In Victorian England in the early 1880s, a young man called Ernest George White lost his voice as a result of the way he was being trained to sing at one of the London schools of music.
None of the medical treatments of the time were able to help him, so he set out to discover for himself not only what had gone wrong in his vocal training but how the voice should be trained in a way that is both effective and safe.
The system he devised, which we now know as White’s Technique, restored White’s own voice and proved remarkably successful with everyone who was taught it. The Technique was simple but also completely revolutionary, as it turned upside down the accepted ideas about how the voice works. That was why White spent 25 years researching and testing his theory before publishing his first book on it.
But the musical establishment still fought White long and hard, and even today, more than a century later, has not accepted his theories. The public, though, was more open-minded. They realized that the Technique worked, and bought White’s books in large numbers.
Ernest George White was born on 19 May 1863 in Lee, a suburb of south-east London. He was to live there for all but the last few months of his life. His father was a successful man, active and influential in the local community, who sent the young White (or E.G.W. as he came to be known) to a good school.
He also clearly passed on to his son his own love of music, as White took up music as a profession. He taught the piano and singing and, as the church was an important part of his life, it wasn’t surprising that he became a keen church organist and choirmaster; he also composed church services and songs.
The face that looks out at us from his photographs at the time seems rather serious and even stern, but those who knew him said he had not only seemingly boundless physical and mental energy, but a charismatic personality and a good sense of humour – a powerful mixture that he was going to need throughout his life.
Loss of his voice leads White to his big idea about voice production
As a teenager White studied singing at his local conservatoire in Blackheath, and then went on to the Guildhall School of Music in London. It was while he was there, having lessons from two singing teachers, that he developed problems with his voice. These became so severe that in the end he couldn’t sing or speak.
He never wrote much about these experiences so we can only imagine what a devastating blow the loss of his voice must have been for him. But we do know he spent what must have been a miserable and frustrating three years having a variety of unsuccessful medical treatments and trying to find out what had gone wrong.
His problems were finally cured – beginning, according to White, after only one lesson – when he met a voice teacher called Hugo Beyer, who believed it was possible to produce sound ‘above the tongue’. This was the exact opposite of the accepted teachings of the time which, because the vocal cords (now more correctly known as the vocal folds) were believed to be the only origin of the voice, emphasized working on the voice from the throat.
But White knew that he had recovered his voice when he actively avoided thinking about producing it from his throat. He became convinced that the only thing the vocal folds are designed to do is to regulate the flow of breath and set in motion that air in the way necessary to produce sound. If that was true, then there had to be somewhere ‘above the tongue’ where are the actual sounds of the voice are created using that air. White thought the obvious place was the various air cavities, known as sinuses, in the bones of the skull.
From that point onwards he devoted himself to researching, developing, teaching and publicizing this theory of voice production, which he called sinus tone production (and we now call White’s Technique) – ‘quite unconscious’, as he later said, ‘of the long years of endeavour ahead of me’.
White’s Technique is revealed to the world – eventually
The idea that White had come up with was basically simple but completely revolutionary. The theory that the voice is produced in the throat by the vocal folds had been around and generally accepted since about 200 AD. White was committing heresy on a grand scale. This was no doubt why he spent nearly 25 years researching and testing his theory before he felt ready to reveal it to the world. He knew he would need a good case with as much evidence as possible to back it up.
Finally, in 1909, he published his first of three books on the subject, originally under the title Science and Singing but in its later, expanded editions from 1918 onwards, called The Voice Beautiful in Speech and Song. He went on to publish charts of the unique, carefully devised vocal exercises he had put together for students learning his method of voice production.
As expected, Science and Singing was, as a review in the Daily Telegraph described it, a ‘musical bombshell’. There were a number of competing theories at the time about the best way to teach vocal production, especially singing, but they were all based on the assumption that the voice is produced solely by the vocal folds. White’s argument completely demolished the basis for all these methods, and with it the credentials of all the established experts in voice production.
It was hardly surprising, then, that it provoked violent opposition from many sections of the vocal community – opposition that still hasn’t disappeared a century later. Large sections of the medical community were also up in arms when told by a lay-man that their text-book explanations of vocal anatomy and physiology were wrong. And they were all probably even more annoyed because it was clear that, regardless of the theoretical basis of White’s Technique, it was being proved time and again that it worked excellently in practice.
White battles the establishment…
From the time Science and Singing was published, and his theories and methods were available to the public, White worked tirelessly as both a teacher and a campaigner to convince others of his ideas.
