The Singer's Physiological Studies
Science has explained all the processes of the vocal organs in their
chief functions, and many methods of singing have been based upon
physiology, physics, and phonetics. To a certain extent scientific
explanations are absolutely necessary for the singer--as long as they
are confined to the sensations in singing, foster understanding of the
phenomenon, and summon up an intelligible picture. This is what
nsations in singing cannot do; of which fact the
clearest demonstration is given by the expressions, bright, dark,
nasal, singing forward, etc., that I began by mentioning and that
are almost always falsely understood. They are quite meaningless
without the practical teachings of the sensations of such singers as
have directed their attention to them with a knowledge of the end in
view, and are competent to correlate them with the facts of science.
The singer is usually worried by the word physiology; but only
because he does not clearly understand the limits of its teachings.
The singer need, will, and must, know a little of it. We learn so much
that is useless in this life, why not learn that which is of the
utmost service to us? What, in brief, does it mean? Perfect
consciousness in moving the vocal organs, and through the aid of the
ear, in placing them at will in certain relations with each other; the
fact that the soft palate can be drawn up against the hard palate;
that the tongue is able to take many different positions, and that the
larynx, by the assistance of the vocal sound oo, takes a low position,
and by that of the vowel [=a] a high one; that all muscles contract in
activity and in normal inactivity are relaxed; that we must strengthen
them by continued vocal gymnastics so that they may be able to
sustain long-continued exertion; and must keep them elastic and use
them so. It includes also the well-controlled activity of diaphragm,
chest, neck, and face muscles. This is all that physiology means for
the vocal organs. Since these things all operate together, one without
the others can accomplish nothing; if the least is lacking, singing is
quite impossible, or is entirely bad.
Physiology is concerned also with muscles, nerves, sinews, ligaments,
and cartilage, all of which are used in singing, but all of which we
cannot feel. We cannot even feel the vocal cords. Certainly much
depends for the singer upon their proper condition; and whether as
voice producers or breath regulators, we all have good reason always
to spare them as much as possible, and never to overburden them.
Though we cannot feel the vocal cords, we can, nevertheless, hear, by
observing whether the tone is even,--in the emission of the breath
under control,--whether they are performing their functions properly.
Overburdening them through pressure, or emitting of the breath without
control, results in weakening them. The irritation of severe coughing,
thoughtless talking or shouting immediately after singing may also set
up serious congestion of the vocal cords, which can be remedied only
through slow gymnastics of the tongue and laryngeal muscles, by the
pronunciation of vowels in conjunction with consonants. Inactivity of
the vocal organs will not cure it, or perhaps not till after the lapse
A good singer can never lose his voice. Mental agitation or severe
colds can for a time deprive the singer of the use of his vocal
organs, or seriously impair them. Only those who have been singing
without consciously correct use of their organs can become
disheartened over it; those who know better will, with more or less
difficulty, cure themselves, and by the use of vocal gymnastics bring
their vocal organs into condition again.
For this reason, if for no other, singers should seek to acquire
accurate knowledge of their own organs, as well as of their functions,
that they may not let themselves be burnt, cut, and cauterized by
unscrupulous physicians. Leave the larynx and all connected with it
alone; strengthen the organs by daily vocal gymnastics and a healthy,
sober mode of life; beware of catching cold after singing; do not
sit and talk in restaurants.
Students of singing should use the early morning hours, and fill their
days with the various branches of their study. Sing every day only so
much, that on the next day you can practise again, feeling fresh and
ready for work, as regular study requires. Better one hour every day
than ten to-day and none tomorrow.
The public singer should also do his practising early in the day, that
he may have himself well in hand by evening. How often one feels
indisposed in the morning! Any physical reason is sufficient to make
singing difficult, or even impossible; it need not be connected
necessarily with the vocal organs; in fact, I believe it very rarely
is. For this reason, in two hours everything may have changed.
I remember a charming incident in New York. Albert Niemann, our heroic
tenor, who was to sing Lohengrin in the evening, complained to me in
the morning of severe hoarseness. To give up a role in America costs
the singer, as well as the director, much money. My advice was to
Niemann. What do you do, then, when you are hoarse?
I. Oh, I practise and see whether it still troubles me.
Niem. Indeed; and what do you practise?
I. Long, slow scales.
Niem. Even if you are hoarse?
I. Yes; if I want to sing, or have to, I try it.
Niem. Well, what are they? Show me.
The great scale, the infallible cure.
I showed them to him; he sang them, with words of abuse in the
meantime; but gradually his hoarseness grew better. He did not send
word of his inability to appear in the evening, but sang, and better
than ever, with enormous success.
I myself had to sing Norma in Vienna some years ago, and got up in
the morning quite hoarse. By nine o'clock I tried my infallible
remedy, but could not sing above A flat, though in the evening I
should have to reach high D flat and E flat. I was on the point of
giving up, because the case seemed to me so desperate. Nevertheless, I
practised till eleven o'clock, half an hour at a time, and noticed
that I was gradually getting better. In the evening I had my D flat
and E flat at my command and was in brilliant form. People said they
had seldom heard me sing so well.
I could give numberless instances, all going to show that you never
can tell early in the day how you are going to feel in the evening. I
much prefer, for instance, not to feel so very well early in the day,
because it may easily happen that the opposite may be the case later
on, which is much less agreeable. If you wish to sing only when you
are in good form, you must excuse yourself ninety-nine times out of a
hundred. You must learn to know your own vocal organs thoroughly and
be able to sing; must do everything that is calculated to keep you in
good condition. This includes chiefly rest for the nerves, care of the
body, and gymnastics of the voice, that you may be able to defy all
Before all, never neglect to practise every morning, regularly, proper
singing exercises through the whole compass of the voice. Do it with
painful seriousness; and never think that vocal gymnastics weary the
singer. On the contrary, they bring refreshment and power of endurance
to him who will become master of his vocal organs.