Music with Words Blog

Interpreting Garcia, Part One

It’s been made clear to me in the voice studio that many aspiring singers, especially young ones, come to the art ignorant of the truly amazing possibilities of the human voice in all its acoustic glory. Recorded pop vocals in the mainstream entertainment industry have eclipsed the true art of singing, influencing the collective opinion of generations. I may sound like a vocal elitist, but let’s look at the facts. You can find plenty of media reporting about the use Auto-tune by major pop stars, and the reality check may leave you pretty disappointed in your idol. No recording artist, pop or classical, releases a track that is not digitally edited for absolute perfection, and many who know about the golden age of Broadway wonder why a current Broadway star can’t project his or her voice without amplification that leaves your ears hurting for more than 24 hours after seeing a show.

 “…there are many gifts that a good singer needs to be complete.
A microphone is not one of them.”

 Anyway, I didn’t intend this to be my rant on the state of affairs in the vocal music universe, just an intro to the possibilities of voice instruction the way it used to [read: still should] be. I would hope that some would see in the following instructional material, written by Manuel Garcia over 120 years ago,a means of becoming ultra cool in the world of music, a vocal ninja of sorts, capable of feats of breathtaking expressive power with nothing more than a tiny set of muscles located inside their thyroid cartilages along with the rest of what god gave them. Of course, there are many gifts that a really good singer needs to be complete. A microphone is not one of them.

 “Thus, singing is becoming as much a lost art as the manufacture of Mandarin china
or the varnish used by the old masters.”

 I’m very grateful to Dr. Stephen Austin for reprinting this wealth of wisdom recently in the NATS Journal, from Garcia’s Hints on Singing1, the legendary voice teacher’s 1894 published edition. This amazing book is probably one of the most directly effective how-to book for singers and teachers alike. It should need no introduction or interpretation for those initiated in voice pedagogy, but I undertake this digest to make it clearly understandable for those who truly desire to understand vocal function and how to use it to sing with virtuosic integrity and power. This is becoming more rarified in our profession, and Garcia saw that even then, as he states in his introduction:

 “…The impresario, influenced by the exigencies of the modern prima donna, has been constrained to offer less gifted and accomplished virtuose to the composer, who in turn has been compelled to simplify the role of the voice and to rely more and more upon orchestral effects. Thus, singing is becoming as much a lost art as the manufacture of Mandarin china or the varnish used by the old masters.”2

 Using the laryngoscope he developed forty years earlier, the clarity that Garcia brings to describing the functional aspects of the voice is illuminating, and he cut straight to the heart of the issue of voice training with this simple tool made of two mirrors, armed with the facts and knowledge of more than a half century of experience teaching bel canto:

 “This instrument, laying bare the interior of the larynx, shows how the glottis proceeds to produce sounds and registers. It shows, also, the manner in which the ringing and veiled qualities are communicated to the voice. These qualities—produced by the glottis—are distinct from the characteristics of the voice called timbres, which are exterior to the vibratory organ and are originated in the pharynx by quite another mechanism. All this should dispel many false ideas afloat on the question of voice production.”3

What are your thoughts? I’m interested in your comments.

Coming up in Part Two: Nothing but the facts, please. Garcia goes on to simplify the functional anatomy of the larynx, breathing, support, and sound.


1.  Stephen F. Austin, “Is It Time for a Change?” NATS Journal 70, no. 5 (2014): 603-611.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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