The Art Of Song – The Technique Of The Singer

There need be no quarrel with the assertion that the end and aim of technique is expression. Pure vocal, however, is not merely a means. A lovely voice, perfectly controlled, is in itself a cause of happiness not to be repented of, even leaving out of the account its relation to words. Lyric and dramatic interpretation and trained mechanism need never be set over against one another as divergent in aim, and they. should not be separated in the consciousness of the singer or hearer. Nevertheless, there is so marked a tendency in certain quarters to disregard the classic traditions of re-fined voice production in the supposed interest of “expression” that it seems worth while to devote a short chapter to the technical principles involved in good singing. There is all the more reason for this in the fact that the great majority of music lovers are so ignorant of what constitutes correct singing that when they hear a voice which gives an excitement to their nerves by its sensuous quality, especially by its brilliancy or power, they applaud and go away satisfied, indifferent to many faults or merits which an intelligent critic condemns or praises.

An appreciation of skill in singing is certainly a necessary part of a music lover’s education. The principles involved are so few and so easily stated that no one need mistake them. As this book is not a technical treatise on any branch of musical art, but an attempt to show the amateur how and where to direct his observation, a brief enumeration seems to be all that is required.

The laws of good vocalism which it is needful to bear in mind may be placed in two categories, one including the proper production and management of tone, the other dealing with suitableness of style to the sentiment of the text. In the first case the laws are essentially the same as those that are involved in the playing of instruments in which sustained tones capable of shading are produced, such as the violin, clarinet, or horn. Up to a certain point the critical listener will be safe in his judgments if he compares a singer’s execution with that of a violinist. In fact, a singer, as well as a lover of singing, can learn much by listening to fine violin playing.

In the first place, the hearer will expect that the tones of the singer’s voice will ‘be pure and agree-able. One would suppose that there need be no mistake on this point, but every critic has noticed the singular fact that a voice will often sound neutral or even unpleasant to one ear and beautiful to another. In such cases prejudice or some kind of accessory or association will have a good deal to do — friendship perhaps, or admiration for a singer’s mental or moral qualities, strongly affecting the impression made upon the ear. Such questions as this, however, may be left out of the account. I shall assume that sensuously beautiful tones are immediately appreciated by people with a normal auditory apparatus. The warning that is required must be addressed to those who perceive voice quality and nothing else.

It is not surprising that where physical beauty of tone exists it should often drive all other considerations out of the field. There is no other sensation received by ear or eye that is capable of giving quite that thrill of rapture that is felt when the nerves of hearing are swept by a flood of glorious tones issuing from the throat of a great singer. One’s whole frame seems to quiver in sympathetic vibration. This extraordinary effect is not merely physical; it is also psychological. It is “the cry of the human,” and it is the deepest soul in us that makes reply. We call a lovely voice “sympathetic,” and there is a world of associations involved in that word, some near, some remote, passing down to us through uncounted generations that have aspired, suffered, and enjoyed. The ecstasy kindled by an entrancing voice has a source deeper than we know. Its communications are beyond all measure subtle and extended. It is the admonition of the higher instincts, it is a visitation that redeems us for the moment from the thraldom of space and time. Individual interests give way to those that are common and universal. No one need apologize if his nature responds with whole-hearted enthusiasm to such an appeal as this.

A voice capable of producing such effects through its timbre alone is rare, and even such a voice is to a large degree dependent upon certain powers that are not native but acquired — accomplishments that are secured only by prolonged and intelligent labor. This art, like every other, is built upon science. The proper emission and control of tone, without which natural gifts are of no avail, are attainments that are deliberate, self-conscious, and to a large extent mechanical. They are mastered only after years of assiduous study under the direction of wise and experienced teachers These acquired technical habitudes enter into the account in a listener’s enjoyment, whether he is fully conscious of the fact or not, and, as in all appreciation of art, a knowledge of the problems and the difficulties involved has much to do with his satisfactions. A little instruction shows him that good singing, merely on the side of tone production, is not a simple matter, and that it is well for him to ac-quire certain other perceptions besides his unreflective recoil to the mere physical impact of sound.

