Chapter II. Manuel Garcia II: The “Columbus of the Larynx”

If there ever was one who worked in the service of bel canto, adding to it the discovery of the actual secret vocal mechanism, it was he, Garcia the second (B. Marchesi 1932, 156).

But by making his alterations, Garcia jun. had mutilated the traditional Bel Canto method of teaching singing for which the pupils of the École Garcia had become famous (Manen 1987, 8).

These two provocative and contradictory assertions about Manuel Garcia II highlight two distinct aspects of his career that establish him as a revolutionary figure in the history of vocal pedagogy. Not only was Garcia the son of one of the greatest bel canto teachers of the Golden Age of Song, and heir to his father’s traditions, he was also one of the first men in history to observe his own vocal cords during phonation. Although in his 75 years of teaching Garcia produced some of the most brilliant singers of his century, he is best remembered for his scientific research and for the invention of the laryngoscope—the instrument that allowed him to observe his own vocal cords. As Marchesi implies when she dubs Garcia “the Columbus of the larynx” (B. Marchesi 1932, 74), this small instrument introduced teachers to a New World in vocal pedagogy. Garcia himself may not have recognized it, but his ground-breaking investigations into the physiology of the human voice motivated the most significant transformation in the field to date. Since the time his works first became widely recognized, the vocal scientist has been a permanent and increasingly prominent figure in vocal pedagogy.

Manuel Patricio Rodriguez Garcia was born in Madrid in 1805, the son of Manuel del Popolo Vicente Rodriguez Garcia (1775-1832), a famous Spanish tenor and teacher of the Italian vocal technique. The young Manuel lived with his grandparents in Madrid until he was 10 years old, at which time he was reunited with his parents in Naples. There, his musical education began in earnest, under the supervision of his father. The elder Manuel had been a student of Giovanni Ansani, who was likely to have studied under the famous Neapolitan maestro Porpora, teacher to the greatest castrati of the eighteenth century. Garcia’s student and biographer Mackinlay points out that through this remarkable link with the past, the teaching of the younger Garcia reflected over a century and a half of bel canto instruction (Mackinlay 1976, 25).

Music, especially opera, was at the center of the young Manuel’s life. At the age of 20, his family traveled to New York to introduce Italian grand opera to the New World, and it was there that he made his own operatic debut as Figaro in Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere de Siviglia[1]. However, he was not destined for an operatic career. Due to vocal damage, he was forced to abandon the stage after an unsuccessful Italian debut. Mackinlay attributes Garcia’s vocal deterioration to overwork and to singing inappropriate repertoire:

. . . he began to feel the strain involved in this perpetual rehearsing and singing not only his own baritone parts but on occasions the tenor music. His father was a hard taskmaster, and the son, though he had a fine voice, found the work involved by an operatic career too hard for his physical resources. At last things reached a point at which, as he once told me, he went through every successive performance in a state of fear lest his voice should leave him suddenly when he was on the stage (Mackinlay 1976, 85).

So instead of a stage career, Garcia became employed as a teacher at his father’s conservatory in Paris. Writing of his new employment, Garcia vowed that “from now onward I am going to devote myself to the occupation which I love, and for which I believe I was born” (Mackinlay 1976, 91).

However, his teaching was soon interrupted by a brief service in the French army (1830), during which time he made an extensive study of the vocal anatomy while working in military hospitals. This service marked the beginning of Garcia’s revolutionary investigations into the scientific basis of singing. Mackinlay writes that

at the hospitals, [Garcia] took up medicine and some specialized studies which embraced the physiology of everything appertaining to the voice and the larynx, for he had already perceived the importance of physiology as an aid to the rational development of the voice (Mackinlay 1976, 99).

These researches apparently extended beyond the vocal anatomy of humans. Garcia’s famous sister, the composer and mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, provides this amusing account of her brother’s early researches:

What do you think he brought? You would never guess. The throttles of all kinds of animals—chickens, sheep, and cows. You would imagine that these would have disgusted me. But it was not so. He would give me a pair of bellows, which I would insert in these windpipes, one after another, and blow hard. Heavens! What extraordinary sounds they used to emit. The chickens’ throttles would cluck, the sheep’s would bleat, and the bulls’ would roar, almost like life (Mackinlay 1976, 100).

