Royal College of Music Author of a "Life of Verdi" "Essay on Musical Culture," ete., etc.
"The singer who preserves and cherishes tenderly the best thoughts and the best impulses is the singer who is most near to the hearts of men and women." - Adelina Patti. An American professor of voice culture once advertised that he was prepared to make all people sing, "even if they had no voice."
Possibly he wrote that immediately following one of the miracles which voice producers claim to perform; but, without going as far as my enterprising colleague, I claim that there are very few people who cannot, by judicious and careful training, be given a voice that, if it will not bring them fame and fortune, will at least be the cause of a great deal of pleasure to themselves and their hearers. In a subsequent article I shall refer to the "health-giving" potentialities of the art.
How to Learn to Sing
To return, however, to my subject, what is necessary to become a singer? First, there must be no insuperable organic defects - that goes without saying - although many minor troubles in this respect have yielded to a proper understanding of the principles of voice production. The student must choose a master - singing cannot be taught without - and, having made her choice, must put entire confidence in all that is told her.
One of the causes of vocal failure is the constant changing of professors. Pupils are very easily led by one another, and I can emphatically state that success was never yet gained by a smattering of different methods. A continuous study under one good and fully qualified teacher - and there are many such - is the quickest and surest way to success. And let the pupil remember that she is the pupil, and the master is the master. I wish to speak quite plainly on this point. The latter is working with the benefit of years of knowledge and experience, and the "questioning" pupil who has read books - many of them practically useless and opposed theoretically one to the other - and who is everlastingly demanding the why and wherefore, is simply delaying her own progress.
The true singing master is the one who has the power of divining the hidden possibilities of any voice that he hears, and herein lies his worth as opposed to the man who is merely a musician.
I am not a believer in confusing the mind with long physiological explanations. That knowledge can be imparted later.
Some teachers expend an enormous amount of time - deducted from the lessons - on learned dissertations on the organic mechanism of vocal sound. They speak of the larynx, pharynx, nasal cavities, and so forth, and the poor pupil grows more bewildered every minute. This knowledge is good in its way, and indispensable in the correcting of many faults. The doctor gives a prescription to cure the disease, he does not explain its intimate working. So with the wise singing teacher. He gives exercises to cure faults, and keeps the cause of those faults to himself. It is a wrong principle to confuse the beginner's mind with these details in the early stages of study. The old masters obtained the most beautiful results by very simple methods.
Singing, a Psychological Study
" The study of singing," one authority has declared, "is psychological. Students often find fault with mechanical deficiencies, when the difficulty lies in the imagination. True vocal training consists largely in hiding from the pupil the physical hindrances, not, as many imagine, in considering them." Therefore, cultivate the imagination. Self-consciousness and its inevitable consequence, rigidity, are very great obstacles to successful tone production. Easy and natural gestures while singing are aids in securing the necessary elastic, unconstrained poise of the body.
The young singer must not be disheartened by difficulties; nay, if her mind dwells on them, they become magnified tenfold, and take deeper root than before. Let her be patient, try in the right way, and the result will come; there are no short cuts.
Let the ear be trained to hear and appreciate the desired sound. As I have said, singing cannot be taught on paper, any more than doctors can cure illness by correspondence. And here there is an analogy. Most voices, through years of misuse, due to many causes, require bringing back to a state of health, a natural state, before real progress can be made in their development. So in this course of articles I am limiting myself to general observations and hints, which I hope will be found of interest to all young singers and helpful to them in their studies.
Of course, I am a great believer in each pupil receiving personal and individual attention, as what is necessary for one voice may be absolutely harmful to another. One voice may be throaty, another nasal, and so on, and different treatment will be necessary in different cases, and here the class system fails. But in all voices the first and foremost thing of importance is the acquisition of a musical quality. Quantity and volume grow naturally, but a big voice was never built on a false foundation. By a "big voice" I mean a voice displaying carrying power throughout its entire compass. Noise is at the command of most; it can be heard on all sides and in all places. But what I mean by a " big voice allied to quality, is a very different thing. Put a costermonger on the platform of, say, the Albert Hall, raucous cry will be lost in the vastness of that building. But let a perfectly trained singer follow him, and the most delicate " pianissimo " will be distinctly heard in the topmost gallery.
I can give here a practical rule that must never be departed from by the singer. It is not new, but neglect of it has been, and will be, the cause of much delay and failure. Never study at first for compass. Start on the middle portion of the voice, approximately: Sopranos
When referring to contraltos, I am confronted with a serious difficulty. This voice is often mistaken for a mezzo-soprano, but the true contralto is always recognisable by quality, not compass; and is, except in very rare cases, marked by the "break," which occurs usually on middle E or F. When once this voice has been determined, the greatest care must be given to equalising the tones - by practising downwards, say, on the four notes from G to D - and carrying the medium quality of the upper note down to the lower note. This is the only way in which evenness of tone can be attained.
In this age of hurry, beware of the teacher who guarantees a perfect singing voice in twelve lessons. Such a thing was never done, and never will be done. I cannot be too emphatic in expressing the importance of the careful and thoughtful study which it is necessary to give that middle portion of the voice. On its mastery depends all the future possibilities of compass and beauty. Time spent in its acquirement ultimately will prove time gained.
As to the vocal registers - the divisions of the compass of a voice - each requiring a separate mechanism, pray, students, get the "register" bogey and the "break" bogey out of your mind. These do not exist for you, I have known pupils become almost voiceless when they reached the note on which they had been told that the "break " occurred. And those same pupils have made quite a fair showing when I have made them sing the notes without their knowing precisely what those notes were.
Again, a cultivated ear is absolutely necessary, and much may be done in this respect by the pupil at home. Listen to yourself singing. It is surprising how soon the ear will develop and become conscious of faulty emission. Nowadays sight-singing and ear-training are made special features at all our musical academies and schools. This is as it should be. But here a word of advice is necessary.
I have heard it suggested that the beginner should begin her studies by taking up a course of sight-reading, and afterwards going on to the teacher of voice production. This is a great mistake, for the reason that, however good a musician the former may be, the probabilities are that he does not understand much about the actual art of singing; and as he will require his pupils to vocalise the exercises, they will inevitably tire and vitiate the voice by a wrong production.
The very first thing, before using the voice at all, is to understand thoroughly the elementary principles of pure production, after which, then, by all means let the sight-singing studies be followed. Never tire the voice by "singing" over new music. Finger it out at the piano and know it mentally before attempting to vocalise it. A great deal may be learnt by hearing the best singers of all schools. But beware of slavish imitation.
A thorough knowledge of the piano is of the greatest benefit to the singer - in fact, she should endeavour to make herself as good a musician as possible, for nowadays the standard expected is very high. In the past some of our greatest singers have been indifferent musicians, and yet, in spite of this, they reached positions of eminence, so the young singer who is not already a thorough musician need not despair. But let me impress on all the inestimable advantages of a comprehensive knowledge of music, and, if they aspire to be real artists, of languages and literature as well.
Do not neglect, also; the cultivation of a pleasant manner. A singer is seen before she opens her mouth, and a good impression can be created, and an audience put in sympathy with her, before the song begins.
To sum up, then, what is necessary? A voiced - which nearly all possess - enthusiasm, perseverance, determination to excel, endless patience, belief in one's teacher, and belief in oneself; which last is half the battle. To be continued.