Music Study – The Study Of Singing

If it is wrong to hold with the proverb that a hare is necessary in order to make a civet, since an excellent one can be made with a cat, it is nevertheless absolutely true for the singer, since for him nothing can take the place of the voice ; and, in order to make a singer, a voice is necessary.

The voice, depending entirely upon the conformation of the vocal apparatus in its entirety and in its details, comprising the lungs, the trachea, the larynx, the glottis, the mouth and the nostrils, it is not in anyone’s power to create a voice for himself or for anybody else if Nature has not provided one. This is what led Schumann to say : ” If you possess a good voice, do not hesitate a moment to cultivate it, regarding it as the most beautiful gift that has been granted you by Heaven.” But if it is forbidden to us to create voices, if even it is an impossibility to aid in their formation, what does depend on ourselves is not to hinder their development by placing obstacles in their way; and this is what we too often do by lack of care and wise foresight. With a little more care and observation, it is certain that we can aid the work of Nature by simply refraining from shackling it, and thereby obtain a greater number of beautiful voices, which would indeed be a happy result, and at the same time prepare a generation of singers who are good musicians,—another matter that is equally to be desired.

During the period of childhood, boys and girls have almost the same voice, which is the child’s voice. People are wrong in often saying that they have women’s voices, for they differ entirely from the latter, even the voices of little girls, both in their compass, which with rare exceptions is infinitely smaller, and in their timbre, which has not the warmth, tenderness, nor energy. They differ, moreover, in the limits of their registers. The child’s is a provisional voice, just as milk teeth are provisional teeth; there is nothing of either remaining in the adult.

Nevertheless, the child’s voice frequently acquires an intensity and volume that are quite sufficient to render it possible to exercise it, and even to make good musical use of it, either individually as a soloist, or in white voice choruses, to which the juvenile timbre lends an altogether characteristic charm.

Because a child has a voice, we must not at all infer that it will have one later on, but neither does that mean that it will not have one. It may also be entirely without voice during childhood, and possess a superb one after completed growth. This is the unknown.

At the moment of the transformation which makes an adolescent of the boy and a maiden of the little girl, a physiological phenomenon takes place that has received the name of mue, during which the child’s voice completely disappears to make way for the definitive voice. This phenomenon, which is strongly accented in boys, is scarcely noticeable in girls, and for this reason : with the former, a general and pro-longed hoarseness occurs with frequent throat troubles, the speaking voice assumes a hoarse and characteristic timbre, leaving no doubt as to what is happening, and meanwhile the larynx develops to its full dimensions, to almost double its former size, making the Adam’s apple protrude, and lowering the compass of the voice by a full octave, and sometimes more. All this cannot pass unnoticed. In the female, whose voice suffers no change with regard to its diapason, the dilatation of the larynx is inappreciable, the modification works chiefly on the timbre, which is imperceptibly modified from day to day, little by little losing its infantile character and acquiring feminine qualities, but with-out anything being manifested externally in the voice that would attract attention. Just because it. is less apparent, we must not conclude that it does not exist, for it has the same importance in both sexes.

The change generally commences, in our temperate climates, between the fourteenth year in the boy, and about the thirteenth year in the girl. Naturally, it is earlier in warmer climates, where development is more rapid. It ends about the twentieth year in the man, and the eighteenth in the female. The dates are variable.

Some people have pretended that a sort of inversion is produced in boys, the result being that a soprano voice becomes a bass, and that even a young contralto announces a tenor : this may happen, but there is nothing absolute in it. Others affirm that the heredity of the vocal faculty is more frequently transmitted from the father to the daughter and from the mother to the son, by a kind of intercrossing of sex. This is still another illusion that experience contradicts. The change offers all kinds of surprises ; the real truth being that nobody can tell how it will result. Now it is only when this evolution is absolutely complete that the individual, whether man or woman, finds himself in possession of his true voice ; and it is only then, in the immense majority of cases, that he thinks of cultivating it and learning to sing.

To learn to sing more or less correctly, to manage to utter sounds, he can always succeed in to a certain extent. To be really a musician and to sing like a great and intelligent artist is infinitely more rare. And this can very easily be understood, for he has passed the age when the malleable mind learns music like a simple language ; he no longer possesses the suppleness of a child, and all that formerly would have been nothing but play for him becomes a study full of aridity.

For this condition of things, there should be a remedy, a remedy so much the more simple and judicious in that it would only be a return to an old practice that had always and everywhere given excellent results, and the abandonment of which, for some unknown reason, is certainly most regrettable.

