Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Third Lesson

Lesson 33


In the study of singing all sorts of terms have been invented to describe sensation of tone and peculiarities of fault or quality.

Also numerous fads and fancies have unfortunately been all too influential in affecting both teacher and pupil.

That the same thing is true of other professions, like medicine for instance, does not excuse us from our responsibility in seeking the real truth.

We are often told that we sing by merely “thinking” the tone, or by some process of applied psychology. This doctrine has led to many of these fads and fancies, probably because the organ which sets going the vibrations which cause tone is not seen.

You cannot see your voice operate as you can see your hands and wrists and arms when you play the piano.

But we can see the evidence of incorrect singing as explained in Lesson 6.

You should sing before a mirror so that you can see your faults as well as hear them. Therefore study Lesson 6 again and observe whether the faults mentioned are occurring.

The faults which you can hear have probably, by this time, come to your attention.

You can hear your own voice in spite of what some say to the contrary.

The hearable faults are these:

Flat in pitch.
Sharp in pitch.
“THROATY” voice, pinched, tight, constricted.
Stroke of the glottis, too much of a “STROKE” or click like a short cough on attacking a note.
Nasal or “NOSEY” quality.
Hollow or “HOOTY” quality.
Gasp or grunt on finishing a tone, as if the air were shut off too abruptly.
Slurring or scooping up to a tone.
An impure or imperfect vowel formation changing into a better or even worse formation on the same tone. A very bad fault.
An “ASPIRATE” attack on a vowel, sounding an “H” before the vowel. This is very common in singing several tones on the same vowel, either on the scale progression or on intervals. This sounds like Ha-Hah or HE-HE, etc.
Breathy tone. Escaping air.
Change of quality on the scale, causing a very uneven quality and also change in vowel formation. This is irrespective of vowel modification for pitch, which should always be very slight.
Imperfect and slovenly pronunciation.
Prolonged or exaggerated consonants. This is very common with the consonants M, N. When M or N finish a word they sometimes cause the vowel “ah” to be heard, a bad fault, “MAN-ah” etc.
Singing Huh-Lah for Lah. It sounds like a “BUMP” in the attack.
Closed vowels too open, a very common fault. E sounds like I(t) or EH. OO sounds like Uh or Eu. These are very bad faults.
Tremolo or shake in the tone. It may be rapid or a slow wave.
The dark “AW” quality which destroys te clarity of the different vowels.
“CRACKING.” The tone breaks or cracks.

Listen carefully to your own voice and also to the voices of others until you are familiar with faults in singing.

Soon you will associate visible faults with faulty sounds, and vice versa. This is an invaluable part of your study and every teacher who reads these lessons can learn much from this kind of observation.

For instance, if your face has a strained expression, your tone will also sound strained. A hard unyielding voice goes with a hard expression. Just as you have seen and heard how the voice changes quality or color with each of the three gestures or movements of the arms of the breathing exercises, so the voice will change with the expression of the face. All singers should make a real study of these facts.

We can use all kinds of terms to describe tone quality if we accept the terms without danger of confusion as to their meaning in our own minds.

If the veins in your neck enlarge or the muscles and cords of the neck stand out, then the tone will also show a thick or strained quality, and the vowel will probably be imperfect.

If you can see that the tongue is “humped up” or turned up at the tip towards the roof of the mouth, or curled under, back from the lower teeth on the vowel AH, then there is interference somewhere and the tone will have an imperfect quality just in accordance with the physical fault. The vowel AH will also be faulty.

If the muscles under the chin push down and the larynx pushes up in rebellion, then the AH vowel will sound thick and choked or throaty and congested or compressed, whatever term suits you best to make you understand.

So, with these hints I shall leave you to study carefully to find your faults of both action and sound. Learn to associate the two without further delay. If you ever become a teacher of singing this will develop your powers of what is called diagnosis, or the discovery of what causes faulty sound. It is not all thinking, and it is not all mechanical. It is partly both.

It is doubtful that anyone can “THINK” a correct and beautiful sound in his own voice until he has made a really good sound.

The he can make the good tone sound better because he has heard some element of the beautiful tone of the voice.

So, with the aid of the syllables and phonetics and correct breathing, the student can free his vocal apparatus more and more, he can pronounce better and better, until finally he will make a really perfect sound according to his natural gifts.

Do not sing loudly at first, nor very softly. The first will make you force and develop muscular faults, and the second will dwarf your physical action too much and probably cause the tone to be breathy and lacking in vitality.

In this lesson use the simple exercises again and study yourself very carefully, making written memorandums of what you discover.

In a few days you can note the improvement and compare what you are doing with the notes you have made.


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

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