Missing Pieces of the Pedagogical Puzzle

The following is taken from the essay The Theory of Vocal Pedagogy, by Edward V. Foreman, unpublished.

Modern writers on singing – and presumably voice teachers – seem to have failed to understand some salient features of the older pedagogy:

  1. The connection between production of sound and the movement of the larynx in the vertical axis;
  2. The difference between the “register” question and the three “regions” or “types” of voice, chest, throat, and head;
  3. The lack of any significant information about “breath control”;
  4. A vocal pedagogy which is not rational, or logically and systematically laid out.

These points are self-evident from even a cursory examination of the literature, but modern writers insist on trying to read more into them, wringing some meaning out of them which is not there. It is the northern writers who fail most grievously to understand the vocal pedagogy of Italy in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, because their thought processes run counter to those of the Italians. Italian pedagogy is founded upon an inherited Oriental system from the Greeks and Syrians, by way of the early church musicians. As such, it is a combination of apprenticeship, intuition and improvisation based on the experience of the teacher, as is so clearly indicated by Tosi’s remarks about those who teach voice without knowing anything but keyboard playing.

An intuitive method cannot be written down, nor can one teach intuition, which in the case of the voice teacher, includes an ear educated to detect the finest nuances of the vocal emission and sense how to correct faults and how to encourage the naturally correct things a student already does.

The investigations by numerous “scientists,” which actually date back to the late 18th century, have come from a tradition in which reducing everything to system through logic and reason is seen as the best way to understand and master any process, including those artistic processes which resist such reduction. Sculpture, drawing, painting, composition, and instrumental playing were similarly investigated and “explained” as being susceptible to rational thought.

This is one of the negative contributions of the period known as “The Enlightenment,” in which it was believed that everything could be explained in intellectual terms, starting with Descartes ridiculous proof of his own existence, “I think, therefore I am.”

By standing off and studying singing objectively, these people try to analyze things so that they will be sure of being right before they begin. They avoid doing anything they cannot prove will work; they require intellectual validation before the event, which is another way of saying “foolproof method.”

“Science” can only reduce the vocal emission to a series of logical events; which falsifies the holistic nature of the voice and pretends that this or that function can be studied independently of the Gestalt, the unified gesture which the voice really is. By labeling each muscle and indicating how it is supposed to work in coordination with other muscles, “science” implies that such jigsaw puzzles can produce a spontaneous vocal sound.

“Science” tells us that the larynx should not rise for upward changes in pitch, yet in the age which produced the most admired singing of all, just such an action was observed and commented on as part of the vocal emission of good singers.

“Science” tells us that breathing for singing is a complex activity requiring concentration and the coordination of specific muscles; the old pedagogy tells us not to breathe in the middle of words, and to pay attention to the best places to take a breath in order not to run out.

“Science” has not yet decided how many “registers” there are, nor how they can be “joined,” but the old pedagogy recognized two, and gave specific instructions about how to combine them into one long range without noticeable transition.

“Science” tells us that florid singing is most efficiently done with a light sound based on the “head voice”; the old pedagogy says that agility should come “from the chest.”

“Science” is based on the idea that “method,” the logical and linear progression through a series of graded steps, will produce the final result, a musical sound. Such linear thinking does not apply to the voice, since it is based on the incorrect assumption that all singers are alike and can benefit from the same exercises in the same order.

It is, of course, true that the old pedagogy was not equal to the task of coping with the new demands on singers made by the new music and larger orchestras of the first 40 years of the 19th century. But much of the failure was the results of “experts” telling the older teachers that their methods were flawed by not being “scientific,” which created great confusion where simplicity had been before. Consider the impact of the method published by the son of the great tenor Manuel Garcia, purporting to be the old Italian method re-studied and explained, but in actuality presenting a new mechanical model of great complexity rooted in self-consciousness.

Manuel Garcia II had one of the great analytical minds in an age of analytical minds, and his explanation of the act of vocal emission is exhaustive; but it is useless as an approach to vocal pedagogy, as he himself admitted later in the century when he said he didn’t teach the way his books suggested. In other words, the widespread popularity of the Traité complete sur l’art du chant was a disaster for pedagogy, rejected in due course by its author.

