Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Final Words

I cannot leave you without making a very important plea and one which is very near my own heart.

In America we have developed too much of the utilitarian idea in education. We have lost sight of “culture” in the desire to attain material success.

Therefore we forget too often that the arts contribute to our happiness and enjoyment by stimulating in us an appreciation of the finer phases of our own natures which cannot be measured in terms of money.

Music in the home brings members of the family into closer sympathy and understanding because it makes them experience an emotional uplift which is the very essence of love and tolerance.

There is no music like the music we make for ourselves, because we are expressing our very selves. We should have more music “HOME-MADE.”

So practise singing, learn to be a good singer, not for professional purposes only, but because you love to sing and because your family and friends will get much pleasure and uplift from hearing you sing. It will develop your own nature, your powers of expression, and it will also improve your speaking voice, giving you the ability to converse clearly and beautifully and as gentle-folk should talk. A beautiful speaking voice is a wonderful asset to every man and woman, just as is an attractive personality.

The eye is the “mirror of the soul,” but the voice is the medium of culture, kindness and politeness, all three contained in what we call courtesy. The latter is a great factor in our daily lives and the courteous man of woman has a charm as valuable as any gift of brain or talent.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Sixth (and final) Lesson

Lesson 36

Select songs with due regard for your own powers. Do not attempt to sing operatic arias when you are unable to sing an even and perfect scale.

Most American singers injure themselves greatly by attempting dramatic music before their voices are developed sufficiently to stand the strain of these dramatic pieces.

The first songs should lie in the easy part of your range, neither high nor very low. They should demand only a short range of notes, certainly not more than ten, i.e., two or three notes more than one octave.

They should also be easy legato songs with no rapid passages, thus giving time for perfect formation of each vowel and syllable.

For your next pieces select some easy songs which move more rapidly, but without elaborate ornamentation.

Now you may choose pieces which demand a longer range of notes and perhaps a little more power.

Finally you may attempt the easier airs from opera, but not until you have studied at least two years, and even three years would be better.

Some numbers from operas are no more taxing than songs. Try these first.

Again I caution you not to practise too long at a time, never to the point of fatigue of voice, throat, or breathing organs.

Stop before you are tired.

In the beginning, twenty minutes, or even fifteen minutes, is enough of practise at one time. Two periods a day may be indulged in with safety. The practise period may be gradually increased after some weeks to half an hour, also twice a day. But if this half hour fatigues the student, it should be curtailed at once. Make haste slowly, and learn to study so that each minute counts. If you really study with mind, ear, and eye, you will learn much in a short time.

Singing is a beautiful art, a charming and delightful accomplishment. It has an appeal all its own, and of all the arts it has perhaps the most direct appeal to many, because its dual mission of interpreting both words and music.

As you progress, study the meaning of the accompaniment of the piece you are singing. Hear what kind of a background it supplies your voice, what picture it paints, or what it suggests. Never slight the accompaniment. And remember that there are not mere ACCOMPANIMENTS or ACCOMPANISTS. The accompaniment is part of the piece, very important, and the one who plays the piece for you is a performer like yourself. Always recognize this fact and give due credit to your accompanist.

The study of a song should not be attempted in the usual superficial manner.

Adopt a definite method of procedure so that you will be imbued with the meaning of the song and the real wishes of the composer.

  1. Read the text of the song. Read it with real intelligence and recite the words two or three times.
  2. Play the song through if you play the piano, or get someone to play it for you. At least you can play the melody and then you can sing the melody quietly and without attempting too much expression, perhaps with the AH using the song as a vocal exercise.
  3. Sing the song through several times until you get the real meaning of both words and melody, and the descriptive effect of the accompaniment. The accompaniment may be merely a background to the melody and words, or it may contribute much in the way of scenic effect or description of nature, or things, or movement such as the dance, or walking, or many other things.
  4. Be sure to get the real meaning of the accompaniment.
  5. Study the mood of the song and decide as to the color of voice demanded, the range of dynamics (loudness or softness), accentuation, size of speech, etc.

