February 25, 2017

Vannini's Intelligent Laziness

Before entering on a detailed description of Vannini's method of singing, it is necessary to say something about the man, his artistic training, and his peculiar fitness for teaching. Like many others who have made great names for themselves, he has not done so along the line he originally intended. His first instrument was the piano, at which he worked from his earliest youth with the purpose of becoming a concert pianist. In due time he took up the study of harmony, counterpoint, etc., making a rounded musician of himself, with the conductor's baton as the final goal. He had always been in and about the theatre, and showed such proficiency in his profession that at eighteen he was made director of the chorus in the Niccolini, at Florence. This post he filled for three years with such credit that he was appointed conductor, and assumed full direction of the theatre at twenty-one. In Italy the position of conductor is one of great influence and responsibility. On all questions of art his word is law. Not only the concerted music, but the arias of the artists must be sung according to his direction; the stage is set to suit him; and if he says that anyone, from the prima donna down, is not satisfactory, that breaks the contract. He is the repository of all the traditions of the theatre, and is called not the conductor, but il maestro, the master. Such was Vannini's artistic experience,—rather a different one from that of the average vocal teacher.

Karleton Hackett (1867-1935) 
He conducted the opera at the Niccolini for several years, until the demands of a new calling, and one for which he felt himself especially adapted, became so imperative that he resigned, and from his twenty-sixth year till now, in the prime of life at forty-four, has given his entire attention to voice-teaching.

As he was so much in the theatre, he constantly heard the artists rehearsing; and when things did not go right he seemed to know instinctively the trouble and its remedy. After rehearsal he would go to the artist and say: "It seems to me that if you took the phrase this way, it would come more easily;" and a trial proved him right. Naturally, the next time the singer came to a difficult place he went to Vannini for more assistance; then others went; and soon all formed the habit of reading their music to him before rehearsal. Vannini became fascinated with the work. Convinced that it was the branch of the art for which he was intended, he gave up everything to devote himself to teaching the voice, and sought in every way to perfect himself. He had always been intimately associated with artists, which, in itself, is an education of inestimable value. He now consulted all teachers, heard them give lessons, and even went so far as to dissect throats, though this he found of no practical use.

In person he is rather short but strongly built, with a head set very erect on the shoulders, a peculiarly deep, sometimes dreamy eye, coal black hair now a little powdered at the temples, a thin beard, a hand large as the hand of Providence, and, like all Italian gentlemen, with courtesy bred in the very marrow of his bones. His main characteristic is unaffected simplicity and directness in everything, and his greatest horror is humbug, by which he means any theatrical posing or ostentation, either in or out of the studio. Such is the man who greets you so courteously, and who, to the very last day of your stay, treats you with the most kind and thoughtful consideration, never permitting himself a harsh or hasty word no matter how much you may deserve it; for he takes it for granted that you are a gentleman and an earnest student, anxious to do your very best.

There are two distinct parts to Vannini's teaching: First, the training of the voice, pure and simple; secondly, the training of the artist after the voice is placed. For the present I shall speak only of the first part.

At the first lesson or two he metaphorically turns the voice inside out; that is, he tries it in every possible way to find out its quality and quantity, its strong and its weak points. In fact, he says that the first lessons are for his benefit, not for the pupil's. When he knows just what material he has to work with, he begins slowly and carefully to develop the instrument, aiming to reach the highest point possible, no matter how much time it may take. All pupils take three one-hour lessons a week. His terms, though among the very highest in Italy, seem to us here surprisingly low, viz., ten francs or $2 an hour to professionals, more, of course, to amateurs, though he scarcely ever has any. During the period of voice-building, he demands strict obedience and unquestioning faith that what he says must be right. He does not have one cast-iron set of vocal principles to which all voices are made to conform even if they break in the process, but uses as many variations to the great fundamental truths as he has individual voices to deal with.

