Voice Training

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Before commencing to train a voice the choirmaster must make sure that

it is a voice worth training. He must take the boy alone, test his voice

by singing scales, and try especially his notes in the treble compass,

phrases, and asking the boy to sing them. He must enquire into his

theoretical knowledge, if any, and ask if he has had a Tonic Sol-fa or

any other systematic training. The ear of the choirmaster must decide

upon the voice. It is said by some that boys' voices partake of one or

other of two qualities, the flute quality or the oboe quality. They

differ, no doubt, in timbre, but these two divisions are not clearly

marked. The diagram at the side gives the compass of the registers in

boy trebles and altos. The names are those invented by the late John

Curwen, and have the advantage of describing the physiological action

that goes on. Thus in the Thick Register, the vocal cords vibrate in

their whole thickness; in the Thin Register their thin edges alone

vibrate; and in the Small Register a small aperture only is made,

through which the sound comes. The registers are practically the same as

those of women's voices. They may be shown on the staff, thus:--

Chest. Middle. Falsetto.]

I give below the staff another set of names which are sometimes used,

but different voice-trainers attach to these different meanings.

It is undesirable to tell the boys anything about the registers. The

spirit of voice-training at the present time is too analytical. The

theory of the registers is for the teacher, not for the pupil. Some

voice-trainers seem to think that it is their business to discover the

registers, but as far as tone goes it is their business to conceal them.

Trainers work better through possessing physiological knowledge, but the

end is a smooth and homogeneous voice, blended and well-built.

Roughly speaking, the boys to be rejected are those who through

carelessness, excitement, or confirmed habit, force up the thick

register while singing. And those to be accepted are the boys who have

sufficient reserve and care to turn into the fluty tone at the proper

place, whether the music be loud or soft, and whatever be the shape of

the melodic passage. The right use of the voice is most likely to come

from boys who, whatever their social status, are well brought up, and

have been taught to avoid screaming, coarse laughing and bawling, and if

possible to speak in a clear way.

Voice studies are of two kinds. First come those which promote the

building and setting of the voice. These are generally sung slowly. When

the voice is becoming settled exercises for agility may be introduced.

Of agility exercises most voice-training books contain plenty. There is

a good selection in Mr. Sinclair Dunn's "The Solo Singer's Vade Mecum"

(J. Curwen & Sons, price 1s.) and Sir John Stainer has written a set,

printed on a card, which is published by Mowbray, Oxford and London,

price 6d.

When the system of probationers is at work the voice-building exercises

will not be much needed. The little boys will insensibly fall into right

habits. They will learn to produce tone as they learnt to speak--by ear.

But when a new choir has to be formed, the building exercises are

necessary. And the first object of these is to make the boy feel the

thin register and strengthen it by use. For this purpose such phrases as

these, which leap into the thin register, and quit it by step are the


These exercises should be sung to several vowels, but especially to the

sound "koo," which will at first immensely amuse the boys, but will

afterwards be found to throw the tone forward towards the teeth in a way

that no other sound does.

Pure vowel tone goes with pure and resonant voice. The broad and pure

vowels of the Yorkshire dialect have, more than anything else, produced

the Yorkshire voices. Hence the choirmaster must make a determined

effort to cure provincialisms in so far as they prevent the issue of

pure vowel sounds from the mouth. The vowels should be sung in their

vocal order as recommended by Mr. Behnke, oo (as in you), o (as in

owe), ah (as in Shah), a (as pay), and ee (as in see). These may

be taken to slow scales, thus:--

Let the choirmaster watch carefully for impure sounds, and call upon

each boy to sing two measures by himself from time to time.

In singing the boy should stand upright and free. He must not lean or

bend his body. The mouth must be fairly opened, but not too wide. As the

voice ascends the mouth opens wider. The lips must lie lightly on the

teeth, and the tongue should lie at rest, just touching the front teeth.

If, for the sake of change during a long rehearsal, the boys sit, let it

be remembered that there are many ways of sitting, and that the upright

posture hinders the breath less than lolling and a crooked posture.

