The Center of the Action

A summer re-reading of Mancini’s Practical Reflections coupled with a cross-examination of a Rossini biography by Herbert Weinstock led to some interesting discoveries on shifting musical and pedagogical values of the nineteenth century and gave me further indication that the nineteenth century was indeed a period of pedagogical pandemonium.

Weinstock quotes from an essay by Andrea Delle Corte, Fra gorgheggi e melodie di Rossini, Musica I, Florence, 1942. In it, he describes the chaos of the early nineteenth century.

It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibility of Rossini leaving opera composition due to the expanding influence of Romanticism and its effect on singing. Rossini understood the slow and laborious training of the Old School (he had heard the castrati and was himself a singer) – so he may have come to the conclusion that his style of Italianate composition was on the wane. Or, more frankly, he may have been disgusted by the whole affair, as we know he was by the singing of Tamberlik’s infamous high C#, telling the tenor to leave it on the coat rack when he came to visit. (Tamberlik was assured that he could pick it up again on his way out). Rossini detested the do di petto (introduced by Gilbert-Louis Duprez in Guillaume Tell) calling it the “shriek of a strangulated capon.”

The tendency to force the voice represents the culmination of the vocal crisis between 1820 and ‘40, and also an element in the crisis of musical taste imposed by artistic expressions of the fullness of romanticism. In Italy, in France, in Germany, the very cultivators and worshippers of a way of singing which was, above all, delicate, soft, shaded, which had preserved the best part of the singing of the eighteenth century—that is, its substance—these very men observed that one of the strongest of spiritual evolutions was in progress and that the feeling of life and art was promoting manners different from and daily more antithetical to their predecessors. Faced with romanticism, which invaded and transformed everything, Rossini abandoned the field. The singer was one of the many instruments of the new expression. The libretto, the scenography, the melody, the harmony, the orchestration, the dramatic and operatic conception—everything was changing. Impetus, vehemence, pathos, which were pushed—as happened in the corruption that was not long in accompanying and damaging the new ideas—which were pushed to exaggeration, to exasperation, characteristics of the romantic sensibility, were put at the service of the new democratic public that could throng the large theaters. Loud playing and singing became the most banal expedient. In what earlier period had the tenor had occasion, let us say the pretext, to attempt the emission, the launching, the explosion, of high sounds of unprecedented violence, sufficient, as Rossini ironically said, to break glasses and mirrors? An investigation of the factors in the crisis, lighting up the reciprocal accusations of orchestration and singing, the brutality of the effects that pleased and excited the crowd, the adherence of composers to the new mode, and so forth, would be interesting nevertheless. In the end, as we have said, they would be accepted as corruption and at the same time as inescapable necessity.

Rossini had pointed words towards the new style of vocal emission that was developing through the ascendance of Romanticism, turning opera into a blood sport:

The old florid style is replaced by a nervous one, the solemn by shouts, the affecting sentiment by hydrophobic passion. The question is entirely one of lungs. The singer who feels in his soul, and vocal splendor, are forbidden.

I was tickled to read Rossini’s assessment that singing had become a ‘question entirely … of lungs.’ It indicates a kind of singing overtaken by breath, breath, and more breath. More importantly, we can trace the attention of pedagogy shifting from the larynx (as will be seen in the Mancini quote below) to a focus dominated by breath and the proper WAY to breathe.

In the place of an Old Italian school was one erected upon ‘hydrophobic passion,’ wresting the utmost from the vocal instrument, which grappled not only with extended range and volume but with a shortened period of training. It’s important to remember that singers were doing MORE on LESS training in the 19th century. Accounts of ‘uneven voices’ were recorded often in accounts of operatic productions of the period.

If we think today that the idea of singing being ‘a matter of the lungs’ was shared by the Italian belcantists, Mancini had opposing beliefs: in his Practical Reflections from 1774, he placed attention in a different physiological neighborhood – the larynx.

