November 12, 2018

Seven Requirements of the Old Italian School

The chief characteristics of the old Italian school were clearness, smoothness, volume, intensity, compass, ease, and endurance—seven characteristics shown now as ever by our song-birds; and we, like them, have to obtain effortless, full sustained, and beautiful tone if we wish to sing well. In order to do this we must have our bodies right, and our minds must perceive Where to Will, How to Will, What to Will, and—what is most important—What not to will. A pianist cannot strengthen his third finger by using his fourth; and in like manner a student of song cannot strengthen his voice by falsely placing or falsely directing his Will. As before said, to one student who fails through want of ability, thousands fail through want of clearness or direction on the part of the trainer and imperfect perception on their own. A student must always keep in mind what he wishes to attain; it is not any sound that will do, but only beautiful sound, and beautiful sound is the result of clearness, smoothness, volume, and intensity. 

The old school was celebrated for these conditions, but especially of volume, a property modern singers lack. 

—Charles Lunn, Philosophy of Voice (1900), Ninth Edition, page 17. You can find Lunn's book on the Download page. He was a student of Vinceslao Cattaneo. 

November 4, 2018

Bel Canto des Wortes

A truly wonderful, insightful, and provocative book from a student of Francesco Lamperti—Cornelie van Zanten's Bel Canto des Wortes (1911) should be required reading in vocal pedagogy programs. Serious, real-deal, historically-informed old Italian school of singing, it puts to shame recent volumes that claim as much but offer far less.

Use a Google translation app to get your feet wet. Then swim.

Find Bel Canto des Wortes on VOICETALK's download page in the right hand column. 

October 30, 2018

The Ear is the Spine

"The ear is the spine: the spine is the ear." —Alfred Tomatis 

The Einstein of the Ear wasn't kidding either. Tomatis meant this literally. According to his observation, the ear has everything to do with how the spine articulates itself within space, which observant voice teachers know from long experience. No one has to conduct 10 studies before they accept this as fact. They see it with their own eyes. That's empiricism for you. 

High level classical singing? The singer's spine is a heck of a lot more extended than that of the cabaret artist. Tomatis would observe that this is a result of the sound—as guided by the ear—shaping the body. 

Now that's a different perspective. 

In our day and age of knowing everything about the vocal mechanism, we all too often think in terms of the garage mechanic; where muscles are manipulated and air is moved through a system. But if that was the case, we'd all be great artists, wouldn't we? Simply extend the spine and voila! A great opera singer is born! 

But it takes a lot more than that to make an artist. As the Halloween candy is handed out tomorrow, I am going to looking at all the skeletons, ghouls, and goblins and thinking about singing.

October 21, 2018

The Ten Minute Rule

Ten minutes. That's all you need. Just ten minutes. 

This is what I tell avocational singers who enter my studio. They have jobs. They work umpteen hours yet want to sing—and think I am going to ask them to practice for hours at a time. 

Ah no. That's not how it works.

Even vocational singers need only practice for ten minutes at a time. 

The difference? 

Avocational singers should be able to practice singing a few times a day—say twenty to thirty minutes, while the vocational artist needs to think in terms of two and a half hours broken up in multiple ten minutes practice sessions. 

The vocational singer should practice technique for at least four to five practices sessions and only then devote sessions to repertoire. 

The beginning vocational student? Nearly all of the practice sessions will be devoted to technique. We're talking about the formation of beautiful tone: pure vowels, messa di voce, mezza voce, crescendo, decrescendo, trills, etc, etc—the high goal being an absolute technique throughout a two octave range.

If this sounds hard, you would be right. It's certainly not easy. It can and does that years to attain full mastery of the voice. But the sooner you start, the sooner you attain that mastery. 

Why ten minutes? 

Very simply: the mind goes to mush after ten minutes. Learning to master the voice means having to stimulate a very different response than the one associated with most activities. It's athletic, very active, and incredibly uplifting. Most young students have trouble finding the degree of innervation involved and then sustaining it for more than ten minutes at a time. It takes time to build up one's stamina—which is as much mental as it is physical. 

Training to be at a high level is an art unto itself. You have to start where you are going. So, if you are spending twenty minutes out of thirty at a lower level, that is what your practice is giving you. 

Be smart. Follow the Ten Minute Rule which reflects the tenets of neuroplasticity: if you want to change the brain you have to inundate it with overriding energy. This is much easier to do for shorter periods. 

