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Good Voice Or Good Singer

Last spring, as the curtain rose at the commencement of the finest representation of Gounod’s “Faust” which have ever had the good fortune to attend; as the first notes of de Reske’s recitative floated forth, my neighbor in the next seat turned to me and said, “What a perfect voice!” Later on, at the close of the “Salve Dimora,” he again said, “What a matchless voice!”

In each case I merely nodded my head in assent, as it was not the time or place in which to enter into a discussion as to whether it was the “good voice” or “good singer” that was holding the audience spellbound.

Before discussing this question, let us consider for a moment the meaning of the word “voice.” At the risk of being considered dogmatic, let me say that there is no such thing as a voice. A voice is merely the more or less musical result of the use of certain muscles. When we speak of a singer’s voice having broken we do not mean that he has broken anything, but that in that particular instance his vocal muscles failed to continue in the proper position, or there may have been too great an accumulation of mucus, thus interfering with the action of those muscles so that they temporarily refused to act.

By constant use in talking we develop our voices over a certain radius of pitch,—this pitch varying according to our mental state, rising and falling naturally according to the inflection of our sentences. We have no more voice there than we have at a higher or lower pitch, but our vocal muscles have been developed over that range so that they are strong, whereas at a higher or lower pitch they are weak and flabby. But the moment that a beginner attempts to sing—that is, to sustain a tone on one definite pitch—instead of allowing the pitch to be what it may happen to be, and especially if he is asked to do so on a higher pitch than that on which he is accustomed to talk, he suddenly becomes conscious that he has asked his throat to do something to which it is not accustomed, finds the muscles weak, and unconsciously forces those muscles, thus producing a hard and unnatural tone. If he has not been taught that this is wrong he will continue to sing in this way, because this is at first the only way in which he can make a high tone which is to be compared, in strength with the tones of his talking pitch.

On the way to my studio, recently, I met two young ladies, one of whom said to the other as I passed them, “Well, why don’t you go and have your voice ‘tested’?” They were probably discussing the advisability of the young lady’s studying singing.

Now, suppose the subject under discussion had been piano-playing, and the young lady had gone to a teacher to have her hands tested, what could he have told her? Merely that her hand was thick or thin, long or short, supple or closely knit, etc.

Could he have told her, from examining that undeveloped hand, whether she could be a fine pianist? Would he, if he were honest and familiar with the lives of the great pianists, have dared to make any prophecy regarding what she might accomplish?

To have looked at von Bülow’s small hands, no one could have prophesied that he would have been what he was. To have seen Rubinstein’s massive physical development, no one could have imagined the exquisite lightness and delicacy with which he could kiss the tone from the keys; and yet I think some one has spoken of him as the “lion with the paw of velvet.”

Now, why should we expect more at the commencement from undeveloped vocal muscles than we would from undeveloped hands? Therefore, if a would-be singer takes an undeveloped voice to a teacher, how can he prophesy as to future possibilities, when it nearly all hinges on the temperament and general musical ability of the would-be singer?

Is it not a fact that we judge singers from an entirely different standpoint from that of any other artist? When we hear a good singer, should we not take it for granted that he has a good voice? For instance, if you were asked, on returning from a concert where you had heard a fine violinist, “What did you think of his violin?”, the question would be unusual; yet if a singer had sung at the same entertainment, and you were asked “What did you think of his voice?”, the question would not seem strange at all.

Of course we take it for granted that the violinist will have the very best violin that his means will enable him to procure, and, that fact being taken for granted, we judge of his skill not in performing on that instrument, but as a musician. We consider whether he has properly interpreted the thought of the composer, whether he has conquered the technical part of his art so that he can rise above those difficulties and make it appear to us that it is all done easily and naturally, so that we receive the impression that he is not trying to show us what a fine violin he has, but that he is all alive with the beauty of his musical theme and imparting that beauty to us.

Why should we not judge the singer in the same way? Of course a singer’s voice is a part of himself, and this may be the reason why we judge him differently; but why do we not judge him and not merely his voice?

There seems to be a popular notion, widely disseminated, that great singers are born with great voices and that unless one is born with a good voice it is useless to try to learn to sing. This fallacy is perhaps equaled by another which is fostered by many charlatans posing as the only ones who have conquered the great mystery,—that singing is something very abstruse and difficult, which will not bear ordinary common-sense investigation, to which none but the initiated may hope to aspire, and the way lies only through them.

I do not mean to convey the idea that every one can be a great singer, because this means to be born with great possibilities, both physical and mental. To my way of thinking, a great singer is one of the greatest artists, if not the greatest artist, in the world, as it seems to require a greater command over self than almost any other vocation. But I do hold that any one in ordinary good health and with a proper musical temperament can learn to be a good singer, if he is willing to do the necessary work, and the greatest singer that ever lived was only born with great possibilities.

To illustrate the proposition that a singer is not born with a voice, let us consider the case of a runner. He will be born with only a possibility as to the development of legs and thighs necessary to win a race. It is not necessary for him to be born with a specially long pair of legs, nor need they be particularly stout; but he will have to learn to run, and he must practice running so that little by little the particular muscles used in running will gain in size and firmness, so that when they are called on for the great effort they will respond. But he does not develop the muscles by straining. Nearly all a runner’s work is done easily and gracefully, and it is only occasionally that he forces himself to his utmost powers. We can learn a lesson from Sandow, the “strong man.” Special attention was given to his physical development in early years, and as he grew older he became interested in the subject, and developed himself into the wonderfully strong man that he is. He writes that it is the constant and gentle flexing of a muscle that strengthens it, and that whenever we unduly tire a muscle it begins to deteriorate.

Now, it may be asked, what has all this to do with singing? Everything—because in learning to sing we have (from a physical standpoint) only to develop and get under proper control certain muscles, and this can be done in no other way than by constant, systematic, and gentle work extending over a long period.

Now, in all that has been said, do not let me seem to decry the natural advantages which one may possess; but as one born without the advantages of personal appearance may by studiousness so improve himself, mentally and morally, that people will forget his physical imperfections, so may one born with scarcely any voice rise by persistence to eminence as a vocal artist.


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You are reading Good Voice Or Good Singer from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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