Bells Cannot be Unrung

Manuel Garcia II once said:

All control of the voice is lost once the cords become vibratile.

This quote always bothered me. There were all kinds of things I could ‘control’ in my voice once I started singing, i.e., moving the tongue, messing with the soft palate, altering the shape of the mouth and jaws, adjusting the vertical alignment of the larynx, and futzing with the back wall of my throat. So this statement didn’t make any sense to me for those reasons.

However, I recently read a quote in Douglas Stanley’s 1933 book The Voice, its Production and Reproduction: A Treatise on Voice Training, Production and Reproduction and it clarified Garcia’s quote. Stanley argues that the student who alters the voice after the tone has begun makes it impossible for the teacher to do any positive work with the technique:

Once the attack has been initiated, everything that the singer can do to produce a good tone has been done. Interference with the adjustment for the purpose of improving the quality which he himself hears is always destructive. From the teacher’s point of view it is fatal, because he cannot correct a tone when the adjustment is constantly being altered. Even when the pitch is faulty, it is better for the pupil to leave it so than to develop the habit of adjusting it by ear. Usually the proper direction by the teacher should correct the intonation without his even mentioning the fact that the tone is off-pitch. The vital point is that the singer must attack the tone definitely from a PRECONCEIVED CONCEPT of the characteristics and hold it absolutely constant in all characteristics. When a singer can attack a tone properly, and not until then, he knows how to sing that tone. Knowing how to sing a tone is primarily a psychological, not a physical, process.

There is a pearl of so much wisdom in Stanley’s quote. It makes sense to me as a teacher, too, because so often students will self-correct but their timing is TOO LATE. The inverse can also be true: the student pre-tenses and anticipates the response, thereby creating more tension and/or constriction. Pitch quality, vowel quality, or intensity can suddenly shift after the singer has launched into phonation. 

AHA Moment:

The time for the correct action is before the sound has BEGUN. This is what Manuel Garcia II was referring to in his quote, not the manipulatory things I was doing after the fact. 

Tosi alludes to the same idea in his book Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni from 1774 (!), albeit Tosi’s attention is drawn to the pronunciation of the vowel. As a matter of fact, until you learned this proper pronunciation of the vowel (pre-phonatory set up) Tosi thought you hadn’t even gotten out of your FIRST LESSON!!:

23. Let the Scholar be obliged to pronounce the Vowels distinctly, that they may be heard for such as they are. Some Singers think to pronounce the first, and you hear the second; if the Fault is not the Master’s, it is of those Singers, who are scarce got out of their first Lessons; they study to sing with Affectation, as if ashamed to open their Mouths; others, on the contrary, stretching theirs too much, confound these two Vowels with the fourth, making it impossible to comprehend whether they have said Balla or Bella, Sesso or Sasso, Mare or More.

What we’re trying to do in voice training is not deal with the sound AFTER it has been emitted, but before it has BEGUN!!! This really is (as Stanley noted) a PSYCHOLOGICAL and not a physical undertaking. Once phonation has begun, the conditions which brought about the original setup have passed. It’s over. What we’re trying to do as teachers is create the stimulus for the response of the vocal mechanism BEFORE it springs to life.

Our work is TRULY in the crucial milliseconds before the voice ‘fires off.’ If the conditions are not met from the start, the voice either 1.) does not match the singer’s conceptualization, or 2.) the instrument has atrophied or is sluggish in its response. Both would require different approaches in pedagogy.

Once the ball has been thrown, all control over its movement is lost. So it is with the singing of a vocal tone. 

This ex-ante concept is a TOTALLY different way of thinking about the singing voice. The RESULT of the work done by the voice is carried in the sound AFTER it has happened. Our attention is always on the sound the voice is making, but that is the EFFECT of a CAUSE.

For example, if a student has a habit of slurring up to a note and then correcting it after a few seconds, we would say the onset is faulty. But I hear you say, “The student ‘corrected’ the pitch, isn’t that the goal?” No. Because if the behavior of the slurring is not addressed and the onset perfected, the student will have a habit of ‘misfiring’ the voice and then correcting it after, and they will accept that as the correct ‘feeling.’ They have not had the proper FEELING of singing the note in the middle of the pitch, so the response is still faulty. This goes along with Stanley’s assertion that the singer hasn’t experienced the correctly sung tone.