The first necessity in fine singing is that the tones shall be true in intonation, that is to say, the voice must be exactly on the pitch in every note, and every tone must be carried through without the slightest wavering, whether the notes be long or short, loud or soft, high or low, and whether the passage be quick or slow, shaded or uniform. To the average listener a voice will seem beautiful if the intonation is perfect, although it may be quite ordinary so far as timbre is concerned. This perfect accuracy of pitch and firmness of tone, which is in itself very agreeable and seems to make other virtues possible, ought, we think, to be a matter of course. Just here, however, appears the very singular fact that singing out of tune and singing with an unsteady flow of sound are not uncommon on the dramatic and concert stage, that famous singers are often guilty of one, or both faults, and that many audiences appear not to be offended thereby. There have, indeed, been times when singers actually cultivated the tremolo, and audiences accepted it as a new beauty that had come as a blessing into the world. The tremolo, it is said, became the fashion in Paris, and afterward in other musical centres, because it was employed by Rubini, the most adored tenor of the first part of the nineteenth century, in his later years to conceal the deterioration of his organ. In this singular fact we have an illustration of a prevalent trait in human nature. “It is only a few years ago,” says the English anthropologist, Edward Clodd, “when a royal personage had an affection of the knee which caused her to walk lame, that `society’ affected what was called the `Alexandra limp.’ ” As beautiful as a limp is in walking, so is the tremolo in singing.

People have tried to defend the tremolo against the strictures of the judicious on the ground that as ‘cello players employ it persistently it ought to be equally permitted to singers. But the vocal tremolo and the quivering of a string under the finger of a ‘cellist are not the same thing. The player keeps his finger on the same spot and his vibrato is without change of pitch. If he slid his finger up and down the string while making it tremble, the effect would be similar to the tremolo of a singer and would be thoroughly reprehensible. A vibrato effect may sometimes be employed by a singer in an intensely emotional situation, but only exceptionally. A persistent “wobble” is as much out-of-tune singing as persistent flatting. It is even worse, for flatting has the merit of consistency at least, and may be due to temporary conditions for which the singer is not wholly to blame. A confirmed tremolo is a nerveless, spineless, debilitated thing, a mark of infirmity and a frequent forerunner of collapse. It is due to physical weakness or false vocal method. It is never to be approved, but sternly condemned or charitably pitied.

The great secret of a tone that is always steady, always pure, always true, is in the management of the breath. A discussion of the proper method of breathing does not belong here; indeed, the listener should not be reminded that breath is being taken, except as noble tone and masterly phrasing lead his curiosity back into the causes of these beauties. There must be no hitching up of the shoulders when the lungs are filled, no audible aspiration at the attack, no breathiness in the sound, no escaping air from the lungs that is not turned into tone. The hearer must be allowed to forget that the singer is a human being with a limited lung capacity; the breath must be taken secretly, and its volume so sustained that the singing will give an impression of exhaustless resources, like the rising and falling of the breeze on a summer’s day.

Wagner’s maxim, already quoted, that “the tone sustained with equal power is the basis of all expression,” applies with as much force to singing as to orchestral playing. The fundamentals of the method taught by the old Italian masters, says Mr. W. J. Henderson, were “the pure legato and sonorous, beautiful tone.” It was said by a contemporary of Rubini in his prime that this great singer “can so control his breath as never to expend more of it than is absolutely necessary for producing the exact degree of sound he wishes. So adroitly does he conceal the artifice of respiration that it is impossible to discover when his breath renews itself, inspiration and expiration being apparently simultaneous, as if one were to fill a cup with one hand while emptying it with the other.” Seek the round pure tone and the firm legato, it may be said to vocal students, and all other graces shall be added unto you. The critical listener, at any rate, should be content with nothing less.