Mancini:

The common people believe that he who has an elevated chest, and can yell loudly, has the qualities to come out a good singer. The strength of the voice depends, it is true, upon the quantity of air which is pressed out from the lungs, depending upon how ample these are; and if the trachea is broad, and the larynx, so the tone of the voice is great, which is born from the pressing out of the air from the cavity of the thorax. It is also true, as the physiologists say, that the two lungs are instruments that contribute to speaking and singing with greater or lesser force as required, in as much as they and the chest are more or less ample and capacious for receiving and expelling the air introduced into them; but at the same time, one must say that it is just as certain that the lungs are not the true organs which form speech and voice. These are formed in the throat and in the mouth by the flowing back and forth of the air in passing through these parts at the time of inspiration and expiration. The air from the lungs works over the larynx in singing in the same manner as it works over the head of the flute, which one leans against the lips to play. It is not the lungs which sing; these do nothing except provide the material, that is, air; in the same way it is not the air that renders the tone of the flute pleasing, but the fingers which give it the diverse modulations. Thus the organs of the voice are the larynx, the glottis, the uvula, the palatal veil, the tongue, the teeth, and the lips, and these are the parts which give the diverse inflections to the voice in singing.

The better these parts are organized, the more beautiful, strong and clear will be the voice. It will open in singing through varied pitches, high and low; it will stop, and it will vibrate through the many inflections, that is, in the various manners in which the air is expressed through the larynx. In speaking these organs are quiet and natural, but in the action of singing they are held to constant toil, and the most fatigue is in the muscles of the larynx: these direct the voice, condensing to produce the high notes and dilating for the low notes. A proof of what I say is to be clearly found in birds. Those birds that have the narrowest and most compact epiglottises are those that sing well: those that have large ones in proportion to their bodies do not sing at all, but simply shriek.

And so I conclude that the elevated chest alone, and the power to shout at high pitches are not qualities sufficient for good results in singing. It is necessary that the organs of the voice be perfect, for if these are imperfect by nature, or through some illness which is not correctable, the singing will always be bad; that child who is directed by a good master has much more hope of good results to the extent that the organs named are well-formed.

For teachers that attempt to solve the large portion of vocal problems through the management of breath, an investigation of the larynx as the locus does have historical precedence and merit. Mancini centered singing in the throat in the eighteenth century, Rossini observed in the nineteenth that it was centered on the lungs.

As more fact-based pedagogy comes to light, it continues to delight me that we find our way back to an understanding that was clearly grasped as late as the eighteenth century but became lost in a mare’s nest of theories, speculation, nincompoopery, shenanigans, mischief, and charlatanism.

Could it be possible in our fact-based pedagogical age we are returning to an empirical knowledge and understanding of the “center of the action” that was grasped as late as 244 years ago by Mancini?

A Freudian Voice Lesson

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Freud’s famous couch. From here patients could talk out of sightlines with the therapist.

The classic image of Freudian analysis is a patient lying down on a couch with a therapist seated behind. The benefit of this approach is to assist in “free association.” Free association is the procedure by which the patient says everything that comes to mind—without censoring, without filtering, and without judgment.

The couch eliminates the habit we have of relying on visual feedback of face-to-face interaction when creating our dialogues with others. The removal of this visual feedback gives a patient a sense of temporary discombobulation, of being set adrift into themselves. Deprived of facial response, the patient is liberated to explore the innermost corners of the psyche. The therapist remains in the room, guiding thoughts and encouraging exploration of ideas or concepts discovered in the session.

What does this have to do with voice training? 

Removing the visual stimulus of a teacher’s facial/physical responses could provide a more liberating and exciting way of training the voice. How many students respond to the completion of a vocal exercise with “Was that right?” – immediately looking for approval! Students can become addicted to the visual feedback in the same way that a little puppy becomes fixated on receiving its next treat after it has performed a ‘trick.’

Here’s a suggestion for this week: turn your students away from you visually so that they cannot see you in their sight lines. They can look at a wall, a painting, out the window – wherever – they just cannot look at you or rely on any visual input from you. They should be encouraged to do the exercises and sing while noticing what the experience is like without visual input.

