Music notation in this ebook is rendered using scientific pitch notation, in which, for example, middle C is rendered as C4, C below middle C is rendered as C3, and C above middle C is rendered as C5, etc. For more information on this notation method, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientificpitchnotation
Its Production, Care and Preservation
By FRANK E. MILLER, M. D.
With a Note by GUSTAV KOBBE
NEW YORK: G. SCHIRMER BOSTON: BOSTON MUSIC CO.
COPYRIGHT, 1910 BY G. SCHIRMER
Dr. Frank E. Miller, the author of this book, is one of the leading New York specialists on throat, nose and ear. He numbers many singers among his patients and is physician to the Manhattan Opera House, Mr. Oscar Hammerstein's company.
To expert knowledge of the physiology of the vocal organs he adds practical experience as a vocalist. Before and during his student years he was a singer and held, among other positions, that of tenor in one of the large New York churches. This experience has been of great value to him in his practice among singers. He understands them temperamentally as well as physically. Moreover, it has led him, in writing this book, to consider questions of temperament as well as principles of physiology. Great as is the importance that he attaches to a correct physiological method of voice-production, he makes full allowance for what may be called the psychological factors involved therein—mentality, artistic temperament, correct concept on the part of the singer of the pitch and quality of the tone to be produced, etc.
Above all, Dr. Miller, while convinced that the tones of the vocal scale require, for their correct emission, subtly corresponding changes of adjustment in the vocal organs, utterly rejects anything like a deliberate or conscious attempt on the singer's part to bring about these adjustments. He holds that they should occur automatically (or subconsciously) as the result, in very rare instances, of supreme natural gifts, in others as a spontaneous sequence to properly developed artistry.
In fact, while based on accurate scientific knowledge, Dr. Miller's book also is the outcome of long observation and experience, so that it might well be entitled "The Common Sense of Singing."
CHAPTER I. A RATIONAL VOCAL METHOD 1
CHAPTER II. THE CHOICE OF A TEACHER 15
CHAPTER III. ON BREATHING: INSPIRATION 27
CHAPTER IV. ON BREATHING: EXPIRATION 49
CHAPTER V. THE PHYSIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF VOICE-PRODUCTION 67
CHAPTER VI. PITCH AND SYMPATHETIC VIBRATION 89
CHAPTER VII. REGISTERS OF THE VOICE 103
CHAPTER VIII. SUBDIVISIONS OF THE VOICE 117
CHAPTER IX. THE STROKE OF THE GLOTTIS 132
CHAPTER X. HYGIENE OF THE VOICE 147
CHAPTER XI. MORE VOCAL HYGIENE 169
CHAPTER XII. NODES AND THEIR CURE 182
A RATIONAL VOCAL METHOD
Song, so far as voice-production is concerned, is the result of physiological action, and as voice-production is the basis of all song, it follows that a singing method, to be correct, must be based on the correct physiological use of the vocal organs. The physiology of voice-production lies, therefore, at the very foundation of artistic singing.
The proper physiological basis for a singing method having been laid, something else, something highly important, remains to be superimposed. Voice is physical. But everything that colors voice, charging it with emotion, giving it its peculiar quality and making it different from other voices, is largely, although not wholly, the result of a psychical control—a control not exercised mysteriously from without, like Svengali's over Trilby, but by the singer himself from within. Every singer is his own mesmerist, or he has mistaken his vocation. For while voice is a physical manifestation, its "atmosphere," its emotional thrill and charm, is a psychical one—the result of the individual's thought and feeling, acting unconsciously or, better still, subconsciously, on that physical thing, the voice.
Between the two, however, between mind and body, there lies, like a borderland of fancy, yet most real, the nervous system, crossed and recrossed by the most delicate, the most sensitive filaments ever spun, filaments that touch, caress, or permeate each and every muscle concerned in voice-production, calling them into play with the rapidity of mental telegraphy. Over this network of nerves the mind, or—if you prefer to call it so—the artistic sense, sends its messages, and it is the nerves and muscles working in harmony that results in a correct production of the voice. So important, indeed, is the cooperation of the nervous system, that it is a question whether the whole psychology of song may not be referred to it—whether the degree of emotional thrill, in different voices, may not be the result of greater or less sensitiveness in the nervous system of different singers. This might explain why some very beautiful voices lack emotional quality. In such singers the physical action of the vocal organs and of all the resonance cavities of the head may be perfect, but the nerves are not sufficiently sensitive to the emotion which the song is intended to express, and so fail to carry it to the voice.
Immense progress has been made in anatomical research, and in no other branch more than in the study of the throat and of the larynx, which is the voice-box of the human body. There also has been a great advance in the study of metaphysics. It would seem high time, therefore, that both the results of modern anatomical study and the deductions of advanced psychological research, should be recognized in the use of that subtle and beautiful thing, the human voice, which in its ultimate quality is a combination of physiological and psychological phenomena—the physical, voice-producing organs acting within and for themselves, but also being acted upon by a series of suggestive impulses from the mind and soul, countless in number and variety. Indeed, one might say that while in singing the vocal organs are the first essential, they must, in order to achieve their full effect, be in tune with the infinite. Artistic singing involves complete physiological control of the voice-producing function, combined with complete command of the metaphysical resources of art. Thus only can voice be produced with that apparent spontaneity which we call artistic, and at the same time be charged with the emotional quality which gives it individual significance.
These two factors of voice-production, the physical and the psychical, should be recognized both by the teacher and by the student in striving to develop the voice, and by the physician who seeks to restore an impaired voice to its pristine quality. The substitution by teachers of various methods, originated by themselves, for the natural physiological method to which the vocal organs become self-adjusted and for the correct processes of auto-suggestion originating within the well-taught singer himself, is the cause of most ruined voices. The physician who realizes this will, in treating an impaired voice, know how to maintain the proper balance between the two factors—between medicine and surgery on the one hand and considerations of temperament and mentality on the other.
There have been written books on voice-method of which "be natural" is the slogan; books on the physiology of voice-production, in which, as far as the singer is concerned, too much importance is attached to the results of laryngoscopic examination; and books on the psychology of voice-production in which the other factors are wholly neglected. None of these three varieties of book, however, covers the ground, but each only a part of it. The three—nature, physiology and psychology—must be combined in any book that professes to offer a synthetic method of voice-production.
It is possible that knowledge of the structure of the vocal organs is of more importance to the physician and to the teacher than to the singer himself, and that too constant thought of them might distract the latter's attention from the product to the machine, from the quality of voice to be produced to the vocal apparatus producing it. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the organs which he brings into play in singing cannot fail to be helpful to the vocalist himself, and surely their importance to the teacher of singing and to the physician who has an impaired voice to restore cannot be overestimated. Correct teaching, in fact, directs the mind to the end, and by taking into account the physical parts concerned in singing, imparts to them the habit of unconsciously obeying natural laws. Singing may not be a question of how a distorted throat looks in an oblique mirror, yet the knowledge that, because a note is faultily produced, the throat must be distorted, and how, will be of great service to the teacher who wishes to correct the fault, and indispensable to the physician who wishes to eradicate the results of a bad method. The very first principle of a vocal method should be, to establish so correct a use of the vocal organs that nature in this respect becomes second nature. For correct action of the voice-organs can develop into a habit so perfectly acquired that the singer acts upon it automatically; and the most disastrous result of poor teaching is that a bad habit also becomes second nature and is almost impossible to eradicate.
There seems to be no question but that the old Italian masters of singing, whether knowingly or unknowingly, taught according to correct physiological principles, and that, because of a neglect of these principles since then, while there has been a general advance in everything else, the art of voice-production actually has retrograded. For not only did the old Italian masters understand the voice in its physical aspects; they also insisted, because they understood it so well, on a course of voice-training which lasted long enough to give the pupil complete ease and entire control of technic. The story of the famous master, Porpora, and his equally famous pupil, Caffarelli, is worth recalling. On a single sheet of music paper Porpora wrote all the feats of which the voice is capable, and from that one sheet Caffarelli studied with him five, some say six years. Then the great master dismissed him with these words: "Go, my son, I have nothing more to teach you; you are the greatest singer in Italy and in the world." In our own hurried days the teacher is only too apt, after a few months, or even after only a few weeks, to say: "Go, my dear. You know enough. You are pretty to look at, and you'll make a hit!" For, curiously enough, while the student of the pianoforte or the violin still will devote years to acquiring perfection upon it, a person who thinks himself gifted with a voice expects to become a singer with a year or two of instruction, possibly even after studying only a few months. Yet the apparatus concerned in voice-production is a most delicate one, and, being easily ruined when incorrectly used, haste in learning how to use it not only is absurd but criminal—voice-murder, in fact.
It has been said that one error of the old Italian method was that it concerned itself only with beautiful tone-production, whereas real singing is the vitalization of words by emotion. But the vitalization of words by emotion may well follow upon beautiful tone-production and, though in the case of the old Italians this undoubtedly was aided by the smoothly flowing quality of the Italian language, a singer, properly taught, should be able to sing beautifully in any tongue.
