Foreman’s Historical Perspectives – Traditional Teaching: The “Natural” Voice, Part I

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

The attitude of “traditional” teachers to “science” was clearly set out by David C. Taylor in New Light on the Old Italian Method, in 1916:

There is an inherent weakness in the scientific system of vocal cultivation. One need not be a singer or a vocal teacher to appreciate this fact. This weakness is purely practical, and is not a result of the present conflict of scientific theories. Let us suppose that the scientific principles of the vocal action should some day be definitely established. Let all investigators of the subject agree as to what actually takes place in the larynx during the correct production of tone. Even then a way would still have to be found for enabling the singer to govern his own vocal action in accordance with the scientific laws.

This is at once seen to be impossible. The demands imposed on the student in the scientific system cannot be fulfilled. We cannot consciously regulate the actions of our laryngeal muscles in any direct way. It is all very well for us to be told that our vocal cords vibrate only at their forward ends for the production of the head register. To apply this knowledge in the scientific spirit it would be necessary for us to tell our vocal cords how to vibrate, and then to see that they do so correctly. Anyone who attempts to observe and regulate the vibrations of his own vocal cords will see at once how absurd this is.

All the scientific laws for the management of the resonating cavities are equally impossible of direct application. We are told for example that after the tone has been generated by the vibration of the vocal cords, it must be lifted off the cords and placed in two positions,—in the front of the mouth and in the nasal cavities. But no vocal theorist has ever undertaken to show us how we can pick up a tone from one place and put it in another. This would indeed be utterly impossible. A vocal tone is a sound, not a solid body which can be moved about as we move a book from one shelf to another.

Scientific methods of voice culture are a complete failure. This fact is so well known to all who are actively interested in the subject that it need be supported by no proof. Vocal science undertook to do what was already done by Nature in a perfectly satisfactory manner. No necessity had ever arisen for the “something” which vocal students try to do. For every use of which the voice is capable Nature has provided the means of guidance and control. The ear governs the voice from the inside, and there is no need of any help being given to the vocal organs from the outside.

No solution of the vocal problem along scientific lines has yet been found. In view of the fact that investigations have been carried on along these lines for a hundred years, the present chaotic condition is remarkable. Before the art of solo singing had been in existence for that length of time, the Italian method had been firmly established on definite principles, and its results were startlingly brilliant. There is nothing now in sight to warrant the belief that scientific analysis will in the near future find the solution it seeks. But even if such a solution could be found it would be of doubtful value. No improvement on the instinctive processes of the old method need be desired.1

Taylor was neither a reactionary nut nor a single voice crying in the wilderness. Many teachers simply ignored the “scientific” investigations and continued to teach the methods they had been taught, or which they had deduced from research into past methods; this was most pronounced in those who had come from the Lamperti studios in Italy, but even the Garcia and Viardot pupils did not stress the mechanical approach as strongly as they did the traditional methods, which had to be adjusted to a large degree to take into account the desire for more volume.

Most of the books published in the 20th century are clearly aimed at maximizing volume, and use phrases like “breath pressure” to explain contrived systems for breathing, and endless discussions of “resonance” as an important factor in volume and “tone quality.”

I am putting these terms in quotation marks because they appear in the literature, and also because they are not in any way a part of the genuine old Italian school.2

The most devout exponents of the old Italian school, like Taylor, are not above some embroidery of the historical facts:

These three simple rules,—sing with open throat, sing the tone forward, and support the voice, sum up the old masters’ ideas of vocal management. Yet they do not by any means outline the scheme of instruction followed in the old school. Straightforward singing was the groundwork of the method, and it was never interrupted by verbal explanations of the vocal action.3

This is extrapolation of the worst kind. No such “rules” are to be found in the literature; they are at best derived from an imagined version of the old Italian school. Taylor is indulging in the favorite pastime of the “bel cantists,” inventing precepts which seem to him to embody what he thinks he knows about the old teaching. He is one of the forerunners of a group of authors that espoused either “the Old Italian Method” or “natural” singing.

There is another division apparent in this material which would have been unthinkable in the old Italian school: Several writers stress the “natural” voice, clothing it in various guises, while others are obviously of the opinion that teaching singing is akin to teaching ballet, requiring discipline and the imposition of artificial extensions of the capabilities of the human body. This is the difference between the “natural singing” and the “vocal technique” schools of thought.

The “natural” people, like Taylor, often rely on the belief that the old Italian school taught a “natural” approach to the voice; but they are rarely convincing and none of them can define “natural” in a way that truly explains how something “natural” can also be “trained.”

What they seem to mean is “without the benefit of scientific explanations.”

Here is Taylor again, confusing “normal” and “natural” while taking another swipe at “science”:

The scientific doctrine interposes itself between the vocal student’s normal impulse to sing and the ability of his voice to act in response to his desires. Left to the guidance of its own instincts, and directed by a keen musical ear, the voice tends naturally to adopt the correct manner of action. But the instinctive tendency of the voice to act properly is not fostered by the attempt to assist it artificially. Exactly the contrary of this is the case. Any attempt to impose some artificial manner of action on the vocal organs is an interference with the voice’s natural processes. The voice resents this interference; it has a tendency to become stiff and unmanageable when the attempt is persisted in. Scientific guidance is a hindrance to the voice, not a help.4

Taylor is correct, if muddled. “Normal” hardly belongs in here, if we take it to mean “habitual.” Any voice teacher will tell you that the majority of students who come to him with “normal” singing habits bring with them interferences and inhibitions which must be eradicated in order to find even a “natural” vocal function. But this does not define “natural.”

In fact, consulting Victor Fields’ Training the Singing Voice,5 we find 58 authors agree “the vocal act is unconscious and involuntary,”6 with varying descriptions of what that means, and 19 statements that “spontaneity and naturalness are the chief characteristics of the vocal act in singing.”7

NOTES:

  1. Taylor, David C. New Light on the Old Italian Method. NY, 1916, pp. 65 ff. All of Chapter V is a condemnation of the “scientific method” of Browne and Behnke’s Voice, Song and Speech (1883).
  2. It should have already been apparent in 1916 that the “Old Italian Method,” if correctly understood and applied, was no longer sufficient to the vocal demands of the new operas.
  3. Taylor, op. cit., p. 99.
  4. Op. cit., pp. 73-4.
  5. Fields, Victor: Training the Singing Voice. NY, 1947.
  6. Op. cit., p. 33.
  7. Op. cit., p. 34.
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