May 3, 2013

The Lamperti Method of Teaching Vocal Art by Giulia Valda

Giulia Valda (1850-1925) 
Born in Boston in 1850 to a "truck'man," Julia Wheelock began her musical studies as a pianist at the age of five. When her nascent lyric soprano voice became apparent in 1872, her uncle Merrill took her to Milan where she began vocal study with Francesco Lamperti. In 1877, when she was twenty-seven, Wheelock made her operatic debut as Giulia Valda in Malta, singing the role of Oscar in Verdi's Ballo in Maschera. Two years later, she sang the title role of Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore in Pavia, the house packed for all nineteen performances. Herman Klein heard her sing as a mature artist in London in 1886 at Covent Garden and had this to say.

Verdi was represented, in the course of the month, by his Traviata, Trovatore, Ernani, and Ballo in Maschera. In the last-named opera yet another debutante appeared in the person of Madame Giulia Valda, an artist of American birth and Italian training. She sang the part of Oscar, and displayed therein a bright, sympathetic soprano voice and an excellent method. Madame Valda was very successful in both her airs, and her embodiment of the sprightly page well deserved the favour with which it was received. A performance of Don Giovanni, on June 24th, brought back in the title-character the gifted French baritone, M. Maurel, who had not appeared in England for several seasons. His refined and artistic assumption evoked the same approval as in the past. Other noteworthy features of this representation were Madame Valda's intelligent and expressive singing as Donna Elvira and Madame De Cepeda's fine rendering of the part of Donna Anna. Mdlle. Teodovini's appearance in the light soprano role of Zerlina was a mistake.

I first wrote about Valda in a post on January 11, 2011 which featured a book written by Evelyn Hagara entitled Vocal Secrets of the Ancients (1940). Hagara went to Paris in the 1920's, looking for an Old Italian School teacher, and found her way to Valda after a chance meeting in a bookstore.

There was no chance involved when I went digging for more information on Valda after that post. What did I find? Five consecutive articles written by Valda for the Musical Courier c. 1916-17 which outline Francesco Lamperti's teaching method. Remarkable documents for their time (studio practices of great voices teachers were considered proprietary information), they contain a great deal of technical knowledge.

Written twenty-five years after Francesco Lamperti's death, and fourteen years before the younger Lamperti's maxims appeared in Willam Earl Brown's book Vocal Wisdom: The Maxim's of Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1931), we know there was great interest in Valda's words since they were republished several times. Of course, writing the articles may have been a calculated move on Valda's part; she had recently fled Paris for New York City (where she taught at the Ansonia) in order to escape the First World War, needed students and income, and the articles would have been an excellent way to make her name known.

Reader be warned! Valda uses words like "breath" in a manner that sounds foreign to the vocologist trained with anatomical, physiological and acoustical terms swimming in his head. Her Old School talk is a window into another world.


Giulia Valda, founder of the Lamperti-Valda School of Singing in Paris, is a war refugee at present in New York. She came here with her pupils shortly after the outbreak of the war, and is waiting to return to Paris. While here, Mme. Valda was asked by the MUSICAL COURIER to outline the Lamperti Method in a series of articles of which this is the first. 

Through many years of daily association with Lamperti, one of the greatest teachers of singing of the last century, Mme. Valda is more than qualified to carry on his own ideas of study of vocal art. Besides having studied under him daily for five years and coached with him for another five years, Mme. Valda is associated in her school with Mme. Lamperti, the widow of the Maestro. 

Herself an American, Mme. Valda was born in Boston and went abroad to study voice under Lamperti at an early age. Up to that time, from the age of five, she had been thoroughly grounded in piano, organ, and composition. For five years she studied under the master in Milan, when she made her debut as a young girl in grand opera in that city, singing Leonore in "Trovatore." Her immediate success led to many appearances in Venice, Bologna, Genoa, Pisa, Turin, and Rome. She then sang in the Royal Opera of Madrid, followed by three seasons at the grand opera in Paris. While singing in Italy she created thirteen new roles. She sang for nine seasons at Covent Garden in London, then came to America to sing in opera, during which time she appeared for four consecutive seasons at the Worchester Festival, and sang at the Cincinnati Festival with Lilli Lehmann at the first appearance in America of Edward Lloyd, the English tenor. She was engaged by the Abby, Schoeffel, and Grau Company the season that Patti and Tamagno the great tenor, where with them when they opened the Chicago Auditorium in 1889. There she sang in "William Tell," "Aida," "Lohengrin," "Trovatore," "L'Africaine," and "Otello," after which she appeared in these operas with the company at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Shortly after that she was cut off from her public appearances by illness, after which she turned all her energies to teaching. It was then, in Paris, that she founded the Lamperti School, together with Mme. Lamperti. 

