Blnche Marchesi: the voice trial I

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In the twenty-third chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi takes us into the very revealing instance of the voice trial and shares valuable reflections that we can very easily apply to the current state of the world of singing.


The voice trial appears to me somehow as the most exacting part of a teacher’s duties. To face suddenly an individual representing an instrument, to decide in about half-an-hour’s time the whole future of that person, to explain complicated matters to people who understand absolutely nothing of the subject, to enter into other people’s capacities, putting oneself, for the time, wholly into their position, to weigh conscientiously what is the best and the wisest course to take —all this means sincere earnestness and great energy. There are cases in which further meetings must be arranged, as it is sometimes impossible to decide so important a question as a whole future in one hearing. A cold, a momentary breakdown, or other reasons, may give a specially bad appearance to the vocal instrument on the very day on which its possessor comes to seek advice.

Sometimes one has the pleasant experience of hearing a voice that has never been touched, that a parent will bring you, like a precious plant which has not been allowed to leave the hothouse before it was to be put out into your garden.

“When I heard you sing, madame, years ago,” they will say, “ my child was in the cradle, and I vowed when it was grown up nobody but you should teach it. Here it is. It yours.” They are delightful but rare cases, because generally the persons who have voices, and often the most remarkable ones, make very light of the choice of a teacher, being convinced in their ignorance that to have a beautiful voice means everything, that all things will go well, that to learn anywhere will do, and that in a few years a successful public appearance will be a foregone conclusion.

Alas! there are also legions who think that “just a few lessons are sufficient.” Fathers especially, who are responsible for the financial part, find all the studies for daughters too expensive and too long, having to provide for sons’ complete educations. A little bit of sacrifice on the part of the fathers has saved many a daughter in the days of need, for the voice shows a quicker financial return than any other instrument. Seven years’ scratching and bowing is necessary before a violinist can play even the smallest piece perfectly before an audience. The singer is enabled, in many cases, when the voice is well trained and had no special defect, to give pleasure with a song in quite a reasonable time, and it happens daily that pupils, in the middle of their education, can even be allowed to accept small engagements —a fact which makes them able to earn before leaving the singing school. There are certainly many who seize that opportunity of being able to please audiences in an early stage of their training and relinquish further studies. They either lack ambition to attain high ideals, or are too lazy to learn difficult music, or get swollen-headed and feel capable of standing on their own feet. In many of these cases these young, uprooted plants get carried away by the torrent and never become trees.

Having taught for twenty-three years in this country, I often have suffered from the lack of seriousness in students. When I find that some of them possess the capacities and possibilities of becoming stars it is heart-breaking to discover at the same time that nothing could stir them, even to the desire of becoming famous or rich.

Not so the American. She certainly does not lack ambition —if anything, she has too much. Whatever qualities she possesses or lacks, she wishes to reach the top of the tree, and when she starts she sets out to do so. Her methods of achieving her aim are not always the right ones, but, indeed, I rather prefer the over-ambitious to the indifferent pupil. Humanity is interesting to watch. The most fascinating cinema shows are less amusing and exciting than the Comedy of Life.

Often when voice trials take place in my room I wish there could be a photographer in the corner as well as a gramophone and a shorthand writer taking notes.

One day a lady will make an appointment. When she enters the room, from her way of greeting me, I will already recognise a certain known type, who, although coming for advice, is convinced of being able to advise herself, who is ready to fight and contradict every word you are going to say, but who will only yield to one thing and become docile at the heaviest sort of vile flattery. She enters with head erect, attired in costly garments generally, because she comes from worldly regions, and at once tries to overwhelm you with her superiority. She makes you feel and understand that she knows all about singing, that this art has no more secrets for her, that she has already trained with the most celebrated teachers all over the world. She really does not want so-called lessons; oh no, she is convinced that nothing new can be taught to her, but all the same, as she probably feels in the secret recesses of her being that her voice is on the decline, she comes to consult an authority, but does not wish this authority to think for one minute that she considers her as such. In entering the voice specialist’s room her whole vanity and conceit are aroused. Her pride unfolds its peacock tail to amaze the onlooker, and by the secret and never explained desire that so many women share she wishes her voice to be found in perfect condition, though she feels it is on the wane.

