Feb 22 2011

Article in Journal of the Jussi Björling Society

I had an article published in the recent Journal of the Jussi Björling Society-USA. It can be read at the website.


It discusses the major influences in the development of the tenor Jussi Björling.

  1. A very fine article, Michael. I certainly found it rather eye-opening, and it is definitely interesting to try and gauge the influence that Joseph Hislop had on one of history’s finest singers (esp. since Hislop is one of the important figures in the development of the Swedish/Italian lineage).
    Another thought: what of these “recollections” of Allan Lindquest? Or his lesson recordings, for that matter? Are they available anywhere?

  2. Michael –

    Congrats on this. I read the whole article and found it fascinating. In the biography on Bjorling, “Jussi,” written by his wife Anna-Lisa, the relationship with Hislop was also hinted at. It was rather understated for those of us who want to know all immediately, but some of the quotes from Hislop are revealing. “…the following summer he lived with me in Brottkarr. To instruct Jussi was like sprinkling water on a blotter – everything was soaked up immediately. He got as much out of one single lesson as an average singer after six months instruction…” (May the same be said of me in my studies with you!) But I digress…if Jussi lived with Hislop for a summer, I think it is no mere speculation to say that his influence on Jussi was critical, if not seminal. Anna-Lisa Bjorling herself admits, “It wasn’t Forsell, a baritone, who taught him the highest notes of his range – C, C-sharp, and D – it was Joseph Hislop.”

    It’s a fascinating paper that I will save for my own records. It is truly a joy to read this all in one place…well done sir.

  3. One other thing…I think that Jussi’s technique was fine even before Hislop IF he was going to be singing only occasionally or perhaps only less demanding repertoire. But if, as was obvious, Bjorling wished to ascend the heights of the operatic world, then perfection and further stretching of the voice was needed.

    After all, at Brottkarr, did Jussi and Hislop merely play checkers for the whole summer?

  4. Thank you, Joseph. The Lindquest information is from recordings of an interview and lessons. They are from a private collection and I am not at liberty to make them available. Sorry.

  5. Perfectly understandable, Michael, and I respect that such information is not available for disclosure.
    Concerning the article, however, I would like to comment on what you said about Bjoerling being able to “just sing”. Seeing how he was ingrained with good training by his father from his young age, it only makes sense that he was able to do what you have mentioned many times – that is, “instinctively produce a pitch from the larynx” in a natural fashion without having to think too much about making sure that such-and-such a coordination is in place. Similarly to those untrained talented singers who sing entirely out of compulsion, except using optimal function.
    Also, about your distinction between technique and function, it makes perfect sense to me now (at least, as far as my own interpretation of that comparison goes). Technique, to me, seems subjective. There are many different “methods” and “techniques” out there geared to different kinds of singers, from classical to musical theater to contemporary to rock singers. Many of these training pipelines have helped people develop capable and usable voices. The main factor that determines whether these methods have validity (and I use that term cautiously) is whether or not they are based on natural function. The name and the approach don’t matter as long as proper function is the end result. For instance, I could be very proficient in the Joseph Method (yes, I just made that up), but my function could be very poor if said method is not based off of how the body is meant to behave.
    This goes back to the stereotype that “classical training makes you sound like an opera singer”. Many of these non-classical “sing-every-style” methods have sprung up because people have that impression, so you’ll have one person studying “classical technique” and another studying “pop/rock technique”. This is probably because much of the “classical training” you find these days has drifted away from natural singing and does indeed limit the singer’s style. I think that people need to understand that if a technique is based off good function, then it doesn’t matter if it’s called Speech Level Singing or the Powell Method or classical training, it will still help you to accomplish your objectives once you have built the voice on solid ground.
    But then we risk getting into a discussion of just how well these offshoot methods do at adhering to good function or if the approaches are indeed “complete”. That’s a whole different topic altogether.