After his discharge from army service in the 1830s, Garcia returned to Paris to rejoin his father in his voice teaching practice. At this time, Garcia began instructing his first two famous pupils, his sisters, both celebrated artists in their own right: Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot.

Even at this early stage in his teaching career, Garcia applied his scientific findings to the practical work of voice teaching. Mackinlay reports that it was Garcia’s custom to subject each prospective pupil to a vocal medical examination, and to insist that the pupil undergo special treatment if the larynx appeared to demand it (Mackinlay 1976, 114-15). Far from intimidating aspiring students, Garcia’s scientific method attracted ever-increasing numbers of pupils. In 1835, Garcia’s local celebrity was officially recognized by an appointment to a professorial chair at the Paris Conservatoire.

A little over a decade later, Garcia moved from Paris to London, where he taught at the Royal Academy of Music for almost 50 years. At this institution, he produced an astonishing succession of distinguished singers, among them Jenny Lind, Mathilde Marchesi, Julius Stockhausen, Sir Charles Santley, and Johanna Wagner, Richard Wagner’s niece. After his official retirement in the 1890s, Garcia continued to teach privately from his home. One of his students describes his later days as follows:

He was a retiring man, living only for the science of song, sober in words and actions, surrounded only by his family, hidden under the great shadow of London, unseen and never heard except by a few faithful disciples, and believed dead long before he left this world. The day of his death, when the papers poured forth columns of obituaries of the great man, the indescribable indifference of the British towards art and artists was painfully revealed. There was scarcely a person in London who did not say: “What, that old man lived, and in London too, and we did not know it? How curious!” (B. Marchesi 1932, 156).

When he passed away, Garcia was 101 years old.

Garcia’s legions of “faithful disciples” were not the exclusive beneficiaries of his teachings. Through his work as an author, the results of his vocal research became accessible to a vastly wider audience. In November, 1840, he submitted his first major work, Mémoire sur la Voix Humaine, to the French Academy of Sciences. This treatise, based on Garcia’s work in the military hospitals and on his first ten years of experience as a teacher, presented his theories concerning the registers and timbres of the singing voice—specifically, the positioning of the larynx in the throat during the singing of tones in the various registers—as well as their various applications to the different voice classifications (Garcia 1984, viii). This work, once accepted by the Academy, served as the basis for Garcia’s most celebrated and comprehensive manual, Traité Complèt sur l’Art du Chant [Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing]. This guide was originally published in two parts (the first in 1841 and the second in 1847) and was revised in 1856 after the invention of the laryngoscope (1854). Garcia also presented his early laryngoscopic findings in a paper entitled Physiological Observations on the Human Voice (1855) presented to the Royal Society of London and published in their Proceedings (vol. VII, no. 13). Finally, late in his life, Garcia published a final pamphlet, Hints on Singing (1894), intended to clarify his position on issues which had come under criticism in the intervening years. Garcia’s works reached an even larger audience through their translations into French, English, German, and Spanish.

Although Garcia professed his allegiance to the bel canto teachings that had been passed down to him from Porpora and Ansani through his father, his scientific research led him nevertheless to introduce practices widely at variance with those of his predecessors. However, Garcia did not perceive a conflict. Rather, he believed his efforts would unite the experientially based bel canto principles with a rational, physiological understanding of what caused them to be effective. In his Preface to the first edition of the Traité Complèt, Garcia articulates this purpose:

I have collected [my father’s] instructions, fruits of a long and of a most cultivated musical taste. It is his method which I have wanted to reproduce by trying to reduce it to a more theoretical form by attaching the results to their [physiological] causes. . . . This manner of considering the teaching [of singing] can, I believe, make it, as a whole more precise and complete (Garcia 1984, xvii-xviii).

