Chapter IV: The Empiricists Strike Back

More is known of the vocal mechanism today than at any other time in the world’s history, and yet who dares to say that voice teaching has been improved by it? Is voice teaching any more accurate now than it was a hundred years ago? Did the invention of the laryngoscope add anything of value to the voice teacher’s equipment? No (Clippinger 1919, 44).

With these words, which appear in his Practical Talks on Singing, David Alva Clippinger sounds the battle cry of the dissenters who spoke out against the scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy. By the late nineteenth century, these counter-revolutionaries had begun to voice their adamant disapproval of the profusion of vocal methods that had sprung up in response to scientific discoveries about the vocal organs. Some denied that detailed anatomical and physiological knowledge was necessary for either students or teachers, while others opposed teaching conscious control of the movements of those internal vocal organs. All agreed that self-proclaimed “scientific” vocal methods were not only ineffective, but could actually harm the voices of those who practiced them. Because this group of teachers relied primarily on personal and historical experience to guide their training of voices, despite the fact that many were also well-versed in the sciences they rejected as impractical from a teaching standpoint, they soon became known as “empiricists.”

A prime example of this reactionary group was Sir Morell Mackenzie (1837–92). Although a laryngologist by profession, he was one of the earliest crusaders against scientific vocal pedagogy, and expressed many views typical of the empiricists. In his book The Hygiene of the Vocal Organs (1886), he decries the new “scientific methods of voice production,” referring to the teaching of singing by anatomy as “an absurdity worthy of Laputa.”[1] He finds this type of pedagogy “useless when . . . not positively harmful,” and laments the disappearance of methods based on practical observations, complaining that “the firm basis of experience has been abandoned for fantastic methods of teaching” (Mackenzie 1886, 90-91). He characterizes these “fantastic methods” as follows:

A new school has arisen of late years, which demands that an exact and profound acquaintance with the anatomy and physiology of the vocal organs gained by dissection of the dead, and laryngoscopic examination of the living body, familiarity with the mysteries of acoustics, pneumatics, and hydrostatics, together with some added tincture of metaphysical lore, shall form part of the equipment of the unhappy wight [sic] who wishes to take up the profession of a singing master. . . . it is more of a hindrance than a help to the teacher whose aim should be not to make his pupil an indifferent scientist but an artistic singer (Mackenzie 1886, 85).

Finally, he expresses the fear that this “new school” is “too likely to lead to the ruin of not a few voices” (Mackenzie 1886, 85).

Echoing similar sentiments is Sir Charles Santley (1834-1922), a famous baritone and a pupil of Garcia II himself. Asserting that a student’s knowledge of vocal physiology “could serve no good purpose in acquiring a knowledge of the art of singing,” Santley voices his conviction that, in fact, “great harm has been done by mixing up ‘singing’ and ‘surgery’” (Santley 1908, 25). He describes the “quacks” who “profess to teach the production of the voice on scientific principles,” and also pities the misguided individuals who pay them for instruction, “hoping to have voices made and brains provided for them” (Santley 1908, 22).

The teachings of Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1839-1910), a voice teacher as closely linked to bel canto predecessors as Garcia II himself, were preserved through the careful records of his student, William Earl Brown. These tidbits of Vocal Wisdom (1931), which Brown presented in the form of his teacher’s “maxims,” represent perhaps the most direct response of bel canto to the new scientific trends which threatened it. In defense of the intuitive control of the vocal mechanism, Lamperti reminds his readers that “most great singers know very little about their vocal organs and are largely self-taught” (Lamperti 1931, 20) and asserts that “there is nothing so meaningless as a mechanically controlled tone” (Lamperti 1931, 26). He even implies that such a tone is not actually possible:

How foolish to think that such a phenomenon as vibration could be produced and controlled by mind and muscle! . . . Mind and muscle must be developed to the nth degree, but they should never take command of the performance (Lamperti 1931, 96).

In a summation of the pedagogical failings of his time, Lamperti’s student Brown sadly reflects back on an era past, when teachers like his own “made few rules but insisted on obedience to natural laws” and when “the ear, not the muscles, guided both master and pupil” (Lamperti 1931, n.p.).

When empiricists like Mackenzie, Santley, and Lamperti took aim against the vocal scientists, their first target for criticism was often the little instrument that had first inspired the latter group’s researches: the laryngoscope. Mackenzie derisively observed that while many scientific voice teachers had apparently begun to “look upon the little mirror as a sort of magic glass in which the whole secret of Nature’s workmanship [was] made visible to the eye” (Mackenzie 1886, 35), the empiricists more often denounced it as the cause of the decline of the entire singing profession. Luigi Parisotti, for instance, deems the laryngoscope’s influence on vocal pedagogy a “calamitous mistake”:

It has become the custom of writers on [voice production], since about the middle of the [19th]century, to dwell extensively on the facts observed by means of the laryngoscope, while the vocal organs are set into action, and from these observations to draw conclusions and rules with which piles of written matter have been built up. I do not hesitate to proclaim that this has been a calamitous mistake, and that to this mistake is to be traced the disappearance of that once numerous class of fine singers, who, previous to this new departure, were constantly brought before the public by the simple but orthodox practical tuition of the old Italian Masters (Parisotti 1911, 44).

J. Algier, in his review of La Technique des Anciens Chanteurs Italiens [The technique of the old Italian singers], concurs with Parisotti’s conclusion, noting how dramatically the laryngoscope had redirected the new vocal physiologist’s interests away from those of the old Italian masters:

En ce temps-là, faute de laryngoscope, il n’y avait pas, à proprement parler, de veritable science du larynx. On aurait grandement surpris un ancient maître en lui parlant d’épaisseur, de minceur, d’écartement ou d’accolement des cordes vocales, ainsi que des nombreuses formes de glotte dont la variété a si vivement intrigué les physiologists (Algier 1918, 18).