Advice to Vocal Students

At the outset, even before I attempt to outline what is meant by the Lamperti method of teaching, I wish to bring students to a realization of the enormity of the task they undertake. 

Many people—girls particularly—take up the study of the voice too lightly. Very few would-be artists know what they are about to tackle when they go into it. They jump into it without realizing the magnitude of the thing or the difficulties they will have to contend with. A girl will go to a teacher and say, "Oh, I want to be an opera singer!" Then, when the study, the hard labor, becomes irksome, she will leave a conscientious teacher and call in some one to polish her up a bit, while deluding herself into believing that she is learning to sing. 

No already cultivated talent is given to anyone. 

There are two classes of students—one who wish to learn, and one who wish to be flattered. A noted teacher told me once, "They want to sing. Let them sing!" They want "pieces" almost before they know how to open their mouths, and they want to go about before the public before they know what their instrument is. But that is not the way to learn the art of singing. It takes a long time to learn an art—and a great deal of stamina. 

Lamperti's Method

Francesco Lamperti was the greatest exponent of the true Italian method of singing in the last century. Lamperti maintained that for the successful cultivation of an art which is by no means the easiest, more is required than natural gifts. There is need beside of a constant, deep, and serious study of respiration and correct pronunciation. So great indeed is the importance of the proper method of respiration, that the old Italian masters used to say that the art of singing IS the art of breathing. 

There are three kinds of respiration, or emission of the voice—the diaphragmatic or abdominal; the lateral or costal; and the clavicular. The first takes place at the base of the thorax, and is distinguished by the contraction of the diaphragm, the thorax and shoulders remaining in complete repose. The second takes place in the lateral and anterior part of the thorax, and is recognized by the displacement of the ribs and lower part of the breast bone. The third takes place in the upper part of the thorax, and is effected by raising the upper portion of the breast bone, the shoulders, and the clavicles. 

Abdominal respiration is the sole kind that should be employed by singers, for it is the only one of the three that allows the larynx to remain in a natural and unconstrained condition. The greatest attention must therefore be paid to the attainment of a perfect system of breathing. 

Another most important matter, which I commend to the pupil's earnest attention, is, after taking in breath, to keep mouth and chin perfectly motionless throughout the exercise which he sings upon that breath; it is from neglect of this study that so many defects arise such as slurring, singing out of tune, changing the color of the voice, etc. Moving the mouth is a bad habit into which it is very easy to fall, and it must therefore be carefully guarded against. A singer who indulges it, even though endowed by nature with splendid means, will never rise above mediocrity, because it prevents him from putting forth his best powers. 

Great attention, too, must be paid to avoid noisy breathing, which injures the singer and produces a disagreeable impression upon the listener. It is dues to a forced sense of breathing, which is unnecessary. 

The principal defect or fault with singers is the misunderstanding of the control of breath. To sing MEANS control of breath. Now, to control that, the pupil must first understand it, and it is the most difficult thing to understand. It means a POISING of breath, mostly. That is the essential thing, not filling up your lungs with air. But the student must have some one to show how to put it into practice. 

The Lamperti method is in direct opposition to the general methods taught by other teachers. They teach voice, while I never touch voice. 

By direct analysis, we find that singing is a result. 

What is the cause?

Breath is the cause. 

You must learn how to direct that cause, in order to get the result, which is singing. 

I deal absolutely and exclusively with the cause that produces the result. I adhere strictly to the foundation—in other words, the instrument, and how to play upon it so that the pupil knows absolutely what he or she is doing.

Voice Is Like an Instrument

For the voice is exactly like an instrument, only much more difficult. Other instruments are given to you already made. A singer must first make his instrument and understand it before he can play upon it. That means the control of your singing organs and your breath. Lamperti's definition of the art of singing is, "Self measurement and economy of breath." You must measure your own forces. 

