xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns# VoiceTalk

December 4, 2016

The Art of Donald Gramm

If you don't know the art of Donald Gramm—you really are missing something. He was on my radar as a young man of 17, when I started taking lessons in the late 70's, but slipped away before I could hear him live, dropping dead of a heart attack in his dermatologist's office at the age of 56. There is some strange consolation, however, in that we both sang with the New York City Opera. Suffice it to say: I really wish I could have known him. 

Gramm was a great singer. He sang on his "timbre" with impeccable diction, never yelling, never trying to be someone or something he wasn't. Whether soft or loud, his voice remained gleaming and vibrant, carrying to the back of the hall with an equal measure of metal and plushness. Dare I say it? You heard his placement. 

He also was a technical singer, and planned on giving master classes that focused on technique as much as interpretation—a prescription that is boring for an audience but necessary for the artist. 

Here he is on TV in the early 1960's, singing the songs of Charles Ives, with narration provided by Aaron Copland.





And here is Gramm singing Ned Rorem's glorious "Early in the Morning" with the composer at the piano.





Find more of his singing at Youtube. 

December 1, 2016

Margaret Harshaw as Donna Anna

How often do you hear a soprano sing with such intensity, gleam of voice, security, and  consummate authority today? Such was the voice and training of Margaret Harshaw, who studied with Anna E. Schoen-René—the musical daughter of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel Garcia, and began her career as a mezzo-soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, before ascending to dramatic soprano roles. Say what you will: few have done what she did with the skill with which she did it! 


November 29, 2016

Devine on Lamperti's Method

Freedom about the neck, absence of visible effort, a gently induced attack, were insisted upon from start to finish with a vehement persistency. Proper production of tone, free from contraction of external muscles and free from forced attack, are demanded, even though the result be at first a weak and unmusical sound. As regards the registers of the voice, the old masters never admitted the existence of more than one in a properly trained voice.

Making a great singer is an art as great as being a great singer.

Lena Dora Devine, Musical Courier, September 30, 1896: 18. See Devine's label below for more information. 

November 19, 2016

Garcia's Higher Symmetry

EDMUND RUSSELL, after several years' absence in Europe, lecturing on and teaching the principles of art-criticism and expression as formulated by Delsarte, has returned to America for a short preliminary visit prior to the opening of a regular season in October. Mr. Russell is well known by his lectures on art, dress, decoration and kindred subjects, as well as through his paintings, and while a talk with him is always interesting and instructive, it promised to be excepionally bright after his travels and his meeting with world-famous people. Of course, Delsartism was spoken of first, being the subject that lies nearest his heart as well as one in which I am deeply interested, and I asked:

“What is the condition and progress of Delsartism in England compared with America?”

“When we went to London three years ago the name of Delsarte was almost unknown there. I found but three persons in England who had ever heard of him and his work, and, strangely, all of them had been personal friends of his. They were the elder Garcia, brother of Malibran, Sir Frederick Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, and Lord Lytton (Owen Meredith). They all spoke of him in the highest terms both as a man and as an artist. Prior to my visit to London, Felix Moscheles, the famous painter, son of the composer, had spent two years here, and had heard me lecture on Delsarte. When he returned to England, he excited much interest in the subject by his frequent question at all gatherings. Of artists, ‘Have you ever heard of Delsarte?’ and always met with the same negative reply. One day, at a garden party, putting his question to a little old man whose piercing eye flashed the fire of genius, he was answered, ‘Heard of him! yes; he was a friend of mine.’ It was the elder Garcia that spoke.

