July 2, 2014

The Indomitable Roland Foster

Roland Foster (1879-1966)
Some time ago, a kind reader from Down Under wrote to me, inquiring if I knew the teaching of Roland Foster—a famous Australian voice teacher who had a connection to the García School. (No. I did not.) She had been working with a manual Foster had written, entitled Vocal Success and How to Achieve It (1934), and found it quite useful. Of course, I was hooked and wanted to know more.

Six months later, after having put the title on my "want" list at Abebooks, I had a copy of my own to digest, which was followed by Foster's autobiography, Come Listen To My Song (1949), and Competitive Singing: An Adjudicator's Advice to Soloists and Choristers (1941). Taken together, these three texts gave me insight into Foster's world and teaching, which harken back to a time when classical music was popular music, students spent time divining the mysteries of "vocal culture," and many of the vocal maestri of the Old Italian School—who had been students of García, Vannuccini, Sangiovanni, Lamperti, Cattaneo and Nava—were still on the scene. 

Foster knew everyone, including: Caruso, Tetrazzini, Bishpam, McCormack, Melba, Albani, Rachmaninov, Chaliapin, and Herman Klein—attending the latter's opera class at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Foster also attended Klein's famous lecture on Old School vocal technique at Albert Hall, which was subsequently turned into an essay entitled The Bel Canto (1923). 

As an inexperienced bass with a range from low C to middle C, Foster was given his basic vocal technique by Frederic Austin, who had been a student of Charles Lunn, himself a student of Cattaneo. It is to Austin that Foster gives credit for helping him find the "right direction" and putting him on an "upward path."

It was he who first clearly demonstrated what was meant by throat relaxation and freedom of emission, singing on the breath and using head resonance and pianissimo singing in the development of the upper register, till then so difficult of attainment because I had been allowed to attempt high notes by using main force instead of trying to acquire the necessary skill by gentle means. It was Austin, too, who initiated me into the subtleties of phrasing and rhythm, the difference between verbal expression and musical interpretation, and made me realise the importance of sound musicianship as an essential part of a singer's equipment. 

When Austin, then a young singer himself, joined the roster at Covent Garden, Foster found himself without a teacher. He soon found his way to the Royal College of Music where he studied with Walter Ford, "who had acquired the authentic traditions of the Old Italian School of bel-canto from the famous teacher Pietro Ronzi." However, as a result of encouragement from his god-father, Foster transferred to the Guildhall School where he studied under Franklin Clive, who was also a bass, and where he came into contact with the aforementioned Klein. Foster also had lessons with Charles Santley, who had been a pupil of Manuel García and Gaetano Nava, and W. H. Griffiths, a well-known voice teacher in Liverpool. As Foster noted: "I was always, in those early days and for long afterwards, an enquirer, a learner, a listener, never anxious to parade my own knowledge or ideas, but preferring to profit by what others might be able to tell or show me." 

Foster's career had begun to take off when, having had a long history of congestion, he was poisoned with cocaine while being prepared for a.. 

...combined nasal and antral operation, which would, so the specialists assured me, have benefited my general health as well as enabling me to sing high notes with greater ease. As it was, I nearly passed out altogether; the operation had to be abandoned, and a complete nervous breakdown was followed by a long period of ill-health during which I spent several weeks in the south of Devon, necessarily canceling all engagements. 

After six months, with career plans thoroughly dashed, Foster's thoughts turned towards teaching as a main occupation. He had already been teaching voice at three institutions; the Anglo-Italian School of Singing; the Hyde Park School of Music, which was run by Madam Albani (a student of Francesco Lamperti); and the Holloway College of Music in London, when he was asked to organize a summer music festival in the village of Rhyl. It was there, while accompanying a friend who had an appointment with a "prophetess," that Foster was told that he had not yet found his true occupation, would say goodbye to Rhyl, and find success in a distant land on the other side of the world. That she knew imitate details about his family and the contents of his wallet gave him pause. Even so, Foster did not think her prediction likely, not having any intention of leaving England. Shortly afterwards, however, he was offered a position as the manger of a world tour for Kennerly Rumford and his wife, Dame Clara Butt. It was, he said, "the greatest surprise that had ever came my way, and one of the greatest compliments, seeing that for an opening so enviable there would have been a host of applicants had the position been advertised." Foster subsequently found himself in Australia, and decided to stay in Sydney at the suggestion of Clara Butt. 