We can conceive how ridiculous parents would be who, before the definitive voice manifested itself, should pretend peremptorily to decide that they would make a singer of their son, or a lyric artist of their daughter. But, on the other hand, what can be very readily understood is that they should have this de-sire, either because such has been their own career, that it has pleased them, that they have succeeded in it and that they might be patrons of it, or from an inverse sentiment, the result of the regret that they have experienced at not being able to be singers them-selves for some reason or other.

If such a thought rises in their minds, the following is certainly the best course that we can advise: As soon as possible, about nine years of age, for ex-ample, simultaneously commence the study of solfeggio and the piano, as already shown in the second chapter. At the same time, cause to be given to the child, by a very prudent and very intelligent teacher, real singing lessons, exceedingly short, not longer than a quarter of an hour a day, but dealing with the good emission of tone, correctness, suppleness, respiration and vocalization, without ever exceeding the range of his little voice, and particularly without trying to make him reach either high or low notes. (It is by this method, a veritable gymnastics of the lungs, which can never injure the health, but, on the contrary, will improve the general condition, by strengthening the respiratory apparatus, that many singers of the beautiful Italian school who sought to form their voices were brought up.) If the youthful pupil takes pleasure in this study, and if his voice is not too thin, do not fear to let him participate in choral exercises suitable for children’s voices, and to make him sing in church and in the maîtrises; but never force him if it causes him any fatigue. Continue in this manner until the change makes its appearance.

Here we must make a distinction.

If we are dealing with a boy, to watch for the advance signs of the change, such as hoarseness, etc., and immediately, without a day’s delay, to suppress deliberately all vocal exercise, song and solfeggio, and this radically, without a single infraction ; and to for-bid him to join in even noisy games in which there is too loud shouting; to treat him in fact as one would do if he had some throat disease ; during the whole time that the change lasts, which is several years, to insist upon work at the piano, theory, dictation, without forgetting studies outside of music, that are as useful to a singer as his special studies,—all this must never be lost sight of.

If we are dealing with a girl, we must not wait till the change asserts itself, because we know that it will not make itself felt ; but consider it as begun at the age of thirteen, in which we shall seldom be mistaken. We must thenceforth interrupt singing lessons, properly so called, because they always occasion a little fatigue to the larynx, but we may with impunity continue a moderate exercise of solfeggio, in low tones, and limited to those notes that are produced without any effort. Apart from this, proceed as with boys, avoid all tempestuous vocal outbursts, take care of the larynx and be more than usually careful to avoid everything that might cause a cold or quinsy moreover, do not neglect the study of the piano ; this cannot be too often repeated.

Everything is in this : to have acquired the art of singing before this physiological epoch, and to leave the organ quiet whilst the evolution is operating, with-out however abandoning the study of music, by frequenting concerts and theatres if possible, by hearing and appreciating the great singers, in one word, by giving free play during this period of waiting to all that is likely to purify the taste and elevate the judgment.

When it is thought that the change is completed, the scholar’s new voice should be tried in the presence of his old master, who will be the best judge to decide the opportune moment for resuming the studies, greatly simplified thenceforward; for, if it has pleased Nature to gratify the pupil with a fine voice, in a few months he will be able to make use of it as if he had worked for five or six years, with the additional and inestimable advantage of not having tired it with this careful work that has been done on his provisional child-voice ;—his milk-voice, I was going to say. Exactly the same thing will happen to him that we have already seen happen to the little violinists who, after having practised on a small instrument, take a real violin in their hands ; in a few weeks, or months, having already learned how to sing, he will have made intimate acquaintance with his new organ, he will have recognized its qualities and defects (for there is no absolutely perfect, natural voice), and perhaps, who knows? he will be his own best master for the future. In any case, he will never allow himself to be badly guided.

In support of this thesis, which some people will find too beautiful, I can quote a very great authority, that of the illustrious singer Faure, who thus expresses himself in his celebrated book: ” The art of singing is passing through a period unfavourable to its prosperity. . . We will mention first among the multiple causes of the decline of the art of singing, the abandonment into which the study of religious music has fallen since the almost complete disappearance of the maîtrises. These schools were at the same time, although indirectly, excellent and fertile nurseries for our operatic stages ; it is well known what musicians and organists, what singers and illustrious composers this school has produced. There was no reason to fear that the choice of the pupils would turn rather to the church than to the theatre; the latter possesses, in fact, pecuniary resources against which it will always be hard for the church to struggle. This is a great argument that naturally weighs very heavily in the balance with young people in their choice of a career.

