On Vocal Standardization

That there is no standard among voice teachers save that of the individual will be admitted without argument; and until there is such a thing as a fixed standard of musical taste this condition will remain, for the musical taste of the teacher is by far the most potent factor in the teaching of tone production.

Of late there have been vigorous efforts to establish a standard tone for singers. This, according to the apostles of “Harmony in the ranks,” is the one way of unifying the profession.

As an argument this is nothing short of picturesque, and can be traced to those unique and professedly scientific mentalities that solve all vocal problems by a mathematical formula. As an example of the chimerical, impossible and altogether undesirable, it commands admiration. If it is impossible to establish a standard tone for pianos where the problem is mechanical, what may we expect to do with voice where the problem is psychological?

When we have succeeded in making all people look alike, act alike, think alike; when we have eliminated all racial characteristics and those resulting from environment; when people are all of the same size, weight, proportion, structure; when skulls are all of the same size, thickness and density; when all vocal organs and vocal cavities are of the same form and size; when we have succeeded in equalizing all temperaments; when there is but one climate, one language, one government, one religion; when there is no longer such a thing as individuality – then perhaps a standard tone may be considered. Until that time nothing could be more certain of failure. The great charm of voices is their individuality, which is the result not alone of training, but of ages of varied experience, for man is the sum of all that has preceded him. It is, to say the least, an extraordinary mentality that would destroy this most vital element in singing for the sake of working out a scientific theory.

But there is no immediate danger. Nature, whose chief joy is in variety and contrast, is not likely to sacrifice it suddenly to a mere whim.

When we speak of a standard tone we enter the domain of acoustics and must proceed according to the laws of physics. In this standard tone there must be a fundamental combined with certain overtones. But who shall say which overtones, and why the particular combination? The answer must be “because it sounds best.” A tone being something to hear, this is a logical and legitimate answer. But if the listener knows when it sounds right he knows it entirely separate and apart from any knowledge he may have of its scientific construction; hence such knowledge is of no value whatever in determining what is good and what is bad in tone quality. A tone is not a thing to see and the teacher cannot use a camera and a manometric flame in teaching tone production. Any knowledge he may have gained from the use of such instruments in the laboratory is valueless in teaching.

If it were possible to adopt as a standard tone a certain combination of fundamental and overtones (which it is not), and if it were possible to make all singers use this particular tone (which, thank heaven it is not), then all voices would sound alike and individuality would at once disappear.

The advocates of this kind of standard tone cannot disengage themselves from the belief that all vocal organs are alike.The exact opposite is the truth. Vocal organs are no more alike than are eyes, noses, hands and dispositions. Each of these conforms only to a general type. The variation is infinite.

Clippinger, David Alva. The head voice and other problems: Practical talks on singing. Oliver Ditson Company, 1917.