The Vault

Vocal Misuse

& the Significance of The Alexander Technique

Michael Dale


I have been sitting here terrified at the reaction I might get when I stand up. I remember being afraid to get out of the chair a long time ago, when I first started Alexander lessons at the Guildhall School of Music. I would like to talk to you (in ten minutes I have been told, not fifteen now) on building a voice—the 'bel canto' tradition and the Alexander Technique.

The 'bel canto' Tradition

Before I start, I would just like to define a couple of terms here. 'Bel canto' tradition—'bel canto' is an Italian phrase meaning 'beautiful singing' which has been traditionally used in the European pedagogical schools to describe the high level of vocal function which appears to have been prevalent in European capital cities in the 18th century and indeed into the 19th century. Since voice teachers and singers first began writing articles and manuscripts on voice, they've always been harking back about 40 or 50 years to a sort of mystic, golden age when everything was wonderful; and "we don't hear the sort of singing we used to hear". So, bearing in mind that we all tend to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, it would nevertheless appear that the singers in those days, in the eighteenth century, achieved a very high level of vocal function. We know this by looking at the music composed especially for them, which is in most parts extremely complex and often of an instrumental nature, and indeed by reading the contemporary critiques of connoisseurs and dilettante writers. For instance, I will give you a quote here about the singing of Farinelli—Carlo Broschi was an Italian castrato singer who sang under the name 'Farinelli', and a writer said "To sing for 30 seconds or more, while darting up and down a scale of two octaves, trilling, swelling and diminishing tones, both high and low, while meandering gracefully around the stage—and all this in one single breath—was but child's play for Farinelli".

Problems for Singers

Now, that just gives you some idea of the enormous accomplishment of some of these singers. The eternal cry of the singer today is that the masters (the great singing teachers of the 18th century) possessed some magical secret which has since been lost to us. Now the time spent in training singers in those days was very long—8, perhaps 9 or even 10 years of patient, careful work, preparing a singer for a major debut. Which brings me to the point of why I myself would accept an invitation to speak tonight, here. As you heard, I had some severe vocal problems myself for a number of years and managed to restore my voice. I now find myself in a position to help many many other speakers, singers, pop singers, rock singers, opera singers—both at the outset of their career and indeed well into their careers—to resolve and to perhaps gain a new approach to vocal function. Often I would recommend to these people that they would consult an Alexander Teacher. Now, the very very lucky ones will say "Oh yes, I've heard of that. Can you recommend someone?" and I recommend the Yellow Pages phone book and off they go. But a lot of people will say "What, what on earth is that?" So I would like perhaps to offer you something of the musical background and the singing background that some of these people come from, so that when they do turn up on your doorstep, which I hope will be in ever increasing numbers, you will be aware of the kind of language they use and the kind of problems and pains and difficulties they face.

The Laryngoscope and its Effects on Singing Methods

The eternal cry until 1854 was that vocal scientists and teachers had no real grasp on the mechanism of voice. They had to make do with larynxes excised from corpses which were brought to them by one means or another. But, in 1854, Manuel Garcia, who was the son of a family of extraordinary singers (both his sisters were perhaps as famous in their day as Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland)—Manuel Garcia, who had been trained in the 'bel canto' tradition, invented the laryngoscope (it was a singing teacher of course who invented the laryngoscope). So, for the first time, we could see the living vocal chords in action. Now teachers, and singers and speech scientists were very quick to enter the field at that time in the well-meaning hope that they may be able to shorten the training process and find a way through the minefield that was singing teaching at the time: and if indeed, it would be possible to bring under conscious control what had until then probably always been recognised as an unconscious act. So much so, that by the 1920's, the whole language of vocal pedagogy was changing—we have the Polish tenor, Jean de Reszke, who was a sort of Pavarotti of his day—the great predecessor of the great Carusso—saying to his students and to the world at large "I think the whole question of the art of singing is a matter of the nose". Gertrude Ockleford, writing in England at about the same time, said quite seriously: "High tones can only be obtained by arching the soft palate, and drawing the pillars together, high up behind the eyebrows".