The basis for this “theoretical” reduction was Garcia’s physiological theories of phonation, verified by his observations with the laryngoscope—the instrument that first allowed the vocal cords to be viewed during speaking and singing. “During all the years of study and investigation of the problems of voice-emission,” Garcia once reflected, “one wish was ever uppermost in my mind—‘if only I could see the glottis!’ Why should I not try to see it? How must this be done?” (Mackinlay 1976, 203-4). Blanche Marchesi, the daughter of one of Garcia’s most celebrated pupils, Mathilde Marchesi, relates how Garcia “told me that his curiosity to see the living larynx work was so great that he often tried to look down his throat and the throats of his pupils whilst singing, in order to get a glimpse of the actual physical action” (B. Marchesi, 1978, 17). According to Mackinlay, the inspiration that finally granted Garcia his wish came to him in 1854. He recounts the story of the invention of the laryngoscope as Garcia related it to him:

. . . like a flash, he seemed to see the two mirrors of the laryngoscope in their respective positions as though actually before his eyes. He went straight to Charrière, the surgical instrument maker, asked whether they happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, and was at once supplied with a dentist’s mirror, which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition of 1851. He bought it for six francs.

Returning home, he placed against the uvula this little piece of glass, which he had heated with warm water and carefully dried. Then with a hand-mirror he flashed onto its surface a ray of sunlight. By good fortune he hit upon the proper angle at the very first attempt. There before his eyes appeared the glottis, wide open and so fully exposed that he could see a portion of the trachea. So dumbfounded was he that he sat aghast for several minutes. On recovering from his amazement he gazed intently for some time at the changes which were presented to his vision while the various tones were being emitted. . . . At last he tore himself away, and wrote a description of what he had seen (Mackinlay 1976, 204-5).

As this personal account demonstrates, the earliest form of the laryngoscope consisted simply of two mirrors, a dentist’s mirror and a hand mirror. The smaller mirror, attached to a long, bent stem, was warmed slightly to prevent the singer’s breath from condensing on its surface, then placed against the uvula with the reflective side facing downward toward the vocal cords. The hand mirror, held in front of the singer’s mouth, was used to reflect light rays onto the first. In this manner, the glottis was illuminated, and its actions could be observed during phonation. By Garcia’s own report, these observations clearly evidenced “the precise number of registers and the true range of each of them…the fundamental timbres of the voice, their mechanism and their distinctive characteristics, the various methods of performing passages, and the nature and mechanism of the trill” (Garcia 1984, xvii). In general, Garcia was not bashful about extolling the benefits conferred on the singing community by his recent invention:

Until our days the physiologist possessed only some approximate notions, obtained by induction, of this part of science. In order to make them precise he lacked a means of direct observation. This means has been furnished to him recently by the laryngoscope; he can today, by carrying his, look into the interior of the larynx, examine it while the voice is being produced, and, connecting the movements which he sees there to his knowledge of anatomy, establish his theories on well verified facts (Garcia 1984, xx-xxi).

Although Garcia is universally considered to be the inventor of the laryngoscope, Browne and Behnke, prominent vocal scientists of the late nineteenth century, assert that the “claimants for the honor of having invented this beautiful little instrument are many” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 115). Indeed, those in the medical community concerned with diseases of the throat had been experimenting with similar devices since the eighteenth century, with the greatest number of experimenters working during the fifty years prior to Garcia’s discovery. Levret (1734), Bozzoni (1807), Latour (1825), Senn and Babington (1827), Bennati (1832), Beaumês (1838), Liston (1840), Avery (1840), and Warden (1844) all documented experiments with some type of apparatus designed to illuminate the glottis (Browne and Behnke 1890, 116; Mackinlay 1976, 202). However, the common thread among these would-be inventors seems to be their failure to appreciate fully the laryngoscope’s potential or to document any significant results from its use. Moreover, the goals of most of these early experimenters were quite different from Garcia’s. These would-be inventors were more concerned with the pathology of the larynx than with the process of healthy phonation, and sought accordingly to develop a diagnostic tool that could detect abnormalities of the vocal cords and surrounding tissues. Browne and Behnke identify the elements of Garcia’s work that set it apart from his predecessors and contemporaries:

It will be seen from the above notes that the principle of laryngoscopy had been known to several men of science, yet the results obtained with the instruments formerly employed were almost nil, and it was reserved for Manuel Garcia, the famous professor of singing, to show the world the real value of the little laryngeal mirror; to make original additions to vocal physiology; to settle, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the true theory of voice production . . . [to make] observations upon his own larynx in the act of singing . . . to [give] detailed descriptions of even the minutest movements of the vocal ligaments . . . Garcia is, therefore, to all intents and purposes the real inventor of the laryngoscope, and he is now also universally recognised [sic] as such (Browne and Behnke 1890, 116-17).

