Vocal Training


Training the Boy’s Voice
by
George Bragg
(from "The Big Book")


There has been considerable speculation as to how old is the art of teaching boys to sing. Chartres, in northern France, had a boychoir school around 435 AD, but there is evidence that on the Carthaginian peninsula on the North African coast, there was a song school established as early as the first century, AD. There comes a time in research when one can no longer go backward in time looking for boy choirs; one must begin to look for boy singers.

The earliest historical evidence which has been found of the use of a boy singer occurred in Egypt in the necropolis of Thebes, about 1500 BC., in the New Empire. Their singing was done by soloists or in choral groups, either antiphonally by alternating choir groups or responsively, one soloist beginning, the choir responding with a ritornello.

What was popular and practiced in Egypt became a matter of imitation with some variance in the adjacent nations according to the conditions, patterns, needs, and appetites. In Babylon, Assyria, Judea and eventually Greece, the boy singer, either individually or corporately, was brought into the life of the courts of the royalty of each nation, and woven into the patterns of religious worship.

The Greek ideal of education was to bring the beautiful and good in every young man to the point of spiritual unity. Greek education was directed less to imparting knowledge to youth than to the formation of his character. In the development of the Greek city-state, the practice of music was not considered a "private" matter, but was the concern of the state.

The earliest efforts in training a boy to sing is the primitive method of repetition and imitation. It is still the most used technique that music teachers have at their disposal. The boy who is able to hear the beauty of tone, conceive the structure and mood of a composition, and manifest the elegance, grace, charm, sympathy, brilliance, radiance or sublimity of sound is the kind of talent which the teacher is seeking. The ultimate basis for vocal artistry is the sheer loveliness of tone. Therefore, the vocal teacher must be a master of vocalism and singing.

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, and particularly singing, awakens creative impulses in the mind which cause it to seek new channels of self-expression, and mental activity is invigorated.

Music has in 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 interest in subjects to which the student 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 student’s will.

Song is one of the ways in which the soul finds expression. The student’s education must direct and develop the healthy inclinations which emanate from 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. It needs to be stated that the student can go no further than his teacher is able to lead him.

We 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 currently a vacuum of choral sounds to be found in this country.

There is little reason to fear failure. The one ingredient needed is courage and involvement. There are many sources of information for solving organizational and vocal problems, some ideas that were tested generations ago, and some as recent as two years ago. The art of teaching a child is ever new: the principles go back to the ancient past. The pleasure is found in knowing what to do to correct problems, how to teach in order to avoid problems, and to discover the source of difficulties, not unlike a vocal "Sherlock Holmes." The sense of pride comes from the use of intelligence to overcome problems.

We could talk about the numerous kinds of Boy Choirs. I was trained in my early years in the Apollo Boys Choir under Coleman Cooper who had trained with Dr. Clarence Dickson at the Brick Presbyterian; Dr. T. Tertius Noble, St. Thomas Church, New York; Walter Hall, St. James Church, New York; Ellsworth Johnson, Church of the Holy Cross, New York; and with Father William J. Finn, founder-director of the Paulist Choristers, New York. Most used the choral techniques which created the tonal beauty so indigenous to the architecture of Gothic style churches. Most of his teachers were of this disposition: English derivation both in musical style and speech. This English direction continued for approximately five years, when our director visited the Vienna Boys Choir and came home with an assistant director from the Viennese school under Victor Gomboz. So, for a while we sang in the approximate style of the Wiener Sängerkaben. A few years later I encountered a technique from the Italian school, Bel Canto. Finally, I came across a choral sound based on American speech patterns.

America has had many outstanding choral directors. It has had a few great choral conductors in the field of Boy Choir. Seven come to mind immediately: Henry B. Roney, in Chicago; Father William J. Finn, of Boston and Chicago; Coleman Cooper of Birmingham, Alabama; Herbert Huffman of Columbus, Ohio; and Dr. T. Tertius Noble of St. Thomas Church, New York; and in the West, Robert Mitchell of Hollywood and Eduardo Caso of Tucson, Arizona. Each gave his unique insight to Boy Choir. These men gave luster to the image of singing boys in numerous settings throughout the continental United States.

Europe has had a plethora of practitioners in the art of Boy Choir, and none has brought to America more of a sense of magic and nostalgia than the Vienna Boys Choir of Austria. Although begun by royal decree of Maximilian I in 1498, it was not until after World War I with the fall of the House of the Hapsburgs that the elegance of Austria and the commercial know-how of America came together. Father Josef Schnitt, chaplain to the royal family, fought for a way to make the Imperial Chapel live on. He joined forces with Sol Hurok, the impresario in New York, and a new idea was born!

About forty years ago, Professor Ferdinand Grossmann of Vienna, already famous throughout Europe for his way with voices, was contracted by the Vienna Boys Choir to train both choirmasters and choirboys. Prof. Grossmann had studied voice with Otto Iro. Otto Iro taught innumerable artists voices, and was also teacher to Prof. Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, founder of the Tölzer Knabenchor.

Professor Grossmann was the chorus master of the Vienna State Opera and while working with the Vienna Boys Choir was also filling the post of Kappelmeister of the Imperial Chapel, that most auspicious post of Vienna’s hierarchy of musical positions. One of Prof. Grossmann’s students was a man by the name of Romano Picutti who had studied piano in Milano with a pupil of Busoni.

He soon became a musical director of the Vienna Boys Choir. He and Prof. Grossmann recorded an album of Franz Schubert’s choral music, their one monument to their collective greatness. Shortly thereafter, Picutti was invited to come to Morelia, Mexico to condut the choirs of the Colegio de las Rosas, the oldest conservatory in the western hemisphere. He did so brilliantly, and his fame spread throughout the Americas.