You should sing the song before a mirror, watching the facial expression, the attitude of your body, the personal effect you are giving to the message of the song.

You are to be obedient to the will of the composer, but you must also contribute your own self and your own feelings to what the composer has given you to work with.

If you have a good accompanist use him as a critic regarding your diction and expression. Be sure to have the accompaniment and your voice adjusted to the best effect, in absolute sympathy.

This is especially important in respect to tempo and dynamics.

Do not humor yourself for reasons of imperfect technique and thereby destroy rhythm. Feel the real movement of the piece and never allow it to be interrupted.

If you have trouble in singing certain passages or notes, speak the words clearly and freely several times and then sing the passage again. If this does not suffice, use the arm gestures to aid the breathing and poise, try some phonetics allied with the vowels you are attempting on the pitch and then try the passage again.

It takes patient and continued study to work out a real interpretation of a song. Above all, SING GOOD MUSIC.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Fifth Lesson

Lesson 35


Do not set the lips in a fixed position. Let them follow the demands of the vowels and consonants.

Do not grin, and do not shape the mouth like an Oh or Aw, except when you sing those vowels.

Do not show the lower teeth when singing. This is the snarling position, and the tone will suffer the same quality as the snarl. There is no stereotyped position of the mouth as part of a “VOCAL METHOD.” It is constantly changing.

With one or two fingers press the lower lip gently to the lower teeth so that they do not show and sing five notes up and down the scale with LAH or NAH and hear the added resonance you obtain in the face.

Do not stand “sway-back.” It is ruinous both to tone and to appearance.

Let your face express the mood of the piece you are singing. Do not look like a blank wall. Cultivate the ability to express what you are singing and also to interest your audience by your own interest in what you are doing.

Do not try to “place” the voice in any arbitrary manner.

If the E vowel is difficult for you, sing MING, MING, etc., on several notes or up and down the scale until you both hear and feel where the E is made and what it sounds like in this syllable. Then try the E again, first with ME and then E alone.

If the formation of any vowel is uncertain, whisper it several times, then speak it, then sing it.

Do not try to sing high tones until the lower and middle tones are free and easy.

Do not mistake shouting for real vibrant carrying tone. Anybody can yell.

Practise many descending scales from an upper middle note which seems to come easily and freely. “LEAN” on the breath gently so as to preserve an even scale downwards, without losing the upper resonance of the face. Do not try to sing too long on one breath. Increase the breath-endurance gradually, never to the point of losing quality of tone.

Above all things, do not fool yourself. You will not become a good singer in a few weeks or even months. It is a lovely art and worth working for. And remember that an even a mediocre voice can be made beautiful and an adequate medium for artistic expression.

Do not breathe noisily. The singer’s breath should not be heard.

Do not try to hold the tongue flat or raise the palate or hold down the larynx. Local effort is generally harmful.

Stand still when practising and do not wander about the room. You will only lose poise and breathe badly, and your attention will wander. Do not sing in your nose with the self-deception that you are obtaining “NASAL RESONANCE.”

If you practise with others or you are in a class with others remember these lines:

  • I will study with diligence and modesty.
  • I will criticise with kindness.
  • I will rejoice in the success of others.
  • I will put jealousy out of my heart.

If you practise what these lines say, you will become a real artist and you will still hold your friends.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Fourth Lesson

Lesson 34


The jaw moves freely for M. It is not necessary to move the jaw for each sound of N and L. It will only retard tongue action, which is necessary and important for pronunciation.

The jaw should fall easily at the back or hinge, and never protrude forward at the chin. The latter action always shows a tight throat and rigid jaw.

The the jaw fall freely on inhaling.

Do not force the breath nor try to take too much breath.

Do not push out the abdomen, nor pull it in, nor push out the ribs, nor hold them out. The correct taking of the breath calls for co-ordination of all the breathing muscles, not undue attention to any one. 

