Lilli Lehmann's Vocal Technique

Having referred to Lilli Lehmann's book How to Sing in a previous posts, I thought it might be time to give her vocal technique some attention. If you have read her book, you know just how idiosyncratic it is. The beginning voice student—much less the seasoned professional—can have a hard time making sense of it. And since Lilli's personality on the page comes across as that of an iron-willed, even ill-tempered goddess whose withering glance can turn one to stone, it's almost better to look at her teaching as reflected in her students. But such first-hand reports can be exceedingly hard to find. Fortunately, I did locate one—Basic Principles of Artistic Singing (1938) by John Frederick Lissfelt (1886-1965), a music critic for the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.

Lehmann as Isolde 

After reading Lilli's book in the original German and being unable to adjust his voice to the sensations she described, Lissfelt decided to go to Germany and study with the great singer herself. His neighbor, Minna Kaufman Ruud, was a student of Lilli Lehmann, and wrote Lissfelt a letter of introduction. Lissfelt first made contact with Lilli's younger sister Marie during the summer Salzburg festival, and then interviewed the great singer herself. Plans were made for Lissfelt's return the following summer for study in Lilli's classes, but unfortunately, she died that Fall. Lissfelt did, however, return to study with Marie for two summers, while continuing studies with Ruud in Pittsburgh. What did he learn? 

Marie & Lilli in Walküre

Lehmann objected seriously to the use of the term 'method.' But her teaching was just that. She built upon fundamental ideas of pedagogy: she examined her students individually, schooled the voice for tone in respect to throat, head, and chest formation, and was proficient musically, so that when it came time to advise regarding a career, she knew well enough in what direction to lead the student for public work. Her schooling for tone production and control demands tremendous concentration, a perfect coördination of all faculties for rapid adjustment and change, and an eventual chart of habits which are reliable as a good heart beat.  p. 1

Lilli believed that the muscles of the face, neck and head—what she called the "mask form"—needed to be disciplined every day. Towards this end, she taught her students to vocalize on an [i] vowel from the very first lesson, for which she was "laughed to scorn" by other teachers—the [a] vowel being the vowel of first choice. Lehmann insisted on this vocal placement, deeming it essential for all that followed. She also insisted that American students needed to mix [a] with [o]. However, [a] was only attempted after the student had obtained [i], [e], [o] and [u]. Each vowel was exercised in a specific manner which Lissfelt includes in the text. 

I sang that first exercise on a shrill and piercing ee, making my tone upon as clear pronunciation of that vowel as possible.  If one draws a triangle, its base the line of the mouth and the apex between the eyes, in that apex one finds the point of concentration of that ee. The Italian has that position naturally from his speech, but the Anglo-Saxon, especially the American, must build that vowel in its purity, must pierce through a veil caused by our broad speech in which the ah sends the voice far back and down into the throat. The purity of that ee can not be too dearly sought, for its mixture with other vowels in forming words is the saving grace of purity of tone-placement, of pitch, and or resonance. p. 3

Lehmann's exercises range from the chromatic (for tuning) to the Great Scale, which Lilli practiced for an hour and a half a day. Each half note is sung on all 5 vowels in succession, the goal being the attainment of absolute control over a two octave range—if not more. Lissfelt includes the preparatory exercises which are graduated and carefully explained. 

Lissfelt also credited the Lehmann exercises for strengthening and improving his speaking voice.

I learned to keep my tongue and lower jaw relaxed. By singing exercises high in my range, my muscles learned to keep my natural speaking tones- F-sharp, G, and G-sharp below Middle C- in the mask. I improved my articulation and gained surplus breath capacity. And now I speak frequently speak in foggy or smoky auditoriums where the audience coughs, and I never have to clear my throat. There has never been the slightest indication of hoarseness. I cannot say that the volume of my voice has increased, but its carrying qualities are magnified, and I am heard distinctly and understood in most trying auditoriums.
The Lehmanns, I repeat, believed that the speaking voice should be in the boots; they said "Im Bauch!" p. 53-54

Basic Principles of Artistic Singing is still under copyright with Schirmer, though out of print. You can search WorldCat for the nearest copy. 


VoiceTalk said…
A reader has inquired as to how the Great Scale was practiced. Lissfelt indicates that each note of the scale should be sung on [i] [e] [o] [u] [a]- in this order with rounded lips.
Vitali said…
Your website is amazing! Thank you so much. Hours of enjoyment for me!
VoiceTalk said…
Thanks for your comment Vitali! Great you hear that you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have. Wishing you great New Year- Daniel
Anonymous said…
Hi! I am translating Lilli Lehmann's book How to sing to croatian, for my students and I would need some help in translation of vowels: ē,ā,ōō....? Is it i, a, u? Are there any examples, as I have found in some other books (like Coffin of Marek, where they explain how to pronunce with examples). Thank you for any help!
Martina Zadro
VoiceTalk said…
Hello Anonymous- It helps to think about vowels in terms of IPA- the International Phonetic Alphabet. The three you refer to are /i/, /a/ and /u/. In addition, you might keep in mind that if you are translating the text from English, you are in fact getting quite far from the original German. Even Lilli herself thought the English translation obscured her meaning. The original German is titled "Meine Gesangskunst". Another thing to keep in mind is that the photographic plates in the original are somewhat different that those in the English addition: the German edition is more complete. said…
Hello, congratulations on your site!
About vowels taught by Madame Lehmann (/ â /, / ê / and / u /) the French translation (/ è /, / i /, / ou /) and the original German (e, i, u) correspond to phonemes in English / ay / as in the word "say", / ee / as in "sit", / oo / as in "fool".
VoiceTalk said…
Hello Roger,

I can't speak about the French translation, not having read it. That said, the phonemes you include in your comment are good. The English ones? 'Ay' is better written as /e/ which is the IPA. The next two you include are problematic. 'Sit' in English is a 'short' vowel, while the correct sound is that for the word 'seat'. The IPA for this vowel is /i/. The last vowel which you write as 'fool' is correct, and is written in IPA as /u/. Please keep in mind, however, that for most Americans, this vowel doesn't sound as closed as its German/Italian/French cousin.

Thanks for your comment,

Tony Strouse said…
Are there any videos of this scale being practiced? I do not have a vocal teacher but would likebto hear this in practice.
Thanks in advance if anyone can help.
Thank you for you comment, Tony Strouse. This is the kind of exercise that needs to be given in the studio where feedback can be given: It's not for beginners. That may be the reason why you can't find it in a video on the web.
Tony Strouse said…
That kinda puts a damper on things then lol well thanks for the feedback. I bought her book and am just trying to learn everything I can from it.
That is how I understood it, and practiced it. And SLOWLY. I found Lilli' s book when I was a teenage voice student and - though difficult, mechanistic and quirky - it became my bible.
That is how I understood it, and practiced it. And SLOWLY. I found Lilli' s book when I was a teenage voice student and - though difficult, mechanistic and quirky - it became my bible.