September 20, 2018

My Trick

During a new student's first lesson, I will—at some point—place their hand on my solar plexus (after asking for permission), blow all the air out of my body—and sing a long phrase with full voice. 

Eyes go wide. Mouths gape. The student stammers: "How do you do that?"

How indeed. 

I am singing on the residual air in my lungs—but it's more than that: I am singing on breath than is compressed by my whole body. Paradoxically, I don't need to breathe to compress the air. It happens even before I inhale and involves extension. 

I can croon or sing like a Wagnerian on this breath.

Real control. It was taught to me by my teacher during my first lesson, or, I should say—it was a result of that first lesson—a lesson that it took me a long time to learn. 

To have full control you have to be fully alive. You aren't thinking about thinking. That's what academics do. They think about stuff. Good luck trying to get a room full of them singing! They have no breath whatsoever, their thinking depriving them of any real voice. 

Singers live on another level. One that is instinctual, sensual, full of pleasure and being. 

Full of the strong desire to sing and touch the listener.

September 11, 2018

Remembering 9/11

It was a Tuesday.

The opening night of New York City Opera's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

But it didn't happen.

I was listening to WQXR during breakfast and heard an announcer say that all the airports were closed: it was a national emergency—a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Stunned, I turned on CNN to see a plume of smoke coming out from one the towers; then later, bodies falling through the air. My mother called to see if I was Ok and I said: "I'm sorry I can't talk right now!"

It was surreal. The phone lines were nuts. But I did manage to call a colleague at the opera who lived in Brooklyn to tell her not to take the subway to rehearsal—as if she hadn't figured that out already.

Everyone was helping one another. Reaching out. Being fully present.

The Flying Dutchman opened that Saturday, the company assembling in front of a raised curtain with the flag hanging overhead; me standing far stage left—your right—in the front row—shaking. We sang the national anthem—and I swear, it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The arc of emotion coming from the audience was so huge and overwhelming that I stood facing a wall afterwards in an effort to pull myself together. All I wanted to do was bawl my eyes out. And it's really hard to sing when you are sobbing.

Weeks later, pictures of fireman from the firehouse near Lincoln Center started appearing in the hallway backstage.

People stopped buying subscriptions. They found it hard to commit to a future when the present was so heartrending. Ticket sales dropped. Management made some really bad mistakes and NYCO left Lincoln Center; selling off the company's costumes and sets—its archives drowning in a basement on Broad street courtesy of hurricane Sandy—and wandering the streets of Manhattan like a beggar before declaring bankruptcy.

Yes, the company is back—a mere shadow of its former self—the diaspora of the original NYCO meeting for luncheons across from Lincoln Center: remembering, connecting, laughing, loving.


Bound together on a Saturday night.

June 24, 2018

Summer Recess

Rose Room, New York Public Library, 42nd & 5th Avenue 

Dear Reader,

I am taking a summer recess to work on important project. Look for more posts in the Fall. In the meantime: Please have some fun, get outside, and stay active in your community. 

Also: The world needs beauty right now, especially here in the United States of America. Please do what you can, ok? That includes acts of nonviolent resistance—a truly beautiful thing. 

Lastly: Need to be in touch? Contact me via my website(s) in the right hand column. It's always good to hear from you. 

Be well,  Daniel 

June 18, 2018

The Secret of Mme. Devine's Success

Mme. Devine, whose portrait appears on the front page of this issue, needs no introduction to the readers of The Musical Courier. She occupies an assured position in the front rank of New York vocal teachers. She is a San Franciscan, and made her home in this city some six years ago. A singularly large proportion of Californians who come to the metropolis attain prominence in their respective professions. Either the climate or sturdy ancestry seems to have bestowed upon them a more than ordinary amount of energy and ambition.

Lena Doria Devine
The secret of Mme. Devine‘s success is to be found in the possession of a very large share of this native energy, or capacity for hard work, combined with rare musical gifts and a thorough knowledge of the vocal art, derived from many years of study with Francesco Lamperti, one of the greatest of teachers. We may look upon him as the connecting link between the glorious old Italian school in the eighteenth century and what good there still remains in vocal art to-day. He received the traditions of that school from its last great disciples. such as Crescentini, Pasta, Velluté, and he has handed them down to us enriched by fifty years of experience and a record of achievements in teaching that stands absolutely unrivaled. No higher compliment could be given to the subject of this sketch than to say that she has shown herself worthy of this master in every respect, first as a singer, and now as a teacher. When Mme. Devine made her debut in BadenBaden, the late Herr Dr. Richard Pohl said in his criticism of the event: "Her voice is so well schooled that one immediately inquires with whom she has studied." On nearly every occasion the same praise is now bestowed on Mme. Devine’s pupil, Miss Duffield. At last then we have somebody who can give us Lamperti's results, and that is what we want. We are tired of Lamperti discussions, of "exponents," "representatives" and "certificates." We do not care how well a teacher can talk, lecture, write articles or books: We only ask for results: everything else is of no account.