You have seen how naturally the ribs hold when you make an exclamation. Learn all you can from nature, and make your breathing spontaneous and natural. Singing is an art but it is not artificial. The larynx, or sound-box, the tongue and palate are closely associated in the production of sound, both tone and words, and if one goes wrong, all three go wrong. I do not call attention to other because I do not wish you to be unduly scientific, nor unduly conscious of various organs as separate units.

If the larynx pushes up, the tongue will fight back, and the palate will become rigid and probably too high in position.

The sounds that free the larynx and keep it in normal position are these: HUNG, OO, HM (Humming), MUMM with very free, active jaw.

Sing the HUNG sustaining on the NG with the mouth open and feel with your finger that the larynx is remaining in its natural place. Do not try to depress the larynx. Sing the HUNG only one note above the lift of the breath as already described.

OO should be sung piano; it demands the least action of the vocal cords and therefore has the least tendency to raise the larynx.

Sing it as high as is comfortable. Extend the range carefully and with patience.

HM must be attacked with the H sound, making a real HUM, not an UMM. There is no hearable glottic attack, no click. This sound avoids heavy action in the larynx and therefore tends to leave it in normal position.

MUMM is the phonetic to follow HM. Sing it with freely acting jaw.

You may use NAH to follow HUNG, with quiet jaw.

It is best to use short exercises of three or five notes for these phonetics.

The same phonetics aid the tongue greatly and the palate also.

If the tone is too nasal or “NOSEY,” establish a better fundamental vowel in the mouth with these sounds: LAH, MAH, MY, RAH, DAH, BAH, or even KAH if the nasal sound persists. The palatal action in singing is very slight, much less than was supposed for many years. The X-Ray has proved this. But there is some action. K will cause this action, but use it sparingly because you can easily force the palate too high and develop an “OPEN” tone which is very dangerous, especially for high notes.

Lah is to be sung without jaw movement. The mouth should be opened about one inch.

Mah requires jaw action, and be sure you are pronouncing well in the mouth.

My is a bright AH terminating in E. It stimulates mouth formation of the vowel AH and the “vanish” E gives the feeling of forward singing and free emission.

Rah exaggerates the formation of the vowel in the mouth, therefore doing away with the nasal quality. Use only one R, and that, of course, on the first note, sustaining the other notes on AH.

You may repeat the D and B on each note of the exercises, thus: Dah, Dah, Dah, etc.: Bah, Bah, Bah, etc.,

Avoid using V or S as practise mediums. V has a bad tendency to tense the muscles under the tongue, and S is a hissing sound which prevents a good attack.

Of course, we must eventually sing them correctly.


When the tone is attacked correctly the tongue action is upwards and forwards in preparation for the formation and attack of the tone. This is an invariable rule of nature, only differing in degree according to the vowel formed. The consonants are made quickly and clearly and do not interfere with this law, and, in fact, some of them aid the law as we have seen in the phonetics selected for the cure of certain faults of interference.

Because of this law of the tongue action, the vowels AH-A-E are used. Each ensuing vowel demands more of this tongue action, so we say that AH-A-E sung on one note or on three notes upwards and downwards persuade this vocal law of the tongue. This is also in accordance with the demands for pitch.

So, if your tongue pulls back or “HUMPS UP” at the back part, or curls under or turns up at the tip, practise these three vowels with care. If you aid them with the arm gestures for breathing you will soon make the tongue free and you will form the vowels easily and freely.

Now you may go on to AW-OH-OO in the same way.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Third Lesson

Lesson 33


In the study of singing all sorts of terms have been invented to describe sensation of tone and peculiarities of fault or quality.

Also numerous fads and fancies have unfortunately been all too influential in affecting both teacher and pupil.

That the same thing is true of other professions, like medicine for instance, does not excuse us from our responsibility in seeking the real truth.

We are often told that we sing by merely “thinking” the tone, or by some process of applied psychology. This doctrine has led to many of these fads and fancies, probably because the organ which sets going the vibrations which cause tone is not seen.

You cannot see your voice operate as you can see your hands and wrists and arms when you play the piano.

But we can see the evidence of incorrect singing as explained in Lesson 6.

