Leading With the Larynx

Much of the training of the Old School was done with a ‘lead of the larynx.’ I interpret this to mean that training of the laryngeal mechanism was the primary area of attention for teachers and students of the Old Tradition.  This was done largely through the tools of the coup de glotte, trills, registration, and the messa di voce.

Not breathing.

Not resonance.

All of those ‘effects’ came about as a result of the cause of the sound itself: the larynx.

In modern singing, pedagogies divert attention AWAY from the larynx, and focus on things that singers can ‘control’ such as the breath and the shapes of the resonator. It’s perceived today as much more efficient to have tensions in the apparatus of breathing to ‘support’ and ‘place the tone on the breath’ than attention to the throat itself. It makes no difference that the valve (the larynx) controls the outflow of breath.

Voice teacher and pedagogue Jeannette LoVetri calls the larynx humorously the “Capo di tutti capi.” The larynx is the controller of many of the processes that we spend time in now, thinking we are making a difference in the voice. In reality, those who ignore this approach are merely tampering with the voice, not building or rehabilitating it.

One of the FEW writers of the mid-twentieth century who also believed in this ‘lead of the larynx’ was Franklyn Kelsey. His remarks on the pedagogical shift to breath and resonance is expanded in his book The Foundations of Singing:

Where is the laryngeal diapason which was the blood and bone and muscle of the older art? Indeed and indeed, we have lost something!

There is no single act of vocal technique more vital, or of greater importance, that the gesture of the larynx which the true singer employs in order to launch the sound.

The effect of the old kind of singing, which is based upon the larynx instead of the vowel cavity, is to obliterate completely the differences caused by accidents of language, and to put every aspirant to vocal honours, of no matter what nationality, on to the same starting line. It takes longer to learn because it involves a departure from everyday speech habits; but once learned, it not only brings out the full beauty of the instrument, it also ensures its longevity. In his autobiography (Student and Singer) …Santley records his frequent distress, as a student, of the smallness of his voice. The vocal development which took place as a result of his training enabled the possessor of that small ‘pipe’, as he himself called it, to become a Vanderdecken unsurpassed to this day for sheer sonority of tone. The voice is, in the first place, a set of muscles which our English habits of speech do nothing whatever to develop. True singing is as much a gymnastic exercise as ballet dancing, and when it is practiced skilfully, there is no end to the possibilities of development. Teach English men and women to use their larynxes, instead of, as now, abusing them, and the world is liable to be very astonished at the size of English voices. We shall begin to hear once again something of the lost laryngeal diapason!…

The best teachers in the world cannot make singers of pupils who are unwilling to learn slowly, for of all musical musical instruments, the human voice is the most unamenable to control, and is almost unique in being subject to mental influences of a rebellious nature. Every period of learning must be followed by a period of mental assimilation, so that each step is secured before going on to the next.

It must be taught skilfully and correctly, or left severely alone. Nevertheless, there is no running away from the fact that he who cannot teach it cannot teach true singing, for it is the sole means which the singer has at his disposal for launching a tone which has not an undesirable content of unphonated air. 

A vowel-sound is throaty because it is trapped in the throat, and not because it is formed in the throat. 

Whenever the singer produces a note in this way, he has complied with the real meaning of Crescentini’s aphorism: ‘The Italian school [of singing] is a school of the voice above the breath,’ for he then perceives that is voice is being made, not in the mouth, but somewhere below the throat, where the breath ceases to be ‘breath’ and becomes voice.

The foundations of singing. Williams & Norgate, 1950.