  6. Michael, very interesting article. I can assure you all singers (excepting a very few) learn from many teachers. Sometimes they are even people we sing with, and we learn through their examples. Even if a singer doesn’t spend years with a teacher, if they learn something valuable that adds security to their way of doing things, they have been taught. One can never know exactly how much influence any teacher had on any singer, unless a singer basically tells you “teacher X taught me everything I know.” (and even then, singers modify what they learned to fit their situation in singing, and the requirements that one NEVER learns in the singing studio but the realities of performing thrust at you) For myself, I had official teachers who taught me and laid a foundation for me, and others whom I worked with when dealing with various repertoire (as not all music is approached the same way, even if the body is working similarly, what you do may not be exactly the same; basically one doesn’t sing Mozart the same way you sing Wagner, even though function remains the same). They were all teachers.

    But a teacher NEVER creates a great singer. The student had a god-given gift and only received direction from the teacher. If a teacher could create greatness, then any Tom, Dick, Harry, Joan, or Cynthia would be easily taught to be great and achieve it. And we know from watching and listening, that simply doesn’t happen. (plus we also know that teachers audition their students, and very few are accepted who don’t already show promise or a solid voice of quality to begin with) Jussi was blessed with a great voice, he had a wonderful foundation laid by his father (also a good singer). He would have achieve greatness anyway. Hislop helped him achieve it perhaps quicker, or refined it better. One cannot really say unless one does a very indepth study of the improvements of sound and function between how he sounded before meeting Hislop and after (Michael, that is something you most likely are able to do, as you have materials most of us don’t have access to). But that is my opinion: great voices are gifts, they are not created by the understanding of men. Teachers may help them perfect their gift, but they don’t create it. And no scientific study of voice has ever produced a great singer. It has only helped people understand the functions of the body a tiny bit better, but has never added one thing to the quality of good singing or created a great singer.

    Great article. I am glad you had it published.

    Also, just an after-thought: METHOD is what someone creates by which to teach, quite subjective, and very much based on their own feelings about something (and ALL teachers, no matter who they are, have a method that is theirs, whether based on sound principles or not, it is how they see things and how they interpret what is happening). BALANCED FUNCTION is the goal we are all striving to achieve (and even Jussi didn’t always sing perfectly in this reqard, but like any singer, we all strive to do it as often as is possible) TECHNIQUE is the physical means by which we train the body to maintain balance under extremely stressful situations and while enduring the extreme stress of singing. Techique is the means by which we obtain and maintain balanced funtion. Any explanation that helps us understand HOW to create balanced function in our bodies is a TECHNIQUE. One doesn’t just say “sing with support” rather one is taught ways of helping sing with a supported body connected sound. Those ways are technique. They are the tools used to achieve a certain end. One doesn’t just tell a student “sing with proper closure of the vocal folds” one actually teaches ways by which this can be achieved. That is TECHNIQUE. And why do teachers do these things? Because one cannot see what the body is doing. We as singers have no clue what our throats are actually doing while we sing (not even when we have scopes put down our throats, for those scopes actually impede the balanced function to a degree). We can only assume. As a result we all know what we are supposed to be doing, what the body must be doing to make singing easy without tension, yet, full enough to be heard at all times and to carry out to the most distant corners of the theatre. It is through technique we learn to achieve and monitor our performance and keep things in balance. We always hear about how singers must go by feeling not sound (and I fully agree with that), but all that feeling is achieved by the things we are taught to do to keep things balanced. And all of that is technique. The only time technique is not good is when it is demanding we do something with the body that makes us strain in our singing, and that is simply a bad technique in that area or that specific thing.

    Simply put: technique trains the body to work at optimum balance while under extreme pressuer of performing. It is that understanding that a singer falls back on when they are forced to sing when ill, or in bad voice, or overly tired. All those conditions will instently make a singer push out too much air, raise the larynx too high, and a whole host of things that will totally destroy balanced function. It is in those circumstances we we must fall back on our technque to maintain a balanced fuction or we will lose our voices (Michael, I don’t write this for you, but as a remark to one of you commenters as it is evident they don’t see how things all fit together; don’t be offended).