Besides haste, one great danger to-day to the art of singing, and especially to the art of beautiful tone-production, which lies at the root of all beautiful singing, is the modern worship of individualism, of the ability of a person simply to do things differently from some one else, instead of more artistically, so that we are beginning to attach more importance to whims and personality than to observance of the canons of true art. It is only when the individual has supreme intelligence, that any such disregard of what constitutes true art should be tolerated. Henry Irving, for example, was extraordinarily effective in certain roles, while in others his acting was atrocious. But even in these latter there was intellect behind what he did, and the spectator became so interested in observing his manner of striving for an effect, that he forgave him for falling short of what he strove for. But this is a very exceptional and a very dangerous kind of precedent. Art ever is more honored in the observance than in the breach. Yet its breach often is honored by modern audiences, and especially operatic audiences, because they tend to rate temperament too high and art too low, and to tolerate singers whose voice-production is atrocious, simply because their temperament or personality interests them. Take a case in point: The Croatian prima donna, Milka Ternina, whose art ranges from Tosca to Isolde, sings (in "Tosca") the invocation to the Virgin which precedes the killing of Scarpia, with a wealth of voice combined with a power of dramatic expression that simply is overwhelming; and she acts the scene of the killing with sufficient realism to raise her entire performance to the highest level of vocal dramatic art. An Italian prima donna who has been heard in the same role at the same opera house sings the invocation wretchedly, but acts the following scene, the killing of Scarpia, with startling realism. She wins applause for her performance, as much applause as the other, which shows that an operatic audience will not only tolerate, but even applaud a singer who substitutes physical attractions, temperament and a peculiar wriggle of the spinal column for beautiful voice and correct method.
We all possess voice-mechanism, and possibly there is no other physical apparatus that is misused so much. Americans misuse it even in speech; yet what a valuable possession is an agreeable and pleasant speaking-voice. This abuse of the vocal organs by the great majority of Americans makes the establishment of a correct method of voice-production in this country all the more desirable. Yet, what do we find here? Almost any charlatan can set up as a singing-teacher, and this despite the fact that the voice-mechanism is a most delicate and subtle structure, and that a slight physical disturbance or wrong use of it seriously affects the quality of the voice produced.
Had I not been a singer before I became a physician, I might not realize the part that nature, properly guided, plays in the use of the voice. Had I remained a singer and not become a physician, I might not realize how important an aid in properly guiding nature in the use of the voice is a scientific knowledge of the action of the voice-producing organs. Had I not been a singer and were not now a physician, I might not realize the influence upon the artist's physical well-being, and especially upon that delicate apparatus, the voice-mechanism, of temperament, mental condition and other purely metaphysical factors. This book, then, while it believes in consulting nature, does not believe in that "natural" method which simply tells you to stand up and sing; nor does it believe in that physiological method which instructs you to plant yourself in front of a mirror and examine your throat with a laryngoscope; nor in advising you to follow minutely the publications of the Society for Psychological Research. It believes in a synthetic coordination of the three. In my practice I have become convinced that every impairment of the voice is due to outraged nature, resulting in a physiological condition of the vocal organs that should not exist, and, in turn, inducing a psychological condition, such as worry and despondency, which also should not exist. By discovering with the aid of the laryngoscope the physiological defect and removing it, body, and, with it, mind and voice are restored to their proper condition. But if the singer goes back to a teacher whose method is wrong, the same impairment, or even worse, will result.
Jean de Reszke is a perfect example of how a singer can develop his voice when he turns from a wrong method to a right one. This celebrated tenor actually thought he was a baritone, and so did his teacher. He was trained as a baritone, made his debut in a baritone role and sang as a baritone for several years. But he experienced great fatigue in singing, much greater fatigue than seemed proper or necessary. This led him eventually to have his voice tested by another teacher, who discovered that he was a tenor. Singing with the wrong voice, which also means with a wrong method, had exhausted him. As a tenor his beautiful voice-production, based on a correct physiological method, made him equally at home and equally at ease in roles making the most opposite demands upon his powers. He sang equally well in Gounod and Wagner; and in Wagner, whether he was singing the young Siegfried, Siegfried of "Goetterdaemmerung," or Tristan.
The proper coordination of all the parts of the physical vocal apparatus with the powers of mind and emotion, is what in the end constitutes the perfect singer, and that proper coordination has, as its first basis, a due regard for the physiology of voice-production as well, of course, as for the general rules of health. In Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," Nanki Poo, hearing a tomtit by the river reiterating a colorless "tit willow," asks the bird if its foolish song is due to a feeble mind or a careless diet.
"Is it weakness of intellect, Birdie," I cried, "Or a rather tough worm In your little inside?" But all that the dear little birdie replied, Was, "Willow, Tit Willow, Tit Willow."
Colloquially expressed, what Mr. Nanki Poo asked the bird was as follows: "Being gifted by nature with a perfect larynx, which should enable you to sing beautifully, do you confine yourself to singing a colorless 'Tit Willow' because you don't know any better, or because you are attempting to sing on top of an improperly selected meal?" In other words, he put violation of the laws of hygiene by a singer on a par with idiocy. Thus, even from comic opera, in the performance of which most of the rules of vocal art are violated, one yet may gather certain truths—by listening to the words—provided the singers know enough to enunciate them distinctly.
The physiology of voice-production not only offers a rational method, it also enables the student to guide his own development, to advance his physical welfare, and, because he knows the why and wherefore of things vocal, to perceive what is best in the performance of others and to profit by it. Moreover, correct method of voice-production is in itself a health developer, and a singer who is taught by it often is able to overcome the disadvantages of a poor physique; while a singer, originally of strong physique, may find himself physically weakened by the use of a faulty method.
As between a person who employs a beautiful voice artistically and a person who sings less beautifully, relying chiefly on interesting personality and temperament, instead of on correct method, the former singer usually long outlasts the latter. In other words, genuine vocal art is the crowning glory of a naturally beautiful voice.
THE CHOICE OF A TEACHER
Further observations of a general character may be allowed to precede a more detailed consideration of method.
Some people wonder why a person who is gifted with voice simply can't get up and sing without any instruction. The reason is that voice is an instrument; a natural, human instrument, it is true, yet one in the use of which the fortunate possessor requires practice and training. The purpose of a singing-method is to produce a perfect coordination of all parts of the human voice-producing mechanism, an apparatus which is by no means simple but, in fact, rather intricate and complicated. It will be found, for example, that such a natural function of life as breathing has to be especially adapted to the requirements of the singing voice; that breathing such as suffices for the average person will not suffice for correct voice-production. Again, in every voice certain notes are better than others, and a correct method of voice-production, while it may not be able to make every note in the range of voice of equal quality, brings the whole voice up to a more even standard of excellence. It leaves the best notes as good as ever and brings the notes which naturally are not so satisfactory, nearer the standard of the best. The great singers, in addition to natural aptitude, remain students throughout their careers.
There are certain fundamental principles in a correct method of voice-production, for it is based upon study and knowledge of the organs concerned therein. But if the method were a hard-and-fast one, it would not be correct. For there are so many individual differences, physical and temperamental, between pupils, that there must be elasticity and adaptability in a method that claims to produce the best results.
Knowledge and experience should be combined in a teacher. Garcia wrote a voice-manual; and Tosi published a method as far back as 1723. But a teacher who has bought a translation of the "Traite complet de l'Art de Chant" by no means is a second Garcia, nor has a teacher who chances to have read Tosi's book a right to set himself up as an instructor of singing after the old Italian method. The old Italians, like Tosi and Porpora, were men of great practical experience in teaching, and they understood how to adapt method to individual needs. Consciously or unconsciously, their method was physiological—the fundamental principles of the physiology of voice-production were there; but these great teachers knew that individual differences had to be allowed for and that a singing-method is not a shoemaker's last.
Sometimes, indeed, it is the pupil who makes the master. One of those born singers, man or woman, whom Nature has endowed with superlative gifts and whom some unknown yet meritorious teacher, perhaps in America, has started aright, goes abroad and, after a while, comes forth, not made, but fortunately not marred, from a foreign vocal studio and enters upon a great career—and the foreign teacher's fame becomes international. The real foundation for that career may have been laid in an American city. But ambitious young Americans, instead of seeking out that teacher, will flock to the foreign one.
