Do You Hear What I Hear?

This faculty of the ear to tell from the sounds of a voice how its tones are produced is capable of being greatly developed and refined. For people generally it would probably be of little value to be able to judge voices critically in respect to the manner of their production. But for those who are concerned with the use of the voice, whether as singers or teachers, the ability is of immense advantage. The faculty of judging solely by sound between correct tone production and any incorrect use of the voice was one of the most important articles in the old masters’ stock in trade. A highly trained and experienced ear is the seat of this faculty. It is within the reach of anyone who will but form the habit of listening carefully and attentively to voices.

In the old method the distinction between correct and improper voice production was purely a matter of sound. A properly managed voice impresses the ear as being produced in one way, an imperfectly handled voice is heard to be produced in the opposite manner. Scientific analysis seeks to draw the line between correct and incorrect tone production by distinguishing between various forms of muscular action, breath management, and resonance. It must not be thought that the ear can give any help in solving the questions on which vocal scientists cannot agree. Clearly and sharply as the ear distinguishes between the right and the wrong in voice production, it can give no information bearing on the scientific aspect of the subject. We have seen for example that the fault of throatiness is ascribed to several different causes. Keenly as the ear can locate a sensation of strain and tension in a throaty voice, it cannot determine whether the tension is due to faulty breath action, to a lack of support, or to any other of the various causes alleged by conflicting authorities.

Yet there is a distinction which the ear enables us to make between the muscular actions of correct and of faulty vocal management. The feeling of tension and strain conveyed by a badly used voice can be referred directly to muscular causes. It is felt by the ear to be due to an excessive contraction of all the throat muscles, amounting in extreme cases to a cramped and stiffened condition of the entire vocal mechanism. Judging solely by the sound of the tones, the sensitive listener is aware that the faulty singer exerts altogether too much strength in the production of his voice, and that the muscles of his larynx and throat are overtaxed. Throat stiffness is thus seen to be the physical basis of incorrect tone production. This however carries the analysis of our auditory impressions of vocal tones further than the old masters ever thought of. They never considered singing in the light of a muscular exercise. Yet their way of utilizing the ear’s insight into the voice’s operations was none the less effective.

Taylor, David Clark. “New Light on the Old Italian Method: An Outline of the Historical System of Voice Culture, with a Plea for Its Revival.” (1916).

What Did 19th Century Writers Say About: Gender Differences in the Larynx?

“Anatomy teaches us that there is no difference between the male and female larynx save in size, so that actions are the same and results are the same, only differing in pitch, the female voice being a reproduction of the male on a higher scale, and this has been amply proved by experiments made with the parts detached.”


Madame Seiler attempts to support the fallacy held by voice trainers thus: — ‘As the male larynx is about a third larger than the female, it is plain that the registers in the male voice have a greater expansion ‘ (p. 67). This is false, the expansion would be exactly similar; the writer evidently deduced a conclusion from excess in length irrespective of additional breadth and thickness. The difference between the male and female larynx is uniform, thus greater change of state would be required of the larger larynx to produce a similar result to that obtained from the less.”

Lunn, Charles. The philosophy of voice. 1875.


“While, therefore, before the period of puberty the voice- box (larynx) is materially the same in both sexes, there are afterwards considerable differences noticeable, not only with regard to size, but also with regard to shape. This seems indeed sufficiently obvious, and anyone can see it by simply comparing the outside of the throat of a man with that of a woman. Nevertheless we are told by Mr. Lunn that ‘ anatomy,’ &c. (see above), and by Dr. Garrett (p. 13, ‘The Human Voice’) that ‘the male larynx does not differ anatomically in the least from that of the female except in size.’ My readers may judge for themselves whether these statements are borne out by facts or not To shew more clearly still the difference in the proportions of the male and the female voice-box, I give below some average measurements (taken from Luschka’s great work on the larynx) which I have for the convenience of English readers readers reduced as nearly as possible from centimetres and millemetres to inches.

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According to this eminent anatomist, therefore, the differences between male and female larynges are as follows: — In height nine-tenths, in width one-fifth, in depth one-fifth; in the length of the vocal chink two-fifths of an inch. As it is plain that if there were ‘no difference between the male and the female larynx save in size,’ all their proportions would be alike, I think I may safely assume that I have proved my point, which is a rather important one, as readers will see when the registers in the male and female voice come up for discussion.”

