Chapter III: The Rise of the Vocal Scientist

We live in an epoch in which, in every branch of human knowledge, there has been progress and evolution from empiricism to scientific principles and definite rules . . . Only the art of singing is still striving in its empiric form, ruled either by doubtful traditions or by arbitrary methods of singing . . . (Marafioti 1981, 12-13)

In many quarters within the voice teaching community, the response to Garcia’s laryngoscope and his ground-breaking researches was to call into question the “empiricism”[1] of prior vocal methods. In this era, as fledgling vocal scientists sought to follow Garcia’s lead and to begin teaching voice based on “scientific principles,” many took a step that Garcia had never imagined: they not only dismissed, but sometimes also denigrated, the simple dictates and time-honored approaches of the old Italian teachers. Comments such as those by the disciples of vocal scientist Douglas Stanley are representative of these new attitudes toward all pedagogies past:

If Stanley’s works were to be compared with the old masters, such as Porpora, Pistocchi, Bernacchi, Mancini . . . it would become clear how illogical and inept were the teachings of these ancients (Stanley, Chadbourne, and Chadbourne 1950, 21).

P. Mario Marafioti, whose book subtitled The Scientific Culture of the Voice (1922) was endorsed by Enrico Caruso, actually likens the teaching of these masters from the past to the crude medicine of their surgeon contemporaries, who had to make diagnoses without the aid of X-rays (Marafioti 1981, 37-38). Eager vocal scientists everywhere began to envision a bright, new era in voice teaching, in which the recent discoveries about the physiology of the voice could act as the equivalent of an X-ray to reveal the causes of all vocal faults and point the surest way toward their correction. Hopes were high:

The plans we have been unfolding are capable of dethroning the goddess of Empiricism, who has only too long held sway over our noble art, and in her place shall be set up a government, guided and controlled by science and skill, which shall give the earnest student the certainty that he may grow into the beautiful maturity of the polished and finished artist (White 1950, 126).

Unfortunately, the new “plans” constructed by White and his like-minded colleagues failed to result in a cohesive “government” to preside over the domain of voice teaching. In fact, the “scientific” literature on the voice that was published during the century following the laryngoscope’s invention (roughly 1850 to 1950) does not even begin to approach the unified pedagogy of the bel canto era. On the contrary, it contains some of the fiercest controversies in the history of the field. Clippinger observes that members of this class of voice teachers “will follow the scientist or physiologist whose ideas most nearly coincide with his own,” but that since the “scientists have not yet approached anything resembling an agreement, it follows that their disciples are far from being of one mind” (Clippinger 1919, 35-36).

In this assertion, Clippinger is only partially correct. While the practices did vary, two essential principles underlie and unify virtually all of the scientific methods of voice production that appeared during this time. These principles, predictably, have their roots in the writings of Garcia II, and both represented fundamental departures from the vocal pedagogy of the past. First, all of these “scientific” methods of voice training share the conviction that knowledge of vocal anatomy and physiology is essential to the voice teacher, and often to the aspiring singer as well. Second and more important, all contend that singers’ ultimate success rests to some degree upon their ability to coordinate, mechanically and consciously, the movements of their vocal organs, both internal as well as external. These two beliefs, expressed in various forms by a wide variety of individuals, were the cornerstones of a scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy.

In this age of progress in the arts and sciences, there is no good reason why the vocalist should not fully understand and appreciate the mechanism of the vocal apparatus, and its correct or incorrect form and action in producing tone, right or wrong (Myer 1984, 7).

Edmund J. Myer here expresses one of the cardinal Truths of Importance to Vocalists (1883), according to the early vocal scientists. While this group may have disagreed about the appropriate level of detail in a student’s scientific instruction, often expressing “most contradictory views” on the subject (Tetrazzini 1975, 43), they were nevertheless strikingly unified in their assumption that such instruction played a legitimate, if not integral, part in his or her studies.

Even a cursory survey of the tables of contents of vocal treatises written during the century after the invention of the laryngoscope demonstrates that knowledge of the inner workings of the vocal mechanism was generally regarded as crucial knowledge. The majority of these treatises includes a chapter or section exclusively devoted to the explication of vocal anatomy and physiology. Admittedly, as the quote from celebrated soprano Luisa Tetrazzini suggests, the length and complexity of these sections vary. She herself sees fit to include only a five-page chapter on “Anatomy and Physiology” in her book How to Sing (1923). In contrast, Douglas Stanley begins Your Voice, Applied Science (1945) with a 40-page glossary set in minute type, defining the numerous technical terms the reader must comprehend merely to follow the scientific analyses the author presents in the body of his work. Ironically, even those who opposed the growing importance placed on scientific knowledge seem constrained to give the same anatomical and physiological explications as their opponents, even if their aim was to refute the usefulness of this information.

Clearly, these authors would not have devoted so many hundreds of pages in their treatises to these fields if they considered them subjects of mere curiosity. Rather, their extensive treatment reflects their belief that an understanding of internal vocal mechanics was of the utmost importance for singers and those who taught them. A closer examination of the literature reveals explicit support for this conclusion.

