A Baritone’s Letter Home…

Francis Walker was an American baritone student in the early 1880s in Florence. Each day his teacher listened to him sing slow sustained tones (hmm…where have I heard that before?) and scale work, and he described this process of training in letters back to his sister, living in New York. Highlights in his letter are mine.

My main difficulty in “placing” has been in getting a sufficiently bright tone – all my middle and upper voice being deficient in frankness. Doubtless you remember how I had been taught to sing “open” tones up to [middle C] and then upward to make “covered” ones. The quoted words are, perhaps, as good terms as any, but the trouble is that I had not learned how to direct my voice so as to keep any definite texture in it, and the result was that all the tones below the C were veiled, uncertain of intonation, and wholly lacking in any character or timbre, while those above were forced into such pose as they had, and were quite incapable of modulation. In brief, there was almost nothing spontaneous and sure in my entire range. 

At first, with habit and wrong ideas so strongly fixed, it was most difficult to get any tone freely and frankly delivered…For several lessons, that dreaded tone [middle C] would come in the old way – dead in sound, devoid of all resonance. One Friday he [the teacher] said to me: “Now we can get no farther until that tone is given freely and clearly.”…

The struggle with the middle C was not, let me explain, for the sake of getting an “open” tone thereon, but to wrench myself away from old mannerisms of production – things learned from so-called “scientific” teachers.The particular trouble in this matter was that I had been taught to press the larynx down as far as possible. The result was the dull, veiled, middle tones, and no mental sense of directing the voice so as to produce anything firmer and brighter. Pressing the larynx down, forsooth! One might as well attempt to cool this July weather by pushing down the mercury in the thermometer. Larynx, tongue, uvula – all are perhaps in some measure indicators of what is going on, but it is folly to work directly with or upon them in order to place a voice. None of the teachers who muddle over anatomical matters in detail, and thereby create a distressing and hampering consciousness of muscular arrangement, ever turn out an artist – one who makes a legitimate and successful career.

Walker, Francis. Letters of a Baritone. Scribner, 1895.


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