Heinrich Panofka: general considerations VIII

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Eighth chapter of the book Voices and singers, twenty-eight chapters of general considerations on the voice and the art of singing, published in 1866 by maestro Heinrich Panofka.


Chapter VIII
Of the breath.

In all times, it has been expected that in order to know how to sing one must know how to breathe: but in order to know how to speak, doesn’t one have to know how to breathe? To breathe is to live.

To prepare your breathing for singing is to lose it needlessly. 

Telling a pupil to do simple breathing exercises without emitting the voice has no other purpose than to weaken the respiratory organs. 

It is natural that a singer should have a long breathe in order not to cut the phrases in half, the meaning of which requires that they be sung in one fiato. This is where all the importance lies.

The speaker and the actor must study the passages of their speeches or their parts where they can catch their breath. Commas, dots, exclamations, questions, all these spelling marks are just as colorful for those who speak; as for those who sing are the pianissimo, the piano, the crescendo, the forte, the decrescendo, etc.

So the singer, like the speaker and the actor, must study all this mentally, in order to be able to use the amount of air needed for such different colours: and when it comes to singing or speaking to the public, where the emotion will often disable a part of his faculties, and he will be helped only by a firm and intelligent will, and not by the devices or theories of the art of breathing, to be able to finish his aria, or to fulfill the duty of the artist called to move the emotion of the audience.

It is a palpable thing that here lies the real secret of the development of breathing. 

Now let’s explain why until now the idea of making people do inhaling and exhaling exercises before getting close to the real art of singing has been so universal. And the reason for this is that we have always started vocal studies from the exercise where they should end: that of making suoni filatihorrible dictu. Poor pupils! At the beginning of their studies, they are asked to emit a sweet sound, to make it grow up to the forte and to return to the first sweetness with a decrescendo. What do they ask for if not the impossible? One notices that the students lose their breathing, that they tend to get sharp in the crescendo and flat in the decrescendo, and then they are told: Let us stop singing this exercise and simply do the inhaling and exhaling. How many pupils are expelled because of such a system!

To breathe is to live! And even here the only true guide is the intelligent willpower. I incessantly recommend to the pupils to read the exercises mentally before singing them, so as not to strain their voice and lungs unnecessarily. By studying the exercises mentally before singing them, the pupils will know them by heart, and they will have a clear idea of where to breathe. With this way of studying, the profit will be great and, for sure, in less than half the time you would need to undo the inveterate mistakes. All the breathing artifices which the mortally tired singing professors mistakenly proclaim, for not having been able to educate their voices, are also the means to ruin the voice, and with the voice the health of the students. The different ways of breathing, as well as the different timbres (timbri sordi, scuri) must be left to the intelligence of the trained singer, but they must not be  used at the beginning of the student’s vocal development. Nor should the brain of a poor pupil be strained by telling him or her that in order to form such or such other sound, of such or such other register, it is necessary to set in motion, now the cricoid, now the thyroid gland, etc., etc.

It would be the same if a dance teacher wanted to explain to a pupil the movements that the different muscles must make to perform this or that step. And on the other hand, what are all the theories based on physiology? Hypotheses! Nothing but hypotheses supported by famous physiologists, and opposed by other no less famous physiologists. It will be useful for professors to know all these theories in order to be able to understand  the construction of the vocal organ and of the other organs that contribute to the formation of sound. It is not by chance inappropriate to say here that the feet are not given to man to dance more than the vocal organ is given to sing. Knowing how to sing is an art like knowing how to dance. Therefore, teachers are needed, no matter what they say, but intelligent, educated, experienced, and honest teachers are needed to teach art, and especially the art of singing, in which the most varied knowledge is required to be a teacher.

Text excerpted and translated from Voci e cantanti, Ventotto capitoli di considerazioni generali sulla voce e sull’arte del canto, Enrico Panofka, Florence, 1871.