There are few accomplishments surrounded by such glamour as that of the singer. Apart from the pleasure which good vocalism gives to all who hear, there are social and public opportunities of winning wealth and fame by singing which particularly characterize that art. The harm comes in when one’s own overweening ambition, or the thoughtless flattery of relatives or friends, vaunts a mediocre voice beyond its possibilities. Hence may follow years of wasted energies and shattered hopes, usually accompanied by loss of means and collapse of nerves. Another grave mistake that the would-be vocalist often makes is to forget that “there are voices and voices.” If all can-not shine on the stage or in concert work, there is the home circle, the drawing-room of friends, the church choir, even the bedside of the sick and weak, where a small voice so it be pleasing in timbre, coupled with a correct ear, and carefully trainedmay contribute its meed of enjoyment. Much disappointment would be saved all classes of vocal students if they could be honest with themselves and curtail their aspirations in accordance with their vocal abilitiesor inabilities.
In commencing to learn singing, error is often made as to the nature of a voice. Thus soprani have been trained as contralti, and vice versa. The opinion of an efficient teacher at the start is indispensable. Roughly speaking, there are the great divisions of male and female, as of “first” and “second” voices. Again, there are the subdivisions of soprano, mezzo soprano. contralto, tenor, barytone, and bass. The choice of music for each class of voice is very diverse, and thevarious ranges and qualities require particular attention from a conscientious trainer. Doubtless the greatest future lies before the dramatic soprano and the pure tenor; but very satisfactory triumphs are in store for ordinary medium voices, the “mezzo” and the barytone. The fact that many boys, naturally gifted, sing as children in church and cathedral choirs, gives them an early training in vocalism which does not always fall to the lot of girls. The age at which a girl should regularly study singing is, indeed, a debatable point; though it is worth consideration that most great prime donne have sung, as they are so fond of telling their interviewers, from the time they could speak, if not before!
Again, systems in vocal culture are so multitudinous some vehemently upholding and others as strenuously condemning the existence of “registers,” for instancethat to pin one’s faith to any one “method” means that criticism is invited from eminent exponents of the other, and probably equally successful, schemes of “voice-production.” However, if we assume that the development of beautiful tone and clear ennnciation go to form the main attractions of a great voice, the following hints as to preparatory work, apart from any particular “system,” may be of assistance to the student who wishes to learn how to sing.
Initial vocal drill concerns itself principally with (1) breathing, (2) tone-production, and (3) “placing” the voice. Foremost authorities lay special stress upon breath-taking. In order to test the importance of this, let the singer try a simple experiment. Take a short sharp breath and intone any given notesay, middle C. The chances are that it may be held for a varying number of seconds with comparative ease; but with inception of the tone comes the feeling that it is slipping away, and that the singer has little power to increase or diminish its volume. Then, standing firmly on the feet with erect frame and the chest thrown well for-ward, let a deep, slow inhalation be taken. Now, sing the same note, and mark, if the breathing has been full and gradual, with what pleasure and confidence the carefully anticipated tone is taken, of how much better quality it is, and that crescendos and diminuendos may be made with a facility varying only as the vocalist is accomplished or the reverse. The natural conclusion is that to get the most out of one’s vocal tones a full deep method of breathing is necessary. We might enlarge here upon collar-bone as opposed to abdominal breathing; but details are best obtained from teachers and text-books. The art of taking a full deep breath may be practised with most case when one is lying prone on the back; and it is recommended that a few minutes each morning be devoted to this exercise before rising. Success comes when one has learned, while singing, to breathe thus unconsciously and without effort or discomfort.
Regarding tone-production, the best means to an end consists in the daily “scaling” of the voice to open vowel sounds, and in vocalizing intervals to tonic sol-fa syllables. The range to be scaled will depend upon the kind and compass of individual voices, the soprano scale of practice being usually from middle C to treble G. The frequent injunction of teachers to “open the mouth well” is of very general application in all scaling exercises; and if preliminary practice can be done in front of a small mirror the pupil may the more readily cultivate a pleasing expression when singing, or at least avoid grotesque facial contortions.
