Emma Seiler: A Pioneering Woman in the Art and Science of Teaching Voice

Article excerpt

EMMA SEILER SAT AT HER WINDOW, positioned to catch the sunlight. Carefully inserting a mirrored metal rod down her throat, she fought back nausea, and began to sing. Her voice in recent months had been increasingly limited in range and beauty, despite her best efforts to sing technically well. Now, with sunlight, a mirrored scope, and what must have seemed like a bit of magic, Emma witnessed firsthand what her vocal folds had been trying to tell her.

Seiler noticed as she sang low pitches, then ascended gradually, that her vocal folds became red with blood-engorged strain. Determined to find a better path she tried lightening her effort, allowing the folds to move gracefully and naturally into the higher adjustment. The strain lessened, the redness dissipated, and her singing became freer as she watched. The evidence was there. Emma saw the response her own instrument made to this new approach. On that day in the early 1850s, she was on her way to restoring the beauty and freedom of her own voice.1

SEILER-A PASSION FOR SINGING AND SCIENCE

Emma Diruf Seiler (1821-1886) was a nineteenth century woman of science as well as a musical artist. With this combination of skills, Seiler defied the conventional expectations of an era when women rarely had opportunity to study science seriously. Study of art and music, on the other hand, befitted a lady's station in life. Singing, in particular, was a natural choice for many young women as a means of musical expression and even employment. Such employment usually entailed a combination of performing and teaching, with teaching most often the primary source of income.2

Seiler established her fame more through teaching than performing. Though she employed traditional teaching methods based on observation, acutely trained listening skills, and modeling, what set her apart from her contemporaries, both men and women, was a scientific interest in the anatomy and physiology of singing, with a specific interest in the phenomenon of female vocal registers. Her theories of female vocal registration were fundamental to her pedagogic approaches. Seiler claimed:

[T]here [is] not only an aesthetical side to the art of singing, but a physiological and a physical side also, without an exact knowledge, appreciation, observance, and study of which, what is hurtful cannot be discerned and avoided, and no true culture of art, and consequently no progress in singing, is possible.3

Seiler never pursued a performing career. Her performing aspirations were cut short due to serious vocal problems, most plausibly brought about by poor techniques. Her vocal dysfunction and eventual rehabilitation led her to pursue a less public life, but one dedicated to finding answers for vocal problems. She served two great missions: helping others and honoring what she considered the greatest of the musical arts-singing. She accomplished her goals primarily through research and teaching, focusing on vocal health, solid technique, and prevention of vocal abuse.

The purpose of this article is to examine the science-based discourses on female singing registers of Seiler by examining her historical writings, comparing them with the discourse of the larger voice teaching community in which she functioned, and with contemporary research on singing registers, in order to assess Seilers particular contributions to voice pedagogy. Because the theories of vocal registration she advanced were based on anatomy and physiology, her work lends itself readily to comparison with contemporary research in a way more traditional teaching methods may not offer. Her scientific scrutiny of vocal registers as a primary means of achieving healthy vocal technique contributed to the pedagogy of her day and helped forge a path to current understandings regarding registration theory.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Emma Diruf Seiler: An Inquisitive, Musical Mind

Emma Diruf was born into privilege on February 23, 1821, in Wurzburg, Bavaria. …