[These days, because of the laryngoscope, there isn’t really a true science of the larynx. It would greatly surprise an ancient master to speak of the thickness, the thinness, the space between or the adduction of the vocal cords, or of the numerous forms of the glottis, whose variety has so enthusiastically intrigued the physiologists.] Although the reasons for this kind of criticism were varied, the most common complaint was that the very presence of the laryngoscope in the throat of the examinee fundamentally altered normal vocal production. Anyone who has tried to carry on a conversation with his or her dentist during an oral examination will have a clear understanding of the reasoning behind this argument. With the equivalent of a dental mirror resting against the uvula, and the tongue sometimes artificially depressed or even held extended out of the mouth, singers often found it difficult to produce tones easily during laryngoscopic examination. In some subjects, the presence of the mirror at the back of the throat would even activate the gag reflex. (Recall the exhortation of vocal scientist Emil Behnke, who pleaded with aspiring laryngoscopists not to be discouraged if “violent retching [was] the result” of their first attempts at examination [Behnke 1880, 79].)

Pedagogues who recognized these obstacles to normal phonation felt justified in questioning the accuracy of any scientific observations made using the laryngoscope:

The parts [of the vocal organ] must, therefore, be seen under more or less artificial conditions, which may lead the observer utterly astray as to the normal state of things (Mackenzie 1886, 37).

Parisotti concurs, asking readers to use the “bright and safe light” of their “common sense” when assessing the possibility of singing normally while being examined:

. . . how [is it] possible to produce a natural and beautiful sound, while a little mirror is kept in touch with the pharynx and the tongue is held and pulled out by the hand of the investigator, or worse even, while it is held down by means of a blade or the handle of a spoon? . . . The sound thus obtained is only what the larynx can manage to produce under conditions to which it is subjected by the explorer, and does not in the least resemble the sound produced by the throat of an accomplished singer while acting under normal conditions of absolute freedom (Parisotti 1911, 44-5).

These general concerns were supplemented with more specific objections. For example, Mackenzie, noting the direct anatomical connection between tongue and larynx[2], postulates that normal vocal cord action was likely to be affected when the tongue was “held out” to enable examination (Mackenzie 1886, 255)[3]. Parisotti complains that given the fairly wide mouth opening necessary for laryngoscopic examination, certain vowels—the closed ones in particular—could never be accurately pronounced. He argues that under these conditions, the singer would make unnatural modifications to his pharynx and larynx, “transferring . . . the work allotted by nature to one definite section of it . . . either through ignorance or tricks . . . to another,” in order to approximate the vowel requested of him (Mackenzie 1886, 74). David Clark Taylor, who concerned himself with The Psychology of Singing (1908), maintains that the unnatural conditions imposed on the pharynx during examination affected the registration of the voice—specifically, the singer’s ability to change register normally when performing the messa di voce:

Under the conditions necessary for examination with the laryngoscope, it is impossible for the singer to produce any but soft tones in the head quality of voice. Most of these tones, if swelled to forte, would change from the head to the chest quality. It is probable that this change in quality is effected by a corresponding change in the vocal cord adjustment, as the conditions of the resonance cavities remain the same. But this cannot be determined by laryngoscopic observation (Taylor 1922, 214-5).

Finally, Ernest George White, in his examination of Science and Singing (1938), points out that even a singer who could somehow surmount all these obstacles might still fall short of his or her normal vocal production due to the inexperience of the examiner:

It has been stated by excellent singers that one cannot get a musical singing note while the laryngoscope is in the mouth. Doubtless it is a difficult matter to accomplish . . . but practice is as necessary for the person on whom the mirror is used as it is for the operator who is using it. Neither can do his work well without frequent attempts and failures (White 1950, 25).

Perhaps due to these obstacles posed by the laryngoscope to normal phonation, contradictory observations made during early laryngoscopic examinations were almost the rule rather than the exception. This inconsistency of its findings was the second major complaint lodged by empiricists against the laryngoscope. Mackenzie again succinctly sums up the nature of these disputes:

We find B upon the direct evidence of his laryngoscope, flatly contradicting the statements of A, an equally competent observer, whilst C again differs from both (Mackenzie 1886, 36).

He further chastises vocal scientists for committing “all sorts of errors of observation, each claiming to be founded on ocular proof,” and then believing in these contradictory observations with “corresponding obstinacy” (Mackenzie 1886, 236). Thomas Fillerbrown, in his volume on Resonance in Singing and Speaking (1911), similarly censures pedagogues who justified their vocal doctrines based on the “evidence furnished by the laryngoscope,” dubbing it “unreliable” due to the fact that “there will be found in the little lens as many different conditions as the observers have eyes to see” (Fillerbrown 1911, 2)[4]. He complains that “the results of laryngoscopic study of the vocal cords have been disappointing and contradictory,” and accuses investigators of “fail[ing] to define what correct laryngeal action is” (Fillerbrown 1911, 38).