In such matters we are the most gullible people on the face of the earth. An Italian, now dead, but in his day the most high-priced singing-teacher in London, used to devote the greater part of his lesson periods to telling his pupils how fond certain members of the English Royal family were of him and to pointing out the souvenirs of their favor which he had displayed in his studio. Yet, doubtless, his pupils thought that, all the while they were listening to his chatter, they were taking lessons in voice-production! Americans dearly love a foreign name, and especially an Italian one, when it comes to selecting a singing-teacher. But all is not gold that glitters, and the fact that a teacher writes "Signor" before his name does not necessarily signify that he is Italian, but often only that he would like people to believe he is, because there is a foolish belief that every Italian teaches the old Italian method. The famous Mme. Marchesi, in spite of her name, is not Italian. She acquired it by marriage to Salvatore Marchesi, an Italian baritone. Before that she was Fraeulein Mathilde Graumann, a concert singer of Frankfort-on-the-Main; and sometimes I wonder whether, if she had remained Fraeulein Mathilde Graumann, she ever would have become the famous teacher she is. But Marchesi she is, and famous; and I do not doubt justly so. Yet even the pupils of so famous a teacher differ regarding the value of her method. Thus Melba never fails to sing her praises. On the other hand, Emma Eames, knowing that she was speaking for publication and that a stenographer was taking down her words, said: "Mme. Marchesi is a thoroughly good musician. Any one who goes to her with an established voice can learn a great deal from her in the interpretation of many roles. She is an admirable teacher of expression and of the general conception of a character. As a drillmaster she is altogether admirable. She teaches you the value of utilizing your time, and she makes you take a serious view of your work, which is important, for hardly an American girl who goes to her has an idea of studying seriously. She also is capital at languages. But when it comes to voice-development, I consider that she fails. My voice naturally was broad and heavy. After the end of the first two years' study with her I could not sing A without difficulty. She did not seem to know how to make my voice light. It was getting heavier and less flexible all the time."
Some years ago Mme. Marchesi's daughter, Mme. Blanche Marchesi, appeared on the concert stage in New York. As the daughter and pupil from childhood of her famous mother, she was supposed to be an ideal exponent of the Marchesi method. Professional singers and instructors flocked to her first concert. It was to be an experience, an object-lesson. Well—it was. They saw a fine-looking woman with a mediocre voice and a worse method, a method so hopelessly bad that even her undoubted musicianship could not atone for it.
All this goes to prove that a method, to be elastic and adaptable, should be based on a knowledge of the physiology of the voice-producing organs, for such a method naturally adapts itself to physical differences in different individuals. Without doubt Mme. Marchesi's method was admirably adapted to Melba, but not to Eames or to her own daughter.
Bear these circumstances in mind in selecting a teacher. The great singers are not always safe guides in the choice of a teacher, because their own superlative gifts and willingness to slave for the object of their ambition may have been as important factors in their success as the instruction they received. Probably a singer of only fair natural gifts who yet has made a success—which shows that he must have been well taught—can give better advice as to the choice of an instructor than the great artist who owes so much to himself. Moreover, great artists who have studied with the same teacher will, like Melba and Eames, differ in their estimate of that teacher.
There is, however, one great singer, Lillian Nordica, who knows to whom to give credit for that skill in voice-production which enables her to sing Valentine, Aida and Isolde with equal success. The foundation for her career was laid in this country. Afterward she studied with Mme. Maretzek and in Milan with San Giovanni, but only interpretation. Her voice-production she acquired not from Madame this or Signor that, but from plain John O'Neill, of Boston, "a scholarly man who had made a profound study of the physiology of the voice," and she took good care not to allow any other teacher, however "famous," to undo the work of the man who had taught her voice-production based on correct knowledge of the physiology of the voice-producing organs.
This matter of choosing a teacher is, of course, of the greatest importance, but it barely can be touched on in this book. The selection should be made most cautiously, but, once made, the pupil's parents should not go to the teacher a few weeks later and ask, "Why don't you give Clara some 'pieces'?" They should recall the story of Porpora and Caffarelli which I related in the previous chapter. "Pieces" are not in order until the voice is prepared for them, and the teacher is the best judge of that. A voice trained on "pieces" soon goes to pieces.
Another mistaken idea is that "any teacher is good enough for a beginner," whereas the beginning is the very time that the foundation of right method or wrong method is laid. Classifying the voice is, of itself, of great importance. Remember that Jean de Reszke's first teacher thought he was a baritone and that he sang as a baritone in opera for five years before a more competent teacher discovered that he was really a tenor. Some voices are so near the dividing line that it requires wide experience and a fine ear for quality on the part of a teacher to determine in what direction they should be developed to greatest advantage. A fine ear may determine that the seeming mezzo is a true soprano, that the notes of the pupil who comes as a baritone have the tenor quality and that his scale safely can be added to, while the would-be tenor has the baritone timbre which will prevent his notes from ever ringing out with the true tenor quality. Yes, this initial task of voice classification is far too important to be entrusted to "any teacher."
There are piano-thumping teachers of voice, who not having voices themselves are obliged to give their pupils the pitch of each note by pounding it out on the pianoforte. Voice quality has nothing in common with pianoforte quality of tone, yet constant thumping of the pianoforte by a singing-teacher in order to give the pupil the pitch, is apt to mix pianoforte color into a pupil's voice and mar its translucent vocal quality. A teacher need not be a fine singer—few vocal teachers are—but, at least, he should be able to give pitch vocally and to suggest with sufficient definition the quality of tone the pupil is to produce.
At what age should singing-lessons begin? Some say the earlier the better. Others hold that, under no circumstances, should a boy or girl be taught to sing before the age of puberty, before the voice has mutated. Those who believe that singing can be taught in childhood and safely continued even during the critical period of mutation, point out that the muscles of the voice-producing organs are most flexible and adapt themselves most easily to the task in hand during childhood and that the process of training them had best begin then, and that, with proper care, the lessons can be continued during the period of mutation.
My own opinion is that this period is so critical and proper care is so apt not to be taken, that the safest rule is not to begin singing-lessons until the adult voice undisputably has arrived. So many voices have been ruined by lack of care during mutation that it is better no risk should be taken. But why not, it may be asked, have the child taught and, when the period of mutation arrives, have the lessons suspended? There would be no harm in this, excepting that here again is run the risk that proper care will not be taken to stop soon enough and that the career of a possibly fine singer may be ruined. It has happened again and again that voices have been lost irretrievably or impaired permanently by careless use of them during the change from youth to manhood. Therefore, and also because the muscles remain limber and flexible in young people for some years after they have arrived at puberty, I advise that singing-lessons should not begin until the period of mutation is well over. Sir Morell Mackenzie, after stating that the doctrine long has been held universally that not only should systematic training be interrupted, but singing altogether forbidden during that critical period, nevertheless maintained that "if due care is exercised there is no reason why the voice should not be used in singing during the transition period: but the training must be carried out within certain limits and under strict supervision by a competent person." But there is so much risk that due care will not be exercised, that those "certain limits" will be overstepped, that the "strict supervision" will be relaxed or not exercised by a "competent person," that I strongly advise not to begin lessons until the period of change is over.
In this view I am supported by Garcia, who took sharp issue with Mackenzie. "My father," wrote Garcia, "went through the transition time without ceasing to sing, and without having done himself the least harm. But both my sisters, Mesdames Malibran and Viardot, were obliged to wait a year. I continued to sing, and my voice was ruined!" Continuing, Garcia says that the old rule which has preserved so many voices—that singing should cease altogether during mutation—should not be thrust aside on account of some rare exceptions, and young singers be handed over to the "doubtful caprice of ignorant or careless teachers." A person might with "due care" and "strict supervision" live in a plague-stricken city without contracting the disease, but one would not recommend his going there for his health. Why deliberately expose the voice to danger of loss or permanent impairment by advising that it can be used with safety during the period of transition? Far better to be on the safe side, wait until manhood or womanhood is definitely established, and then begin lessons as soon as possible.
ON BREATHING: INSPIRATION
We speak of the breath of life; and breath is the life of song. Beautiful singing is predicated upon correct methods of breathing, without which, though there be a perfect larynx and perfectly formed resonance chambers above, the result will be unsatisfactory. Breathing, in fact, is the foundation of the art of singing.
Breathing consists of taking air into the lungs and expelling it again, or as the physiologist would say, respiration consists of inspiration and expiration. Although they are essentially different actions, the laws governing each frequently have been confused by teachers of voice-culture.
There are books in which the singer is told to breathe naturally, and this direction is harped on and extolled for its simplicity. Surely no rule could be more simple; and, so far as simplicity goes, it is admirable. So far also as it casts doubt upon various breathing-methods which teachers of singing put forth as their own individual and pet devices, without which, they claim, aspirants for the concert and operatic stage would be hopelessly lost, this direction serves a useful purpose. The trouble with it is, however, that it is too simple. It does not go far enough. It leaves too much to the individual. For obviously there will be, if not as many, certainly nearly as many opinions among as many different people as to what constitutes natural breathing; and a person may have become so habituated to a faulty method of breathing that he believes it natural, although it is not.
Correct breathing, although a function of the body, also is an art. The method of a singer to be correct should be based on artistic, not merely on natural, breathing. For while all artistic breathing is natural, it does not follow that all natural breathing is artistic. Therefore, the first direction to a singer should be, breathe artistically, with some definition of what constitutes artistic breathing.
