"The Way Alfred Wolfsohn Taught"


Second Lecture given by Sheila Braggins

at Myths of the Voice Festival, Pan Summer University,

Malerargues. July 2005


AW always said that he was 50 years ahead of his time. It is difficult to know how much one person has truly affected a change of concept for any particular subject, but it is true that the whole attitude to voice has altered dynamically in the past fifty years. It is certainly a fact that none of us would be here today at Malerargues, if Alfred Wolfsohn had never existed. Roy would possibly have remained in theatre, he might even have formed a Roy Hart Theatre, but he would never have used the voice as the focal point of his work in this particular way.

AW believed that the human voice is not merely an instrument of expression, it is the real expression of the personality, whether one likes it or not, it is a revealing means of communication. He felt that he gained an immediate insight into a person’s character from their voice, listening to the vibrations of their inner world.

As an instrument of music the voice is capable of expressing sound in a profound way. He believed that singing was not something separate from life or just part of it, but the very expression of life itself; it is not something separate from the soul or part of it, but the expression of the soul itself.

An important part of his philosophy is the belief that “to love means to touch in all ways”. The greatest act of touching occurs in man’s love making – so life is created through touch, through contact. In his manuscript he speaks at length about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God the Father “touching” the hand of Adam, passing life into him. All creative ability contains the duality of fertilizing and being fertilized, so to love means to touch and to be touched in all ways. The singer too is subject to the law of touch. The singer is first touched by the music, and in turn the singer’s voice touches the listener, often creating strong emotional reactions. Thus, he says, singing is the greatest form of love.

I was unable to attend the Round Table yesterday when “The Voice is the Muscle of the Soul” was discussed. I would like to add what I believe would be AW’s interpretation of this quotation: the body uses muscles in order to make movement related to the world around it, in the same way the soul uses the voice in order to communicate, to relate to other people and to move them emotionally in many ways.

He could always hear the voice of his imagination in his inner ear and he felt he had found it when he heard the Russian singer Chaliapine, in Germany, after the first war. Chaliapine was quite unafraid of ugly sounds and he dynamically expressed all range of emotion with, what AW describes as, his high trumpet like tenor and his earth bound bass. So he typified AW’s idea of the ability to express freely.

Again in the 1930s, when AW heard the all male Don Kosaken Choir, from White Russia, sing from the deepest bass to the highest pure soprano, he heard his ideas about gender being reinforced. I don’t know if any of you have heard the choir - but AW quite enjoyed the fact that they were blatantly kitsch at times but what really excited him was their range of voice and their vocal expression, using energy and change of tempo to perfection. So he typified AW’s idea of the ability to express extreme emotion through the voice.

In fact, AW said that the art of singing contains three essentials: concentration, intensity and expression. Concentration and intensity control the range of tension between forte and pianissimo, which then leads to expression. He always accentuated the importance of this ability to crescendo and diminuendo.

In this context he often spoke about sport. He loved to watch it and he often said that he wished his pupils would go to watch and learn the secret of tension from another angle. He says, “If you could understand how a 100-meter runner prepares for his start, you would be able to attack a sound more easily. If you copied the way a pole-vaulter uses intensity and concentration before taking a 4-meter jump, you would be able to reach a high note more easily. If you looked carefully at a game of tennis you would better understand the power of the unconscious when placing the ball”

Paul Silber has assembled a very valuable CD entitled Alfred Wolfsohn, his Musical Ideas, in which Jill Johnson, an early pupil, sings four arias from the Magic Flute. She sings soprano, contralto, tenor and bass voice and you can hear so clearly how she moves the sound, changing tempo and volume to create intense and beautiful expression.

Right up until 1958 lessons were always one to one, lasting about an hour. In that time you were the complete centre of attention. He only worked with two or three of us together during the last four years of his life, when illness limited his teaching time.

AW was a quiet man, almost hesitant on first meeting. He had gentle, observant, soft but penetrating eyes and you knew from the first meeting that you could hide nothing from him.

His teaching method is extremely difficult to describe. He had no method. His only method was to listen and observe, then depending upon what he heard he would take the next step. His concentration was intense. There were no preconceived plans of how the lesson should go, no rules, every lesson was adapted for each pupil and everything depended on your reactions to expressing yourself through your voice. It is something that cannot be written down as a text nor can it be passed on to anyone as a theory of teaching. It is entirely related to the human being and his voice in the here and now. His audible aim was to extend the range and dynamics of your voice, whilst linking this to your very personal ability to express yourself.

I do not know to what extent his way of teaching has been continued by the Roy Hart teachers, but maybe the teachers here can recognize the origins of your work as I speak.