“It was my privilege,” continued Mr. Russell, “to talk much with Garcia about his famous friend. ‘He was the greatest singer I ever heard,’ said Garcia one day ; ‘with no voice at all, such was his expression that one would rather listen to him than to the finest voice in the world.’ His voice was what would be called ‘veiled,’ but his wonderful expression made his song seem alive. If Garcia had told me," added Mr. Russell, “that Delsarte was the greatest actor he had ever seen, I should not have been surprised, but when he so praised Delsarte's singing, the art of which Garcia is so superior a judge, then we must believe that it was more than wonderful. Indeed, every one that knew of Delsarte at all, in Italy and France, spoke of his singing. The Baron de Moyacque, an old Frenchman, told me that he had heard Delsarte when he was young, and again 20 years afterward, and he seemed physically unchanged. He seemed to have discovered the secret of perpetual youth. I must not forget to add that Garcia was present at the court of Louis Philippe when Delsarte was so royally received there, as described in your ‘Delsarte System Of Oratory,’ and confirmed the distinguished consideration and esteem with which the monarch received Delsarte. I asked if he was well known in Paris. ‘Certainly,’ said Garcia; ‘he was considered the greatest artist and teacher of his time. Nearly all the present teachers at the Conservatoire studied with him. Now, no one knows him in London, but if Patti sneezes, it is cabled round the globe. The great teacher is often forgotten in the achievements of his pupils, who prefer to stand before the world as God-made geniuses rather than acknowledge that any earthly hand helped fashion them to a higher symmetry,’ he added a little bitterly.”

“Why is it, Mr. Russell, that the Delsarte system is nowadays applied almost exclusively to dramatic art or to aesthetic calisthenics, if Delsarte himself was a master in all the arts?"

“Because the system has been taken up by and presented through actors or those who were more interested in its application to bodily culture, and at first thought the art of expression seemed most needed on the stage. The Delsarte system contains the fundamental principles of all art and it is universal in its application. It is not an invention, it is not something new; it is simply a concise, scientific forum."

What other famous people did you meet while you were abroad?

“I had the pleasure of becoming well acquainted with the elder Lamperti and his beautiful wife. We spent summer before last with them at Cernobbio. Our cousin, Ada Beckett-Coster, who, I think, is known to the readers of your magazine, is studying with Lamperti for the operatic stage; he gives her great encouragement. He is still teaching, and his time is nearly filled, although if you should ask about him in Milan you would doubtless be told that there was an old mummy somewhere by that name who gave a few lessons, but that he was nearly blind and deaf, had almost no vital power, gave his lessons in bed, and such nonsense. This is not true. I saw him give many lessons, and never saw lessons of such brilliancy and power. The severity of criticism, always kindly, however, the subtlety of analysis, the patience and energy, and above all the depth and knowledge, I have never seen equalled. It is difficult to understand him, as he cannot speak English and prefers to speak his Milanese dialect; but his wife acts as his interpreter and, to a large extent, as his accompanist. She is very much younger than he, but she adores him. When a pupil enters for a lesson Lamperti seems at first listless, but when the exercises begin the master becomes interested, and his fervor increases until he is wrapt in the lesson. His prices are from 25 to 50 francs a lesson for private instruction; and 15 francs a lesson for daily instruction to regular pupils, who have the privilege of hearing the criticisms of others. He prefers to teach two at a time, giving first one ten minutes and then the other the same time. This allows the voice to rest, yet the pupil still is instructed in listening to his companion. He does not coach, except where the person has been a pupil of his and is already thoroughly trained; then he will help him in a new role."

"Lamperti does not work for compass or execution," continued Mr. Russell, “like so many teachers. Quality, quality, quality, is his aim, and to enrich tone is his chief care. He insists upon exercising the voice very softly at first, for he says that if a good resonance cannot be produced on a soft tone it certainly cannot be made on a loud tone. He practices for months just on tones. He also begins in the middle or medium range of the voice, saying that if you work on a voice at the centre it will spread out at the ends, but if you work at the ends, it will always thin at the centre. A Russian countess, who was a pupil of his twenty years ago, and who has lately seen him, says that his power of teaching seems to improve rather than grow less, and that he is greater to-day than ever, although he is over 80 years old."

"Lamperti can never have a real successor,” added Mr. Russell, “but the one that comes nearest to it in my estimation is Mme. Delle-Valle, of London, whose vocal instruction is exceptionally fine. He bemoans the decline of Italian opera and singing. Verdi‘s last opera, ‘Otello,’ was a great disappointment to Lamperti. ‘Verdi is no longer Italian, he is no longer Verdi,’ he said sadly. He considers ‘Rigoletto’ to be Verdi’s finest opera, but prefers Bellini to all other composers for the expression of real heart-feeling. Of course he is opposed to German opera.”

Werner's Voice Magazine, May 1889: 90-92. 