Learn to know your instrument scientifically, and you will not acquire bad habits. The tremolo, for instance, is absolutely produced by forcing the breath into the voice, or, to put it in other words, by forcing the breath with the voice. Let the breath float. That carries the voice of itself. Those who have an exaggerated tremolo make the mistake of tying their voice to their instrument; thereby, in holding firm to the instrument, they force the voice against it. This produces the tremolo, and in the end smashes the voice. 

Any study is a mere matter of habit. Get the right habit in singing and you will sing correctly. But know first what that right habit is, and understand it with the mind. 

It takes a long time to eradicate a defect. But, ah, how easy it is to acquire it! It is, therefore, always easier to begin with those who have not studied before. Those who have usually cling to the ideas they formerly acquired, and are loath to give them up. They try to conform everything new to those previously conceived ideas, with the result that they are not as receptive as beginners. 

Most teachers teach the voice. I teach how to use it. Most teachers place the voice. The voice is already there. Everyone has a voice, but not everyone has musical talent and intuition. That can be cultivated. 

Numerous examples have taught me that art can do more than is commonly supposed. Lamperti has trained pupils with good ear but small musical talent, who, after having acquired a perfect system of breathing, have greatly distinguished themselves on the lyrical stage. And he has had young pupils of great musical ability, who with every little voice found sympathetic audiences wherever they went, and after a few years' practice on the stage had so far developed their voices that they were able to sing with success in the principal theaters. 

On the other hand, a beautiful and powerful voice is useless unless the possessor educates it by the rules of art. He must make himself master of a singing respiration if he desires to employ with profit the gifts bestowed by nature. Otherwise, instead of becoming a good singer, he will be nothing but one of the thousand noise machines which haunt the modern stage. 

Sound Judgement Necessary 

In order that the singer may rise above the dead level of mediocrity, he must be endowed with sound judgment, deep conscientiousness in study, and that seriousness of purpose and firmness of will which are necessary as they are uncommon in those who dedicate themselves to the art.

Montesquieu used to say that the more one studies the more one finds the want of study, and as a corollary to those famous words I would add, the less one studies the less one feels the need of study. It is well known that the greatest singers have ever been the greatest workers. To mediocrity, on the contrary, study is the most intolerably irksome thing in the world. 

I remember a girl coming to sing for Lamperti one day, while I was present in the music room. She had a beautiful voice, and sang and sang, while my old teacher calmly sat there reading a newspaper. When she had finished he looked up, bade her "Buon giorno!" and left his secretary to make the necessary arrangements about coming for lessons. 

When they had left the room I turned to him and asked, "Maestro, that girl has a beautiful voice. Why didn't you listen?" 

"Voice?" he roared at me, rolling his bulging green eyes. "Voice" you all have voices. It's here she's lacking!" tapping his head with his pudgy finger. "Voice, my dear, without that, isn't anything!" 

There are some who called Lamperti a charlatan, because he did not take interest in pupils who were not workers or did not display that interest that he demanded. His point of view was simply practical. That he was a great teacher of singing is undoubtedly true, and every student who applied himself was bound to accomplish much. 

American Students at a Disadvantage

American students have a great natural disadvantage to overcome, for the American voice is very nasal, very twangy. Like everything else, it is a matter of habit. They say that the French have the most perfect diction, and the Italians the most perfect tone. But there is no necessity of sacrifice either of diction or of tone. If you do not combine perfect diction together with perfect tone, the result will not be perfect production. 

The Italian throats are open, due to the vowels in the language. They have naturally, therefore, a good solid ground. With German, English or American pupils, I have first the task of teaching them how to open their throats. That corresponds to learning the position in the study of an instrument. 

The Latin vowels are the fundamentals of all vowels in all languages, and those who can understand them and use them properly without the use of the breath can sing and speak in any language. 

Consonants should never have any breath or sound on them. They are merely formed by parts of the vocal apparatus the lips, the tongue etc. That is largely what Lamperti means by "self measurement" to know the uses of the complete physical organ of singing and to be able so to measure every part of that organ for all its requirements that the flow of the breath is not interrupted or destroyed. It means measuring the physical organs by which you sing. The rest is all natural. The wrong way is to make it all physical. To tie up the breath with the physical or muscular action. They should be separate. The breath should flow smoothy, should float on the wave of the physical act of singing. Again to quote Lamperti: "To sing you must have common sense, because it's practical. Every science is practical." 