    The act of singing on an operatic stage takes far more physical strength than most people understand. And believe me, until you actually do it, you haven’t a clue what it takes. It isn’t like singing n the bathroom, or singing in a small studio room where everything is reflected back to you and you THINK you sound so great and impressive. Teachers who have never actually worked in studio with real operatic singers (ones who are singing out there all the time, whose voices really are huge enough to be heard over orchestra, chorus, and other soloists) really have no clue just what those voices sound like close up. Nor do they know how they sound at a distance in comparision. Recordings are nice for evaluating sound whether good or bad, but they cannot tell you anything about the size, ring, or quality of the voice close up or on stage. I have gone to many studios to listen to the next “great Otello” only to hear someone whose voice is so small it couldn’t hardly be able to sing in the operatic chorus. And when put on a real stage, simply cannot even project beyond the footlights, let alone into the orchestra pit. And a singer must be heard far beyond that point. So the goal is not “easy singing” like so many think, which doesn’t create enough foundational strength behind the sound. Rather it is singing easily when required to sing with that intense foundation of strength. Just the amount of strength needed can and often does cause singers to sing out of balance just to be heard over a huge orchestra (some theatres rob you of your sensations, and you really feel there is no sound at all coming from you, nor do you hear your sound sent back to you in any way; and for ALL SINGERS this is a shocking experience, even when you know your voice is large enough to sing without difficulty). The solid technique, which even Jussi talked about, and it is technique he learned from Hislop (how to sing those high notes; they were not achieved simply through imaginary fantasies, they were sung by very specific means) helped him maintain balanced function while singing in such a stressful situation. Bjorling’s voice was not heroic in sound, but it carried well. He was not the powerful voice of say a Melchior, nor could he have sustained those roles. Nor did his training provide him with the ability to sing very florid music. His trill was at times questionable. He could never have sung Verdi and turned around and sung Rossini or even some Bellini operas. But he wisely sang what suited him. And that is part of being great: learning to sing what you are good at, and ignoring those things you simply can’t do.

    Bjorling would not teach because he knew full well he could do what was needed, but he could not explain HOW to do it to someone else in such a way that it would help them achieve the final results. Many singers can sing extremely well, but cannot explain what they do at all.
    Many are like blotters and can instantly understand everything as it relates to the functioning of their own bodies, but have no clue how to articulate that to anyone else. Not everyone has that gift. Even teaching is a gift, and not everyone can do it, no matter how much they have been taught. Singing is a gift, and teaching is a gift.

    I do wish, like everyone else wishes, you could provide transcripts of the lessons that are on tape where Bjorling is talked about, as well as the techique he used to attain his balanced function. But I know you don’t own them, so perhaps that is not possible.

    Great article. I hope you are able to write more of them. I don’t worship Jussi Bjorling as you do (I much prefer Kirsten Flagstad, but I think our voice ranges may play a part in that), but I DO fully appreciate his abilities, his sound, his technique (and yes, he had one), and what he had to offer music in his time. There will never be another like him. But then again, I wouldn’t want there to be another like him, as that would destroy what uniqueness he had to give. Let there be many excellent singers who like him sing well, but let them be as unique to themselves as he was to himself.

  7. Brian, your comment is insightful; the one about Jussi’s technique being there even before he went to Hislop. Actually, if you look at the history of voice teachers, the really famous ones, you will find that most of their students were well on their way LONG before they were taught by that famous teacher. Some, like Emma Calve, were taught by famous teachers (in her case Matilde Marchesi) and would later say they learned NOTHING from that teacher worth keeping. Often, like in the case of Calve, the things Marchesi wanted her to do would have made her a very accurate singer, but one completely devoid of dramatic truth, which is what Calve constantly sought (her idle was not another singer but a very famous actress of her time).

    Some like Lillian Nordica were blessed with super voices that were already large, full, and able, but limited in range, and the teacher opened up the door that released that range. But the basic voice was already there. One can see that because often the singer only studied with that teacher only a few months before “taking the world by storm.”

    Even the great Kirsten Flagstad was singing, and had been singing with much success (in the lighter repertoire) and was going to retire before she met Bratt. He heard her fault, which was not closing her vocal chords completely. He corrected her fault, and even she said her voice grew twice its size. He also perfected her support, and she attests to the fact that she grew several centimeters in size through the waist and solar plexus area (to the point she popped all her seams), but didn’t gain weight. Obviously, his training required a very strong use of support muscles she had not been using until then.

    But the voice was there. The potential was there. She could and did sing in the theatre and was obviously heard (or they would have never hired her).