I shall meet with the objection that one cannot destine a child for the lyric career without exposing oneself to cruel misreckonings; it may even be added that the stay in a maîtrise will not be of the slightest use to it if the transformation of its child voice into a man’s voice is not accomplished as happily as one could hope for. There will none the less remain in him the material for an excellent musician who is able to direct his efforts in another line and create a place for himself among the teachers and instrumentalists who people our orchestras, and even among the composers.”

This is exactly the point I wanted to reach. When the crisis of the change is once definitely passed and leaves a voice that is not worth cultivation, the fact must be regarded as regrettable, that is certain, but nevertheless it must not be considered that the time spent on the infantine studies has been lost; far from that, only they must be employed in attaining another goal. If they have been directed in the way above indicated, or in some other way proceeding from the same ideas, the pupil will be found to have acquired by the study of solfeggio great ability as a reader, and further, a certain skill at the piano ; and, still more, an intimate knowledge of what vocal mechnism is as, a matter as precious to every instrumentalist as to the composer. He will then be in a good position to continue his musical studies by modifying their direction whilst having nevertheless assured to them a solid base and one that is the best of all.

The maîtrises,* of which Faure speaks, no longer exist, or have become extremely rare ; it does not fall within the scope of this work to discuss the desirability vif their re-establishment, but there is nothing to pre-vent the application of their programme (solfeggio, the elements of harmony, singing, choral singing, piano and organ) to every child of whom we wish to make a musician, and if possible, a singer of real talent.

This is how the Larousse Dictionnaire, which can-not be suspected of tenderness for anything touching religious instruction, expresses itself : ” The maîtrises were formerly schools of music attached to the cathedrals, and in them youths and children, kept and educated at the expense of the Chapter, received a complete musical instruction and furnished the chapel music, sometimes as singers and sometimes as instrumentalists. Before the establishment of the Paris Conservatoire, the creation of which, as well as that of the Ecole des mines and the Ecole Polytechnique, was the work of that immortal Convention which knew how to think of everything, the only music-schools existing in France were the maîtrises, and we may say that it is to them that we owe the real progress of our country, so far as music is concerned, before the Revolution. Their instruction was not at all perfect, certainly, it was even very incomplete, since, from the practical point of view, it devoted itself exclusively to the study of religious music ; but it is none the less true that the maîtrises furnished even our theatres with a great number of artists of real talent, and that such and such a singer of renown owed his education to such and such an establishment of this nature. . . It is certain that from a general point of view these institutions, scattered and multiplied over the whole surface of the country, rendered considerable services, not only by reason of the teaching they propagated, but also on account of the musical taste that they developed on every side.”

On the same subject, moreover, here is the opinion of one of the masters of French art : ” It was the nursery whence all the musicians, instrumentalists, singers, or composers were drawn. The Church worked then for the Theatre, and the male personnel of the opera was recruited only in the maîtrises. As for the female singers, they formed themselves. In the imitative arts, women have the livelier perception and the finer sentiment; they learn better and more quickly.”

It might be added that it is also certain that these schools, created especially for liturgical chant and for the needs of worship, did not form voices as flexible as those of the Italian school of the same epoch, which tried above all to produce theatrical singers. There-fore their enemies could not find words bitter enough ” to blast this teaching of singing that stopped short at the change of voice,” not taking into account that among those who, after this wise period of halt ” had preserved their voices, there were found a good number ” who then returned as soloists or choristers, or ” were employed in the theatres.”

On the other hand, it was admirably conceived, its results were excellent, and we may take this ancient institution, so unhappily dismantled, as an almost perfect model.

The change being completed, whether one has learned to sing beforehand or not, the first great question that presents itself, the fundamental question, is to know whether we are in presence of a voice that can be put to use. Here, nothing can replace the enlightened opinion of a professor, and indeed one of the greatest experience. It is not sufficient for him to know how to sing very well and to be the possessor of great talent. Above all, it is necessary for him to have had a long practice in teaching, and to have al-ready had many young pupils pass through his hands, for nothing is more delicate or more subject to error than the diagnosis that is required of him. Therefore, in this case, we should seek a veritable authority in singing, and accept only with the greatest reserve the appreciations of teachers of the second or third order, who always find you with a voice, if only for the sake of getting an extra pupil and enlarging their field of experience. Furthermore, we must not be astonished if the very serious teacher whom we have selected as an expert does not immediately give his opinion, but asks permission to repeat the test on days separated by various intervals of time, prescribing exercises ad hoc to be performed in the meantime; or, on the contrary, according to circumstances, the observance of complete repose, in order to be able to judge, the better at each examination, of the development of the voice and its progressive expansion, from which he may succeed in deducing what may be hoped of it in the future.