In an interview published in this magazine last spring I used a simile which I thought and still think a very good one, viz.: "Let the centre of a circle represent the trained voice—the ideal to be reached. Let the circumference represent the untrained voice—the beginner. The master examines two voices, and may find it necessary to start one voice at the right of the circle and the other at the left. They proceed in opposite directions and yet finally meet at the centre." Now there is so much truth in this, and it has been so delightfully misunderstood by some, that I wish to explain my meaning a little further. Take two untrained voices, having exactly opposite faults. One has a thin, pinched, throaty tone with all the breadth and richness squeezed out of it; the other has a flabby, colorless, breathy tone, spread out of all focus. Now it is evident that these voices must be treated in very different fashion. One must be opened out and given freedom; the other gathered together and brought to a focus. Thus, though started in opposite directions, nevertheless, they will meet at the centre, which is the natural, free voice. As no two persons are exactly alike, neither are any two voices; and continual study of individuals with careful consideration of the peculiarities of each voice, are the chief sources of Vannini's power. Following out this plan, he uses no set of vocal exercises, but writes his own for each pupil as fast as needed. Thus the student is always provided with an exercise designed to correct just the fault he is working on. A great volume of exercises is unnecessary. I have all that I used in three years' study on a half sheet of music paper.

The first and sometimes the hardest thing that the American pupil has to learn is to "go slow;" to get free from our national bustle and hurry, which is, perhaps, business, but is certainly neither art nor study. One of Vannini's favorite expressions is "intelligent laziness," by which he means to know when you have done enough actual work, and then to "lie still and grow," as Kipling has put it. Italians have a very wise proverb: "Chi va piano, va sano, e va lontano;" "He who goes carefully, goes safely, and goes a long way." Voice-cultivation is the development by natural growth of the vocal apparatus that nature has given to us. All the vocal teacher does is to direct this growth; in no sense does he make it. He may aid or retard, but nature does the work. The growth that is begun most slowly and carefully will develop most safely and rapidly. We all have noticed that in starting a heavy train the engineer sometimes pulls the throttle too wide open, and the big driving-wheels whiz round; but no progress is made till the engineer shuts off steam and starts again more gently. A similar thing happens very often in vocal study; only when the vocal driving-wheels whiz round, the results are apt to be serious.

That the desired end may be reached most quickly, Vannini usually has his pupils stop all home practice, particularly when there is faulty tone-production, until the pupil has mastered the old faults and has so firm a grasp on the new method that there is no danger of slipping back. The maestro earnestly cautions the pupil against over-practice. Probably nine voices are injured by too much practice where one really suffers from not practicing enough. At first, the pupil may practice from five to ten minutes two or three times a day, but not unless they "feel like it," and never after the voice shows the first signs of weariness. Better go slowly than to take a strained throat to the doctor. From the first day to the last, it is the quality of the work done not the quantity, that is insisted on. A few minutes with all the faculties keenly alert and watching for each minutest fault, are hard work, but bring solid progress; singing a lot of exercises, and never minding whether some things do not come as well as they might, is quite easy and equally injurious. After a few weeks or months of this kind of work, some simple song is given, but only as an exercise for the words. For after the voice can vocalize correctly, there are endless difficulties that may arise from using the different vowels.

What, then, is Vannini driving at? What is the ideal that he holds before himself, and to which he bring each voice as near as possible? It is the rich, free, resonant voice, that can sing legato, and that rolls out from the singer with the same ease and joy as does song from the lark. That voice of fiery yet melting beauty, which we so associate with the Italian stage and so often hear erroneously attributed to the Italian throat, that bel canto, is within the reach of any person endowed with voice and musical feeling, who is willing to work hard enough for it. We Americans are gifted with natural voices, but we have lacked the atmosphere of art and study that pervades the music-centres of Europe. Not that we have no fine teachers, for there have been and are to-day in America teachers of the very first rank; but we do not give to them the same favorable opportunity for work that we give to the European teachers. We are too business-like, in too much of a hurry for tangible financial results. Then we lack the incentive of constant hearing of good artists at reasonable prices.