When the actual trial arrives the first note confirms all your suspicions. The voice is absolutely ruined, ready to disappear for ever, and often not even good enough in quality to be saved. You have been asked for your opinion —you give it. You are met by a cold smile, a haughty shrug of the shoulders, a superior frown, the person changes the conversation, does not insist and, after a few words, saying that she, after all, is not interested at all in the matter, nods a cold good-bye and leaves you profoundly disgusted. You know that she will persevere in her wish to sing Carmen, against her own inner conviction, and that she soon will find somebody who will still drag her along for a while until she finds another sport or amusement to take the place of the one that has forsaken her.

Others come and tell you that they want “just a little finish,” “a little brush up.” They look at you half insolently, half expectantly, but at the back of their eyes there is a certain fear which the haughtiest demeanour is not able to hide. Their whole story unfolds itself automatically.

Let us take the case where I have detected in the very first words addressed to me that even the speaking voice is already affected. I look straight into this person’s face and say, without other preliminaries: “Are you always hoarse, or have you a cold?” An embarrassed look follows. “Oh no, this is my natural speaking voice.” Then I say: “Well, I do not believe it. If you always speak like that there must be something the matter with your throat. Have you been to a specialist? ” Follows a big blush. “Well, to say the truth, I have. But he says it is quite all right now.”

Some say: “Oh, I would not go to a specialist. I am frightened.” Then I begin to cross-examine, quite needlessly, because already I know everything about this case. It is the old, old story of the ostrich: stupidity, vanity, ignorance are at the bottom of it all. In this case the ostrich thinks to hide its larynx.

A smart American society woman asked me for a consultation one day, and entering my room overwhelmed me with flattering remarks, explaining that she did not come for a voice trial, as her voice was completely trained, she only wanted some hints on interpretation, as she had read in so many American papers that I was the greatest of all, etc., etc. The flattering adjectives continued in avalanche-like style, leaving me perfectly cold and self-possessed.

“I must insist on trying your voice. This is for me the principal thing. If I see that your voice is in such order that it will put no impediment to interesting or difficult interpretation of works of art, we will proceed.” She rose up. Her expression changed. “I told you I do not wish to have a voice trial. Besides, I have a bit of a cold today and you could not judge my voice at all.” I coolly opened the piano and touched one note. “Madame, will you sing me this note?” After a short hesitation she sang it. A veiled, tremulous, ill sound rang through the room. It was as I thought.

“Sing me another sound, please.” She did so, and, forced by my will-power, let me hear the whole scale of misery. There was not one healthy note in her whole voice. She could not even reach the middle E flat. “And with this ill voice, madame, you wish to sing difficult music, and you think that I will be able to impart to you interpretation when your instrument has got entirely out of your control? I go much further. The case is so bad that I would refuse to cure it. You have one hope left —to go immediately to a great throat specialist and to follow all his instructions, after six months’ time to return to me and to let me see if any hope can be entertained for saving what you have lost. The trial may be long, and I may have to send you back several times. But if you are serious you may save your voice.”

The lady wrapped herself in her furs and in an unpleasant tone replied: “I will think it over.” In a prophetic tone I reply: “Madame, do not forget my words; write them down in a diary. If you do not follow what I advise you to-day you will never sing again in your life.” At this she swept out, and I am convinced that this lady has never sung again.