However, the reason that most empiricists ultimately rejected the usefulness of the laryngoscope for their profession had little to do with the conditions of laryngoscopic examination, or the variation in observers’ findings. These teachers merely rejected the most fundamental premise of the vocal scientists: that information about the anatomy and physiology of the internal vocal organs—even if it were completely accurate—had any legitimate usefulness in vocal pedagogy. While many of these teachers deeply respected Garcia and praised his invention for its value to medical science, they stated clearly their essential bias against the relevance of including information about vocal anatomy and physiology in voice teaching methods:

There is not the slightest doubt that mankind as a whole owes a debt of gratitude to Manuel Garcia for the invention of the laryngoscope, but musically it has had a bad effect, by drawing the attention of students and singing masters to the study of the anatomy of the larynx . . . which, however interesting it may be in itself, is certainly useless from a vocal point of view. What person ever sang any better for knowing the position of the cartilages of Wrisberg and Santorini? Has anybody’s voice improved after learning the action of the thyro-arytenoid muscles? Never (White 1950, 8).

Clippinger emphatically echoes this view, asserting that “all of the scientific or mechanical knowledge that the world has to offer is no preparation for voice training” (Clippinger 1919, 13-4) and that the value of studying vocal physiology is “practically negligible . . . furnish[ing] the teacher nothing he can use in giving a singing lesson, unless, perchance he should be as unwise as to begin the lesson with a talk on vocal mechanism” (Clippinger 1919, 39). Interestingly enough, Manuel Garcia II’s own star pupil, Sir Charles Santley, is equally vehement in proclaiming that his master’s physiological studies are immaterial for the student of singing:

My experience tells me that the less pupils know about the construction of the vocal organs the better; in fact, as I heard a master once remark, “better they should not be aware they had throats except for the purpose of swallowing food.” I am confident that great harm has been done by mixing up “singing” and “surgery” (Santley 1908, 24-5).

The interesting question about the empiricists is not whether they agreed that scientific information should be avoided as part of voice training, but what reasons they gave for doing so. As with objections to the laryngoscope, many general themes did emerge. First and foremost, these teachers challenged the scientists’ often unstated assumption that a singer’s familiarity with vocal anatomy and physiology would somehow enable him or her to manage it more skillfully. Rather, the empiricists asserted that just because a singer knew how his vocal anatomy should operate (in a particular register, for a certain vowel, or at a specific dynamic), it did not therefore follow that he could get it to operate in that prescribed manner. In more general terms, they observed that knowing the construction of any instrument does not enable one to play it at all. David Clark Taylor is a prime exponent of this view:

Knowing how the vocal cords should act does not help the singer in the least to govern their action. What the vocal student wishes to know is how to cause the vocal cords to assume the correct position for each register. [emphasis added] On this, the most important topic of mechanical Voice Culture, Vocal Science has shed no light whatsoever (Taylor 1922, 37).

Fillerbrown agrees, almost word for word: “Even if a singer knew how the vocal cords should act it would not help him in the least to govern their action” (Fillerbrown 1911, 38).

Some of the most colorful and thought-provoking expressions of this common objection were presented in the form of analogies. One of the most popular of these expressions compared pianists and piano teachers with piano makers and/or tuners:

The throat specialist who looks into your larynx and knows the mechanism of the vocal organs considers himself the best of the vocal masters. By the same reasoning, a piano-tuner who looks into the piano and knows all about its mechanism ought to be considered the best of piano teachers (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 125).

A foreman in a piano factory who is thoroughly acquainted with the whole mechanism of a pianoforte . . . is nevertheless, no better equipped for a pianist than any raw youth who does not know the difference between the hammer and the dampers (Monahan 1978, 16).

All we can learn from the study of vocal physiology is the construction of the vocal instrument, and this bears the same relation to singing that piano making bears to piano playing (Clippinger 1919, 39).

Mackenzie likewise ridicules the voice teacher who insists on teaching vocal anatomy, comparing him instead to a painting master who instructed his young pupils in the anatomy of the eye, or a dancing master who instructed his in that of the arms and legs:

To my mind it is just as absurd to insist on a singer knowing the structure of his vocal organs as it would be to make painters learn the anatomy of the eye and study its internal condition with the ophthalmoscope. . . . What would be thought of a dancing master who should begin his course with an elaborate exposition of the structure of the lower limbs? (Mackenzie 1886, 89-90).

He drives his point home by taking the vocal scientists’ interest in vocal anatomy to a logical and absurd extreme:

If it is pleaded that a knowledge of the situation and action of the muscles of the larynx is a help to the proper use of them, I can only say that in that case the singer cannot logically stop there in his wild career of anatomical study. The muscles act only in obedience to an impulse conveyed to them by the nerves from the brain . . . the candidate should master the intricacies of the nerve supply of the larynx, and results of the latest mutilations of monkeys’ brains in the search for a “centre” of the voice (Mackenzie 1886, 89).

Using these sometimes tongue-in-cheek illustrations, the empiricists repeatedly expressed their belief that singers and voice teachers had no more need to be acquainted with the construction of their instruments than the players or teachers of any other.

A second, related reason that many empiricists rejected the practical value of anatomical study for singers was their contention that much of the anatomy commonly studied was not under the singer’s conscious control. Thus, even if the optimal behavior of these organs could be established, singers would be unable to recreate such behavior at will. W. J. Henderson, a prominent New York Times music critic who also devoted himself to The Art of Singing (1938), strongly articulates this reasoning:

The radical evil of voice teaching at this time is the endeavor of singing teachers who do not understand the physiology of the throat to make their pupils get results by the voluntary movement of certain muscles. It is susceptible of scientific demonstration…that many essential muscles in the formation of tone are involuntary muscles and cannot be directed by the will (Henderson 1938, 284).

Fillerbrown states it this way:

The mechanism of the larynx is not voluntary in its action, but automatic, and even if a singer knew how the vocal cords should act it would not help him in the least to govern their action (Fillerbrown 1911, 38).