Speaking of Miss Duffield to a representative of The Musical Courier, Mme. Devine said: “There is a case that illustrates what method and perseverance will do for a voice. Four years ago who would have thought that the little 'parlor voice' could ever sing before an audience of 10,000 people in an immense place like Convention Hall, Kansas City, and make the great hit that Miss Duffield did when she sang there with Sousa, a few weeks ago. Yes, it is wonderful what method can do for a voice. Given a pupil who has musical intelligence, artistic sensibility and undaunted perseverance, for such a one it is almost possible to create a voice. Did not Pistocchi make one of the most distinguished singers out of Bernacchi, whom nature had given an inferior vocal organ? Unfortunately the three qualifications mentioned are not often found in one individual. It is not so easy to find girls with the necessary mental and artistic endowments who will study consecutively for three or four years.

“Then you think that it is largely a matter of sticking to it long enough?"

"Yes, provided you are on the right track. No amount of time spent on a bad method can make a good singer."

Requested to give a few salient points in her methods of teaching, Mme. Devine said: "Two things I will speak of because I insist upon them particularly, and consider their general neglect responsible for many unsatisfactory results. The first is forbidding beginners to practice at home; the second, insisting upon the mastery of all technical difficulties, as far as possible, before taking up repertory and interpretation. In regard to the first I would say that the attack of tone and breath control are the foundation, and they are not easy to acquire. It is imperative that until the student knows the difference between right and wrong production the attempt should be made only in presence of the teacher. "Practice without active attention and competent discrimination is worse than useless. A beginner should take daily lessons. and not sing at all outside of the studio. "In regard to the study of repertory I believe that all technical difficulties should be mastered before it is taken up. It seems to me that the following paragraph, written by Arlo Bates in reference to the art of writing, applies likewise to singing:

"'There is great danger in allowing the emotions to be aroused, while training which is merely technical is going on. Awaken in the pupil all interest in technical perfection which is possible. To excite his emotional interest in subject or sentiment is dangerous and obstructs his progress in the cultivation of skill in form and technic. Technical facility is gained by work, not itself inspiring, but done with the most patient exactness for the sake of the power it gives.'

“When the student has advanced to the point where it is advisable to use words, I do not begin to give simple ballads; I then take up the old Italian arias, because they contain all the technical difficulties to be found in any piece of music, while the pure vowel sounds of the language are conducive to the development of pure tone. These arias are studied as exercises, and it does not matter at this stage of her training if the student is not sufficiently conversant with Italian to understand the text. Public taste may condemn these florid arias in the concert hall; in the vocal studio they will always remain the crucial test of good voice production. Whoever masters them will have the power, range and flexibility necessary to sing anything, even Wagner."

"Then you believe that the old Italian method is perfectly adequate to modern dramatic music?"

"There is only one way to sing: the way Sembrich was taught. The idea that modern music demands a different kind of training for the voice seems to me absurd. The old masters taught their pupils to find the beautiful tone, and worked with them for years till they could do anything with it. What more can modern music demand? lf tonal beauty is to be made a secondary consideration, singing ill-generates into a hybrid, inconsistent art, and the sooner we come down to plain speech the better. Are screeches and howls, if delivered with sufficient dramatic intensity, to compensate for lack of tone quality and true musical expression? Because the old Italian method gave singers such astonishing control over their voices that they were able to execute the most elaborate vocal pyrotechnics, it does not follow that their method of voice production did not also make them capable of emotional and dramatic expression. The greater includes the less, the more difficult the less difficult. Remember the story of how Farinelli, when rebuked by Charles VI for wasting his marvelous powers on ‘never ending notes and intricate passages' changed his style entirely, and became the most pathetic singer as formerly he had been the most brilliant coloraturist. And why not? Does it not seem reasonable that a voice under such control that it is like a precise instrument on which the most elaborate runs and cadenzas can be played with perfect case, is just the kind of voice that will be able to give most adequate expression to the deepest emotions of the human heart, because a singer thus equipped can give up his attention and imagination without restraint to the thoughts and feelings he is interpreting, and his voice will readily and without effort respond to every impulse of his inspiration. The present confusion in vocal art as shown in the numerous conflicting opinions about registers and voice placing, is largely an outcome of the futile attempt to find a new method of singing for modern dramatic music. I thoroughly agree with the able critic of the New York Time: that there is nothing in the music of Wagner that demands the application of new laws to singing either in recitative or cantilena, and that ‘the so-called Wagnerian school is an illusion, a delusion and a snare.’"

