September 19, 2017

When the Parent is the Problem

Did you know that Kiri te Kanawa was given a lifetime achievement award by Gramophone Magazine? Watching the presentation, I was struck by her words at the end. What did Te Kanawa say? She thanked her parents for the sacrifices they made. And where did my mind go? It contrasted her words with the recent experience of having a parent contact me about preparing a child for an audition at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Never mind that I hadn't worked with the kid for more than 6 months—and only sporadically before that. Never mind that the music for the audition displayed repeated high B flats and C. Never mind that I had never heard the kid sing those notes. Never mind that the audition was in three days. Never mind that the kid was being set up for failure. Never mind any of that. Never mind that I told all this to the parent. 

This is when the parent is the problem.  

Kids don't know jack. They only know what is presented to them. The hoops they need to jump through to sing at a high level are provided by a teacher who knows what they are doing.

The parent's role is to fully support their child over the long haul that real tuition demands. But too few understand this, thinking that learning an art form is nothing more than entertainment, like pulling up Netflix and downloading a video game. Sure. Singing and playing the piano can be—and is—highly enjoyable. But true enjoyment comes from self-sacifice, which leads to self-mastery—and involves both parent and child.

What was the parent sacrificing? Nothing that I could see. What was she teaching her kid? That you can shoot for the moon without any real preparation whatsoever. 

Yeah. She took her kid to the audition having—presumably—found someone else to work with him. I know this because she posted photos of him standing outside the stage-door. (Don't you just love social media?) Her words? "It was a great experience."

So, that's what it's all about, I thought. Chasing fame and likes.

The Muse is not amused. 

August 21, 2017

From García's Drawing-Room

SIR,—Twice a week for three years I sat in Manuel Garcías drawing-room at Cricklewood from 10:30 a. m. till the time of my own lesson, 1.30, and listened to his teaching. May I be considered qualified to reply to your correspondence 'J. M. L.,' on one or two trifling points? 

He says 'the mouth was only opened sufficiently to admit the tip of one finger between the teeth.' Señor García insisted on the width of two fingers for the proper opening for Ah (all the exercises were sung on Ah). For words, of course, one had to adjust the aperture, but he never told us to make it as narrow as possible. One of his favorite cures for a stiff jaw was to make the student hold a little piece of wood between the teeth while singing exercises (on Ah). 'While you are biting upwards,' he would say, 'you cannot push the jaw downwards.' He would cut a little post for this purpose, with an old knife from a stick of firewood, and it was always quite one and a half inches high. The 'tip' of nobody's finger is that width. 

To forestall misapprehension I add that he never intended this application to be used much. It was merely to convince students that they could sing without a rigid jaw. They were then expected to reproduce the sensation in their own practice. 

Again, 'J. M. L." says 'the lips (were) allowed to retire slightly at the corners when the vowels permitted it.' I never heard the maestro advocate this. On the contrary, I have heard him say: "The quack-quack of the duck is the ugliest sound in nature. A sideways movement of the mouth is a grimace, and brings the tone nearer to the quack-quack. Think of the bull with the deep bass voice. Corners of the mouth forward, lips loose, and the carrying power is doubled.' This I have demonstrated in my own teaching many times. Drawn-back corners of the mouth produce the scrannel-pipe tone so common to-day. 

As for 'J. M. L.'s' rider 'When the vowels permit.' I would answer, 'The vowels never permit.' Every vowel can and should be sung with forward-pushing, loose lips, and no closing of the teeth. Anyone can try this, and will get a uniformly rich sound, emotional tone instead of a different tone of each vowel which many singers seem unable to avoid. 

García said very little to us about breathing, beyond 'Chi sa respirare sa cantare,' and never used voiceless breathing exercises. But he considered it of the utmost importance. We were made to practise sustained notes (were we not!) and he kept one at 'Porgi amor' (my first song with him) for six or seven weeks. After that he seemed to think my breathing was all right, though we still had ot begin every lesson with sustained notes. 

About anatomy, he used to say, 'The singer does not need to know. The birds, what do they know? They sing. That is all.' I am sure he was right. I have had pupils who would have been ruined at once as singers had I talked anatomy to them. But if one would teach, one must study anatomy. I had to go elsewhere for it. 

