The George Bragg Library
Education of the Singer
Presented by George Bragg at the
Kodály National Convention
March 21, 1987
Los Angeles, California
My address today is respectfully dedicated to my esteemed colleagues and beloved friends, Dr. Ernö Daniel and his wife, Dr. Katinka Daniel, whose lives, dedicated to music and mankind, have blessed so many of us here in America and throughout the world.
I founded The Texas Boys Choir in 1946 and seven years later, commissioned a "Stabat Mater" from the Hungarian composer, Ernst von Dohnányi. This fact came to the attention of Ernö Daniel, and in a short time after receiving the work, we were preparing for the world premiere. During that time and through Dr. Daniel, the world of music-making was opened to me in the fullest and most meaningful way.
As fate would have it, the Hungarian Revolution was just taking place. Through friends of Dr. Daniel and his wife, who was still in Budapest, we learned of a young pianist, Istvan Selenyi, and his wife and child who had fled to Vienna. A letter or two were exchanged and arrangements made for the arrival of the family to come to Texas to join with us in our work. Mr. Selenyi was the one who introduced us to the Kodály concepts of ear-training and sight-reading. It was another world!
Within two years we learned of yet another Hungarian, Kalman Halasz, in New York City who had studied with Zoltán Kodály and, in fact, had taught in the Royal Conservatory where he taught teachers how to teach the Kodály Method. We began negotiations immediately. Within two months he had joined the staff of The Texas Boys Choir.
Kalman Halasz, who had been organist at the Cathedral of Pecs, was also a mathematician and a composer. He was a contemporary and a friend of György Ligeti. Mr. Halasz spent 10 years sharing his wealth of knowledge and the brilliance of his intellect before he died of cancer.
Mr. Halasz, through the Kodály Method, developed for our choristers an "inner ear" awareness; an ability to hear a pitch mentally and silently in the pre-phonation phase of the vocal process. Eventually, there was added the ability to correctly tune pitch, and to conceive the tone quality to be sung. It is a phase of training that we have come to know, in developing the students' "inner space," as training the "silent voice."
With the establishment of the hand-signs or symbols, we were able to give to our pupils an entrance into a world of abstraction. We were able to teach the student to hear through sight, and to be able to visualize what he heard. This Method then became the path toward perfecting the pupil's total relationship to the world of music which surrounded him: the non-vocal musical disciplines, the theoretical knowledge, and a dynamic creative activity.
Mr. Halasz not only blessed three generations of our choir, but through my travels and consulting services of the last ten years, Kalman Halasz, Istvan Selenyi, and Ernö Daniel have very directly enhanced the music-making and musicality of such groups as that beautiful, rare and great flowering organization for choristers, the California Boys' Choir under the devoted tutelage of Mr. Doug Neslund and Robert Rogers.
Still another choir has reached full bloom, The Pasadena Boys Choir under John Barron's guidance. And still another just reaching maturity, the Paulist Choristers, lovingly nurtured by Dr. Jon Wattenbarger of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood.
There are many other choirs that are blessed by the teachings in the Kodály lineage: The Boy Choir of Harlem, the Syracuse University Children's Choir, the Singing Boys of Pennsylvania, the Tulsa Boy Singers, the Arkansas Boys Choir and Florida's Singing Sons of Fort Lauderdale. In all, some 39 choirmasters have taken these Hungarians' way of creating music back to their own groups, after having studied at "The Institute for the Study and Advancement of Boy Choir" created in conjunction with Mr. John Barron.
Encountering much of musical America, I often find that music teachers readily agree that 97% of all children can and should learn to sing; the problem seems to be that teachers become paralyzed in deciding how the children should learn. Since there is conflict as to how (and if) to train a young voice, there is a resultant vacuum of great choral sounds to be found in children's groups in this country.
I would like to share with you some thoughts and observations on the subject, a bit of philosophy, and some basic truths garnered through the years.