Garcia II himself, as has already been noted, was the first to posit the “undeniable advantages” conferred upon the singer through the “study of the mechanism of the human voice” (Garcia 1984, xx). Although in his final publication, Hints on Singing (1894), he modifies this opinion, conceding that “the study of the anatomy and physiology of the vocal organs is not indispensable to the pupil, but might be most useful to the teacher” (Garcia 1984, iii), his allegiance to science remains clear.

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913), one of Garcia’s most prominent pupils, and a celebrated teacher herself, contradicts her professor’s retraction when she proclaims that “scientific knowledge is indispensable” [emphasis added] for singers and teachers alike. She argues in her Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method that failing to instruct pupils in “the anatomy and physiology of the human voice . . . needlessly deprives” them of essential information (M. Marchesi 1970, xiv). At minimum, she specifies, “students should understand the exact meaning of the words Larynx, Glottis, Vocal Cords, etc.,” noting that these are “words which the antagonists of the physiology of the voice are themselves obliged to use continually in speaking of the art of singing” (M. Marchesi 1970, xiv).

Marchesi is not alone in her strong convictions regarding the value for singers of anatomical and physiological information about the voice. In fact, her ardent word “indispensable” is echoed by many of her most prominent colleagues. For example, Enrico Delle Sedie, an author famous for his work on the resonance of vowels, characterizes the “scientifico-anatomical illustrations” and “anatomo-physiological considerations” included in his treatise as “indispensable to singers wishing to submit the vocal organ to a proper development” (Delle Sedie 1885, iii). Lennox Browne and Emil Behnke, two of the late nineteenth century’s most fervent evangelists for vocal science, find it “strange” that “there is any necessity to plead for a knowledge of vocal physiology amongst singers and speakers.” Rather, they insist that “such knowledge should be universally admitted as an indispensable branch of vocal culture” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 1). Mario Marafioti, who purported to write about Caruso’s Method of Voice Production (1922), presents a “brief survey of the anatomy of the vocal apparatus . . . exhibiting in simple form only what is indispensable for singers to know about the physiological functions of . . . voice production” (Marafioti 1981, 60). (This “brief” survey is eight full pages long, and some of the “simple” anatomical terms included are “hyoid bone,” “arytenoids,” and “the cartilages of Santorini and Wrisberg.”)

Blanche Marchesi, who continued her mother Mathilde’s work, agrees in scarcely milder terms that “there is no doubt about it, the singer must know and study his vocal equipment.” Moreover, she is shocked that “the majority of singing students who consult a teacher are unaware of the existence of the larynx and, when asked to locate it, are unable to do so (B. Marchesi 1932, xi). Finally, the soprano Lilli Lehmann, in her book How to Sing (1902), recommends that “all who wish to become artists should begin with studies of tone production and the functions of nose, tongue, and palate,” even suggesting that students should copy drawings out of anatomical manuals and then be subjected to “strict examinations” on them (Lehmann 1929, 8-9).

Where the scientists were united in recommending at least some familiarity with vocal anatomy and physiology for singers, they were yet more vehement in requiring such familiarity of voice teachers. Even the writers who felt that “too much emphasis [had] been placed upon the necessity of the study of anatomy for pupils” (Marafioti 1981, 58) were still united in their condemnation of voice teachers who were not at least proficient—but preferably expert—in this subject. Myer speaks for many of his scientist colleagues when he criticizes these “average voice teachers”:

The average voice teacher of the present day is, from a . . . scientific standpoint, much behind the age. As a rule, he knows little or nothing of the scientific production of the human voice. He is satisfied to travel in the old well-worn ruts, and at once opposes and cries down any one who, from a desire to know the truth, strikes out in a new direction, or takes a stand upon a higher plane. Witness the hue and cry against the laryngoscope by many who are sadly in need of its teachings—who are woefully ignorant of many great truths which have been discovered by its invaluable aid (Myer 1984, 4).

Browne and Behnke concur that when such an individual has failed to complete the “very essential duty of the singing-teacher”—i.e., “a study of vocal physiology”—he or she simply “cannot conscientiously be a vocal trainer” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 4). They consider it patently obvious that those teachers who have performed their “essential duty” are bound to produce superior singers:

It is clear that a teacher of singing or of elocution who is thoroughly and practically acquainted with the anatomy and physiology of the parts over which he is to give his pupils control, and who can skillfully examine a pupil’s larynx, and direct its movements, is, other qualifications being equal, in a position to produce better results than one who is deficient in such skill (Browne and Behnke 1890, 7).

Mathilde Marchesi argues that only teachers possessed of scientific knowledge about the voice are able to “treat the vocal instrument in a natural and rational manner and with . . . certainty.” She finds that this information, by showing teachers “the causes of the defects . . . helps them in training difficult voices and in correcting the numerous faults of emission that each pupil brings, the result either of bad habits or inferior training” (M. Marchesi 1970, xiv). Finally, Douglas Stanley, whose mission was to clarify The Science of Voice (1929), also deems it “evident” that any “competent teacher of vocal technic should thoroughly understand the fundamental facts [of] . . . the physiology and anatomy of the voice producing organs,” deftly implying that teachers who did not understand these facts were, in effect, incompetent (Stanley 1958, 3).

