Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: 20th Century Pedagogy – Part I

At no time in history has the diversity of ways in which vocal sound can be manipulated been more apparent. Nor has there ever been less agreement on how to achieve those diverse sounds, or what constitutes “good singing.”1 On the other hand, contemporary teachers proceed to disagree with much less public acrimony than in the 19th century—for the most part.

The primary consideration for teachers and singers alike is no longer only an “operatic” sound. In the 19th century, opera was the biggest game in town, and a singer trained for opera was expected to be able to scale down his voice for recital work. Let us remember that Tosi in 1723 said there were three styles, opera, chamber and church. He did not say there were three vocal emissions. Today there are dozens of kinds of vocal emissions in use, if we count—as I think we must—the exotic and ethnic styles which have been increasingly imported, and the varieties of “popular” singing, of which I count four:

  1. Ballad-crooning, which was the first of the new “popular styles” to make its appearance after the microphone was invented;
  2. Broadway singing, which inverts the usual order and ordinarily asks the female to sing in a chest voice known as a “belt,” and the male to sing in a heady near-falsetto;
  3. Rock and roll, a high-volume, often high-pitched style akin to shouting;
  4. “Folk,” in which I include traditional folksinging, Country Western, and contemporary folk styles.

To the “classical” voice teacher, the popular styles are anathema.

Here is a strong statement from Cornelius L. Reid:2

A correct technique of singing is a physiological fact, and the function of the vocal organs is governed by immutable laws. To succeed in formulating workable principles relating to that function, a proper foundation must be laid by asking and attempting to answer two fundamental questions. First, What is ‘voice,’ and what is the functional nature of the mechanism training methods are attempting to bring under discipline? Second, Why is it necessary to train the singing voice at all if its organic function is truly rooted in the natural?

In another book, Reid offers this definition of belting:3

“Belting: the practice adopted by “pop” singers (particularly women) of driving the chest register too high in the tonal range.

Belting is not a legitimate use of the mechanism and is extremely detrimental to vocal health. “Belters” frequently develop nodules on the vocal folds that require either long periods of rest or surgery for their removal.”

Taken together, these two statements seem to me to display a prejudice which excludes the possibility that good voice teachers will undertake to understand the necessary techniques which are in actual use, and learn to teach them sensibly and safely. Teachers who ignore this very large segment of the music industry, or whose critical attitudes encourage other teachers to abandon the aspiring popular singer, do themselves and the profession a disservice.

The very idea that there is one physiologically correct way to use the voice is immediately disproved when we begin to listen to the wide variety of ethnic vocal emissions available on CD. The longevity of Chinese opera singers—falsettists who often sing to an advanced age—belies this dictum, as do the varieties of polytonal singing coming out of Tibet, the Tuvan throat singers, and any number of vocal emissions which do no apparent damage to the physical organs of sound.

It is also apparent that Reid, distinguished teacher that he is, suffers from the same Western “classical” bias which limits the thinking of most voice teachers. I think we have already grappled sufficiently with the problem of a “natural” basis for vocal emission that I need not reiterate what kind of mare’s nest.4

But I think we have to infer that voice teachers teach what they have learned works most satisfactorily in their own singing, and that this is largely viva voce information, acquired by a combination of studying voice one-on-one, and listening to singers.5 A good deal may also be acquired through experimentation with students until one finds a systematic approach which works. This approach is generally termed “the empirical method,” and is looked down on by those who approach voice from the “scientific” standpoint.

It is also true that teachers need to come to grips with the question of “right” singing and “wrong” singing, and divorce the process from the application. Teachers at the end of the 20th century still display a lack of sympathy for the student who wants to sing popular music.6

There is a physical function which is efficient, well-coordinated and reasonably healthy, which can provide a fundamentally sound vocal technique for the popular singer in each of the four categories above. It is predicated not on “beautiful sound” in the old-fashioned operatic style,7 but represents a way of using the voice with fewer interferences and inhibitions, and thus a longer potential lifespan.

Increasingly, teachers and singers are coming to realize the very healthy fact that there is a significant difference between the act of vocal emission and the way in which that emission is put to the use of music.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

NOTES

  1. There is no discussion here of the popular “How to Sing” books which appear every once in a while, to teach popular singers how to get by. They are, in general, a collection of maxims, familiar exercises, and personal anecdote which have little value.
  2. Reid, Cornelius L.: The Free Voice. NY, 1965, p. 13.
  3. Reid, Cornelius L.: A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology, An Analysis. NY, 1983, p. 32.
  4. The only book on voice which I consider indispensable is a small work extracted from the large corpus of writings by Sufi Inayat Khan: Music. New Delhi, 1973. It gives a spiritual dimension to the whole of music, especially voice, which is missing from the majority of western writings, and can liberate the careful reader from many limitations about his own sound and its application to singing.
  5. Unfortunately, this has led many fine singers to teach badly at the end of their performing careers, because they teach the distortions and compromises which have enabled them to survive when good vocal emission was absent, or failed.
  6. This is a generalization; I know it’s a generalization, and I know that there are many fine teachers out there who encourage their students to acquire a good functional use of the voice for whatever career they may aspire to. To them I apologize. But I have met far too many of my fellow teachers who still consider popular singing beneath contempt, and who therefore deprive potential students of the right to a sound foundation. This is nothing more than an ostrich-like attempt to ignore the statistics which demonstrate that the “high culture” of opera is gradually being overtaken by a very real, definable “popular” culture.
  7. Which has pretty much disappeared anyway into a welter of mellow tone production which is boring in the extreme.