The trouble with many teachers is that they talk over the heads of their pupils. They will tell a pupil to "Send your voice out there," indicating a corner of the room. How do you send it out? What are going to send it out with? Can the teacher answer that? 

They talk of effect, not cause. And most pupils are content to swallow everything a teacher says without chewing it. The result is mental indigestion. Lamperti always encouraged me to be very analytical. He always explained everything to me, then would look at me out of the corners of his cold, green eyes, and chuckle. "You didn't get that, eh?" and was surprised when he found that I did get it. 

Pupils Should Ask Questions

Pupils should always be encouraged to ask questions. I tell my pupils that if they work hard enough they will show what the Lamperti method means. It never tires the voice. It gives to it a longevity that is remarkable. 

At the time we founded the Lamperti school I met a very old lady, a famous contralto who had been a pupil of Lamperti at the Milan conservatory in the '60's. She came to see us one day, being naturally interested in the school. I asked what she could tell my pupils about the great master and his method, and she said, "I'll come and sing for them!" 

She did, and disclosed a voice so remarkable for its freshness that if you closed your eyes you could see a young girl singing! She told us then that she had worked for many years, and that for three years she had sung nothing but vowels. Not a consonant or a word. But they have not had another Lamperti in the Conservatoire since the old maestro died. 

A girl came to me a couple a years ago after having studied in Paris for six years. She was all ready for her debut and found she couldn't sing. Her voice, a delicate soprano, had been forced until there was nothing left of it. She she been with me for two years, and us just now beginning to regain the flexibility of her voice. when she gets that she will already have all the musical knowledge and interpretation she learned at the Conservatoire, and which should have come later, after she had acquired absolute control of her voice. 

Tetrazzini says: "You must never interrupt the flow of the breath." It is the same principle that embodies the Lamperti method. He calls it a "column of air."  

You must sing on vowels, never on consonants. Simply speak them. Improper or exaggerated diction close the throat. The tongue and lips should be kept flexible. It is the attack on the vowel that sends the voice out, with the machine, the instrument of the voice, held in the proper place. As all of this is a mental operation, the pupil must thoroughly understand, first and foremost, just what that machine is and just how it works. It is a matter of breath and the thought behind it. You cannot make resonance. It is there. The firmness of your muscles and the way you attack the vowel produces resonance. 

Lamperti used to say: "The most difficult thing is to sing pianissimo, and who cannot sing pianissimo cannot sing. Who cannot pronounce cannot sing. Who cannot sing 'ah' cannot sing." 

There are three ways of singing "ah." One is with breath forced against it, one with breath held back, and one with the vowel floating easily on the wave of the breath. Needless to say, the last is the only correct way. 

Breath control is the motor power that directs the force of the voice. 


People are constantly making comparisons between the opportunities for study in Europe and America, usually to the detriment of the latter. Many Americans resent this, yet it is nevertheless a fact that there is much more all, a country devoted principally to commerce. Art here is either commercialized or socialized. It is a wrong attitude to take toward it, Art must be thorough. Then, too, students are not together here. In Europe they live more closely together and their whole time is taken up with their studies. This serious student element is quite lacking in this country. There are more facilities to hear opera in Europe. They have opera all the time, very good opera, and so students can get the routine. Also it is infinitely cheaper. It is within the means of all students. Here they have to sit in the seventh Heaven to hear or see anything, and at that they don't see. 

Before closing, I want to give a little advice on how to study profitably. To begin with, I advise students never to sing on an empty stomach, nor during the early hours of digestion. The beginner should not practice more than fifteen minutes at a time, or he runs the risk of fatiguing himself. This risk will diminish as he acquires greater proficiency in the art of breathing. It will be well to allow considerable intervals between periods of practice, especially at first. 

I recommend the constant use of a looking glass, to correct the defects into which it is so easy to fall, of changing the natural position of the face, moving the mouth, and pushing forward the chin, which interferes with the free action of the throat. The pupil must try to cultivate a good central voice; this remark applies to every class of voice, but especially to sopranos and tenors, who must never force their extreme note either above or below, nor in practicing even through them, except on rare occasions. 

Music should be studied with the mind, not only with the throat, because it is most important to keep the vocal instrument as fresh as possible for stage use.

Musical Courier, October 12th, 1916

Note: This article is the first in a series of five written for the Musical Courier. You can find the other four here. 

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