From Whence a Voice Science?, Part 2

Along with the revolutionary movement in voice culture a change took place in the general public feeling regarding the management of the voice. Vocal teachers had something definite to talk about when the subject of method was discussed. Breathing, laryngeal action, and resonance are substantial subjects, which allow ample scope for explanation and description. Instinctive vocal guidance on the other hand is too unsubstantial and vague a matter to awaken the interest of people generally. A methodical plan of procedure was thought to be involved in the new idea, while the older system was declared to be altogether haphazard and aimless. No one formulated the philosophical basis of either the new or the old system. The old order changed and yielded to the new, without anyone realizing the nature of the change. Gradually and imperceptibly the public mind was converted to a belief in the scientific doctrine, and the possibility of natural instinctive vocal training was entirely lost to view.

The very nature of the old method was forgotten. Many investigators indeed went so far as flatly to deny that the traditional system could have been based on the control of the voice by the ear. In this connection a book written jointly by Lennox Browne and Emil Behnke, Voice, Song, and Speech (1883) is especially worthy of note. These authorities set out to prove that the old masters had solved the vocal problem along strictly mechanical lines. How completely the mechanical doctrine dominated the thought of that time is shown in the line of argument followed by Browne and Behnke. Their thesis might be reduced to the following chain of reasoning: “1. There is only one method by which the voice can be properly controlled, and that is through conscious mechanical guidance. 2. The old Italian masters had a satisfactory method. 3. The old Italian method was based on mechanical guidance, because that is the only possible method. 4. Mechanical guidance must be correct, since it was the basis of the old Italian method.”

In spite of the fallacious reasoning of Browne and Behnke, their conclusions were accepted as voicing the general opinion of that time. Voice, Song, and Speech was translated into French and German, and it also exerted a strong influence in Italy. Critical study of the old method since that time has been almost exclusively aimed at a rediscovery of the mechanical principles which it supposedly embodied.

Most of the scientific investigators of the vocal problem have not been either singers or vocal teachers. In very few cases have they undertaken to cultivate their own voices by the application of their scientific principles. Their plan has been rather to formulate a theory of the muscular movements and acoustical laws involved in correct tone production, and to leave it to the vocal teachers to translate this theory into a practical method of instruction. The pressure of public opinion has obliged the vocal teachers to attempt this impossible task. That the only possible application of scientific principles is the direct management of the vocal organs has been no concern of the scientists. Indeed the strictly mechanical nature of the scientific system has not been recognized until very recently. Even to-day the great majority of vocal students do not understand what they are trying to do. The vague idea of having to do something in order to cause the vocal organs to act correctly is in the mind of everybody who starts out to study singing. This something involves the getting outside of the vocal organs mentally, and causing them to act in a way which Nature has not taught them. But it is only after some experience of vocal study that students come to realize this fact.

It is no disparagement of the average vocal student to say that the scientific laws of the vocal action are beyond his grasp. Seriously to understand these principles would call for a thorough knowledge of anatomy, acoustics, and mechanics. Even for one equipped with a college education, a sufficient mastery of these three sciences would demand at least two years of study. Moreover the scientists themselves are not in agreement on the principles of the vocal action. It is ridiculous to expect the student, or even the well-equipped teacher, to decide between conflicting theories of a highly specialized scientific nature. We need not wonder that the underlying mechanical basis of all present vocal theories has for so long a time escaped recognition.

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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