    I have wondered sometimes, as we consider what she gained (and she did become the greatest Wagner singer of her time), what did she lose? Her earlier repertoire allowed her to sing with more agility and more dynamics, or variation in dynamics. Her end result was the great voice we all love. But it was heavier. It was slower and the ability to really move the voice with agility wasn’t there anymore. She had no real trill (which is needed for Die Walkure, and actually it is a very LONG trill over several measures). The Scatto of the voice was extremely slow (scatto is how long it takes the voice after hitting a note to fully come into its own with full volume and focus; some voices are extremely quick in this regard — Sutherland is an example — some slow; if a voice is too slow in achieving its full weight, which is also used even when singing piano, so it is not a loudness issue, small notes often are missed, even if sung, they simply do not carry out to the audience and become part of the whole; with Flagstad, many such notes, and Wagner requires them — turns, grace notes, etc — simply don’t sound; in recordings you can get the hint of them, but in live performances they often completely disappear). It seems in some ways she made a trade off. She gave us what she had, or some of it, and became who she ultimately became. But why didn’t her training marry the different aspects? Why didn’t she learn all the good she did from studying with Bratt, and still keep the greater flexibility and agiliy she once had? Why didn’t Bratt keep what was good and add to it? Was all that the tastes of the times? At that time, the real bel canto operas as we know them were not being sung. A few women with small coloratura voices sang florid music, but most singers didn’t. Most men couldn’t sing it. Jussi Bjorling was no exception here. He couldn’t sing what we now call the “bel canto” operas, at least not as they were written in the score, even if he could sing the chopped up versions sometimes done in his day. Wagner was the rage, especially in the US, along with Verdi and Puccini. None of that music really requires much in the way of florid singing. Even Lucia was so cut that no singer other than Lucia required any florid ability at all.

    There were a number of great Wagner singers of that day with techniques just as balanced as Flagstad, and who became equally famous: Marjorie Lawrence and Helen Traubel come instantly to mind. None of those singers sang Wagner’s trills either.

    That has left me with another question: the technique taught may have been balanced, but was it complete? That is far outside your comment, but it is something I have often wondered. These singers really were limited to a rather small repertoire.

    It was because of this that when Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland came around that the world took notice. Here were two voices very well capable of singing the powerful strains of Wagner (and we know Callas actually did, even while singing Puritani) but they also had the unbelievable ability to sing the decorative bel canto repertoire. One could see that one didn’t have to have the “school of the Wagner singing” and the “school of the coloratura singer.”

    But I find your point interesting, for every great singer already did have a huge amount of their abilities well in place long before they found their fabled teacher. Now having said that, I am by no means belittling the contribution of that teacher. When a singer goes from super good to internationally stupendous after working with a teacher, well, there must have been something gained.

    All the great collegues I have sung with over the last 40 years ALL sang well long before they studied singing. Even if they came to opera late (like having seen their very first opera when they were 20), there was a core, a kernal of something, already there. They had a voice. It had quality. It was pleasing to listen to. They had musicality (which actually cannot be taught; it is how people feel internally the rhythms of the music, which goes far deeper than counting time). It had that something that set it apart as an operatic voice, or one that could and would sing opera as apposed to anything else. They knew their voices were far different from other kids when they were kids (often they DIDN’T have those breathy child voices we associate with children; they often sounded “too adult”). They knew they loved to sing, but not just any type of music (even though most loved singing nearly all the music they heard) but music that really had a sort of “dramatic flare.” They knew that their voices fit something other than the top 10 songs on the charts.

    Then, when they discovered opera, things just fit into place, and they knew their voices were that type of sound, that type of quality.

    Then, the work began and they studied, they learned technique and how to keep things balanced while performing. They learned languages. They learned other aspects of music. But their voices were there. Often even in their entire ranges.

    Some teachers (and many are like this) left what worked alone and simply concentrated on working out what was not perfect at that time. And then came great debutes.

    With time, though, some singers have found that singing has lost something. It isn’t fun. It isn’t fulfilling. Even if the voice shows no wear and is not giving them any trouble at all, they feel that life has lost its purpose. They want more. Though it is never said, I have often wondered if that is not why Flagstad sought out Bratt. After all, she was singing successfully. But she found another diminsion to her voice, and she really took off.

    I have witnessed that with many singers. I have seen many singers ready to retire even though in perfect voice. Singing isn’t fun, and they feel trapped into a set repertoire that no longer suits them vocally, mentally, or tempermentally. They want something else.