An easy natural pose, both of face and figure, adds greatly to the effect which vocalists produce, and such a matter as general deportment deserves attention. Tone-production, however, is the all-essential point in early lessons. Timbre, or quality of tone, is also as much to be sought after as quantity. Purity and evenness of tone should never be sacrificed to loudness. There is an art in controlling the voice so that it will “carry” to the extreme limits of the apartment, no matter what may be the capacity of the latter. Once this art is acquired, the painful sensation of effort or straining passes from the voice of the singer. Many instructors say : “Sing out well, so that you may reach the farthest corner of the room.” To this advice we might add,: “Anticipate, as well as listen to, the tone produced, and do not be satisfied with it until it is as beantiful as possible.”
“Placing the voice” touches somewhat on the vexed subject of “registers.” The latter are commonly divided into those of “chest,” “throat,” and “head,” so called from the parts of the human anatomy in which, respectively, the lower, middle, and upper sections of one’s vocal range are produced. To illustrate this, let it be allowed that what are known as “breaks” occur in most treble voices between the semitones (3d and 4th and 7th and 8th degrees) of the scale of C. To aid in bridging over these breaks, and thus effectively to “place” the voice, the first three notes of the scale (commencing with middle C) may be sang to open (broad) a, the aspirate ha being recommended for those who have a difficulty in producing from thechest. The succeeding four notes from F to Bfirst space and third line of the treble staff) might then be intoned to the syllable oo; the remaining notes of the compass (from C on third space, upward) being taken with mouth well open on vowel a. Another method of placing the voice can be practised with various syllabic particles, but these entail acquaintance with open and closed sounds, best studied under the subject of enunciation.
Volumes might be written on the topic o vocal enunciation, but space limitations permit only a few brief remarks. The correct as well as distinct pronunciation of words in singing is of the greatest importance. Thus, all colloquialisms and peculiar accents in song-speech should be avoided. Tone should be pro-longed, more than in speaking, on vowel sounds; while the pronunciation of final consonants, and especially of the sibilants, should be postponed to the last possible second. At the same time, the greatest care must be taken not to drop or slide over final, and particularly the dental, consonants. In rapid speech, we may, perhaps, be pardoned for saying “You an’ I,” but in singing the “and” must get its full value. Syllables containing the liquids (l, n, and r) bring the often troublesome tongue into play, and they are best practised by the repeated vocalization of such words as dream, near, still, etc., all of which give opportunity for the placing of so-called closed tones in enunciation. The great beauty of a perfect enunciation in singing lies, however, in the fact that the pronunciation of words is neither exaggerated nor “skimped”; i.e., that each syllable gets its due emphasis and de-livery and no more.
Coming to departments of vocal studyoratorio, operatic, and concert workeach demands special training. To become a proficient singer of oratorio music, one needs acquaintance with sacred vocal music of all kinds. The performances of church and cathedral choirs, as of large choral and festival societies, should be attended as often as possible, many oratorio vocalists beginning their career as choristers in some sacred vocal union. The systematic study of standard oratorios follows as a matter of course. It is well to prepare as many “parts” as possible under the guidance of a competent teacher. A soprano who knows her “Messiah” and “Elijah” roles will never regret the knowledge thus acquired. Often it happens :hat an eminent singer becomes indisposed upon the eve of an important performance. This is the debutante’s chance. The more fully she can prepare herself for these contingencies the better. Seldom does such equipment come amiss. Sooner or later, occasions will arise when the vocalist who is “ready” will find fiat her turn has come. It is also wise for would-be oratorio artists to cultivate the acquaintance of organists and conductors of choral societies. These are always on the lookout for really reliable soloists, especially in secondary parts; and in this way many a successful career has been opened tip for promising young singers. It should not be forgotten, however, that the right interpretation of sacred music demands a fitting reverence and devotion in the performer. Singers who do not enter into sympathy with the words they interpret minimize the power of appeal which they other-wise would exercise over appreciative listeners.
