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


The proper physiological basis for a singing method having
een 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


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


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.