'Know yourself, listen to your voice, hear what you are expressing or what you are covering up.’ This was the mantra of Alfred Wolfsohn, a German voice coach and philosopher who taught in Golders Green in the 1940s and 50s and who vastly changed the lives and outlooks of his students. His story, which begins in the trenches of World War One surrounded by the inhuman screams of his dying comrades and concludes in a singing studio in a small flat in Hampstead, has been told by his pupil and devoted friend, Sheila Braggins, in her biography The Mystery Behind The Voice.
The 85-year-old Finchley resident writes about the development of Wolfsohn’s ideas on the psychology of the human voice, and about the gentle man she called Awe (ah vey - the German pronunciation of his initials) and his impact on her life.
In 1947, Sheila Howard, as she was then, started singing lessons with Wolfsohn in Golders Green when she was 18. She continued her lessons with ‘Awe’ until his death from tuberculosis in 1962. She looked after him when he became ill and was with him every day.
“He was interested in extending the range of your voice to allow you wider expression,” she explains. “He wasn’t necessarily trying to produce beautiful voices, it was the expression of that person. He’d play a note and say ‘sing that’ and you’d work up or down the scale as he directed.”
Alfred Wolfsohn was born in Berlin in 1896 and at 18 he was called up to fight in World War One, serving on both the Eastern Front in Russia and the Western Front in France. Hearing the screams of the wounded and dying changed his life.
“He was fascinated by the idea that these men’s agony gave them permission to express themselves in a way they wouldn’t have done normally,” says Sheila. “It was hearing this that brought to his attention the powerful range that was possible in the human voice.”
Wolfsohn wrote: ‘With these battlefield voices, there was no limitation of range, their voices expressed and screamed terror and agony through every range.’ He came to believe that the human voice is the real expression of the personality and that it should be able to access and express ‘the whole range of emotion, from cruelty and anger to gentleness and love’ in both singing and speech, but that our voices are shaped by ‘social conformity and emotional constraint’.
Wolfsohn’s ‘huge’ impact on Sheila continues to exert itself 50 years after his death. “He changed my whole understanding,” she says. “I was a physiotherapist and my immediate attempt to understand people from the moment I saw them enlarged because of his teaching. You can’t help hearing someone’s voice and I’m thinking about that voice and the psychology of the person all the time, even if I’m not consciously analysing it.”
The back cover of the book is dominated by a painting of Wolfsohn by Sheila. “It still hangs in my sitting room,” she tells me. “Awe’s there all the time.”
The Mystery Behind The Voice: A Biography of Alfred Wolfsohn is available to buy from Joseph’s bookshop, Ashbourne Parade, Temple Fortune or from www.troubador.co.uk