Not only should this control of tone be equally evident in all parts of the voice from the lowest note to the highest, but the quality of tone should be virtually the same throughout the singer’s compass. This reads like a counsel of perfection; a literal enforcement of it might seem oppressive; the critic must be charitable. Absolute similarity of sound from one extreme of pitch to another does not exist in the case of any orchestral instrument, and it seems rather too much to demand it literally of the human throat. There are singers, justly recognized as great, whose voices change some-what in character in different parts of their range. Rarely, if ever, does nature give equality in timbre and volume as a primary endowment. Somewhere in the voice occurs the natural “break,” above which the novice finds a constriction, as though the vocal chords were squeezed together in order to resist all further upward progress. We need not enter into the vexed question of “registers,” over which vocal teachers have so long disputed with an unbecoming acrimony; it is enough to say that in almost every voice there is at least one point where the tones tend to become weak and veiled, and beyond that point to undergo a change in quality. It is the teacher’s business to remove this obstacle and so train the tone delivery that the broken instrument shall be mended and the transition from one part of the voice to another made smooth and open. The perfect singer will not give the impression that there are two or three voices in the throat, but only one. Where the triumph over nature is complete the effect may be compared to the playing of a passage of two octaves or so upon a single violin string. More commonly, however, among good singers the effect is more analogous to playing on all the strings of a violin. There is an appreciable difference between the G and E strings, but the tone is always the string tone. It is quite possible that a voice perfectly uniform in quality throughout, if such a voice could exist, would be somewhat cold and monotonous, lacking the power of changing the color for expressional needs. The demand, therefore, is especially that the voice be equally pure and under control everywhere, passing from one region to another without apparent effort, always maintaining suppleness, steadiness, and accuracy of intonation.

In good singing each tone will begin exactly on the proper pitch without any sliding or groping after the tone, and the tone will be round and firm from the very first instant. The beginning of a tone is called the attack. With a good attack the tone sounds as if it had been already formed in its perfection and were only waiting to be set free. There is no suggestion of timidity or uncertainty. There is none of the &pirated or clucking sound at the beginning of a phrase such as one often hears in imperfect vocalism. A good attack is like the prompt opening of an organ pipe; there are no premonitory symptoms of tone, no unmusical instant, however brief; the tone fully formed leaps into being, round, buoyant, pellucid like the drops that spring from a fountain.

And as tones and phrases begin so should they end. The tone vanishes not as if the breath were exhausted; it does not slide or tremble into extinction, but the impulsion of breath is suddenly withdrawn and the tone instantly ceases while still in its perfection. It makes no difference in what part of the voice the tone may be, upon what vowel or consonant it may be engaged, whether it is loud or soft, or what may be the nature of the expression — the tone must be perfectly formed and perfectly controlled at its inception and its close. Perfect attack and finish are very beautiful to hear, and they imply many things that are highly creditable to the performer.

With proper tone formation, perfect breath control, accurate attack and release, and the easy blending of the registers once acquired, the singer should be able to maintain accuracy in these particulars through all the innumerable degrees and transitions of force and speed upon which variety and truth of expression depend. One of the most beautiful effects in music is the “swell,” the in-crease and diminishing of a tone by imperceptible gradations. It may be compared to a perfect curve in drawing — a beautiful thing in itself aside from any ulterior purpose of expression or design. It gives to the voice and to stringed and wind instruments a means of pleasure which instruments like the piano and harp do not afford, and which even the organ cannot give except by a sort of subterfuge. This ornament, as employed in singing,. is technitally known as the messa di voce. It is one of the final evidences of the singer’s command of his instrument. Let a vocalist begin a tone softly, with a perfect attack, enlarge it to full volume so gradually that the listener cannot distinguish the successive instants of increase because there are none,. any more than there are straight lines in a circle; then let the singer reduce the sound by the same inappreciable gradations until it seems to taper to a point and vanish, one hardly knows when — all without the least suspicion of wavering or change of quality — and we have one of the most delectable effects that the vocal art can offer. In successions of notes or phrases we may have the same mastery of nuance, and with it the song attains life, freedom, warmth, and color.