To compare this argument with the prior, consider again Mackenzie’s example of the dancing master. Although clearly, explaining the anatomy of the leg will not enable his students to execute a perfect plié, no one would question whether the muscles of the legs respond in some measure to conscious mental commands. If a dancing student is asked to plié, she will be able to approximate such a movement (even if not as gracefully as a prima ballerina), as long as she has heard someone describe the movement or seen someone demonstrate it. However, if the singing student is asked to stretch and thin her vocal cords to approximately half their resting thickness, or if she simply watches someone else do so in a laryngoscopic mirror, she will never be able to do so with a comparable conscious command to the vocal cords. Clippinger underlines the futility—even absurdity—of attempting to give such direct commands to the vocal cords:

If I should ask my pupil to make her vocal cords vibrate at the rate of 435 times per second she could not do it…but if I strike the A above middle C and ask her to sing it her vocal cords respond automatically at that rate of vibration. . . . The action is automatic, not the result of direct effort (Clippinger 1919, 50).

In these ways, empiricists highlighted the difference between voluntary muscles, such as those of the legs, and involuntary muscles, which they generally believed to govern the adduction of the vocal folds. However, even among this like-minded group, there was some disagreement as to exactly which muscles were which. Some pedagogues like Parisotti and Wilcox seem to consider the action of almost every portion of the vocal instrument to be involuntary:

Unfortunately the study of singing is rendered as difficult as it really is, by the fact that the most essential organs cannot be guided nor controlled by either the sense of sight or touch (Parisotti 1911, 14-5).

The muscles of what we may term the vocal mechanism of the human body are, for the most part, involuntary muscles. Involuntary muscles are not subject to direct control by the will. Their activities must therefore be induced indirectly through willing an act that will automatically cause them to function (Wilcox 1945, 2).

Douglas Stanley[5] is more specific, claiming that the muscles governing the position of the pharynx and larynx are involuntary. He therefore pointedly challenges the vocal scientists’ common assumptions that singers should be able to consciously “open their throats” or lower their larynxes:

It is physiologically impossible for a singer to consciously open the throat itself during the act of phonation, since we do not possess voluntary localized muscular control over an isolated part. Thus, to illustrate by means of a similar case, it is impossible to move the larynx volitionally. . . . It must follow that directions to the singer with regard to movements of the larynx are futile (Stanley 1958, 65).

Others like Muckey and White confine their arguments to the vocal cords themselves.

. . . the intrinsic muscles of the larynx . . . are involuntary. Their action is not under the direct control of the will. This action cannot be forced, but must be induced (Muckey 1915, 79).

[Since] the muscular actions [of the vocal cords] ‘are not under the control of the will’ it is rather difficult to see what practical advantage can be gained by studying the vocal cords, either ‘at their back-ends,’ or anywhere else (White 1950, 60).

Thus the empiricists believed that while the study of laryngeal or vocal cord action might be interesting from a purely scientific standpoint, it could serve no practical purpose in the instruction of singing students.

Even many of the empiricists who believed that the vocal cords were governed by involuntary muscles readily admitted that other muscles along the vocal tract were voluntary. While opinions differed, most believed that a singer did have conscious control of the cheeks, lips, jaw, and tongue, the swallowing and throat extensor muscles (i.e., those that contract and enlarge the pharynx, respectively), and the muscles that elevate the soft palate. In other words, these muscles could be taught to obey mechanical commands to varying extents. But predictably, the empiricists objected to attempts to bring even this more limited scope of the vocal anatomy under a singer’s conscious control. Their reason for this objection is a third major criticism of the methods of vocal scientists: that a singer’s efforts to control even these vocal organs were invariably counterproductive.

Virtually all voice teachers, regardless of specific pedagogy, have as an overarching goal to help their students sing without unnecessary physical tensions. These tensions are generally believed to interfere with the optimal performance of the vocal organs, and may even cause vocal damage. Thus, teachers devote thousands of lesson hours to helping students loosen tense jaws, rigid tongues, and stiff necks. The empiricists, who wholeheartedly agreed with such aims, believed that conscious attempts to control the actions of even the voluntary muscles along the vocal tract would make such tension-free singing all but impossible. Their teaching experiences had demonstrated that mechanical, specific attempts to regulate these muscles deliberately would bring about interfering vocal tensions far more often than the optimal behaviors being sought. Taylor succinctly states the empiricists’ belief that “the most important cause of throat stiffness is found in the attempt consciously to manage the mechanical operations of the voice” (Taylor 1922, xiii). Clippinger concurs that “trying to control the mechanism by direct effort always induces tension” (Clippinger 1919, 45).

Buzzi-Peccia, who gave young vocalists advice on How to Succeed in Singing (1925), points out that natural coordination in singing does not equate to conscious efforts at reproducing that same natural coordination. He recognized that the vocal scientists’ mechanical instructions to students were often based on their observations of how the body breathed and phonated “naturally.” However, Buzzi-Peccia had noted that when students attempted to mechanically reproduce “natural” inspiration and phonation, the results were tense instead:

Sometimes a technical word may upset [the student’s] mind completely; for instance, abdominal breathing is natural, not abnormal. Then when the pupil is asked to breathe diaphragmatically, he gets panicky and terribly conscious, as if it were something strange and unnatural. He tries to do it with all kinds of wrong contractions—raising the shoulders, swelling the chest, moving that poor diaphragm out and in, as if he had never taken a deep breath in all his life. The idea of taking the breath scientifically prevents him from doing it naturally. The very same thing happens when he is told about the lowering of the tongue, relaxing the jaw, opening the mouth, according to scientific descriptions which upset his way of thinking (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 100).

