From Whence a Voice Science? Part 1 of 2

Scientific knowledge of the vocal organs began to influence methods of vocal instruction about the third decade of the nineteenth century. During something like eighty years before that time the vocal organs and their operations had been a favorite field of investigation for a large number of physicians and acousticians. For a long time teachers of singing paid little attention to the scientific aspects of voice production. But early in the past century the growing public interest in scientific matters began to influence vocal teachers, and the anatomy of the throat received a constantly increasing measure of attention from them. The most enlightened members of the profession made themselves familiar with the structure of the vocal organs, and followed the results of scientific study in this department with close attention.

This awakening of interest in the scientific aspects of tone production was not due to any dissatisfaction with the existing method on the part of vocal teachers and students. On the contrary, they were fully satisfied, as they had abundant right to be, with the results obtained from the traditional system. But a general feeling began to be evident about 1830 that voice culture might be improved if it were placed on a rational basis and supported by scientific principles.

Manuel Garcia (1805-1905), the inventor of the laryngoscope, is the most striking figure in the revolution which gradually took place in the practices of vocal training. He had been carefully educated by his father in the traditional method, and had sung with modest success in the opera, both in Europe and in America. In 1832 he retired from the stage and determined to devote his life to teaching. From the outset of his career as a vocal teacher Garcia took an active interest in all the scientific problems presented by the production of the voice. What actually takes place in the throat during the production of tone was the question which engaged his mind for many years. This question the scientific investigators were unable to answer. They could dissect the larynx and point out the attachments of all its muscles; but that did not show how these muscles operate in phonation. As the larynx is hidden in the throat, no way was known for observing its actual movements.

Garcia labored for several years to find some instrument by which the larynx could be studied during the performance of its functions. At last, in the year 1855, he succeeded in viewing his own vocal cords by means of a little mirror which he held in the back of his throat. He gave the name of laryngoscope to this tiny mirror set on a handle. It was exhibited at a meeting of the Royal Society of London in the same year, and the introduction of scientific methods in voice culture may conveniently be referred to that date.

A curious fact in this connection is that Garcia himself never fully adopted the scientific system. He was fifty years old at the time of his invention of the laryngoscope, of which twenty-three years had been spent in the active profession of voice culture. His purpose in studying the vocal mechanism was partly to satisfy his own inquiring mind, partly to find an assured scientific basis for the traditional method. Nothing was further from his ideas than the complete abandonment of the old method. Until the close of his long life Garcia continued to teach along the old lines, and some of the greatest singers of modern times bear witness as his pupils to the excellence of his instruction.

With the invention of the laryngoscope a new line of vocal investigation was opened up, which was eagerly followed by a vast number of scientists. Most of our present information about the workings of the larynx has been obtained by means of this little instrument. Other aspects of the vocal action have also been exhaustively studied, particularly the management of the breath, the reinforcing of the tones by resonance, and the formation of the various vowels and consonants.

Each new discovery and theory relating to the vocal action was soon absorbed into the current methods, and for some time conditions were decidedly unsettled. It took indeed about twenty years for methods of instruction to crystallize along definite lines. But we may say that since 1875 the scientific system of vocal management has been almost exclusively followed.

Taylor, David Clark. “New Light on the Old Italian Method: An Outline of the Historical System of Voice Culture, with a Plea for Its Revival.” (1916).

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