Blanche Marchesi: the voice trial II

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At the end of the twenty-third chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi relates some other very revealing examples of the voice trial and transmits valuable reflections that we can easily apply to the current state of the art singing.


Some voice trials are complete failures because persons put themselves in the worst physical condition before presenting themselves at the trial. One day when a gentleman came into the room to keep the appointment he was unable to speak aloud. He excused himself for intruding upon my precious time because he would not be able to sing a single note, but merely came himself to apologise that he was unable to take the trial. Asking a few questions about this hoarseness, I found out that he had no cold, but that he had been “preparing” himself to sing before me for the whole of the last fortnight, singing everything that he could lay his hands upon. I explained to him the foolishness of such a proceeding, and could only advise repose, expressing the hope that his injury would not be of a lasting nature, and as I never heard of him again I suppose that the good man never found his voice.

People seem to be quite astonished that the voice forms part of the body, that its real inner mechanism is made of the same tissue as the other organs. If we tried our eyesight by looking through the wrong spectacles for months or years the pain and strain would be unbearable. In the same way we ought to feel a pain every time we produce the voice wrongly. It is true that many pupils singing with the wrong voice production actually suffer physical pain, but these are more special cases. As a rule singers go on for years, losing something every day of range or beauty, but only suffering actual physical pain after a long period of wrong practice.

A very sad voice trial was the one of the wife of a clerk, who explained that lately a friend had discovered her to be possessed of a phenomenal voice. The day she presented herself with a roll of music in her hand I began to cross-question her.

“Have you ever sung?”

“I never learned, but I easily pick up tunes, and it was in singing one of these tunes that a gentleman friend who came to see us heard my voice.”

As she spoke to me her speaking voice sounded highly suspicious already. It was quite husky, and when I asked her if she had a cold she said No. I tried a few notes. I heard the remnants of a once big, fine dramatic soprano, but it was already utterly ruined, and surely there were nodules on the vocal cords. I was startled. The woman said she had never sung, never studied, so I asked her what she had done to get into this condition. “Well,” said she,“ my voice was quite beautiful a fortnight ago, splendid, indeed, and I was not hoarse at all, and I really do not know why I am hoarse now. You see, I thought I ought to do a bit of practising before presenting myself before such a great artist as you, and not wanting to sing an ordinary ballad, which you might not have liked, I went into a music shop and asked a man for a difficult air sung by a celebrated soprano. He gave me something I did not know at all —I had never heard of it, really— and I assure you, madame, I worked hard at it, hours and hours a day. There were such difficult passages in it I sometimes thought I would never be able to do them.”

“What was that air?” She unrolled the music, and what did my eyes perceive! —La Valse de Beriot, as sung by Madame Malibrán! And that was what she had worked at before ever having had a lesson in her life, trying to master the most complicated runs and trills that could only be executed by a thoroughly trained voice perhaps after years of study. The ignorance of the poor creature in front of me was so colossal that my courage to explain failed me and I could only say: “Madame, I am sorry; really, I am grieved. You had a voice —you have ruined it. There is only one hope —complete rest. The day that you can try several notes which will come out quite clear and pianissimo come and I will hear you again.”

I never heard of her after she left my room. It is as if a person entered for a Marathon race without ever having trained, except by running ten hours a day a fortnight before the race.

Sometimes voice trials are very amusing. An American lady of not much education came to my mother with her daughter. My mother found the voice excellent and promised a good future as a coloratura singer.

“I do not mind that much,” said the mother, “what sort of tricks my daughter will be able to perform. I wish to know, in a lump, how many dollars my daughter’s complete education will cost, and how many dollars there will be at the end of my daughter’s voice.”

Another mother said, entering my mother’s room: “Madame, before you hear my daughter I must tell you at once that you shall get no money out of me for her tuition if you cannot make her a contralto-basso.” What followed can be pictured. My mother, who might have been very angry, was shaken by a fit of laughter, so that she was obliged to wipe the tears from her eyes. When, after having heard the girl, my mother declared her to be one of the highest light sopranos in existence, the woman curtsied and said: “Well, that has done it. You shan’t get her. In my family all the women had contralto-bassos, from my grandmother down to me, and that my daughter shall be. I shall have to find another teacher for her,” and out she walked.

Less funny, but also characteristic, was another mother’s question to my mother: “Madame, my husband and I are only small people —my husband is a tobacconist in Nebraska— but we made up our minds we would spare no money to get our hearts’ desire. How much do you charge to make my daughter a Melba voice?”

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