The technique of singing has been passed down through the centuries. Relics of ancient civilizations demonstrate that music, as an artform, flourished as far back as the Athenian Ampitheatre, and throughout the entire Mediterranean world. From these foundations, arose the music of the Western world, it’s birthplace steeped in the cultural traditions of Egypt and Babylon. Yet, only fragments of this music remain blaringly recognisable with us to this day. Music, like art and architecture, like society itself, has evolved, hand in hand, in keeping with the era.
The Role of the Church
The fall of Rome has commonly been considered to be around 476AD. Christianity spread throughout Europe, the King or Queen as Monarch and seat of power, with approval from the Church. Under the rule of Charlemagne (712- 814), the culture of the period was shaped largely by monasteries, and it was the monks who were the guardians of all learning, passing it to European Scholars. Thus, music in the Middle Ages was almost completely of a religious nature, patronised by Monks and Nuns. Hildegard Von Bingen is one such example, remembered for her poetry, writing and music. This is very evident in the plainsong or chant of the Gregorian era, under the rule of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). These chants were, at first, handed down orally from one group to the next. In melodic style, Gregorian chant is close knit and reasonably devoid of any large leaps in pitch. Eventually, as it progressed, it became necessary to record the various melodies, and so “neumes”, an early form of notation or physical recording, were devised. Music was either syllabic (one note sung to each text), neumatic (groups of two to four notes), or mellismatic with text extended over large groups of notes. Eventually, western music used an array of scale patterns known as modes, which formed the basis for European Art music, and the music we now refer to as “tonal” music.
A changing market for music – the role of the Middle class.
The late Middle Ages saw the building of great cathedrals, universities, and the emergence of cities replacing scattered towns. Royalty, nobility, and the newer class, the Boeurgoisie or middle class, saw music as a symbol or prestige, and within the cities, music found a civic role. Employment was offered to musicians at concerts, and by the 16th Century AD, the burgeoning Middle class became the market for music, for manuscripts, and were involved in amateur music making. It became possible for many individuals to earn a good living through the medium of music, either by performance, composition, or the vending of materials and instruments. Cathedrals and Churches employed musicians for services and occasions within the religious calendar. Thus, modern music, in whatever form, has been shaped in part by Greeks, Syrian and Hebrew influences, Sacred music of the earliest religions.
Bel Canto – enduring throughout the centuries
A great deal of study has gone into early music, and it’s links and connections with art, architecture, and indeed the social conventions, of each era. Much like music itself, which has evolved over the ages, the way singing has been taught has been passed down in writings of the time, and by instruction (word of mouth). This is evident in the extensive teachings of the Bel Canto School of the Italians of the 16th to 18th Centuries.
Tides of change.
Much of the later understanding of the way in which the voice actually works can be attributed to Manuel Garcia who, in the mid 19th Century, developed the Laryngoscope, an instrument which allowed for a much clearer understanding of the production of sound. Until this time, the voice could not be viewed working, and singing was monitored by sound range, clarity, fluidity, and the comfort and ease of the vocalist. Vocal instruction was conveyed through imagery, and demonstrated by the teacher.
In the early and mid to latter twentieth century, it was common practise for students to take lessons daily, often in groups, supervised by the teacher. I remember one of my own teachers recounting how she would run the streets of Brisbane, in stiletto heels, to attend her music lesson each day. At the end of her break, she would run back to her office to work as a Stenographer.
By the time I commenced study, in the early 1970’s, economic factors had seen a shift to a weekly lesson of one half hour or one hour in duration, followed by unsupervised practise throughout the week. Students were expected to study music theory and the piano for two years before commencing lessons, in order to play the melody line for themselves at home. Depending on the individual student, and the quality and manner of their practise at home, including how they are able to hear themselves sing, this method can be either very effective, or somewhat of a disaster. Building a sound vocal technique must be the first priority of the teacher, and in order to acheive this, students must be guided in sound practise techniques, which are critical for their development.
Just as the language of music, itself, has evolved since the earliest of times, and yet remains firmly steeped in the cultural influences of antiquity, so must teaching evolve, yet respect and draw from the valuable teachings and methods of the past. For example, all of my students work on Scales, Intervals, Modes and particularly on “Vocalises”. Exercises are invaluable for training the voice, working on technique, breathing, intonation, and achieving a desirably smooth legato vocal line. These can be purchased and downloaded from this site, and half an hour a day of good practise daily would rapidly see a marked improvement in the voice. http://helencolemansinging.com.au/?p=382
For this reason, I continue to study, to seek to improve my teaching by connecting with new ideas and research in the field. I am continually reminded of a particular method or discipline from forty years ago, which will serve well to improve vocal production or breathing, and overall technique. At other times, I draw on my own observations over the decades, the many books and articles constantly being made available by skilled music artisans and scholars, and the noteworthy comments of my colleagues who are adjudicating at eisteddfodau.
This blending of old and new, like the elements of music itself, is the basis behind my work, not only as a teacher and mentor of developing voices, but in my own professional career as a performer and recording artist. ©Helen Coleman