From Whence a Voice Science? Part 1 of 2

Scientific knowledge of the vocal organs began to influence methods of vocal instruction about the third decade of the nineteenth century. During something like eighty years before that time the vocal organs and their operations had been a favorite field of investigation for a large number of physicians and acousticians. For a long time teachers of singing paid little attention to the scientific aspects of voice production. But early in the past century the growing public interest in scientific matters began to influence vocal teachers, and the anatomy of the throat received a constantly increasing measure of attention from them. The most enlightened members of the profession made themselves familiar with the structure of the vocal organs, and followed the results of scientific study in this department with close attention.

This awakening of interest in the scientific aspects of tone production was not due to any dissatisfaction with the existing method on the part of vocal teachers and students. On the contrary, they were fully satisfied, as they had abundant right to be, with the results obtained from the traditional system. But a general feeling began to be evident about 1830 that voice culture might be improved if it were placed on a rational basis and supported by scientific principles.

Manuel Garcia (1805-1905), the inventor of the laryngoscope, is the most striking figure in the revolution which gradually took place in the practices of vocal training. He had been carefully educated by his father in the traditional method, and had sung with modest success in the opera, both in Europe and in America. In 1832 he retired from the stage and determined to devote his life to teaching. From the outset of his career as a vocal teacher Garcia took an active interest in all the scientific problems presented by the production of the voice. What actually takes place in the throat during the production of tone was the question which engaged his mind for many years. This question the scientific investigators were unable to answer. They could dissect the larynx and point out the attachments of all its muscles; but that did not show how these muscles operate in phonation. As the larynx is hidden in the throat, no way was known for observing its actual movements.

Garcia labored for several years to find some instrument by which the larynx could be studied during the performance of its functions. At last, in the year 1855, he succeeded in viewing his own vocal cords by means of a little mirror which he held in the back of his throat. He gave the name of laryngoscope to this tiny mirror set on a handle. It was exhibited at a meeting of the Royal Society of London in the same year, and the introduction of scientific methods in voice culture may conveniently be referred to that date.

A curious fact in this connection is that Garcia himself never fully adopted the scientific system. He was fifty years old at the time of his invention of the laryngoscope, of which twenty-three years had been spent in the active profession of voice culture. His purpose in studying the vocal mechanism was partly to satisfy his own inquiring mind, partly to find an assured scientific basis for the traditional method. Nothing was further from his ideas than the complete abandonment of the old method. Until the close of his long life Garcia continued to teach along the old lines, and some of the greatest singers of modern times bear witness as his pupils to the excellence of his instruction.

With the invention of the laryngoscope a new line of vocal investigation was opened up, which was eagerly followed by a vast number of scientists. Most of our present information about the workings of the larynx has been obtained by means of this little instrument. Other aspects of the vocal action have also been exhaustively studied, particularly the management of the breath, the reinforcing of the tones by resonance, and the formation of the various vowels and consonants.

Each new discovery and theory relating to the vocal action was soon absorbed into the current methods, and for some time conditions were decidedly unsettled. It took indeed about twenty years for methods of instruction to crystallize along definite lines. But we may say that since 1875 the scientific system of vocal management has been almost exclusively followed.

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).

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:

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CLASSICAL VOCAL TECHNIQUE, DOROTHY!

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.