Herbert Witherspoon in his 1925 book Singing wisely said on achieving the proper sensation:

Correct sensation may be a guide after it has once been experienced by correct singing; it cannot be obtained except by correct singing. We may ask a man who has never eaten an olive what an olive tastes like, or what is the real “taste sensation” of eating an olive. He will promptly voice his ignorance, and say, “Let me eat an olive and I will tell you.” The sensation then becomes a guide for future eating.

This is why I believe the long tone was the first prized exercise of the Old Italian School. You were able to fix the emission of the voice FIRST. The establishment of proper habits was done from the beginning. As I have said in many posts, the long tone affords a wealth of pedagogical advantage: the onset, the physical alignment, the subtle teaching of breath management, the establishment of the registers, the vowel sound, the pitch, and the intensity. Mastering these elements can be done on single tones, in which the attention and the ear only has ONE particular goal to deal with.

Screen Shot 2019-03-27 at 2.56.21 PM.png
The long tone was the first exercise in nearly all Italian treatises on singing for several hundred years. This example has been taken from the Grammatica of Anna Maria Celoni, one of the few early female Italian pedagogues. Numerous other examples can be found in Spontini, Crescentini, Aprile, Corri and Crivelli (who taught messa di voce first!), Bassini, Rossini, Marchesi, and countless others. 

And speaking of the ear, Daniel Shigo has written extensively on the importance of the ear in singing – and I firmly believe that he is on to something of prime importance. The ear – and especially the MIND’S ear – is the true watchman of the voice. In the same way, the eye is the watchman of the painter or pianist. But the ear must hear the sound before it has begun – the tricky part of building a new concept of vocal tone. David Clark Taylor knew this as early as last century in his writings.

In order to find a freer response, the student (and teacher) need to allow for a process of starting the voice predicated upon a spontaneous reaction to a pattern of pitch, vowel, and volume – even if the RESPONSE is WRONG!!!!

For this reason, I’m convinced that instead of a student fearing ‘being correct,’ they need to develop more ability to ‘let go’ and then observe after the fact. Otherwise, there is no way to teach the correct sensation of singing well.

Here’s an example: Sally sings flat or sharp. If Sally gets too focused on being ‘right’ she will usually tend to constrict the voice in an attempt to sing in tune. She’ll be bringing all that pre-tension into her singing from the start. Suppose, however, we simply ask her to sing a single pitch, vowel, and dynamic, and then ask her to ‘let go’ – release any inhibition, EVEN if the pitch, vowel, or intensity is WRONG.

In this way, she will be building a ‘singer’s reflex’ which is the whole aim of training anyway. This is why some pedagogies work from speech into singing, to create spontaneous utterances. Mary Saunders Barton’s work includes much of this in building the chest voice in her singers.

Cornelius Reid outlines a similar concept when he described the process a singer could undertake to find a freer vocal response before the fact. I refer to this list often with students to achieve a more organic way of approaching this pre-phonatory aspect of pedagogy:

  1. Assume an erect, comfortable position.
  2. Conceptualize the exercise projected solely in terms of a particular arrangement of pitch, intensity, devoid of any qualitative properties associated with “my quality” or a teacher’s aesthetic preference.
  3. a) open the mouth naturally, b) breathe amply without concern for how the breath is inspired, c) think the vowel form and exercise pattern at the same time, and d) allow the tone to emerge out of the thought form.
  4. Sing the phrase on the vibratory impulses initiated with a strong, rhythmic elan.
  5. Listen to the textures of the new qualities that emerge as a product of this discipline and identify with its accompanying sensations – recording each, not as a definitive good, but one among many textural modifications that occur spontaneously and can lead to the discovery of an intrinsically natural tone quality.

