We may imagine the father and the mother having a talkone example out of thousands : “I think our daughter is going to have a voice,” says the father; “if that is so, I would like her to be a public singer; she might make a great name and earn a fortune, and all our friends would be jealous.” “But what are we going to do ?” asks the mother. Yes, what?
The girl is, say, fourteen years of age. Her parents are completely ignorant of anything connected with music or art; in fact, music has not hitherto been a subject of discussion between them.
A friend comes to tea in the afternoon; the parents confide to him their plans, and ask his advice. He knows of a piano-teacher whose brother gives singing-lessons. The real profession of this “teacher” is cabinet-making, but he used to sing in the chorus of an operatic traveling company, where he heard many of the great artists. He had also taken part in some local charity concerts, and, in consequence, is regarded as an authority in musical matters. The daughter of the house should be heard by this eminent expert : he will say at once if she has a voice worth cultivating.
Father, mother, daughter, and friend proceed the following day to the local authority aforesaid. The “authority” tries the girl’s voice, and declares that there is an instrument of rarest quality. The girl, he says, should start having lessons at once. “Is she not perhaps too young?” ventures the mother, timidly. “Oh, no!” replies the teacher, anxious to inveigle a victim, “she is just the right age; the muscles are ten-der, and it is better to impart the right thing on a tender muscle than on a ready-formed one!” The parents are overwhelmed at hearing a scientific explanation of such deep importance. The less they have understood, the more clever they think it!
The daughter starts lessons at once. Needless to say, the teacher is completely ignorant. The daily practices, the wrong production of the vocal tone, are followed by a complete breakdown of the girl’s voice, after quite a short time. The voice has now become husky and unsteady, and the girl complains of intense pain after the lessons. The family are alarmed; they consult a specialist, who finds the throat in a very bad condition. He suggests an absolute rest. The parents are much distressed, but the idea that their child is to become a singer has firmly fixed itself in their minds and nothing will uproot it.
After the rest prescribed by the doctor, they bringtheir daughter back to the same teacher, and repeat to him the doctor’s diagnosis. The teacher defends him-self as best he can. “The girl has a delicate throat,” he says; or “This is often the case at the beginning”; or “The child must have overworked at home”; or “The winter has been especially damp and cold.”
The lessons are resumed. After a few weeks the girl has lost even her speaking voice. The teacher, be-coming slightly alarmed, says it would be best to wait a year or two until she grows older. Then he proceeds to “explain,” with more or less success. why the girl has lost her voice. Even now the parents do not believe that he is responsible for any of the harm done.
They decide that, while the girl is waiting, she shall be very well educated, to enable her to meet later on, the demands of a great career; so they send her to a very superior boarding-school. At this school there are sight-reading and chorus-singing classes. The girl joins them, like every one else. These classes are held without regard to the age, capacity, or health of the girls. Notes are put before them, and they have to be sung, no matter whether they are too high or too low for the individual voices. In the case of this girl whose life we are now picturing, there very soon follows an acute attack of laryngitis; and coming home from school at the end of the term, she has to give up all hopes of ever being able to do anything with her voiceat least for the present. However, several years of complete rest bring back a few notes of her voice; new hopes are formed, and the parents is send their daughter to a large town. There she tries every available teacher, until nodules are formed on her vocal cords. A great authority in the medical world, to whom she is then taken, declares that she will never again as long as she lives be able to speak in a clear voice. So this story comes to an end. It is not the story of a girl who had to earn her own living.
What, however, about those who have nobody in this world to give them anything, and whose voices are their only fortune? The loss of the voice means the destruction of every hope of becoming fatuous or wealthy. Parents, if they have a gifted chile.. ought never to ask advice except from the highest authority in the profession chosen by or for that child.
To teach singing is more serious than to teach any other thing in this world. The singing-teacher can often give a voice, but he can more often take it away and break it forever. Therefore, to teach singing aright is an infinitely important matter. When you teach a musical instrument you can also impart the wrong thing: but in that case the pupil can restart on a new line, and learn the right thing. With singing it is different. Either the voice has been spoiled and it will take years and years of tears and pain to regain the lost treasure by the aid of the greatest expert in teaching, or it will be gone forever!