W. J. Henderson also finds the vocal scientists’ attempts to describe “natural” action and then ask their students to recreate it, motion by motion, to be fundamentally backward. He notes that the old Italian masters had no choice but to “reason from tone to the operation, not from the operation to the tone,” and complains that the vocal scientists have turned this process upside-down:

Too many modern theorists seem to proceed in the latter way [i.e., “from operation to the tone”], and that is why they build up complicated and unnatural processes which confuse students and do incalculable harm (Henderson 1938, 51).

Stanley reasons that tensions develop when performers attempt to command a large coordinated muscle interaction such as singing by endeavoring to direct individually the small muscle actions which it comprises:

. . . any such attempt to control a limited group of muscles, which are part of a larger group that co-ordinate for a complex act, such as the act of phonation, will merely result in a false consciousness and therefore a wrong tensing and co-ordination of the muscles (Stanley 1958, 38).

Wilcox supports Stanley’s view that singers should not attempt to consciously “open” their throats, by pointing to the tensions that inevitably result:

Any attempt to “stretch” the throat by localized effort would merely bring the antagonistic “swallowing” muscles under tension and close rather than open the throat (Wilcox 1945, 3).

Finally, some pedagogues seem to believe that even the very directive to “relax” a particular muscle would imply a direct control of it which should not exist, and would therefore also induce tensions:

Everything the student does, for the purpose of acquiring direct command of the voice, has some influence in causing the throat to stiffen. Telling the student to hold the throat relaxed seldom effects a cure; this direction includes a primary cause of tension—the turning of attention to the throat (Taylor 1922, 272).

One final and all-inclusive version of the empiricists’ third argument was advanced by Floyd Muckey in his 1915 description of The Natural Method of Voice Production. He argues that the very fact that a student is “trying” to do anything at all, in a way prescribed by his or her teacher, leads to the voluntary and therefore tense action of muscles:

At the very outset, the pupil who sings or speaks for the teacher feels that he is doing something out of the ordinary and naturally tries to do the best he can. The fact that he tries involves a use of the will which brings into action the voluntary or interfering muscles. This effort on the part of the pupil is seldom satisfactory to the teacher. The latter then directs the pupil, either by example or otherwise, to sing the tone in some other manner, establishing still further this voluntary action or interference (Muckey 1915, 9).

Many teachers went on to observe that when conscious attempts to direct one’s vocal anatomy did lead to additional vocal tensions, the resulting vocal timbre was artificial. They lamented the loss of spontaneity in the vocal tone, and resulting stiltedness in diction. This word “artificial” was used to refer to a constellation of unpleasant timbres:

Now if one puts too much thought on the position of the tongue or the palate, there will be artificiality, and the most probable result will be the placing too far back of the tone, which results in what is called throatiness (Henderson 1938, 45-6).

That so much discussed “scientific method” which, through the analyzation and description of the anatomical actions of the vocal organs, is intended to produce a scientific singer, means in reality to produce an artificial singer (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 98).

Metropolitan Opera baritone Reinald Werrenrath (1883-1953), when interviewed about his views on voice teaching, presents an evocative and humorous picture of such singers whose tone has become unnatural due to their forced attention on the vocal anatomy:

I am opposed to the old idea of tone placing, in which the pupil toed a mark, set the throat at some prescribed angle, adjusted the tongue in some approved design, and then, gripped like the unfortunate victim in the old-fashioned photographer’s irons, attempted to sing a sustained tone or a rapid scale. What was the result—consciousness and stiltedness and, as a rule, a tired throat and ruined singer (Cooke 1921, 289).

In sum, the empiricists frequently argued that the scientists’ efforts to produce a superior vocal tone by direct muscular control actually led to the very tensions and defective timbres they sought to avoid.

In addition to their counterarguments based on muscular actions, empiricists expressed a fourth major objection to the study and control of vocal anatomy, one based on purely artistic grounds. These pedagogues believed that while singing, the performer’s attention should be focused only on artistic concerns, both musical and dramatic. Any attention that was directed instead to consciously coordinating muscular actions would only serve to “distract” the singer from this “artistic conception” (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 12-3). Clippinger warns the student to avoid, at all costs, “the long dreary mechanical grind that eventually . . . results in nothing but mechanical singing, instead of a joyous, inspiring musical performance” (Clippinger 1919, 6-7). Mackenzie concurs that the principal job of the voice teacher should be to produce “artistic singers” rather than “indifferent scientists” (Mackenzie 1886, 85). David Ffrangçon-Davies, who tried to foresee The Singing of the Future (1904), goes so far as to suggest that the type of consciously controlled muscular actions advocated by the vocal scientists are not only inartistic and unnatural, but are actually inhuman in some way:

The coldly intellectual or the coldly mechanical act is not a human or a natural act. Why then insist for years on super-inducing an unnatural and perfunctory state of mind upon the student, by making of technique a mere muscular exercise? (Ffrangçon-Davies 1968, 81).

Several writers point out the incompatibility, in particular, of trying to control physiological processes while also portraying a character. As Taylor aptly quips, “Sigfried [sic] does not forge his sword, and at the same time think of his diaphragm or soft palate. Lucia cannot attend to the movements of her arytenoids cartilages while pouring out the trills and runs of her Mad Scene” (Taylor 1922, xiii-xiv). Ffrangçon-Davies relates a similar conversation he had with Sims Reeve, seeking the legendary baritone’s advice regarding the part of Elijah in Mendelssohn’s oratorio of that same name:

Some years ago his [Sims Reeve’s] first words to the writer, who had sought his aid in regard to the singing of “Elijah” were: “What do you think about the Prophet—what sort of man was he?” No word of thoracic, crico-thyroideal or epiglottic matters! (Ffrangçon-Davies 1968, 120).

