This book condenses Wragg's thoughts on singing technique in his mature years and contains much of interest. It is in part the fruit of time spent in the company of 'old school' singers and teachers of the Italian Bel Canto tradition. One of its aims is to illustrate the many and various obstacles that can arise to vocal freedom in classical singing. It was certainly a book worth writing, and while it will never be a 'fix' or a substitute for study and exploration with a good singing teacher, it holds much old-school knowledge, with some idiosyncratic ideas interspersed throughout.
Do not expect a light read, or to be able to skim. Having become familiar with FM's four books we cannot, of necessity, be wimps in the matter of reading, but I really needed to go slowly and hold myself to each paragraph to be sure I had grasped it. At 173 pages, the task is feasible.
It would be forgivable to think that the task Gerald Wragg gave himself here was an impossible one. As with teaching the Alexander Technique from a book, we are constantly and repeatedly faced by the obstacle of unreliable proprioception on the part of the singer. I did ask myself a number of times what the intended readership of this book might be. Classical singers, for sure; but maybe repetiteurs or coaches who wanted to give better advice to their singing clients? Wragg often adds tips for those familiar with the Alexander Technique, and alternative advice for those who are not. He describes using 'monkey position' facing a wall, with the forehead resting gently on the wall, as a way of learning to organise posture and breathing for those who have no Alexander experience. Having done this often with quite experienced AT students, I couldn't help wondering what might be the result for students experimenting alone.
Many of Mr Wragg's written observations and ideas are pertinent and will be useful to singers and teachers alike. The need to 'auralise' (mentally hear) a desired sound in anticipation of its vocal onset; the balanced in-breath being a self-coordinating response to an optimal out-breath; an understanding of the dangers of plosive consonants and breathy singing.
There were also a couple of very apt quotations from FM's two 'New Method of Respiratory Education' articles, found in Articles and Lectures (Mouritz) which remind us how completely he had understood the self-organising nature of an optimal in-breath.Other ideas are impractical: to attempt to avoid breath ever entering through the mouth when singing can only lead to sniffing, yet no solution for a quick breath that is not mouth-breathing (gasping) is offered. He tells us when singing vowels not to allow the tip of the tongue to be forward, in contact with the teeth, but that it must 'reflexly tend backwards', supposedly to automatically create space behind the tongue. This would be seen as a problematic habit rather than a reflex by most modern teachers, and to tend to the opposite result from that sought.
Wragg is enthusiastically on the side of Manuel Garcia II and his oft-misunderstood 'coup de glotte'. Alan Lindquest defined it as a 'gentle closure' of the vocal cords that encouraged a student to begin the sound cleanly and without a push of breath pressure, but rather with a stretch of the lower body muscles. (For this closure, imagine taking a breath to speak, and realising you had forgotten what you were going to say, or feel the closure as you imitate an American saying, 'Huh-oh', at the end of the 'huh'.) Wragg, with the English translation of Garcia's text to rely on, seems to understand this as either the closure of the cords 'or the sphincteric opening of the cords, by which the tone is released. Whichever he means, it matters not, as both movements are reflex [ . . . ]'. Other teachers might regard the distinction as absolutely essential. It seems a pity to me that the book doesn't touch on the principles of Francesco Lamperti, technically the complement to Garcia, as his approach and his vocalises are profoundly compatible with whispered 'ah' work and help us to experience inhibition in the whole body through extended exhalation, whether silent or sung.
One difficulty in this book is that, whilst espousing a system (the Alexander Technique) which predicates on the coordination of the human organism as a whole, it describes many individual cause-and-effect chains which are anything but wholistic in nature. 'If X problem is happening, there is undue tension in Y muscle or structure'. I repeatedly found myself responding, 'Often, yes, but not always.' Sometimes the imbalance in question has its root in a different location entirely, or in several, even within the psyche. Similarly, when advised that 'B is desirable, and doing A will result in B', I could only agree with the proviso that 'A may well allow B to happen, but cannot guarantee that it will'.
A teacher of vocal technique who is worth her salt will not apply a 'method' but will see each student as a unique and developing whole. She will draw on principle and experience to devise a logical progression towards vocal balance and skill, by all means, but never assuming a single cause for a single effect. It has been said that any good voice teacher should have five different ways in their mental tool-box to explain and teach each technical concept, because singers do not respond identically to the same suggestion or imagery.
The essence of Wragg's philosophy (what he calls the 'opening technique of vocal use') seems to be as follows: correct use of the primary control is not only paramount, but replaces many aspects of what is considered elsewhere as classical vocal technique. Any attention to support or breathing is simply interference: 'Remember, the responsibility for posture, breathing and support can safely be left to the conscious non-interference with the operation of the primary control' (Wragg's emphasis). Of course, there is nothing particularly 'natural' about classical and operatic singing, and the removal of muscular interference alone will not give us a serviceable technique in any complex activity. What serves for healthy, 'natural' respiration will not stabilise the body and protect the vocal organs when several hours of Verdi or Wagner must rise above an orchestra and be intelligible.
Some of the science Wragg learned in the mid-20th century has been relegated to history by more recent research. He refers to several actions as being 'natural' or 'reflexive'; to name but two, the closure of the glottis (vocal folds), if we pause slightly at the end of the out-breath or of the in-breath, and that an opening of the pharyngeal space is 'pure reflex'. Reflex and habit are easy to mistake for one another.
In breathing, he tells us that 'the diaphragm cannot be tensed to support the tone because its sole function during the act of breathing out is to relax [. . . ].' Such an idea, now disproved, is somewhat unhelpful. The muscular fibres of the diaphragm offer concentric contraction (shortening) on the in-breath, and eccentric contraction (paying-out, but with resistance) on the out-breath, as a stabilising element in the complex interplay of internal and external intercostals, scalenes, interior and exterior obliques, the two layers of the pelvic floor and, very importantly, the transversus abdominis. Throughout each exhalation there is an interplay of many propelling and resisting forces - gravity, elasticity and muscle action amongst them - and with each inhalation it is the same. Only in absolute collapse or death is there no resistance to the out-breath, and it should never be the vocal folds' task to withhold the unfettered force of such an out-breath. Indeed, in the chapter of Vocal Attack (i.e. onset), we learn that the primary function of the vocal cords is to protect the lungs from the entry of food and liquids, phonating being a secondary function. This, like most anatomical statements, is unattributed and sits oddly with what we know about the movement of epiglottis and the larynx in swallowing, the location of the false vocal folds and other relevant oddments. At least the notion is harmless to the singer's task.
His observation that, in his invention of a 'resisted' Whispered AH, 'the larynx remains properly suspended, that is to say it does not rise as usually happens with the Whispered AH, nor, as sometimes happens, is it unduly lowered,' might also raise an eyebrow amongst those of us who enjoy teaching and using the Whispered AH ourselves. After all, Wragg employs it as a mainstay of his teaching on breathing and on support (or rather, the absence thereof).
And yet there is far too much of interest in this book to relegate it to a top shelf. Quotes from Gigli about 'singing on the breath below the larynx', good advice on humming, How to Learn a Song, and other gems. I'll admit that I'd like permission to underline just a few passages and tag them with a vocal health warning, but nonetheless I would recommend this book to a singer or voice teacher who already had a secure understanding of their technique, secure enough for them to know what to pass over and what to use and enjoy. Everyone else - enjoy, in the knowledge that a book is no substitute for lessons.
2017 © Patrick Ardagh-Walter. Reproduced with permission.This edition © Mouritz 2017. All rights reserved.