Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When “Science” Defeats True Singing: “Parts... Nothing More”

Scientifically based medicine (the kind of medicine that your family M.D. practices) was a great benefit to mankind, bringing new technologies and the ability to overcome many terrible diseases and other health problems, but it also tended to have an unforseen effect on the way that people generally understand what it means to be human.

Much of the “new science” of medicine developed from microscopic observations of pathogens and from the study of dissected human corpses. Where earlier health practices were holistic, treating the whole person as a whole person, scientifically based medicine tended to isolate different pieces of a person and to treat just the parts of the person that seemed to be directly involved in the health problem. The resulting school of thought gradually introduced an idea that human beings could be understood as “parts, nothing more,” as one of the doctors in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein aptly remarked.

As time went on the world of singing also became infected with the concept of treating a person as “parts, nothing more.” Understandably, singing practitioners were interested to learn all they could about the function of the voice, the vocal cords, the vocal resonators and the breath and the new technologies in scientific medicine opened up a wealth of information that hadn’t been available before. But the sad fact is that some very inferior “teachers” began to build up a following for themselves by using the new physiological data to overshadow and replace the true work and art of singing which the great singers had always practiced.

Manuel Garcia II is regarded as one of the greatest singing teachers of all time, a place in history which he rightly deserves. He is also credited with having invented the first laryngoscope during the 1800's, which for the first time made it possible to actually observe the vocal cords in a living person. This technology introduced singers to new and very valuable treasures of knowledge. But unfortunately that knowledge was misused over time by certain “teachers” who failed to understand the singer as a whole person and fail to treat singing as art, not athleticism. Manuel Garcia II lived to the ripe old age of 101, and in all his years he never compromised the precept that artistry (not physical exercise) is what singing is all about:

Most of the great singing teachers say that the less you know about the physiology of signing the better. Santley wrote (in The Art of Singing): ‘Manuel Garcia is held up as the pioneer of scientific teachers of singing. He was– but he taught singing, not surgery! I was a pupil of his in 1858, and a friend of his while he lived [to 1906], and in all the conversation I had with him I never heard him say a word about larynx or pharynx, glottis, or other organ used in the production and emission of the voice.”
(from page 956 of Percy Scholes’ The Oxford Companion to Music, Tenth Edition, emphasis added)

Despite the great example of singing teachers like Garcia who faithfully upheld the authentic art of singing, the music industry continued to put pressure on singing performers to force and push their voices. Singers were called upon to produce sounds with blasting volumes which added nothing to the expressiveness of the song but only offered empty notes and tones and unnatural embellishments. They were challenged to unnaturally stretch their voices to sing at a pitch level far too high or too low for their true voices. The great Italian composer Rossini described such singing as “the squawk of a capon having its throat cut.” (In case you didn’t know, a capon is a castrated domesticated male bird fattened for eating.)

No comments: