The Mental Torture of Localization and Specialization

Herbert Witherspoon, celebrated bass, teacher, pedagogue, and arts administrator, worked with some of the most celebrated teachers in Europe and kept detailed notes on all his sessions. He also had a very recalcitrant throat and wasn’t what we might consider a ‘natural talent.’ He worked very hard to conquer his technical shortcomings.

He (like this writer) detested complexity and verbosity. His slim book Singing is probably as close as we will ever get to the ‘how-to’ of the Old Italians. Edward Foreman, esteemed author and pedagogical researcher, places Witherspoon’s book right alongside the works of Tosi and Mancini (and frankly I have to agree).

The principles of the Old Masters were SIMPLICITY married with TIME. That’s it. No magic bullet. No special exercise (except maybe the messa di voce!). No straitjacketing of students into pre-planned ‘techniques.’ Individuality ruled. They would have been horrified by homogeneity. There was no hard and fast ‘method.’

Reading Witherspoon’s words below, it’s amazing and depressing to see how little has changed since 1925. We still want to take the voice apart into a million pieces, localize it, then slap it back together and think we’ve solved the problems. These types of training bear a name: mechanistic.

But do we realize the torment we inflict on our students by the over-intellectualization and over-analysis of every little thing happening during phonation?

Stimulus and response.

Observation.

Adjustment.

Time.

That’s pretty much it – but to our current “5 Tips to Sing Great by 5pm” Zeitgeist we are so deeply dissatisfied with mastery through time. Garcia II tried desperately to speed up the process of voice training throughout his lifetime by taking the voice apart anatomically. He realized later in life that he couldn’t improve on following Nature – the only ‘method’ suggested by all the great Masters of Singing:

I myself studied with many teachers both in the United States and Europe. I continually asked “ why,” but I seldom got a satisfying answer. Some teachers were patient and tried to explain, but had not the required knowledge to do so. Others flew into a passion, enraged because they knew that they did not know. I learned little from most of them, because it was impossible for me to do things without knowing how and why, and also because I had a very stubborn and unruly voice and throat which took years to conquer. But I did learn that many of the teachers of singing were guessing nearly all the time, and that few had a method of teaching based upon real knowledge and law. Tricks, “stunts,” absurdities of all kinds, were what we bought. Some talked science, some preached psychology, some quite frankly experimented, and learned more from the pupil than the pupil learned from the teacher. One teacher told me to “ pull in” when I inhaled, another to “push out.” One, to place my voice at the back, another at the front. One told me that the bass voice was placed more in the head than even the soprano, another that it was placed entirely in the chest. One said to form the lips like a trumpet, another to sing with a smile. One taught that the higher tones went back, another that they were placed in the forehead. One insisted upon a high larynx, another upon a low larynx. One placed the high tones in all pupils with the aid of the vowel OO, another with EE. One told me to lean forward and bow the head, another to press the head and neck backward against the collar. One said to “ focus” the voice in the upper front teeth, another to focus in the back part of the hard palate. One, to “ feel” something, another to “think” something. And so on endlessly! There was no idea of natural law or of coordination. It was all specialization reduced to localization. Let the reader think for a moment of the needless waste of time and money, and what is worse, the mental torture of such an experience.

Witherspoon, Herbert. Singing. New York: G. Schirmer. (1925).

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