Italian Sources of Singing Part 2

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Manuel Garcia also recommended that a singer lower his larynx (which automatically raises the soft palate) and expand his pharynx when he wants to produce a darker, richer vocal quality, create a more penetrating vibrant tone, or sing high notes at high volume in his chest voice. He called this darker, deeper voice the timbre sombree. He termed the brighter voice—with the larynx in its typically un-lowered position, when the pharynx is not fully expanded, and the soft palate relatively relaxed—the timbre clair: the clear voice. He also spoke about the importance of the pharynx to resonant singing: “When the larynx produces a tone, the pharynx takes possession of it as soon as it is emitted and modifies it.” (Memoire Sur La Voix Humaine, 1840).

Once again, in all these instances, we see Garcia promoting throat-centered, throat-based singing. Most famously, Garcia argued for an assertive form of vocal fold closure at the onset of each singing gesture, what he called the “coup de la glotte.” The idea of a singer initiating a tone by intentionally, quickly, and firmly closing the vocal folds is another idea that causes many a modern voice instructor’s blood pressure to rise uncontrollably. Despite the extent to which many of Garcia’s ideas conflict with modern teaching practices, it seems more than likely that they had their origin with the great Italian masters.

Some critics (e.g., Cornelius Reid), however, have argued that a number of Garcia’s ideas—e.g., lowering the larynx, throat-centered singing—were his own innovations, and that these ideas differed sharply from the classic Italian tradition of old. But this allegation is far-fetched since Garcia himself never made the claim that he has changed, in any radical way, the ideas of his teachers.

It’s more likely that Garcia simply articulated what his masters had taught with greater scientific precision, clarity, and comprehensiveness. At most, Garcia may have adjusted his teaching methods, to some extent, to address the natural—un-altered—male voice, which, during his time, began to dominate the operatic world. The Italian masters may not have explicitly admonished their students to “lower the larynx” as an intentional act, but they did emphasize keeping the throat cavity open and free of constriction. And how does a singer keep his throat open and free of constriction? By keeping the tongue out or the way (e.g., depressed or appropriately configured for each vowel sound) and by expanding and elongating the throat cavity to the proper dimensions—all for the sake of vowel sound creation, vowel coloring, and register changes. The simple anatomical fact is that these adjustments can only be accomplished by altering the position of the larynx—including, at times, lowering it—when the demands of the singing body and art required it. Garcia knew this and so did his teachers, but it was left to Garcia to be the first maestro to try to give scientific support and description to what he was taught, learned, and practiced as a teacher.

If this is true, then the modern voice coaches that promote relaxing the throat and mask singing are in a real pickle. They have not only lost their argument that relaxing the throat and mask singing are of Italian origin, they have also lost the romantic spin that they are the true descendants of the great Italian masters.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly

 

GARY CATONA

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