In support of their arguments, writers like Taylor and Ffrangçon-Davies frequently point out that when the most celebrated singers of their day spoke about their vocal methods, few (if any) spoke about vocal anatomy or physiology. Quite the contrary, many famous singers claimed—almost proudly—to be completely oblivious to the latest scientific researches:

. . . it is, no doubt, perfectly true that many of the greatest singers of the past have been destitute of the slightest knowledge of [vocal anatomy and physiology]. In which connection one may recall the famous saying of [Adelina] Patti when interrogated as to her method: “Je n’en sais rien.” [I know nothing about it.] (Tetrazzini 1975, 44).

Lamperti concurs that “most great singers know very little or nothing about their vocal organs and lungs,” emphasizing instead that “each voice is a law unto itself” (Lamperti 1931, 21).

These pedagogues point out the somewhat obvious but often overlooked fact that scientific knowledge does not equate with artistic talent. They reason that even if a student could succeed perfectly in controlling the elevation of her soft palate, the position of the larynx, and the segmentation of the vocal cords, these skills would be nearly useless without a sense of phrasing, an understanding of style, or any ability to communicate emotion:

All the scientific explanations or graphic demonstrations of action of the vocal organs will never develop an artistic talent nor a musical ear, which after all is the “secret” and the “science” of all the past, present and future great singers (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 110).

The English contralto, Dame Clara Butt (1872-1936), presented the following metaphor to express her similar view that even the students of a perfect scientific vocal method would still fall short in performance if they were not endowed with comparable artistic genius:

Even now it is apparently impossible to reconcile all the vocal writers, except in so far as they all modestly admit that they have rediscovered the real old Italian school. Perhaps they have. But, admitting that an art teacher rediscovered the actual pigments used by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt or Raphael, he would have no little task in creating a student who could duplicate Mona Lisa, The Night Watch, or the Sistine Madonna (Cooke 1921, 62-3).

Finally, in a slight twist on this fourth major critique of vocal science, some empiricists pointedly wondered whether it was not the scientists’ own lack of artistic sensibility that led them to focus instead on muscles and cartilages:

People with little or no musicianship have been known to wrangle ceaselessly on whether or not the thyroid cartilage should tip forward on high tones. It is such crude mechanics masquerading under the name of science that has brought voice training into general disrepute (Clippinger 1919, 52).

Clearly, the empiricists believed that if their students were to become artists, they should not be trained as technicians.

In general, the authors of scientific vocal methods sought to outline specific sets of motions that the singer should master in order to produce an ideal vocal tone. The checklist Garcia II provided for the emission of “the purest vocal tone” is a prime example of such a set of muscular actions:

. . . (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 [i.e., 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).

As Chapter III of this study details, the vocal science literature is replete with similar sets of instructions for all aspects of tone production—from inspiration to phonation and resonation—many of which are far more lengthy and detailed. In fact, one empiricist considered the teachers in his profession to be “the most industrious of all in their efforts to organize and standardize” (Clippinger 1919, 32).

The empiricists’ fifth major objection to such methods attacked the very assumption on which such “industriousness” was based: the conviction that each singer’s vocal organs would perform optimally by using the same motions. In one respect, such an assumption seems logical. Every singer, barring some injury or congenital defect, possesses the same elements of vocal anatomy which are capable of performing similar motions. However, the empiricists did not believe that one could jump from these physical facts to the scientists’ conclusion that similar behavior would always produce similar results. Rather, they were far more likely to note the range of variation in human vocal organs, expressed in differences of range, timbre, and size. In their pedagogies, these normal variations could make for a variety of acceptable, healthy methods of tone production. For example, the vocal organs of a lyric coloratura soprano might use a significantly different set of motions to produce her high C than the one used by her dramatic soprano colleague. Therefore, any inflexible set of physical instructions, by definition, would be appropriate for some singers but not for others. Clippinger speaks for many of his empiricist colleagues when he writes:

The advocates of this kind of standard tone [i.e., vocal scientists] cannot disengage themselves from the belief that all vocal organs are alike. The exact opposite is the truth. Vocal organs are no more alike than are eyes, noses, hands and dispositions. Each of these conforms only to a general type. The variation is infinite (Clippinger 1919, 34).

He further asserts that attempting to impose standards of behavior on these varying organs would not only fail to produce satisfactory results, but could actually be detrimental to the singers affected:

The voice is so completely and persistently individual, and in the very nature of things must always remain so, that an attempt to standardize it . . . is dangerous (Clippinger 1919, 32).

Pasquale Amato, a lyric baritone at the Metropolitan Opera, claims that the “good sense of the old Italian master” would have recognized that an art such as singing “cannot be circumscribed by any set of rules or principles,” and that this teacher of the past would have “held up to ridicule” the vocal scientists’ attempts to do so (Cooke 1921, 40). The legendary tenor, Enrico Caruso, in a November 1919 article in the Musical Observer, agrees with his baritone colleague, as he describes how “there are actually as many [vocal] methods as there are singers”:

A singer will know from trials and experience just the proper position of the tongue and larynx to produce most effectively a certain note on the scale; yet he will have come by this knowledge, not by theory and reasoning, but simply by oft-repeated attempts, and the knowledge he has attained will be valuable to him only, for somebody else would produce the same note equally well, but in quite a different way. . . . So one may see that there are actually as many methods as there are singers, and any particular method, even if accurately set forth, might be useless to the person who tried it (Marafioti 1981, 156).