Could the singer be relied on to breathe as naturally and unconsciously as in normal slumber, when the body is in a state of calm, nearly everything that has been written on the art of singing could be dispensed with. That, practically, is what the direction to breathe naturally amounts to. For such breathing is both natural and artistic. Unfortunately, however, a singer is not a somnambulist, and when he faces his teacher, or a large audience, he not only is not in that deliciously unconscious state induced by normal slumber, but he is very much awake, with the added tension caused by nervousness and excitement. He is conscious, self-conscious in the artistic sense, unless he has been trained to appear otherwise. For, in the final analysis, that lack of self-consciousness, that ease and spontaneity which we associate with the highest art, is, save in the case of a few superlatively gifted individuals, the result of method and training. Therefore, the direction to breathe naturally is begging the question. It states a result, without explaining how it is to be acquired. Once acquired, method is merged into habit and habit into seeming instinct—that is to say, it becomes method, responding so spontaneously to the slightest suggestion of the will, that only the perfected result of it is apparent to the listener. Under such favorable conditions created by a correct method of instruction, the nervousness inseparable from a debut, and in many singers never wholly overcome even after frequent public appearances, is disguised by an assumption of calm, into which the poise and aspect of a trained singer naturally fall. All this is much facilitated by the fundamental acquisition of correct breathing.
This correct breathing, which is the artistic respiration of the accomplished singer, is based upon physiological laws which can be described, prescribed and practised. When Salvatore Marchesi, the husband of Mathilde Marchesi, and himself a famous singer, said that prepared or instructed mechanical effort to get more breath results in less, he said what is true only if the instruction is wrong. His dictum, if accepted unreservedly, would leave the door open to all kinds of "natural," haphazard and go-as-you-please methods of breathing, the "simplicity" of which consists in simply being incorrect. The physiology of breathing is an exact science, and the singer who is taught its laws and obeys them, will acquire in due time the habit of artistic respiration. It is that breathing that is as natural and unconscious as in normal slumber, so natural in fact that it has to be acquired through correct instruction, because most men and women are unnatural or have taken on habits that are unnatural.
Taking in the breath, the function of inspiration, results in a readjustment of certain organs which become disadjusted by the act of expiration or outbreathing. In general it may be said that the singer should breathe with the least possible disadjustment, so that only the least possible readjustment will be needed and the effort of breathing be minimized. Nature herself is economical, and the singer should economize the resources of breath. To breathe easily and without a waste of energy is essential to the best art, and gives a feeling to the listener that the singer, whose work he has enjoyed, has even more in reserve than he has given out. That sense of reserve force is one of the greatest triumphs of art. It is largely the result of effortless breathing, in which it is not necessary or even desirable that the singer always should strive to fill the lungs to the utmost, since that induces an obvious effort which diminishes the listener's enjoyment. Moreover, effort goes against the economy of nature. By keeping this in mind and by the use of correct methods, the singer will be able, in time, to gauge the amount of breath he requires for the tone he is about to produce or the phrase he is about to deliver, and the natural demand of the lungs will become his guide.
It is essential to correct breathing that the organs of the tract through which the breath passes in and out should at least be known. They include the mouth, nose, larynx, trachea (or windpipe), the bronchial tubes and the lungs. A narrow slit in the larynx, called the glottis, and where the vocal cords are located, leads into the windpipe, a pliable tube composed of a series of rings of gristly or cartilaginous substance. The bronchial tubes are tree-like branches of the windpipe, and extend to the lungs, which are extremely elastic and, upon being filled with air, become inflated and expand somewhat like a balloon. It is necessary that in taking in breath and expelling it, this natural apparatus should be under the singer's control and that no undue force should be exerted upon the whole or upon any part of it, since this would result in its physical impairment and a corresponding impairment in production and quality of voice. It cannot be emphasized too often that the scientific method of voice-production based on the study of the physiology of the vocal tract is not a fad; as is proved by the fact that every violation of physical law affecting the vocal tract results in injury to it and in the same proportion affects the efficiency of the voice.
Before considering various methods of breathing it should be said that, irrespective of these, air should, whenever it is possible to do so, be taken into the lungs through the nostrils and not through the mouth. True, there are times in singing when breath has to be taken so rapidly that mouth-breathing is a necessity, as otherwise the inspiration would not be rapid enough. But to inspire through the nostrils, whenever feasible, is a law not alone for the singer, but a fundamental law of health. In the passage from the mouth to the lungs there is no provision for sifting the air, for freeing it from foreign matter, or for warming it if it is too cold; whereas the nostrils appear to have been designed for this very purpose. Their narrow and winding channels are covered with bristly hairs which filter or sift and arrest the dust and other impurities in the air; and in the channels of the nostrils and back of them the air is warmed or sufficiently tempered before it reaches the lungs. Moreover it can be felt that the lungs fill more readily when air is taken in through the nostrils than when inspiration takes place through the mouth. That breath should be taken in through the nostrils is, like all rules in the correct physiology of voice-production, deduced from incontrovertible physical facts. It is, moreover, preventive of many affections of the lungs, bronchial tubes and throat.
Three methods of breathing usually are recognized in books on singing—but there should be only one. For only one method is correct and that really is a combination of the three. These three are called, respectively, clavicular, abdominal or diaphragmatic, and costal; clavicular, because it employs a forced movement of the clavicle or collar-bone accompanied by a perceptible raising of the shoulder-blades; abdominal or diaphragmatic, because breathing by this method involves an effort of the diaphragm and of the abdominal muscles; and costal, which consists of an elastic expansion and gentle contraction of the ribs, the term "costal" signifying "pertaining to the ribs."
Let me say right here, subject to further explanation, that neither of these methods by itself is complete for voice-production and that the correct method of breathing consists of a combination of the three, with the costal, or rib-expansion method, predominating. For of the three methods mentioned the expansion of the ribs creates the largest chest-cavity, within which the lungs will have room to become inflated, so that more air can be drawn into them by this method than by either of the others. But a still larger cavity can be created and a still greater intake of air into the lungs be provided for, if, simultaneously as the ribs are expanded, the diaphragm, the large muscle separating the cavity of the chest from that of the abdomen, is allowed to descend and the clavicle is slightly raised, the final act in this correct method of breathing being a slight drawing in of the lower wall of the abdomen. Ignoring the slight raising of the clavicle, this method may be called the mixed costal and diaphragmatic, for it consists mainly in expanding the ribs and in allowing the dome-shaped top of the diaphragm to descend toward the abdomen. It calls into play all the muscles that control respiration and their cooperative nerves, provides the largest possible space for the expansion of the lungs, and is complete in its results, whereas each of the three methods of which it is a combination is only partial and therefore incomplete in result.
In the method of breathing called clavicular, the hoisting of the shoulder-blades is an upward perpendicular effort which is both ugly to look at and disagreeable in its results. For in art no effort, as such, should be perceptible. Moreover, as in all errors of method in voice-teaching, there is a precise physiological reason why clavicular breathing is incorrect. Correct breathing results, with each intake of breath, in as great an enlargement of the chest-cavity as is necessary to make room for the expansion of the lungs when inflated. But as clavicular breathing acts only on the upper ribs, it causes only the upper part of the chest to expand, and so actually circumscribes the space within which and the extent to which the lungs can be inflated. It is an effort to expand the chest that is only partially successful, therefore only partially effective.
In fact, clavicular, or high breathing, requires a great effort to supply only a small amount of air; and this not only necessitates a frequent repetition of an unsightly effort, but, in consequence, weakens the singer's control over his voice-mechanism, makes inspiration through the nostrils awkward and, when the air has to be renewed quickly, even impossible, obliging the singer to breathe in violently, pantingly, and with other disagreeable and distressing symptoms of effort, through the mouth. The correct method of breathing involves only what may be called the breathing-muscles, but it utilizes all of these, thus insuring complete and effectual action; whereas clavicular breathing secures only a partial cooperation of these muscles, and in the effort involved in raising the clavicle and shoulder-blades actually is obliged to call on muscles that simply are employed to lift the weight of the body, have nothing whatever to do with breathing and, from their position, are a hindrance rather than an aid to chest-expansion.
A better name for the method of breathing that is called "abdominal" would be abominable. It is predicated upon an exaggerated idea of the force of the action required of the diaphragm, or midriff, the large dome-shaped muscle which separates the thoracic from the abdominal cavity, in other words, the cavity of the chest from the cavity of the stomach. It is true that some animals can get all the breath they require to maintain life by the action of the diaphragm alone, yet it is a mistake to predicate breathing, and especially inspiration, upon a more or less violent action of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. Both diaphragm and the abdominal muscles are, indeed, used in breathing, but not to the forcible extent that would justify applying the term "diaphragmatic" or "abdominal" to the correct method of respiration.
The abdominal style of breathing was advocated by the physiologist Mandl, and it is said that soon afterward in the schools of singing which followed his theory most unusual devices were practised for the purpose of keeping the ribs in a fixed position and compelling the pupil to breathe by the action of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles only. Thus, the pupil was compelled to sing while lying down on a mattress, sometimes with weights placed on his chest. In fact, masters are said even to have made a practice of seating themselves upon the chests of their pupils. Gallows, with thongs and rings for binding the upper half of the body and keeping it rigid, corsets and a pillory, which enclosed the frame and held the ribs in a fixed position, were some of the apparatus used in teaching the art of singing based upon abdominal breathing.