As with the scientists’ recommended levels of scientific knowledge for singers, those for voice teachers varied as well. At one extreme end of the spectrum, Marafioti believed that all instructors should pass a rigorous scientific examination before being licensed by the government to teach voice:

Voice specialists must undergo a regular course of training in scientific . . . matters related to voice, and must be subject to examination by a special Board of Scientific and Musical Experts, elected or recognized by the Government. They must get their practicing licenses from this Board, as in the case of other professions (Marafioti 1981, 53).

Echoing Marafioti’s vehemence about specialized training is Douglas Stanley:

No one should be allowed to train the voice who has not graduated from a recognized institution in physics, anatomy, physiology and psychology (Chadbourne, Chadbourne, and Stanley 1950, 79-80).

Almost as an afterthought, he adds that “of course, the vocal teacher must [also] know something of music and dramatic utterance.” Browne and Behnke go so far as to propose that aspiring voice teachers study vocal anatomy “in the dissecting room” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 11).

At the other end of the spectrum, a far milder view is advanced by Edgar Herbert-Caesari:

Although the teacher does not wholly depend on a scientific knowledge of his subject for his successful handling of pupils, it can never be unwise for him to keep in touch with scientific principles, since it is at least comforting to find that Nature is not frowning on his efforts to guide the student to the promised land (Herbert-Caesari 1936, xi).

Yet regardless of degree, the scientists’ new requirement for voice teachers was clear: they must be conversant in the language of the anatomist and physiologist, at least where the vocal organs are concerned.

How were singing instructors to gain this knowledge? As most scientific vocal pedagogy texts now contained detailed verbal descriptions of the vocal apparatus, as well as numerous medical diagrams, presumably these books’ authors felt they were providing the necessary information. However, many early vocal scientists, who had themselves been captivated by the laryngoscope and by the observations made in its little mirror, enthusiastically encouraged others to use this tool themselves to further their own understandings of vocal anatomy and physiology. Some believed that such examinations should be part of routine vocal training for every student, while others reserved its use for the diagnosis of vocal faults. Some even suggested that all teachers perform laryngoscopic examinations on themselves, as well as on other subjects.

Predictably, Browne and Behnke were among the most passionate about making routine use of the laryngoscope. They advocate that all teachers “verify in their own and other living person’s throats the discoveries already made . . . [through] laryngoscopic examination” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 11-12). Since the use of the laryngoscope was apparently not easy to master, they suggest that teachers practice on a “ ‘laryngo-phantom’ . . . an imitation of the throat,” which had been developed by a Dr. Isenschmid of Munich, before attempting to examine a live subject (Browne and Behnke 1890, 122). But even those who did not have access to a “laryngo-phantom” were not to be deterred. Behnke apparently felt that laryngoscopic examinations could be so beneficial that those who performed them on live subjects should “not be discouraged [even] if, at first, violent retching is the result” (Behnke 1880, 79).

Frank Miller is representative of those who favored using the laryngoscope in more limited circumstances. He rejects the advice of Browne, Behnke, and those of like minds who “instruct you to plant yourself in front of a mirror and examine your throat with a laryngoscope” or “to follow minutely the publications of the Society for Psychological Research”. However, he does still advocate using the laryngoscope to diagnose vocal faults based on physiological conditions:

By discovering with the aid of the laryngoscope the physiological defect and removing it, body, and, with it, mind and voice are restored to their proper condition (Miller 1913, 11).

However, not all voice teachers who were vocal science enthusiasts were likewise fans of the laryngoscope. Despite the fact that their very pedagogies had been sparked by the information this invention first brought to light, they questioned its accuracy when used in certain circumstances. For example, Enrico Delle Sedie warns that because of the conditions under which the examinee must sing during laryngoscopic examination, the tones produced may not reflect the normal actions of the vocal organs:

To see the vocal chords [sic] with this ingenious and useful apparatus, we must jut out the tongue, so as to allow a small mirror to be placed at the veil of the palate in order to reflect the vocal chords [sic]. We have noticed that the tongue when jut out causes the rising of the larynx; thus this motion will give to it an invariable raised position. When the larynx is so raised we may emit high sounds, but thin and shrill (Delle Sedie 1885, 22).

Miller raises similar doubts about the possibility of singing naturally with a laryngoscopic mirror inside the mouth. He also indicts “amateur laryngoscopists” for their inept use of this instrument, stating his conviction that, in fact, “the laryngoscope should not, in fact, leave the hands of the physician”:

In fact, [the] use [of the laryngoscope] by amateur laryngoscopists . . . has resulted in the promulgation of all kinds of absurd theories of voice-study. . . . Fascinating as it may seem to the singer to examine his own larynx while he is producing a vocal tone—“during phonation,” the physiologist would say—the value of the deductions formed from such observations may be doubted, if for no other reason than that the introduction of the mirror into the back of the mouth makes the whole act of phonation strained and the effects observed unnatural (Miller 1913, 76).