The education of the singer is a simple yet complex series of incursions into small and strange worlds. Since the singer reflects the whole being when he begins his song, the composite of everything which he represents, or does not represent, becomes amplified in importance.
I once read an article in the January 1962 issue of Musical America in which André Mertens of Columbia Artists Management compiled a list of adjectives, reflecting qualities of greatness found in a singer.
These are the qualities of the complete artist person who sharpens his talent on the "wheel of trial and truth." The teacher of insight will recognize some of these qualities present in the talented, but untutored, beginning student, one who is gifted and is trustingly placed for a time in the care of the instructor.
Teachers, as custodians of talent, should consider more often the value of what they are doing - what it is they are entrusted with - in the development and nourishment of another's gift.
Music, in every age, has been an educative force. Creative powers can be stirred and developed by intelligent instruction. Once the pupil has discovered these powers, his view of the world about him changes, and he begins to feel the strength which comes to him by implication of this new knowledge.
The teacher's basic inner spiritual force gives strength and power to the student's desire for knowledge. It is the teacher's organized knowledge and his ability to impart that knowledge which should show the path toward these virtues of greatness. It is the teacher's visualization of the completed student as he begins, which will, by reflected thought and action, lift the pupil upward to greater heights.
The mind is the center of the body. It is the center of all being for the individual. All action, whether voluntary or involuntary, is centered in the mind.
It is the mind of the runner which must be trained, by repeated coordination with the body, to conceive the shortening of a four-minute mile. It is the gradual unfolding of mans' mind, his understanding, which allows him to move toward the moon, but it was high thought which had to arrive there first. It is the mind of the singer which must first be conditioned to listen, critically and intelligently for the musical sound and the singing work, before he can ever sing well.
We discipline the student's physical and mental actions and reactions by means of exercise. Mental actions can only be measured by physical reactions applied.
The educative value of any subject is measured in terms of its disciplinary powers in the student, or, in a completely different sense, the totally liberating result due to the discipline itself. Its effectiveness depends on the correct interpretation of the purpose it serves. The more this point is stressed in teaching, the more the pupil will be obliged to establish habits which are stable and, hence, decisive in the molding of the personality as a whole.
By its very nature, music is order, regularity, harmony, unity, balance and proportion. It is, accordingly, one of the three perfect intellectual disciplines, the other two being religion and mathematics.
Music, poetry, and rhythmic dancing from the rhythmic group in the arts whose influence on man is so mysterious. These three functions of art are able to rouse him to an ecstasy in which intellect has no place, and yet to impose on him the discipline of the laws of mathematics. They do not add anything to the sum of our knowledge, but they give a new quality to the substance of man.
Music, and particularly singing, awakens creative impulses in the mind which cause it to seek new channels of self-expression. In this way singing gives tone to the will and the imagination, and mental activity is invigorated.
Music has an intimate connection with the physical and mental systems, and therefore, acts directly on the emotions. Feeling, being dependent on the physical and the mental, is neutral from the point of view of moral value. But music, like all the arts, has the happy property of making the good lovable through beauty.
Music can open hearts and excite interests in subjects to which students would otherwise be indifferent. Students can be attracted to ideas through music while they are still not yet capable of grasping an abstract truth. Students are attracted by what
they love, and love means action. Action thereby becomes part of the will.
Music can serve in three ways to assist the molding of the human personality.
Song is one of the ways in which the soul finds expression. The education must direct and develop the healthy inclinations of the human soul towards this means of expression.
Vocal independence should be the end result of a trained singer. Most pupils have the ability to develop this power. Again, it should be stated that the student can go no further than his teacher is able to lead him.
To train a singer is a long, arduous and rewarding task as so many of you know. To train a child to sing correctly, a teacher finds himself facing a student who has preconceived ideas and imitations of singing and no concept of the body, technique, or even music. His thinking is undisciplined. His memory is short. The effective teachers are the ones who know how to remove those barriers so as to fill full the cup of the individual student.
