BY FRANK J. BENEDICT.
Why Direct Teaching is Impracticable.
It may seem to some that this is going a long way ‘round to remedy a very simple matter. “Why not tell the pupil to stop singing nasally and have the matter over with at once?” The reply to this apparently reasonable suggestion is that, in the first place, the pupil never knows that he is singing nasally and even if he did would be unable to stop it. The mechanism which produces the unpleasant effect becomes so delicately adjusted that the action seems perfectly natural to him, while the correct way would seem unnatural. Any remedy, to be effective, therefore, must do its work without the direct, conscious assistance of the singer. Indeed, the less said to him about it the better, until the cure has progressed sufficiently for him to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
Range of Voice.
An important characteristic of this exercise is its tendency to increase the range of the voice. It is also conducive to the formation of a habit of setting the vocal cords at a certain tension, determined by the pitch to be sung. This is a thing seldom clearly understood by singers, and yet it is of immense practical value in insuring perfect intonation. It also prevents the assumption of too much “weight,” which, in turn, makes it possible to take any note in one’s range pp and increase to ff and back again without the slightest effort or loss of quality. This fault of placing undue weight upon the voice is very prevalent and is destructive alike to tonal beauty and to the vocal apparatus itself. In the matter of range a soprano voice ought, in a few months, to be able to vocalize in this manner as far as F above high C. A tenor should do the same, only, of course, an octave lower.
It need scarcely be said that this work in the upper register needs to be done with great care. First take the breath very gently and deliberately. Next think the pitch very intently, so that the vocal cords may have time to adjust themselves to the proper tension some little time before the breath is applied. Then let the pupil “imagine” a tone, a very small tone, at the lips or in the head, but never in the throat. Allowing a very small quantity of breath to escape at the lips, the pupil may now expect the tone, which must not be forced, but rather persistently waited for upon the basis of non-effort. If nothing finally comes, well and good! We have at least refrained from doing the wrong thing. One or two additional attempts may be made, provided the pupil has not yielded to impulse and forced the tone. This impulse is quite overpowering in some cases. It must be gradually worn away,—atrophied, one might almost say,—by persistently and patiently waiting for the tone, giving it up for the day rather than yielding to the temptation to use force. What this tone sounds like when it finally comes is not of the slightest importance, provided only that it is true to the pitch and not forced or pushed. Indeed, the less sound there is, the better. Musically it is of no value, but as mental and physical training it is invaluable. It accustoms the vocal cords to vibrate at a high tension, thus adding to the possibilities of the instrument. It accustoms the mind of the singer to the fact that the vocal cords are capable of such tension without conscious effort. It consequently accustoms the singer to conceive the idea of a high tone minus cyclonic effort.
It may be added, as a caution, that anything like a sense of effort in the throat is a danger-signal which must be obeyed at once. The sense of ease may be re-established by a return to the medium voice, gradually working up again by half-steps. A convenient form of exercise is to begin in the medium range and run down the scale. Then repeat a halftone higher, etc. This scale may be varied by omitting the third from last note and also by interpolating trills and all kinds of embellishments at the whim of the singer. Thus we incidentally develop flexibility and technical dexterity.
Coaxing versus Driving.
By no means allow the pupil to “try, try again” on the high tones except under the direct supervision of the teacher. Even then, a good rule would be: “If at first you don’t succeed, try once or twice more and then give up for the time being.” The reason for this is that the apparatus itself becomes weary and the nerves refuse to do their office. Particularly is this true in the upper range, where it is difficult for the pupil to imagine the tones except on the old basis of effort. A feasible plan in laying out any scheme of practice is to keep shifting the pitch. Avoid frantic repetition as one of the deadliest faults. If it doesn’t “go” the second or third time, try something else. If that doesn’t go and nothing seems to go, the best thing to do is to go for a long walk where the air is pure, holding the chest high and practicing breathing exercises. Walking is of itself an effective form of voice culture, and by the time the singing is taken up again it will very likely come all right and perhaps even better than usual. This is a notable characteristic of the voice, viz.: that it cannot be driven to do a certain thing at a certain time. There is no more difficult lesson for the singer to learn, and, the more ambitious the singer, the more difficult and necessary it is for him to learn it. Moreover it must be learned at the start, if the voice is to be preserved. The “labial humming” may also be practiced in the lower range. Here it tends to overcome any throatiness which may be the result of a bad speaking voice or which may have come from ignorance of the fact that vowels must be modified in the lower range as well as the upper. In either case it has a tendency to increase the effective range in this direction also.
In closing it may be said that a special virtue of this exercise lies in the fact that when incorrectly done the pupil becomes aware of it at once. It comes in the throat, incorrectly; or at the lips for medium and low tones or in the head for the upper tones, correctly. This may seem like a slight advantage to the uninitiated, but the experienced teacher knows only too well that, once the mouth is open and a vowel essayed, there are scores of modifications, each one a little wrong, which the pupil would not recognize as such. Thus it often happens that the pupil goes through his routine most beautifully at the studio for a half-hour and then goes cheerfully home and practices for days on a wrong basis. Such practice is literally poison for the pupil. We can scarcely wonder that many of our best teachers prohibit all practice for weeks or even months at a time.
Of all the exercises intended to cover this fundamental ground, the present writer has failed to meet with one which was not liable to be garbled by the pupil, to the serious detriment of all concerned. For some pupils frequent lessons are impossible; so in desperation he cast about for something which would be safe in the hands of the pupil, at the same time covering the essential principles of tone-production. This one is not only safe, but has the added advantage that it may be practiced through all sorts of small illnesses and any kind of a cold except one which directly affects the vocal cords themselves. This is so for the reason that the complex combination of muscles in the throat and mouth which together with the lips and jaws constitute the vowel- forming mechanism are not called upon. These are precisely the ones most likely to be affected by a cold. The vocal cords themselves are seldom affected sufficiently to interfere with soft “labial humming.” In case the vocal cords are directly and severely affected tone work must be suspended. This condition is very very rarely encountered so far as the present writer has observed.
Its Relation to Other Methods.
While the present writer has found it convenient to develop from this germ a systematic plan for securing ease in Tone Production, it does not follow that it may not be made use of by any teacher or singer, whatever the method. It acts as a sort of massage for the vocal mechanism and, if practiced in the morning, forms a helpful prelude to the regular work. Again, the liability of the voice to go a little wrong, even when a good method is well established, necessitates some sort of daily test, or the little “rift in the lute” will grow and grow. The “labial humming” makes a convenient starting point for the daily grind, and tends to correct any violence which may have been done the voice by a too strenuous indulgence in “temperament” while before the public.
In the next paper it will be shown how the “labial humming” may be used as a basis for the development of the more complicated matters of vowel formation, dynamic effects, and the fine points of interpretation.