-consciousness at the throat and the more he concentrates his attention at the lips, trying to get a clear enunciation of this vowel in the front of the mouth, the better will be the quality, and the strength will come gradually. In my experience I found that the vowels, as regards difficulty, succeed each other in the following order (Italian pronunciation) u—i—o—e—a.

After a boy’s voice has changed, and he attempts to sing in his new or man’s voice, he finds that he has some upper tones which feel and sound to him just as his old boyish voice used to feel and sound, and he takes it for granted that this is a weak, effeminate voice, which must never be used (perhaps, as in my own case, he will be taught that this is true), so he endeavors to force his chest tones as high as possible and then discovers that by adopting the so-called “closed” tone he can go higher. But in changing to this “closed” tone, he changes the shape of his throat and position of his larynx, by depressing the base of the tongue, and thus the tone is focussed against his soft palate. He may, indeed, hear a mighty roar inside his own head, but what his audience hears is rather difficult to describe.

In all his talking he uses his throat naturally,—that is, as his voice rises and falls in the inflection of speech, according to the intensity of the thought, his vocal chords adjust themselves, naturally, involuntarily, and automatically, just as the muscles of his eye form themselves to different distances without causing him any sensation. In fact, by any exercise of his will power he can not cause those muscles to move, and can have no control over them only as he looks at objects at different distances, when they will adjust themselves. Neither by taking thought of the muscles themselves can he cause the vocal chords to contract or expand, but let him think a tone and endeavor to sing it naturally and they will immediately adjust themselves.

Singing should require no more conscious throat effort than speaking or looking. But when the young man begins to sing, he finds that up to a certain limit he can make more or less tone, this limit being largely governed by the pitch of his talking voice. He will find that at the upper end of his voice the tones are weak and of an effeminate quality—certainly, why should they not be so, as he has never used these muscles in the manner necessary to form these upper tones, and they are therefore weak and flabby.

Now, instead of clutching his throat by use of the voluntary muscles, thus causing a stiff and rigid tongue- base and larynx and producing a harsh and forced vibration of the vocal chords, he should take the bull by the horns and go to the extremity of effeminacy in tone quality, allowing only a very gentle pressure of air against these muscles, and sing that small effeminate quality in the front of his mouth on all vowels all the way down the scale. At first he will be likely to make a throat effort in the neighborhood of from C-sharp down to G sharp (it varies somewhat in different voices) because he will notice that, especially in this neighborhood, if he actually lets go of his throat and gets away from all self-consciousness there, then concentrating all his attention at the lips, that at first these tones will seem to have lost all their virility, but if he will persevere there will gradually appear a sweet, pure tone which will slowly develop (through what I call mixed voice), so that finally, from top to bottom of his compass, he will have only one quality without a break. It is at this point that the head voice changes to chest voice through the use of these mixed tones, the exact pitch being varied by the circumstances of the case—the quality of vowel and force used.

This development can not be done quickly. It requires long, careful and intelligent practice. The difficulty is that at first the beginner is likely to have some ideal quality of tone in mind which he endeavors to imitate, rather than to develop his natural voice. And allow me to say in passing, that I think one of the most serious mistakes made by students is in their endeavor to imitate some ideal quality of tone produced by some artist. Certainly we should hear all the good singing possible and endeavor to imitate the method by means of which the artist has achieved success. But this is vastly different from imitating the voice of the artist. By this last means the student loses all individuality. If a girl of plain features wishes to make herself attractive, she will find that any attempt to imitate the features or expression of anyone else—no matter how beautiful—will only make her appear ridiculous, and her only hope lies in good manners, pleasant disposition, bright thoughts, and winning ways. And with the voice our only hope is to take what has been given us and develop it naturally, without any forcing or straining or attempt to imitate any one else.

If we enter a gymnasium to become athletes, we know we must go through a long course of training. Every time we strain a muscle we weaken it; every time we gently exercise it we strengthen it. If we strain an arm or leg, we can help it by massage; but a strained throat must be let alone until it recovers.

Singing is not a lost art; but the trouble to-day is that we all want to become great vocal athletes, without the necessary training, which in the olden days was considered essential. My belief is, that the main reason to-day why there are so few good tenors is that many men are judging their voices from a wrong standpoint and calling themselves baritones because they do not know how to use their upper voice.

This is too broad a subject to attempt to cover in one short article, but possibly some of the suggestions here may cause others to investigate for themselves.

Horace P. Dibble.

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