Señor García was fond of telling the Porpora-Caffarelli story, but I always thought he did so with his tongue in his cheek. He had a very sly humour, and no one knew better than he how ill-equipped a singer would be to 'conquer the world' who could sing only exercises. 'J. M. L's' ingenious explanation is probably correct and at any rate makes the story credible.—Yours, &c., JEAN HUNTER REES-PEDLAR, Gouroch, Renfrewshire. 

—The Musical Times, "A pupil of García's on his teaching," April 1937: 358. 

August 17, 2017

How to Fill the Lungs

In practicising to fill the lungs, the singer should stand upright, close the mouth, and inhale very slowly through the nose, whilst at the same time inducing a gradual upward expansion, as though the air descended first to the region of the abdomen and then mounted by degrees to the upper cavities of the chest. The body throughout, although firmly supported, must be in a state of muscular relaxation.  

During the act of inflation, the stomach must be slightly drawn in, the ribs raised to their full extent, and the front wall of the chest allowed to rise—all without any perceptible elevating movement of the shoulders or collarbone, which are not permitted to move from their normal position or take any active part in the process of expansion.



A noted pedagogue once told me: "You can't learn to sing from a book!" And while this is widely considered to be true, I didn't let that stop me. And if I had let it stop me, I never would have found Klein's book, a passage of which is included above. 

What does it take to learn from a book? I believe it involves a high degree of proprioception—that is, the person reading must already have a feeling for singing. The book itself must be written from a procedural point of view. It must give clear, concise instruction in what to do and how to do it. Theory isn't enough. Knowledge about the vocal mechanism is not enough. There must be a doing to do.

Klein offers the reader a wonderful bit of doing two paragraphs after the two you see above when he tells the reader to hold the breath for three counts and then writes out—"to be actually counted."

If you go through the steps Klein has delineated and then hold your breath for three counts, well, by golly, you will feel something, a something that wants to be repeated. I can tell you what this is in one simple word: Lift. Acquiring it whether the mouth is closed or open is the next order of business.

August 11, 2017

You Are Enough: Barbara Cook



"When asked what her advice usually was to aspiring singers, she told the Associated Press that it boiled down to three words she learned early on and that were her guide. 'You are enough. You are always enough. You don't have to pretend to be anything other than what you are. All you have to do is deeply embrace who you are and you'll be fine. In life, aren't you drawn to the more authentic people? Of course. You're not drawn to phonies.' " LATimes, August 2017.

I only heard Barbara Cook live twice, both times at her 80th birthday concerts with the New York Philharmonic. A friend gave us his tickets, and then I bought my own. Glorious music making, I knew I was hearing the kind of singing one hears only too rarely today—where the singer risks everything, goes deep and sings from soul to soul. And at the end of the concert, she put the mike down, stepped to the very front of the stage and sang Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from On the Town. I cried tears of joy and applauded till my hands were sore.

My advice? Find her on Youtube—the interviews, concerts, everything. Get good and lost for a couple of hours. You will be richly rewarded.

July 10, 2017

Vincenzo Cirillo

Vincenzo Cirillo, the bass of the Church of the Unity, in Boston, is a teacher who represents the old, sincere, laborious Italian school. He came to Boston in 1873, under an engagement to teach singing at the National College of Music, and after the collapse of that institution, continued in the city, engaged in instructing his numerous pupils till the year 1880-81, which he spent abroad in the inspection of the best schools of singing in the Old World, and in the study of the latest phases of teaching as practiced in Italy. Signor Cirillo is a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Naples, and a member of the St. Cecelia Academy of Rome, as well as the holder of eight diplomas from various societies in Italy. His first teacher was Alessandro Busti. During his master's sickness, Cirillo taught his special pupils, and after his death, continued at the Conservatory for five years, till the increase of his private pupils compelled him to resign his position. He also studied under Alfonso Guercia and Domenico Scafati, who shares with Lamperti and Vannuccini the honor of heading the list of modern Italian teachers. In 1879, Cirillo was appointed director of the choir of the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Boston, where he produced several of his own compositions, the chief being a brilliant and original "Stabat Mater" for six solo voices. He has published a lecture on the Neapolitan School, a method of vocalization in three divisions, and a large number of secular compositions. He is now at work on an opera founded on a Grecian story. 

Music and Drama,  November 11, 1882: 13. 


You can find Cirillo's excellent lecture on the download page in the right hand column. His teaching on the "compound vowel" has been addressed on these pages multiple times, which you can access using his label below.  

July 8, 2017

10 Things I Keep in Mind in the Studio


  1. No one owes me a damn thing. 
  2. Be kind.
  3. Focus on the teaching. 
  4. Make it simple: Keep it simple.
  5. One thing at a time: Then connect the dots. 
  6. Problems are solved by basics. 
  7. Take nothing for granted.
  8. Sound can open Pandora's Box.
  9. Listen with your eyes and look with your ears. 
  10.  Singing is grounded in joy. 

July 7, 2017

10 Things to Keep in Mind During Your Fabulous Singing Career


  1. No one cares about your vocal technique. What matters to the listener is the product. What you do in the practice room is your concern. 
  2. No one is handing out awards for practice. Get used to enjoying it. You'll be spending a lot of time alone in a room learning music. 
  3. Success comes and goes. Learn to ride the wave. 
  4. Be humble. There are things that only you can do, and plenty of things that others do better. The art is to know the difference and your limits. 
  5. Talent doesn't always win. Life is not fair. Yet really beautiful voices have a way of finding their place in the sun. 
  6. Histrionics are no substitute for real technique, which should enable you to move your listener. Being able to do this standing still, using your voice and not moving a muscle, is the real art. 
  7. Learn to say no and mean it. 
  8. You will have trouble with managers. Real success means knowing how to manage yourself. 
  9. You can only really sing when you have to sing. The Muse isn't interested in hobbyists. 
  10. If you are going to teach, keep in mind that no one is going to listen to you until you reach 40. Make sure you actually know something. 

July 4, 2017

10 Books for the Vocal Pedagogy Geek

Here are 10 books you may find to be worth your time while you while away your summer weeks at the shore or by the lake.

  1. So You Want to Sing Sacred Music: A Guide for Performers, Edited by Matthew Hoch, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). 
  2. Loralee Songer, Songs of the Second Viennese School: A Performers Guide to Selected Vocal Works, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
  3. Valerie Mindel, So You Want to Sing Folk Music, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). 
  4. Matthew Hoch, Linda Lister, Voice Secrets: 100 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Singer, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). 
  5. Anna Hershey, Scandinavian Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian and Danish Repertoire and Diction, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). 
  6. Joan Melton, Singing in Musical Theatre: The Training of Singers and Actors, (Allworth Press, 2007). 
  7. Joan Melton, Kenneth Tom, One Voice: Integrating Singing Technique and Theatre Voice Training, (Waveland Press, 2013). 
  8. Joan Melton, Dancing with Voice: A Collaborative Journey across Disciplines, (Voice Theatre Solutions, 2015). 
  9. Matthew Hoch, A Dictionary for the Modern Singer, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). 
  10. Joan Frey Boytim, The Private Voice Studio Handbook: A Practical Guide to All Aspects of Teaching, (Hal Leonard, 20013). 
My favorite cover from the selection above? Melton's Singing in Musical Theatre: The Training of Singers and Actors (Allworth Press, 2007). Very elegant, just like Joan herself. 

June 29, 2017

New Cover for Hidden in Plain Sight

My little 104-page book is receiving an elegant new cover courtesy of Jeff Macauley—a graphic designer and cabaret artist here in New York City. To say I am happy is an understatement: I'm thrilled! 

While covers are one thing, content is another—and in this case, the reader will find my introduction to Klein's succinct and timeless instruction: instruction that is founded in the teachings of the father of voice science. And therein lies the most interesting thing: Klein is unique in presenting the great master's teaching, especially as voice placement is concerned since García did not address the matter in his own writings. 

I should mention that this cover has a particular meaning for me—a private one—which I am not adverse to divulge. 