The singing-teacher not only has to “place” the voice, but to cultivate it with love and patience; he has to observe the general health of his pupil; he must direct her steps, teach her to clothe and to protect her-self against fatigue and cold; and all the while he must also train her soul. Even if the arrangement of her hair is in bad taste, it must be corrected. Often a trifle overlooked in the appearance of an artist has ruined her career. A singer who stands on a platform bent forward and never lifting her eyes, or one opening a mouth like a cavern, is impossible, whatever voice she may possess. “Stage fright,” that terrible malady of nervousness known to all who have to appear be-fore the public even that must not be too noticeable.
The public does not want a frightened artist; the public wants to enjoy itself; and a nervous artist makes the listeners nervous. A little nervousness at the beginning of a career is naturally allowed for, but it must not dominate the whole performance; if it does, it will spoil the whole effect. The soul of the pupil must be open to poetry, to love of beings and things; the thought must be wide-awake, else how can the singer understand the poem and the story which underlie every song or air ? The horizon of her views must be widened.
The girl who follows the ordinary school course without specializing in anything is the least educated of all the daughters of the great nations. I always question my pupils about their studies; and my experience is that they have never learned the things which they ought to have learned. How can they get on without a knowledge of mythology? How can they understand paintings, sculptures, even literature ? They do not learn the story of art, nor the literature of all the countries.
The consequence of this limited education is that the fields of girls’ imaginations have not been enlarged. Their moral eyesight is dim and limited; their conversation touches only a few subjects, and in life only a few things interest them. The most stupid love-stories, with an olla podrida of railway “literature,” are the only things they are familiar with. A girl who is not trained to appreciate serious and instructive literature will always lack depth and thoroughness. It is inevitable that this should be reflected in her art, if she chooses one, or if it chooses her.
To make a girl sing oratorio when she is fitted for opera; to try to make a serious ballad-singer out of one whose forte is light opera, are fatal mistakes on the part of a teacher. Knowledge and inspiration form the base of the art of teaching, and it is most necessary to understand the pupil’s capacity. We are all human beings; every one of us has moments of fatigue; but the teacher who, instead of giving the necessary explanation, becomes annoyed when the pupil asks an important question, is either ignorant or quite unfit. The teacher is there to impart, the pupil to take in; and if the pupil has difficulties in learning, it is the task of the teacher to overcome them. In a case where the teacher recognizes the utter impossibility of imparting his art to a pupil, because ofthe latter’s want of the essential qualifications for an artist, he must have the courage to state the fact.
You wish to sing? Why? Because you are longing to become celebrated, or because you love money? Or do you really love art itself ? One thing is certain : whatever you undertake without loveI mean love in the best sense of the word, not love of worldly matterscannot be accomplished. It was lovelove for God, for nature and artwhich made the ancient painters and sculptors so great; and it is the lack of this love which makes some modern artists so hopelessly small, the old idea being replaced by the desire of making money to procure luxury. One must live, of course, and if an artist makes money by his art, well and good: it is perfectly legitimate. But to regard an art solely from the point of being able to make money out of it is absolutely to be condemned.
You must first of all form your character; without that you can gain nothing, least of all a career. You must be able to dominate your passions and desires, if you wish to sing. All physical effort, any moral or physical strain, reflects back upon the voice, for the voice is produced by a group of muscles which form a part of the body. The first condition toward becoming a singer is to have general good health. Only moderate walking exercise should be taken; a little swimming, riding, or cycling will not hurt the voice, but I say a little. Colds are naturally to be avoided. The skin must be kept free, or bad circulation is the result; but to keep up a good circulation, massage and exercise are the two best things that one can recommend. For a singer, good meals and proper clothing are absolutely necessary. Exciting drinks have to be avoided; wines are not only ruinous for the body, but they produce gout and rheumatism; alcohol in every form weakens the muscles. It has destroyed more singers’ voices than the public is aware of. A singer’s heart must not be weak or overexcited; the heart being the most necessary factor of the body, its condition has the greatest influence on the voice. All violent exercise is to be avoided. I have met many girls who have had to give up singing because their hearts had been strained by violent games. Even too much walking may strain the heart.