Agility and power in a high degree are demanded in certain kinds of music, but as they are not required in all they are not to be accounted indispensable, like the qualities that have just been mentioned. The vocalists that have been most adored by the great public, however, have been those that excelled in brilliancy and force. The multitude enjoys most whatever appeals to the raw nervous susceptibility, and among all the sensations that enrapture the senses and heat the blood few can compare with the feats of agility for which the kings and queens of song in the golden days of bel canto were celebrated. A cool person in a theatre when a Catalani, a Farinelli, or a Tetrazzini had broken melody into a dazzling shower of coruscations might be excused for believing that the audience had suddenly been transformed into a horde of maniacs. When one looks at the records in print of some of the cadenzas delivered by the singers of the florid school, one can faintly imagine the effect upon the auditory nerves when these passages were shaken forth upon the air by such a voluptuous organ as that of a Jenny Lind or an Adelina Patti. Aside from the sensuous quality of tone, these acrobatic vocal feats gratify the universal love of the marvelous, exciting the admiration that every one feels in the presence of some supremely skilful triumph over difficulties. It is said that Rossi, a famous singer of the seventeenth century, could sing a chromatic trill chain of two octaves up and down again, all in one breath. Farinelli, of the eighteenth century, vanquished a noted trumpet player in a public contest, surpassing his rival in power and in rapidity of utterance. Thomas Ryan, in his Recollections of an Old Musician, tells of a cadenza composed by Julius Benedict for Jenny Lind, to be sung by the “Swedish Nightingale” at the end of a cavatina. “The cadenza was sung without accompaniment; it covered two pages of music paper, and was written in a style suited to an instrumental concerto. Toward the end there was a sequence of ascending and descending arpeggios of diminished sevenths, which flowed into a scale of trills from a low note to one of her highest; then dwelling very long on that note and trilling on it, she gradually returned to the theme of the cavatina, when it was perceived that her wonderfully fine musical ear had unerringly guided her through the mazes of the long cadenza and brought her to the tonic note of the piece with surprising correctness of intonation.”

It is not wise wholly to disdain these marvels of laryngeal virtuosity as though they were of the same grade of value as the feats of Japanese gymnasts. Trills, runs, skips, and staccatos, when combined with varied tone colors, accents, changes in volume and rate of speed, may have an expressive purpose as well as a decorative charm. It is a noticeable fact, however, that while the popular love of ornamental singing seems to be as strong as ever and an accomplished exponent of “colorature” will still excite a prodigious furore, nevertheless the composers who furnish the material for it are wholly of the past, and the Tetrazzini type of singer must fall back upon the threadbare operas of the Italian and French composers of the early part of the nineteenth century. Mr. Henry T. Finck speaks of this interesting fact as a “mystery.” “Why,” he asks, “have the composers of all countries given up writing florid music when the public at large evidently likes it better than anything else, demands it with applausive violence and showers diamonds on the Pattis and Sembrichs, the Melbas and Tetrazzinis who provide it?” He goes on to show that not only the German and French opera composers, but also the composers of Italy, where florid song had its birth and its richest bloom, have given it up completely.

This failure of the composers to give the public what it craves does seem at first thought a little puzzling, but it is not the first time in the history of art that artists have chosen to obey the higher laws rather than seek notoriety and emolument by catering to the whim of the sensation-loving populace. The composers of the last half of the nineteenth century have seen a great light, and they have nobly chosen to “follow the gleam.” Moreover there is no credit to a musician in writing florid cadenzas. Nothing is easier. They require no skill. Any-body who knows one key from another can do the trick. And further, in these colorature arias of the old school the composer is obliged to withdraw into the shade, while the singer flourishes in the full glare of the lime light. No composer who respects himself and his art will willingly take such a humiliating position of subordination. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” The style of music brought into vogue by Wagner and his successors, driving out the obvious tunes and the conventional vocal embroideries of the Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti school, has lifted the composer to his rightful station, and now, secure of his position, he refuses longer to sacrifice himself to the honor and glory of the limber throated vocalist. All this, perhaps, may serve as a partial solution of the “mystery.”