You see, Pauline Viardot-García, who appears in the text, was wont to wear black and purple/lavender silk dresses when she taught. Her brother considered  Viardot-García the genius of the family, and it is through her student Anna Schoen-René, who in turn taught Margaret Harshaw, that this book was found in the first place. Without the Viardot-García purple/lavender connection, you wouldn't be reading this post and blog. 

I hope you will take as much pleasure in reading Klein's text as I did in bring it to you. It's the real deal.

May 15, 2017

New Fangled Deep Breathing

The Courier says; "If all the aspirants of future vocal honors could have heard David Bispham at Steinway hall no doubt some of them would today direct their attention to other fields. Mr Bispham did not sing. This was one of the occasions when he talked. The baritone appeared under the auspices of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Herman Klein, Chairman of the executive board presided. 

David Bispham
"Mr Bispham was announced to speak on the subject of 'General Principles in the Art of Singing.' His essay, a lengthy paper, was filled with wisdom, eloquence, humor and advice. To those about to take up careers as singers he quoted the laconic advice of Punch to those about to be married, namely, 'Don't.'"

Here are a few extracts from Mr Bispham's essay: 

"There seems to have been during the last few years more than a revival of interest in the art of singing. The interest has increased until it has positively become a craze, and who can tell what it may lead to? A renaissance of that branch of prevails; there seems to be signs of a general artistic revival in this country, for, besides an awakening among the other arts, such as painting, literature and architecture, even the drama shows signs of a revivifying, while people are actually 'opera mad,' and a very good things, too, if it leads to the formation of what we most need, national opera in our own language, founded upon the best of modern foreign models. But to the end that we may have opera without being obliged to import singers, we must encourage and train the voices we have at hand and form models of our own for future generations to look up to—examples for them to emulate. Indeed, they are not a few already, of whom we have great cause to be proud—women and men of American birth, and at least partly of American training, who, after study and work abroad, have returned to our own stage where we have been proud to welcome them with the greatest of foreign singers of our generation. 

"I fear, however, that the average young woman, who, with a healthy voice and a good ear, thinks to make a success upon the stage, the literary aspect of her art. If so it may be called, counts but for little. 

"Musical journals are full of advertisements of singers who have made a certain amount of success as far as it goes, and from these ranks we are constantly hearing or recruits to the stage, principally in light opera, as in the recent case of young Edward Johnson, who is making such success in New York at this moment 

"The one thing about our would-be artists that is more striking than almost any other besides the natural cleverness of our own countryman is the lack of seriousness that many of them make so plain that he who runs may read. The 'get rich quick' person must understand that if he is every going to get rich by singing it will be through no process of celerity. 

"In Italy we are accustomed to thinking of singing as a natural gift. In England we are accustomed as considering it as rather a pedantic acquirement. In Germany, more than anywhere else in Europe, singing has taken on an intellectual touch; while in France, the artistry of all that is done upon the stage is fully apparent. Here in America, if anywhere in the world, we should be able, as we see compounded of all the other nations, to combine the good points of them all. Nowhere better than in New York have the singers before our public been able to acquire a knowledge of the methods of their brother and sister artists from other countries, for have we no upon the stages or our two opera houses the representative vocalist of Europe, and are not our own, who are working there with them, holding their ground without a shadow of a doubt? Fortunately, the stage in this country is no bar to respectability or social standing; therefore to use is open the highest that the theater has to confer, and it is open to gilded ones, from whatever stratum of society—from the lowest to the highest. The aristocracy of art in this country is assured and is respected. The only really bad thing about the stage is the bad work that may be heard or seen upon it. The only really bad thing about a singer's career is bad singing. 

"Now, how to ensure good singing: Of course, there is only one way to sing, and that is the right way. There is only one kind of person that can sing, and that is a real singer. You may talk and write about singers and their work from now until doomsday, and it will not carry one iota of weight as against a simple song, beautifully sung; and yet it is necessary to talk in order in inculcate ideas and instill into the minds of beginners certain doctrines—the A, B, C or their art. The teacher finds that some who try are not singers, and never will be or can be. Others have the power, only it needs to be brought out. Others have voices and nothing besides—'Vox et practer nihil.' 

