Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Sixth Lesson

Lesson 6

The tone of the human voice is truly musical in quality only when it includes what we call perfect resonance.

Resonance is simply the resounding of the vibrations of the vocal cords in the various cavities of the throat, chest, mouth, head, etc. Without this resounding the voice would be very weak.

If the resonators are acting without due co-operation the tone is imperfect in quality, or in pitch, or in both.

As we ascend the scale the head resonance increases, but the vowel sounds are always formed in the mouth. They change slightly as we shall see later on.

Do not try to get this head resonance arbitrarily. You will only interfere with nature and produce an evil tone. The base of every musical sound is in the vowel formed in the mouth. If that is really perfect the head resonance will also be perfect.

The three chief faults of the old school of singing will still serve us as means of self-examination. They were these: (1) The Guttural Tone, throaty, or pinched, or “tight”, causing much fatigue and hoarseness. This tone may be very dark and harsh or thin and pinched. The larynx feels tight, the throat may swell, the “Adam’s Apple” may rise up to interfere with the tongue. (2) The “Hooty” or Hollow Tone, lacking real formation of vowel in the mouth, a dead sounding tone, or one which sounds like a steam whistle. It used to be likened to the the sound of an owl. It is very disagreeable to all who love good singing. Altos and basses are prone to this fault. (3) The Nasal or “NOSEY” Tone. Many people sing through the nose with the idea that they are sounding a very resonant tone. No tone should be “nosey.” It is also very disagreeable.

With the knowledge of these faults you can begin to listen to your own voice or let someone else listen to it, to find out what your faults are. When you do find out, write them down in a small note book for future reference, and date them, whether you sing “NOSEY” or pinched or “HOOTY.” Also write down the imperfections in your vowel pronouncement or formation, for instance whether the AH is too much like AW or A(N) or other imperfections you may hear. Pay special attention to E and OO. Few beginners can sing the closed vowels purely. They will often be too “open”, E to [sic] much like I(T) or even A, and OO too much like OH or U(H).

The physical faults which you can see are very easy to observe.

  1. Pushing down of muscles under the chin.
  2. Raising of the larynx.
  3. Swelling of the throat on one or both sides, low or high on the neck.
  4. “Humping up” of the tongue on sounding AH. The tongue should lie free and fairly flat in the mouth, the tip of the tongue at the lower teeth.
  5. Scowling, wrinkling of forehead, pained expression of face.
  6. Swelling veins in the neck.
  7. Trumpet lips, protruding and showing the lower teeth.
  8. Standing “sway-back”.
  9. Protruding jaw.
  10. Shaking or trembling of any part of neck, face, tongue, lips, etc.
  11. Raising shoulders in inhaling – a very bad fault.

As you sing the simple exercises already given, or perhaps now attempting a complete scale, observe your faults which will be the subject of the next lesson.

Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

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