Now, you try that and see how well you sing. See what happens. Gradually we find the terms like 'support', 'breath control', 'placement' and 'focus' defining the boundaries of the usage of the art of voice production of the time. One school of singing advises: "supporting the tone by drawing the abdomen firmly in"; another advises: "pushing the abdomen firmly out". One advises: "placing the voice (that's an interesting concept which perhaps we'll talk about later) ...high in the head"; another advises: "placing the voice low down in the chest, the abdomen, the belly, collarbone"—it doesn't really matter—it's all illusory anyway. In short, we've got almost as many methods as there are teachers and we hear phrases in the literature of the time "I am being trained as a mezzo soprano; I am being trained as a baritone; I'm being trained as high coloraturo soprano; I'm going to be the next Joan Sutherland"—that sort of thing, creeping into usage among singers. We also hear "make that tone brighter darling; make it a richer quality; aim for a more opulent tone" constantly. I myself was taught by my first teacher at the Guildhall School of Music to "raise my cheeks, breathe low down into my back, pull in my tummy, focus the sound on my top teeth, raise the back of my tongue slightly, imagine a strong Italian accent—now sing". If you do that, you get something like this......(demonstrating a strident tone).

It's about as uncomfortable to do as it is to listen to.

The Old Masters and their Precepts

Now, I postulate that the old masters indeed, in their writings, left a very precise record of their method of instruction for us—if we have the ears and the eyes to grasp it today. And this is where I think the work of Alexander was so valuable—if you just firmly attach your Alexander Teacher heads and listen to the following quotations from singers and teachers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Listen to them with Alexander ears. Now, most of these I've translated myself, so forgive me if the English is a bit squiffy.

Cacchini, writing about the year 1600 said: "I maintain that the most important foundation for good singing is how to start the note."

Remember that, how to start the note—singers call it the 'attack'.

Crescentini—who was a castrato of enormous popularity—Handel wrote a lot of beautiful music for him—said: "Singing consists surely of freedom about the neck."

Pier Francesco Tosi, in the first edition of his book, Observations on the Florid Song which was published in Bologna in 1723, had a lot to say. He was a well travelled chap who wrote one of the earliest major works on vocal techniques at the time. He said:

Always sing standing with a supple grace, that the vocal instrument may have all its organisation free. Let the master rigorously correct all grimaces and tricks of the head, of the body, and particularly of the mouth. And let the singer utter the 'ah' purely, or else he's not got out of his first lesson.

About one hundred years later, one Lamperti, who was a legendary voice professor in Italy, is quoted by his equally famous student, William Shakespeare (a different William Shakespeare) as saying: "The condition of the tongue and throat, during singing, should be as while whispering 'ah'. The art of starting a note directly on pitch is the result of a mental control which can readily be acquired by any student who realises the unconsciousness of the throat and tongue."

I take that to mean, he was avoiding conscious control of the throat and tongue.

"At the moment of singing (and this is a dictum which occurs time and time and time and time again in manuscripts and writings from the period) pause, stop and have the mind direct a wave of freedom through the throat."

Manuel Garcia, (and this is where I come to voice building in the 'bel canto tradition) who invented the laryngoscope, said: "The voice in its natural state, as a rule, is rough, uneven and of limited compass, but well directed study will remedy this situation."

Jenny Lind was interesting—the Swedish nightingale—have you all heard of Jenny Lind? Anyone heard of Jenny Lind? Toured America very successfully... [lots of nodding going on]. Jenny Lind, by the age of 21, through perhaps a faulty technique and probably singing much too big roles too soon, had destroyed what voice she had so she took herself to Paris for an interview with the great Manuel Garcia and tried to sing for him and couldn't get beyond, I think, about six bars of music before her voice broke. She burst into tears and he said: "My dear Madame Lind, I cannot train your voice—you have no voice left to train." So she prevailed upon him and he advised utter silence for six weeks and then a course of study with him, which lasted a little over a year, and at the end of it she became the most famous and successful singer in the world, with a remarkable voice for whom many important composers composed very interesting music: from the kind of music they wrote for her, we can see the sort of singer she must have been.

Riccardo Daviesi—another castrato—who was the Director of Music in the Sistine Chapel around about the 1870's, said: "One dictum only for building a voice and singing correctly—take breath silently, pause, think, then sing."

