There is a lot to be learned from letters from the past for those with ears to hear. Two such letters appear below. They were written from Pauline Viardot-Garcia to Emi de Bidoli, and are included in the latter's memoir Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (1946). Though undated, I believe they were written during the 1890's.
The first letter is notable for what it tells the student and voice teacher regarding daily practice. Viardot-Garcia's students began with breathing exercises, then sustained notes in chest (that should make some heads spin), then high notes 'very softly' and with 'no effort' (head voice), then exercises of progressive difficulty. Simple enough, right? Now. Have you looked at Viardot-Garcia's exercise book? Not for the the faint of heart.
My dear child,
Thank you for having sent me such a nice letter. But you only tell me about your poor mother and don't mention yourself. How do you like the change of climate and life, habits, food, direction of thoughts and so many other things? Did you take up your daily practice? Has your mother heard you? What did she say? Is she satisfied with your improvements?
When you take up your studies, start with breathing exercises, first of all. Then some sustaining notes in chest until MI, not any higher. The high notes very softly and without effort. Then take some little exercises to the 4th, 8th, and 10th. Use as much as possible my little book, "An Hour of Study," which is my best representative. I will not leave Paris before the middle of August.
Give my best regards to your dear mother.
I embrace you very affectionately.
The letter below hints at something that was considered de rigueur during De Bidoli's day. And it is this: students of the Old Italian School were kept on vocal exercises to develop technique for an extended period before they were allowed to study repertoire. In most cases, this period lasted for at least a year, if not more. Can you imagine this being done at any conservatory today?
Viardot-Garcia also reveals the qualities she prizes: voices that are light and supple, clear and pure (are you remembering my previous post?).
My dear Emi,
Come back to me as soon as you can. I'll make you work very hard. You have to prepare a nice repertoire. It would be too bad to drop your work just now when you are two steps from "trés bien." Take care of your voice, because such pure and clear qualities are becoming more and more rare. In singing so much modern music, people think it is not necessary anymore to make the voice supple and light- and how wrong they are. They don't realize that the more the voice is agile, the more it gains in volume and the better a person can sing expressively and sustained- and the less the voice becomes tired. This is true even in singing modern music, which is often very beautiful, but almost always fatal to the voice.
Write me as soon as possible, my dear Emi, and receive my best wishes for yourself and your dear ones.
And what was the modern music Viardot-Garcia warned about? I am betting they were composers like Faure and Debussy, and I will lay double odds on those like Mascagni. Modern composers aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Viardot-Garcia did indeed work her students very hard. After all, Emi de Bidoli was not one step from trés bien, but two.