October 15, 2016

Imposto di Voce

Here, I return again to some of the questions by my pupils. Some ask whether they must practice with the mouth shut or the mouth open; whether to give the lips a smiling position, as in singing eh, or a round position, as in singing oh,—whether I admit the existence of the three registers in the human voice; whether I teach the falsetto voice or the chest voice, and other questions of the same kind, all requiring a patient answer, with examples sufficient to convince them and make them stop talking. It is my conviction that all these ideas came from their former teachers, who had used them as cornerstones on which they intended to build the voices of their pupils. 

The only builder of the human voice that I believe in is the Supreme Maker of all things in this world. Those who usurp the functions of nature, and pretend the they can build voices, claim power not given to man. These self-styled voice-builders had better leave their hobby, and carefully study the school which has not been the result of any one man's experiments, but which represents the accumulated experience of our ancestors. This school has given much to art and to artists, as we can learn by reading the annals of all the great theatres of the Old World. 

This art of educating the human voice consists first in sustaining separately each note of the diatonic scale, keeping well within the vocal range of the pupil, starting the sound very gently, and gradually giving the crescendo and diminuendo, being careful not to force or prolong the tone beyond the natural strength of the lungs. This, in Italian, is called the "study of the messa di voce," the placing of the voice. Lablache asserted that the main cause of the wonderful power and flexibility of his voice was the constant and daily practice of the sustained scale, with the crescendo and diminuendo

Next to this comes the study of the intervals, then that of the major, minor, and chromatic scales, then arpeggios, turns, syncopated notes, and finally the trill. This is the brilliant solitaire which adorns the scarf of a young dandy, and puts the finishing touch to his toilet. 

After the above, it is necessary to study vocalizations, selecting written melodies by the masters of the art, such as Crescentini, Righini, Busti, Concone, Panofka, Lamperti, and others. Of these exercises, the pupil should select those best adapted to his or her voice. This practice should never be stopped, no matter how far advanced the pupil may be, the old saying of the Neapolitan school being that whoever vocalizes sing ("Chi vocalizza canta."). This practice will instruct the pupil in the knowledge of musical phrases or periods, enabling him to sing them with correctness of breathing, of accent, of expression. Next to this comes singing with words. My teacher, Busti, used to say that, when the words are well pronounced, with pure accent, the piece of music is half-learned. I find the recitative the most fitting means for the beginner to acquire a good pronunciation. After this, he may take up songs. 


In vocalizing, we must use a compound vowel-sound made up of all the vowel-sounds of the Italian idiom. This is the mystery of the voice in which many ministers of the art are confounded to such an extent that they sometimes ruin voices by compelling them to adopt an unnatural vowel for the production of tone. This vowel-tone can only be communicated to the pupil by the expert teacher through the medium of his living voice; and when the pupil has imitated the teacher to perfection in this, then he first begins to sing. 

This compound tone should be formed within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth striking against the hard palate, with an inclination toward the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone. The cavity of the chest, and in fact those of the entire trunk, are of great assistance in giving fulness and roundness to the tone. 

By following this system of developing the voice there disappears any necessity of discussion concerning head medium and chest registers, which many teachers cultivate and impose upon the voice; and in this way the voice will acquire a homogeneous tone and character, enabling the pupil to express the inner sentiments of the soul, which will thus be spontaneously displayed by the singer, and not produced by any artificial means, which are often more disagreeable than pleasant to the ear. 

Speaking of registers, I may say that all voices have naturally three different registers, or timbres, or qualities. These are more perceptible in the soprano, and gradually less prominent in the mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass. There are two additional registers sometimes to be met with: the first occurs in exceptionally high soprano voices, and is called sopracuto;  the other, in deep bass voices, and is called doppiobasso. It is the duty of the skillful teacher, from the very beginning, to unite and mingle these registers by the study and constant use of the compact* sound formed by the five vowels of the Italian language. 

When the pupil, by following the foregoing system, has rendered his voice flexible and fitting to give with ease either the pianissimo or the fortissimo, I can warrant him that his voice can make itself distinctly heard among a hundred uncultivated singers, like a cornet among a hundred stringed instruments. This was shown at the time of the Boston Jubilee, when the voices of the leading artists were heard above the volume of the immense chorus. This system will secure to the pupil a correct emission of the tone, which the Italians call imposto di voce, assisting him to sing in tune and preventing his voice from cracking or breaking. The placing of the voice must always be accompanied in singing both forte and piano by a full supply of breath, which should be easily and flexibly taken and economically used. 