It is necessary to know how to submit to all these exigencies, for which there may be good reason.

For, we must not deceive ourselves, a natural voice, that is to say after the change, is almost always very different from what it will become when once cultivated, and great sagacity, in combination with much delicate observation, is requisite to foresee with any degree of certainty in what way it will be modified later, whether naturally or under the influence of study.

There are many instances of tenors, even after many years, who have become barytones or basses ; and surprises of the same nature also present them-selves in women’s voices.

But here we are anticipating ; let us return to the examination of an uncultivated voice. The principal qualities to be desired in it are a good timbre and a certain degree of natural flexibility. Strength and volume increase with age and study. By processes known to every teacher, we easily manage to extend the compass and gain several notes, especially high ones ; but a bad timbre is hard to modify, and flexibility cannot be developed unless the organ already possesses some natural elasticity. It is therefore to these points that we shall see the master of the art of singing, to whom we have submitted the case, pay particular attention, only taking secondary notice of such and such a beautiful low or high note, that, on the contrary, the pupil will be inclined to exhibit to him as a jewel. But he will also examine other things,—the general structure, the capacity of the lungs, and the physiognomy and conformation of the mouth, which are of great importance in the emission of the voice, for it is in the mouth-cavity that the timbre is produced.

It should also be taken into consideration that a great and powerful voice is not indispensable even for the theatre, contrary to a somewhat generally prevailing impression, for there we see every day voices medium in intensity but fine in timbre and distinction, outdo others of greater volume that are lacking in the seductiveness exercised by good emission. It does not follow that volume and force are to be despised, but they are not the principal things, and it is particularly by the good pronunciation that the voice manages to dominate the orchestra and penetrate into the remote corners of a vast hall. Let us add that an amateur who knows how to manage his voice can be charming and exquisite in the drawing-room with a very restricted volume, and that there again what is most desirable is purity, in combination with flexibility and clearness of articulation.

Finally, when it can be asserted that all the conditions requisite for forming a singer or cantatrice exist, it is important not to choose a teacher lightly, but to place oneself in safe hands.

For that again, we may have recourse to the enlightened advice of the same eminent master, for even if he is not disposed personally to guide the first labours of beginners, which is quite probable, it is also probable that among his own pupils, or in his personal following, there is some young artist who has been brought up in a good school whom he will be able to recommend as worthy of confidence, while still retaining general direction and supervising the studies by means of hearings at considerable intervals ; and this periodical control will be at the same time the best of stimulants both for the pupil and the teacher.

If for any reason, one does not succeed in obtaining this exalted direction, there is so much the more reason to surround oneself with a thousand precautions and enlightened advice so as knowingly to apply only to a teacher of great care and prudence ; for, in any kind of study, whether music or other, nothing approaches in importance the choice of an elementary teacher. It is easy to understand this when we remember that his mission consists not so much at the outset in teaching how to sing, as to fashion, to bend and sometimes even to transform the instrument that Nature has given in the crude state, and all this by means of a few simple exercises, always very simple, that never cause any fatigue.

If the slightest fatigue manifests itself, it is because the teacher is incompetent, or that he does not suit you, which may happen, and amounts to the same thing. If, at the end of two or three months, your voice has not been modified to some extent, in the direction of improvement, it is again because you have an ill-chosen teacher; for the first steps of progress should be somewhat rapid. In either case, it is better to make a change, and as soon as possible; for the pernicious influence of a teacher who ill conducts this first part of the studies may result in the total loss of the voice, which is irremediable.

What still further increases the difficulty in this grave question of the choice of an elementary teacher, is that, nowadays, I know not why, everybody calls himself a professor of singing; and the directories swarm with them. In the first place, all the accompanists who belong to a singing-class, in good faith by that sole fact believe themselves to possess the desired capacities. There is no doubt that they might attain them, but at least they are lacking in personal experience. I know violinists and pianists who have never had the slightest voice, and have never at-tempted to sing, who boldly dub themselves professors of singing; while others consider that it is sufficient to have an Italian name, or to Italianize their own. We can see from this with what sage circumspection it is advisable to proceed before confiding so delicate and fragile an organ as a freshly formed larynx to a professor who by inappropriate exercises can ruin it for ever. It has sometimes been said that a female teacher is better suited for women and a male for men. This does not seem to me in any way justified, and many examples have shown me that it is a matter of absolute indifference, at least for the present ; later on, we shall see. What is of essential importance for the moment, whatever the sex of the pupil may be, is to deal with a master who has already given proofs of ability by forming good singers, and one who himself has sung with talent. Whether he has preserved or lost his own voice matters little, for he will very seldom have to set an example, and enough voice will always be left to him to make himself understood. If he has preserved it, however, that can only be an extra inducement, as it shows at least that he has known how to manage himself well.