Rigidity is the enemy of all good singing. Let the whole body and vocal

apparatus be relaxed, and pure tone will result. "If I hear a boy

forcing up his voice," said Herr Eglinger, of Basel, to me, "I ask the

rest of the class to point him out, and they do it at once." This at

once cures the transgressor and sharpens the consciences of the other

boys. As to the vowel on which singers should be trained, there are

differences of opinion. Maurice Strakosch, the trainer of Patti,

Nilsson, &c., used "ha," which causes a slight breath to precede the

articulation. This, he said, gives the voice a natural start. It is

something like the "koo" of Mrs. Seiler. Learners he required to lower

their heads while singing, and to show the upper teeth, so as to keep

the lips out of the way of the tone. Mr. Barnicott, a successful

choirmaster at Taunton, uses "ka." But as in the actual singing of the

English language all the vowels are encountered in turn, it would seem

reasonable that they should all be included in the practice.

Mr. Walter Brooks, quoted elsewhere, lays stress upon long-sustained

notes in the scale of E flat, and up to G. These expand the lower part

of the lungs, and produce steady, firm tone. They should be sung both

loud and soft, the boys one by one and together. An admirable plan is to

keep boys on the alert listening for faults, asking those not singing,

"Whose fault is that?" Jealousy and conceit, says Mr. Brooks, are

avoided by giving a solo to three or four boys to sing in unison. Three

or four will blend better than two, and after proper rehearsal the tone

is so like one voice that people say, "What a beautiful voice that boy


As to balance of parts, the following table is given by Mr. H. B. Roney

of Chicago:--

Sopranos 12 17 25 37 50

Altos 4 5 7 11 14

Tenors 4 5 8 11 14

Basses 5 8 10 16 22

-- -- -- -- --

25 35 50 75 100

Mr. Stocks Hammond says that during voice exercise the boys should stand

perfectly erect, with mouth well open, the shoulders being thrown back.

After exercise in slowly inhaling and exhaling the breath, comes the

uniting of the registers. This is accomplished by singing up and down

the scales of C, D, and E to the syllable "ah." Each tone is taken with

decision, and is followed by a slight pause. The same scales are

afterwards sung to "oh" and "oo." This exercise should not last longer

that ten or fifteen minutes. Staccato scales to "ah!" "oh!" and

chromatic passages are introduced later.

Mr. G. Bernard Gilbert, F.C.O., of West Ham Parish Church, is an

exceptionally skilled trainer of boys' voices. He meets his boys

half-an-hour before each of the Sunday Services and "tunes them up," an

admirable plan, which cannot be too widely imitated. The first thing he

does in training boys is to teach them to attack and leave sounds with

precision, neatness, and proper register or quality of voice. He gives

expresses a range from the F above middle-C (or F4) to the C above

middle-C (C5) by inserting a staff] and first practises them. If beauty

of tone is to be obtained, it is of the utmost importance that these

sounds should be given in the thin register. Mr. Gilbert has cultivated

this register in his own voice, and is able to give the boys a pattern

in the right octave, which he thinks of great use. The change from upper

thick to lower thin takes place between E and F. The boys should intone

in the thin register. Flattening while intoning is almost entirely due

to boys using the thick register. Mr. Gilbert uses the vowels as

arranged by Mr. Behnke, oo-o-ah-ai-ee, practised first with a slight

breath between each, afterwards all in one breath, piano and

staccato. Consonants preceding these vowels are of little value, as

they only disguise a wrong action of the glottis, without removing the

fault. He uses also sustained sounds, and short major or minor arpeggi,

and last of all scale passages. If due attention be given to the

intonation of the arpeggio, the scale should not be, as it too often is,

all out of tune. The arpeggio is its skeleton or framework. Mr. Gilbert

alternates this work with the singing of intervals and the practice of

time rhythms. He attaches great value to the vowel "e" in practising

sustained notes, scales or arpeggi, though other vowels must receive due

attention. "E" has the advantage of bringing the vocal cords very close

to together, thereby effecting a greater economy of the breath than is

possible with the other vowels. He has constantly succeeded in making

boys produce a pure and beautiful tone to this vowel, especially in that

part of the voice called the upper thin, when he could not do so with

the others. Of course "e" can be sung badly, and boys will sometimes

make a nasal squeak of it, but the correct placing of the tone is

quickly learnt if the teeth are kept nicely apart. Mr. Gilbert teaches

the boys when very young the mechanism which governs their voices above

about pronunciation, recommends that boys should be paid, and that bad

behaviour, laziness, or irregularity, if they occur, should be punished

by fines. One of the most marked excellences of Mr. Gilbert's choir is

its chanting, and the elocutional phrasing of the words of the hymns.