Despite the significance of Garcia’s discoveries, many years passed before the laryngoscope’s potential was fully realized by either doctors or voice teachers at large. Mackinlay asserts that “the medical profession was slow to realize what an invaluable instrument of observation the musician had provided, and at first it was treated by superior persons as nothing more than a physiological toy . . . ” (Mackinlay 1976, 206). Finally, however, the laryngoscope came to the attention of a Hungarian professor of physiology, J. N. Czermak, who published his own observations with the laryngoscope, and began a lengthy crusade to publicize its usefulness:

He visited the principal medical centres [sic] of Europe, and, luckily being gifted with a capacious and exceptionally tolerant throat, he was able to give convincing demonstrations of the value of the discovery, and its scientific and practical possibilities. If Garcia was the founder, Czermak was the apostle of laryngology (Mackinlay 1976, 207-8).

But while the medical community was just beginning to embrace the diagnostic possibilities of the laryngoscope, Garcia tired of it quickly after his initial researches. As far as Garcia was concerned, once he had used the little instrument to verify his theories about the timbres of the voice and the vocal registers, the laryngoscope ceased to be of any special use to him:

By his examination of the glottis he had had the satisfaction of proving that all his theories with regard to the emission of the voice were absolutely correct. Beyond that, he did not see that anything further was to be gained beyond satisfying the curiosity of those who might be interested to see for themselves the forms and changes which the inside of the larynx assumed during singing and speaking (Mackinlay 1976, 205-6).

Despite these sentiments, in the coming years, many pedagogues who followed Garcia not only “satisfied their curiosity” by availing themselves of the laryngoscope, but used their various observations from it as the basis for increasingly diverse methods of vocal instruction.

Garcia’s observation of his own vocal cords during phonation was not the only thing that set his teaching apart from that of his father and the “old Italian masters” with whom he had studied. Another of Garcia’s fundamental departures from the pedagogy of his predecessors was his insistence that all voice teachers and singers should become familiar with the details of vocal anatomy and physiology. In the Preface to the sixth edition of the Traité Complèt, Garcia asserts that, in fact, he feels it is his “duty” to begin his method with a description of the vocal organs (Garcia 1984, xxv). Moreover, he justifies the inclusion of this scientific information:

It seems to us impossible to understand the mechanism of an instrument well if one does not first have some notion of the different parts which compose it (Garcia 1984, xxv).

From the outset, Garcia is careful to clarify that the physiological and anatomical information he includes is not directed to scientists or doctors, but to vocalists and their teachers. In the section of the Mémoire entitled “Abbreviated Description of the Vocal Apparatus,” Garcia deliberately distinguishes that “this anatomical statement is addressed, not to physiologists, but to singers” (Garcia 1984, xxxv). Perhaps anticipating some resistance to this new aspect of vocal training, Garcia encourages his readers not to be intimidated by the technical nature of the information included:

Let us borrow from science only the details strictly necessary for the intelligence of our theories, and some technical expressions, so it will be necessary to accept them just as anatomy presents them. Let our readers be not at all frightened by them; these few terms will easily become familiar to them and cannot be the occasion of a real difficulty (Garcia 1984, xxv).

Mackinlay, who studied voice with Garcia for several years as well as writing his biography, affirms that his teacher’s enthusiasm for sharing scientific information about the voice extended beyond his writings and into his teaching procedures. In describing his own early voice lessons with Garcia, Mackinlay relates how, “in the intervals of rest, the physiology of the voice was clearly and carefully explained, and the proper position of the various parts of the body and throat, and the management of the vocal cords necessary for the emission of resonant tone, were the first laws laid down” (Mackinlay 1976, 234-35).