    I have witnessed such singers, still singing, go to study with various teachers, and suddenly they blow you away. The voice is no lovelier than it it was. It is has no real difference that you notice. But it suddenly is so much more exciting. The singer is so much more engaged in what they are doing. The voice seems freer, even though it never sounded restricted before. I can’t explain it.

    I have seen such singers become “overnight sensations.” We all knew that they had sung for over 10 years, and sung well in all the major houses long before that. But the training, the new teachings (whatever it was, few will tell you what they actually learned, or that they studied at all) brought out something that was not there before. It brought out some hidden gold.

    When I look at that, that makes me also think: does it matter if the singer was a fully developed and experienced artist before they studied with that person? I don’t think it does, for the end results are so different from what came before (no matter how great what came before was) that everyone is left wondering and in awe of this “new singer.” Sometimes it doesn’t take that long to make the transformation either.

    So, even though Bjorling and Flagstad were excellent singers before they studied with their respective teachers, it is what they became afterward that catches our attention now. What they did before has been totally forgotten. In my view, they finally became the gift they were supposed to be. They finally fully bloomed into their unique voices with which they were meant to touch our hearts. In a very real sense, it was at that point they were “born” artistically.

    It is just a thought I have on this issue.

  8. @Beatrice…Well, that comment that Calve hadn’t learned anything with Marchesi appeared quite a few times among her students statements, at least how much I’ve read. I believe Marchesi had the best influence on those who let’s say had decently functioning voices already. And she was good, as she made you literary sing everything. If you look at her book of those hundreds of vocalises, you can’t really find much what will teach you anything. But you can conclude that there is neither one area of voice which was left untrained, obscure, unclear. She made her students sing in every possible corner of their ranges, in all possible combinations. I would say if you can sing all of Marchesi’s progressive vocalises properly, you most probably can sing really well and can’t find any surprises even among the most complex vocal literature. I’m sure quite a few modern singers could make much use of her book. But it’s probably also a reason why many were dissatisfied with the results they got in her school (or similar schools), so they seeked a method of teaching more rooted in the old bel canto, and were finally happy with teachers you can track back to Lamperti, castrati and such, which improved their function. I think the legendary Anna Schoen-Renee had this problem with Marchesi, before she went to Viardot-Garcia to study. It’s when she finally found the teacher she was seeking.

    It’s a difference you can find today as well…I saw it on my own example. I had quite a few unsatisfactory experiences with voice teachers myself. My voice had no natural placement after it changed during puberty, except in the very highest range which encompas the female voice. (I’m a male) When I was a child I would sing without problems. I remember singing an operatic piece when I was 5-6 in the class without even thinking and the teacher telling me to be more silent. I didn’t even know what opera was to be honest. It would go endlessly high, I sang soprano in church as a child. After my voice changed and dropped I just didn’t know how to get the same tone naturally. And I could continue singing in a countertenor like sound to which I could relate to from my past voice, yet I couldn’t apply this freedom and ring to my overall voice, and still can’t completely.

    When I would go to a teacher, they would just make me sing simple scales which would with time get more complex and I would after months of such teaching end up singing quite complex coloratura scales like the triola section from queen of teh night in various keys and trills (I can hold them forever on various intervals, even on high C) in the range which was good even before lessons, without actually being able to sing and being more lost then I was before the lessons concerning the other parts of my voice.

    It’s because none of those teachers taught the function of the voice. I would be able to go faster trough my range and things like that, but not sing much more free, especially trough those parts of the range which were for me problematic. This teaching didn’t fix them.

    Now, understanding what Michael talks about here on the site, I can actually recognize some leftovers of bel canto principles in some of the exercises some teachers have done with me. But I am 100% sure, none of them know that nor understand what these exercises do, but from experience they know there is something about them that works in such cases. Even in their trough time modified variations. (You can actually recognize which past teacher did what to the original exercise to modify it…) It’s a sort of blind teaching, don’t know how to describe this. They are wandering in dark with them. But they lack understanding of exercises they perform with students.

    I believe that for me, a teacher who teaches function of the voice would be a good teacher. As that’s the element I’m missing mostly. I don’t need someone to bring me trough scales, I am quite aware of all the parts of my range in all possible combinations. If I was functionally ok, I could sing Marchesi’s scales myself with no problem.