"Many, indeed most singers, think they are called, but few find they are chosen. Of course, voice is necessary. We all remember Rossini's three essentials for singers: 'First, voice; second, voice, and third, voice.' That was doubtless true then, but more is required in this day, and in this city, than every before in any other part of the world, with the single exception of Covent Garden, London, where the conditions are practically the same. 

"Breathing seems to be the especial stumbling block for both master and pupil alike. However, it is to the singer that the bow arm is to the violinist—absolutely essential where any real work is excepted. 

"Jenny Lind, whom I personally new when she was an aged lady, had no patience with the new fangled deep breathing. She said the chest was made for that purpose, and acted accordingly, and wonderful in her prime was her breath control. There was never a doubt of that; but the public of fifty or sixty years ago thought little of those matters. The voice was all with them, and we have only to take a rapid glance at the condition prevailing then to recognize how enormously our own field of operation has broadened. We must act accordingly. Singers were Jenny Linds or Pattis—or they were not, just as now they are Melbas and Tetrazzini's, or they are not; but that was for the one kind of singing that generally prevailed at that time. Now there are so many other kinds, and the requirements of the stage are so vast that while a Sembrich will cover a wide space, a Lilli Lehmann will overlap a large part of that and cover new ground in other directions. Yet they all must, and do, sing after one fashion or another, to the great satisfaction of the public, which admires this or that school of music in which they prefer to hear their favorites. 

"It would be interesting to know the vocal process of the vocal education of a Caruso. Maybe he just sang, as so many or his countrymen do. We never heard Caruso during his years or work at home, or in St. Petersburg, or in South America. Yet the same voice was there, and the illuminating grace of experience has in these latter days made for him a name by which he will be remembered for generations. Even in this case, however, let no pupil think that it has been all play—all beer and skittles. 

"Tamagno was another type of great voice which came to his own by its own methods. No master could teach him much of voice culture. Vannuccini said he 'bleated like a goat' and told him so. His musical educations, notwithstanding his enormous vogue in 'Otello' and other Italian operas, where volume of voice was the principle requisite, was so limited that, to my knowledge, when he was engaged to sing a performance of Rossini's 'Stabat Mater,' in Florence, he not only did not know the music, but had never even heard of it before! He sang it, however, with the greatest success, no such effect having been created by any singer in my experience of oratorio as in his rendering of the 'Cujus Animan.' 

"Jean de Reszke was the stuff of that I would like to see more tenors and all other singers made of. His career was the outcome of sheer intelligence. 

"The first of the general principles I take to be the breath, which  I hold to be the alpha and omega of song, the middle and both ends of the art. By 'art; I mean not only that of singing but of speaking whether from the platform or the pulpit, at the bar or upon the stage. 

"Were we all made alike we would all sing alike. As a matter of fact, we are all make alike only up to a certain point, and on general principles. Through ages nature has formed Italians so that it is plain to the eye that a man or a woman is an Italian, and upon hearing and Italian sing without seeing him you would say: 'Oh, that's an Italians' voice.' The same is applicable to Germans, French and English. 

"I am at a loss to know how more particularly, within the time at our disposal this evening, to enter into the subject of the general principles of the art of singing than to insist upon the utmost clarity of explanation to the pupil of the various points touched upon, for can be more puzzling to the beginner than to be told by one whom he considers as authority, and who has explained himself—if the expression may be used—by means of strange gestures, that the song must come from the pit of the stomach, or the back of the head, or that is must float, or that it must emerge from his larynx as if it were strips of paper being drawn from the mouth of the prestidigitator? I beg of those who may have found some benefit in using any of these mysterious movements to do so as sparingly as possible if they would avoid mystifying the pupils still further over an already sufficiently complicated attainment, and I would beg them of general principles to settle down with good common sense to find out, not what they can hammer into the comprehension of their pupils, but how clearly to elucidate the subject so that what is in the pupil may be brought out. This is the true meaning of education. The word training presupposes the existence of something capable of being trained; if that is not there all is in vain." 

Johnstone-Bishop, Genevra. "The Musical World," Los Angeles Herald, Tuesday, April 7, 1908: page 3.