Behnke, Emil. The mechanism of the human voice. J. Curwen & sons, 1895.



“The larynx of a newly born baby is about a third the size of that of woman, but it appears smaller because it is closer to the tongue bone than at a later period, and its outer surface, consisting of the two plates of the shield cartilage, forms a very insignificant curve instead of that acute angle which we notice in the larynx of men. The voice-box grows very rapidly up to the third year, and less quickly up to the sixth, and from this time up to the fourteenth or fifteenth year there would seem to be no alteration in its proportions, and it is very much the same in boys as in girls. The voice remains all this time the same in pitch though it increases in compass, and its vibrational number does not exceed that of grown-up women. At the time of puberty, which generally takes place at the age of fourteen or fifteen, but sometimes a couple of years sooner or later, the larynx grows rapidly during the period of from six months to two or three years until it attains its final size. In boys it alters in the proportions of from 5 to 10, and in girls from 5 to 7. The larynx is at this time more or less red, and the tissue loose; the vocal ligaments increase not only in length, but also in thickness. In boys the shield cartilage loses the gentle curve and forms the prominence which goes under the name of the ‘Adam’s Apple’ ; the larynx in its entirety increases more in height than in depth or width, with the result of adding to the length of the vocal ligaments, thereby producing lower tones. In girls the larynx increases more in height than in depth and width, and the horizontal outline of the shield does not lose its evenness. The vocal ligaments remain shorter and thinner than in the male voice-box. At this time the voices are said to be breaking ; the boy changes to a tenor or bass of the man, while the difference in girls is but slight and so gradual as frequently to be almost im perceptible. The phenomenal change in the boy’s voice is probably explained by the cartilages growing faster than the muscles, the latter consequently losing control over the cartilages until everything is finally and permanently readjusted.”

Browne, Lennox. Voice, song, and speech. S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886.


“I am well aware that I have left altogether untouched many points of great importance in voice production, as, for example, …. the difference between male and female voices. No satisfactory definition has so far been given of what is the essential difference in the vocal apparatus of singers of different compass. That the difference does not lie in the larynx, as some would affirm, is now agreed, and it is simple charlatanerie to say, after looking at the vocal cords of an artist without hearing the note, that the subject has this or that voice.”

Browne, Lennox. “Medical hints on the production and management of the singing voice.” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 73.146 (1877): 512-513.


“The larynx is sometimes absurdly called the ‘voice-box’ as if it were one of those ingenious toys which grind out a thin strain of wiry melody on being wound up. If a comparison is necessary, I should prefer to liken it to a hollow wedge, of which the sharp end looks forward. The larynx is, in fact, an expansion of the upper part of the trachea, on which it is placed like a funnel on the top of a tube It cannot be too clearly understood at the outset that the voice is generated solely ‘in the larynx.’ It is necessary to insist on this elementary fact with some emphasis, so much confusion having been caused by fanciful expressions like ‘head-voice’ and ‘chest-voice.’ …. The larynx is the organ of voice just as the eye is the organ of sight or the ear of hearing. …. From the age of six to the period of puberty — fourteen to sixteen — the voice undergoes but little change except in the way of gaining power. A very marked alteration, however, takes place at that time, and this change though chiefly noticeable in the male sex, is also evident enough in girls Anatomical features of the change Increase in size of the larynx in all its dimensions ; enlargement and consolidation of the cartilages ; the angle formed in front by the two wings of the thyroid becomes sharper and more marked, so that it is more prominent in the neck ; lastly the vocal cords become longer and thicker. In the female these physical modifications also take place, though to a much less extent, the voice gains a tone or two in compass besides becoming stronger, sweeter, and richer. The voice remains much the same throughout adult life, growing fuller, however, up to the age of thirty or even thirty-five.”

Mackenzie, Morell. The hygiene of the vocal organs. Macmillan, 1886.

The Great Oz has Spoken!

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gets all the way to the Emerald City, only to find out that the Wizard is a fake.

So, too, many singers come into classical voice studios every day in hopes of training their voices, and getting to their goals of singing better and with greater ease and beauty. Little do they know that for some voice studios, the Wizard is just behind the piano, waiting to wow them with powerful vocal pronouncements on singing technique, and vocal ‘knowledge.’