I am in my fourth decade as a choral master and voice builder. Many of you deal with children as the principal source of students. With your indulgence I will speak now of a hypothetical student and give you a brief, but concise pedagogical survey of the nurturing of a chorister: his flowering and demise in four very short years.
You look at him there, 10 years old, knowing that formal concert tours are but two years away for this would-be singer. In that idealistic mind of yours, illogical from every point of view, you decide that you will train him - you will do it. Step by suffering step, if necessary, you can do it. What will happen to him if you don't teach him? Lost from music forever. You must do it!
He quickly learns that singing is elevated speech and in such a context, practice of the principles of singing is part of his daily life and functioning. He finds singing an abstraction, however, for his ideas are not yet at one with the ideal of artistic singing. But he does understand more than he did. He understands that breath is energy, that muscles support and that the voice must be free. He also knows that principles now being given him are good for a lifetime of use.
Rightly used, his breath will be the means by which the beauty of his voice can be heard, and the means by which the voice will grow. He will come to understand that a good, solid, consistent breathing technique is the basis of perfect singing, and that he must gain the ability to sing long musical phrases with all the accents and changes of intensity and pitch. In the beginning, nasal breathing will strengthen his voice and develop the muscles which are involved in both inspiration and expiration.
Later this inhalation will be enlarged in scope to include the mouth and he will breathe upward into both the nose and the mouth which contains the form of the vowel to be sung.
He begins to discover how the abdominal muscles work, how the chest and the abdomen work together. He finds that he should never raise his shoulders upon inhalation, that it can be a dangerous thing for a singer. Then he comes to understand his first abstraction. "A good singing voice always achieves a maximum sound or tonal effect with a minimum effort." He had accidentally gotten that right one time, and after a few tries had been able to do it again.
As his teacher, I must be a guardian of my student to help him develop good habits and to avoid such pitfalls as the glottal stroke which could lead to the formation of nodes. I need somehow to teach him that even the most powerful fortissimo has a soft beginning. And someday, all his singing must be based on the "sigh of the voice" which will give longevity and artistic beauty to his singing especially during his mutation period in adolescence.
I begin his vocalization by establishing his concept of head voice which eventually will be coupled with the ringing resonance of the hard palate and frontal facial structure which will produce the great carrying power of the mask, for here each vowel with its individual shadings will take on its own importance.
I will not induce him to sing "softly," but I will encourage him to sing vitally and freely, for vitality brings about proper phonation through support of the breath and free release of the pitch and word. I will guard against his use of force while enjoying his new-found sound and seemingly larger voice.
He will come to know the important difference between loudness of volume and vitality in his practice of singing.
By the age of eleven, he will sing carefully and well. In time, he will begin to build and establish his own personal repertoire apart from his choral one. Piano has entered his life and his knowledge of the keyboard has enhanced the singing of new music.
With his thrice weekly encounters with Kodály "Sight and Sound," the music graphs which he now reads have allowed his-"eyes to hear" and his "ears to see."
He isn't as talkative as he used to be. He walks most places instead of running. He stops occasionally to look at the paintings in the hall. His hair is usually combed now, his shirt-tail tucked in, and his shoestrings are tied most of the time. He shakes hands easily and his "sirs" are more natural. Most of the time there is a pleasantness about him. Obviously, he's doing better in school.
By this time, he has moved into a more advanced group and is proud of his first public appearances under his belt.
At the age of twelve, the slow growth of childhood begins to be noticed. His neck lengthens, the larynx slowly moves to the middle of the neck and an Adam's Apple assumes its proper prominence. A richness of quality and an increased strength of the vocal mechanism is noticed, while greater overtones and partials can be heard. His new joy is the result of the budding brilliance of his high notes.
Memorization comes easily. He is a beginning soloist now, and among the important members of the choir. His piano practice is a daily battle with Bach. His own vocal repertoire is serviceable to him within his school, church and civic communities. Vocally, more than two octaves are usable and there's a constant twinkle in his eye. He has confidence that now he can do anything, and his ambitions are unlimited. Musically, he is literate; physically no longer afraid, and nothing ahead of him but travel and glamour and honor and glory. He has forgotten that work is hard. Work has become joy.
