Many years ago I worked as a section leader at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Kansas City. It was a truly wonderful experience and one of my happy memories from my time there was listening to the children’s choir.
There was something about those sweet, innocent voices that never failed to pull a tear from my eye. The clarion quality of their voices, singing so sweetly in praise affected me and formed an indelible part of my musical philosophies of pedagogical simplicity and the preservation of this spontaneous, natural, and unstudied kind of vocalism.
Children are a NOISY bunch.
They haven’t had the intense cultural socialization yet. Growing up can make all of us rather quiet.
It’s a fun voice teacher experiment to walk by playgrounds of children and hear their open, penetrating little voices – calling out to each other, whooping, laughing, yelling. While their little bodies are giving free rein to exercise, the voice comes along for the ride. Recess and play are a full body experience.
When adults loosen up their bodies and vocalism, the results can often be startingly cathartic, emotional, and revelatory, as John Colapinto relates in his book, This is the Voice:
When my neighbor Andrea teaches Kristin Linklater’s “Freeing the Natural Voice” technique, she sometimes encourages loud, uninhibited vocal noises that release muscle tension, although not for psychotherapeutic purposes, but rather to free up the voice’s acoustic range and power. Nevertheless, a friend of mine who actually traveled to Orkney, Scotland, to take a weeklong workshop with Linklater herself (who at eighty-three years old was still teaching her vocal technique to those willing to make the pilgrimage) reported that the participants, when encouraged to roll around on the floor and adopt various unusual postures while screaming, manifested a striking psychological side-effect. Every person in the workshop, my friend told me, at one point or another, “cried about their mother.”Colapinto, John. This Is the Voice (p. 40). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
I’ve always considered children to be a wonderful model for voice learning. While they have no knowledge of the intricacies of anatomy, acoustics, physiology, or other related sciences, they still sing quite well, even better than some adults.
Anyone who has taught in an elementary school, as I have, will notice right away the decibels that small children can attain, and how happily and fully they enter in song games and play when led.
David Clark Taylor, writing in his book New Light on the Old Italian Method (1916) also connected the dots from this free vocalism of children to how singers were trained in the earliest tradition of singing schools in Italy.
Children derive a keen pleasure from the free spontaneous use of their voices in the singing of pretty melodies. They sing naturally, just as their musical instincts prompt them. They have no thought about the nature of the voice as a musical instrument, how it is produced, how the breath is controlled, or where the tones are reflected. The songs which they have heard and enjoyed well up in their minds and find ready expression through their voices. This is a purely natural form of singing, with regard to both the instincts which prompt it and the manner in which the voice is produced.
Many of the singers who trained in this way (up into the nineteenth century) remarked how their teachers had ‘no method.’ That their voices were preserved from their natural child’s voice.
So, what was preserved?
The spontaneity. The approach to singing in an uncluttered, direct way.
Blanche Arral, a Belgian coloratura soprano, agreed about this approach:
If the scale is built on what is already there, the beautiful, personal quality of the individual voice is retained. Those teachers found the natural quality of each voice and preserved it, so that what nature had begun was developed, polished, equalized, not changed. That is why such voices lasted.Arral, Blanche. The Extraordinary Operatic Adventures of Blanche Arral: By Blanche Arral; Translated by Ira Glackens; William R. Moran, Editor. Vol. 15. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002.
The pupils, finding art securely built on nature, grew confident as one never can be with artificiality. They gained the authority because they were manifestly singing the right way. They felt at ease and were able to express their individuality in song.
Coming back to David Clark Taylor, he also argues that nothing artificial was added to the way children sang. Nothing was imposed.
Speaking of artificial forms, Taylor goes on to state:
The old masters took this natural manner of singing as the starting-point of artistic vocalism. They never called upon their pupils to abandon the natural way of using the voice and to put some artificial form of vocal control in its place. Their plan was on the contrary to refine, develop, and perfect the natural instinctive manner of singing.
We know so much about the voice today from so many disciplines. Our increased knowledge often results wanting to compel the voice, to work mechanistically instead of in a more observational, empirical way. Worse yet, it becomes a way for teachers to demonstrate their erudition devoid of application.
Evidence based pedagogy, the current term, still requires an auditory proof of pitch, vowel, and volume to consider itself valid. The evidence of evidence-based teaching should be its result: better singing for the singer. All evidence should lead us to better singing. Proof of pudding and all that jazz…
Here again a reminder: children have sung quite freely and beautifully for centuries without access to our particular brands of evidence.
Taylor also asserted the same. Children and the bel cantists had little to go on in terms of their knowledge to get to the ‘back of the sounds.’ The proof was in the product:
Only one kind of vocal practice was known in the old method. This was the singing of pure tones in exercises, scales, and vocalises. Moreover, the only purpose which the students were instructed to have in view in their practising was to sing pure, true, and correct musical tones. The correctness of a tone was judged solely by its musical features. If it was sharp or flat, throaty or nasal, harsh or unmusical, it was held to be incorrect ; the student’s attention was called to the fault in the sound of the tone, and he was told to sing it again without the fault. No attention whatever was paid to the physical basis of faulty tones. Nothing but the actual sounds of the voice was ever considered. No attempt was made by the old masters to get back of the sounds of vocal tones, whether correct or incorrect, and to see how they were produced.
It’s food for thought to consider a voice training that works this way in our plugged-in, knowledge laden time.
Another author that resisted the move from naturalness to artificiality was William James Henderson. Writing in 1906, he echoes both Blanche Arral AND David Clark Taylor:
The truth is that while speaking is nature, singing is nothing more than nature under high cultivation. The culture of wildflowers has in some instances given us beautiful additions to the garden. Speaking is like the wild rose; singing like the American Beauty. The student of singing should always keep this thought in mind, and when he finds himself confronted with some theory which makes the act of drawing and exhaling the breath or beginning the emission of a tone appear to be a complex process, depending on the voluntary guidance of a number of muscles and ligaments, he should examine it very closely and with suspicion.
The art of singing is an aesthetic art, not an anatomical study. It begins with an ideal dwelling in the realm of the conception of tonal beauty, not in the domain of correct movement of muscles. The problem of the great masters of the early period was to ascertain the best way of singing beautiful tones on every vowel sound throughout the entire range of a voice, not to find how to operate certain parts of the body and decide that such operation ought to give the tone.
They reasoned from the tone to the operation, not from the operation to the tone. Too many modern theorists seem to proceed in the latter way, and that is why they build up complicated and unnatural processes which confuse students and do incalculable harm.”Henderson, William James. The Art of the Singer: Practical Hints about Vocal Technics and Style. C. Scribner’s sons, 1906.
In pursuing the grand art of singing, consideration of the child’s approach to singing should guide us to a pedagogy centered in what Henderson calls Nature under high cultivation. Let’s resist the egoic draw to demonstrate our accumulated knowledge, and keep our eyes on the prize: a singing voice that never loses its naturalness, its spontaneity or its ability to express.
H/T to Nick Scholl, who runs the YouTube Channel Trrill for recommending Taylor’s book.
This post was edited and greatly enlarged from an original, posted June 4, 2014.