    For someone else, interestingly, it’s exactly what they need. I know some who by nature have perfectly placed voices in their whole range and their body responds perfectly to everything they do, they simply can’t sing anything with wrong function, but their voice is not conditioned so to say. They could use a few lessons with someone who’ll just basically make sure they have some knowledge on the function they have naturally. But what they need is a scales teacher which will just make them go trough all of the scales you can find, and in the process just make sure they don’t disrupt the function.

    I really think it comes down to the fact that a teacher first needs to make sure that the student has good function. And then make sure, what is really equally important after, that the voice is troughly worked out. I have to say that I’ve heard quite a few voices which have great function, but they are totally out of practise we could say. Some which even came out of Swedish-Italian teaching.

    In fact, even the most famous and virtuosic singers today don’t have the voice worked out to the level Marchesi’s students had. It’s also partially sometimes due to the fact that they don’t have optimal function, but it’s not neccessarily the rason. The opposite can also be found…

    What we find today (at least from my personal observation) is something in between, teachers usually pick (not by their own choice, but because of the amount of their understanding or maybe the lack of it) a position somewhere in between that. The triangle made of extremes of “function teacher”, extreme of “scales teacher” and extreme of “artist teacher” (these are the worst for me, for them everything is art, scales are art, every note is art, if you need to be incorrect with function, do it, but it’s art, so it’s ok…). And they continue a teaching career with it. And then they choose students with which they know that their method works, even though they don’t know why it works nor what would work, what is actually quite schocking.

    But the fact is that a really good teacher will be able to bring progress in any kind of student as he’ll recognize what of these extremes the student needs, and in which sequence to bring result, of course persuming the student is a normal person willing to learn and isn’t an ego or something like that. Or at least, he will know to what kind of teacher to send him if he finds himself unable to teach the student what he needs. Even though, then it’s a question why they are doing what they are, as I’m absolutely irritated by the fact that someone has a Master degree from voice pedagogy and has a part of his profession which he simply doesn’t know. Something like that nowadays happens only in the field of singing…It’s why students wander from one to the other loosing tons of money and why even the best modern singers don’t come close to good singing of the past. Before you had these extreme teachers so if one didn’t work you would go to the other and it could be ok. Today, as time went by and we got further and further away from these clear concepts, there are all sorts of mixes, and in every teacher you can find a bit which helps and a ton of things which might ruin you.

    Comming to this topic…I suppose Björling’s teaching with Hislop had much influence on him. As a person who opened your upper range, most probably taught you something very important about your voice. Maybe not even an exercise, but what Björling needed was a mental concept. Sometimes that can be enough to make progress with singing. And of course when you manage to open the upper range, the rest of the voice benefits too. It would be interesting to know in what way has Björling’s voice changed exactly. But I do know that he is the only tenor I heard who was able to sing with this laser like quality and shine, at least how much I hear from records, without the feeling of hollowness, what is the reason why I’m not that crazy for tenor singing. There are probably some more which have a similar quality, but I don’t think neither one came close to it in the same amount. I would really be interested to hear him before he became what he did to hear if it is something he had from nature.

    On a side note…I have never been a great fan of Flagstad, for the exact reasons Beatrice described in her post. I admired somehow the quality of her tone and found it interesting, though I didn’t know why. And if I’m in a melancholic mood, I sometimes listen to her singing. But found her type of voice very unprecise, slow and unstable. I’m a sort of precision freak when it comes to singing. It’s why I find old recordings of Marchesi’s students extremely pleasing. They are spot on and stable, no wobble, no insecurity. Just pure singing. I like Lotte Lehmann for this too, even though she is a different voice which came only later on. It is interesting but also weird, that there is a clip of Julie Andrews (yes, Julie Andrews) singing a comic piece of Wagner’s Brünhilde and a part of “Ho jo to ho” on youtube. While of course Andrews doesn’t have the voice nor the function to sing this whole role, it served the purpose for her show, it is extremely interesting that the precision and easiness with which she sings that piece (a quality of most of her musical work) is exactly what makes for me this short performance better than any performance of Flagstad I ever heard in the same piece. Or most other Wagnerian singers for that matter. If one had the tone of Flagstad, and the precision and diction one hears in this short clip of Andrews, it would probably be the first Wagner performance on record that I like. There are also recordings of Lilli Lehmann singing Wagner (the only singer who actually worked with Wagner) with same qualities. Lotte Lehmann’s Wagner is also something completely different one hears today. And judging by that, I really wonder what Wagner would have taught of Flagstad’s singing had he heard her live doing his operas.