—Cirillo, Vincenzo. A Lecture on the Art of Singing (1882): 11-17.  Student of Alessandro Busti.

*The previous text indicates that the word "compound" may have been the intended word in this sentence.

September 29, 2016

The Ear is the Spine 5

I am on the rowing machine at the gym, halfway through my 20 minute workout, when an elderly lady comes into the room with a balance trainer (a half-ball with a flat surface), and spends the next 10 minutes on it—standing on one leg, then the other. The extraordinary thing is that she looks decades younger while on it: spine elongated, face lifted with ribcage open—a really beautiful figure and stunning transformation. 

Then the most curious thing happens. She steps off the trainer and turns back into an old lady—the posture slumps, and the ribcage closes along with the face. Bam. Just like that. It's like someone waved a magic wand. First a young woman of 40 is before my eyes. Then an old lady of 80. 

My god, I think, as I get up from the rower. Why doesn't she keep the posture? Why does she let it go? What would it take to make it a part of her life? Does she have any idea what she has attained during the last 10 minutes? 

Of course, only she can answer these questions. Or maybe not. Maybe she is totally oblivious to the feeling of her body in space—much like the young voice student.

(Lift? What do you mean lift?

Mind you, the Old Italian School voice teachers insisted on an elongated/straight spine. Instead of saying—like Tomatis did—that the ear is the spine, and the spine is the ear, they understood that the spine was the voice, and the voice the spine. 

All this to say: The youth of the voice is expressed in the attitude of the spine, which originates in the ear.

September 27, 2016

The Art of Correctly Classifying the Various Voices

The art of correctly classifying the various voices demands deep knowledge and wide experience. Quality alone and compass alone will not solve the problem. It is possible to give only a few general rules, mainly those adopted by such masters as Manuel García and Lamperti. The basso-profundo and the deep contralto are the rarest types, and are recognized by the ease and increase of power and resonance in the lower notes and a corresponding difficulty in emitting the acute high notes. For the light bass, bass-baritone, and high baritone, questions of compass as well as quality have to be considered. The light bass exhibits a natural tendency to grave or heavy tone quality, and the frontale voice becomes blatant at upper C or C sharp, while the centrale voice is seldom reliable above upper E flat or E. One of the most popular light basses now before the public has earned an unenviable notoriety by the frequency of his "cracking" on the upper E flat. Though still partaking of the grave quality, the bass-baritone can use the frontale voice agreeably and with ease up to C sharp, and occasionally D, and the centrale voice will extend to upper F. Both the light baritone and high baritone can extend the frontale voice to E flat, the centrale voice of the former being serviceable up to F sharp, while the latter type is capable of using the centrale voice up as high as A flat, and occasionally B flat. 

An exceptional range of high notes in the baritone voice sometimes leads ill-informed masters to train it as a tenor, but, to alter slightly the words of the poet:—

"You may stretch, you may shatter the voice if you will, But the baritone timbre will hang round it still." 

In accounting for the scarcity of tenor voices the editor of a musical journal recently said that many men were singing bass and baritone who ought to sing tenor. The contrary, however, is the truth, especially amongst church tenors, most of whom are simply basses with the falsetto range of notes trained downwards. The saying that there are three sexes—men, women, and tenors—contains more truth than is dreamt of in the philosophy of most writers on the voice. 

The crucial test for the tenor is the ability to sing the top F in the frontale voice without strain to himself and pain to the hearer. The lighter tenor quality is at first not always in evidence and only a competent master can correct this defect. With tenors the centrale voice is amenable to great extension of compass; I have trained tenors up to E flat in alt. without any trace of falsetto—an abomination which is taboo in the Italian school of voice training. Another test of the tenor is the ability to enunciate clearly and easily on the upper notes. This was one of the methods of Lamperti, who also used a system of "master notes" for mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, the upper F and the upper G being the characteristic note for each type of voice. In addition to the foregoing tests the mezzo-soprano and dramatic soprano partake of the heavy quality of the contralto and mezzo-contralto in the range of notes below lower D. With these aids to guide him, in addition to wide experience, even a skillful teacher will sometimes be in doubt as to the type of voice at a first hearing. But the plan adopted by all successful trainers is to find the easy range of tones in the middle voice, and the type will reveal itself in the process of development.