Vannini seeks to know just how the natural, healthy voice, unaffected by malformation or misuse, acts; how nature intended the perfect voice to sing. Then he brings the many kinds of limited or injured voices as near to the ideal as possible. He bases, his system on the most natural of all sounds, the open Italian a; but as certain voices have trouble in vocalizing on this vowel, he colors it for a time to suit their needs. But before they can go a step farther, they must master this fundamental principle of good singing. He spends most of his time on the middle voice, making it absolutely solid, because long vocal life and the correct formation of both upper and lower tones depend entirely upon the middle voice. This part lies the bulk of the work to do in all kinds of music, and it is where the first signs of wear or faulty production appear. When the middle voice is so poised that it can sustain heavy work without fatigue, then the production of the upper tones is an easy matter. But as long as the pupil has any doubt about the management of the middle voice, the upper voice would better be left alone, as almost inevitably it will be produced incorrectly.

Vannini seldom takes the voice to the extreme high notes, because when the middle voice is perfectly solid there is little need of it, and before that time it is useless. The pupil is taught to sustain tones quietly, putting aside all nervous tension, and using only just as much voice as comes naturally—neither repressed to a piano, which is always dangerous for beginners, nor pushed a particle to make the voice larger. No matter how small or poor the voice may seem to be, when given in this simple, natural manner it will grow fast enough with time and care. But woe to the voice that is forced in the studio. If it does not break, it grows one-sided. When the voice is so poised that it can sustain a real legato, whether it takes two months or two years to accomplish it, then and not till then is Vannini ready to begin the training of the artist—"but that's another story." 

(To be continued.)

Hackett, Karleton. "Vannini—The Man and the Method," Werner's Magazine of Expression, December 1893: page 414-5.


The voice has now reached a point where things can be thought of other than voice-building. The instrument is at command. Important works can be studied, and the real business of making a singer can begin. It is wise to consider what line of work you wish to follow. Vannini’s whole course of instruction is to prepare pupils for the opera. If the singer wishes to fit himself for oratorio work he can, after a thorough course in voice-building under Vannini, undoubtedly be better coached in England than in Italy; and for German Lieder it is equally necessary to go to Germany. But for concert singing, where the aria plays so important a part, and most certainly for opera, even if it be German opera, too much cannot be said of the value of study in Italy. Even the vocal training of Paris is largely in the hands of Italians, and many of the most prominent singers of French opera are pupils of Italian masters. In spite of the poor voice-teachers that Italy, in common with all countries, possesses in abundance, and of all the charlatanry about the “ old Italian method,” etc., the fact remains that the value of the Italian way of singing is everywhere recognized, and all this quackery that has flourished so luxuriantly is only a proof of the richness of the underlying soil.

As soon as the newness has worn off and strange ways have become familiar, there is something truly inspiring to a singer in living amongst people that turn to music, especially to singing, as the greatest pleasure of life. Where all, from the great noble to the street peddler, have frequented the opera since their earliest recollection, and love and understand it as only those can to whom it has become a necessity, there is formed an atmosphere of art whose value to the student, though it may not be measured by length, weight, or bulk, is unspeakably great. There is encouragement to the student when one sees that whatever is really good receives instant and outspoken recognition. Then, the value of constantly hearing artists can hardly be overestimated. It is not only education, but a great incentive. You realize after a time that these great artists, before whom you stand in wondering admiration, were not born supremely great, nor with phenomenal vocal endowments, but they owe their position to long study, hard work, and unconquerable determination. You become acquainted with them, learn of their struggles, their discouragements, their limitations; and, finally, you realize that almost no bounds can be put to the possibilities of the fairly 'gifted man who will work unremittingly and wisely in his art. The list of great singers whose first managers told them they were “good fellows, but had mistaken their profession,” is too familiar to need rehearsing.

