Blanche Marchesi: on the cruelties of “methods” II

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

One man explained to his pupils that the cheeks touching the teeth hampered sonority, that filling each side of the mouth with dried prunes or chestnuts would double the sound. The discomfort of singing with a larder in one’s mouth can be imagined. This case was more funny than dangerous, just as funny as the teacher who insisted that the only way to sing was without the larynx. This is indeed a method nothing short of a miracle.

The latest insane and most painful method has been reported to me by a pupil whilst writing this present chapter. The young man suffered from severe headache, and especially eye-ache, having been forced to make the wildest contortions with his eyes, the teacher actually teaching that the sound has to be produced through the eyes! And such a thing can be said and taught in the year 1920!

It is a great fashion in the singing world nowadays to speak of proper breathing, and one way to draw the pupil’s attention from the burning question of the training of the voice is to speak of breath only. One might as well advertise looking, smelling, hearing, coughing and laughing lessons! I must mention that there are persons who specialise on teaching breathing, and do not teach singing at all, living, like the man who gives the anaesthetic at the dentist’s, on those clients that the singing teachers send them for special breathing exercises. The pupils are submitted to endless, useless tortures, small and great, but they feel proud and happy, thinking that they are doing very important things. It always makes me think of the fairy tale of The King’s New Clothes —he thought he had them, but he had none; still he thought he had them, and so he was happy, and the tailors grew rich.

One man pupil told me that he had to lie down so many minutes a day, breathing slowly and deeply, bricks being heaped on his chest so as to force him to make efforts to draw his breath. That was, so the teacher said, to fortify the muscles of his chest. He reached the number of thirty bricks.

Another one was told, and that was a lady pupil, to lie down on the floor to obtain a deep and motionless breath. The man put a huge tumbler full of water on her chest and made the pupil understand that if in breathing the tumbler remained balanced her breath was right. This performance took place at the beginning of every lesson, the remainder of which was generally spent in wiping up the water that would flow all over the pupil and the room. The happy onlooker was the one who enjoyed himself the most, I am sure.

The queerest practice to see through the window when passing by must have been the “dog’s breath” exercise. It seems that the pupil had to breathe like a dog does when panting after a sharp run, and after having “played doggie” the obedient disciple had to go to the open window, take ten deep, long breaths, run back and “play doggie” again. Highly interesting!

Tightening a big leather belt every day more and more about the pupil’s waist to give him more breath-sustaining power seems child’s play compared with the really formidable idea of obtaining stronger lungs and larger width of chest by making the pupils run up and down stairs whilst singing their exercises! This should be stopped by the medical authorities as dangerous. Not only is it really painful and fatiguing, but supposing a pupil has a weak heart this dangerous exercise will accelerate heart affections and may even prove serious in some cases.

It is great cruelty to force pupils to sing with a cold and to insist that it is even specially good to sing with a cold. I have seen cases where pupils have been compelled to sing even with nodules on their vocal cords and suffering from acute laryngitis. Many laryngologists will be able to certify that they have come across similar cases.

I call it another act of cruelty to force a girl in the third lesson received in her life to sing the air of Titania from the opera Mignon. In the case here mentioned the girl objected, saying that she felt incapable of singing the difficult passages and the high staccato notes. The answer was: “You have nothing to say. I am your master; you simply have to obey. You are here to learn, and it is just because you cannot do these things that I make you do them.” The consequence was that the girl lost even her speaking voice for some time. This happened in Brussels.

A similar case, also from Brussels, was that of a young girl who had been forced to sing “e” (English pronunciation) up to the high C. When she complained to the mistress of her complete loss of voice she was actually told by her to rejoice, as it was her method to make the voice first disappear, and that, after a rest, which she would take now, it would come back, glorious and twice as fine. She added that the best results had always been obtained in this way, and that the pupil must go home and cheerfully await the return of the voice. She did so. After a certain rest voices often do rally, but when restarting after a voice accident you must start in the right method or else you run the risk of losing the voice for ever. So it happened in this case. The girl rested, her voice returned, the teacher started the same exercises on the same system, saying: “Now your voice is broken in.” After a fortnight she could not speak any more and never sang again. When she came to me for advice I told her to give it up.

To sing through an obstacle is as stupid as it is impossible. If you force a pupil to hold a bag of cotton-wool on her mouth, or even a handkerchief, and make her sing through it, the consequences are obvious. What can induce a teacher to recommend this terrible way of practising? Probably he means to force the pupil to give more sound, believing probably that in consequence a higher muscular power can be reached, but here, as in other physical exercises, when you wish to give power to muscles, you must never strain them. Effort cannot produce anything but disease and ugliness.

One of the principal factors in singing is the acoustic capacity, both interior and exterior. The interior acoustics we find in the bones of our body. The outer acoustics are produced by our surroundings —that is to say, the room in which we perform, and its contents. If you practise or sing in a room of bad acoustic capacity you will only be able to hear your voice giving its accustomed quantity and quality by straining every muscle of your throat, and the same thing happens if you do not use the sounding-boards provided by nature for resonance, embellishment and enlargement of the human tone. Therefore if you force the students to sing not only through an obstacle, but an obstacle which has absolutely no acoustic possibilities and can form no sounding-board, but simply deadens the sound and kills it, you force the pupil to employ ten times the strength that he ought to use in producing a sound. One of the most important points in the vocal education is to teach the pupil to find, after having well placed the registers, the best acoustic possibilities in himself, and one of the principal aims of my method is to produce the utmost quantity and quality of sound with the smallest effort possible. Effort, I repeat, destroys progress.”

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