In his writings, Garcia repeatedly clarifies that he does not advocate teaching students about vocal anatomy and physiology merely to satisfy their own scientific curiosity. Rather, in his Preface to the sixth edition of the Traité Complèt, (a revision completed after the invention of the laryngoscope), he underlines the practical applications this knowledge holds for the singer who possesses it:

The study of the mechanism of the human voice, very instructive for the physiologist, can also have some undeniable advantages for the singer. Nothing, in fact, can be more valuable to him than to know by what procedures the vocal instrument manages to produce the vibrations, to what operation of the organs we owe the range of the voice, the registers, the timbres, etc. If he could obtain that knowledge, the singer would find in it the secret of the proper means of smoothing out the difficulties which hamper his studies [emphasis added] (Garcia 1984: xx).

Garcia reinforces this point by referring readers to “the practical advantages assured to the singer by the result of [laryngoscopic] examination presented in the edition of my method which appeared in 1856” (Garcia 1984, xxiv).

Thus, according to Garcia, what were the “practical advantages” assured to the singer or voice teacher who was familiar with vocal anatomy and physiology? Garcia believed that those who were well schooled in these sciences would be better able to learn how to regulate the movements of their vocal organs mechanically and consciously:

The singer, to dominate the material difficulties of his art, must have a thorough knowledge of the mechanism of all these parts to the point of isolating or combining their actions, according to need (Garcia 1984, lxiv).

In addition, Garcia believed that teachers who had this information would be better able to direct the movements of their students’ vocal organs to correct vocal faults:

The study of the anatomy and physiology of the vocal organs . . . will enable [the voice teacher], when a defect is to be amended, to detect the organ which is at fault, and to suggest the proper correction. For the pupil, it is enough that, localising [sic] his sensations through his master’s explanations, he should learn to distinguish the various parts of his instrument and the manner of using them (Garcia 1894, iii-iv).

Garcia’s treatment of vocal timbres provides an excellent example of how he often upheld the spirit of central bel canto principles while introducing such mechanical practices to support them. Just as vowel purity was an important topic for the bel canto instructors, it was for Garcia as well. The old Italian masters had dealt with this issue in terms of sound quality, seeking to recreate the ideal vowel sounds which they had learned by experience would correspond to a harmonious balance of their internal vocal organs. Garcia, in contrast, skipped directly to the “harmonious balance,” and worked backwards to establish precisely what conformations of the larynx, pharynx, soft palate, etc. would result in those desired vowel sounds.

Garcia described these various conformations, in part, as vocal “timbres,” of which he recognized two basic types: the “clear” and the “somber.” The clear timbre, which he associated with the open Italian vowels [ a ], [ε], and [ ], is achieved by a lowered soft palate (which internally opens the nasal passages) and a correspondingly raised larynx. These two elements combined cause the pharynx to assume a short and slightly curved shape, and the opening of the throat, a crescent shape. In this timbre, the larynx climbs with each ascending tone. It begins slightly lower than its resting position for the lowest tone of the chest register, and jumps slightly before rising again in falsetto.

In contrast, the somber timbre, associated with the closed Italian vowels [i], [o], and [u], is achieved by a raised soft palate (which internally closes the nasal passages, either partially or completely) and a correspondingly lowered larynx. This causes the pharynx to be bent at a right angle, and the throat opening to be shaped as an oval. In this timbre, the larynx remains fixed at its lowest position while in chest and falsetto registers, and begins to climb slightly when the head register is reached. Garcia adds that the vowel [I], having no character of its own, can be rendered equally in either timbre.

Again, he pointedly remarks that these detailed physiological descriptions are not meant solely as explanation, but have practical value. His stated intention in including them is to demonstrate “how it is necessary to use these different movements (of the larynx and of the throat) [emphasis added] in order to impart these different timbres to the voice” (Garcia 1984: lviii). Hints on Singing also includes a section in which Garcia meticulously describes the nuances of physical adjustment necessary for producing pure vowels:

To produce the Italian vowels [open] [ a ], [ε], [ ] . . . it is required first that the jaw should be drooping loosely, secondly that the vocal arch should be expanded. The tongue should be flat and limp for the a, hollowed at the back for the o, and somewhat raised in the middle for the e . . . (Garcia 1894, 46).