Deprived of visual stimulus from the teacher, the student might:

  1. Turn inward, becoming more present to their experience
  2. Evaluate and notice things happening more astutely or imaginatively
  3. Develop analytical listening skills and improve the ear and kinesthesia
  4. Take more ownership of what’s happening as they do the exercises or repertoire
  5. Rely less on the teacher and more on their own intuitions and experiences
  6. Replicate an experience that mirrors independent practice and performance

This “turning away from teacher” could be liberating for singers who have become dependent on visual feedback of the teacher (smiling, frowning, nodding, furrowed brow, cocked head, closed eyes, gestures, body language). Students will unconsciously interpret every single one of these stimuli, even if the teacher is not aware of it. These (mis)interpretations could affect the student’s complete experience of voice training! Think how often we rely on another’s face to tell us ‘how we’re doing.’ 

The teacher can guide verbally from the piano without being seen – giving cues with the voice or the piano – (for instance, gradually repeating a pitch at louder or softer volumes and having the student trace the contrast). Exercises can be constructed in the same way as before and the student can play with those concepts on their own, much like a child at creative play. If the teacher has a grand piano, the student can stand in the crook and look into the room or space and only turn to the teacher in moments of conversation between exercises or phrases. This has the added benefit of replicating the independence of performance as well.

Being ‘alone’ with the teacher’s voice and piano might yield interesting pedagogical discoveries for students who have come to rely on visual feedback as part of their singing education. It’s worth considering as an alternative to the ‘face me’ teaching style that has become so prevalent in modern studios!

Try it out and see what you discover when you can be ‘on your own.’

 

Rossini’s Exercise to Balance the Registers

“When I went back to stay in Bologna after abandoning my theatrical career, I was entirely taken up with the teaching of singing at the Liceo. I just mentioned homogeneity of timbre, equalization of the registers. Here, for example, is a model of the exercises that I prescribed, thanks to which I obtained astonishing results. It is simple, and the pupil himself, given a good ear, came to be able to correct himself.”  Then, sitting down at the piano, the Maestro struck the following notes:

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“After which the same exercise was continued through ascending semitones C-C-sharp, D-D-sharp, E, etc., to the limit of the voice’s tessitura, variable according to age and to the progress of the martyr or victim,” Rossini said, exchanging a smile with his illustrious former pupil Alboni.

“Without that first discipline, aimed at developing equality of timbre over the whole range of the organ, a voice, no matter how richly endowed by nature it may be, always will remain completely defective. Isn’t that the case, what’s more, with the brain, the most generous innate capacities of which demand long, studious effort if they are to acquire their full value?”

 

Michotte, Edmond, et al. Richard Wagner’s Visit to Rossini (Paris 1860): And, An Evening at Rossini’s in Beau-Sejour (Passy) 1858. Translated from the French and Annotated, with an Introd. and Appendix, by Herbert Weinstock. University Press, 1968.

The Experience is the Thing

Here’s a quote from Pedro de Alcantara’s book “Indirect Procedures.”

You can’t perform an act correctly until you’ve had the experience of performing it, and you can’t have the experience without performing the act. This vicious circle, kept closed by faulty sensory awareness, is one of the great stumbling blocks of musical pedagogy— and, indeed, of life. Every time a music teacher (or vocal coach, or conductor) asks you to do something, you interpret the teacher’s instructions according to your habitual, faulty sensory perception, execute the now-distorted instructions with your habitual misuse, and judge the results of your own playing through faulty sensory perception. If your sensory awareness is faulty, most of what you do takes you away from achieving your goals.

I’m reminded of Herbert Witherspoon’s analogy about tasting olives in his book Singing, published in 1925 – until you TASTE the olive, you don’t know the experience of an olive – even if you’ve heard everyone talk about olives and think you know what they taste like. This relates to EVERY dubious term we use in voice training: support, resonance, registers, squillo, etc.

“Support that phrase!” 