Not surprisingly, like many people who have radical new ideas, he found it very hard going battling against the vested interests of the establishment. Newspapers were the ‘mass media’ of White’s time, and controversy over his theories raged for years in the press – in some of the daily papers as well as the specialist musical and medical publications.
Not everyone was against him. There were well-respected medical authorities who were convinced by White’s evidence for his theory; but there were more who weren’t, despite the fact that, as one of White’s supporters pointed out, ‘his opponents who attempt to demolish his theories have nothing nearly so plausible to offer us instead’. The fight got pretty dirty, some of the opposition resorting to character assassination in the absence of any better arguments.
With hindsight, White may not have helped his cause by absolutely refusing to compromise any of his beliefs, and his general attitude of ‘If you’re not with me then you’re against me’ probably antagonized some people. On the other hand, his completely unshakeable belief that his theory was right must have been what kept him going when everything and everyone seemed to be against him.
White had started his life as very much a part of the Victorian musical establishment: a church musician, pupil at a well-respected London music school, and a teacher passing on the musical knowledge he himself had learnt. Now, because he had dared to publish the results of researches that challenged the accepted ‘truth’, he had become a subversive, shunned by the society he had once belonged to.
He was neither the first, not will he be the last, original thinker to suffer in this way, but it must have hurt him to read in the press that he was thought a ‘crack-brain’.
Perhaps even more painful was that in the end he was simply ignored by those who did not, or simply could not, believe he was right. In one attempt to prove his methods to the establishment he offered to teach for a year (free) three singing students who had failed their exams at London’s Royal College of Music, and to have them examined again at the end of the year by independent judges to see whether they were still failures. Because White himself was open-minded and believed the most important thing was to find out the truth, he rather naively thought that the Royal College would be equally open-minded about putting his methods to the test and would judge him on his results with the students. In fact the Principal of the Royal College simply refused even to discuss White’s offer.
… but finds success with the public
Many years after Science and Singing White produced two other books. The first, published in 1930, was Light on the Voice Beautiful, in which he brought together and expanded on many of the public debates his theories had provoked in the press.
Then, in 1938 when White was 75, came Sinus Tone Production. The rather touching dedication at the front of this, which presumably acknowledges the very bumpy ride his critics had been giving him for many years, is ‘To my wife, whose loving care has helped me through many difficulties’. (Indeed his second wife Edith, whose initial relationship with E.G.W. was as a governess to his three daughters by his first marriage, had been a great support to him, and a great supporter of his cause, since their marriage in 1927.)
This last book is the most practical of the three, explaining the method for learning what we now call White’s Technique – or as White put it ‘the exact procedure which will ensure the development of beautiful vocal tone’ – as well as its ‘curative functions’ for people with vocal problems. In the same year a fifth edition of The Voice Beautiful was also published, as ‘the result of a large demand’; so clearly the public wanted to know about White’s theories.
Indeed the public were very interested in White and his ideas. Poems even appeared on the subject of sinus tone production. One, written in 1932 by a Mr Horace Mills and called The Voice Beautiful, includes the verse:
‘So if you’d have your voice to grow
And blossom like a rare geranium,
Forget your larynx – let it go!
And cultivate your cranium.’
It’s not recorded whether E.G.W. appreciated this paraphrase of his theory, but given his sense of humour, he probably did. And he probably also appreciated the encouragement in the final verse to go out and buy his book:
‘Purchase his book (six shillings, net),
Mark well the wit and wisdom in it.
Then, if you persevere, I’ll bet
You’ll warble like a linnet.’
Actually the public was purchasing his book, in rather large numbers, and all over the world. Starting the trend which has continued to this day, the public were far more open-minded than the establishment about White’s revolutionary ideas. They had nothing to lose by accepting that established dogma was wrong, and everything to gain from a voice production method that sorted out their vocal problems and gave them the voice they wanted. They were prepared to judge White’s methods on results, and there was plenty of well-documented evidence in the press showing that his methods really did work – most sensationally a report of how one man whose vocal folds had been destroyed when he was young, and two others who had been voiceless, were able to sing in public after studying with White.
Reading White’s books today gives an interesting view of both the man who wrote them and the world in which he lived that is so different from our own. The introduction to Science and Singing starts with a sentence that could have been written today: ‘Every month and almost every week, fresh wonders of science and skill are being unfolded … for the benefit of the human race.’ Except that two of the fresh wonders White gives as examples are ‘radio-telephony’ and ‘radio-activity’ – the practical applications of which we now accept as such ordinary, if vital, parts of our life that we rarely stop to remember what wonders they are.