An interesting improvised voice trial was the one of Miss Ruth Vincent, who came one day to me at the height of her success, singing with Beecham at His Majesty’s Theatre, when English Opera was still searching for a resting-place. She rang me up, wishing to meet me for some advice, and as she was a colleague I did not enter into details, wishing to be agreeable to her and gave her an appointment. She told me that she had suddenly been asked to sing Leonora in Trovatore, and, never having sung this opera, knew nothing at all about it, and would like to learn it with me. I explained to her that I hardly ever accepted a task like this, as I only cared for complete educations, but as a comrade I would be delighted to help her in any way demanded. But before settling down at the piano to look at the score I said:

“Miss Vincent, will you allow me to try a few notes in your voice before we start, as I have never heard you, and at least I must know the quality of your voice?”
“Why do you want to try my voice?” she asked.
“Simply,” I replied, “because I do not even know if Leonora suits you.”
“How curious!” she replied.

I remained silent, but kept firm to my point, as I could not have started to show her the role without knowing the condition her voice was in. She rather reluctantly sang three notes for me, and to my greatest distress I discovered that I could not teach her Leonora, nor anything else, because her voice wanted, for the moment, an absolute rest. I could not, without cross-examining her, assert if the condition I detected was the consequence of over-fatigue or of singing with a cold, but I was convinced that if she sang even one more night in opera she would meet with a serious voice accident which would check her career for some time. I knew that she did not believe me. I feared that she thought me unkind, but I was convinced that in a few days my words would come true and that then she would probably recognise the value of my judgment. She left me in a rather abrupt way, insisting on singing the next night, as far as I remember, in Nozze di Figaro, and I found that a few days after I had given my verdict she retired to rest for a considerable time, recovering afterwards from her strain. It is not always a grateful task to bring home bad news, but in this case, as in many, it meant saving a voice and a career and I had to do my duty.

Another voice trial was that of a young Jewish girl. She came with an elderly admiring friend who seemed to take the greatest interest in her welfare. The girl was very young, and wore short skirts —which at that time were only worn by really young girls. She had very determined manners, and already showed something of the ways of spoilt artists.

“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fourteen and a half.”
“Dear me, what have you done till now? I hope you have never sung?”
She laughed. “I have been nearly two years at such-and such an institution and I have sung Aida and Fidelio.”

I am sure that I grew pale, and I exclaimed:

“Say it is not true; you could not have been accepted at thirteen.”
“Yes,” she answered in a rather snappy way, “that is the age I was accepted.”
The shy elderly friend timidly remarked: “She is so exceptional, you know.”
“And you say you have sung Aida? Did they tell you you were a dramatic soprano?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Heavens! the rarest voice under the sun, at least in the British Isles, and started so young. I hope you did not meet with a disaster. But come and sing.”

I tried the voice, and my heart was almost broken. There was, or there had been, a wonderful, real dramatic soprano —the voice I had always dreamt to meet, but, so far, in vain. There it was before me, entirely ruined at the age of fourteen and a half, and much more difficult, in consequence, to be saved than it would have been years later. But I wanted to hear the child, and, nearly speechless, I asked: “Give me a song.”

She started Ritorna Vincitor. It was wonderful —her fire, her inspiration, her feeling— it was one of an old artist. I could not let her proceed; every note burnt my conscience and increased my suffering. “Lost, she is lost” —these words kept ringing through my brain. The girl was a genius, there was no doubt. She had had the material for a great dramatic soprano. Everything was over and without hope. I did not know how to speak. She looked at me, so did her friend. I could not find my words. I took a deep breath and slowly started.

She looked at me, amused and shocked at the same time, with stupid vanity beaming out of her thoughtless eyes.

“Oh, I have always had great success. I am sure it will be all right.”

“Are you so sure, my poor child? Well, unfortunately, I am very sure that it will be all wrong, and you will think of my words; but, remember, if you do not promise to do what I advise to-day, and if you do not follow this advice from this day on, you will never sing again.”

“Do you really believe it?” she answered ironically.

I got up and said, “Good-bye, poor child,” and she walked out, followed by the very distressed but powerless friend. Her stupid insolence did not hurt so much as the thought that a great genius had been lost and a very rare voice made mute for ever.

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