In one specific example of such vocal individuality, Henderson points to the varying ways in which singers experience their register breaks. He counsels that rather than learning specific motions to perform at these transition points, the singer needs to become familiar with the way his or her own voice responds best at these junctures:

The student of singing . . . need not concern himself at all with the physiological formation of chest and head tones. What he must do is to ascertain at what point his voice naturally passes from one to the other, and then learn how to make the passage easily, smoothly and imperceptibly (Henderson 1938, 72).

In this, as in virtually all aspects of their pedagogy, the empiricists were likely to be guided by the advice that their bel canto ancestors had offered over a century earlier:

The rules . . . cannot be general, nor can they be made universally the same for every individual. . . . Differences concerning the organs of the voice compel the teacher to observe diligently in what [manner] the voice comes out the clearest, purest, and fullest. Thus he determines . . . the correct position . . . (Mancini 1977, 90).

Thus, if, according to the empiricists, the vocal organs were not to be mechanically controlled, what alternative forms of guidance did they advocate? First and foremost, the empiricists wrote about mental control of the tone. Many authors emphasized simply the need to conceive of the desired tone before beginning to sing, believing that the vocal organs would configure themselves automatically to reproduce (or attempt to reproduce) the tone the singer had imagined. Then, once the tone was actually sung, the teacher would guide the student in evaluating how closely this tone had matched the mental goal. This process of refinement would continue, over the course of weeks, months, or often years, until the student was able to reproduce consistently his or her ideal tone, throughout the entire compass of the voice.

The empiricists stressed that because this type of control was “mental” (as opposed to the “physical” control advocated by the vocal scientists), teachers should focus on developing their students’ tone “concept” (rather than teaching them specific muscle movements). For example, Lamperti instructs his students to “mentally anticipate internal sensations of word, tone and timbre” in order to achieve control of the voice (Lamperti 1931, 15). Buzzi-Peccia believes that “the action of the vocal organs depends entirely upon mental conception” (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 119), assuring students that a tone which is conceived mentally in this way will always be better placed than one which is conceived mechanically:

The people who need anatomical or graphic examples in order to see how a tone is made or placed, cannot understand that it is the artistic conception of a tone that decides the placement of the voice. A badly conceived tone can never be in the right place while a good one always is (Buzzi-Peccia 1925, 108-9).

Henderson concurs that a beautiful tone is founded in the mind, not in the muscles:

It begins with an ideal dwelling in the realm of the conception of tonal beauty, not in the domain of correct movement of muscles. The problem of the great masters of the early period was to ascertain the best way of singing beautiful tones on every vowel sound throughout the entire range of a voice, not to find how to operate certain parts of the body and decide that such operation should give the tone (Henderson 1938, 51).

Clippinger asserts that a voice teacher’s main task is to help the student develop the ability to conceive of an ideal vocal tone:

Beautiful tone should be the primary aim of all voice teaching, and more care should be given to forming the student’s tone concept than that of teaching him how to control his throat by direct effort. The controlling power of a right idea is still much underestimated (Clippinger 1919, v).

Finally, Pasquale Amato describes the empirical teacher’s process of gradually helping a student evaluate his or her efforts to reproduce a tonal ideal:

I should say that the Italian vocal teacher teaches, first of all, with his ears. He listens with the greatest possible intensity to every shade of tone-color until his [student’s] ideal tone reveals itself. This often requires months and months of patience (Cooke 1921, 41).

According to many empiricists, one of the most effective ways to aid in this course of action was to provide models for the student to emulate. In other words, if the student were to conceive of a beautiful vocal tone, he or she needed to have heard one. Clearly, this method was not new, but rather a reaffirmation of the old bel canto procedure of using imitation as part of vocal training. Clippinger supports the continued use of this old procedure:

Few of us ever have an original idea. We trail along from fifty to a hundred years behind those we are trying to imitate. When there is little else but imitation going on in the world, why deny it to vocal students? The argument against imitation can come from but two classes of people—those who cannot produce a good tone and those who are more interested in how the tone is made than in the tone itself (Clippinger 1919, 54).

Taylor offers a much more thorough, even “scientific,” explanation in favor of this supposedly “unscientific” teaching method. He points out that the automatic ability of the vocal cords to adjust themselves in order to reproduce a precise frequency (i.e., pitch) can be similarly applied to other elements of vocal tone:

Why should the vocal organs be thought to be unable to adjust themselves for the tone quality demanded by the ear any more than for the pitch? No vocal theorist has ever thought to formulate rules for securing the tension of the vocal cords necessary for the desired pitch. This is always left to instinctive processes. No one would ever undertake to question the voice’s ability to sing by imitation a note of any particular pitch. What valid reason can be given for denying the corresponding ability regarding tone quality? The vocal organs adjust themselves for the imitation of tone quality by exactly the same psychological processes as for the imitation of pitch (Taylor 1922, 297).

According to Taylor, other important elements of vocal tone such as vowel purity, timbre, resonance, and intensity could all be improved using the very same instinctive processes that allowed a singer to reproduce a specific pitch after hearing it sung or played.

However, Taylor goes one step further, as did several other instructors in the empirical camp. He questions even the fundamental assumption that the voice is something that can and should be controlled by any method. He points out the fact—so obvious that it is often overlooked—that almost all voice teachers, regardless of their pedagogical camps, try to provide their students with methods of controlling the voice:

Without exception every teacher adheres to the prevailing idea, that the voice must be controlled and guided in some direct way—that the singer must “do something” to cause the vocal organs to operate properly. All the materials of instruction . . . are utilized for the sole purpose of enabling the student to learn how to “do this something” (Taylor 1922, 102).