One of the Wizard’s greatest frauds, perpetuated for nearly 150 years could be written in the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West on her broomstick:


By that statement I mean to say there is NO body of knowledge by which any 10 classical voice teachers can stand and agree with a collective body of pedagogy. Introduce topics of breath, resonance, and registers to a group of classical voice teachers and you will hear 10 different ideas, all based upon varying degrees of either experience or assumption. There ARE NO STANDARDS. Those same teachers’ loyalty to (often erroneous) past instruction, their belief in certain vocal maneuvers and concepts despite their glaring fraudulence ( ‘spinning the tone’), coupled to their strong aesthetic preferences for sounds that they prefer, ‘poison the well’ of what classical singing really is. The confusion of EFFECT with CAUSE has grown over like an enchanted poppy field, putting us all to sleep, and stagnating our students’ vocal growth.

And yet, this is tolerated in our profession as ‘doing your own thing’, or ‘singing with Madame X’s Method’ or ‘teaching classically’. Only in the singing community would this attitude be tolerated. Can you imagine mathematicians not knowing about Pythagoras or the latest mathematical studies and research? So we continue to hear instructive gems such as:

“Lower your epiglottis to widen your pharynx and place the tone in your forehead.”

“Feel the tone coming out of the back of your head.”

“Drop your jaw back as far as you can to open your throat.”

Sing this book of Concone exercises and you will perfect your vocal technique!”

“Let your diaphragm release down and out, and clench your buttocks when you feel yourself running out of air at the end of phrases.”

All of these pronouncements are direct from vocal “Wizards of Oz”.

But “Silence, Whippersnapper!” – all of these voice teachers are teaching classical technique! And the profession turns its collective head.

As long as voice teachers continue to allow this type of training in their midst, we will never advance down the Yellow Brick Road as a profession.  We will not move collectively if we cannot come to understand and agree on some basic physiology that has ACTUALLY been proven by scientific research. We can point to certain functions of the voice and attribute them to the movement of muscles. We can also attribute faults in technique to RESULTS of a functional CAUSE.

A pedagogy that is based on actually solving vocal technical problems is something that I believe WAS THE AIM of the Old Masters until around the 19th century. If you want to read about the path of vocal training and education, DON’T TAKE MY WORD for it. Read W.J. Henderson’s wonderful book, “Early History of Singing.” You can even read it for FREE HERE.

What were the goals? Freedom. Following Nature. Sustained and agile singing. Register unification. Easy management of breath. That’s pretty much it. You can get a long way training voices to do JUST THOSE THINGS.

If your voice teacher isn’t studying with other teachers, or reading books on the latest pedagogical research, or hasn’t attended a voice teachers conference since 1986, you OWE it to yourself to ask why you’re studying with that person.

  • To have a ‘name’ on your resume or you think they’ll help your career? (Always a sorry reason if you are not being technically helped by them. Singing well should still be the goal. Can you do the thing you’re being hired to do?)
  • Because of their connection to a particular person or musical figure? (If they weren’t in the room with Maestro X or Diva Y taking dictation for every lesson there is NO guarantee they are teaching that person’s principles – we’re all biased in some way, and teach based on our own peculiar set of personality traits and skill.)
  • Because another teacher to whom you are loyal referred you, and you don’t want to ‘hurt’ the other teacher? (Another altruistic but ultimately unhealthy reason.)

Would you see a doctor that hadn’t learned about anything new in the past 30 years? Would that feel safe to you? I have found that teaching a voice functionally connects and correlates to the work of all the great masters of teaching going back to the Scuola Cantorum.  This has enabled me to EMBRACE the past and the future SIMULTANEOUSLY. I need not give up one for the other as they are beautifully CONGRUENT. Function is always true, regardless of the person or pedagogue teaching it. It doesn’t need a ‘personality’ or an ‘established star’ to be true. If all VOICE TEACHERS STOPPED teaching tomorrow, vocal function would STILL BE TRUE.

Maybe, JUST MAYBE, singers and voice teachers will realize what Dorothy did: You’ve always had the power to go back home to Vocal Truth. Those of us who have been introduced to functional voice training can click our heels together and get ourselves all back safe and sound to Kansas, and hopefully bring our friends and students with us.