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How To Sing An English Ballad.

Elizabeth Philp, an English song writer of some distinction, has published a small book, giving the text of the various poems she has set to music, and prefaces them by advice to students on ballad rendering. It has never been my good fortune to meet with a treatise on the subject at once so succinct and comprehensive, and I can not forbear making copious quotations from it for the readers of The Etude with the earnest advice to young vocal students that they give them careful and repeated consideration.

“In these days, when to sing is the rule, and to sing well is still the exception, a few words on the art of interpreting an English ballad may not be generally unacceptable. That it is indeed an art, and an art by no means easy of acquisition, must be taken for granted by every beginner who desires to steer clear of incompetency and error. It is not enough that the aspirant should have a good voice, a good ear, and a fair knowledge of the pianoforte; it is not enough that she should have acquired a correct French and Italian accent, and pronounce her own language with delicacy and precision. These things are but raw material, and it depends not only upon the master, but also greatly upon the pupil, to what account this raw material is employed. For the singer, unlike the poet, is ‘made’ not ‘born.’ And the singer can hardly be even ‘self-made.’ She must be taught many things which it is all but impossible she should discover for herself. She must be taught how to take breath; how to unite song artistically with speech; how to avoid the harshness of certain consonants; how to make the most of certain vowels; how and when to sacrifice the word to the note, and when to sacrifice the note to the word; how to make a story intelligible; how to convey the impression of certain emotions; and many other matters of like nature and importance. And these things, we repeat, must for the most part be imparted; for they are the result of method and of experience, and can not, like reading and writing, be expected to come, as Dogberry has it, ‘by nature.’ The best singer in any society is, as a rule, the one who has been best taught; and she who attempts to ‘warble her native wood-notes wild’ in a drawing-room may be assured that, however sweet her voice and however excellent her intentions, she can only hope to give pleasure to those among her hearers who know as little about singing as herself.

“Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well: therefore we should say, in the first place, let all who wish to attempt to sing submit to be taught. In the next place, let our daughters at least begin by learning to sing songs in their own language. To be intelligible is always something gained; and the singer whose efforts are aided by a Kingsley or a Browning has, at all events, a powerful coadjutor to lean upon.

“As a mere school of vocalization, the Italian method is unquestionably the best. The Italian method develops and cultivates the voice as an instrument; equalizes it, strengthens it, and gives it flexibility. But it by no means follows that the pupil who has been trained in the Italian method is bound to pass from the exercises of Garcia and Crivelli to the cavatinas of Verdi and Rossini. The voice, we repeat, is but an instrument; and as an instrument it has to be trained and developed by means of exercises. This done, the instrument is ready for use; and the first use, we maintain, to which it is reasonable and desirable to put it, is that which enables its possessor to sing songs in her native language. When she can do this and do it well,—when she can sing an English song or ballad so articulately that every word of the poem is distinctly understood by her hearers; when she has acquired the art of giving due effect and expression to the poem, as a poem; and when she has overcome the primary difficulty of singing and speaking simultaneously, in such wise that the note sung shall be a perfect note, and the word spoken shall be an articulate word,—then and not until then, let her turn to the German Lied, the French chanson, and the Italian bravura. Having begun at the beginning, the rest will be easy; and we may be tolerably certain that those who do not begin at the beginning can never arrive satisfactorily at the end.

“And, after all, it is the well-sung English ballad that gives the most universal pleasure in the home circle. It is the English ballad that moves the sympathies and enchains the attention of the majority of hearers.

“Vocal music, with English text, may be divided into two classes—songs and ballads. Songs may be sacred or secular; but they do not, of necessity, embody a story. A song, however, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, is an expression of feeling or sentiment in verse, unallied to any dramatic or narrative interest. A ballad, on the contrary, embodies some story or legend. To take two instances, familiar to every reader: Waller’s exquisite lines, beginning ‘Go lovely rose,’ offer one of the best specimens of the genus song, while Professor Kingsley’s well-known ‘Three Fishers’ may fairly stand as our representative of the ballad.

