One of the VERY best parts of searching the Old Italian School for clues to its success are the wonderful people that you meet!
Throughout my probing journey, I have been blessed to connect with Daniela Bloem-Hubatka, who published one of my favorite new books on the work of the Old Masters. Her book “The Old Italian School of Singing: A Theoretical and Practical Guide,” has filled in so many details and clarified a lot of the confusion of the older writings.
Her first chapter outlines the starting point for all Old Italian schooling: the coup de glotte. Interestingly enough, this mirrors the assertions of Richard Miller, who also placed the start of the sound as the foundation of all technical singing. There is some confusion on the difference of opinion between the Miller onset, the ‘balanced onset,’ and the Garcia onset, which appears from all writings to be something more akin to a glottal “pinch.”
Her practical ‘hints’ allude to the particular method of achieving this Old School-Garcia onset:
To sum up, who could better close this chapter than Jenny Lind’s great master Manuel Garcia, who restored her poor, overworked wreck of a voice, achieving a complete vocal metamorphosis with which she conquered the world? She was one of many famous singers he helped to achieve this change of technique, establishing their true voices. Let us see what Manuel Garcia has to say to Hermann Klein about the right attack described by him as coup de glotte.
Q: How are sounds to be attacked?
A: With the stroke of the glottis just described. The Italian vowels, a, e, as in the words “alma, sempre,” must be used. They will bring out all the ring in the voice. The notes must be kept full and in equal force. This is the best manner of developing the voice. At first the exercise must not exceed two or three minutes in duration.
Garcia adds to his description of the coup de glotte (Part 1 p. 25) in his “Traité complet de l’Art du Chant” of 1847 that the execution of the coup de glotte is similar to the energetic pronunciation of the “p” with our lips. Kelsey explains: “Regard the stroke of the glottis as having the same nature as the articulation of the syllable ‘Pah’ with your lips but an articulation of the vowel by the glottis into the very bottom of your throat, and not into your mouth.” The glottal stroke also resembles the action of the palatal arch necessary to articulate the letter K.
The historical singer always leads with the larynx (as we can see nowhere clearer than in Jenny Lind’s instructions to her friend quoted above) whereas singers employ ing modern methods invariably lead with the breath (expiratory singing).
We have seen that all historical singers and teachers agree on open vowels “ah” or “e” for exercises, which will stimulate the larynx into activity, whereas all the modern ones offer us a variation of “ma,” “la,” “ni,” “do,” “yo” etc., using the consonant as a springboard and thereby forcing us into expiratory singing, leaving the larynx passive. The comments above clearly show us how completely historical singers and teachers agree on this most important aspect of singing, a good attack via the coup de glotte as explained by Manuel Garcia.
Many historical recordings give us a fascinating picture of the singer’s voice, particularly if we are treated to the same aria or song sung at different stages of the singer’s career. The longevity of the voice staying fresh and bright (for instance, Melba’s, Nezhdanova’s, Calvé’s, Santley’s, Tetrazzini’s, Patti’s and Arral’s) seems to go hand in hand with the manner of attack they used. Countless written testimonies of the castrati who sang beautifully with well preserved voices into advanced age are there for us to read. From the account of Gounod it follows that the castrati attacked their tones vigorously, complying with Garcia’s description, “Coup de glotte sec et vigoureux.” (“There can be no real singing without a good attack”). Nellie Melba’s little sentence contains a world of wisdom.
Bloem-Hubatka, Daniela. The Old Italian School of Singing: A Theoretical and Practical Guide. McFarland, 2012.