This question was asked me some time ago by a pupil who for years had been singing with a very tightly constricted throat, so much so, that the quality was very harsh and poor, and there was very little power. I answered this question, and will give the readers of The Etude a synopsis of my answer, hoping that possibly it may help some student laboring under the same difficulty.
To begin with, let me say that the pupil who asked this question is anything but stupid; in fact, she is more than ordinarily intelligent, bright, witty, and well educated. Her condition is a psychological problem, and, in order to make it clear, I shall have to deal somewhat with the study of psychology.
A child is born with great possibilities, but with very few abilities. He breathes, his heart beats, his digestive apparatus does its work, and, if irritated, he shows it by a cry. All these actions are done in what the psychologists call a “subconscious way.” The child has no objective intelligence. He does not know that he is. As he grows older, he gradually learns to do different things connected with his ordinary existence. For instance, he has to learn to walk, and his mother or some one else has to take one foot and put it before the other. At first, in order to keep himself from stumbling, he has to devote a great deal of attention to walking as he toddles along. As he grows older, the time comes when he walks or runs without paying any conscious attention to the movements of his feet and legs and he never walks or runs well until these actions have become subconscious. Up to that time he has been doing it more or less objectively. A good illustration of the action of the subconscious mind is when a person, thinking of other matters, has walked beyond his intended destination. His conscious intelligence originally willed that his feet should go there, but, after starting them, began to think of other things and forgot to tell them when to stop.
Now, this applies to everything that we do. Most persons use a pen with the right hand. In learning to write, every child is very awkward. His letters are irregular and crude in appearance, and only by long practice, and not until the motions become automatic, or subconscious, can he write in an easy, comfortable way so that his penmanship will look free and flow smoothly. The handwriting of all children and also of people who write but little has a stiff appearance, showing they have given much attention to the formation of each letter. Such handwriting lacks individuality. As we grow older and write much, all of these motions become subconscious, and we acquire a certain “hand” which is easily recognized by those familiar with our writing. Suppose a person lose his right hand. He can (if he wish) learn to write with his left hand. In his first attempts he will be just as awkward with his left hand as he was at first with his right; but, if he will patiently practice, he can learn to write just as well with his left hand as he did with his right.
Those of my readers who have had occasion to walk across a stage in full view of an audience and have suddenly realized for the first time the fact that they possessed muscles in their limbs of which before they were unconscious, and have felt how those muscles would jerk and twitch and do all sorts of things which before did not seem possible, can appreciate the difference between conscious and subconscious effort. They walked badly because they were conscious that others observed them, and this very consciousness made them give an undue and objective attention to their walking, trying to make it so good that it became very bad. I presume the so-called “actor’s strut” is the result of misdirected energy on the part of the actor who tries to make himself walk naturally. The only way one can overcome anything of this kind is to let the limbs move along by themselves and concentrate the attention on something else, even if it be nothing more than the point of destination.
Practice Produces Subconscious Action.
Now let us return to the subject of singing. All of the above illustrations help to answer the question which my pupil asked. In learning to sing, the pupil must practice in a certain way a sufficient length of time until the muscles connected with tone-production will move by themselves without any conscious attention on the part of the singer. In the particular case to which I refer the person had been very badly taught and for years had used her vocal muscles incorrectly. I asked her to do differently and explained to her certain sensations connected with good tone-production. She accepted the fact theoretically that, in order to produce a pure and free tone, the breath must be entirely controlled in the body so as to leave the different parts of the vocal anatomy perfectly free; but, while she accepted this explanation, she was unable to do what I wished her to do, simply because her subconscious intelligence had been trained in the opposite direction. There is only one hope for a pupil who has been through this experience, and that is an unlimited stock of patience so that, no matter how long it may take to educate this subconscious intelligence to a correct method of singing, he will be willing to do the necessary work through the necessary time. It cannot be hurried. In fact, the more the singer tries to hurry it, the slower will be his progress. He must concentrate his attention on the front of his mouth, trying to talk in an absolutely natural manner there, holding his breath in his body to the best of his ability and at first relaxing all the muscles in the region of the back of the mouth, accompanied with this endeavor for clearness of diction in the front of the mouth. Of course, he cannot sing well until he has practiced this long enough so that all this closeness of attention toward even the correct way of singing is forgotten and he uses his vocal ligaments in this new and correct way in a subconscious manner.
