Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Twenty-Second Lesson

Lesson 22

We hear much about registers in the vocal scale or range, and also you will probably be told by other students of many fads and fancies supposed to be useful in developing technique.

It is perfectly true that there are various ideas, suggestions and physical aids to positions which may help the student, but in general I advise you to study intelligently with definite principles in mind, rather than depend upon doubtful “TRICKS” which may aid one and injure another.

On the other hand, many empirical ideas are of value and are closely related to the imaginative side of the art.

There are no “REGISTERS” in the human voice, or rather there is one register, the entire vocal range.

There are different qualities in the voice, different colors, and different resonators producing different kinds of tone.

We speak of the “HEAD” quality, the “MOUTH” tone or quality, the “NASAL” quality, athe “CHEST” quality, etc.

Now the resonators of the voice are really in use all the time during correct singing. They simply vary in the amount of resonance they contribute individually to each tone sung.

So as we ascend the scale from the lowest note to the highest, we seem to sing more in the head and less in the chest, and finally less in the mouth. So we say high tones are beautiful if they have enough head resonance. They sound free and clear.

So the middle tones partake of all three resonances quite distinctly, and the lower tones feel more in the chest and mouth, not so high in resonance in the head.

The three chief resonances are re-adjusted in their proportion to each other on each and every note of the scale ascending and in the opposite manner descending.

This is the only way in which we can develop an even and perfect scale so essential for good singing.

If we do not permit of this re-adjustment, we obtain throaty or harsh tones, or we “YELL” our high tones, or we make hollow empty sounds or sing “open” stomach-like low tones. The later is especially true of contraltos. (Ed. It’s fascinating to read Witherspoon’s denial of registers, and yet his obvious description of their action in the voice as the rising of pitch occurs in the voice. JP)

The causes of these imperfectly adjusted resonances (Ed. read: registers. JP) are incorrect pronouncement of vowels, poor breathing, wrong actions of the vocal organs (Ed. Yet no registers? JP), causing interference with natural laws.

Therefore, I am giving you in lesson 34 the sounds or phonetics which will help in curing the principal faults.

Sing a few notes on the vowel “AH” and listen carefully for the resonances. The lower tones will vibrate somewhat in the chest, the face will also seem full of resonance, the vowel will be formed in the mouth, which will also resonate. This means complete tone. Now sing the entire scale and observe that whereas the vowel is always made in the mouth, the tone changes its resonance according to pitch. This will occur quite easily and naturally if you leave things alone and do not interfere. If you do interfere and cannot help doing so, then you must resort to the syllables and phonetics which will aid you in getting rid of the interferences.

Now these resonators about which we have been talking are also responsible for the various colors in the voice, colors expressive of the following moods:


1. Restful repose 6. Narration (statement of fact)
2. Excitement 7. Joy
3. Love 8. Sorrow
4. Hate 9. Fear
5. Mystery 10. Religious Exaltation

So that in reality we change the use of the resonators slightly for perfection of vowel and tone and pitch, and we also alter their use for colors of expression.

Sing the scale the best you can with what you hear is good tone, clear, round, resonant, even, etc.

Now sing the scale again in the moods just given. You will find not only different use of the resonators for each mood, but also different vowel position or speech position, and different size of vowel. This brings you to the most interesting part of your art, interpretation; and it is and endless study.

For convenience we accept three sizes of speech and three positions of the vowels:

Sizes of speech forms Positions of vowels
Small Very Forward
Medium Forward
Large Middle Back

In your note book write down the results of your own experiments with these moods and positions.

We shall go further with them in the next lesson.


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

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