I have characterized clavicular breathing as an upward perpendicular force, ugly and only partially effective. Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is a downward perpendicular force just as ugly and as ineffective, besides being positively harmful, the pressure of the diaphragm, if violently exerted, often being injurious to the organs of the body contained in the abdominal cavity and especially to the female organs of sex. Yet unfortunately and only too often, this style of breathing is taught to women, because women, owing to corsets and tight lacing, incline to breathe too much with the upper chest (to employ clavicular or high breathing), which, however, does not justify teachers in going to the other extreme and, in order to overcome one faulty method, instructing their pupils in another that is faultier still and even physically harmful.
A more nearly correct method of breathing is the costal—that is by expansion and contraction of the ribs. It enlarges the chest cavity more than does either the clavicular or the diaphragmatic method; but does not enlarge it to its full capacity. Each method by itself alone, therefore, falls short of the complete result desired. With none of them are the lungs wholly filled with air, but only partly—the upper part and a portion of the central lungs in clavicular breathing, the lower part and a portion of the central lungs in diaphragmatic breathing, and the central and upper parts in costal breathing. The correct method combines the three—adds to the inflation of the central and upper parts of the lungs accomplished by costal breathing, the inflation of the lower part accomplished in diaphragmatic breathing and of the extreme upper part accomplished in clavicular breathing. In other words, the correct method inflates the whole of the lungs and creates a cavity large enough to accommodate them.
It is mixed costal and diaphragmatic accompanied by a slight raising of the clavicle. As the air is taken into the lungs and the framework of the ribs expands, the dome of the diaphragm, naturally, and as if voluntarily, descends and, at first, the walls of the abdomen extend or are pushed outward. The clavicle is slightly, one might say passively, raised and, finally, the lower part of the anterior abdominal wall is slightly drawn in, thus forming a support or foundation for the lungs and at the same time putting the abdominal muscles in position for participation in the work of expelling breath.
This is the most natural and, from the standpoint of physiology, the most effective method of inspiration. For it creates the largest possible cavity in which the lungs can expand. The description of it may sound complicated, but the act of inspiration itself is not. If attention is concentrated upon expanding the entire framework of the ribs the rest seems to follow in natural sequence. As the framework of the chest expands, the movement of the ribs is outward and at the same time sidewise and upwards. This expansion of the chest naturally enlarges the cavity behind it, and the lungs themselves find more space in which to expand. This triple movement of the ribs, especially in the combined outward and upward direction, the latter at right angles to the spine, causes a great enlargement of the chest-cavity and gives the lungs a great amount of space in which to expand. Combined with the sinking of the diaphragm, which still further adds to the space, and a slight raising of the clavicle which assists the expansion of the upper portion of the lungs, it constitutes the correct method of breathing. It is mixed costal and diaphragmatic—effected by the ribs, with the assistance of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, but very different from the method of breathing predicated upon so violent an effort of diaphragm and abdomen that it is called "diaphragmatic" or "abdominal" breathing, and very different also from pure "costal" breathing.
Patrons of opera and concert will have noticed that many great singers, when emitting the voice, incline the body slightly forward toward the audience, as if feeling more assured that their voices would carry to the listeners, or as if striving to get upon a more intimate footing with them. This forward poise of the body, however, is a natural and physiological aid to a correct method of singing. I have stated that the upward and outward movement of the ribs greatly enlarges the chest-cavity, and with this slight forward poise of the body it is not necessary for the ribs to move all the way upward to the natural horizontal position in order to stand at right angles to the spine. In other words, the forward poise of the body eliminates a portion of the movement involved in inspiration, the spine now taking part and doing its share. This can readily be tested by holding the back straight or rigidly upright and taking a full breath by lifting the chest. The physical effort will be found much greater than when the body is slightly poised forward, and if the singer will gradually assume that poise and again fill his lungs with air, he will find that to do so requires less time and less strain. The forward poise of the body also favors many of the muscles employed in inspiration, because many of these extend upward and forward so that the forward inclination aids them in assisting the horizontal lifting of the ribs and the resultant enlargement of the chest-cavity. This assistance is greatly needed, for the singer sometimes is required within the brief space of a quarter of a second to expand the framework of the ribs sufficiently to take into the lungs from 100 to 150 cubic inches more of air than they previously held.
This forward poise of the body is another illustration of the sound logic that lies in the application of physical laws to voice-production. For the forward poise which singers find so advantageous and which aids in the horizontal lifting of the ribs, also induces that gentle sinking in of the lower abdominal wall which is the final detail in the correct method of drawing in the breath and on which the old Italian masters of bel canto insisted as an important factor in their methods.
In considering the diaphragm and its part in costal or rib-breathing, care should be taken to make clear why it is that, while this muscle is a valuable aid to inspiration, its value would be impaired were it whipped into action like a conscript instead of being drafted, so to speak, as a volunteer.
In breathing a singer is required to take in, on an average, from 100 to 150 cubic inches of air, and one of the purposes of artistic breathing is to provide room in the chest-cavity for the expansion of the lungs due to this intake. The natural, voluntary, and, I am tempted to say, logical descent of the dome of the diaphragm in artistic breathing allows for 25 cubic inches of the number required, and by no effort can it be forced down further to allow for more; or, to put the matter more correctly, the gain will be too insignificant to make the effort worth while. The gain of 25 cubic inches, although, of course, highly important, seems slight when the size and shape of the diaphragm are considered. It would appear as if the descent of the dome would allow for a much greater displacement. But the discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that about two inches above its lower border the diaphragm is attached to the ribs so that only a partial displacement is possible, which shows the futility of the more or less violent effort involved in pure diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. Moreover, the hollow vein (vena cava) which leads the blood back to the heart, passes through the diaphragm, or, to be more exact, through its central tendon, and any violent action of the diaphragm in taking in breath tends to stretch this vein and, after a while, to create dizziness.
I should be sorry if what I have said regarding the diaphragm were to be construed as belittling its importance as an aid to artistic breathing. My comments are directed against the exaggerated importance attached to it by advocates of wholly diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, when it is capable of physiological demonstration that violent effort will accomplish no more with the diaphragm than that accommodating muscle accomplishes of its own accord when the singer, in taking in breath, correctly applies the principles of mixed costal and diaphragmatic respiration. In women only one-fifth and in men only one-sixth of the cavity needed for the inflation of the lungs can be made by sinking the diaphragm, the remaining four-fifths and five-sixths being created by the expansion of the ribs. Therefore, the diaphragm would be obliged to move five or six times as far downward as the ribs move upward, in order to make room for the same amount of air. In other words, the ribs need only make about one-fifth or one-sixth as much effort as the diaphragm, and effort—conscious, noticeable effort—is one of the first things to be avoided in any art and especially in the art of singing. "If a full, pan-costal inspiration be taken after a complete expiration," writes Dr. Harry Campbell in his "Respiratory Exercises in the Treatment of Disease," "no more air, or at all events only a small quantity, can be inhaled by means of the diaphragm." This, however, should be construed as meaning that, after the diaphragm has performed its correct function in inspiration, any further violent effort on its part is practically futile. For the term "full, pan-costal inspiration," substitute "mixed costal and diaphragmatic," which will imply that the diaphragm has done its duty by the singer—and it is that apparently effortless performance of its duty that gives it its real importance. The diaphragm really is a most courteous and accommodating muscle when its assistance is politely invited, but most obstreperous when one tries to force it into action.
In proper breathing the feeling is as if the intake commenced with the upper ribs and terminated over the abdomen. We even feel, in taking in a deep breath, as if all our power were directed toward the four or five upper ribs and as if we were giving the greatest expansion to the very apex of the lungs; but the simple fact is that the six upper ribs encompass more space than the six lower ones, consequently in proper breathing the most movement is experienced where the cavity formed admits of the greatest expansion of the lungs.
To say that no other style of breathing excepting that which has been described as correct, the mixed costal and diaphragmatic, ever should be employed, would be a mistake, but any other should be employed, when at all, only for rare and specific effects. For example, a tenor in reaching for a high note may find that the violent raising of the collarbone and shoulder-blades, which is involved in clavicular breathing, assists him at the critical moment, and he may, rightfully, perhaps, employ that method in that one great effort of an evening—remembering, however, that Rubini actually broke his collarbone in delivering a very high note. Tenors sometimes reach for their high notes with their arms and legs, and if the high note comes out all right, we forget the effort in the thrill over the result, provided effort does not degenerate into contortion. Similarly in an unusually powerful, explosive fortissimo, a momentary use of pure abdominal breathing may be excusable. But these are exceptions that prove the rule, and very rare exceptions they should remain.
In breathing, the correct method of inspiration is to provide the room required for the inflation of the lungs by enlarging the chest-cavity to its greatest possible extent, which is accomplished by expanding the whole framework of the ribs and allowing the diaphragm to descend, the clavicle rising passively while the wall of the abdomen at first extends and then, as to its lower anterior portion, slightly sinks in.
