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How To Spend the Half-Hour.


I believe it is true, as a general thing, that voice lessons are not so long as piano lessons, one-half an hour being the amount of time which, in the majority of cases, the teacher thinks best to devote, or the pupil to pay for, in the domain of voice culture. All this has reference to private instruction, class work being nominally in periods of one hour; though actually, where there are four in the class, it often happens that each pupil gets but fifteen minutes, unless, having the gifts of observation and reflection, he is able to turn to his own use some of the time devoted especially to the others. In the case of one private teacher whom I knew, who gave hour lessons (and insisted upon three a week, by the way), he worked so slowly and gave such long intervals to rest the voice that he did not get in over a half hour’s work at each sitting. I have also known some who were very deliberate and discursive during a half-hour of work. But, for our present purpose, let us consider the problem which presents itself to the teacher who wishes to occupy a half-hour in giving a voice lesson to the best advantage. Now, I am not going to say positively how this ought to be done, for I am not sure that I know; and it has long been my intention to suggest to Mr. Greene that he should request a number of teachers to express their views upon this subject in the columns devoted to his department of The Etude. I will express some of my own in advance of his invitation, however, and leave any sequel (including his invitation) to his sense of fitness.

Perhaps some would be inclined to answer this inquiry in two words—“It depends.” And so it does, but there is more to be said upon the subject. If the sole object is to please the pupil, it may be found best, in perhaps three fourths of the voice lessons given, to spend almost the entire time in developing high notes—the part of the voice where the most striking effects are made or expected—and in practicing upon songs which give scope to these. If the teacher knows how to do this work correctly, such a course may be best for the pupil, as well as most pleasing, provided he or she is a good musician, and has the lower part of the voice in proper shape. But, supposing the pupil can not keep good time, having an imperfect sense of rhythm; can we afford to spend so much time in developing show notes, pitches whose office it is to give intensity to expression? Faulty rhythm is one of the commonest of faults among singers, and one of the slowest to respond to training. Strictly speaking, no performance is even presentable if not gracefully rhythmic. Shall we say to the pupil who is at fault here: Take piano lessons, or, Go to So-and-So, and learn to keep time while I am training your voice; or shall the voice teacher take it in hand himself, and maintain that an easy song in low medium compass, sung in irreproachable rhythm, is a more worthy product of his labors than an array of top notes, or any other reinforcement of a pupil’s means of making his fundamental errors the more obnoxious to a true musical sense?

Another popular course is to find the strong points in a voice, and devote the time to bringing these out, ignoring the weak points. Suppose a soprano has some sweet high notes: shall the teacher spend his time in working to show these to advantage, ignoring such facts as weak middle notes and shortness of breath? I can recall the sad disappointments of ladies who had taken such a course as this, when they tried to enter professional life and found that, after all the praise their singing had received, their voices were not available for ordinary uses.

It is easy, when studying the question abstractly, to condemn one-sided courses; but such courses seem at least to have much in their favor when viewed from the standpoint of one who is striving to build up a class and make up a reputation. I have already paid my respects, in these columns, to the specialists with their one-item or two-item formulas. Supposedly these have no doubt as to how the half-hour should be spent. Still, I have heard some of the most eminent of them complain that pupils would not stay with them long enough to attain results; and I have also heard pupils aver that as soon as they stopped taking lessons they went “right back again,” and lost all that they had learned. Both of these complaints involve the supposition that those half-hours spent by the teacher and pupil together might have been occupied to better advantage.

An acceptable singer must be fairly proficient in four departments—tone production, style, musicianship, and imaginative expression. In each of these departments are many items which must be made habitual. Habits form slowly, as a plant grows. Helping a young singer with average ability to form all the habits which must cooperate in a complete method of singing, is like gardening, where one raises everything from the seed: first, there appears a lot of unrelated and rather uninteresting-looking sprouts, which, if they are properly tended, will at length come to form beds of flowers and masses of foliage, according to the gardener’s designs. For the first few lessons of a course, when explanations and illustrations must be minute and copious, the disposal of the lesson time can not be foreseen; but after the subject is all before the pupil’s mind, after the gardening is systematically in progress, may it not be well in each half-hour to touch, to some extent, be it more or less, upon the following departments:

1. The various throat and breath processes that are to be educated, with such corrections of special faults as must be made. This would be done at first with such technical exercises as the teacher is accustomed to give, and later, when these have been sufficiently mastered, with some collection of scales and passages, or other printed exercises, as the teacher may prefer. Viardot’s “One Hour of Study,” referred to in my last article, is a good specimen of the works available at this point.

2. Applied voice production, or phrasing and style. This includes attack, shading, portamento, accent, etc., and is often studied in connection with songs; but I prefer not to put songs to mechanical uses, and therefore favor the use of Sieber’s Studies with the syllables la, be, da, etc.; or, if one is willing to take the time to teach Italian pronunciation, Vaccai’s and Marchesi’s works.

3. Rhythm and music reading. In this department may be used Concone’s “Fifty Lessons,” each one being recited while beating time. And there is also a plan by which the teacher can supervise music-reading with very little time at lessons.

4. Songs with adequate attention to habit in the expression of sentiment.

It might be thought best to supervise these departments continually, but not include all of them at each lesson; and, of course, the amount of supervision that any given department requires would differ according to the gifts and attainments of the pupil.

Let us also bring this subject before us by means of a few queries:

1. With what proportion of pupils should the voice teacher devote himself entirely to voice production, execution, and songs?

2. Does the voice trainer sometimes have pupils with whom technical voice training had better give way entirely to general musical training?

3. In what proportion of cases is it best to do one thing at a time, spending month after month upon breath-control, for instance, leaving objectivity—the habit of expression, for instance—until the former topic is nearing completion ?

4. Would it please the average pupil more to acquire some effective high notes, or to master a neat, accurate attack, proportionate shading, adequate sustaining power, graceful rhythm, distinct enunciation?

5. In what proportion of cases is it necessary to do one-sided training, to overlook the slower and more intricate problems of vocalization, and give attention to that which is more showy, in order to keep the pupil interested?

6. In what proportion of cases is it best to insist upon progress in all four of the departments above described, accepting slow progress in order that everything which goes to make up a complete equipment may be included?

7. In such cases how might the half-hours of work at lessons be planned in order that the teacher could supervise practice upon all the items?

Other similar queries which grow out of a consideration of this subject will suggest themselves to any teacher of experience who takes an interest in it.


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