Going forward, I will be curious to explore these ex-ante psychological components in the training of students. It begs some salient questions:

  • How do we get a singer to a BETTER concept of pitch, vowel, and intensity through purely PSYCHOLOGICAL means?
  • How can we improve a faulty self-conceptualization?
  • Where do we confuse CAUSE with EFFECT?
  • How do we bring more ATTENTION to this ex-ante area of pedagogy? Voice science seems more interested in post-facto analysis. We as teachers need to realign our attention back to the ex-ante because that’s where teaching pedagogy rests. (At least if we are interested in improving vocal responses before they occur.)
  • How can a singer experience a correct sensation of tone if they have NEVER felt it in their voice? (This is THE pedagogical question IMHO)
  • How can we sing a sound we have never heard ourselves make?


6 thoughts on “Bells Cannot be Unrung

  1. Great article. Yes and amen! As to the final questions, I believe that we teachers have to set up biasing circumstances in our exercises within which “happy accidents” are more likely to occur, that enable first experiences of better coordination, sound, sensation. If such “accidents” can happen often enough, the singer can form a memory bank from which to pre-conceive/pre-hear the better sound/sensations and then repeat them enough to no longer be accidents.

  2. Thank you for the kind mention, Justin. To answer your excellent questions, I find myself telling students that singing is like bowling: get the ball going in the right way and you are liable to make a strike. Throw it any-which-way, and the you find yourself in the gutter. The set-up is the thing. Likewise, someone has to show you what really good singing sounds and feels like; which demands listening ability on the part of singer and student for which no amount of manipulation is a substitute.

  3. Dear Justin,
    thank you very much for pointing this out so directly and sharing it!
    I have already many positive comments of students whom you helped to understand things more clearly!
    Please keep on!

  4. Great text! So true! And vital in all areas.

    This concept has been the main focus of the last, well, ten years or so of my teaching/singing career. There are layers upon layers of cultural traps involved in unraveling this; both in terms of idea and concept as well as method and pedagogic structure. The traps are many and one is how we percieve voice culturally today. The other is language culture. The third is one’s own physical naturalization of safety guards and self correcting punishment. The voice today is something else than a hundred years ago. We are so used to microphones, mobile phones, recordings and constantly listening to voices that are filtered through compressor filters on movies and the modern pop-singer ideal that a “natural voice” will sound both outlandish, certainly immense and weird in comparison. I call this the “feedback loop” of constantly having an idea of making SOUND rather than using the voice-function. Language culture is another thing, where all the contemporary language cultures cause very different sets of vocal choreographies that completely changes what feels natural and safe, depending on what muscle-sets are developed. This is a generalization of course; Danish, Dutch and UK English use a lot of diphtongs all the time, over-developing the tongue-root and making that part over-involved. Vocalizing without it is a major struggle. Italian and Russian and Chinese are constanly in “connection”, there is always some sort of “appoggio” and make it harder to alter or vary the registers. Finnish and Icelandic have a very generous “open throat” quality in all or parts of their prosody. Swedish and Norwegian “sing” but with a light quality, often changing from vocal fry, to half-voice, to full voice in one sentence, making the larynx very unstable and not used to chest voice. And then we have contemporary ideals in voice. Listen to the movies of today, how do actors sound like compared to in the fifties? Listen to pop music, that’s what kids listen to, and learn from today. In movies, people almost only whisper, usually without any sort of core to the voice. In pop, we mostly have croaky or squeaky voices. Men sing mostly with young boy-voices in fairly low registers. it’s the style of today, for sure, but it prepares classical singers in a way that is not helpful.

    When teaching, both beginners and advanced, I find it most effective if I completely discard the idea that SINGING is on the agenda (at first). Instead I start with returning the body to a primal, efficient mode – where sound is the biproduct of something else entirely. Like a “warning”, or “relief” or even “surprise”. But the action is not making sound but general behaviour of the body. The second “making a sound” becomes the focus, the voice doesn’t communicate as well as it could.

    I led a workshop with only actors with this, and somehow they found it easier (in my opinion) than trained singers. This correlates well with your text, I think.

Leave a Reply