He then makes the seemingly radical suggestion that singers need not learn to “do anything” at all—at least not consciously. Rather, he asserts that the vocal organs can “adjust themselves, through instinctive guidance, for the production of any tone demanded by the ear” (Taylor 1922, 167). In this belief, he was not alone. Tetrazzini, a supporter of vocal scientists in other arenas, here agrees that the singer will achieve the best results when he or she allows the vocal organs to function by “instinct”:

. . . the less the pupil is called upon to depart from his, or her, natural and instinctive procedure, the more likely are good results to be achieved—the ideal case being, of course, the one in which no alterations whatsoever are required (Tetrazzini 1975, 62).

Other writers use the terms “unconscious” or “subconscious” instead of “instinctive” to express similar beliefs. Lamperti clearly states: “Singing is instinctive. Its control is subconscious” (Lamperti 1931, 20). Ffrangçon-Davies asserts that singers will know that their vocal organs are “free” when they are “unconscious of them” (Ffrangçon-Davies 1968, 153-4). And William Shakespeare writes that the singer must “balance in unconsciousness the mechanism for tuning the voice; he must shape, in like unconsciousness, the spaces in the mouth which form the tone and pronunciation” (Shakespeare 1924, 64).

So what, then, was to occupy the student’s consciousness while his or her vocal organs were acting in unconsciousness? Ffrangçon-Davies provides one last suggestion as to what thoughts actually should fill the singer’s mind while singing:

You, the student, are not to hold your lips thus and so, nor to get your tone forward on to them nor on to your teeth, nor are you to pin your tongue to any particular part of your mouth, nor to open your mouth in any set mode, nor to brace your shoulders, nor to heave your chest, nor to force open your throat. All you have to do is to relax and banish fear, and this you do by putting something else in its place, i.e., you occupy the ground with other thoughts which are to be found in the text and in the music (Ffrangçon-Davies 1968, 79).

“To put it simply,” he concludes, speaking for many of his colleagues among the empiricists, “the vocalist does his work worthily when he makes the thought and the sung-word correspond” (Ffrangçon-Davies 1968, 40).

In many ways, the empiricists were defined by the voice teaching methods they rejected, rather than by those they employed. Above all, they argued against the two main assumptions of the vocal scientists: (1) that information about vocal anatomy and physiology was a legitimate, useful aspect of voice teaching, and (2) that the motions of the vocal anatomy being studied could and should be directed, consciously and mechanically, by the singer. While the empiricists’ reasons for rejecting these two assumptions were carefully considered and well articulated, their own fundamental beliefs were a bit more difficult to state explicitly. Essentially, they considered singing to be an art, not a science, and they maintained that as such, its teaching should not be standardized or methodical. They stressed that singers could obtain control over their voices (if “control” was even a goal to be pursued) only through indirect methods: developing a mental concept of their ideal tone quality, and attempting to reproduce that quality over and over, trying and failing, until at last the sung tone matched the concept, consistently, and throughout the compass of the voice. Finally, in direct contradiction to the vocal scientists, the empiricists believed that singing a beautiful tone was the cause of the proper motions of the vocal organs, not the result of it.

In all these convictions, the empiricists were the staunch defenders of the bel canto tradition. However, they were ultimately unable to turn back the clock to the teaching methods of that past era. Their defense failed to initiate a counter-revolution powerful enough to unseat the vocal scientists from the voice studios where they had taken up residence, and where many still reside today.

[1] In Jonathan Swift’s satirical tale of Gulliver’s Travels, Laputa is a flying island inhabited by impractical, visionary philosophers who do various absurd things.

[2] The hyoid bone, from which the larynx is suspended, is connected to the base of the tongue.
[3] Mackenzie’s concerns were, in fact, borne out by 20th century researchers, such as Lucie Manen, who discovered that “in their natural state the vocal cords lie turned upwards against the walls of the larynx, as I discovered through X-ray investigations at the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research in Oxford. [But] when the laryngoscope is inserted, the vocal cords are forced down and lie in a horizontal position” (Manen 1987, 8).
[4] Although in other arenas, the empiricists attacked the scientists’ belief in vocal doctrines that were to be applied equally to all voices, few if any explicitly questioned the scientists’ comparable assumption that the vocal organs of trained singers would and should behave similarly (if not identically). Instead, most followed Fillerbrown’s lead, blaming discrepancies on the variation in observers, not in the varying behaviors of the vocal organs under examination.
[5] The early 20th century voice teacher Douglas Stanley holds a somewhat unique position in the history of vocal pedagogy. His entire career was devoted to highly specific scientific researches into the workings of the human voice, including some studies subsidized by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. However, his findings led him to the exact opposite conclusions from those typically reached by those conducting similar experiments. In his fervent belief that voice teachers must be thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of vocal anatomy and physiology, he can be counted squarely among the vocal scientists. But his own familiarity with these subjects led him to reject the second foundation of most scientific vocal methods: the belief that singers must learn to control consciously their vocal anatomy. Stanley’s writings insist instead that “no direction should be given to the pupil which implies direct control over the muscles that actuate the thorax (the breathing apparatus), the larynx (the vibrator) or the pharyngeal cavities (the resonator). Any direction by the teacher that involves such direct conscious control is not only impossible of accomplishment, but also actively injurious” (Stanley 1958, 2).