Certification and the García School

When I started reading old newspapers and articles on microfilm, I was interested in finding information on two key schools of singing, that being Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti. In terms of vocal archeology, I was looking for information on how they taught, and what they taught. I was also keen on finding exponents of both teachers, and in the course of my research observed that both schools had a process of certification. The García School, in particular, had stringent requirements, starting with a four-year course of study. However, this was just the beginning. Certified voice teachers then had to prepare five students for a professional career, these students being successful in opera or concert. In addition, García exponents also had to retrain five students who had been lead astray by bad instruction—a knotty proposition at best. Suffice it to say, there weren't a lot of pupils who earned this distinction. However, Anna E. Schoen-René was one of them, her teacher being Pauline Viardot-García, who was heard to intone: Students make the teacher!

All this to say: it wasn't enough to have stacks of facts at one's disposal. The successful teacher had have an intimate knowledge of their own instrument, be adept at diagnosing the voices of students, and prescribe the necessary course of action, as well have foreign language skill, and ready access to repertoire, intuition, and insight into the human mind.

That the student's first studies were conducted in a systematic matter, and involved months of exercises and the singing of scales? It is an approach that is becoming increasing rare.

"What kind of scales and exercises did you do?' I ask the young man with an advanced degree from a major conservatory, who expresses an interest in teaching voice.

"Oh, I just sang scales for a couple of weeks, to get ready to sing repertoire." He says this without a trace of irony in his voice, having spent time in a voice lab, and having studied anatomy, physiology and acoustics.

"Ok then!" I say. "For progress to be made, you'll need to sing scales, but in a specific manner, which I will show you."

I don't wait for him to agree. Nor do I blather on about theory. Instead, we get to work on a simple five-tone scale, getting every vowel lined up to its neighbor, taking the best qualities from each. From the expression on his face, you'd think we'd landed on the moon.

Photo of "The Love Song" by Burne-Jones, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.