The greatest sacrifice, and perhaps the hardest, to a singing-student is that she may only work her voice a little. There is a human instrument to be considered, and that will not stand overpractice. A girl should never begin singing before the age of sixteen; indeed, many girls are too young to start even at seventeen and eighteen. All depends upon the general development. The practices have to be timed, and they may only be increased by minutes. It is the teacher’s duty to regulate this important feature in the studies of his pupil. The work that the pupil is anxious to get through may be learned by thinking about it; she can study it for hours with her brain, and she will find that this will advance her considerably in her progress. The real practices with the vocal instrument itself should not last for more than minntes to begin with; and only much later on can they be stretched out to half-hours. I must add that forcing the voice by shouting is very dangerous. Singing with what is commonly called half-voice, or humming with open or closed mouth is equally dangerous. All these bring on the same evil result, namely, complete relaxation of the muscles of the throat.
One thing that has always struck me as incomprehensible, is the patience exercised by the average singing-pupil with the “teacher” who has either imparted nothing to her, or has ruined her voice forever. In ordinary life I generally find people revengeful, easily upset, having no memory for past benefits, but a splendid one for ill-treatment or unkindness. The singing-student is different. She certainly forgets the good things received (there are a few exceptions), but she as certainly forgets the bad things too. A proof of the right method is that from the day the lessons begin (in a more or less rapid way, according to the special or general condition of the pupil’s voice), the progress must be constant, never decreasing. One of the greatest drawbacks in the education of singing-pupils is that they do not give the necessary time to their chosen art. Many want to sing songs after a few lessons; and very few will understand that, even if the right method is being imparted, everything cannot come at once.
Another very tiresome drawback for a student is the persistency of the student’s friends. I know of nothing more dangerous than these so-called friends. They simply persecute a singing-student, making her sing for their own pleasure, either before or after dinner, whether she has the permission of the teacher or not.
The public creates kings in art, and destroys them later with the same smile. It makes those who have reached the highest realms of fame sink into the dark night of oblivion; while, on the other hand, it elevates creatures of obscure birth to the rank of heroes. Nevertheless, in spite of everything, artists crave for it, work for it, and suffer for it. They offer this Moloch their heart’s blood, they tremble before it, and adore it. Why? Because the public is to the singer what the light is to the painter. Without eyes to see and sun to shine, where and what would the painter be? Without ears to hear, what would music be? The one cannot exist without the other. I will say more: a considerable part of the artist’s talents depends upon her hearers. You may be the greatest living artist,but if you stand before an uneducated, indifferent or ironical public, you will be unable to impart or develop your art. You will lose your talent instantaneously if you begin to feel that cold waves of indifference are flying toward you across the space. On the other hand, you will be inspired and double your talent if you have sympathy, love, enthusiasm, and praise from your audience.
The public can unfortunately direct an artist’s taste, force him to perform what it likes best, what seems a pleasure to it, because pleasure is the principal benefit it wishes to derive from art. The public wants to be pleased, to amuse itself; if it must work or struggle to understand what is offered to it, the singing will no longer be a pleasure. Therefore the public likes things known to it, as in listening to them it enjoys itself. The serious artist who wishes to educate the public remains very poor indeed, and advances very slowly. I only speak of the singer, as she stands in front of the public in an especially difficult position, which is tin-known to instrumentalists. The classics of music for the violin and pianoforte are known by every concert-goer all over the world; and the artists play them over and over again, until the public is thoroughly familiar with them. The singer’s repertoire is, so to say, unexploited as yet. The singer, wishing always to please instantaneously, and especially having to consider that she must please so as to be able to earn her own living, has to give up searching for unknown or forgotten novelties; she gives the public what it knows and there-fore does not add to its education.
When some artists venture to give unknown works, they can only count on the appreciation of a circle, a very small circle, of people, and not on the general public. This circle is formed of highly cultured per-sons, who look out for intellectual feasts, and are happy to stroll with the artist through unknown fields. Therefore, it is the public who could, if it would, educate the artist, because it is the public which pays. So, naturally, the artist who has to make her own living cannot afford to teach the public, as she is the one who receives.