Luisa Tetrazzini: the mastery of the tongue

Second chapter of the book Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing, in which soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, after having written on the subject of breathing, approaches the control of the tongue and the vocal registers.


The tongue is a veritable stumbling block in the path of the singer. The tongue is an enormous muscle compared with the other parts of the throat and mouth, and its roots particularly can by a slight movement block the passage of the throat pressing against the larynx. This accounts for much of the pinched singing we hear.

When the tongue forms a mountain in the back part of the mouth the singer produces what you call in English slang “a hot potato tone”—that is to say, a tone that sounds as if it were having much difficulty to get through the mouth. In very fact, it is having this difficulty, for it has to pass over the back of the tongue.

The would be singer has to learn to control the tongue muscles and, above all things, to learn to relax the tongue and to govern it at will, so that it never stiffens and forms that hard lump which can be plainly felt immediately beneath the chin under the jaw.

It requires a great deal of practice to gain control of the tongue, and there are many different exercises which purport to be beneficial in gaining complete mastery over it. One, for instance, is to throw the tongue out as far forward as possible without stiffening it and then draw it back slowly. This can be done in front of a mirror by trying to throw the tongue not only from the tip, but from the root, keeping the sides of the tongue broad. Another way is to catch hold of the two sides of the tongue with the fingers and pull it out gently.

For my part, I scarcely approve of these mechanical ways of gaining control of the tongue except in cases where the singer is phlegmatic of temperament and cannot be made to feel the various sensations of stiff tongue or tongue drawn far back in other ways. Ordinarily I think they make the singer conscious, nervous and more likely to stiffen the tongue in a wild desire to relax it and keep it flat.

These exercises, however, combined with exercises in diction, help to make the tongue elastic, and the more elastic and quick this muscle becomes the clearer will be the singer’s diction and the more flexible will be her voice.

The correct position of the tongue is raised from the back, lying flat in the mouth, the flattened tip beneath the front teeth, with the sides slightly raised so as to form a slight furrow in it. When the tongue is lying too low a lump under the chin beneath the jaw will form in singing and the tight muscles can be easily felt. When the jaw is perfectly relaxed and the tongue lies flat in the mouth there will be a slight hollow under the chin and no stiffness in the muscles.

The tip of the tongue of course is employed in the pronunciation of the consonants and must be so agile that the minute it has finished its work it at once resumes the correct position.

In ascending the scale the furrow in the tongue increases as we come to the higher notes. It is here that the back of the palate begins to draw up in order to add to the resonance of the head notes, giving the cavities of the head free play.

You can easily see your back palate working by opening your mouth wide and giving yourself the sensation of one about to sneeze. You will see far back in the throat, way behind the nose, a soft spot that will draw up of itself as the sneeze becomes more imminent. That little point is the soft palate. It must be drawn up for the high notes in order to get the head resonance. As a singer advances in her art she can do this at will.

The adjustment of throat, tongue and palate, all working together, will daily respond more easily to her demands. However, she should be able consciously to control each part by itself.

The conscious direction of the voice and command of the throat are necessary. Frequently in opera the singer, sitting or lying in some uncomfortable position which is not naturally convenient for producing the voice, will consciously direct her notes into the head cavities by opening up the throat and lifting the soft palate. For instance, in the rôle of Violetta the music of the last act is sung lying down. In order to get proper resonance to some of the high notes I have to start them in the head cavity by means, of course, of the apoggio, or breath prop, without which the note would be thin and would have no body to it.

The sensation that I have is of a slight pressure of breath striking almost into a direct line into the cavity behind the forehead over the eyes without any obstruction or feeling in the throat at all.

This is the correct attack for the head tone, or a tone taken in the upper register. Before I explain the registers to you I must tell you one of the funniest compliments I ever received. A very flattering person was comparing my voice to that of another high soprano whom I very much admire. “Her voice is beautiful, particularly in the upper register,” I insisted when the other lady was being criticized. “Ah, madame,” responded the flattering critic, “but your registers give out so much more warmth.”

I think this joke is too good to lose, also the criticism, while unjust to the other singer, is interesting to the student, because in the high register, which includes in some voices all the notes above middle C, the notes are thin and cold unless supported by the apoggio, the breath prop, of which I have told you so much. People ask whether there are such things as vocal registers. Certainly there are. There are three always and sometimes four in very high voices. The ordinary registers are the low, the middle, the high voice, or head voice, and sometimes the second high voice, which has been called the flagellant voice.

A vocal register is a series of tones which are produced by a certain position of the larynx, tongue and palate. In the woman’s voice the middle register takes in the notes from E on the first line of the staff about to middle C. The head voice begins at middle C and runs up sometimes to the end of the voice, sometimes to B flat or C, where it joins the second head register, which I have heard ascend into a whistle in phenomenal voices cultivated only in this register and useless for vocal work.

Though the registers exist and the tones in middle, below and above are not produced in the same manner, the voice should be so equalized that the change in registers cannot be heard. And a tone sung with a head voice and in the low voice should have the same degree of quality, resonance and power.

As the voice ascends in the scale each note is different, and as one goes on up the positions of the organ of the throat cannot remain the same for several different tones. But there should never be an abrupt change, either audible to the audience or felt in the singer’s throat. Every tone must be imperceptibly prepared, and upon the elasticity of the vocal organs depends the smoothness of the tone production. Adjusting the vocal apparatus to the high register should be both imperceptible and mechanical whenever a high note has to be sung.

In the high register the head voice, or voice which vibrates in the head cavities, should be used chiefly. The middle register requires palatal resonance, and the first notes of the head register and the last ones of the middle require a judicious blending of both. The middle register can be dragged up to the high notes, but always at the cost first of the beauty of the voice and then of the voice itself, for no organ can stand being used wrongly for a long time.

This is only one of the reasons that so many fine big voices go to pieces long before they should.

In an excess of enthusiasm the young singer attempts to develop the high notes and make them sound—in her own ears, at all events—as big as the middle voice. The pure head tone sounds small and feeble to the singer herself, and she would rather use the chest quality, but the head tone has the piercing, penetrating quality which makes it tell in a big hall, while the middle register, unless used in its right place, makes the voice muffled, heavy and lacking in vibrancy. Though to the singer the tone may seem immense, in reality it lacks resonance.

A singer must never cease listening to herself intelligently and never neglect cultivating the head tone or over¬tone of the voice, which is its salvation, for it means vibrancy, carrying power and youth to a voice. Without it the finest voice soon becomes worn and off pitch. Used judiciously it will preserve a voice into old age.

Text excerpted from Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing; Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini; New York, 1909.