Dr. Holbrook Curtis, the teacher of the famous tenor Jean de Reszke, rejects the findings of the laryngoscope on different grounds, claiming that the motions of the vocal cords are too fast to be analyzed accurately by the naked eye. He also suspects that some examiners may even have doctored their results to confirm the beliefs they held prior to their research:

The position and movements of the vocal cords in the production of tone have been the source of much acrimonious discussion. Photographs galore of the cords emitting different notes have been made and, we fear, touched up to meet preconceived requirements, and much ink has been wasted in describing what different observers saw or did not see. This cannot be wondered at when we reflect that the ordinary laryngoscopic mirror was used and conclusions drawn as to the delicate intrinsic movements of the vocal cords from this fleeting picture (Curtis 1919, 118).

Instead of the laryngoscope, Curtis enumerates the advantages of a newer invention also designed to observe the vocal apparatus in motion: the laryngostroboscope, a type of laryngeal camera.

Browne and Behnke neatly dismiss these and all similar objections to laryngoscopy as reflective of the ineptitude of the critics themselves:

Inexpert manipulators who are unable to use the laryngoscope properly, and therefore cannot produce a good tone while seeking to investigate with it, illogically come to the conclusion that only forced and unnatural sounds can be made while using the laryngoscope, and that, in consequence, its teachings are unreliable. We know that a bad workman generally blames his tools instead of his own inefficiency . . . (Browne and Behnke 1890, 12).

However, despite these disagreements about the proper circumstances for using the laryngoscope, vocal scientists clearly shared a belief—new among their profession—that having watched the internal vocal organs in operation could be an aid in teaching someone how to improve their singing voice.

The very same authors who stress the necessity of studying vocal anatomy and physiology—with or without using a laryngoscope—make clear the reason that such study can aid in their profession. Once students have learned the internal organization of larynx, glottis, pharynx, the pillars of the fauces[2], and palate, and have become acquainted with the muscles governing their movements, they must use this knowledge in the service of their art. Specifically, they are to bring the action of these internal organs under their conscious control. This new category of pedagogical goal formed the second major cornerstone of the scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy.

Again, Garcia was the first to articulate support for such an endeavor—“the singer . . . 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)—but others soon followed suit. Enrico Delle Sedie offers a similar argument:

The generative organs of the voice act in a special manner. To facilitate their movements, it is necessary to know their structure and their natural motions. For this reason we commence our lessons by the Anatomo-physiological analysis of the vocal organs, assisted by the anatomical tables (Delle Sedie 1885, 1).

Browne and Behnke insist that singing teachers must be “possessed of sufficient practical knowledge of vocal physiology to rightly instruct [a student] in control of the individual or various muscles whose imperfect action causes . . . [his or her vocal] defects” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 2). They see the voice teacher’s role as one of providing “physiological instruction as to the best method” of such mechanical acts as “setting the cords in vibration,” “economy of expiration so as to produce efficient and even vocal tone,” and so forth (Browne and Behnke 1890, 13).

Dr. Holbrook Curtis asserts that “it is only by a skillful management of these parts [i.e., the vocal organs] that they may be given [a] fitting position in every case” (Curtis 1919, 75). Blanche Marchesi clearly defines the “seven parts of our vocal instrument we can and must specifically control.” In response to the question, “Can we alter or interfere with any part of the throat or chest belonging to the production of sound?” she answers:

We not only can, but we must know our throat . . . so thoroughly and intimately as to be able to influence, for better or for worse, [these] different parts of the vocal organs, and their subordinate parts (B. Marchesi 1932, 58).

Edgar Herbert-Caesari pleads with students not to be “flabbergasted at the apparent complexity of [this] mechanical aspect of singing,” but reassures them that once “one thing at a time has [been] studied, moulded, and built into position” the act of singing will once again become coordinated:

There comes a time when . . . these various elements converge to one point of unified focused action subject to the singer’s will. The mental command is followed by co-ordinated physical action (Herbert-Caesari 1936, 142)

Finally, Lilli Lehmann’s understanding of artistry itself refers back to this concept of consciously controlled vocal anatomy. She defines “artistic singing” as “a highly cultivated skill and flexibility in adjusting all the vocal organs and in putting them into minutely graduated movements” (Lehmann 1929, 9). She elaborates that “all the organs” of the voice—“abdomen, diaphragm, upper ribs, larynx, tongue, palate, nose, lungs, bronchial tubes, abdominal and chest cavities, and their muscles”—can “be relatively placed at will,” and reminds singers that they are “duty bound to acquire the necessary technical skill to perform any task [of moving these organs] as nearly perfectly as possible” (Lehmann 1929, 24-5). She reflects the thinking of many of her scientifically minded colleagues when she makes the blunt and almost shocking statement that “it is not enough to sing well.” Even those blessed with fine natural coordination, she insists, must also become acquainted with the mechanical muscle movements which have resulted in that coordination:

Even if the pupil unconsciously should produce a flawless tone, it is the teacher’s duty to acquaint him with the causes of it. It is not enough to sing well; one must also know how one does it. The teacher must examine the pupil constantly, making him describe clearly his sensations in singing, and understand fully the physiological factors that cooperate to produce them [emphasis added] (Lehmann 1929, 28-9).