In addition, noting that certain vowels are modified by singers as they ascend the vocal scale, Garcia recommends that singers learn to make the necessary physical modifications consciously:

. . . in order to obtain evenness of voice, a singer should, by clever management, modify a vowel, insensibly rounding it as the voice ascends, and brightening as it descends; by this means, a seeming equality results from a real, but well-concealed inequality of the vocal sound. This precept applies to each register throughout the entire compass (Garcia n.d., 44).

Instead of the bel canto understanding of pure vowels as a tone quality ideal that students must learn to reproduce through imitation and experience, Garcia conceived of each vowel as a set of physical adjustments which they should learn to perform in order to achieve the correct sound.

Just like his bel canto predecessors, Garcia recognized certain other vocal timbres as faulty, and placed the highest priority on eliminating them in his students’ singing. But unlike them, Garcia described each faulty timbre not as a quality of vocal sound, but in terms of the specific maladjustments of the vocal organs which were responsible for causing each poor quality. Furthermore, he often suggested distinctly mechanical means of correcting each improper position. For example, Garcia explains that the guttural or throaty timbre results “when the tongue broadens at the base,” describing how it then “presses the epiglottis back onto the column of air,” causing the voice to “come out as though squashed” (Garcia 1984, lxi). He suggested that the teacher ascertain whether the tongue is broadened in this way by pressing exteriorly on the student’s hyoid bone[2] with his fingers. In stipulating the way to correct such a fault, rather than focusing on the vowel as a sound the way a bel canto professor might have, Garcia writes instead about mechanical adjustments to the tongue:

One sees already that, in order to correct the defectiveness of this timbre, it is necessary to hollow the tongue through the base, and this disposition must be kept, to different degrees, in the emission of all the Italian vowels in order to make them all sonorous (Garcia 1984, lxi).

Garcia takes a similar approach to nasal singing. Rather than a simple admonition, like Tosi’s, to make sure the scholar does not sing “thro’ the Nose” (Tosi 1923, 22), Garcia explains the precise physiological causes of this objectionable timbre:

When the soft palate is too much relaxed, the voice will probably acquire a nasal character; for the column of vocal air is reflected, or echoed immediately in the nasal fossae or cavities, before being emitted by the mouth (Garcia n.d., 10).

Garcia instructs the student to pinch his nostrils while singing; in this way, he or his professor can determine whether the column of air, upon leaving the larynx, is directed against the nasal fossae before entering the mouth, or whether it passes immediately through the mouth. If the former is the case, the student must learn to “raise the soft palate” consciously while singing to correct the fault (Garcia n.d., 10).

But by far, Garcia’s most thorough and technically complex treatment of a faulty timbre is found in his explanation of the veiled or breathy tone. His use of specific anatomical terms for various intrinsic muscles of the larynx is particularly notable:

If . . . the arytenoids are separated, the glottis assumes the shape of an isosceles triangle, the little side of which is formed between the arytenoids. One can then produce only extremely dull notes and, in spite of the weakness of the resulting sounds, the air escapes in such abundance that the lungs are exhausted in a few moments. . . . It is only at the summit of the angle which parts from the thyroid cartilage that the condensations and rarefactions of the air are formed in a complete manner (Garcia 1975, 152).

Instead, to convert all of the breath pressed through the glottis into “complete condensations and rarefactions,” Garcia explains that the glottis must open not as a triangle, but as a narrow, elliptical slit. He attributes this proper glottal opening to “vigorously pinching the arytenoids together” which “synergistically brings about a certain contraction, a kind of condensation of the tissues of the pharynx, a most favorable state for the vitality and the brilliance of the voice” (Garcia 1975, 153). In order to correct the veiled quality of voice, Garcia instructs the student to practice “firmly pinching or contracting the glottis” (Garcia n.d., 10). However, his only suggestion of how the student is to establish such conscious control over the intrinsic muscles of the glottis is that the recommended “pinching” is “best effected by pronouncing the vowel e—Italian i” (Garcia n.d., 10).