As I have already said, the foundation of Vannini’s work is voice-building, and the pupil can undertake nothing beyond until the art of voice-placing is mastered. But after this is over, and it sometimes seems very like drudgery, comes the real pleasure and greatest benefit from study with Vannini. As in his voice-building he studies the peculiarities of each voice as an instrument, so now he studies the temperament and character of each pupil, to know what sort of music is best suited to his abilities. Many a time he is compelled to say that though such a one has a voice he will never be a singer. After a time you realize that the voice is but a small part of the artist. Some with truly phenomenal voices can reach only mediocrity; and some of the great artists of the world amaze us, and—win our greater admiration, when we understand how poor was their original vocal endowment.

In order to best develop the artistic insight of his pupils, Vannini allows them the very widest liberty of interpretation, preferring to let them find by actual trial which way is the best and most effective, rather than to stifle individual thought by saying in advance that “this aria is to be sung so.” If, after due time, the pupil does not seem able to find for himself the best rendition, Vannini suggests that “perhaps it would go better this way,” and the pupil has floundered long enough to appreciate the value of the right way when it is pointed out. But I know one celebrated teacher who goes so far as to write in all the breathing-places and expression-marks before the pupil has ever studied, or perhaps even heard, the aria. Where the teacher is thoroughly familiar with the music, that is undoubtedly an easy way of giving instruction; but I hardly think it is likely to develop the pupil so satisfactorily. Vannini is always striving to make his pupils think and have opinions of their own about the value of music and its interpretation, even when those opinions do not coincide with his own. He knows that the singer who is merely the echo and mimic of his master will never be an artist.

For those pupils who are studying for the stage, Vannini’s experience as conductor is invaluable; and for teaching a broad, dramatic style of singing it is impossible to find his superior. His pupils, score in hand, are expected to attend the opera several times a week (though, thank fortune, not at American prices!), and at the next lesson to give a clear and decided criticism of the methods of the singers and the value of their interpretations.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Vannini’s pupils is comradeship and mutual friendly interest, which lasts a long time after they leave his studio. This is greatly cemented by his “ Wednesday Evenings,” which are of much benefit to students, both musically and socially. They last through the winter months. All pupils are invited, and all who have passed the chrysalis stage are obliged to sing, in order to gain confidence and ease, even if they do only a simple ballad. The mutual criticism is very valuable, and the incentive of seeing what progress the others are making keeps the interest at a high pitch. When any of Vannini’s “artist pupils ” are in town they also assist, and I have heard as many as five singers from the opera, all ex-pupils, sing at his house in one evening. Of course, the benefit of getting so close to artists and watching what they can do in the studio is very great, as is, also, the pleasure of the musical chat and reminiscence that follows the music. Many a time it keeps up till the “wee small hours.”

After a pupil has reached the proper point, Vannini has many opportunities for getting him public hearings, though this is rather out of the province of vocal instruction. One who has ever studied with Vannini is sure of a friend through all his career, in whatever land he may be and whatever the branch of the art to which he may devote himself. And in the hearts of his pupils, il maestro ever holds a first place in love and respect.

Hackett, Karleton. "Vannini—The Man and the Method," Werner's Magazine of Expression, January 1894: page 5. 


A native of Florence, Italy, Vincenzo Vannini (1848-1924) taught in Boston from 1876-1880 and published several volumes on singing (see Worldcat). His student Karleton Hackett (1867-1935) was a native of Boston and may have met Vannini there as a young man. Whatever the case, Hackett commenced his musical studies at Harvard, then studied with Vannini in Florence for three years. Upon his return to America, Hackett sang for a time, wrote many articles on the art of singing, and ultimately became an important voice teacher at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He also found himself in a legal tussle with A. D. Duvivier—a student of Manuel García which you can read about here. The long and short of it? Duvivier gave an address which he promoted in a pamphlet. Hackett commented on it in the Musical Courier—insinuating that Duvivier had an overly familiar relationship with his female students. That Hackett's libel was true did not prevent the judge from dismissing the case. See the labels below for additional information. 

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