Sir Morell Mackenzie recognized that artistic inspiration is a combination of methods. "When costal or diaphragmatic breathing is spoken of," he writes in "Hygiene of the Vocal Organs," "it must always be remembered that in the normal human body both methods are always used together, the one assisting and completing the other. The terms are in reality relative, and are, or should be, applied only as one or the other type predominates in an individual at a given time." The only trouble about applying these terms singly to genuinely artistic breathing is that, in the nomenclature of respiration, they signify methods that are only partial, whereas correct inspiration is mixed costal and diaphragmatic, with a touch of the clavicular added. Such, then, is that "natural" method which also is artistic. It is based on sound physiological laws; and because these laws are, in turn, founded on fact, it is as efficient in practice as it is correct in theory.
ON BREATHING: EXPIRATION
Air having been taken into the lungs, the act of exhaling it—the act of expiration—is, for ordinary purposes, a very simple matter. The elasticity of the parts of the body, the expansion of which made room for the inflation of the lungs, as these became filled with the air that was being drawn into them, permits the disadjustment to be readjusted almost automatically. Elasticity implies that a body which has been expanded returns spontaneously to its normal size and position. Thus with expiration the lungs return to their position of rest and the diaphragm and the walls of the abdomen follow them. This voluntary readjustment suffices for ordinary expiration. But the expiration of a singer should not be ordinary. It should be artistic. To begin with, while, whenever possible, air should be taken into the lungs through the nostrils, in singing it should always be expelled through the mouth. If part of the air-column is allowed to go out through the nose, there is danger of a nasal quality of tone-production.
In ordinary breathing the emission of air immediately follows the intake; expiration begins the moment inspiration ceases, and the respiration is completed. The elasticity of the lungs causes the diaphragm to rise and the walls of the chest to return to their natural position. Thus, in ordinary breathing, relaxation immediately follows the expansion, and almost as soon as the air is inhaled, it is expelled again.
But as breath is the foundation of song, it is something not to be wasted, but to be husbanded to the utmost. For of what value to the singer is a correct method of taking in breath if all or part of the air passes out before the tone is produced? It is an income dissipated, a fortune squandered.
The first step toward that breath-economy so essential in singing is to retain the breath a little while, to pause between inspiration and expiration. "Pause and reflect," one might say. For that pause, physiologically so helpful, as will be shown, appears psychologically to warn the singer against wasting breath and so to manage it that breath and tone issue forth simultaneously, the tone borne along on a full current of air that carries it to the remotest part of hall or theatre.
The pause before exhaling will be found by the singer a great aid in enabling him to maintain control of the outgoing column of air and to utilize it as he sees fit without wasting any portion of it. Wilful waste makes woeful want in singing as in life.
How long should the breath be retained before emission? There can be no hard and fast rule. It is a matter of circumstance entirely, and it certainly is detrimental to postpone the next inspiration to the last moment before the next note has to be intoned or the next phrase started. Every opportune rest should be utilized for inspiration, and, if possible, the breath should be inhaled a second or two before the note or phrase to be sung, and the breath retained until the crucial moment. Then breath and song together should float out in a steady stream. The result will be pure, full, resonant tone. A pianissimo upon a full breath is like the pianissimo of a hundred violins, which is a hundred times finer than that of a single instrument, and so rich in quality that it carries much further. It is the stage-whisper of music.
This pause and the steadiness produced by it probably constitute what the old Italian masters of singing had in mind when they laid down for their pupils the rule "filar il tuono" or "spin the tone," in other words, the practice of emitting the breath just sufficiently to produce a whisper and then convert it into a delicate and exquisite tone—a mere filament of music. Even in rapid passages which succeed each other at very brief intervals and such as frequently occur in the Italian arias, it is possible to replenish the breath in such a way that some pause, however brief, can be made between inspiration and expiration. Watch Melba singing the Mad Scene from Lucia, Tetrazzini, the Shadow Song from Dinorah, or Sembrich, the music of the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute, and you will observe that they replenish the original intake of breath with half-breaths, a practice which enables them at every opportunity to make the required pause before breath-emission. Moreover, it always allows of a reserve quantity of air being retained in the lungs. That sense of unwasted resource, the feeling so important to convey to the audience that, much as the singer has accomplished, the limit of his capacity has by no means been reached, and that, like a great commander, he has his forces well in hand, is holding back his reserves and does not expect to launch them into action at all, can be created only by perfect control of the air-column; and that control of breath is gained best by a pause, if only for a fraction of a second, between inspiration and expiration.
Moreover, holding the breath for a little while before expiration is conducive to good health, a condition, needless to say, which creates confidence and buoyancy in the singer and adds greatly to the efficiency of his voice and the effectiveness of his performance. Proper breathing is a cleaning process for the interior of the body. It cleanses the residual air, the air that remains in the lungs after each respiration; and it does much more. Air enters the lungs as oxygen; it comes out as carbonic acid, an impure gas created by the impurities of the body. The process of breathing dispatches the blood on a cleansing process through the whole body, and, while traveling through this, it collects all the poisonous gases and carries them back to the lungs to be emitted with expiration. By holding the breath we prolong this process, make it more thorough, and correspondingly free the body of more impurities. From the classic ages down physicians have advocated retaining the breath for a little while after inspiration as an aid to general health, and the taking and holding of a full breath has been compared with opening doors and windows of a house for ventilation.
Sir Morell Mackenzie emphasizes this purifying function of respiration in his book on the "Hygiene of the Vocal Organs." It consists, as he says, essentially in an exchange of gases between the blood and the air, wherein the former yields up some of the waste matters of the system in the form of carbonic acid, receiving in return a fresh supply of oxygen. It is evident from this how important it is to have a sufficient supply of pure air, air which contains its due proportion of oxygen to renovate the blood. A room in which a number of people are sitting soon becomes close if the windows and doors are kept shut. This indicates that the oxygen in the air is exhausted, its place being taken by carbonic acid exhaled from the lungs of the assembly, so that the purification of the blood must necessarily become more and more imperfect.
"Besides their principal function of purifying the blood," writes Sir Morell Mackenzie, "the lungs are the bellows of the vocal instrument. They propel a current of air up the windpipe to the narrow chink of the larynx, which throws the membranous edges or lips (vocal cords) of that organ into vibration, and thereby produces sound. Through this small chink, the air escaping from the lungs is forced out gradually in a thin stream, which is compressed, so to speak, between the edges of the cords that form the opening, technically called the glottis, through which it passes. The arrangement is typical of the economical workmanship of nature. The widest possible entrance is prepared for the air which is taken into the lungs, as the freest ventilation of their whole mucous surface is necessary. When the air has been fully utilized for that purpose it is, if need be, put to a new use on its way out for the production of voice, and in that case it is carefully husbanded and allowed to escape in severely regulated measure, every particle of it being made to render its exact equivalent in force to work the vocal mill-wheel." Thus again is illustrated the close analogy between vocal art and physical law, and further evidence given of the value of a physiological method of voice-production as opposed to those methods that are purely empirical. In fact when it is considered that speech is Nature's method of communication and that song is speech vitalized by musical tone, it would seem as if song were Nature's art and, therefore, more than any other based on Nature's laws.
No effort is involved in holding the breath. The pause before emission is accomplished without any internal muscular struggle, and without any constriction of the larynx. Some writers lay down the rule that after inhaling, the singer should retain the breath by closing the vocal cords. The only objection to laying down this rule is that it is apt to make the pupil perform consciously an act that is so nearly voluntary as to be unconscious. It inclines the pupil to make an effort when effort is unnecessary. Retain the breath and you can feel the vocal cords close in consequence, and as if of their own accord, and open again with the act of emission. It is all voluntary, or nearly so. In fact, artistic breathing becomes after a while a fixed habit and is performed unconsciously. In the early days of practice the pupil may be apt consciously to perform each of the successive acts comprised in artistic breathing. Gradually, however, messages begin to travel so swiftly over the nerves which connect the will, mind, or artistic sense with the breathing-muscles that these seem to have become sensitive by anticipation to what is required of them and voluntarily to bring themselves into play. The most subtle filament ever spun still is less fine than the line which divides the physiology of voice-production from the psychology of song and, by crossing which, song, the art of Nature, becomes second nature.
The singer having after inspiration retained the air in his lungs for a brief space of time, also must maintain control of the stream of air when he begins to emit it. It should rise from the lungs through the bronchial tubes, the windpipe and the larynx into the mouth and flow out from between the lips like a river between smooth and even banks and bearing voice upon its current—a stream of melody. The more slowly, within reason, the singer allows his breath to flow out, the better; and this is as true of rapid phrases as of broad cantabile. Breath should be emitted as slowly in a long, rapid phrase as in a slow phrase of the same length. It is only when rapid phrases succeed each other so quickly that there is no time between them for a deliberate, full inspiration, that half-breaths have to be taken to replenish the air-supply. But a singer who thinks that rapid singing also involves rapid breathing should rid himself of that mistaken notion as quickly as possible. A choirmaster once told me that he had trained his boys so perfectly in breath-control that they could sustain a note for thirty seconds on one breath. For them to sing on one breath a rapid phrase lasting just as long, would be equally feasible. It is the slow emission of breath that gives to long, rapid phrases a smooth and limpid quality; and it is the taking of breath at inopportune moments, as badly taught singers are obliged to do, that makes such phrases choppy and ineffectual. This fault is never observable in artists trained in the real traditional Italian school of singing—not necessarily by Italians, but in the traditional school of the old Italian masters.