Another perfect illustration of Garcia’s new tendency to translate sound qualities into mechanical descriptions is his treatment of vocal articulations. Just like the treatises of his bel canto predecessors, Garcia’s writings contain extensive information on these various articulations. But rather than confining himself to issues of performance practice—in what musical circumstances each articulation should be used, what vocalizes can be assigned to help a student develop facility with each articulation, etc.—Garcia meticulously describes the action of both the lungs and the glottis in effecting them. For example, he describes portamento as “equal and continued pressure of air” from the lungs combined with “gradual changes in the tension of the lips of the glottis.” In contrast, marcato is defined as “continued and accented pressure of the air” with “sudden changes in the tension of the lips of the glottis” (Garcia n.d., 13). The articulations legato, pichettato (detached), and aspirato (aspirated) are all similarly described.

However, Garcia’s general remarks on the “Emission and Qualities of the Voice” in the Traité Complèt reveal perhaps most vividly the extent to which his practices had become mechanized. In a passage that would no doubt have confounded his father and his father’s teachers, Garcia claims that the purest vocal tone is obtained

(1) by flattening the tongue along its entire length, (2) by slightly raising the velum [soft palate], (3) by separating the pillars [of the fauces] at their base . . . The singer should shape the instrument from the glottis to the lips by modifying the pharynx, the pillars, the arch of the palate, the tongue, the separation of the jaws and that of the lips in such a way as to direct the sonorous waves against the osseous part of the buccal partition [the hard palate] and to reflect them in the direction of the axis of the mouth, which amplifies tone and is favorable to the emission of it (Garcia 1984, 37).

More step-by-step, mechanical instructions for the physical preparations necessary for producing a tone include:

Hold the tongue relaxed and immobile (without lifting it either by its root or by its tip); finally, separate the base of the pillars and soften the entire throat. In this position, inhale slowly and for a long time. After you are thus prepared, and when the lungs are full of air, without stiffening either the phonator or any part of the body, but calmly and easily, attack the tones very distinctly with a light stroke of the glottis on a very clear [ a ] vowel (Garcia 1984, 41).

Garcia even goes so far as to describe the proper movements and tensions of the vocal cords themselves, and to suggest that the singer must consciously control them. During a discussion of the correct way to execute a messa di voce (i.e., the gradual crescendo and diminuendo on a single sung tone), Garcia cautions students that in order to maintain a consistent pitch during crescendo, they must voluntarily relax the tension of their vocal cords:

When the singer maintains his vocal cords in any state whatever, if he happens to push the air with more vigor, the pitch will rise against his will because the growing compression of the air increases the tension of the vocal cords and produces more rapid pulsations and explosions . . . Consequently, in order for an intonation to remain invariably the same from the pianissimo to the fortissimo, it is necessary that a voluntary relaxation of the vocal cords restore the intonation at each instant when it tends to rise. The contrary will take place to return from the fortissimo to the pianissimo (Garcia 1984, 134).

Continuing his discussion of messa di voce, Garcia instructs the student on specific motions of the larynx and pharynx that are necessary for smooth transitions from one register to the other when the crescendo and diminuendo necessitate it. His instructions for performing this exercise include directives such as “fix the larynx more firmly,” “raise the larynx again and dilate the pharynx,” and “fasten the larynx low and contract the pharynx” (Garcia 1984, 135-136). These directions confirm one of Garcia’s assumptions that distinguishes him quite clearly from his predecessors: a conviction that the movements of the internal vocal organs (e.g., the level of vocal cord tension, the height or depth of larynx position, and the dilation of the pharynx) can and should be consciously controlled.

Garcia’s scientific approach to vocal pedagogy is clearly laid out in his writings. However, first-hand accounts of his teaching practices cast some doubt as to whether he actually taught in the same manner that he wrote. Different students give directly contradictory accounts of how important a role Garcia assigned to scientific explanations during actual lessons. In particular, Mackinlay, who studied with the master for a full course of study (i.e., four years), gives conflicting information about how Garcia would go about helping his students achieve their vocal aims. For example, he relates an amusing anecdote about how his teacher helped a young girl find her chest voice. Rather than instructing her in the proper position of the larynx and the appropriate tension of the vocal cords, Garcia instead asked her:

‘Do you know how a duck speaks? Imitate it, please.’ With much giggling, to which he listened patiently, she tried to obey, ‘Quack, quack.’ ‘Good! Now turn this into a singing note; sing one tone lower in the same manner, and one more’ (Mackinlay 1976, 252).