Two years later, my small staff and six choirboys and I attended our first six-week summer session in Morelia. There the boys attended daily three-hour sessions with the Niños Cantores de Morelia and had afternoon classes twice a week with one of the instructors from the boys choir. Each boy had an individual schedule which he kept. He was assigned the first vocal exercise, humming on a single pitch. He was allowed to practice for five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening before a mirror. When he had made sufficient progress, his practice time was increased to ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening.

At the end of the third week on this exercise, the instructor asked to hear the second exercise, "Hum-Ah". When this took place, the sound was so remarkably changed that it was hard for us to imagine what had happened. The sound was centered in the upper area of the mask, the resonance was pronounced, and the body had become involved in the vocal process: the chest was resonating and the body was providing a resonance which we had not heard before: the body had become an instrument.

During the remainder of the three weeks, numerous exercises were added, but in a given order, and according to the individual’s ability to apply the mental and physical requirements. The singing was vibrant! Then each boy sang excitingly, even though he was an individual singer, who still had to gain the nuances and elegance that would make him an outstanding soloist.

Romano Picutti passed away four years later at age 40 with cancer, Hodgkin’s Disease. Some years later when I was chatting with Ferdinand Grossmann in Vienna, I said to him that I thought Romano was the greatest of the current masters of Boychoir. He replied that he thought Maestro Picutti was the finest that he had ever known.

So, today we are going to spend a bit of time running through the exercises that were given to me forty years ago which had come to my teachers from their teachers, indeed into the distant past, and who knows how far back into history these basic principles may go.

There are three basic ingredients in the art of singing: posture, breathing and phonation or sounding. Posture is the foundation. There are eleven points for consideration:

  1. Feet comfortably apart and approximately parallel.
  2. Body weight forward and equally distributed on both feet.
  3. Keep knees flexible – do not lock the knees.
  4. Pelvis is tucked under – not tilted backward and out.
  5. Lower abdomen flattened.
  6. Elevation in the small of the back.
  7. Chest elevated and expanded.
  8. Shoulders back, down, and relaxed.
  9. Arms and hands hang loosely and comfortably at the sides of the body.
  10. Neck relaxed.
  11. Head is in an easy swiveling position and tilted.

 

Breathing

A. General Considerations
  1. Breath is the fuel and energy of the voice.
  2. Breath should be the natural result of necessity.
  3. The singer should never think of how much breath, but rather what kind of breath to take.
B. Intake of Breath
  1. Breathe into the vowel you are going to sing.
  2. Inhale through both the mouth and the nose simultaneously, breathing in an upward direction, and feeling as you do so, a small cool spot in the roof of the mouth, just behind the upper front gum ridge.

C. Release of Breath

  1. The release of the breath causes the vocal cords to vibrate and sound.
  2. Begin the release of the breath with a gentle tug (inward movement of the upper abdomen at a poing just above the navel).
  3. The breath must be released very gradually and uniformly, just enough to allow the vocal cords to sound. Get the most sound from the least amount of breath.
  4. The upper abdomen is brought slowly, gently, and steadily inward and upward in a supportive manner while the lower abdomen is held firmly in place and flat.
  5. The upper abdominal muscles lift the breath to the vocal cords; they are not used to force the breath past the vocal cords.
  6. As the breath is released, the height of the chest is maintained.

Singing

    1. Singing is elevated, sustained, and energized speech.
    2. The voice is created in the pharynx and the mouth, in the area just above the vocal cords and the tongue. This is our most important resonating area since it is the area of greatest flexibility.
    3. A good singing voice always achieves a maximum sound with a minimum effort.
    4. The throat remains open and tall inside.
    5. There must always be a yawn-like sensation in the pharynx (back of mouth and upper throat) as you sing.
    6. The jaw must always have a feeling of hanging loose. Let it hang (or drop) from the hinge just in front of the ears.
    7. The tongue rides forward and up over the hyoid bone, a supportive cartilage located under the tongue and within the lower jaw. The tongue should never be pushed down at the back.
    8. Generally speaking, for all vowel sounds, the tip of the tongue rests down behind the lower front teeth.
    9. The singer must always think everything from the middle, and he must have an open feeling all the way up from the middle of the body to the mask.
    10. Always sing to the cool spot, the pin-point in the roof of the mouth just behind the upper front gum ridge.
    11. All vowels ring in the hard palate. As the pitch becomes higher, mask resonance becomes stronger and moves toward the eyebrows.
    12. Head and chest resonances change as the pitch changes. The higher pitches have more head resonance; the lower pitches have more chest resonance; and the pitches in the middle range have a mixture of both.
    13. The singer has three basic responsibilities:
      1. To stand correctly (posture)
      2. To breathe correctly
      3. To speak the words energetically while singing them.

Maestro Picutti put these principles into focus of purpose. He sought to teach the multitudes of singers a mastery of vocal technique. His pupils were poor peasant boys who could not afford the price of a piece of paper, or a slice of bread. He counted on the methods used by Maximilian I to solve his problems.

Each boy was to be given two meals a day. Each boy was to receive four pairs of shoes a year. Each boy was to receive four shirts, three pairs of trousers, and his regalia for concerts each year.

Heading the list were dictums about food, the most important concern of all, especially for a growing boy whose calendar, then and now, included a strict daily program of prayers, classes, rehearsals, study, play, and bed.

Romano Picutti’s ideal of education was to bring the beautiful and good in every young man to a point of spiritual unity as is the ideal of every choirmaster who ever raised a hand to conduct a chorus. These men gave luster to the image of singing boys in settings throughout the continental United States and in the beauty of Western Europe.

Copyright © 1981, 2001 by George Bragg. Used by permission.

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This page was last modified on 06 December 2005