The rigidity of the time is often broken with impressive effect in

order, by an elocutional pause, to throw into relief a prominent word or


* * * * *

Mr. T. H. Collinson, Mus.B., organist of St. Mary's Cathedral,

Edinburgh, has given me some interesting particulars of the training

which his excellent boys undergo. The process of selection is as

follows:--(1) Advertisement. (2) Trial of voice, and entry of

particulars of school, school standard, father's occupation, &c. (3)

Choice of most promising voices. (4) Inspection of homes, as to

overcrowding, &c. (5) Appointment of probationers. (6) Full appointment,

with religious service of admission by the Dean. The parents engage in

writing to retain the child in the choir school until his voice changes,

or to the average age of fourteen. The boys are taken at all ages from 9

to 12-1/2.

"Cultivation of tone, blending of registers, and accuracy of pitch are

specially studied, the principal means being as follows:--(1)

Mouth-opening (silently). (2) Breathing exercise. (3) Sustained notes

piano, each to full length of breath. (4) Piano scales. (5) Simple

flexibility exercises, e.g., Sir J. Stainer's card of exercises,

published by Mowbray. (6) Crescendo and Diminuendo. (7) Behnke's

resonance vowels, oo-o-ah. (8) Behnke's glottis-stroke exercises,

oo-o-ah-ai-ee. (9) No accompaniment, except a single note on the

pianoforte every three or four bars to test pitch. Where badly flat, a

scolding, and going back to try over again. (10) At early morning

practice no forte singing is allowed, as a rule.

"By the above means, especially sustained notes and piano scales,

flatness is easily avoided, and the registers blend perfectly. A curious

local peculiarity has to be specially treated in the junior boys. The

Scottish 'u' as in 'gude' (good), 'puir' (poor), 'nue' (new), is

identical with the French 'u' in 'tu' or 'Hugo,' and the little fellows

sing an amusing exercise like the following:--

You should do two,

on every note of the scale, with special care to protrude the lips to a

round whistling shape for the 'oo.' Very oddly they sing a good 'oo' in

the falsetto register, and a certain solo boy used to sing Handel's 'How

beautiful are the feet' in its first two phrases in alternate Scotch and

English, the vinegary 'ue' in the first (low) phrase, and a fine round

'oo' in the higher phrase, where 'beautiful' begins on E flat.

"Raw candidates and ill-taught children generally come minus any

being taught to produce sweet upper notes by open-mouth piano 'ah.'

"Colds and petty hoarseness, interfering with the upper notes, are

terribly common in this climate in the class of boys obtained for the

choir. A successful soloist at Friday rehearsal may be found incompetent

by Sunday, so that all solo work is carefully understudied. A few

minutes each day suffice for the purely technical voice exercises. The

services are many in number; three on Sunday, two on week-days, and

occasional extra services at special seasons. The number of boys is kept

up to say 30, and they are worked in divisions to minimise their duties.

The boys are educated free, and seniors receive payment. 'I think that

boys' voices are much like unto boys' legs--they need daily exercise if

they are to be worth anything.'"