One example alone indicates the degree to which the disaster spread through the teaching profession: the coup de glotte, or “stroke of the glottis.” Garcia’s explanation makes it fairly clear that this is simply a description of an efficient action of the vocal folds in starting a sound. It was mistakenly believed to be the hard “attack” and widely criticized by people who only read about it. It is still a matter of controversy and misunderstanding among those who have not read Garcia’s description carefully, and do not understand that there are only two kinds of “start” for a sound, the aspirate or “breathy” start in which the vocal folds are open before the sound begins, and breath escapes, and the “closed” start in which the vocal folds approximate before the sound begins. There is no third option, although either of the two possibilities, open or closed, can be abused in a variety of ways.

The conclusion I draw from this is the same as my teacher’s response when I asked why he did not write a book on voice: “There are two ways of understanding everything you read, and I don’t want to be responsible for those who misunderstand what I mean.”

In the 19th century, teaching voice became almost like the parable of the centipede who was asked which shoe he put on first in the morning; he is still sitting on the side of his bed trying to think through it. “Methods,””systems,””techniques” abounded, based not on observation and common sense, but intellectually derived from thinking about how the voice ought to work.

One author likened the voice to a stringed instrument; another to a brass instrument; one deduced that the voice actually originates in the sinus cavities. None of these theories were relevant, because explaining the musculature of the vocal organs in any analogy, or in the minutest “scientific” way, tells us nothing about how to start a vocal sound. These are all simply proof of the obvious, that the voice is infinitely adaptable to any “system” the mind can devise.

The problem seems to have been one of ignorance of acoustics, despite a good deal of information resulting from the investigations of Helmholtz and others into the acoustic nature of sound. Briefly, what Helmholtz established was that intensity is the carrying power of the sound, as opposed to the somewhat amorphous quality of “volume,” which was the identified object of most teaching. The word “power” enters into the teacher’s repertoire in the 19th century, in response to the effects achieved by Gilbert Louis-Duprez with the timbre oscure or “covered” sound, in Paris beginning in 1837.

Duprez began as a somewhat undistinguished lyric tenor, went to Italy and figured out how to increase the volume of his sound by distorting it. He created a sensation in Paris, but his vocal emission was very hard on the voice, and within about 10 years he encountered great difficulty in sustaining a legato line, singing softly and singing in tune. So of course he retired from the stage, taught at the Conservatoire for a very long time, and wrote a “method.” The damage had been done, because he had subverted the taste of the very influential Parisian public and created the prototype of the modern “covered” sound.

Garcia’s Traité was published three years after Duprez’s introduction of the timbre obscure; in it, Garcia claimed to have been teaching a similar technique for some time, based on the lowered laryngeal position which has become the darling of modern vocal pedagogy. Not, perhaps, the kind of assertion that hindsight would suggest he should have bragged about.

Neither Duprez nor Garcia should bear the whole blame for what came next, the gradual change to vocal emissions based on “pressure,””breath control,””support,” and “placement.” The “hidden word” lying behind all these over words, is “effort.” The student, once set to endless hours of vocalizing on endless scales and ornaments, now had to bend his efforts to the study of the preparation of the “framework” for the voice: Breathing, posture, strength. Studying voice became an intensive course in bodybuilding and acquiring the same kind of control over the physical instrument as is required for ballet, so the singer would have the necessary stamina to produce a loud sound over increasingly large orchestras, for longer periods of time.

Vocal pedagogy had gone from an intuitive, imitative, simple process to a highly intellectualized, logically organized athletic event. In the 20th century it would move farther into this arid field and begin producing not individual voices, but predictable, controlled results which suggest Henry Ford’s assembly line. Singers became first interchangeable, and then indistinguishable. The occasional immediately recognized voice tends to come from the throat of a highly intuitive singer who has resisted or avoided the usual pedagogical path, and found his own way to reach his real voice.