You should sing before a mirror so that you can see your faults as well as hear them. Therefore study Lesson 6 again and observe whether the faults mentioned are occurring.

The faults which you can hear have probably, by this time, come to your attention.

You can hear your own voice in spite of what some say to the contrary.

The hearable faults are these:

Flat in pitch.
Sharp in pitch.
“THROATY” voice, pinched, tight, constricted.
Stroke of the glottis, too much of a “STROKE” or click like a short cough on attacking a note.
Nasal or “NOSEY” quality.
Hollow or “HOOTY” quality.
Gasp or grunt on finishing a tone, as if the air were shut off too abruptly.
Slurring or scooping up to a tone.
An impure or imperfect vowel formation changing into a better or even worse formation on the same tone. A very bad fault.
An “ASPIRATE” attack on a vowel, sounding an “H” before the vowel. This is very common in singing several tones on the same vowel, either on the scale progression or on intervals. This sounds like Ha-Hah or HE-HE, etc.
Breathy tone. Escaping air.
Change of quality on the scale, causing a very uneven quality and also change in vowel formation. This is irrespective of vowel modification for pitch, which should always be very slight.
Imperfect and slovenly pronunciation.
Prolonged or exaggerated consonants. This is very common with the consonants M, N. When M or N finish a word they sometimes cause the vowel “ah” to be heard, a bad fault, “MAN-ah” etc.
Singing Huh-Lah for Lah. It sounds like a “BUMP” in the attack.
Closed vowels too open, a very common fault. E sounds like I(t) or EH. OO sounds like Uh or Eu. These are very bad faults.
Tremolo or shake in the tone. It may be rapid or a slow wave.
The dark “AW” quality which destroys te clarity of the different vowels.
“CRACKING.” The tone breaks or cracks.

Listen carefully to your own voice and also to the voices of others until you are familiar with faults in singing.

Soon you will associate visible faults with faulty sounds, and vice versa. This is an invaluable part of your study and every teacher who reads these lessons can learn much from this kind of observation.

For instance, if your face has a strained expression, your tone will also sound strained. A hard unyielding voice goes with a hard expression. Just as you have seen and heard how the voice changes quality or color with each of the three gestures or movements of the arms of the breathing exercises, so the voice will change with the expression of the face. All singers should make a real study of these facts.

We can use all kinds of terms to describe tone quality if we accept the terms without danger of confusion as to their meaning in our own minds.

If the veins in your neck enlarge or the muscles and cords of the neck stand out, then the tone will also show a thick or strained quality, and the vowel will probably be imperfect.

If you can see that the tongue is “humped up” or turned up at the tip towards the roof of the mouth, or curled under, back from the lower teeth on the vowel AH, then there is interference somewhere and the tone will have an imperfect quality just in accordance with the physical fault. The vowel AH will also be faulty.

If the muscles under the chin push down and the larynx pushes up in rebellion, then the AH vowel will sound thick and choked or throaty and congested or compressed, whatever term suits you best to make you understand.

So, with these hints I shall leave you to study carefully to find your faults of both action and sound. Learn to associate the two without further delay. If you ever become a teacher of singing this will develop your powers of what is called diagnosis, or the discovery of what causes faulty sound. It is not all thinking, and it is not all mechanical. It is partly both.

It is doubtful that anyone can “THINK” a correct and beautiful sound in his own voice until he has made a really good sound.

The he can make the good tone sound better because he has heard some element of the beautiful tone of the voice.

So, with the aid of the syllables and phonetics and correct breathing, the student can free his vocal apparatus more and more, he can pronounce better and better, until finally he will make a really perfect sound according to his natural gifts.

Do not sing loudly at first, nor very softly. The first will make you force and develop muscular faults, and the second will dwarf your physical action too much and probably cause the tone to be breathy and lacking in vitality.

In this lesson use the simple exercises again and study yourself very carefully, making written memorandums of what you discover.

In a few days you can note the improvement and compare what you are doing with the notes you have made.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.