However, Mackinlay also asserts that in his lessons, Garcia was “was ever ready to give the most interesting information on any scientific questions or theories, and would discuss a point with the greatest animation” (Mackinlay 1976, 291). In contrast, Garcia’s famous pupil Sir Charles Santley claims that during his lessons with the great maestro, no scientific explanations of any vocal actions were ever offered:

Manuel Garcia is held up as the pioneer of scientific teachers of singing. He was—but he taught singing, not surgery! I was a pupil of his in 1858 and a friend of his while he lived, and in all the conversations I had with him, I never heard him say a word about larynx or pharynx, glottis, or any other organ used in the production and emission of the voice. He was perfectly acquainted with their functions, but he used his knowledge for his own direction, not to make parade of it before his pupils, as he knew it would only serve to mystify them, and could serve no good purpose in acquiring a knowledge of the art of singing (Santley 1908, 24).

Perhaps the discrepancy between these two accounts is due to the simple explanation that Garcia taught different students in different ways. Mackinlay does reflect that Garcia’s doctrine “was not a method—in the sense that he had no hard and fast rules” (Mackinlay 1976, 285). Rather, his first priority was to help each student sing in the most natural and effortless way. Garcia describes his own view of his role as voice teacher as follows:

I only tell you how to sing, what tone is good, what faults are to be avoided, what is artistic, what inartistic. I try to awaken your intelligence, so that you may be able to criticize your own singing as severely as I do. I want you to listen to your voice, and use your brain. If you find a difficulty, do not shirk it. Make up your mind to master it. So many singers give up what they find hard. They think they are better off by leaving it, and turning their attention to other things which come more easily. Do not be like them . . . Do not be afraid to face a difficulty. Make up your mind to conquer it. I only direct you. If you do a thing badly, it is your fault, not mine. If you do it well, all praise to you, not me (Mackinlay 1976, 286-7).

In the end, in Garcia’s stated endeavor to “attach the results [of bel canto training] to their causes,” he was largely successful. However, in the process, he began to suggest distinctly mechanical means of achieving the major artistic goals of the bel canto school—means which his predecessors, by virtue of their relative ignorance of vocal physiology and of their views concerning the “natural” and “spontaneous” motions of the vocal organs, had never proposed.

But the proponents of traditional bel canto methods were never able to reseal the proverbial Pandora’s box that Garcia had pried open. Garcia’s Traité Complèt was eventually translated into many languages, and gained wide recognition, as did the laryngoscope. His fame as a teacher spread, and he was even sought out by Richard Wagner to found a conservatory in Bayreuth.[3] However, most importantly, his reinterpretation and transformation of bel canto principles into mechanized physical processes became a source of great fascination among voice teachers. His revolutionary idea that “a scientific knowledge of the workings of the vocal organs could be the basis of a practical system or method of instruction in singing” (Taylor 1922, 17) was eagerly adopted by many of his contemporaries and successors, acting as the fundamental principle of numerous subsequent vocal methods. Although it was likely unintentional, Garcia fueled nothing less than a revolution in vocal pedagogy.


[1] Rossini had composed the role of Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia specifically for the elder Manuel.
[2] The hyoid bone is a U-shaped bone located at the base of the tongue.
[3] Mackinlay writes that upon hearing his niece Johanna sing after her studies with Garcia, Richard Wagner “wrote the maestro a letter full of the warmest recognition of the progress which she had made under his tuition.” Twenty-five years later, when making arrangements for the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner wrote again to Garcia, asking whether he would undertake the training of the singers who were to perform there. According to Mackinlay, “Garcia was so busy with his teaching in London at this time that he was unable to accept the offer; but the mere fact that he was asked to do this is a very material answer to those who would have it that Wagner’s music is not supposed to be treated according to the Italian ideals, but should be rendered in the style of Sprechgesang, which has been a current German cry” (Mackinlay 1976, 165).