Conclusion: The Singer’s Dilemma Revisited

The singer from our introduction is now a veteran voice student. His or her studies have been a journey through the studios of at least two or three voice teachers—but often many more—each of whom favored different vocal exercises, imagery, physical and philosophical goals regarding the singing voice. The singer has spent literally thousands of dollars for this conflicting advice, compensating not only teachers and coaches, but likely also paying years of college or university tuition. And he or she has paid in time as well:  this student, upon reflection, may realize that just as many practice hours—if not more—have been spent unlearning the techniques of prior teachers as learning new repertoire. Above all, it is almost certain that among the procession of teachers consulted, the vocalist has been exposed to both “scientific” and “empirical” methods of voice teaching, sometimes even employed within a single studio.

As artists in the classical singing business know, the vast majority of aspiring young opera stars who first set foot in a voice studio never win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, get accepted into a prestigious Young Artist Program, or make a Carnegie Hall debut. Only a small percentage of these singers will ever be paid for their work, and an even smaller percentage of professionals are ultimately able to support themselves exclusively through the practice of their art. For these former hopefuls, the most common source of supplemental income is—of course—teaching voice.

But how has this singer’s journey prepared him or her to move into the role of teacher? Which techniques, exercises, and philosophies will this studio perpetuate? Will the new teacher begin the first lesson with a diagram of the larynx in hand and expect students to become conversant in anatomical terms? Or will the lesson begin instead with a vocal demonstration by the teacher, to be imitated by the student? Will instructions focus first on muscles, how they should move? Or will they concentrate first on vowels, how they should sound? Will the student be asked to direct attention predominantly to physical processes? Or primarily to artistic conceptions instead? In short, will this new teacher’s pedagogy be based on scientific principles or empirical ones? Or what mixture of the two?

The fact is that most voice teachers today are not as rigid about the category of their vocal pedagogy as their colleagues of a hundred years ago may have been. Modern-day teachers routinely employ methods that could be embraced by both scientific and empirical camps of instructors, and most of these never perceive any conflict. For example, if a teacher instructs her student to lower his larynx, and in the same breath, asks him to imagine that his head is an empty cathedral dome, few observers would even raise an eyebrow. Pragmatism rules in most studios, and teachers will employ the strategies that seem to fit the needs of a particular student at a given time. Some students will respond best when they know the scientific intricacies of why a certain instruction should improve their tone. Others will be baffled by this type of explanation, and would prefer only to hear the instruction demonstrated, and try to figure out by trial and error how to achieve that correct sound themselves.

Moreover, this blending of methodologies is really not new. With few exceptions, even the dozens of prominent authors quoted in this study rarely fall exclusively into one camp or the other. While their pedagogies expressed unequivocal views on the crucial questions under examination, their methods sometimes included practices that would have been warmly embraced by their opponents. For example, the original empiricist, Sir Morell Mackenzie, despite his unflinching view that teaching anatomy and physiology as part of a vocal method was worse than useless, believed that singers should learn to control their soft palates consciously. And Douglas Stanley, whose reverence toward scientific research about the voice bordered on the religious, ultimately came to the conclusion that consciously controlling any single part of the complex process of phonation was, in fact, physiologically impossible. Indeed, teachers have been combining scientific and empirical methods of instruction since the first days of the scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy.

In the ongoing debate about which of these methodologies is the most effective, the jury is still out, and a final verdict is unlikely. However, the vocal scientists have attained a distinct advantage. As they have become permanent members of the voice teaching community, their presence has become ever more prominent in all institutions that focus on the study of singing. For example, our young singer and brand new voice teacher, if he or she received any formal training in vocal pedagogy, was almost certainly taught the anatomy and physiology of the voice as part of the core curriculum. Furthermore, the books most commonly used as basic texts in vocal pedagogy courses at the college and university level are those written by teachers who value, if not revere, vocal science: Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing, Victor Alexander Fields’s Foundations of the Singer’s Art, Ralph Appelman’s The Science of Vocal Pedagogy, William Vennard’s Singing, the Mechanism and the Technique.

If this young teacher joins the National Association of Teachers of Singing, he or she will be able to read an article in every issue of the Journal of Singing devoted to “Voice Research and Technology.” If he or she attends the NATS Convention, the teacher will have the opportunity to attend a variety of sessions on “Voice Production Science,” presented by members of the official NATS “Voice Science Advisory Committee.” For example, at the 2004 NATS annual meeting, the pre-convention pedagogy session was exclusively devoted to “The Science of the Male High Voice,” which highlighted a review of the physiology involved in producing these upper tones.

When this teacher heads to the music library or bookstore to browse the most recent volumes published on singing, he or she will come face to face yet again with the methods of the vocal scientists. The teacher will be hard pressed to find any book on the subject that does not contain at least a few medical-style diagrams of the abdominal region, the larynx, pharynx, etc. And it will be just as difficult to find a book that fails to address the now-standard vocal pedagogy topics of “respiration,” “phonation,” “resonation,” and “articulation” in terms of the physical motions they comprise.