In sum, according to the vocal scientists, all singers’ first task was to gain conscious control over their vocal anatomy, piece by piece. But unlike the bel canto pedagogues, who had devoted considerable attention to the proper movements of the external, visible body parts involved in singing (i.e., mouth, lips, and tongue), the vocal scientists struck out in a new direction and sought also to control internal vocal organs—those not visible to the singer or teacher (at least, not without the aid of an instrument like the laryngoscope). Only after this mechanical process had been completed could singers consider themselves equipped to practice artistry.

However, these same teachers were far from unanimous in prescribing exactly how the vocal anatomy should behave and what movements it should be taught to perform. All three of the internal vocal organs that attracted the most attention—the soft palate, larynx, and the vocal cords themselves—were the subjects of heated and ongoing debates. These debates illustrate vividly how this group of teachers often agreed in principle (singers should be acquainted with the position and function of their vocal organs, and should educate them to respond to conscious commands) but disagreed, sometimes rancorously, about the related practice (precisely what the vocal organs should be educated to do).

The vocal scientists’ writings about the “ceiling” of the pharynx—commonly referred to as the soft palate—is a prime example of this type of conflict. This movable curtain of flesh is located immediately behind the bony hard palate which extends from behind the upper front teeth to between the upper back molars. It can be raised (as in a yawn) to completely close off the otherwise open passage connecting the posterior openings of the nasal cavities and the back of the throat. It can also be lowered (as is necessary for a deep inhalation through the nose), leaving the passage open.

All of the vocal scientists were in agreement that the motions of this little portion of soft tissue greatly affected a singer’s tone quality and must therefore be brought under the singer’s conscious control. Behnke asserts that “this curtain has great influence upon the management of the voice, and we should do all we can to get it under our control” (Behnke 1880, 122). Blanche Marchesi echoes his insistence on this point:

The back nostrils [just above the soft palate] . . . are of the highest importance, a fact that cannot be sufficiently emphasized . . . Like the other parts forming the whole vocal instrument mentioned, the back nostrils may be manipulated at will; they can be opened or closed [by lowering or raising the soft palate] (B. Marchesi 1932, 59).

Browne and Behnke suggest that the singer exercise the soft palate by practicing both the opening and closing motions:

By thus inhaling through the nostrils with the mouth open, and the tongue still and flat, the soft palate is pulled vigorously down, and by exhaling through the mouth the soft palate is raised again. . . . This is a great gain from a mechanical point of view, because it will enable the soft palate to do its work much more satisfactorily than before (Browne and Behnke 1890, 168).

However, which of these two positions of the soft palate—up or down—was most advantageous for singing was a subject of continuing debate among vocal scientists. Monahan combines the conflicting opinions about this issue under the heading “the nasal resonance controversy”:

. . . many positive and negative agencies are attributed to this one directly controllable action. Those who wish the soft palate raised claim that a lowered palate allows air into the nasal passages, causing “nasal twang” or nasality. Those who wish the soft palate to be left hanging “naturally” declare that nasality is caused by stiff jaw, stiff tongue, etc. Many conflicting opinions arise (Monahan 1978, 127).

Among those who advocated a raised position of the soft palate were Emil Behnke, Enrico Delle Sedie, and Blanche Marchesi. Behnke instructs his pupils that only this high position will yield a pure vocal tone:

Raise it higher still, by attempting to yawn, till the uvula almost disappears. Sing again with the soft palate in this position, and if nothing else interferes you will produce pure vocal tone (Behnke 1880, 122).

Delle Sedie, in keeping with his work on the resonance of various vowel sounds, couches his advocacy of a high soft palate in terms of the vowel sounds it facilitated:

The position of the vocal organs in the [α] vowel must be as follows: The base of the tongue must take a mean position in the bottom of the throat, while the soft palate rises, approaching a little its pillars towards the mean part of the tongue . . . (Delle Sedie 1885, 40).

Blanche Marchesi claims that failing to raise the soft palate while singing will result in the objectionable “nasal” timbre:

Perfectly healthy back nostrils it lies absolutely in our power to close or open. To use the detestable and impossible method of singing through the nose, which is an offence [sic] to any musical ear, is to have the back nostrils wide open in emitting sound. No greater mistake could be made. Men and women equally must keep the back nostrils closed when singing (B. Marchesi 1932, 60).

In addition to these three prominent pedagogues, Monahan attributes similar opinions to Novello (1856), Bassini (1857), Thorp and Nicholl (1899), Guttmann (1887), Bach (1894), and Taylor (84).