The study of colorature song, in spite of its abuses, is of advantage to every singer, for the practice-of it promotes flexibility and control. A vocalist who is skilled in it has a voice that is under subjection for all kinds of music, just as a pianist needs highly developed fingers for the sake of equality of touch and perfect command of shading even where technical demands are moderate. The singer should give the impression of ease and security at all times, no indication of effort should appear no matter how difficult the passage, and in every phrase each note must be as distinct as it is in the playing of an Ysaye or a Godowski. Be-sides this, florid music is not out of date, nor will it ever be, even though composers have abandoned it. The singing of Handel and Mozart requires a voice exceedingly supple and fluent, and Handel and Mozart stand among the immortal masters of song. The listener will demand that all music of what-ever type shall be sung with’ a clear-cut delivery of every note; that a chromatic scale shall be a succession of plainly distinguishable half-steps and not a portamento slide; that a trill shall accord with its definition and not be a flutter on one note, nor fall under such a blasting characterization as that of a caustic critic of our day when he described a vain attempt at this ornament as “a gargle which the singer meant for a trill.” The practice of colorature song is indispensable even to a singer who does not fully master it and never intends to display it in public, for it aids the vocalist in the attainment of abilities which all the styles require, on the Emersonian principle that one must often aim above the mark to hit the mark.

Sufficient lung power to give the proper. shading and manage the emotional climaxes is of course expected. This is so obvious that nothing more need be said about it, except to warn the music lover against the abuse of the loud tone as well as of the high tone. This abuse has always been palpable and monstrous; its proper parallel is found in the ranting of a fifth rate melodramatic stage villain. A note emitted with a shriek many degrees higher than the usual compass of the throat, or a thunderous roar that shakes the chandeliers, will generally bring down the house in a tumult of applause, no matter how inappropriate it may be or how destitute of every beautiful quality. A dog will wag his tail when his ears are rubbed; an audience will howl with delight when a tenor rushes to the footlights, spreads his arms and peals out a high C like an engine whistle; — the difference of intelligence between the canine and the human at this moment is not great. The passion for the big voice. and the high voice regardless of all other considerations is the enemy of every fine feeling and encourages nothing but coarseness, vulgarity, falsehood. To singers addicted to such claptrap and to music lovers who applaud it, Hamlet’s advice to the players is forever pertinent.

After all is said about voice and technique (and it must be admitted that pure tones, skilfully con-trolled, are to be sought for with zeal unceasing), yet the higher criticism affirms that these’ things are tributary to expression, that singing is the rendering of words with a view to reenforcing the ideas, sentiments, and emotions set forth in the text. The music lover must not be wholly carried away by a ravishing voice and flawless execution; he must listen through the tones to the words and must insist that the singer, like the actor, shall enunciate distinctly and pronounce correctly, and that every detail of phrasing, tone color, shading, and tempo shall be guided by the one unflagging determination to make the style of the song suit the spirit and diction of the verse.

To sustain the correct sound of the vowels and the precise articulation of the consonants, and at the same time preserve the proper quality and amount of tone, is no doubt extremely difficult in many situations, and the singer is constantly under temptation to sacrifice the former to the latter. The hearer should make due allowance for these impediments in view of the fact that he is listening to music as well as to words, that the crispness of enunciation in ordinary speech is not possible in singing, with its frequent prolongation of a vowel over many notes and the special stress laid upon .the musical vowels as compared with the unmusical consonants. Taking these considerations into account, the listener has the right, nevertheless, to expect that within the limits prescribed by the very nature of the vocal art the singer should re-main faithful to the belief that song is one way of delivering words, and that the rightness of his work consists not only in the general conformity of style to the poetic sentiment, but also in the observance of all the refinements of vowel and consonant articulation.