His thirteenth year is one of love of work, and only the love shows. Each day begins with rededication and commitment as he goes through the school day thinking about the competition in rehearsal ahead and how he will conquer all. Concert tours take him from California to New York and from Canada to Mexico - and music critics begin to mention his name, and audiences give prolonged applause.
Bach and piano have been given a back seat for a time. My student is beginning to run instead of walk. His growing vocabulary adds interest to his increased talking. Saturday afternoons are spent listening to Texaco's broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. It is more fun to sing with orchestras than with piano, he has decided. He has concluded that Michelangelo is the greatest painter.
Vocally, he can do almost anything he desires. His latest venture is Mozart's "Exsultate Jubilate." His sustaining ability vocally is increased and he feels unlimited, so much so, that he decides to do all the embellishments, trills and all.
Three, four, five performances with orchestra of Mozart's exultation and something strange happens to a couple of the notes that never happened before - a kind of tensing on just a spot or two where support had always worked before. Probably just a bit of vocal wear. Rest will solve this as it has before. But what about that sudden chest-like production on the "E" coming up from the middle "C?" Surely, it will go away after some rest.
The next day, however, it was still there and the next day, and the next and the next. Finally, while vocalizing him individually in preparation for a series of concerts, I confirmed the suspected fact. Pubescence which had sat at his door for more than a year had reached full bloom and flower, and adolescence had begun. This was confirmed by his extended range, now to a "G" below middle "C" up to only an "A" below high "C."
My job now was to become his "bridge" from childhood to manhood - and our journey would take about a year. His singing would have to be moved bit by careful bit downward from a mezzo-soprano to contralto, and psychologically prepared for it.
Because of his workable technique and abdominal support, there would not be a break in his singing - only if he were to push. Boys who have a substantial breathing technique don't experience a "cracking" or "breaking."
He will need individual attention quite often now. The lack of it could be harmful. Most likely he will become a baritone or a bass: sopranos usually do. Most often altos become tenors.
Hoarseness will come and go as is often the way during the mutation period. He will be vocalized on "oh" and "ah" mostly and make profitable use of intervals in vocalizations in order to prepare him for the feeling of different registers. He will continue to sing while he crosses from childhood to manhood. Proof substantiates that it is entirely possible and proper that a boy sing into manhood. There is no evidence that during the period of great polyphonic vocal art that an experienced voice, a trained mind, and a disciplined body should be cast aside and allowed to cease its musical function.
Of course, after his voice has settled he will no longer sing as a chorister, but there is the men's choir where he may continue his vocal art and progress.
He will be missed by his peers, and I shall miss him as a friend and a sound. He will reluctantly take his leave. His parents will be happy to have him home for awhile, after all, the family unit hasn't been visiting for at least two years.
His hair is not as combed as it needs to be. The sparkle in his eye has become a twinkle, and Bach's going to get a lot better.
Formative musical training can only produce results if the musical sense of the student and his musical potentialities are considered. The result obtained through acquired musical knowledge, reacts on the whole individual's being and mentality. There is a decided correlation between progress in the subject of music and the general unfolding of the mind.
Modern man is menaced by the excessive development of the intellect and the increasing sway of technology over everyday life. Just as recreation is essential to maintain balance between mind and body, so music can offset the poverty of an inner life.
A teacher who molds harmonious individuals is at the same time creating a good in a world which constantly needs reminding of the importance of good. The teacher with high ideals is a guardian of society. The rare and fortunate teacher with renowned students is often one who establishes standards for the world around to admire and strive to surpass. We should all recognize the importance of the fact that society can be enriched through the ennobling of the human personality. This can be done in part through the careful and conscientious education of the singer.
® 1987 by George Bragg
Copyright © 2002 boychoirs.org
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