On the opposite side of the argument, other pedagogues were just as insistent when touting the advantages that a lowered soft palate would impart to a vocal tone. Herbert-Caesari is adamant that a “vibratory communication” between the nasal cavities and the mouth and pharynx (i.e., a lowered soft palate) is essential for a vibrant, resonant vocal tone:

The soft palate must, therefore, never be raised so completely and tightly as to prevent such vibratory communication with the nasal cavities taking place (Herbert-Caesari 1936, 20).

Fillerbrown endorses this advice, presenting his opinion as a crucial correction to the fallacious “high palate” pedagogies of the past:

Up to that time it had been held that the nasal cavities must be cut off from the mouth by the closing of the soft palate against the back of the throat; that the passage of ever so little of the sound above the palate would give a nasal twang, and that the sound was reinforced and developed only in the cavities of the throat and mouth. My practice in Oral Surgery, coupled with my own vocal studies exposed this fallacy and revealed to me the true value of nasal resonance (Fillerbrown 1911, 1-2).

Dr. Holbrook Curtis, whose student Jean de Reszke is fabled to have claimed that “the great question of singing becomes a question of the nose” (Curtis 1919, 160), actually attributes the objectionable timbre of throatiness to a raised soft palate while singing:

The communication between the nose and the pharynx may be entirely cut off by the soft palate, when under certain conditions it is raised and pressed against the posterior wall. The position of the soft palate gives the voice that peculiar and objectionable quality known as throatiness, a condition also assisted by the posterior elevation of the tongue (Curtis 1919, 70).

Curtis advocates instead that the soft palate should be kept in “a negative state; that is, there should be an absolute lack of tension in the muscles composing and surrounding it, that it may properly perform its real function, that of tuning the resonating cavities of the mouth and nose . . . ” (Curtis 1919, 76-77).

Still a third category of vocal scientists (among whom Garcia II himself can be counted) described different elevations of the palate that were necessary for different vowels and vocal timbres. Mathilde Marchesi follows therefore in her professor’s footsteps when she writes:

The palate, that is, the soft back part of the palate which has the uvula for its centre, can at will be left alone or strongly contracted and let down like a sail on a boat, as vocal production may demand . . . (M. Marchesi 1932, 59).

Yet again, even instructors like Marchesi make clear their bias that the soft palate is educable, and should be controlled consciously by the singer, “as vocal production may demand.”

However, an even more characteristic and fundamental aim of most vocal scientists was to teach control of the larynx itself, as well as of the two tiny ligaments it contains. This new pedagogical goal represents one of the most fundamental departures from all prior thinking about voice teaching, for the very reason that until the laryngoscope, no one had any proven data about what actually went on in this part of the body during phonation. As the first chapter of this study details, while teachers prior to this scientific era recognized the central role of the larynx in phonation, they confined themselves to observations about what sensations should be present (or absent) in its vicinity, rather than what mechanical actions it should make.

The first assumption made by the vocal scientists on every side of the debate about larynx position was that this organ could actually respond to conscious commands. This supposition is advanced by nearly all the leading vocal writers in this category:

Can we alter and interfere with any other part of the throat? Yes . . . the larynx, in its movements, obeys our will. We can change its positions quickly or slowly, and we can be right or wrong in doing so (B. Marchesi 1932, 58).

Browne and Behnke agree that “it is quite possible, and under certain circumstances even necessary, to limit [the motions of the larynx] to a considerable extent” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 69). Given the high priority these two writers place on learning to control the larynx, they devote an entire chapter in their book to “Movements of the Larynx Which Can Be Seen or Felt,” and have this helpful advice for the young singing student:

The student will do well to test before a looking-glass the movements of the larynx described on p. 68; and to repeat them at various times until he obtains sufficient control over the elevators and depressors to raise and to lower the larynx independently of breathing, of opening and shutting the mouth, of swallowing, of yawning, and of phonation, etc. This is excellent practice, and will be of great service to him hereafter (Browne and Behnke 1890, 158).

These authors also advocate auto-laryngoscopy (i.e., performing laryngoscopic examination on oneself) as one method of developing “a great deal of command over the lid and indeed over most parts of the voice-box” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 124).

According to Frederick James Crowest (1900), the singer must become almost obsessed with the position of the larynx during singing, as “all the beauty, and quality, and richness of the voice” depends on it:

The singer will do well to constantly think about the larynx, to watch it, to feel that it is well down below the mouth before commencing the first note of a song . . . Then the larynx must never be allowed to rise above the fixed point. It may be deepened, and must be, for the higher notes, but it must never ascend (Monahan 1978, 91).

Here Crowest gives a frequent instruction to the singer: maintain a low position of the larynx while singing. Sometimes, as Delle Sedie’s pedagogy exemplifies, the low position was advocated exclusively for the highest tones in a singer’s register:

. . . we conclude that the singer must apply himself to descend the larynx for the emission of high sounds, and to raise it for the emission of the grave sounds. The raising and lowering of the larynx must be effected by conjoined gradations corresponding to the degrees of the scale . . . (Delle Sedie 1885, 23).

