The Voice in Singing

Translated from the German of EMMA SEILER, by a Member of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott & Co.
THIS is a book which all persons interested in vocal culture, either for themselves or others, should welcome. The tribute paid to Madam Seiler by two such eminent men of science as Helmholz and Du Bois-Reymond is in itself a guaranty of the scientific value of her work, and we trust will secure her a wide hearing and a willing discipleship for truths which, taken simply on their own merits, might in too many cases be doubted or undervalued. That the art of singing is now in a state of decline, if not altogether decayed, all competent critics admit. To believe this, it is only necessary to compare, as Madam Seiler does in her first chapter, the achievements of the great artists of a century ago with the possibilities of our petted favorites of to-day. But a still more striking proof of the fact that modern singing-teachers do not know how to teach singing, appears in the “lost voices ” that we hear bemoaned on every side, both by professionals and amateurs. Madam Seiler herself was a victim to one of the most eminent of these vocal quacks ; and, her voice having been entirely ruined while under his instruction, she resolved to try and rediscover the secrets of the old masters of the art, and, if possible, to establish scientifically what they had only practised empirically. An investigation of the larynx in the act of singing had already been begun by Manuel Garcia, the most celebrated master now living, who studied the interior of the throat by the aid of the laryngoscope. He was able to assert by seeing what a trained and critical ear might infer from hearing, — that the vocal organ is not a fixed tube which acts in the same manner throughout its whole
compass, but that at several points in the scale its adjustments suddenly shift, and the next series of tones is produced in a different manner, and possesses a different quality, from any of those preceding. Evidently, then, every tone has its own adjustment, or “ register,” as it is called in singing, in which it can best and easiest be sung, and ill which only it ought to be exercised and developed ; and though the adjustment belonging to a lower set of tones may, by overstraining, be applied to a higher, yet this violation of the intention of nature is productive only of evil. The tones so forced are of hard and impure quality, flexibility is impaired, sweetness, compass, and expression are lost, and the voice itself is at length spoiled or broken up. All this vocal ruin and destruction are now going on under the complete ignorance or indifference of the modern singingteacher to this great fundamental fact of the natural separation of the registers. Garcia’s experiments, though they attracted great attention from scientific men, and inaugurated a new era in vocal culture, received little notice from his own profession. In this country he has one close follower, Carlo Bassini of New York, an Italian, whose Methods for the Soprano, Baritone, and Young Voice respectively are among the best we have, and may be well taken up with the schools of Panseron, Concone, and Zollner. But neither Garcia nor Bassini has thus far attempted more than an elementary theory of the registers of the voice ; and it remained for Madam Seiler, by experiments with the laryngoscope, much longer continued and more successfully performed, to fix more accurately, and it seems to us finally, the limits and characters of the different registers of the voice. Instead of two or three, she makes five dilferent actions of the vocal organ. Her theory of the head register in particular is entirely original, and that of the upper falsetto register is a greater satisfaction to us than almost any part of the book, as experience had convinced us that the falsetto in the woman’s voice did not end and the head tones begin where Garcia and Bassini had supposed.
The subject of the registers occupies the whole of the second chapter of the book. The third treats of the “ Formation of Sound by the Vocal Organ ” ; showing, first, what are the properties of tone, as established by scientific investigation. Madam Seiler derives from this what constitutes a good singing tone, and what should be the disposition of the breath and the choice of vowels and syllables in vocalization in order to obtain it. Flexibility, purity, pronunciation, and many other topics, are also discussed. All of this chapter is valuable, and much of it is new, since few have any idea how opposed to modern custom in all these particulars was the long and careful and gradual drill of the old masters of song. The fourth chapter is devoted to the æsthetic view of the art of singing, and is as thoughtful, judicious, and penetrating as the others. Some of the strong and novel points of the book may be summed up as follows : —
1st. The voice has five independent modes of action for singing, as the hand has five fingers for playing ; and each is to be cultivated by and for itself, until the tones produced by each mode equal, or nearly equal, in strength and fulness, the pure tones of all the other modes. 2d. The man’s voice is best trained by a man, and the woman’s by a woman ; and no voice is to be intrusted to any but a thorough singingteacher. A mere instrumentalist or “natural singer ” is not competent to teach this art. 3d. That, instead of beginning practice with inflated chest and a loud tone, at first and for a long time no more breath than is used in speech should be employed ; and the tone should be soft, quiet, and entirely without effort. 4th. That the intelligent training of the voice may be, and best is, begun at five or ten years of age, as the growing organ is more susceptible of culture than the adult, and also because it takes years, instead of months, to make a singer. 5th. That singers should not be trained with a tempered instrument like the piano. 6th. That indiscriminate chorus-singing spoils the voice and the ear ; and that singing should not, therefore, be taught in our public schools by persons who know of music nothing except the simple reading at sight, and of singing nothing at all; but that there should be vocal schools, where children could be trained to read music and to sing without danger of injuring their voices before they have fairly possessed them. No one who has not taught our public-school children to sing knows anything about the beautiful voices and sensitive musical organizations which abound among our little Americans. As the translator of the work says that Madam Seiler is now in this country, would that the educational powers thereof could give her at once a hundred young girls to be trained as teachers for the benefit of just such vocal schools here as she herself would like to see in Germany !