Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Seventeenth Lesson

Lesson 17

HEAD VOICE

If you have difficulty in singing high notes, as nearly everyone has, please study this lesson very carefully.

Take exercise 46, singing it with the vowels AH and E.

It is a good exercise to practice this alternately with these vowels, first with E, then with AH.

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The E vowel tends to free the palate, to permit full resonance in the head and face, and it also demands close approximation of the vocal chords [sic].

AH, especially in male voices, tends to “OPEN” the tone too much and by drawing up the palate cuts off the face resonance. Also it may cause a fundamental too large for the higher tones.

If E causes the larynx to ascend, which is fatal to high tones, giving a throaty and strained sound, use the MING syllable again until the E vowel can be pronounced freely without interfering with the larynx position.

Sing the exercise again on E, then follow with AH. Soon the voice will gain head resonance and the tones will not be open and “YELLY.”

DO NOT TRY TO “PULL THE VOICE BACK” AND “TURN IT OVER INTO THE HEAD.”

This is simply an absurd idea. The voice does not “go back” nor does it “turn over.”

When you sing high notes all that happens is a more exaggerated application of the vocal law, a further adjustment of the vocal organs for the sake of the new formation of the modified fundamental tone and vowel and necessary resonance of all the vocal tract, especially the head. (ED. Witherspoon seems to go everywhere to solve issues with registration but registration itself.)

Practice the repeated attacks, octave leaps, and the descending scales in exercises Nos. 22, 25, 26, 28, 38, 44.

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Use the arm gestures if you feel any awkwardness of discomfort.

Singing should be always easy and comfortable, never accompanied by swelling of the throat or the veins in the the throat; no red faces or staring eyes, no hoarseness after practice.

If the “Adam’s Apple” persists in rising, you may sing some scales piano on OO. OO tends to keep the larynx lower and, therefore, will help you if you do not sing it loudly. OO modifies much especially in high voices on high notes, and then its effect on the larynx may be lost or diminished.

 

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

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Seventeenth Lesson

  1. Sorry if you’ve answered this already, but is this full book still available? So far,I’m intrigued. There seems to be a lot of good here. Thanks.

    1. This book is no longer available sadly. I’m sure used copies are available for purchase on Amazon or EBay. (I also think there’s a lot to praise and celebrate in Witherspoon’s work).

  2. So, Witherspoon did not advocate any use of head voice? Even for women? I haven’t read all of the lessons but I have read a good chunk of the ones you have posted, and I haven’t found any real mention it. No doubt the ee vowel does promote more head voice, but without falsetto, I don’t think it is good enough.

    While I have no “professional” teacher personally supporting me on this (none to be found around here), strengthening and mixing falsetto into my chest voice has been so beneficial and I can’t imagine trying anything else now. Everyday my voice gets fuller and stronger, and seems to be expanding now on both sides of the middle part. I’m also convinced that the pre-Garcia era of voice training went about training this way. I gather that this is also close to your philosophy, and so I’m curious as to exactly what part of Witherspoon’s technique (or whatever you want to call it) you are embracing. Are you advocating such lessons for developing the chest voice (in the chest register, to use Garcia terminology) or are you suggesting that we do away with registration using falsetto as well?

    Thanks!

    1. Hello Steve, I’m putting Witherspoon’s work back out into the ethos. I agree with about 95% of everything that he asserts, except his beliefs on registration (which are really non-beliefs since he seems to be a register denier).

      Witherspoon does NOT ‘believe’ in registration, and prefers to use the unfortunate nomenclature of ‘head resonance’ and ‘chest resonance.’ His 22nd lesson will illuminate some more of his opinions on the subject, and will be published here in a few days. I have problems with his approach because vocal resonance is a secondary manifestation of a primary function (cord vibration). Without vocal cord vibration there can’t be any ‘resonance’ in the singing voice. Yes we can make vowels while whispering, but that isn’t singing. Witherspoon believes in ONE vocal register, the coordinated complete registration which is the final product of much work and dogged determination.

      What I embrace in Witherspoon’s teaching is his acknowledgement that the voice cannot be ‘locally controlled.’ This shunts off much of the localized control and interference with the breathing system. I also appreciate his use of consonants as an ‘assist’ to the vocal sound, which can then be set aside and checked by singing simple scales on “AH.” I also appreciate his use of emotional moods to elicit specific colors in the voice. When read from a functional lens, much of Witherspoon’s work has value and can be incorporated into a modern system of voice training.

      Unfortunately, his confusion of registration with resonance muddies much of the water and causes more confusion. If hundreds of years of teachers used terms like chest register, falsetto, or head register, why not continue their use? If Tosi, Mancini, and other great writers used the terms, I see no reason why we can’t. Not everything that is older is a priori useless in voice pedagogy. (Hence the entire purpose of this blog!)

      Best, JP

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