Seeing Instead of Hearing

By the beginning of the twentieth century, in spite of the best efforts of pedagogues such as E. Herbert-Caesari to keep faith with a time-honoured tradition, bel canto was becoming a mere memory. Following Manuel Garcia’s invention of the laryngoscope in 1854, enquiry into matters technical came increasingly to rely, I believe, upon scientific or pseudo-scientific means of determination.1 What had hitherto been primarily an aural matter became increasingly a visual one, and what had been heard as a whole began to be ‘scientifically’ divided up into parts, and physically felt for. Hence the proliferation, throughout the twentieth century, of numerous techniques and proprietary methods, all of which have been based around some favoured aspect of the voice rather than on the whole instrument.

It seems that methods were sought with the specific aim of making voices bigger, disregarding the fact that an individual’s voice is the size it was born to be. Trying to make a voice heavier or more robust than it is by nature is counterproductive in so many ways.

Since the mid-twentieth century some notable teachers have endeavoured to rediscover the capacities of the singing voice that were so successfully opened up by the Old Italian School. These pioneers – among them Owen Brown, William Vennard and Frederick Husler – applied an increasing body of anatomical and physiological knowledge to their efforts.

Husler and Rodd-Marling, conscious of where and how things had gone astray, wisely counselled us about using our ears. But in retrospect I think the damage had long been done, especially regarding the entrenchment of ‘breath support’.

Nothing could be less scientific, in view of what we now know about the construction of the vocal folds, than to describe the breathing apparatus as ‘bellows’, or the abdominal muscles as the ‘power house of the voice’. But the abdominal muscles are the part of the voice which is most easily felt, most easily seen, and most easily manipulated – all three activities dangerously non-aural.

Midgette states that without breath support, ‘…it’s difficult to hit the proper pitches (particularly the top notes), modulate from soft singing to loud, or even be heard beyond the footlights’.2  I expect that this is what singers struggling with Verdi and Wagner began to feel a hundred years ago. Having lost aural touch with the optimal functioning of the vocal folds, they had to find another way to achieve their goal. It’s time to regain a sense of physiological integrity.

Harrison, Peter T. Singing: Personal and performance values in training. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2013.

Harrison’s Notes:

  1. Manuel Garcia Jnr. (1805–1906). It is the author’s opinion that, although well-intended, the invention of Garcia’s laryngoscope in 1854 marks the beginning of a decline in aural perception.
  2. Midgette, Anne. “The End of the Great Big American Voice.” Published November 13 (2005).