Blanche Marchesi: on the cruelties of “methods” III

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Third and last part of the closing 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.


Space would fail, and time also, if I should quote all the nonsense, comic and tragic, that has come across my path in the matter of pernicious teaching, and I will conclude with two of the worst cases, because here the injury is done scientifically.

There are teachers who want to force women to sing exactly like men. They call it singing with a fixed larynx. I have mentioned this method already, but must return to it, as it is very widespread.

I had a pupil, a clergyman’s daughter, who spent two years of her life in absorbing this dangerous system. The teacher actually forced her to keep her larynx down, pressing it even with the fingers and teaching her to do so. Gradually and painfully the poor creature won half-tone by half-tone, working the chest register up until at last she conquered C♯. Her larynx lent itself specially to this system, some being naturally inclined towards it. Certain throats would give way after a few weeks of this method, but being inclined to wrong production she slowly acquired this terrible fault. In a certain way chest notes taken up high by a woman are rather attractive to some hearers, and in certain songs a weird and wonderful effect is obtained by using them. But the day comes when the muscles, forced into false positions, give way, the high notes disappear one after the other, huskiness follows and a “gap” appears after the last chest note. Needless to say, these forced notes sound tremulous, as the muscles of the larynx lose their steadiness after having worked in an unnatural position.

These teachers do not understand that a man is not a woman and vice versa. There are some who go so far as to say to their pupils: “Why should there be any difference between a woman’s voice and a man’s voice?” Answer: “Why is there any difference in sexes at all?” Well, there will be as long as there is a difference between man and woman. And what about the castrate? It is all perfectly clear and logical.

I come now to a method, terrible in its consequences, although it does not directly injure the voice, but which results in such bodily ailment that it stops a career. In this method the pupil must lie flat on the floor. Why in so many cases the pupils have to lie on the floor passes my understanding. It may be that some teachers find it very amusing to see their victims stretched out helpless in front of them, and that a feeling creeps into their hearts like that a lion-tamer has on entering a cage, whip in hand, except that in this case the lion is generally a helpless dove. In fact I know a case where a teacher has a whip, a real one, on his piano, and occasionally whips the floor, sometimes nearly whips the pupil, when something displeases him. However, this has nothing to do with the case I am about to describe. Here the pupils lie on the floor and have to perform the most incredible exercises to obtain, as they are told, power of breath and strength of the diaphragm. They are taught to make rotary movements with their backs and to rise with a violent movement, repeating this exercise several times. I met with two cases of sprained kidney, most painful, and one of both kidneys torn. One was a Miss —, from Birmingham. She had been the possessor of a magnificent contralto voice. The girl sold her few possessions, borrowed money and went to London, having been told by a renowned impresario that he would engage her if she would study there for some time. She did as she was told. The rotary arm and waist swinging exercise is what she was taught by her teacher. After a very short time she complained of acute pain in her sides. She was laughed at. The pain increased there. When she complained she was scolded. At last she felt so seriously ill that she had to stop singing. One day, returning to her home, broken in hopes and health, she went into the Birmingham hospital, where she had to be operated on, the evil having gone very far, not having been understood in the early stages. Her case was thus entered in the hospital book, “Operation performed on both kidneys; illness derived from violent breathing exercises.” The year-long suffering had so told on the girl’s health that, in coming out of hospital, she could only think of regaining her old strength. Having nothing left on earth, she had to accept a position as lady’s companion. She came one day to me to have a last consultation in life, hoping always that the beautiful voice would be restored to its former strength. When I saw her she was elderly, sad, discouraged and could never have made a career. I took away every illusion from her, as I consider it more cruel than anything else to give false hopes.

[…]

To advise practising for long hours at a stretch, or singing when needing food, or singing immediately after heavy meals, or humming with closed mouth, which is like teaching the piano with tied arms, or to balance a heavy chair in each hand while practising —these are all mistaken or destructive methods. To teach the nasal tone production is perhaps the most detestable and unaesthetic proceeding of all, besides being injurious to the voices of both sexes; while another method, of forcing the pupil to twinkle with the eyes in order to reach high notes seems ludicrous. Things such as I have related here must appear incredible and impossible to the many. The most curious fact is that there should be people found who will submit to such practices. How far the credulity of the world goes, and how much, on the whole, people prefer methods making great demands on both purse, time and patience, has often been shown. Great truths are too simple. The crowd wants to see, to hold, to touch. Only to think, to wait and to practise, that is all too tedious. It a thousand times prefers to be shown some violent, difficult, painful, extravagant way of conquering knowledge, thinking that it really does something or suffers something to achieve something. But the pilgrim who hopes to obtain a miracle at a holy shrine by walking up high stairs on bleeding knees with an empty heart and no real understanding will not get it, whilst another one, who remains kneeling at the foot of the stairs, his heart full of love and hope, simply praying for the miracle, will get it. The one who suffers without loving or the other who loves only —which of the two do you think should get the miracle?