A more measured approach to consciously controlling the larynx, yet one still in favor of a lowered position, is advanced by Proschowsky:

The training of a singer to lower the larynx of a certain quality of tone has been successful to some extent, but at the risk of making the voice darker than normal . . . However, those who understand the value and right use of the low larynx are at great advantage in their art. . . . In working for the ideal condition of the low larynx, I would prefer calling it a loose, low, open, comfortable throat (Proschowsky 1923, 97).

However, for every proponent of a low larynx among the vocal scientists, an opponent could be found as well. Frank Miller accuses teachers who advocate a motionless, low position of the larynx of propagating an “evil way of operating, [one] against which every singer must be warned” and one which has “spoilt” a “large number of voices” (Miller 1913, 168). Instead, he counsels the exact opposite:

The larynx must be completely free in its movements, its positions varying according to each tone and to the pronunciation of each vowel (Miller 1913, 168).

Shaw agrees that attempting to fix the larynx in any set position—low or otherwise—is actually detrimental to the steadiness of the vocal tone:

In order to sing evenly, smoothly and effectively it is absolutely necessary that all thought of holding the larynx up or down, or fixed in any position, be abandoned (Monahan 1978, 81).

Browne and Behnke take a position halfway between the two extremes just noted, rejecting both the advice to keep the larynx “rigidly fixed quite low in the throat” and the counsel that it must have “free play . . . that its movements must not on any account be interfered with.” Rather they assert that the proper position is somewhere in between:

The proper thing is to avoid both extremes and to give the larynx just that amount of fixity which enables it to offer the necessary resistance of the pressure of the air from below, thus giving the muscles governing the pitch of the voice the best chance of acting with ease and certainty (Browne and Behnke 1890, 158).

Again, despite their various conclusions, all of these pedagogues were united in their belief that the position of the larynx is an important subject to be addressed as part of a vocal method—an assumption not shared by their predecessors before the era of the laryngoscope.

Closely related to attempts to teach direct laryngeal control were methods for controlling the intrinsic muscles of the larynx which govern the action of the vocal ligaments themselves. Again, the first major foundation of such methods was the conviction that such a control was actually possible. Blanche Marchesi bluntly assures her readers that the vocal cords can be directed:

The vocal cords can be used both in the right and wrong way. We shall be right in closing them firmly but gently, wrong in not closing them, thus letting the air through, or closing them with a violent jerk, hitting one against the other, so to speak (B. Marchesi 1932, 58-59).

Herbert-Caesari equates “effortless” singing with knowing how to adjust the vocal cords specifically for every tone in the singer’s range:

It is clear, therefore, that if the singer knows how to adjust his vocal cords in such a way as to employ an indispensable minimum of primary element for every note . . . of the vocal scale, and so satisfy the acoustical requirements of all notes, high or low, he will be able to produce also his high notes with consummate ease, this whole emission being relatively effortless . . . (Herbert-Caesari 1936, 41).

Browne and Behnke provide a set of exercises which will specifically help students “train” the muscles which open and close the vocal cords, asserting that these muscles are trainable through these “suitable gymnastics” just as “the muscles of the hands and fingers are trained for the purpose of performing upon the piano or the violin” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 151). And finally, Norma Jean and Thomas Chadbourne insist that it is “necessary for a singer to learn how to tense very precisely . . . the muscles that move the vocal cords” (Chadbourne, Chadbourne, and Stanley 1950, 32).

The two great controversies which continued for decades regarding the intrinsic laryngeal muscles had to do with vocal registration and the onset of a sung vocal tone. Reviewing the profusion of theories regarding the first subject—the number of vocal registers (usually argued to be either two, three, or none), and the actions of the vocal cords that were purported to produce each one—could be the subject for a book in itself. However, the debate regarding the onset or “attack” of a sung tone likewise captures the great amount of attention that was now paid, in vocal methods, to the tiny vocal ligaments, once they could finally be observed using the laryngoscope.

Fittingly, the debate about the proper vocal onset (the way a sung tone should be started) had its genesis in a recommendation originally made by Manuel Garcia II: that a sung tone should begin with a “coup de glotte” (stroke of the glottis). In his own words, Garcia describes this “stroke” as “the neat articulation of the glottis that gives a precise and clean start to a sound” (Garcia 1894, 13). He elaborates that in making such an articulation, students can and should become conscious of the “opening and shutting action” of the vocal cords themselves:

Let it be remembered that by slightly coughing we become conscious of the existence and position of the glottis, and also of its shutting and opening action. The stroke of the glottis is somewhat similar to the cough, though differing essentially in that it needs only the delicate action of the lips and not the impulse of the air . . . (Garcia 1894, 14).

