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).

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The Old Masters Applied Nature’s Laws

Without troubling themselves to reason the matter out, they [the Old Masters] always obeyed and applied the laws which Nature has imposed on the voice. The first of these laws is, as we have seen, that the voice is guided by the ear. Yet it may be doubted whether they could have stated in plain terms their belief in the voice’s ability to obey the ear. Even in the matter of singing in tune, to which they devoted the closest attention, they could not have explained that the cerebral centres of hearing are connected by nerve fibres with the centres governing the vocal cord action.

Another natural law regarding the voice is, that the proper way to study its activities is by listening to it. We are so engrossed nowadays in the scientific aspects of voice production that no other kind of information about the voice seems possible. It has thus come about that the whole interest of vocalists is apt to be centred on vocal cord action, breath control, etc. Anyone not conversant with the anatomy of the throat and the laws of acoustics would be held utterly ignorant of the first principles of the vocal action. Yet the old masters knew nothing of vocal science, and no one would venture to say that they were ignorant teachers. On the contrary, their understanding of the voice comprised a mass of information about which the vocal scientists know almost nothing, — information of vastly more value to the singer than a know ledge of throat anatomy. The old masters studied the living voice. They did not acquire their professional training in the laboratory or the dissecting room, but in the studio and the opera house. They centred their attention on the sounds of the voice, as their predecessors had done for a thousand years before them.

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).