The birth of a technique
After many years of research into all possible aspects of voice production in both humans and animals, and going into far more detail than we could possibly do here, White came to the conclusion that the vocal folds simply act like a valve that affects the behaviour of the column of air that travels up the windpipe from the lungs as you breathe out: below the vocal folds the air particles in the column are moving smoothly, while above the vocal folds they are vibrating in the way necessary to produce sound. All further development of this sound (not yet a voice), takes place in the cavities of the head.
This was the basis of what we now call White’s Technique.
Putting the theory into practice
To apply the theory in practice, White devised or students two unique sets of graded exercises (43 in total). All students did the early exercises; the later ones were designed more for singers, and could be chosen to help with particular vocal problems. Each exercise was to be practised at different pitches, first humming it, then singing it with the mouth open and relaxed, next singing using different vowels, and finally introducing consonants.
All the time the focus had to be on concentrating on the appropriate sinus, so as to mentally direct the sound there but without making any physical effort. In that way White aimed to train the student to use their four sets of head sinuses individually to make sounds which could then be blended together to produce a pleasing voice over the whole vocal range. With practice, this thought process becomes semi-automatic.
The idea of the student making mental effort while producing their voice but avoiding any physical effort was a central part of White’s thinking, and everything possible was done to make sure the student stayed physically relaxed during their lesson. F.M. Alexander, who devised the Alexander Technique, was working first in Australia and later in London at the same time as White. When White found out about Alexander’s work he became a supporter, as although the Alexander Technique does not deal specifically with the voice, Alexander’s ideas about keeping the body balanced with the minimum of muscular effort tied in closely with White’s own.
So that’s the story of how White came to his theory of how the voice is produced, but did he get it right? How do his ideas fit in with current thinking?
Was White right? He thought so!
White himself was absolutely convinced that his theory of how the voice is produced was correct in every detail. This is hardly surprising given that he had devoted forty years of his life to researching it. He had absolutely no time for anyone who was half-hearted in their support, or thought there might be some truth in both the vocal fold and the sinus tone theories of voice production.
He sums this up in his Conclusion to Sinus Tone Production: ‘The vocal folds either create tone or they do not. If they do, then Science and Singing is an abominable book fit only for the fire; otherwise the volume contains a very wonderful truth which will astonish the world … by the practical results that follow from the theory. To my mind an intermediate position is logically impossible; the two ideas cannot possibly mix.’
Let’s judge by results
White’s passion about the truth of his theory is very understandable, but perhaps, with hindsight, his insistence that everyone else had to share this absolute belief diverted attention away from its practical results.
Would White have been more successful if he had concentrated more on those practical results and less on the theory? He did actually admit late in his life that he had come to believe the important question to be asked about any theory was not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Does it work?’ – and White’s Technique certainly does.
The Ernest George White Society, which since White’s death has been promoting his ideas and training teachers in his Technique, has taken the view that White’s Technique should be judged by practice and experience rather than theoretical arguments.
Theoretical disputes tend to take up an enormous amount of time and effort to little purpose – as White himself found out the hard way. Neither side is convinced by the other’s arguments and the whole process goes on without ever reaching a conclusion. Practical results, on the other hand, are there for all to see – and hear!
Even the keenest supporters of White’s methods have to admit, though, that there are some problems with his theories of voice production. But on the other hand there seem to be far more problems in trying to prove the long-accepted idea that the voice originates from the vocal folds. A major difficulty for anyone studying how the voice is produced is that the experiments have to be done in living people, which obviously limits the kinds of experiments that can be done.
What’s the current thinking?
There are probably many reasons why White’s theory was never accepted by either the musical or the scientific establishments of his day. But Dr Roslyn Wells, who for her PhD thesis in 1997 carried out a comparative study of White’s Technique and vocal fold theories in voice teaching, concluded that one of the main ones was that White’s ideas were simply ahead of his time.
There is still establishment opposition to them now, and yet some of his ideas have made their way into mainstream vocal teaching – though sadly usually without any credit to the man who originated them.
In fact, though White would not have approved, in the century since he developed his theory of vocal production there has been a general movement in the direction that the truth probably lies somewhere between his theory of sinus tone production and the vocal fold theory. In other words, the vocal folds have a greater role than White believed and the sinuses and head cavities (the turbinates and nasopharynx to be anatomically correct) have a greater role than his opponents thought.
In short, the voice is probably produced by the complex integrated activity of the various components of the ‘vocal tract’, which is made up of the organs and air spaces extending from the lungs to the head sinuses. But in practice that doesn’t affect how the Technique is taught. As White’s student Arthur Hewlett pointed out in his own book about the Technique, Think Afresh about the Voice (1970):
‘The merit of White’s Technique is seen to be indeed that it gives rise to a reliable practical method which will go on being useful even if the theory is modified.’
One day science may discover all the secrets of voice production, and we will then know whether White was right, partially right or even completely wrong. But his Technique can continue to be judged by its results, and continue to help people like you to get the voice they want.