Worry and Singing

Worry is trained into us by our culture.

Instead of practicing or studying or growing; we worry:

“Am I good enough?,” “Will they like me?,” “Do I like my voice?,” “Am I where I need to be?,” “Is this the right song/aria/repertoire for me?,” “Why is my voice doing THAT?,” “Should I be feeling something here?,” “Why can’t I get this?”.

These are all things that we ‘creatives’ all struggle with from time to time.  Unfortunately for the singer, all that stress can go right into the voice – the very medium of expression that we need to communicate our art.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have struggled with my voice and continue to work on rebuilding it from ineffecient techniques.  The worries that I have experienced could fill a book: “Am I going to be good again?”, “Am I going to be able to sing again?”, “Am I too old to sing anymore?”  These have been the life mantras for me for the past several years.  I still continue to hear these phrases from time to time.

But then I sit down at the piano and do the work.  

Whatever happens on that day – happens.  I try so hard not to judge it, my only job is to set up the ‘vocal environment’ to be friendly and hospitable. And then I just LET IT GO, whatever it is IS WHAT IT IS that day in THAT moment. By vocal environment, I mean the vocal exercises and technical tools that I use to bring forth a balanced response from my voice.

Doing the work can be a POWERFUL tool against worry. Sit down, sing those scales, get in touch with your body, release the tensions of everyday life, sing for the sheer simple joy of singing. (I grew up in church, and when someone would sing badly my mother would say, “They’re making a joyful noise!”)

When you focus your attention on the POSITIVE, you can use that creative energy to become something else.

Worry will strike – how can it not? The reminder is that worry is merely a sign of your creative power and the DEEP LOVE that you have for making music.  Let those ideas percolate in your world for a while the next time you get attacked by worries.

Image: Piano Notes by Charles Rondeau. Public Domain.

Somatic Voicework™: The LoVetri Method and Functional Voice Training

What IS functional voice training?

In short, it is a pedagogy based on reason and logic to move voice instruction from the subjective ‘aesthetic’ into the practical ‘functional’ arena.  It doesn’t see voice training as an ‘end result’ but as a journey of discovery to freedom of movement in the vocal mechanism.

The challenge in adopting a functional approach, is that much of the vocal mechanism is outside the purview of a ‘direct control’ for the singer and teacher.  This could be a singer’s MOUNTAIN to climb, because they have to surrender their ‘pre-concept’ of their voice to discover a deeper, freer, and more authentic voice that is entirely theirs, entirely individual, and entirely free.  This is a scary prospect for many whose egos are so closely tied to the sounds coming out of their mouths.

In functional voice training, exercises are built upon parameters to stimulate a specific response within the framework of the laryngeal complex itself.  Special combinations of vowel, pitch, and intensity, and also rhythm, play an important part in innervating the vocal system and bringing greater tonus to the muscles responsibly for singing, – largely the laryngeal muscular complex.  In this way, it is possible to restructure a poorly used voice, and to rebuild poorly conditioned reflexes. Through this work, the teacher is able to eliminate vocal problems AT THE SOURCE, saving time on matters of singing that usually are peripheral to the success of the singer’s ultimate coordination.

These ideas are NOT new in vocal pedagogical history: for nearly 400 years or so voice teaching was largely an empirical undertaking.  Caccini, Tosi, Mancini, Porpora, and the elder Lamperti were musicians, and science was not the concern of their vocal studios.

The FIRST principle of voice function to take hold was the issues of the registers of the voice. The prevailing theories of the time were a ‘two-register view’ of voice training for all sexes, regardless of vocal classification (soprano, tenor, mezzo, bass). This continued unabated from 1200 to about 1850, when a three-register view replaced the two register view.

One of the great teachers that I have come to know and study under embraces this more holistic view of the vocal instrument, and her name is Jeannette LoVetri.  Jeanie, having been a classical teacher and singer, also understood that there needed to be a pedagogical implementation for singers that usually do NOT sing classical music.  Her ideas are firmly based in current scientific research and her own personal study, having worked with some of the worlds leading scientists, researchers, and doctors.   SO MUCH of her work truly reflects the ‘old school’ writers and thinkers on singing.  The first time I sat in her lecture in January of this year, I kept saying to myself, “Why, this is PURE Manuel Garcia!”. From that point on, she had me sold.

In her intensive study and ceaseless commitment to learning, (like all great contributors to any field of endeavor), she has managed to make an older form of voice training (largely dismissed and forgotten in the 19th and 20th centuries) into a viable pedagogical system for singers of all stripes and genres.

By freeing herself of an end result or ‘aesthetic’ bias that her ear prefers, she is able to diagnose and hear from a functional perspective what the voice NEEDS based on what it is actually DOING. This is the type of teaching that I am most passionate about, and I want to continue to hone my skills as a functional listener.

Learning from Jeanie brings me full circle to finally understand what is meant by ‘bel canto’ – a functional approach that gives the singer the ability to sing high, low, fast, slow, soft, loud, and on all vowels. It is singing that is free, unfettered by ‘concept’ or style, un-mannered, and speaks straight to the heart.  Additionally, as I mentioned, it’s also a way of HEALING an impaired voice to sing again, because the prescriptions go to the heart of the matter, and effect a new response in the systems that need to be rehabilitated.

If you are interested in learning more about Somatic Voicework™, I highly encourage you to consider the summer program at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA next summer.