Among the tens of thousands of young men and women who, having heard a few famous singers, suddenly determine to follow the trail of the footlights, there must be a very great number who think that the success of the singer is "voice and nothing else." If this collection of conferences serves to indicate how much more goes into the development of the modern singer than mere voice, the effort will be fruitful.
The cruel part of it all is that many aspire to become great singers who can never possibly have their hopes realized. Natural selection rather than destiny seems to govern this matter. The ugly caterpillar seems like an unpromising candidate for the brilliant career of the butterfly, and it oftentimes happens that students who seem unpromising to some have just the qualities which, with the right time, instruction and experience, will entitle them to great success. It is the little ant who hopes to grow iridescent wings, and who travels through conservatory after conservatory, hoping to find the magic chrysalis that will do this, who is to be pitied. Great success depends upon special gifts and intellectual as well as vocal.
If the singer's spirit is in the child, nothing will stop his singing. He will sing from morning until night, and seems to be guided in most cases by an all-providing Nature that makes its untutored efforts the very best kind of practice. Unless the child is brought into contact with very bad music he is not likely to be injured. Children seem to be trying their best to prove the Darwinian Theory by showing us that they can mimic quite as well as monkeys. The average child comes into the better part of his little store of wisdom through mimicry.
No one man ever has had, has, or ever will have, a "method" superior to all others, for the very simple reason that the means one vocalist might employ to reach artistic success would be quite different from that which another singer, with an entirely different voice, different throat and different intellect, would be obliged to employ. One of the great laws of Nature is the law of variation; that is, no two children of any parents are ever exactly alike. Even in the case of twins there is often a great variation. One may be born with the talent and deep love for music, and one may be born with the physical qualifications which lead to the development of a beautiful voice, but the singer is something far more than this. Given a good voice and the love for his music, the singer's work is only begun. He is at the out start of a road which is beset with all imaginable kinds of obstacles.
When one is painting pictures through words, and trying to create atmosphere in songs, so much repression is brought into play that the voice must have a safety-valve, and that one finds in the bravura arias. Here one sings for about fifty bars, "The sky is clouded for me," "I have been betrayed," or "Joy abounds"—the words being simply a vehicle for the ever-moving melody.
The chances in the concert and operatic field are unlimited for those who deserve to be there. Don't be misled. Thousands of people are trying to become concert and oratorio singers who have not talent, temperament, magnetism, and the right kind of neither intelligence nor the true musical feeling. It is pitiful to watch them. They are often deluded by teachers who are biased by pecuniary necessity. It is safe to say that at the end of a year's good instruction the teacher may safely tell what the pupil's chances are. Some teachers are brutally frank. Their opinions are worth those of a thousand teachers who consider their own interests first. Secure the opinions of as many artists as possible before you determine upon a professional career. The artist is not biased. He does not want you for a pupil and has nothing to gain in praising you. If he gives you an unfavorable report, thank him, because he is probably thinking of your best interests. Progress depends upon the individual. One man can go into a steel foundry and learn more in two years than another can in five. If you do not become conscious of audible results at the end of one or two years' study do some serious thinking. You are either on the wrong track or you have not the natural qualifications which lead to success on the concert and oratorio stage.
In any event the mere possession of a voice that is sweet and strong by no means indicates that the owner has the additional equipment which the singer must possess. Musical intelligence is quite as great an asset as the possession of a fine voice. People seem to expect that the young person, who desires to become a fine pianist or a fine violinist, or a fine composer, should possess certain musical talents. That is, they should experience certain quickness in grasping musical problems and executing them. The singer, however, by some peculiar popular ruling seems to be exempted from this. No greater mistake could possibly be made. Very few people are musically gifted. When one of these people happens to possess a good voice, great industry, a love for vocal art, physical strength, patience, good sense, good taste and abundant faith in her possibilities, the chances of making a good singer are excellent.
Many singers fail dismally because they were simply singers. The idea that the entire singer needs to know is how to produce tones resonantly and sweetly, how to run scales, make gestures and smile prettily is a perfectly ridiculous one. Success, particularly operatic success, depends upon knowledge of a great many things. The general education of the singer should be as well rounded as possible. Nothing the singer ever learns in the public schools, or the high schools, is ever lost. History and languages are most important.
The basis of all fine singing, whether in the opera house or on the concert stage, is a good legato. The tendency to slide from one tone to another is done away with. The connection between one tone and another in good legato is so clean, so free from blurs that there is nothing to compare it with. One tone takes the place of another just as though one coin or disk were placed directly on top of another without any of the edges showing. The change is instantaneous and imperceptible. If one were to gradually slide one coin over another coin you would have a graphic illustration of what most people think is legato. The result is that they sound like steam sirens, never quite definitely upon any tone of the scale.
Whether or not the voice keeps in prime condition to-day depends largely upon the early training of the singer. If that training is a good one, a sound one, a sensible one, the voice will, with regular practice, keep in good condition for a remarkably long time. The trouble is that the average student is too impatient in these days to take time for a sufficient training. The voice at the out start must be trained lightly and carefully. There must not be the least strain. The young singer should practice mezza voce, which simply means nothing more or less than "half voice." Never practice with full voice unless singing under the direction of a well-schooled teacher with years of practical singing experience. It is easy enough to shout. Some of the singers in modern opera seem to employ a kind of megaphone method. They stand stock still on the stage and bawl out the phrases as though they were announcing trains in a railroad terminal. Such singers disappear in a few years. Their voices seem torn to shreds. The reason is that they have not given sufficient attention to bel canto in their early training. They seem to forget that voice must first of all be beautiful. Bel canto,—beautiful singing,—not the singing of meaningless Italian phrases, as so many insist, but the glorious bel canto which Bach, Haydn and Mozart demand,—a bel canto that cultivates the musical taste, disciplines the voice and trains the singer technically to do great things.
Success in this new field depends upon personality as well as art. It also develops personality. It is no place for a "stick." The singer must at all times be in human touch with the audience. The lofty individuals who are thinking far more about themselves than about the songs they are singing have no place here. The task is infinitely more difficult than grand opera. It is far more difficult than recital or oratorio singing. There can be no sham, no pose. The songs must please or the audience will let one know it in a second.
Tone creates its own support. How does a bird learn to sing? How does the animal learn to cry? How does the lion learn to roar? Or the donkey learns to bray? By practicing breathing exercises? Most certainly not. Many, many singers with splendid voices have never heard of breathing exercises. Go out into the Welsh mining districts and listen to the voices. They learn to breathe by learning how to sing, and by singing. These men have lungs that the average vocal student would give a fortune to possess. By singing correctly they acquire all the lung control that any vocal composition could demand. Singers study breathing as though they were trying to learn how to push out the voice or pull it out by suction.
The history of singing parallels the history of civilization. Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome made their contributions; but how they sang and what they sang we cannot definitely know because of the destruction of the bridge between ancient and modern notation, and because not until Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, was there any tangible means of recording the voices of the singers. The wisdom of Socrates, Plato and Cæsar is therefore of trifling significance in helping us to find out more than how highly the art was regarded. The incessant references to singing, in Greek literature, tell us that singing was looked upon not merely as an accomplishment but as one of the necessary arts.
(AdaptedThe Project Gutenberg EBook of Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by ames Francis Cooke)