Mme. Devine evidently adds to her other qualifications an unbounded enthusiasm which makes her an eager student of everything connected with her art and makes the seemingly arduous work of voice training a pleasure to her. Earnest and talented pupils are sure to find in her not only a painstaking teacher. but a sympathetic adviser in whom they can place implicit confidence.

—The Musical Courier, April 11, 1900, page 17.

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See? There is it again! That whole thing about singing on exercises and scales for a long while before singing with words. The very same thing that I keep hammering and yammering about on these pages. No one wants to do it until they find out the good it does. Finding that "good" takes time, often more time than the student wants to allow.

Students arrive at my door, many of them with advances degrees and vocal flaws firmly intact. They know something is wrong, but don't know how to fix it, but have not been taught to work on technique in a focused and systematic manner, having spent their time singing songs and arias, hacking away for 30-45 minutes with no improvement in sight. They wonder why things aren't getting any better, and talk about not "moving the air" enough, or having the right "support." You'd think from all this that singing was simply a matter of moving one's muscles. And yes, while the muscles of the body do move in particular ways, that's the least of it. You have to know what to think and pay attention to that before you become aware of your muscles.

The teachers of the old school made the student do simple things, like shut the mouth and breath though the nose. This "route" was then then kept regardless of whether the mouth was closed or open. Then the teacher attended to the student's vowels. Breath and vowels. Not muscles. Not moving air. Not any of the mechanically-minded stuff students "do" today—their doing being manipulative rather than creative.

If there is one simple truth that reflects the teaching of the old Italian school of singing it is this: Meaning moves muscles. That's the correct order of things. The Italian on the street corner calling cross the square does not think to move his muscles to communicate his joy in seeing his old friend. No. This face opens wide as does his throat; and his greeting sails across the distance, ringing and clear. Of course, he hears what he's doing as he's doing it—whether he's consciously aware of it or not. The singer? He has to become conscious without being self-conscious. That is what makes it art.

May 19, 2018

Martha Graham Tells It Like It Is

There is no place for arrogance in the arts, but neither is there room for doubt or a perpetual need for affirmation. If you come to me with doubts about a particular move in a piece, or if you come to me and ask if what you've written has truth and power in it, these are doubts I can handle and respect. But if you come to me and moan about whether or not you really have a place in the dance or the theatre or film, I'll be the first one to pack your bags and walk you to the door. You are either admitting that you lack the talent and the will, or you are just looking for some easy attention. I don't have time for that. The world doesn't have time for that. Believe in your worth and work with a will so that others will see it. That's how it is done; that's how it was always done. —Martha Graham/Interview with James Grissom

May 5, 2018

García at the Palais Royal

Palais du Justice which adjoins the Palais Royal 

On a September day in 1854, I was strolling in the Palais Royal, preoccupied with the ever-recurring wish so often repressed as unrealizable, when suddenly I saw the two mirrors of the laryngoscope in the their respective positions as if actually present before my eyes. I went straight to Charrière, the surgical instrument maker, and, asking if he happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, was informed that he had a little dentist's mirror which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition of 1851. I bought it for 6 francs. Having obtained also a hand mirror I returned home at once, very impatient to begin my experiments. I placed against the uvula the little mirror (which I had heated in warm water and carefully dried); then flashing upon its surface with the hand mirror a ray of sunlight, I saw at once, to my great joy, the glottis wide open before me, and so fully exposed that I could perceive a portion of the trachea. When my excitement had somewhat subsided I began to examine what was passing before my eyes. The manner in which the glottis silently opened and shut, and moved in the act of phonation, filled me with wonder.

"The García Centenary," The British Musical Journal, March 25th, 1905: 683

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To walk where the great García walked—as I did in 2016—was nothing short of amazing even if part of the main complex no longer stood. García would have walked here and then gone to his studio/home which is only a few blocks away on the Rue Chabanais. 

Photo Credit: Daniel James Shigo 2016