“The first step toward singing an English ballad should be a careful study of the words. These should be considered from every point of view, and read aloud with every effort to give them full expression, either by retarding or hurrying, raising or lowering, the voice, in accordance with the sentiments of the story. When the best interpretation—or, as it is technically called, the best ‘reading’—of the poem has been decided upon, the singer has then to study the resources and capability of the melody, and to practice until she succeeds in singing the words with precisely those same dramatic and sensational effects of utterance which she employed when reading them aloud. But to do this is by no means easy. It is often difficult to pronounce a harsh sounding vowel on a high note. It sometimes happens that the very word which should be delivered with most power falls upon the weakest note of the singer’s voice. Grating consonants must often be softened down. Vowels must sometimes be made the most of. Sibilants, above all, require the most dexterous treatment. For these, and a hundred similar emergencies, the ballad singer must be always prepared. The art of taking breath is also of considerable importance. Only the merest tyro would, of course, take breath in the middle of a word; but to avoid this one error is not enough. The singer must be careful never to take breath in a way that breaks the flow of a sentence or interrupts the sense of the words. The poem, whether read or sung, must be respected above all else; for to sing, be it remembered, is but to recite vocally. A good singer punctuates by taking breath judiciously. There are, of course, passages in some ballads where, in order to give the effect of strong passion,—such as hope, terror, joy, despair,—the singer finds it necessary to let the breath come and go in that fluttering, intermittent way which, in cases of real emotion, is caused by the accelerated action of the heart. Again, there are occasions when the voice seems to fail from emotion, and where the words are interrupted by pauses or broken by repressed sobs. Effects of this kind, when skilfully indicated rather than broadly expressed, give immense charm to the rendering of a pathetic ballad; provided always that they are not indulged in too frequently.

“The efforts of every singer should be bounded by the capabilities of her voice. She should know her own voice thoroughly; its strong and weak points, its shoals and quicksands, its utmost limits. Those who attempt to strain the voice beyond its natural compass inevitably sacrifice expression and accentuation to an unwise ambition. The consciousness of effort is fatal to that self-possession, that ease of delivery, and that freedom of thought, without which it is impossible to express delicate shades of meaning or the fluctuations of emotion. Nor is this all. The singer who attempts to force her voice beyond its own natural limits can only gain compass at the expense of sweetness and strength. For every high or low note unduly acquired, the whole middle register is made to suffer. Her voice, thus impoverished, is also less durable. It becomes, ere long, thin, quavering, and unreliable, and finally deserts her some years sooner than it would have done with fair play and commonly careful treatment.

“In songs it frequently happens—though in ballads rarely—that a verse is repeated, unchanged in either words or music. When this is the case, the singer, to avoid monotony, should vary the expression. And it is surprising how many shades of expression the simplest poem may be made to yield. So many are they, indeed, that a really good singer finds it well-nigh impossible to sing the same song twice according to the same reading. It is only the soulless singer who never deviates into variety. To the genuine musician, it need hardly be observed, such singing is utterly valueless; and yet there have been public vocalists of high repute who remained all their lives mere echoes of the “coach” in the background; whose every note, look, gesture, was dictated from without; and who realized both fortune and fame without ever having been enlightened by a single original idea. Let not the beginner, therefore, be discouraged when we say that in order to sing a ballad well it is necessary not only to be well taught, but—to think; just as in the art of sketching from nature it is necessary not only to be well taught, but—to see. In both cases the experience of the master must, in the first instance, be brought to the help of the pupil. The clever artist shows the tyro how to use his eyes ; the experienced musician guides him to the use of his brains. The time, of course, ought to come for both when help is no longer needed; and when that time comes for the vocalist,—when her voice, as an instrument, has been developed and perfected; when, as a singer, she has acquired full command over it; and when, following the path into which her steps have been guided, she has learned to think, to interpret, in a word, ‘to read,’—then, and not until then, the master’s work is done, and the singer is made.”

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