This counsel, innocuous as it might seem, touched off one of the most enduring conflicts in the early days of vocal science. While various critics attacked Garcia’s method as injurious and ignorant, his students and supporters rushed to his defense. Among the opponents of the “coup de glotte” was Anna Lankow, who under other auspices was actually a collaborator with Garcia:

Above all things, I positively reject the glottis attack, which even Garcia approves. Not only does the tone thus begun cause an inartistic, hard and toneless click before the real singing tone is perceived, but the glottis attack also gives a kind of shock, each time, to the vocal cords, which weakens their otherwise artistic capabilities, and often causes diseases of the cords, such as nodes or knots of the same (Lankow 1903, 19).

Another of the most vocal opponents to Garcia’s “coup de glotte” theory was New York laryngologist Dr. Holbrook Curtis, and his devotees Jean and Edouard de Reszke. These three prominent individuals, referred to by Blanche Marchesi as “The Triumvirate,” were concerned by the potential vocal damage caused by what they understood (incorrectly, as it turns out) to be the “hit” or glottal stroke advocated by Garcia and his pupils. Their solution to this perceived problem was to ensure that the glottis was wide open prior to the commencement of the vocal tone. This aim was accomplished by either beginning each tone with the consonant h (which requires the singer to expire air without approximating the vocal cords) or the consonant m (whose formation necessitates the lowered soft palate that these pedagogues also favored).

While Curtis and the de Reszkes insisted that these directives would both preserve the health of the vocal cords as well as assure a favorable nasal resonance, Browne and Behnke had a different perception of their results:

[When] the vocal ligaments meet after the air has commenced to pass between them . . . (or in other words the sound of the letter h) . . . the tone consequently not only lacks a prompt, decisive beginning, but it also suffers from an admixture of “wild” air which makes it breathy or “woolly” (Browne and Behnke 1890, 128).

Inevitably, the heirs to Garcia’s singing school, the Marchesis, both mother and daughter, likewise sought to correct what they insisted was a widespread misunderstanding about Garcia’s recommendation. Mathilde, in her Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method, devotes considerable attention to clarifying Garcia’s “coup de glotte” concept, describing it as a “natural and spontaneous organic action”:

After the lungs are filled, it is necessary, for the production of sound that the pupil should hermetically close the glottis so that its extreme edges, called Vocal Cords, may be set vibrating by the air which bursts through at the moment of Expiration. . . . It should be understood that the Coup de Glotte is a natural movement of the vocal organs, and that the pupil has only to bring under the control of the will this spontaneous action which has been developing since the first cry at the moment of birth . . . (M. Marchesi 1970, xii).

Blanche faults mistranslation of Garcia’s term as one source of the controversy:

Badly intentioned people who have misunderstood, or wished to misunderstand, Garcia and my mother’s method, have taken advantage of their expression, “le coup de glotte,” by translating it into their different languages, “the hit of the glottis” . . . We have not only not taught the “hit of the glottis,” but we have cured those who had suffered such treatment at the hands of their teachers (B. Marchesi 1978, 295).

In retrospect, Blanche Marchesi wished that Garcia had devised a phrase like “the meeting of the vocal cords,” which would have brought the idea of what he really meant and taught nearer to the average student’s understanding” (B. Marchesi 1932, 73-74). But regardless of terminology, Garcia succeeded in placing the attention of teachers and students firmly on the actions of the vocal cords. From the time of the great “coup de glotte” debate to the present day, vocal scientists have continued to advance theories about proper laryngeal action—and to attempt to teach students precisely the motions that will secure it.

The vocal scientists may not have been able to agree about the proper elevation of the soft palate, the position of the larynx, or the optimal behavior of the intrinsic laryngeal muscles. However, they were all engaged in the same endeavor: attempting to determine the physiology of a good sung tone. They all agreed that once this physiology had been determined, the quickest way to vocal improvement for students was teach them to reproduce these motions consciously. In essence, the vocal scientists sought to establish and then teach a formula for correct phonation. And they found a captive audience for their formulae among increasing numbers of students of singing. A statement made on the occasion of Manuel Garcia’s one hundredth birthday in 1905 brings the ascendancy of the vocal scientist sharply into focus:

Musical and medical science are in the present day brought very much together, so that it is often difficult to guess whether some learned expatiator on the last method of producing the voice is a singer who dabbles in surgery or a surgeon who has a taste for singing (Coffin 1989, x).

From the time the laryngoscope was invented, the scientific investigator assumed an ever more prominent position in the field of vocal pedagogy. While the following chapter of this study will address those who struggled to uphold the principles of an earlier age, a greater number wrote extensively about the vocal organs and how to best regulate their movements. Among this latter group, the distinction between “singers” and “surgeons” continued to blur until, indeed, it was “difficult to guess” which was which. Despite the several disputes that divided the co-revolutionaries, a scientific revolution in voice teaching had occurred.


[1] Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “empiricism” as a “search for knowledge by observation and experiment” that is also “disregarding of scientific methods and relying solely on experience.”
[2] The pillars of the fauces are located on either side of the tonsils. The two front pillars are connected to the underside of the tongue and the two rear pillars extend down the back of the pharynx to the larynx.