It is not simply that the hearer has a right to know what the singer is singing about. Purity and truth in the mere technical utterance depend much upon verbal accuracy. “The sheet anchor of vocalists,” says the eminent baritone, David Ffrangcon-Davies in his stimulating book, The Singing of the Future, “ought to be pure pronunciation – pure in regard to linguistic fitness and arising from general culture. Pure pronunciation (musical, sustained, fitting) once achieved insures right tone production, and consequently right tone.” “As good actors’ tone fits the word, so also must good singers’ tone fit the word. The sung word should have the penetrating power which belongs to the fine elocutionist.” “Vocal efficiency depends on mental efficiency. The character of the word and not of the tone per se is the safeguard.”

Furthermore, true artistry in song implies intellectual culture, for a careless disregard of the high claims of language indicates lack of education and of genuine delicacy of feeling. Especially must those who sing in English be heedful of this law, for the English language, with its unparalleled variety of vowel and diphthongal sounds (twenty or so may be distinguished) and its crowding of consonants, is the most difficult of the tongues to pronounce perfectly while maintaining a pure musical intonation. “Two of the greatest tests of diction,” says Mr. Louis Arthur Russell, “are in sustaining correct vowel quality with all varieties of emotional color, and the ability to sustain a given emotional color throughout a phrase including a variety of consonants. This art is rarely exhibited in the English language among singers to-day.” And in respect to consonants, Mr. Russell says: “The explosive element, the click or puff, the breath rush or tick of consonant making, is not musical, therefore it becomes the task of the singer and the intellectual talker to avoid all noise in consonant emission, and to give the articulating effect of these mechanical parts of words without destroying the legato flow to which the vowels lend such kindly service.”

There is no more striking illustration of the ideal sought by the most advanced modern singers, both in music-drama and song, than is found in Richard Wagner’s eloquent tribute to Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, whose Tannhäuser and Tristan revealed even to the composer unknown depths in his own creations. In this tribute to his lamented friend and co-worker the master makes but a single passing allusion to his “mellow, full, and brilliant voice,” and of tone formation, attack, agility, and compass there is not a word. It was the artist’s supreme portrayal of “the torturing conflict in Tannhäuser’s soul” that stirred the composer’s enthusiasm, “his frenzy of humiliation” in the second act, “the ecstasy of humiliation” in the third act; the greatness of conception and vehemence of delivery in the last act of “Tristan and Isolde,” by virtue of which, in spite of the intricacy and intensity of the orchestral music, “all attention, all interest, was centred in the actor, the singer,” the orchestra being “wholly effaced by the singer, or – to put it more correctly — part and parcel of his utterance.”

From Rossi with his chromatic chain of trills, and Farinelli, driving the humiliated trumpeter from the field, to Ludwig Schnorr and ‘ Albert Niemann, intent only on forcing the word and the emotional situation into the consciousness of the auditor, the ideal of the vocal art has indeed made a long and devious journey. In the old days passion and psychologic interest tame and conventionalized, plot and text without independent interest, contrived only to give occasion for the display of technical skill; in the latter days the most acute emotions, elemental almost super-human passion, projected by a Wagner or a Strauss with an energy that bewilders the mind and shakes the heart. In one case the beauty of physical sound and delicate manipulation, in the other the beauty of intellectual conception, dramatic accent, truth to the facts of the human spirit in its most urgent self-realization.

Let the noblest features in these two ideals be combined and the consummate artist, godlike among his fellows, would appear. It is not impossible. Once and again the world has seen a near approach to the longed-for paragon. Wagner at least never for a moment believed that poetic expression and refined vocalism were exclusive of one another, that there is any inherent disharmony in their natures. The principles and standards of great singing are now virtually agreed upon, and the lover of music need not go astray in his judgments. The style may alter under the varying exigencies of recitative and aria, opera singing, church singing, song singing, the bel canto of Handel, the declamation of Wagner,— but the universal laws of the art remain, the application of them adjusting itself to the multifarious shades of thought and feeling that give to poetic works their special form and spirit. Appropriateness of delivery to theme, to musical and poetic character, must always be the amateur’s desire. Back of the tone, inspiring, directing, coloring it, is the word. If both demands – technical perfection and truth of expression — are gratified, then let the hearer rejoice — rejoice because a noble artist has come into the world, and because he is himself able to appreciate a finished achievement of art.