The choppy method of singing is noticeable, not in all, but in many German singers. It is due to incomplete breath-control, for which in turn carelessness in matters of hygiene largely is responsible. The average German is of a naturally strong physique, and for this very reason he is less apt to take care of himself. The singer, in order to keep the keen, artistic edge on his voice, has to sacrifice many things that contribute to the comfort of the average man; and this is especially true of diet. A strict regime is a necessity. You will find that every great singer has to deny himself many things. But the German is apt to sneer at such precaution and to glory in what he calls "living naturally," which means that he thinks it is all right to eat and drink what he wants to and as much as he wants to. In point of fact, however, the great singer does not "live" at all. He exists for his voice, sacrificing everything to it. His diet, his hours, are carefully regulated. He is always in training. The German is apt to neglect such matters. The inevitable result is shortness of breath and lack of control of breath-emission. Voice is breath; lack of breath is lack of voice.
I once attended a German performance of Die Walkuere with an Italian master of bel canto. "You call that a love-scene!" he exclaimed during the latter part of the first act, between Siegmund and Sieglinde. "They are barking at each other like two dogs!" And so they were.
The natural process of expiration is one of complete relaxation. Just as the intake of air into the lungs inflates and expands them, so, when the intake ceases, the elasticity of the lungs exerts a natural pressure on the air they have taken in and causes its almost effortless exit. This exit, however, is so gentle as to be useless for the production of voice. For this reason the singer must control the breath and retard its exit, and the slower his expiration, the more control he will gain over the tone or phrase. Those familiar with the performances of some of the great opera singers who have been heard here will have observed that, when singing, they do not allow the chest to collapse, but hold it as full and as firm as if the lungs still were inflated. This physical index to a correct method of expiration is more easily noticed in men than in women. The De Reszkes, Caruso, Plancon—these have been some of the most notable exponents of correct voice-production who have appeared on the American operatic stage. Let the reader, when next he hears Caruso or Plancon, note that they never strain after an effect, never labor, never grow red in the face, never employ excessive gesture to help force out a note. With them respiration consists of inspiration and expiration—never of perspiration. There is little danger that Caruso ever will break his collar bone in producing high C, and his delivery of the romance, "Una furtiva lagrima," in L'Elisir d'Amore, is a most exquisite example of breath-control and of voice-management in cantabile; while Plancon's singing from a chest absolutely immobile, even in long and difficult phrases, is so effortless that his performances are a delight to every lover of the art of song, his voice flowing out in a broad, smooth stream of music. Physically, the reason why an expanded chest retards the emptying of the lungs is apparent. The pressure of a relaxing chest would accelerate their return to a condition of repose and the breath would be expended too soon, with the result that some or much of it would be wasted. Moreover, an expanded chest is a splendid resonance-chamber, affords a firm support to the windpipe and adds to the sure and vibrant quality of the tone produced. The wobble, which at times causes disappointment with voices that had seemed unusually fine, is the result of lack of attention to this detail of vocal method. The windpipe, requiring the support of a firm chest-wall, becomes unsteady, the singer loses his control of the air-column, and the vibrations of the vocal ligaments are uncertain, instead of tense and sure.
To maintain the expanded chest during expiration, which also means during singing, is not difficult. There is nothing forced about it. For if there is the correct pause after inspiration, if the breath is held for a brief space of time, the pressure naturally exerted outward upon the upper chest is readily felt. Accompanying it is a gradual drawing in of the lower abdominal wall, not forceful enough to be called stringent but simply following the return of the diaphragm to its natural position as the lungs return to theirs. Therefore, when it is stated that if a crescendo is to be produced on a single tone or phrase, this is accomplished by increasing the outward pressure on the chest and the inward and upward pressure of the abdominal muscles; there is no thought of prescribing a sudden and undue strain, but simply of employing more potently and more effectively certain forces of pressure which Nature herself already has brought into play. What is perhaps the most important distinction of this method of breath-control and voice-management is the fact that it relieves the throat of all pressure, the correct tension and vibration of the vocal cords being brought about by the reflex action of muscles and nerves. This lack of strain on the throat does away with all danger of a throaty quality of voice-production, which not only is highly inartistic but also leads to various throat troubles.
Breath-control implies that no breath is wasted, that every particle of breath, as it comes out, is converted into voice. Dissipation of breath results in uncertainty of voice-production, a branch of the subject which will be taken up in the chapter on "attack." An excellent test for economy of breath is to hold a lighted candle before the mouth while singing. If the flame flickers, breath is being wasted, is coming out as empty air instead of as voice. There is the same difference between voice produced on breath that is under the singer's control and that produced on breath which is not properly steadied, as there is between a line drawn straight and sure by a firm hand and a wavering line drawn by a hand that is nervous and trembling. In fact, in singing the waver of the voice that results from poor control of breath is a tremble, a tremolo, and is one of the worst faults in a singer.
It also should be pointed out that the singer is not to continue an expiration beyond the point when it ceases to be easy for him to do so. As soon as the air-column becomes thin the singer's control over it becomes insecure, and, from that point on, the air that remains should be regarded simply as a reserve supply and aid to the next inspiration.
To sum up: Breathing consists of two separate actions, inspiration and expiration, the intake of air and its emission. Of the three kinds of inspiration mentioned in most books on singing and termed clavicular, abdominal or diaphragmatic, and costal, neither completely fills the bill. The correct method of inspiration is a combination of all three. It is costal—that is indicated by an expansion of the whole framework of the ribs—assisted by an almost automatic sinking of the diaphragm and a very slight, almost passive, rising of the clavicle, the final detail being a slight sinking in of the lower front wall of the abdomen. In this method, although it is a combination of the three—the clavicular, the diaphragmatic and the costal—the clavicle plays so small a part, that the method may be termed mixed costal and diaphragmatic.
The breath having been taken in, it should be held for a brief space of time.
In expiration, allow the breath to escape very slowly. Maintain the chest firm and expanded, and add, as occasion requires, to the natural inward and upward pressure of the abdominal muscles. Avoid all throat effect. After expiration the chest and abdominal pressure is relaxed and the next inspiration prepared for.
Take in breath through the nostrils, emit it through the mouth. This latter instruction may seem superfluous, but it is not. In the so-called "backward production" of voice, considerable air escapes through the nasal passages and the tone-quality is nasal and disagreeable.
It is of the highest importance to acquire a correct method of breathing, and to acquire it so thoroughly that it becomes second nature. In the beginning it may be necessary to bear each successive step in mind and make sure that it is not omitted. But very soon artistic breathing to sustain song becomes as much a habit as is breathing to sustain life. We breathe, or we cannot live; we breathe artistically, or we cannot sing. But to breathe artistically really is no great problem. It is a simple matter, yet fraught with great and invaluable results to the singer; and it is a simple matter because it becomes so easily a matter of habit. The nerves of the breathing-muscles send and receive messages to and from the nerve-centre, but after incredibly little practice this interchange of messages over the nervous system becomes so swift that it may be said to take place by anticipation, and the person who benefits by it is unaware that it takes place at all. Correct breathing has then become a habit. This habit, this smooth working, automatic cooperation of nerves with breathing-muscles, may be thrown out of gear by something unusual, such as the excitement attending a debut.
The singer faces an audience or a strange audience for the first time, and the first unfavorable and disconcertive effect travels over the nerves to the respiratory organs. Regular breathing is at such times one of the best ways to allay the undue excitement caused by the unusual surroundings. Before beginning to sing the artist should, and on such occasions with conscious artistry, immediately reestablish control of respiration by taking a few deep breaths. I have said before that the borderline between the physiology of voice-production and the psychology of song is a narrow one—whereof the above cure for stage-fright is but another case in point.
THE PHYSIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF VOICE-PRODUCTION
Above this chapter I might well have placed the following lines which George Eliot wrote above Chapter XXXI. of "Middlemarch."
How will you know the pitch of that great bell, Too large for you to stir? Let but a flute Play 'neath the fine-mixed metal! Listen close Till the right note flows forth, a silvery rill: Then shall the huge bell tremble—then the mass With myriad waves concurrent shall respond In low, soft unison.
The lines telling of the great bell stirred by the note of a flute played at the proper pitch suggest the moving power that lies in sympathetic vibration. The first time a military body crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the spectators were surprised to hear the order given for the soldiers to march out of step. They had expected to be thrilled by the sight of a thousand men crossing the great structure in measured tread, with band playing and colors flying. They did not know that the structure, being a suspension bridge, might have been weakened and possibly destroyed by the force of rhythmic oscillation. Yet the accumulated force in the tramp of a thousand men is no greater than that which lies in the sympathetic vibrations of a musical note. Every metal structure has its note, and it is an old engineering saw that a huge structure like the Brooklyn Bridge eventually could be destroyed by the cumulative force of sympathetic vibration evoked by a musical instrument constantly reiterating the note of the bridge.
