October 8, 2017

What Isn't Taught Anymore

In two words? Voice Placement. But oh, if you read the multitude of writers as I have from a hundred years ago, you would find the term, concept and idea of voice placement to be ubiquitous.

Why don't you hear about it now? Well, to put matters succinctly, modern voice teachers have been trained to think of the vocal tract as the only resonator. The sinus cavities? They can't resonate. Ergo, you shouldn't think about them buzzing with sound. That's elective. Personal. Like money, sex and religion. Not to be talked about in polite company.

However, this line of thinking operates out of a false premise. It assumes that a cavity must be involved. It also assumes that old Italian school voice teachers were naive and misinformed.

But what if the whole matter isn't about resonating cavities? Has anyone given much thought to the matter? Not that I can tell. Sure, voice science goes on about forced resonance, but this line of thinking proceeds from the same old assumption, which is that everything that happens vocally comes from the actions of the larynx. Ok. I buy that. But that is only half of the equation.

What about the ear? If singing really is simply a matter of pushing air through the glottis, well, why aren't we all great singers?

We aren't all great singers because the role of the ear is even more hidden than that of the larynx, the knowledge of which Manuel García unleashed upon the world with his investigations. And the scientific community has remained there ever since, the role of the ear in singing being accorded second-class status. Sure, everyone pays lip-service to how the ear is involved in singing, but only one man—Alred Tomatis—has given any real thought to the matter.

Tomatis is the guy who first observed that a child in the womb could hear the mother's voice. And people thought he was nuts for saying that. Turns out he was right. He was also the guy who proved that the larynx can only emit a sound that is first perceived by the ear. But who is studying the repercussions of his observation? Very few people. Everyone else is still looking down the rabbit hole. As a result, the teaching of singing has degenerated into manipulation upon manipulation.

Who needs ears when you can push the hell out of your voice? Or croon away like a musical theatre singer on the operatic stage?

Rather than deny what has been taught for centuries, it would be better for voice scientists to open their ears and ask why old Italian school vocal pedagogues taught this principle (read Vocal Wisdom for starters). Hello. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Of course, many vocal pedagogues who consider themselves adherents to the teachings of the old Italian school of singing don't teach voice placement.

To this we've come.

October 7, 2017

A Modern Guide to Old World Singing by David Jones

You have to hand it to the voice teacher who puts his studio teaching into a book, especially one that focuses on historical vocal pedagogy. Why? Most of the teachers within this pedagogical stream are loath to talk about their teaching in great detail, and even fewer venture out onto the literary limb—which I observed as founding editor of VOICEPrints—The Official Journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association. Could I get historically-minded teachers to go on the record about what they did in the studio? Oh, that was a hard sell. Would they write about it? No one wanted to do that. The fact-based voice science teachers? They weren't so skittish, but then, their "just the facts ma'am" approach was not as interesting. The real problem as I see it? No one wants to stick their neck out when voice science claims to have all the answers, and boy—anything you say can be used against you. This is very true for voice teachers in academia. However, the author of this book is that increasingly rare bird—the private voice teacher who answers to no one but his students. 

David Jones, a noted New York CIty vocal pedagogue, recently presented at the International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT), and studied with Alan Linquest—a founding member of the American Academy of Voice Teachers. Linquest had been a student of Joseph Hislop and Haldis Ingebjart-Iséne, both students of Gillis Bratt, a doctor who had taught Kirsten Flagstad. While Bratt's' teachers were musical descendants Francesco Lamperti, Linquest also studied with two students of Manuel García—Albert Boroff and Theodore Harrison. While this reader was heartened to see this and other lineage connections being made, he was remiss in noting a dearth of dates for the personages involved—as well as a paucity of foot/endnotes overall. For some, this will not be a huge loss. They will simply read this book for the teachings presented. Others, however, will note the missed opportunity and documentation which wields a peculiar kind of authority.

Jones presents his material in a well-ordered 16 chapter format, ranging from breathing to concepts like open throat, vocal protection, achieving balance in registration, and applying technique to repertoire. Key vocal techniques are woven throughout the book, and serve both as a leitmotif and a structural feature, with vocal exercises providing a vehicle for their execution. 