—Cooke, Clifton. Practical Singing (1916): 19-22. Cooke was a student of Manuel García whose use of the terms frontale and centrale warrant further attention. 

September 26, 2016

Voice and Ear

The two primary necessities are, of course, voice and ear. Without voice a singer would be like a painter without paints. Without ear he would be in a parlous a state as a painter without eyes. 

The voice must be there, for, no matter what may be said to the contrary, no teacher can bring a voice into existence. He can show a pupil how to use the voice properly, and he can improve it by means of various exercises, he can instruct how it may be shown off to the best advantage, but he cannot create a voice. He is like a diamond-cutter, who given a rough diamond, can polish and cut it till it shines with all the brilliancy that lay hidden under its rough surface, but cannot take a piece of clay and polish and cut that till it shines with the dazzling lustre of the diamond. 

The ear is doubly necessary, first for regulating pitch and this enabling any one to sing in tune; secondly, for hearing and reproducing the various timbres of the voice. The habit of listening critically to one's own voice and to the voices of others is of the utmost importance. 

—MacKinlay, Sterling Malcom. The Singing Voice and Its Training (1910): 9-10.  MacKinlay was one of the last four-year students of Manuel García, his mother, Antoinette Sterling, having studied with the great master.

September 24, 2016

Do It Otherwise

The famous vocal teacher, Trivulzi of Milan, said: "To be a good vocal teacher depends on one's refined ear." 

It was he who brought forth into the musical world so many celebrities, including the tenor Rubini, the soprano Frezzolini, and others. Frezzolini was not far from seventy when I heard her sing divinely and with a fresh young voice, the aria from "La Somnambula," vocalizing with greatest ease the runs and trills in the cadenzas. At this age, was that not proof that she had the correct tone-production and that it is possible to preserve the voice through a life-time? 

Lamperti, as a youth, was the accompanist of the famous vocal teacher, Trivulzi, and in listening to the well-produced, perfect tones of Trivulzi's pupils, his ear being naturally refined, he became Trivulzi's successor, at the latter's death, and in his turn, made celebrities from common singers, thereby gaining renown as a vocal teacher. Lamperti did not say to pupils: "For this or that tone, use the crico, or thyroid, or arytenoid cartilage," but to correct a bad tone, he said simply, "Do it otherwise," and was not content until the pupil had found the right way of tone-production in a perfectly free elastic vowel, not stiffened in the throat. 

Could Trivulzi and Lamperti hear of these modern anatomical teachings, they would have a good laugh in their graves.

—Cappiani, Luisa. Practical Helps and Hints for Perfection in Singing (1908). Student of Francesco Lamperti, and founder of The National Association of Teachers of Singing, later known as The New York Singing Teachers Association. 

September 20, 2016

Life is Expansion

The first expression of life is expansion. Almost every student in beginning the development of the voice is tempted to make too much effort. In nearly all cases this will be misplaced. He will especially tend to accentuate contraction, with little or no sympathetic expansion. Resolution and earnestness will normally cause expansion, for at first the contraction is simply an added expression of control. To begin with contraction violates nature's primary law. 

The first effort accordingly must be to stimulate activity in the extensor muscles. The student must realize that any awakening of his imagination and feeling, and genuine quickening of his interest, must first cause sympathetic expansion, especially of his torso. It must also kindle his face and increase his pulsation of life through his whole body. Imagination and emotion, when natural, first affect the muscles concerned in the sympathetic and harmonious actively or expansion of the body. 

The whole torso must be expanded. This gives room for free action of the lungs and diaphragm. It also establishes the primary condition for normal sympathetic vibration. Thought, imagination, and emotion attune the whole body as the sounding board of the voice, and this work is initiated by a harmonious expansion and a certain unity of all parts of the body. 

—Curry, Samuel S. Mind and Voice: Principles and Methods of Voice Training (1910): 28. Student of Francesco Lamperti.