Sound has three dimensions: pitch, loudness and timbre.
Pitch depends upon the frequency of vibrations. The more rapid the vibrations, the higher the pitch.
Loudness is determined by the amplitude of the vibrations. As their length or "excursion" increases, so does the sound gain in loudness. Conversely, the diminution in the size of vibrations causes corresponding decrease of loudness.
Differences in the shapes of vibrations cause differences in quality or timbre.
After voice has originated within the restricted limits of the larynx, its power, its carrying quality is much augmented by the sympathetic vibrations within the resonance cavities above the larynx. These include the pharynx, nasal passages, mouth, bone cavities of the face—in fact pretty much every hollow space in the head, every space that will resound in response to vibration and assist in multiplying it. Moreover, the cavities of resonance by their differences in shape in different individuals determine the timbre or quality of individual voices. The chest, although situated below the larynx, is a resonance cavity of voice. In fact, in a certain register its vibration is felt so distinctly that we speak of these notes as being sung in the "chest register," which, so far as it implies that the tones are produced in the chest, is a misnomer. The same is true of "head register," in which vibration is felt in the head where, however, it is needless to say, the "head tones" do not originate.
Expiration—breath-emission—is the motor function of the vocal organs; and there are two other physical functions of the organs—vibratory and resonant.
Added to these is the sensory function, to which I attach great importance; and I call it a psychological function because it acts through the nerves upon the physical organs of voice. Without it the three physical functions—motor, vibratory and resonant combined—would remain ineffectual. They could generate voice, but it would be voice lacking those higher qualities that are summed up in the word "artistic." It would be a physical, not an art product, a product generated by the body without the cooperation of the mind or soul. When it is considered that the larynx, in which the vocal cords are situated, is permeated by a network of muscles through which it is capable of some 16,000 adjustments and readjustments of shape, all of them pertinent to voice-production, and that the same thing also is true of the pliable portions of the resonance cavities; that these muscles act in response to an even finer network of nervous filament; and that the constant shaping and reshaping of various parts of the vocal tract during voice-emission is directed by messages from the mind, soul, or art-sense of the singer, messages which travel via nerve to muscle—the only route by which they can travel—it becomes possible to appreciate the importance of the sensory or psychological function which, I hold, should be added to the purely physical ones of motor, vibration and resonance. For by it these functions are enlisted in the service of art and made immediately and exquisitely responsive to the emotional exaltation of music and song. Nor are these vague terms. Psychology of song and psychological action in general may seem indefinite and unintelligible. They become, however, absolutely definite and intelligible when the part played by the nerves as intermediaries between mind and muscular action of a subtle and highly refined order is appreciated. The mind presses the button, the nerves carry the messages, and muscle acts instantaneously and responsively.
The student need not despair because so many separate acts seem necessary to the production of even a single tone. It is true that air has to be taken into the lungs and emitted from them; that it must be controlled by the singer as it passes up the windpipe; that the vocal cords and other parts of the larynx must be given their specific adjustment for each note; and the cavities of resonance shaped in sympathetic coordination with those numerous adjustments, while the lips also have their function to perform. But it is equally true that correct instruction supplemented by assiduous practice merges all these separate acts into one. The singer thinks the note, forms what may be called a sounding vision of it in his mind, and straightway the vocal tract adapts and coordinates all its parts to the artistic emission of that note. It is auto-suggestion become habit through practice.
Because the larynx is so important a factor in generating voice, writers on voice-production have described it with much minuteness, and because of these minute descriptions readers may have obtained an exaggerated idea of the size of this organ. But one of the marvels of voice-production is the smallness of the organ in which voice is generated, the size of the average larynx being about two inches in height by an inch and a half in width. Yet so numerous are the adjustments in shape of which this small organ is capable that the phenomenal soprano, Mara, could make 100 changes in pitch between any two notes in her voice, and as this had a compass of twenty-one notes, it follows that she could produce no less than 21,000 changes in pitch within a range of twenty-one notes. While in Mara's day this no doubt was attributed to a natural gift of voice, modern study of voice-physiology and of the metaphysics of voice-production readily accounts for it. It needs an ear naturally or by training so delicately attuned to pitch that not only all the fundamental notes of a voice, but all the numerous overtones at infinitesimal intervals are heard in what may be called the singer's mental ear; that the nerves convey each of these sounding mental conceptions to the intricate system of muscles in the larynx and resonant cavities and that the right muscles immediately adjust the larynx and cavities of resonance to the shape they have to assume to sound the corresponding note. Every vocal tone is, in fact, a mental concept reproduced as voice by the physical organs of voice-production, so that every vocal tone is, in its origin, a mental phenomenon. That is why an inaccurate ear for pitch results in a vocalist singing off pitch. His mental conception of the note is wrong, the message conveyed from the mind over the nerves to the muscles of the vocal organs is wrong, consequently they shape themselves for a note that is wrong, and, when the note issues from between the singer's lips, it is wrong—wrong from start to finish, from mind to lips. Thus again is illustrated the intimate connection between psychology and physiology in voice-production, and the necessity of having every function concerned therein so thoroughly trained that every act from mental concept to sounding voice is correctly performed through a habit so thoroughly acquired that it has become second nature. In common parlance one might say to the student of song, "Get the correct voice-habit and keep it up," for that really is what it amounts to, only it is necessary that great stress should be laid on the word "correct."
It now becomes necessary to describe the larynx, and this I will endeavor to accomplish without puzzling the reader with too many technical terms. The study of the larynx was made possible by the invention of the laryngoscope in 1855 by Manuel Garcia, a celebrated singing-master. It is a simple apparatus—which, however, does not detract from but rather adds to its value as an invention—and has been a boon to the physician in locating and curing affections of the throat. Its essentials are a small mirror fixed at an obtuse angle to a slender handle. Introduced into the mouth it can be placed in such position that the larynx is reflected in the mirror and thus can be observed by the operator. Those who have had their throats examined with the laryngoscope will recall that the operator wears a reflector over his right eye. Through a central perforation in the reflector he views the image, which is seen the more clearly for the light thrown upon the laryngoscopal mirror by the reflector. It would be possible after comparatively little practice with the apparatus for a singer to examine his own larynx. But it would be most inadvisable for him to do so. Either he soon would become "hipped" on the subject of innumerable imaginary throat troubles, or his voice-production would become mechanical, which is very different from the spontaneous adjustment of the vocal tract described above.
The laryngoscope should not, in fact, leave the hands of the physician. Invaluable for the detection of diseases of the throat which impair the voice and which have to be cured either by treatment or operation before the voice can be restored to its original potency or charm, its value in studying the physiology of voice-production and the functions of the vocal organs is doubtful. In fact, it is its use by amateur laryngoscopists that has resulted in the promulgation of all kinds of absurd theories of voice-study and in those innumerable pet methods of vocal instruction, each one of which may safely be guaranteed to destroy expeditiously whatever of voice originally existed. Fascinating as it may seem to the singer to examine his own larynx while he is producing a vocal tone—"during phonation," the physiologist would say—the value of the deductions formed from such observation may be doubted, if for no other reason than that the introduction of the mirror into the back of the mouth makes the whole act of phonation strained and the effects observed unnatural. In fact, as Mackenzie already has pointed out, although the laryngoscope is invaluable in the recognition and treatment of diseases which before only could be guessed at, "with the exception of certain points relating to the 'falsetto' register, it can scarcely be said to have thrown any new light on the mechanism of the voice." In other words, the instrument belongs in the hands of the physician, not in those of the singer.
The larynx, as I already have stated, is a small organ, on an average two inches long and one and a half inch wide. The reader can form a good idea of its location by the Adam's apple, which is its most forward projection at the top.
From the singer's point of view the larynx exists for the sake of the vocal cords—in order that they may be acted upon by certain muscles and thus relaxed or tightened, lengthened or shortened, or by a combination of these states properly adjusted to the note that is to be produced. The vocal cords lie parallel to each other. The space between them (the opening through which the air from the windpipe passes up into the larynx) is called the glottis. With every loosening, tightening, lengthening or shortening of the vocal cords or other effect of muscular action upon them, the space between them—the glottis—alters in size and shape. These subtle changes in the size and shape of the glottis are, as I shall expect to show, of great importance in voice-production. They form the first step in the actual creation of voice.
The numerous and subtle adjustments and readjustments in shape of which the larynx is capable could not be effected if its shell consisted of so hard and unyielding a substance as bone. Consequently, it has to consist of a substance which, while sufficiently solid to form a background for the attachment of its numerous muscles, yet is sufficiently pliable to yield with a certain degree of elasticity to the action of these. Nature therefore has built up the larynx with cartilage, or gristle, providing a framework made up of a series of cartilages, sufficiently joined to form a firm shell surrounding the muscular tissue, yet, being hinged as well as joined, capable of independent as well as of combined movement, and, withal, possessing the requisite degree of pliability to respond in whole or part to the extremely varied and often delicate action of the laryngeal muscles—muscles which indeed are required to be as practised and as sensitive to suggestion as if they were nerves.