If you’ve never had the experience (or taste) of “support,” how are you going to achieve it or know what it is when you do it? The direction assumes the student knows 1.) what “support” means, and 2.) has experienced “support” previously.

Both may or may not be true.

Sensation is responsible for much of the confusion in teaching, because teachers try to induce correct sensation in the pupil through imagination, imitation, or suggestion, in order to get the correct tone, instead of asking the pupil to”do” something to cause correct action which produces correct tone, and which in turn will cause the correct sensation. That is, sensation is an effect and not a cause of tone. 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.

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

Once you have the experience of an olive, you have achieved an understanding of what is meant by olive. Witherspoon says the EXPERIENCE of singing well can only be had by SINGING WELL. It’s so paradoxical, and yet we don’t talk about this in pedagogy circles.

Joe Hyams describes the same phenomenon in his 2010 book, Zen in the Martial Arts:

Although one can read about the Zen in the martial arts, true knowledge of it is experiential. How do we explain the taste of sugar? Verbal descriptions do not give us the sensation. To know the taste, one must experience it. The philosophy of the arts is not meant to be mused over and intellectualised; it is meant to be experienced. Thus, inevitably, words will convey only part of the meaning.

From the above, it would seem that our aim in pedagogy should be focused on the means whereby we can INDUCE the experience of good singing, not just assume fancy scientific descriptions of what is happening will do the trick. Even those are descriptions of something that has ALREADY occurred – not HOW to do it.

That would be something we could call voice pedagogy. Like fancy words about the taste of an olive  – until you experience it – all that language is meaningless. To use another humorous analogy: if you are training a dog to sit, the most important thing to do is GET THE BEHAVIOR FIRST, then you can call it whatever you want. It’s the behavior that matters. Dogs don’t come programmed knowing the meaning of “sit.” We must INDUCE the behavior!

My job as a VOICE TEACHER is to assist in the inducement of experiences of singing, and singing well, which may be a totally foreign experience. All fancy words and sciencey terms will prove to be an enormous stumbling block if I can’t ultimately get the student to the experience.

The Holy Buddha Smiled

“It’s interesting to watch the faces of classical musicians as they perform. Many players look as if they’re in pain: faces scrunched, heads and necks twisted, brows furrowed. And they look so regardless of the repertory they’re playing. A light-footed dance by Bach: scrunch, twist, furrow. A concerto by Mozart: scrunch, twist, furrow. Pain seems the primary emotion, and struggle the mode of work. In other domains of musical endeavor, however, there are many musicians whose dominant emotion is joy, and whose mode of work isn’t struggle but play. Take a guy like Elvis Presley. He was a consummate storyteller, and a singer of considerable vocal finesse. When performing, he seemed to be making fun of himself; he was both himself and his own knowing parody. His light-footed and light-hearted approach didn’t prevent his fans from going haywire!

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Suppose that Presley represents profane energies, so to speak. Sacred energies, too, don’t need a furrowed brow. Consider the smiling Buddha, reminding us that in enlightenment you “embody light.” Or go on YouTube and watch the Golden Gate Quartet, a vocal group that has performed continuously (with personnel changes) since 1938. Their outlook in life is decidedly religious; after all, they sing mostly gospel, which is the word of God. Yet their music making is born of humor and joy. They deliver their songs with the cleverest rhetorical touches: accented off-beats, unexpected exclamation marks, the interplay of metronomic regularity and linguistic rubato. How about you take the same approach to your Haydn string quartets?

 

You can always decide that you prefer intense, passionate, and highly muscular interpretations. You can even decide that there’s no meaning in music unless there’s a fight between you and your instrument. I think you’ll be a better fighter if you know that you’re fighting; and you’ll know the fight more intimately if you ponder its alternative, which I’ve been calling the conversational approach.

By the way, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Bruce Lee, and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of aikido, a powerful martial art) were forever smiling. Strange, huh?”

BRUCE LEE - Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

de Alcantara, Pedro. The Integrated String Player: Embodied Vibration. Oxford University Press, 2017.