  9. Thanks to Bea and Dinko for your contributions.

    Joseph, congratulations. Your description shows me you are deepening your understanding. This discussion reveals an example of the challenge we are faced with. All of these terms are thrown out there, do we really know what they mean? Each of us might have a different way of defining a term. We are each using the same term. But are we really talking about the same thing?

    For the record, the way I define “technique” is that it is what we try to do when we sing. “Function” is what actually happens. Ideally our technique (what we conceptualize to do when we sing) matches the function of our instrument as nature designed it. With very little observation we can notice that much of the “technique” out there doesn’t satisfy that criteria. That is why I emphasize the things I do.

    As a side-note to this, naming a technique doesn’t make it true. Alexander technique, Speech-Level Singing, Swedish-Italian School. None of these will lead you to the truth. The truth of anything, but in this case singing, lies right there where you are. You don’t need to go anywhere to find it. We just don’t see it because we don’t know what it looks like. So we look to others to tell us. Then we don’t see it because we are looking for the words they told us and not the actual thing the word represents.

    Let’s forget all of these words that cause so many arguments and focus on the actual things. Two people use the same word but mean different things. Or they use two different terms but are referring to the same thing. The words don’t matter.

    Someone studies SLS and learns to sing very well. Another studies SLS and can’t get anything to work right. So is SLS a savior or a scam? We hear students of the Swedish/Italian school and they don’t sound like they are doing things well. Is it a scam? Alexander Technique helps someone figure out their body so they can function more freely. Is it because of the Alexander Technique? Should we all be doing Alexander?

    All any “technique” or “school” can be based on is the way things work naturally. Either that or someone’s opinions of how things work naturally. Both types exist. If it is based on someone’s opinion we will likely be lead astray. If it is based on how things actually are we may find good results.

    Now my question becomes, if it is based accurately on how things naturally are then why do we need a “technique”. Why can’t we just look at the thing as it is and base our work on how that thing naturally behaves. Why do we need someone else’s ideas about the thing. Usually they will just get in the way of us seeing the truth of the matter clearly. We think of the technique rather than the actual thing. That is one big additional step between our thought of what we want to do and the body doing it.

    Plus we have one big advantage in our situation that “technique” tends to destroy. We have a direct link from our brain through our nervous system to our larynx, breathing and mouth. What this means is we can train ourselves to act spontaneously. So our singing is a reflex action. What Lamperti referred to as “thinking out loud”. When done well this gives us the best results. This is what I mean by “natural singing”. Many confuse this with “normal” singing. For most of us what is normal is not natural.

    Does this mean everyone who works this way is going to be a great singer? Of course not. But it gives everyone a chance to use their voice as it is meant to. And for me that is all we can ask.

  10. Brian Blum

    Michael –

    That makes total sense. I’m trying to change my phrasing to be, essentially, “healthy vocal function” as opposed to technique. What we are doing vs. what we are TRYING to do. I think that is why the process can be difficult, because we don’t yet have the sensations necessary, and personally, there are times when retraining the voice is full of far more discomfort than using the old production, because for the time of retraining, we are constantly TRYING to make changes. Like we’ve talked about with the baseball pitcher whose throwing is totally stripped down to the bare essentials so that he can have excellent mechanics. During the process, he feels like a fool because not only doesn’t he yet know how to pitch optimally, but he doesn’t even have a fixed place to start from anymore.

    I’m reading through “Vocal Wisdom” by Lamperti, and a quote is apropos of the this discussion for me…

    “When you realize the facts, you must have enough common sense to readjust your singing to suit them, and cease your self deception.”

    I look forward to continuing to move towards to day when I won’t have to try so hard. But far better to make the adjustments necessary than to continue in self deception and vocal fatigue. It is a fantastic blessing to work with someone as meticulous as you who has done the research necessary.

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