At the beginning of a lesson, after a short discussion as to how you were, he would usually start by asking you to sing the note he played on the piano. He would then get you to develop the sound, to open it out, to free it - “crescendo” was his most frequently used word! He might ask you to place the sound wherever he felt was relevant to you at that moment, for example, in the head. Then at a point when he felt you had achieved something he would move to the next note, working on each note in the same way. Depending on what he heard he might then perhaps change the vowel sound to approach the note in a different way.

So you moved slowly up and down the piano as far as you could go, holding the sound in, say, the head spot. It was important to hold this spot and in the initial years, he never pushed the voice beyond a point where that sound could not be well maintained. Holding the head sound, as you got lower, these sounds might mutate towards tenor sounds, if this happened he would probably use them and develop them, or he might not! At some point he might change the concentration of the sound into the body, down into your guts, into the depths of your being, maintaining the same character down the piano. If these sounds were then taken up the piano, holding them in the body and not allowing them to move into the head, they would often change into contralto-like sounds, but at any time if he heard something that needed to be brought out, he would alter the way of working. Sometimes, moving up down the piano, he would use one octave or two octave jumps or runs repeatedly, trying to achieve that feeling of the high jump.

We also worked on “peep” sounds – the carrying of a low, quite breathy sound up into the head to produce the highest sounds possible. Jill Johnson and her sister Jenny in particular, managed to perfect and use these sounds creatively in singing. You can hear this clearly in the new CD where a group of voices demonstrate the ability to sing like musical instruments. Jill and Jenny are the high voices.

Often he worked on all four traditional voices, soprano, contralto, tenor, bass by placing the sounds in the body centers, from head to chest to body, using the words violin, viola, cello on each note, deepening the quality of the sound in all ways,. Depending on what had developed during the lesson, he might work on expressing different emotions at that pitch or using relevant exclamations or sentences. You might be asked to sing a phrase from an aria, using, perhaps a particular sound you had found, but concentrating on expressing that particular aria..

All the time he was always listening to YOU, whether you were holding back - and why were you doing so, whether he heard something that needed to be worked on, not only because of sound development but from a psychological point of view. It was hard, intense work.

While he worked he would be sitting at the piano with his eyes intermittently closing and opening, as he linked what he was hearing with what he was seeing. The concentration was centered around his forehead and a very unique habit of his was a strange up and down movement of his eyebrows, as he concentrated. To me, at the time, like a sort of dream image, I could almost see the sound I was making vibrating there in his forehead.

He never used warm-up exercises for the voice or used any preordained physical movements, but at any time in a lesson he would ask you to express the sound by physically moving, expanding the sound and opening your body. Or he would himself physically move or shake your body if he felt your cramp was locked in.

Half way through the lesson there would be a pause, I do not know if this pause was the same for every pupil, but as far as I was concerned, we would throw open the window, then light up a cigarette each. I would sit on a couch in the studio and he would pace up and down in deep concentration, smoking and talking. He would often talk in the form of parables about some other pupil’s problems – but you knew that in fact it all related to you. Eventually he would discuss the relevance to yourself and your voice and this often became a deeply analytic moment. So often, after this intense communication you would be aware of a release of negative tension, you would feel a new freedom, find a new range and a new ability to sing. I can remember once being suddenly able to sing French cabaret songs with real abandon, which had previously been quite impossible. He would then smile and say “Voila” or something like that – which meant, “Listen to yourself and understand what happened”. In his manuscript, AW says that the growth process of the psyche can be observed during periods of the development of the voice and it rests on the deepening of the sound in every sense.

As the expression of the spoken word is as significant as the expression of sound in singing, Awe also, though less than Roy, worked on using the spoken word in poetry and play. Theatre didn’t play an important role in his teaching, although he asked Roy to give Drama Classes to pupils in the evenings twice a week. However, it is interesting to comparer Jill Johnson speaking Rilke’s Cornet in the new CD, recorded before 1954, with recordings of T S Elliot’s poems made by Roy in the late 50s. The change from Jill’s speaking to Roy’s represents, in some way, the changes in Awe’s voice work that took place during this time, but was also influenced by Roy’s personal approach.

While I was having lessons I knew nothing of AW’s interest in the use of specific vowel sounds – but after reading one of his manuscripts I realized why he concentrated so much particular vowels in lessons. He often used the dark chest sound of “Ah” when working low and the sound of an opened flattened “A” to work into the head, or the “ee” sound as in deep to gain concentration of sound.

