The Dark Age of the Vocal Art

Over the weekend, I took another look at Edmund Myer’s book “The Renaissance of the Vocal Art” available for free from Google Books here.

This book, written in 1902 is as current as tomorrow in its assessment of ‘modern voice methods’.  It’s a little shocking and sad that in 100 years we haven’t moved very far in our training of the human voice from what Myer mentions below. He blasts theoretical scientific discoveries as being of little use to the voice trainer, who through these discoveries is given no operative principles upon which a foundation of vocal training can take place.

Myer’s greatest qualm with modern methods lies in a “direct control” of the voice through manipulative strategies of breathing and resonance. The true direction of APPLIED voice science should be to provide the teacher with a training or pedagogy which will restore, rehabilitate, revitalize, or unlock a singer’s vocal potential. Much of voice science today is purely OBSERVATIONAL. It describes effects, and it’s up to the hapless teacher to figure out how to ‘reverse engineer’ back to the cause of those phenomenon. Without an intelligent ‘hearing’ of the instrument, this is just not possible. The functional aspects of a human voice can only be HEARD and the body SEEN to assist in the development of a technique of singing that can guide that voice to greater freedom and ease.

Directives such as “Feel it out the back of your head,””Spin the tone,””Open up the dome,””Put it in the mask”, “Support,””Think up and over,””Tune the second formant to the first harmonic,” are perfect examples of attempts at direct control of the instrument. These are useless terms from a functional and pedagogical perspective, and ultimately destructive to the true nature of the singer’s voice.


Even in the palmiest days of the Old Italian School, there were forces at work which were destined to influence the entire vocal world.  The subtle influence of these forces was felt so gradually, and yet so surely and powerfully, that while the profession, as one might say, peacefully slept, art was changed to artificiality.  Thus arose that which may be called the dark ages of the vocal art, – an age when error overshadowed truth and reason; for while real scientists, after great study and research, discovered much of the true science of voice, many who styled themselves scientists discovered much that they imagined was the true science of voice.

Upon the theories advanced by self-styled scientists, many systems of singing were based, without definite proof as to their being false or true.  These systems were exploited for the benefit of those who formulated them.  This condition of things prevailed, not only through the latter part of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, but still manifests itself at the present day (1902), and no doubt will continue to do so for many years to come.

The vocal world undoubtedly owes much to the study and research of the true scientist. All true art is based upon science, and none more than the art of voice and singing.

Science is knowledge of facts co-ordinated, arranged, and systematized; hence science is truth. The object of science is knowledge; the object of art is works.  In art, truth is the means to an end; in science, truth is the end.

The science of voice is a knowledge of certain phenomena or movements which are found under certain conditions to occur regularly.  The object of the true art of voice is to study the conditions which allow these phenomena to occur.

The greatest mistake of the many systems of singing, formulated upon the theories of scientists, and of the so-called scientists, was not so much in their being based upon theories which oftentimes were wrong, as in the misunderstanding and misapplication of true theories. The general mistake of these systems was and is that they attempt by direct local effort, by direct manipulation of muscle, to compel the phenomena of voice, instead of studying the conditions which allow them to occur.  In this way they attempt to do by direct control, that which Nature alone can do correctly.

While it is true that the vocal world owes much to science and the scientists, yet “the highest science can never fully explain the true phenomena of the voice, which are truly the phenomena of Nature.”  The phenomena of the voice no doubt interest the scientists from an anatomical standpoint, but these things are of little practical value to the singer.  As someone has said, “To examine into the anatomical construction of the larynx, to watch it physiologically, and learn to understand the motions of the vocal cords in their relation to vocal sounds, is not much more than looking at the dial of a clock; the movements of the hands will give you no idea of the construction of the intricate works hidden behind the face of the clock.”

We should never lose sight of the fact that there is a true science of voice, and that the art of song is based upon this science.  The true art of song, however, is not so much a direct study of the physical or mechanical action of the parts, as it is a study of the spirituelle side; a study of the forces which move the parts automatically, in accordance with the laws of nature.  In other words, voice, true voice, is more psychological than physiological; is more an expression of mind and soul than a physical expression or a physical force.  It is true the body is the medium through which the soul, the real man, gives expression to thought and feeling; and yet voice that is simply mechanical or physical is always common and meaningless and as a rule unmusical.  The normal condition of true artistic voice is emotional and soulful.

-Myer, Edmund John. The renaissance of the vocal art: a practical study of vitality, vitalized energy, of the physical, mental and emotional powers of the singer, through flexible, elastic bodily movements. The Boston music company, 1902.