The Healthfulness Of Singing

The boy's voice, though an immature organ of delicate structure, is

capable of much work, providing only that its mechanism be rightly used

and not forced. Some people are unnecessarily nervous about boys; as a

rule, under competent guidance, they will get nothing but good from

vocal work. A cathedral organist wrote to me the other day:--

"Our best solo boy, who has a splendid voice and who sings beautifully,
/> has been unwell, and the Dean and Chapter doctor (who has an idea that

every choir-boy should be as robust as a plough-boy) has just stated

that the boy is too feeble to remain in the choir. Notwithstanding my

remonstrances, the Dean and Chapter decided yesterday to uphold the

doctor. I tried his voice last week, and he sang with full, rich tone up

to the C above the stave, and that after he had been skating from 9 a.m.

to 5 p.m. I should have thought that a boy who could skate all day could

not be in such a 'feeble' state as represented by the medical man. Three

months ago a boy with a beautiful voice was sent away for the same

reason. So you see what uphill work it is for me."

It is to be hoped that fastidiousness of this sort is not common. The

abuse of the voice may lead, of course, to serious results. In the

New York Medical Record of March 21, 1885, p. 317, there is a case

recorded of the bursting of a blood vessel through too energetic

singing, but this is altogether abnormal, and beyond the scope of our

enquiry. The voice, properly used, will last as long as any other organ,

and it benefits by exercise. Mr. D. W. Rootham of Bristol, who now at

middle age has a strong constitution and a fine baritone voice, tells me

that as a boy at Cambridge he sang for seven years at five services

every Sunday. The thing seems incredible, and it is an extreme case,

though it shows what work the voice, properly managed, will do.

Singing, it should be remembered, promotes health. It does so indirectly

by causing cheerfulness, a genial flow of spirits, and the soothing of

the nerves. It does so directly by increasing the action of the lungs.

So far as these organs are concerned, singing is a more energetic form

of speech. As we sing we breathe deeply, bring more air into contact

with the lungs, and thus vitalise and purify the blood, giving stimulus

to the faculties of digestion and nutrition. A physiologist, in fact,

can trace the effects of singing from the lungs into the blood, from the

blood into the processes of nutrition, back again into the blood, into

the nerves, and finally into the brain, which of all organs is most

dependent upon healthful and well-oxygenated blood. Dr. Martin (organist

of St. Paul's Cathedral) has had many years' experience in training

choir-boys, and he tells me that he has never known a boy to injure his

voice, or lose it through singing. It is a question of method; if the

voice be used properly it will stand any amount of work. He has seen

boys disposed to consumption improve in health after joining the choir.

The medical man who declared that if there were more singing there would

be less coughing, expressed in a graphic way the healthful influence of

vocal practice. Parents and guardians need never hesitate to allow their

sons and charges to become choir-boys under proper choirmasters. They

may be sure that nothing but good can come of the exercise.

Two cautions only are needed. The first is, not to sing during a cold.

When a slight inflammation has attacked the larynx--that is, when a cold

has been taken--the vocal cords are thickened, and the act of

vocalisation causes them to rub together, which increases the

inflammation. If the cold is a bad one--that is, if the inflammation is

great--the singer will be compelled to rest, because the congestive

swelling of the vocal cords will be so great that they will be unable to

vibrate sufficiently to produce tone. But whether slight or great, the

cold demands rest. Otherwise permanent injury may be done to the voice.

The second caution relates to the preservation, not of the boy's voice,

but of the man's. There is no doubt that it is undesirable for a boy to

continue to sing after his voice has shown signs of "breaking." What are

the first signs of this change? Choirmasters notice that the middle

register becomes weak, without any diminution in the power and quality

of the upper notes, but that at the same time the thick register grows

stronger, and the boy can strike middle C with firmness. "The striking

of middle C," says Mr. G. Bernard Gilbert, "is usually sufficient to

decide the point." The tradition of teachers is in favour of rest at

this time, and a well-founded public impression counts for a good deal.

The fact is that during the time of change not only do the vocal cords

lengthen, but they are congested. An inflammatory action, like that

which takes place during a cold, is set up. Hence rest is desirable.

Nature herself also counsels rest because she reduces the musical value

of the voice at this time to a low ebb. It becomes husky and of

uncertain intonation. No doubt cases can be quoted of boys who have sung

on uninterruptedly and developed into good tenors or basses, but there

are cases equally strong in which the man's voice has completely failed

after such a course. Sir Morell Mackenzie is the only medical writer who

has advocated singing during change of voice, but not even his authority

can upset the weight of evidence on the other side.

Nevertheless, on the principle of "hear both sides" I quote the

following from a letter by Mr. E. H. Saxton, choirmaster of St. James's

church, at Buxton:--

"Upon the question of resting completely from singing during the period

of change of voice, I hold that one must be guided by the circumstances

of each individual case. I carefully watch each boy when I am expecting

the change to commence, and it usually shows itself by the upper thin

register giving way. If I cannot immediately spare the boy from the

treble part (and good leading boys are not plentiful), I caution him to

leave high notes alone, never to force them, and as soon as possible I

relegate him to the alto part, where he often remains useful to me for a

year or eighteen months. All the time he is singing the alto part I keep

watch over him, and forbid his singing as soon as there are indications

that the effort is in the slightest degree painful. Generally I find

middle f] Should a vacancy occur in the senior choir (if the boy shows

signs of his voice developing to either tenor or bass) I get him passed

from the junior to the senior choir, warning him, however, to be very

careful of his high notes, and never to force them. My general

experience leads me to the conclusion that it is a most arbitrary and

unnecessary rule to lay down that every boy should rest at this time. In

some cases it is necessary, no doubt, but my opinion is, after twenty

years' practical experience, that in a large number of cases it is

cruel, and about as much use with regard to the after-development of the

voice as it would be to prohibit speaking. Speaking practically--not

scientifically--I hold that the vocal organ is beneficially exercised

when singing is allowed in moderation, and within the restricted limits

which every choirmaster ought to know how to apply. I have experienced

boys who have never rested developing good voices, as well as those who

have rested. But I have no experience of boys who have never rested

developing bad voices, though I have of those who did rest. I have three

boys in one family in my mind now, one of whom had a good alto, the

other two good soprano voices. The alto and one soprano never rested,

and developed respectively a good tenor and bass. The other rested

(through removal to another town), and developed a very indifferent


In spite of this weighty and well-argued statement, my own opinion is

that the preponderance of evidence is in favour of rest. It is certainly

a new physiological doctrine for a short period of rest to injure or

prevent the development of any organ. In short, I cannot see how there

can be any disadvantage in a few months' rest, while from the other

point of view there can be no musical advantage in the use of an

unmusical instrument. As soon as the man's voice shows signs of

settlement its practice should gently begin.