He felt that the vowels and consonants were relevant to vocal expression - natural outbursts of great emotion are vowel sounds. Whereas the consonants are formed by the lips, tongue and mouth. So he felt that the consonants were symbols of form and shape while the vowels symbols of content, an element of the unconscious.

In 1957, when he was seriously ill with Tuberculosis, his own voice became cracked and hoarse. He started working on it, working quietly on his own with these cracked and broken sounds to find a new voice in them. By the time he came to live at the studio in 1958, he started to explore broken sounds with us in lessons, so if in extending the range, the voice now moved into a broken sound, he did not back off it, but would investigate as to where it might lead.

The way was then open to be even more adventurous. This seemed to present areas of new investigations, new territories of sound and new realms of expression. - and in September 1959 Roy sang the first double chorded, choir-like sounds.

However, it is important to remember that Alfred Wolfsohn was breaking old concepts, experimenting with the limitations of the personality in relation to the voice, working with the extension of range, the ability to express emotion, to understand oneself with the ability to stand naked. These broken sounds emerged almost as a by-product of the groping search for freedom. It was overwhelmingly exciting when suddenly, from a broken sound, the voice would split shooting two octaves higher into a clear, beautiful note that felt truly like a new ‘you’. At this moment there was real feeling of liberation and joy of self-discovery, you wanted to repeat these sounds over and over to make sure they were still there. They were in fact like a new language, a new ability to express in a previously unimaginable manner.

Unfortunately, soon after we started working in this way, AW died and Roy took over his work, taking Wolfsohn’s ideas on a voyage into the realm of theatre.

Throughout his life AW never stopped teaching, whether he was out for a walk with you, playing a game of cribbage or eating something you had cooked. His observation of you was often accompanied by humorous, but extremely penetrating comments about your present state, each comment was in fact another singing lesson. These remarks were often disturbing, but never once did I feel that they were subjectively based, unfair or unfounded.

In all his manuscripts AW speaks at length about human relationships; he believed that the failure to understand the anima/animus projection onto the ‘other’ person is the basis of all inter-human inadequacy. One day, as a young man, AW was embracing a woman and as he looked into her eyes he saw the reflection of his own face. He realized that what he wanted was to find himself in that other person, to find the unlived parts of his being, to complete the half circle which he represented, in order to make a full circle. All the disharmonies of a relationship slowly dawned on him.

In a letter to this third wife, Strindberg wrote, “Why are you not as I have imagined you?” AW believed that this phrase contains the explanation for all the misunderstandings between people. It encapsulates why men have fought each other, why man and woman are at enmity with each other, why parents are disappointed with their children, why children turn away from their parents. Unfortunately one does not love the “thou” in the other person, but the “I”, the part of the “I” which has not developed in oneself, often the female element in a man and the male element in a woman, which one projects onto and seeks in the other.

The bible tells us that the basis of a relationship between two human beings is to know each other. Knowledge here means, above all, self knowledge: to sense, feel and become aware of one’s psychic world before making the bridge to the psychic world of another human being.

Finally, the story of Orpheus meant so much to AW because it is the story of Orpheus’s descent into Hades in order to search for his wife (his anima figure) and his voice, which he had lost after his wife’s death.

In his book entitled Orpheus or the Way to a Mask, AW describes how after the 14/18 War he was in the depths of the deepest despair in which he lost touch with himself and his voice. Although he recovered enough to formulate his ideas about the voice and to start teaching in Germany, a certain aspect of his personal problems were only finally resolved when a mask of his face was made by a sculptor friend of his. All the time the mask was setting on his face, he sang intensely to himself, concentrating his singing into the mask.

To his dismay, when the mask was finished and he looked at it, he could not at first recognize or identify with that face and this worried him a lot. Slowly he realized that he was in fact looking at a portrait of himself as a young boy, a replica of a photograph of himself he had carried round for years as a sort of talisman, but a picture he could never identify with, the young boy had always been a stranger. Now, he looked at the mask and with great joy, he could recognize and identify with the child side of himself for the first time.

So he, like Orpheus, had descended into his inner Hades after the war, and now by using his voice, by singing into his mask, he found and recognized his lost child-soul.

So to sum up, AW’s major philosophy is that one has to go into the depths to fight the furies and demons, into the depths of oneself, before one can rise to the heights of understanding and creativity. In the same way, one has to find the depths in ones own voice before one can be able to reach the heights, not merely in range but in the depths and heights of expression – and it is on this that his teaching was based.



All quotations of Alfred Wolfsohn have been taken from his two manuscripts Orpheus or the Way to a Mask or The Bridge, with kind permission of the Berlin Jewish Museum.

Sheila Braggins, Malérargues 2005


Writings about Alfred Wolfsohn index page