A Plea for Moderation

by Harry Colin Thorpe

Many are the counsels submitted to that most forlorn wanderer, the vocal student, and much he needs them; but among1 all the advice offered, the writer has found little or no preaching upon the great text of moderation. The language of vocal sagedom abounds in superlatives and the teacher who has no golden secret of bel canto which makes failure impossible is apt to be regarded as a mere numskull. In no other profession does there seem to be such a mania as that which we find in our own, for advancing a single idea or suggestion as a panacea for all ills. Because of this tendency to overemphasize, there is no field in which the student needs moderation more sorely than in that, of vocal study. Here extremes are usually ruinous, as we shall shortly see.

Perhaps the most persistent teaching of the last, few years has been the doctrine of relaxation. This is doubtless due to the fact that recent vocal investigations have thrown light upon processes formerly misunderstood or at best, obscure. Be this as it may, we have had this relaxation idea dinned into our ears from "morning-sun till dine," and most of us have lived in mortal fear of an "interference." Relaxation has been carried to an extreme and because of false statement and wrong interpretation, many have come to wreck upon what was heralded as a haven.

Seemingly, few understand that relaxation is an extreme condition, the opposite of which is rigidity, and that to a singer, muscular relaxntion is as useless as muscular stiffness. The fact that singing requires muscular activity seems self-evident; and normal muscular action is not. possible under conditions either of rigidity or limpness. The prevalent interpretation of the relaxation idea seems to be that of flaccidity. The true condition for voice production is one of normal muscular tension, avoiding alike the aforesaid extremes; moreover, the degree of muscular tension is bound to vary in proportion to pitch, power, emotional intensity and other factors. All singers who are the least bit introspective know that a high tone demands greater muscular activity than a low tone, although the balance of forces should always be maintained.

The gist of the matter is this: let all muscular activity be proportionate to the desired effect, not more nor less. Over-effort means extreme tension or rigidity of muscle which is reflected in hard unmusical tone-quality, embarrassment of the speaking parts, monotony of expression and general stiffness; under-effort means depression, lack of vitality, characterless and unmoving singing. Relax? Yes--relax what should be relaxed, namely, all unneeded muscles and all unnecessary tension of the muscles being used. Tense? Yes--but, tense only the needed muscles and tense these only in the proper degree. The tension requisite to lift a ten pound weight is inadequate for one of fifty pounds, while the latter degree of tenseness is not needed to elevate a weight of fifteen pounds. "Think on these things," avoid extremes, use common sense and be moderate.

What has been said above is true, not only of the breath-regulating muscle groups but also of the speech mechanism and its parts. Many students, for instance, spend hours in striving, directly or indirectly, for a low position (secured by relaxation) of the palate, never realizing that, such a condition vitiates tone-quality and engenders monotony. Normal action of the palate is absolutely vital, and this becomes an impossibility when it is sagging, limp and lifeless. The palate should be alert, ready and responsive, for it is the chief regulator of resonance, and if not allowed to perform its function in its own way, one can only suffer as a result.

The same holds good regarding lips, tongue, checks and jaw. A forced, unnatural state at any of these points is wrong--and so is a loose, devitalized condition. All of these agencies must function at a normal tension. Flee from these disciples of extremity and hold to the only safe and sane policy--moderation, proportion and balance.

Another school of extremists which should be commented upon is that of the vocal psychologists, a cult composed of theorists and idealists who refuse to learn from actual experience. These persons take the ground that vocal control should be purely mental and that the proper processes can be induced and coordinated simply by the formation of a right, tone-concept and persistent striving to voice the same. To an experienced thinker on vocal matters such a theory seems preposterous, but the apparent reasonableness of certain arguments seems to win some followers from among the novices and tyros in vocal study. The writer by no means declares invalid all the utterances of this school but he does maintain that its extreme doctrines are harmful and misleading, as are also those of the physiological camp, which would produce and control voice by muscle and mechanism.

To expose the methods of psychological theorists, let us suppose the case of a young woman whose breathing represents the clavicular or high-chest type. The first need in her case is the establishment of deep, vital breathing and breath control, centred at, the diaphragm. The psychological teacher proceeds to discuss the indirect control of breath and perhaps explains the essential characteristics of good vocal tone, closing his discourse with a model tone which he sings for the pupil. She is then told to amalgamate this tone with her own mental idea of vocal sound, and strive to realize the resultant image. When she succeeds in doing this her breathing will be correct. Can one conceive of a more round-about or haphazard means for securing a result?

On the other hand, contrast the preceding plan with one suggested by common sense and moderation. First, of all let me acknowledge the value of real psychology by asking the student to preserve his mental serenity and equilibrium while endeavoring to acquire deep breathing. Following this should come a brief, lucid statement of the facts of natural breathing, and the demonstration of the difference between that which is common or habitual and that which is natural. The pupil must be instructed how to stand correctly and taught proper poise of the body. As soon as this is under control he may attempt a deep breath, perhaps in response to a suggestion that he is quietly quaffing the fragrance of an odorous flower. How much more sensible is this procedure than the former, and how much more likely to get results!

Again, imagine the case of a young man whose trouble is an abnormal de-pression of the larynx. The psychologists would tremble to mention a part of the vocal mechanism! "All such references only make the student self-conscious and centre his attention upon the physical! He must get the right tone-concept, and when he has realized that, his larynx will be in its normal place!" To the right-about with such ideas! The pupil has a larynx and if the knowledge of that fact is to "be his doom, the sooner it comes, the better. Tell the young man the truth and show him the error of his way; point out the effect upon tonal quality of an abnormal position of the larynx, show him its normal pose, tell him to loosen his grip upon the sound box and in a half hour he will be, potentially at least, master of the situation. The psychologic method might have succeeded in a year or two--or very likely, not at all.

The sane and moderate person knows that man is both physical and mental and in securing a result will not hesitate to ask aid from either quarter, a radical position is absolutely untenable and sooner or later every physiologist and psychologist must sec the truth. Both parties are right and both wrong; but wisdom consists in adopting the useful elements of both and combining them under the direction of commonsensc thinking.