This applies with equal force to the talking voice. When a person for years has sung incorrectly, it often has a correspondingly bad effect upon the talking voice, although to the untrained ear it may not be so quickly and easily noticed. In talking the vowels are not prolonged, and therefore do not acquire the undue prominence that they have in singing; but, in the attempt to make a correction of wrong tone-production in singing, this correction should be extended to a corresponding carefulness as regards the talking voice, and one should be sure that no effort is made either in the throat or the back of the mouth, but that all the attention is concentrated upon the lips, teeth, tip of the tongue, and front of the mouth. To one who has been controlling his talking voice in his throat, the first result of this change will be that he will seem to produce an insipid quality; but, while it may seem insipid to Mm, it need not necessarily sound so to others.
First Great Difficulty.
Perhaps the two greatest difficulties which confront the student who is endeavoring to correct erroneous vocal methods are: First, a tendency to think the pitch in his throat. Second, the association of throat-intensity with the endeavor for intensity of tone-production.
In regard to the tendency of the singer to think the pitch in his throat, let me illustrate my meaning. Blind people, it is said, develop nerve-ganglia at their finger-tips, owing to the acquirement of an exquisite sense of touch, and, in a certain sense, they learn to think at their finger-tips. In the same way, a pianist thinks at his finger-tips as he caresses the keys.
In speaking, there is no thought of a definite pitch, the pitch being what it may happen to be, according to the particular size and shape of the vocal muscles of the person speaking, and also a certain conformation of mouth and throat. This pitch will be varied by the intensity with which he speaks. In the act of singing, the first thing necessary, of course, is to think a definite pitch, and where the singer has been in the habit of thinking the tone in his throat he will at first find it exceedingly difficult to think in his mouth. It may be a disheartening process at first, with a tendency for the tone to waver and split and vary from the key, and just the uncertainty which the singer feels as to what may happen when he attempts to think the pitch in his mouth will have a tendency to send him back to his throat. The only way to overcome this difficulty is to consciously think the pitch in the mouth until the subconscious throat-tendency is gradually eliminated and the thinking of the pitch in the mouth has become subconscious.
Second Great Difficulty.
The second difficulty—namely, the confusing of throat- with tone- intensity—is perhaps even more difficult to overcome.
Our modern music, as a rule, is far in advance of that of olden times in that it demands an emotional content and intensity greatly in excess of former times. Far be it from me to decry anything of this kind. It is certainly a long stride forward in the art of music, but it also adds a stumbling-block in the way of the singer, and especially is this difficulty increased when we attempt to combat wrong methods. In fact, I believe the one reason why there is so much harsh and throaty singing is this very striving for intensity. It is not only those who merely want power at the expense of everything else who get into trouble along this line, but also many singers who have the highest ideals of tone-quality. These singers would invariably criticise in others the very faults which they themselves possess; but, owing to this striving for intensity of tone and to their inability to hear their own voices, they will, if they have any throat-intensity, be sure to confuse the two, and it will be a long and weary struggle before the singer is able to produce intensity in the mouth and yet have a perfectly comfortable throat. His first efforts will cause him to feel that the throat is not only loose, but weak, and he will immediately associate this weakness of throat with weakness of tone. Possibly at first the tone itself may be more or less weak, and yet if he could get away from himself and actually hear the tone he produces he would be much better satisfied than he could expect to be when judging the tone by a throat-sensation.
This perhaps is the greatest difficulty where a singer is attempting to help himself without the aid of a competent teacher—one who knows a pure and free tone and who will constantly insist on that even if at first it is somewhat weak, but who, having the strength of his convictions, absolutely knows that it will become even more intense and powerful ultimately if produced with a free throat. My only object in writing an article of this kind is to encourage those who have more or less impaired their voices either on account of their own erroneous study or bad teaching, to confidently strive for a tone in which there will be not one particle of throat- intensity.
In closing, let me insist that, if the singer will confidently sing with the mouth only, he will gradually gain confidence in his ability to do this, and, by so doing, will develop the greatest power and sonority with the most beautiful tone of which he is both physically and mentally capable.—Horace P. Dibble.