So of course in some ways the books can’t help but seem old-fashioned, especially when their author is arguing in detail against the rival theories of musicians and physicians of his day who are now long gone and forgotten. But through the text shines the spirit of a man who obviously read widely with a lively and open mind, finding in all sorts of unlikely places interesting nuggets of information to support his theories, and quoting frequently from thinkers as diverse as Plato, Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, John Keats and Charles Darwin.
And there is certainly nothing old-fashioned about the Technique that was the end result of all this research. In fact, with its emphasis on self-realization, it comes across as decidedly modern.
As a teacher, White helped numerous pupils with a wide variety of vocal problems, many of whose cases are documented in detail. He always intended his Technique to help speakers as well as singers. Indeed the publicity blurb for Light on the Voice Beautiful records how ‘schoolmasters and the clergy’ (who in those days were expected to deliver long sermons to large congregations without the help of a microphone) ‘must be counted as some of his most grateful and enthusiastic supporters’.
He also successfully treated many stammerers and sufferers from chronic catarrh. In White’s day infected catarrh was a serious health problem for many people that was extremely difficult to cure – there were no antibiotics then. Not only was it very unpleasant to live with, but the infection it carried was known to lead to all sorts of other problems including deafness, asthma, bronchitis and even tuberculosis and madness. But White found from working with many sufferers that regular practice of his Technique not only cleared the catarrh but helped to prevent it building up again. As a result he felt he had made an important contribution to medical science.
White was clearly one of those inspiring teachers whom students never forget. A number of his students are on record as saying that their lives were changed by him, sometimes after only one or two lessons. His last surviving pupil, Arthur Hewlett , who died in 2005 at the grand age of 102 (and who until well into his eighties still had the good tenor voice that he had developed thanks to E.G.W.’s tuition), remembers him even in older age as ‘untiring, stimulating, and with a keen sense of humour and infectious laugh that cheered many a pupil’.
White must have needed that perseverance and sense of humour through the times when he seemed to be getting nowhere trying to convince people about his Technique.
It seems White was not a natural businessman, because it wasn’t until 1931, when he was 68, that he registered a business name for his Technique, calling it (accurately but to our ears rather offputtingly) The School of Sinus Tone Production. Two years later the teachers and students of the School formed themselves into the charmingly named Guild of the Voice Beautiful, which held annual meetings and recitals until the Second World War, by which time it had over 300 members.
Towards the end of Sinus Tone Production, White’s last book, written only a couple of years before his death, he looks back over the forty years he has spent researching, teaching, publicizing and fighting for his ideas on voice production.
He clearly still finds it surprising that a project he thought he might spend two or three years on has occupied his whole working life. He can’t hide his disappointment that his theory of vocal production has not been more widely accepted in musical and scientific circles. But he is pleased that he has had the opportunity to dedicate himself to a cause he feels so passionately about, and that through the Technique that is the practical result of his theory he feels he has been able to serve both God and humanity.
Ernest George White died on 10 January 1940, and was buried in Lewisham cemetery next to his first wife Ethel. He was survived by his second wife Edith and his three daughters. None of his daughters seemed particularly interested in their father’s work, but Edith carried on supporting the cause until her death in 1969 at the age of 84.
In 1944 the Guild became the Ernest George White Society, formed to promote research into White’s Technique, train teachers in the method, and encourage their students through workshops and recitals. This work it still carries on today.
Sources of information
Correllus, J.F. (1989). The Life and Times of Ernest George White, Founder of the School of Sinus Tone Production: An Archival Research. JFC Publisher, San Francisco, 1989.
Hewlett, A.D. (1981). Think Afresh About the Voice: A General Theory and Guide to Practice, revised and enlarged edition. Classical Music Consultants, London. [Click here to buy paperback from Amazon]
Wells, R. (1997). The relevance of metaphor in voice teaching: a comparative study of sinus tone production and vocal cord theories. PhD thesis, University of Reading, Berkshire, UK.
White, E.G. (1930). Light on the Voice Beautiful. James Clarke & Co., London.
White, E.G. (1938). Science and Singing, 5th edition. J.M. Dent, London. [First published as Science and Singing 1909. Revised and reprinted three times as The Voice Beautiful. Fifth edition, revised and reset, as Science and Singing 1938.]
White, E.G. (1938). Sinus Tone Production. J.M. Dent, London.