* * * * *

Mr. R. H. Saxton, of Buxton, writes:--"My choir boys are almost

exclusively drawn from the working class, and the majority of them use

the thick register for the speaking voice. I take them at nine years of

age, sometimes younger if they can read fairly well, and my first effort

is to suppress the thick register altogether in singing. If they were

encouraged to use it they would most certainly abuse it by carrying it

far beyond its proper range. Soft singing is the only effective plan I

know of for removing the tendency to use the thick register. This I

insist on in modulator voluntaries and time exercises. The time

modulator work I at first avoid beginning in the lower keys where the

thick register would naturally be used. By thus constantly cultivating

the thin register, never allowing faulty intonation to pass unnoticed,

and always checking the natural tendency of boys to sing coarsely;

together with a free use of ear exercises, in which they are taught to

recognise tones by their mental effect, I succeed at last in getting

fairly good tone. It is, however, a work of time and difficulty, on

account of the daily surroundings of the boys, and the habitually coarse

way in which they are allowed to sing in school. To avoid flattening, I

believe the course I have indicated to be the best remedy, as eye, ear,

and voice are cultivated simultaneously.

"In training the thin register special care must be taken that the Upper

that the C also should be taken in the Upper Thin. A strained Lower Thin

on C sharp or D will be sure to induce flattening, while if the Upper

Thin is properly used there is no difficulty whatever in using the high

D and E within reasonable limits as the reciting note in chanting. When

the music moves about stepwise in close proximity above and below the

breaks, we have another cause of flattening. As most of our country

choirs consist at the best of but partly-trained voices, composers and

choirmasters should bear this in mind. It must not be supposed that boys

are the sole cause of flattening. Far from it, they are too often the

victims of an untuneful tenor or bass.

"From the first moment a boy comes under my care he is encouraged to

take the Tonic Sol-fa certificates, and few leave the choir without

having passed the Intermediate. I am of course now speaking of those

boys who remain with us till they are no longer of use as boys."

* * * * *

I append an extract from a letter by Mr. J. C. E. Taylor, master of the

Boys' National School at Penzance, and choirmaster of St. Mary's Church,

which is interesting as showing the extent to which singing by ear can

be carried:--

"The children here, as in most Cornish towns, are fond of music, and

have a quick ear. I pick my boys from a school of nearly 400. I choose

them by the way they read in school. They are generally of Standard

V., and between ten and eleven years of age. If younger the Psalms

puzzle them. I try a new boy's voice at the choir practice. If he has a

sweet tone, and can reach F sharp, however faintly, I accept him, and

keep him on probation at the practices. About half-a-dozen are so kept,

and the best lad fills any vacancy occurring in the choir. I have no

trouble as regards discipline, as a fine, or the knowledge that their

places can be instantly filled by the probationers, keeps the choristers

well in their places. At the choir practices I begin with running up and

down the scales with their voices together, beginning soft, and allowing

the voices to increase as the scales ascend, and diminish on descending,

but holding on to the top-most notes whilst I play a chord or two on it.

Then with a nod of my head they descend. At times one note is given them

on which to cres. and dim., for breathing exercise. Not one lad

knows his notes except as to their rise and fall and values. They depend

on their ear entirely, even in the most difficult fugues."

At this church anthems and settings of the Canticles are sung every

Sunday evening. The men are voluntary; the head boys get from 30s. to

40s. a year, the solo boys receiving 3d. or 6d. as an encouragement

after rendering a solo or verse part.

* * * * *

In spite of all that can be written on the subject of voice-training,

the art is one most difficult to communicate. Some teachers succeed;

others fail. A remarkable instance of this came under my notice lately.

The headmaster of a school asked me to pay his boys a visit in order, if

possible, to discover the reason of the great falling-off in their

singing. His previous singing-teacher had brought the boys to a high

pitch of excellence. When he left, the singing was placed under the

charge of an undermaster, who had for a year or more heard all the

singing lessons given by his predecessor, who used the same voice

exercises with the same boys in the same room. Surely, one would have

thought the results must be the same. But the singing had deteriorated;

flattening, and a lifeless manner had overcome the boys. The causes, so

far as I could discover, were first that the new teacher wanted the

magnetic, enthusiastic way of the old, and second, that he had not so

quick an ear for change of register, and allowed the lower mechanism of

the voice to be forced up higher than its proper limits.

* * * * *

This chapter focuses a large amount of valuable experience, but amid the

many hints which are given, two ways of securing right tone stand out

with marked prominence. They are, soft singing, and the downward

practice of scales.