But the vocal scientists’ real victory is not their presence or permanence in the institutions that teach singing. Their crowning achievement is that these institutions—colleges, universities, NATS, music publishers—although they may not advance vocal science to the exclusion of more empirical methods, no longer question the fundamental assumption on which anatomical or physiological study of the voice is based:  that such knowledge is of practical value to singers and to their teachers. But does a familiarity with the construction of the vocal mechanism allow a singer to use it more correctly, efficiently, or effortlessly? Should the component parts of this mechanism be directed consciously during singing? These two major questions, the crux of the original debate between vocal scientists and empiricists, have not ever been conclusively answered. The singer’s dilemma remains.

Just as our aspiring performer will not necessarily sing better by knowing how the larynx is constructed, his or her choice among voice teachers will not necessarily be facilitated by this historical perspective on the issues that divide them. And as the singer prepares to become a teacher, he or she must still make personal decisions about whether to employ primarily scientific or empirical methods in the studio. However, as this individual faces these crucial choices, he or she might be interested to consider the final reflections of the father of the scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy, Garcia himself.

True, we will never know what Manuel Garcia II, the “Columbus of the larynx,” would think about modern-day vocal pedagogy, in all its variety, complexity, and controversy. However, this centenarian did contemplate the direction it had taken during his own long life. And his comments may be quite surprising to those whose pedagogies are based on his innovations.

In his own words, Garcia had originally intended his method of examining the vocal organs to “reduce [the bel canto method] to a more theoretical form and attach the results to the causes” (Garcia 1984, xvii); he certainly did not mean to reject it. Yet towards the end of his life, Garcia realized that through his teachings, he had unwittingly encouraged others to do just that. In a retraction published in the London Musical Herald in August of 1894, Garcia urges students and teachers to steer clear of scientific vocal methods and return to the principles of bel canto that his father before him had upheld:

Avoid all these modern theories and stick closely to Nature. . . . The actual things to do in producing tone are to breathe, to use the vocal cords, and to form the tone in the mouth. The singer has to do with nothing else. I began with other things; I used to direct the tone in the head, and do peculiar things with the breathing, but as the years passed by I discarded them as useless . . .

I condemn that which is spoken of nowadays, viz., the directing of the voice forward, or back and up . . . With regard to the position of the larynx, higher or lower, the singer need only follow natural emotional effects, and larynx, palate, and the rest will take care of themselves. As to breathing . . . Vibrations come from puffs of air. All control of the breath is lost the moment it is turned into vibrations, and the idea is absurd that a current of air can be thrown against the hard palate for one kind of tone, the soft palate for another, and reflected hither and thither (Reid 1950, 168).

The stunning reversal of attitude expressed here may be particularly distressing to the modern singer, who likely recognizes among the list of practices eschewed by Garcia many that are common among the vocal techniques taught today. “The directing of the voice forward” has been transformed into the doctrine of “forward placement,” also referred to as “singing in the masque”. The conscious control of larynx position is now widely taught, a consistently “low larynx” an often-advised ideal. Far from letting the palate “take care of [it]self,” the singer today is often painstakingly taught to raise and/or lower this part of the anatomy, and to maintain various intermediate positions as well. Finally, theories of “breath support,” “breath control,” and “singing on the breath” are as numerous as voice studios.

Garcia concludes his retraction by begging voice teachers not to “complicate [singing] with theories, but take an inspiration and notice Nature’s laws” (Reid 1950, 168). The spirit of this final conclusion is strikingly similar to that of his predecessor, Giovanni Bontempi, who had written precisely two hundred years earlier (1695):

The physiologists expound these differences, caused by position, passage, shape, air, expiration, and all the conditions of the larynx; based on the immutable foundation of incontestable reason. Our opinion is, that everything which is derived from experience has no need of reasoning . . . while they go on investigating nature in order to find it out with reason, we, without philosophizing further upon it, shall be content to understand it with the teaching of experience itself (Duey 1951, 127).

Our young singer turned voice teacher may ultimately agree with Bontempi and heed Garcia’s parting words to the musical world; she may not. However, either way, her teaching will almost certainly be more effective if she has taken the time to consider the schism in the field of vocal pedagogy and to determine her position on the fundamental issues that have divided and continue to separate the vocal scientists from the empiricists. If she chooses to teach her students about their vocal anatomy, does she know exactly why she believes this will be helpful to them? Or if, instead, she refuses to refer to the larynx, pharynx, or any other part of the vocal mechanism when directing students, can she articulate why she believes such directions to be inappropriate? To misquote the great Greek philosopher Socrates, the unexamined vocal pedagogy is not worth teaching.