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More About Shakespeare.

That a teacher can go into the enemy’s country and not find now and then a gun pointed toward him is preposterous. Men with pronounced and deep-seated convictions never fully learn or value their own strength or originality until they have been challenged by worthy disputants.

The readers of The Etude are, to all intents and purposes, on neutral ground. Their attitude is one of inquiry. Most of them are predisposed to accept Shakespeare’s dictum as final because he has been much heard about. Many, however, will be gratified to read another opinion. The present scribe takes no issue as yet on either side of the question, but welcomes any earnest, sincere criticism, not so much of the man, as of the subject as he presents it.

I shall be glad if readers of The Etude who have studied with Shakespeare or who have been present at his lecture-recitals will present any impressions which they feel would awaken interest in important points or questions to be answered by the editor.

One thing is certain, Mr. Shakespeare has precipitated what might almost be called a crisis in the affairs of method by his appearance in this country. His views on what constitutes correct tone-production are so vastly different from those held by eminent and successful teachers in France that unconsciously the profession will be doing jury-duty as evidence accumulates. He is keenly conscious of the importance of his mission, and will welcome honest criticism.

This, as a preface to an article written by a prominent Western teacher, and published in the Chicago Times-Herald. It is as follows:

“William Shakespeare, who has recently lectured to us upon voice, is a highly-cultured gentleman with a delightful candor and bonhommie of manner, who uses the English language elegantly, expresses himself felicitously, shows a wide and accurate knowledge of foreign languages, and, above all, proves to be a consummate musician, who handles the piano and the musical phraseology with which he deals with refreshing mastery. I am told that he has received some rough treatment from a portion of the press in the East, but I am glad to say that in this city he has been received hospitably, and has been handled with distinguished consideration by the critics. But one who lectures on a subject of education thereby invites discussion, and, if he charges $20 an hour for privately imparting his ideas, close scrutiny is positively demanded.

“Imagination plays a great part in musical education. The master who lives at a distance, who has a great reputation, who can cite numerous friends among the great and glorious of the musical profession, glitters before the imagination of our amateurs as a ‘Lohengrin’ to an ‘Elsa.’ He is supposed to have some occult powers—a mysterious influence with which he can work wonders. It may therefore be considered by some as assumption for a Westerner to advance ideas opposed to such a prophet. But when we think of it, there is no reason why the Western mind cannot understand the subject as well as one of any other locality. If Mr. Shakespeare can teach we certainly ought to be able to understand him and to master what he has to impart. His ideas are simple enough and he has been teaching them to Americans directly or by proxy for many years. The voice-teacher of this locality is disposed to learn from any source, to compare teachings, and then to work out ideas in his daily professional experience. In fact,

the Western teacher is obliged to consider and weigh the doctrines of vocalization more carefully than some of his illustrious foreign teachers; to go more accurately into fundamental principles and study processes of voice-training much more pedagogically in order to make any headway in his profession, for he does not get a Bispham or a Davies to lend his talents toward carrying his fame to the four corners of the earth, without his having to bother about small details of analysis and grading.

“Mr. Shakespeare’s method is a specialty, applicable with good effect to those whose voices are already highly developed and who can profit by a pruning process; as constructive teaching it has little, if any, value. The term ‘placing the voice,’ so common among music teachers and indicating a matter so fundamentally important to singers, is from the old Italian term messa di voce, which Mr. Shakespeare defines (as do many others) as ‘the swelling out of the voice,’ or increasing and diminishing upon a tone. Now, the only valuable significance to this term, and the one the old Italian supposedly had in mind, is that position of the vocal organs which resonates the voice, giving the maximum of effort, and which steadies the principal vocal organ so that it may perform its multiform uses with agility, accuracy, strength, and grace. One of the worst enemies of this messa di voce is the tension of those muscles which pull the larynx forward,—namely, the muscles of the floor of the mouth, —and these, Mr. Shakespeare says, should be exerted. Other than this he seems to permit no exertion anywhere among the vocal organs, but preaches the doctrine of persistent relaxing. Anyone—Mr. Shakespeare himself—who hears a telling, ringing voice must realize that it is not the product of a relaxed condition of the vocal organs. A fine resonant timbre is impossible without relaxation of such throat effort as opposes tone, but there is force somewhere, and to really develop a voice, not to prune and smooth something already developed, we must know how to educate and direct that force. Now, Mr. Shakespeare takes the effort away from where it may properly be exerted and places it where it is pernicious. When he sings (if we allow ourselves to look beyond the charming musicianliness of it), we see the sluggish, shaky form of execution which is not present in a well-placed voice; we see constant resort to the mezza voce, or trained falsetto, which anyone may see would never do for the general use of public singing, such as opera; we see the occasional burst of forcible tone made with distinctly apparent effort, and we observe that the breathing is often labored. It may be said that the singer is not in his first youth, and that he has used his voice excessively in teaching. We have many vocalists upon the boards who have used their voices as excessively as he and who are no longer young, but whose method is correct; Gautier, who sang in ‘Samson and Delilah’ here recently, is an example. Not only is Mr. Shakespeare silent as to how the force is applied which makes such a voice resonant, but he begs the whole question of a score of details absolutely essential to good singing and to which a teacher hereabouts must give attention, and leaves his hearer with the idea that the only positive active item in voice-culture is breath-control. As regarding the method of breath-control he differs from Garcia, Delle-Sedie, and other leaders, we may question still more seriously the value of his formula of voice-culture.

“Discussions of vocal method are always very unsatisfactory, because it takes years of experience to prove any point. But in the interest of musical education I venture to offer these objections to Mr. Shakespeare’s teachings, and I will add further that I have known several able and experienced teachers of voice to come from his teaching enthusiastic regarding the value of it, and after a year or so of faithful discipleship have shaken their heads dubiously and reluctantly admitted the idea expressed by one of them to me not long ago: ‘I am convinced that there is such a thing as too much relaxing.’”—A Chicago teacher.


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You are reading More About Shakespeare. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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