If the singing of oratorio music requires special gifts, the preparation of great operatic roles demands suitable temperament and training. It is not enough to be a good vocalist; one needs histrionic talent, a capable physique, and no small endowment of courage and nerve. The fact that women have been so eminently successful on the operatic stage disproves the theory that they are the weak and neurotic creatures so many would have us believe. That pluck and endeavor in these departments unsex the woman is an old-world prejudice well-nigh exploded in these more generous days of liberal thought and action. At the same time, the profession of operatic singer is not to be undertaken by impressionable young girls without clue consideration of its requirements, taxes, and risks. Those ladies who have succeeded best as prime donne have had plentiful stage experience from their youth up. and they frequently come of families in touch with dramatic affairs. A pleasing appearance, personal magnetism, and powers of physical endurance are very essential to the operatic singer if high rank is to be reached. The best practical apprenticeship is to be served by joining the chorus ranks of touring companies : and, in any case, the repertoires of these companies should be carefully studied by the aspirant, so that familiarity may be gained with the roles of grand operas most frequently performed.
To many a young girl singer, the concert artist’s life appears a most satisfactory and enjoyable one. What easier or more pleasurable than to step grace-fully on a platform in a pretty gown, sing a couple of songs. return to bow smilingly to an applauding audience. and awake next morning to read flattering notices of one’s self in the papers? People also whisper of colossal fees, ranging from two to three figures; and this for what is apparently child’s play to the gifted cantatrice. But behind come close study, work, and expenditure : nay, often years of waiting, frequent disappointment and worry before the good time. Nor do huge fees spell entire profit. Preparation, travel, dressthese all cost money.
How to sing so as to delight all and always is the problem that the professional vocalist has to solve. Selections should be chosen with the greatest carefrom oratorio, operatic, or song literature, as occasion may demand and should suit individual voices and the requirements of particular audiences. Singers also owe it to their listeners to appear to the best advantage, in manner and gait as well as habiliment. And even with all these preliminaries, if “soul” is absent from singing, the results fall flat. The one-man or one-woman song recital is often a questionable success, and is frequently given simply as a trial advertisement for the. tyro. Even groups of songs in various languages, bracketed songs, and the much-vaunt-ed song cycle are devices which scarcely obtain as much appreciation from the general publicwho, after all, require to be pleasedas did the old-fashioned methods of singing a grand aria or a popular ballad.
It should not be forgotten that a very pleasurable department of vocal practiceespecially for those who can never hope to shine as soloistsis to be found in part-singing. The madrigal and glee belong essentially to the English school of composition, the names of Morley, Wilbye, Gibbons, etc.. being associated with the first, somewhat contrapuntal, description of unaccompanied vocal part-writing, while Webbe, Calcott, Stephens, Bishop, and many others, a century later, have left a wealth of charming gleesless severe in style than the madrigal to choose from. German music is also rich in part songs, many of which have been made familiar in the United States through the singing societies so successfully maintained by those of German origin. Given a trio or quartet of mixed voices, much delightful ensemble practice is possible. Even within more restricted limits than the choral society. what can be imagined more enjoyable than an evening spent weekly, from house to house, by a dozen or more amateurs who have agreed to meet together thus for the rehearsal of part-singing? All that is needed is for a few enthusiastic society ladies to set such a ball rolling among their musical friends. Be-sides the rehearsal-room, or drawing-room lent for that purpose, there must be a good piano, presided over by a musicianly accompanist who is capable of acting as coach. An hour, or hour and a half, of a winter evening may be most profitably spent in this way; and if, at the conclusion of the season, a house concert can be arranged on behalf of some charity, practical benefit may accrue from what has already served the purpose of conveying much artistic pleasure to the part-singers themselves.
It might be added that choral singing, either in a church choir or large society, is an exercise eminently useful in the training of the musician, whether the vocal powers be good or indifferent. Soloists, as a rule, eschew choral singing on the plea that it strains the voice. But. if indulged in with moderation, no harm can possibly be done even to a very beautiful voice by judicious concerted singing. The advantages of choral singing are manifold. Not only does it assist in sight-reading, but a good sense of timeas well as familiarity with notation generallyis thereby cultivated. Moreover, the acquaintance with great works, classical and modern, which choral singing gives is in-estimable. It should also be remembered that many famous solo singers have served an apprenticeship in a church choir, or, it may be, in an operatic chorus. Such experience is invaluable and should be sought for when possible.