Sum total: this is a book for the vocal pedagogy geek, technically-deprived auto-didact, and curious teacher or student who wants to learn something of a particular intersection of the García and Lamperti schools of singing. 

As a measure of one man's life work and meaning, David Jones has gone the distance. Find his work at Amazon. 

October 6, 2017

Singing Is Not a Mechanical Proposition

You'd be forgiven if you thought otherwise, especially if you have been immersing yourself in reams of voice science information. What happens? Since most of this information is about "parts," one is fooled into thinking that manipulating the parts is the thing to do. Push on this or that muscle, or—and I love this one—"move" the air—and voila!—one obtains vocal nirvana. 

Your voice does not need you to "move" air, lip-trill, or press on your abdomen, or any such nonsense. That's like shooting a basketball into a hoop with your eyes closed. In auditory terms, we're talking about the ear being closed. 

What is one old-school approach? Calling with the clear desire to communicate. Calling to the friend across the street that you are surprised to see, haven't seen in 10 years, and can't wait to greet. Calling with quality, that is, with the intention to be heard clearly. (Need I mention that this isn't yelling?) Do this, and you will likely find that your ear will coordinate the parts without interference. Do this on a lower pitch and you will discover "singing position." Do this on an Italianate [a] — not easy if you speak in your nose or throat — and the throat will "open." 

To be sure, old-school voice teachers have their tricks of the trade which one might be seduced into thinking are mechanical aids, but they aren't that at all—which one learns with long experience. What does one observe instead? That these same methods can be understood as involving a global response of the auditory system—a system which organizes the parts unconsciously. 

September 20, 2017

Nothing but Technique for Months

Miss Gilberg is preparing for a song recital which she will give in the Grand Opera House some time in February, the proceeds from which will enable her to give her time entirely to the study of the voice preparatory for the stage. 

She is a pupil of Mrs Nellie Quinton Adams. Mrs Adams has had thirteen years of study under the best teachers and is thoroughly schooled in the old Italian method. She holds a teacher's certificate from John O'Neill, Nordica's teacher, to whom Nordica gave the credit of making her voice all that it was. O'Neill was a pupil of Manuel Garcia, the greatest of old Italian masters. Madam Marchesi was also a pupil of Garcia's, and every pupil of Garcia and his pupil's pupils, have his technique, which can only be gotten in this way, as it is not in print. So those who study with Mrs Adams get this same technique and training that has made the world's greatest singers. And her pupils have that assurance as the fact is established through the line of the world's greatest teachers. 

Mrs Adams says: "Our old Italian masters taught their pupils to sing naturally, but because they were Italians their manner of teaching is called "the old Italian method." Garcia, Lamperti, Marchesi, and all of the old masters gave their pupils nothing but technique for months, that the tones might be properly placed, the breath controlled, the registers evened, and for a certain amount of development and execution. Many things can only be acquired through technique. So those who attempt to sing songs before the proper technique is mastered meet with failure."

"It is an established fact that classical music is enjoyed by everyone when it is sung by one with pleasing voice, who sings correctly and with the soul of the master. The fault is not with the unschooled ear, or the masses, but with the singers. The voice with the abominable tremolo due to forcing of lack of support: The voice worn and broken from wrong singing; The voice that is always off key: The baritone who presumes to sing tenor: The Singer who resorts to contortions of the body to effect a climax: The singer who tightens and forces so that he is obliged to take quiting powders for his throat: The quartette composed of voices that never blend or harmonize and could not get past a critic on the first point raised: The playing of the church organist who plays the same voluntary many Sundays in succession because she has had but one organ lesson: The pianist who plays with no soul are the things that have prejudiced the masses against classical music because they do not know that it is the rendition of the music and not the composition that has displeased them. So it is the performer who needs to be educated, and not the masses. Narrow, self-centered, fakes and grafters, are responsible to a great degree for existing conditions. So that now genuine artists only can ever raise the standard of music."

Excerpts from "A Benefit for Miss Rose Gilberg, at the Grand Opera House in February," The Topeka Daily State Journal, January 9, 1916, p 8. 

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.