Blanche Marchesi: on the cruelties of “methods” I

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In the last chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi embarks on an account of the crazy and harmful methods of the self-proclaimed singing teachers of her time.


Before embarking on this painful chapter I must relate one of my most delightful little stories about Gounod. He never taught singing, but was often approached to do so. His only daughter one day implored him to give lessons to a young girl friend of hers, and to please her he called her for a first practice. Leo Delibes happened to pay a call and was present when Gounod began the lesson, and coming a few days afterwards to my mother told us of this charming fairy-tale singing lesson.

Gounod put the girl in front of him, looked straight into her eyes and said: “Mon enfant, tu veux chanter, eh bien, je vais te dire ce que tu dois faire. Pose ton archet, laisse coulse l’urne de ta voix, et donne moi un son lilas dans lequel je puiser me laver les mains,” and then he proceeded to let the girl sing some exercises. (“Place your bow, let the urn of your voice pour out its contents, and give me a mauve sound, in which I may wash my hands.”)

This poetical, but wholly unpractical, way of asking a pupil to make a sound will stand as an amusing contrast to all the terrible physical tortures inflicted on singing students by their so-called masters.

And now comes the tragedy. Before starting on this most painful of all chapters I feel as if I were walking with bare feet on thorns and spiky roads. The methods that have been revealed to me by the persons who sought my advice will be discussed, but no personality will be intermingled with the discussion of these methods. I do not allow anyone who approaches me professionally to tell me the name of his former teacher or teachers, and in consequence, whatever I write in the coming pages will only concern ideas and proceedings, but never persons. I only expose methods. I am writing in the interests of science and humanity and I hope that no one, after reading this sad chapter, will think for one moment that imagination or invention has dipped my pen into the ink and influenced the writing of these lines.


I was once shown a large piece of lead, round and uninteresting-looking, which the pupil of a Dresden teacher had to put on the point of her tongue to keep it down when singing. This teacher, like some others, drew excessive and exclusive attention to the position of the tongue, making it the principal point in teaching, thus avoiding answering other questions that would arise and referring to the tongue as the principal promoter and factor in the production of the sound. These lessons were a great torture, as the weight of the lead tired the tongue and the fear of swallowing it made the pupil stiffen the root of the tongue so much that after a few minutes the action of the larynx seemed paralysed. The drying up of the mouth added to the worry of the cramped tongue and it became a real agony to sing, so it happened that one day the lady did swallow the lead.

It is easy to picture what followed. The case was serious, as the piece of lead was very large. All the doctors of the town, both great and small, were called and the patient was submitted to every torture conceivable, as her life was despaired of for several days, lead poisoning being one of the great dangers to be overcome. At last, by means of X-rays, the doctors triumphed, but the lady spent a fortune on doctors and nurses (she happily belonged to a wealthy Lancashire family) before she could be brought back to England, accompanied by most of her nearest relatives, who had been summoned to Dresden when danger was at its height. Had she died —a thing that was quite possible— what would the trial before judge and jury have been like? After all, one could not have condemned the teacher, any more than a doctor or surgeon can be condemned for making a mistake which ends with fatal results for the patient. Pupils who will not open their mouths at all, and whose voices one cannot train in consequence, have been given by my mother a small piece of wood to hold between their front teeth to accustom them to keep their mouths open, but a piece of thread was always attached to this little piece of wood, the other end of it being held by the pupil in order to avoid any danger of swallowing it. Placing the pupil in front of a looking-glass helps in many cases, as the eye controls exterior defects, whilst the intelligence can be occupied by more difficult problems at the same time.

Mrs M. B., an American lady, handed me a list of her former teachers at her first interview and, smiling, said: ‘‘Madame, this is the list of my fourteen teachers, the last of whom was Madame votre mère.” “Madame,” I replied, returning the folded paper to her, “please keep your list. I am not desirous at all to know the names of your former teachers. That you come to me proves that you have not been content. But how is it that you left my mother?” “This, madame,” she answered, “I can promise, that there has been nothing disagreeable between your mother and me, but she has been so ill lately that for several weeks she had to give up her lessons, and her great age does not permit uninterrupted studies. The few times I have had the honour to receive her advice it has been invaluable to me.” When I examined her voice I understood at once that her case was a most difficult and complicated one, which, indeed, my beloved aged mother, who was nearing her ninetieth year, could not have undertaken. This lady had been taught to sing with the so-called fixed larynx, the pernicious result of which was obvious, and everything had to be undone and done over again. However, we both had patience, and at the end of long and painful studies she reaped a beautiful contralto voice, but was forced to retire into private life through domestic circumstances.

At the end of our first meeting she said: “Here is a little present for you,” handing me a sort of small wire cage. ‘‘This, madame,” she added, “is an instrument of torture that my teacher. No. 4 sold to every new-comer for one guinea. He called it a phonatone.” The instrument was larger and higher in front, touching the teeth, and was bent and made smaller at the back, pushing the root of the tongue down, at the same time keeping the mouth wide open. Human faces and mouths are all shapes and sizes, but this man sold only one size, and the suffering that the pupils had to endure in fixing this instrument into their mouths, and the scenes that used to take place at this studio, as some people can open their mouths twice as much as others, and some people cannot bear anything on the back of their tongues without feeling deadly sick, can be imagined. A maid would appear with a glass of water to refresh, and some smelling-salts to revive, the student. I forgot to ask her if it was the same man who tortured her to sing with the larynx in fixed position. Needless to say that she soon fled from the inventor of the ‘mouth cage’.

Text excerpted from Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi, Boston, 1923.