The first care of the teacher, in the first lessons, should be to classify the voice, that is to say, to determine, at least provisionally, in view of what kind of voice it is advisable to exercise it. This is already a very difficult matter, since it is rarely that in the native state a voice presents itself with entire frankness; and opinions regarding it may very often differ : where one professor will see a barytone, another will find the material for a tenor. Two things alone can guide us : range and timbre. The range being essentially modifiable by study, certain professors base their opinions solely on the timbre; it is necessary, nevertheless, that these two factors shall not be in too flagrant contradiction, whence arise hesitations and tergiversations that are sometimes quite justified and even inevitable, when we find ourselves in the presence of an organ that becomes modified of itself, as often happens, as we have already said.

A large number of modern methods begin by teaching the pupil the anatomy of the larynx. This gives them a very learned air, and leads one to believe that the authors have taken the trouble to dissect the wind-pipe ; but it seems to me to be an absolutely useless piece of knowledge for the pupil. He will sing neither better nor worse just because he knows that the voice is due to the sonorous vibration of the vocal cords, constituted by the thyro-arytenoidian muscles. When he shall have been taught that in the chest-voice the fibrous and mucous layers of the vocal cord both vibrate, whilst the larynx and the pharynx contract and the glottis tightens ; whilst in the head voice, the larynx is relaxed, the glottis opened, the pharynx distended, and the mucous layer alone of the vocal cord vibrates, ought he to try to produce these special actions in his throat in order to give a head or chest note? And when from physiology he learns that the nasal cavities, the ethnoidal cellules, the maxillary, frontal and sphenoidal sinus communicate with his mouth and powerfully contribute to form the timbre of his voice, will he know any better how to modify this timbre? Assuredly not. Therefore, according to my own conviction, all this knowledge will not aid him in the slightest degree in understanding the lessons of a good teacher, nor in practising after his example a good respiration, a good emission of voice and a good pronunciation.

It is as though one should pretend to teach soldiers to march with commands of the following nature: ” Contract your femoral biceps ! ”

” Relax the triceps ! ”

” Distend the adducent muscles ! ”

They would much more readily understand :

—One, two—one, two—particularly if the corporal were to add the example to the word.

This makes us think of the scene between M. Jourdain and his teacher of philosophy :

Master : ” The vowel A is formed by opening wide the mouth: A.”

M. Jourdain : ” A, A. Yes ! ”

Master: ” The vowel E is formed by bringing the lower jaw close to the upper one: A, E.”

Jourdain : ” A, E ; A, E. Faith, yes ! Ah, how fine that is!”

Master : ” And the vowel I, by again bringing both jaws together and stretching the corners of the mouth out towards the ears, A, E, I.”

Jourdain : ” A, E, I, I, I. That is true. Long live science!”

Master : ” The vowel O is formed by opening the jaws again, and bringing the corners of the lips together : O.”

Jourdain : ” O, O. Nothing can be truer ; A, E, I, O, I, O. That is admirable. I, O ; I, O.”

Master : ” The opening of the mouth makes a sort of little circle that represents an O . . . I will thoroughly explain all these curiosities. . . .”

There he is well advanced. Will he know any better how to speak afterwards?

Whether such a study of the physiology of the voice is desirable for the professor even is debatable ; perhaps (?) at the utmost it might enlighten him in the selection of the exercises of pure vocal gymnastics that might suit such or such a pupil, but then only on the express condition that this study is complete and not superficial, as is almost always the case. To make it complete, it must be extended over the whole range of the respiratory apparatus, from the lungs and the muscles of the breast to the nasal cavities and the nose, which play an important part in the formation of the timbre: which would inevitably lead, in order to arrive at a comprehension, physiologically speaking, of the functions of all these organs, intimately related as they are with all the others, to a study of general anatomy. If this utility were really demonstrated, the best professor of singing would be the doctor—the laryngologist,—which will not bear examination. There is nothing worse than the demi-savants, and nothing more pretentious. The old professors of the great Italian period of the bel canto, who, we must frankly confess, could easily give us lessons in the art of forming the voice and rendering .it flexible, did not trouble themselves with this superfluous knowledge. They proceeded empirically, it will be said ; that is possible, but what is certain is that they obtained results which we no longer do.