Dame Nellie Melba—gorgeous Dame Nellie—from Australia: "It's very easy to sing well and very difficult to sing badly." Think about that. "Don't make a do of singing, never try to sing, instead, take your breath, pause for some mental preparation and then just allow your voice. In a short time you will be astonished at how easily notes you thought difficult will respond." Does this sound familiar? Yes, I thought it might.

The Success of the 'bel canto' Tradition

Enshrined in these statements I believe is the key to the success of the 'bel canto' teachers in building great voices and in preserving them into old age and in rehabilitating damaged voices. In all of these statements not one single word is uttered regarding the tone of the voice as an end product. There is no 'end-gaining' going on here. Instead, we have the attention directed to the 'means whereby', the subtle grace, the position of the mouth, avoiding grimaces, pausing for a moment, applying some thought before singing. In the instruction; "breathe, pause and sing", we are surely dealing with an inhibitory process, designed to block old habits and replace them with a new set of mental directions. As I said, I postulate very firmly in relation to good vocal tone and usage that Alexander's work validates and is validated by the evidence of the practices as applied to singing by the masters of the 'bel canto' era.

Breathing and Singing

In this wonderful book The Alexander Technique: The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander/ selected by Edward Maisel, there is an excellent chapter on breathing. I would urge you to read it and substitute the word singer or singing for breathing: "We say that a person is a bad singer, although he sings imperfectly but we must remember that this so called bad singing is only a symptom and not a primary cause of his malcondition for the standard of singing depends upon the standard of general co-ordinated use of the psycho-physical mechanisms." It is wonderful. It goes on and on. I recommend you read it.

My Remedial Work

In my studio I work firmly with the principle that each one of us possesses a voice which is a co-ordinated instrument. Most of the parts of the voice are primarily used for other things—the tongue is used for swallowing; the vocal chords keep air in the lungs—if we need to lift up something heavy or stop foreign bodies entering the lungs; if we fall in the river or almost choke on a piece of food. But, when a gifted singer has a strong desire to sing, the body will co-ordinate these parts for us as an instrument of expression. Consequently, while I allow that not everyone can become a great singer because, of course, there are considerations of theatricality, musicianship, taste, the urge in the first place, I do feel very strongly that everyone can sing decently. And so I never turn anyone away who wants to sing. I can claim success in voice building. I have a number of students who came to me and said: "Hey, I'm a viola player, I'm a fiddle player—I want to sing". They sing something and not much voice comes out, but well directed study (as Garcia said) does the trick. The voice is drawn out, the voice is built.

Much more importantly, however, I think, is the observable fact that these principles of tone production and of 'use of the self' will not only build useable voices, but in fact restore to health those that have been damaged by misuse. That's a subject for perhaps an entire evening in itself. While an instrumentalist who fails to co-ordinate himself appropriately, may never get the best out of his instrument, he certainly won't harm it, unfortunately it is possible for singers singing unwisely to cause themselves problems which can shorten their career, or indeed, render the voice hoarse or wobbly or many, many other things.

In undertaking remedial work, there is a word of warning—problems relating to vocal misuse may not show up for years, by which time, a singer—particularly a gifted singer—will have established a vocal identity (rather like the colour of your eyes, the colour of your hair). It's a highly personal thing, and attempts to change the co-ordination of the instrument can meet with fierce, unconscious resistance—not always unconscious—people throw things at me in my studio. Remember Alexander's story of the little girl who was deformed. He laid her on the table and worked on her and after half an hour she was in a much more acceptable position and she cried: "Mummy, mummy, he's pulled me out of shape"? It's that sort of thing. Obviously the psychology of dealing with this kind of thing is outside the scope of my talk but when I've seen instrumentalists overcome with joy at a more appropriate co-ordination of themselves in relationship to their instrument, I've never seen them fall apart. But, when a singer sings a free tone for the first time in years and years and years, with it goes the emotional blockage and out will come an enormous amount of distress, which is something to be aware of. I see the title for this Congress is "The Meaning of Change". In undertaking remedial work, I would venture that the meaning of change would be vulnerability and insecurity for such singers.

I must finish now. Thank you very, very much for listening.

  Bookmark and Share