There was a teacher who thought, quite rightly, that a fine sound well rounded out, well sustained and beautiful in quality, is a desirable thing, and as he could not explain to himself nor to others how to produce it, he used to say in the lessons, instead of giving the right physiological explanation: “I wish you to throw your voice forward. Think you are sowing seed, walking in the open air. Imagine you are turning on a water-hose or you are playing ping-pong; think of running towards a straw bag suspended and hitting it straight away. That is how I want you to produce your sounds.” Now, really, what should a pupil do in this case?

Svengali 1 is not an impossibility. He still lives and tells the charmed and credulous ladies and gentlemen that he has discovered a method by which he can make a voice in six weeks, and he talks and talks and talks, and the victims are spellbound and hypnotised. Yes, there was once upon a time such a Svengali in London, and he created quite a stir. He assured all the singing teachers of renown that he was not a teacher himself, that he would never be one, but that he had discovered such a wonderful method for increasing vocal power that, if they would confide their pupils to him, he would not only send them back in six weeks unharmed but that they would gain threefold in quantity and quality of tone. As most of these teachers were themselves looking out for truth, and had never found it, they fell under the charm of this Svengali and thought: “Who knows, he may have found some truth; let us have a try,” and they did send their pupils for a six weeks’ cure to this magician. The very practical shape he gave to his ideal work was that he used to give one, two and even three lessons a day to the same person —“in very special cases,” as he said. The new prophet became a fashionable man. All the drawing-rooms resounded with his praises. The ladies spoke of him with ecstatic looks, and soon he took a large house in a smart street. He had carriages and horses; footmen with yellow silk stockings opened the door; luncheon parties and dinners were the order of the day; till one fine day somebody discovered that they had all made a mistake. Some who had been injured got very cross, some threatened to bring a lawsuit, their daughters having lost their voices, some forgot and turned to other Svengalis, and suddenly ladies, dinners, smiles, footmen, horses, everything had vanished. Svengali was no more. But never fear, another one will turn up and take his place, and so it will go on as long as the world turns round the sun.

The quite farcical so-called teachers are those who combine trade with art. A friend of mine in Paris told me that there was a teacher who at the first lesson criticised sharply the newcomer’s breathing, attributing it to the wearing of bad corsets, and, after a few explanatory words, would open the door leading to an inner room, introduce the pupil to his wife, who at once took measurements —cost, eighty francs pre-war price— and the trade was helped! Then there was the man who sold Italian waters in bottles, because, he said, the voice in Italy is good because the water is good. In consequence, if you drink Italian water you will have an Italian voice. Cost, five shillings a bottle! Another man sold a tube called amoniaphone, which, he said, contained compressed Italian air —and it is the Italian air, he explained, that gives the voice. Cost, five shillings!

The Leipzig spitting method is another speciality. The teacher explained that the great secret is to clean every note before attacking it, and in consequence the pupils stand around the room, holding every one a finger-bowl in her hands, and before attacking a note, which is done after counting three, everyone has to clean her throat, after which the note is attacked. I am sure this man must be very sorry that the Creator has not made the larynx removable, so that one could take it out, put it on the table, give it a good scrub and put it back refreshed and brilliant.

Another one teaches pupils to sing only with the nose and not to use the larynx at all; another one sells pills called “top-note producers”; another, to get a little bit of fun out of life, courts girls, telling them that if they wish to become operatic singers they must fall in love or they will never become dramatic. Needless to say, he is quite prepared to explain to them what love is. The ring on the finger, so they say, is rather a cheek on a career, and many girls, unfortunately, listen to this absolutely inaccurate and machiavellian advice. This old idea that has been so long discussed —yea, even preached— that you cannot put feeling into your song if you have not had life’s experience is an invention. One of the principal gifts put into the soul of a person who will thrill the world with her dramatic art is imagination, and he who has not enough imagination to picture to himself and others all the possible happiness and distress that life brings is not an artist. It would be sad indeed if you had to murder your father so as to be able to picture in an opera the feelings of the heroine who has that part to play. Many a girl, wishing to get on and to create a sensation, has listened to dangerous advice and following it has found at the end, and perhaps too late, that the side path does not always lead to the palace of fame.”


1 Transcription note: Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby. He transforms the protagonist, a young girl, into a great singer by using hypnosis.


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