It was a suggestion by Clara Butt herself, arising from a discussion after one of our numerous auditions, which led to the fateful decision that instead of completing the final stage of the tour homeward through the United States and Canada, I was to settle down in Australia as a teacher. "Why not stay here and teach?" enquired the great contralto in her impulsive way. "There are lots of fine voices but few are being properly trained. You could do much more good here than in London.  

Foster's professor at the Guidhall School, Franklin Clive, sent him a disbelieving letter: "Why you should think of breaking off your career to settle down to the drudgery of teaching at your age is more than I can understand."  But it wasn't drudgery for Foster who relished..

...the prolonged course of study under English, Italian and German teachers; the enquiry into and experimentation with so many different vocal methods; the immense amount of reading; the interest in vocal anatomy, physiology and scientific research; the exchanges of opinion and comparison of ideas with scores of professional colleagues; the intent listening to and careful observation of hundreds of great vocal artists from Patti and Santley onwards, with constant exercise of critical judgment; the public appearances from which one learns so much that can otherwise only be guessed; knowledge indispensable to those contemplating a professional career. Even the ineffective teaching on which time and money had been wasted in Liverpool was of value in enabling me to demonstrate, from practical experience, wrong as well as right ways of singing. 

Foster spent the rest of his life teaching voice in Australia, and quite successfully too. What did he teach? Much can be learned from his book, Vocal Success and How to Achieve it (1934), which was printed in Great Britain by Cappell & Co. LTD, with a foreward by none other than Edgar Bainton, who's anthem, And I saw a new heaven, will be familiar to many choral musicians, both Foster and Bainton serving on the faculty of New South Wales Conservatory of Music.

I offer the  reader the following extracts; there being, of course, a great deal more to Foster's text, including many vocal exercises, which, unfortunately, cannot be reproduced here. I encourage you to find a copy at a good library or obtain one via Abebooks. (Readers seeking in-depth information regarding Old Italian School teaching in Australia may also want to find Beth Mary Williams' excellent 2002 University of Melbourne dissertation; Lineages of Garcia-Marchesi and Other Traditional Vocal Pedagogy in Australia 1859-1950, Volume 1 & 2.)

Foster's text is laid out in twenty-five chapters, chapter three addressing "Modern Methods:"  

Fortunately, methods injurious to the voice by reason of the physical strain involved are rapidly falling into disuse and being superseded by safer and more reliable methods of vocal development. Amongst the principles which have gained increasing favour of recent years and are being recommended by modern authorities are:—

  1. The systematic practice of exercises in correct breathing and breath control.
  2. The use of syllables and words in tone formation in preference to the sole use of vowels. 
  3. The use of the downward scale and downward passages to a greater extent than upward at the commencement of training; in conjunction with the limitation of the lower and middle registers in an upward direction. 
  4. The use of "head-voice" and soft singing as a means of obtaining purity and evenness to tone, combined with ease of production even on the highest notes. "I cannot too strongly deprecate," says Melba, "the habit of practising high notes fortissimo, in which so many foolishly indulge. Soft singing is the most beneficial practice for the beginner and the finished artist alike." And another great singer also recommends:—"Let quality, not quantity, be continually the ideal in your mind; power will come in time as a natural growth." 
  5. The formation of a smooth, even scale with perfect equality to tone throughout the voice, avoiding the tendency to develop one part of the voice at the expense of the other. (Good low notes and good high notes are both obtainable if the voice is well-balanced and the middle portion firmly set.).
  6. The avoidance of:—(a) A hard percussive attack such as that known as "the shock of the glottis" which is most detrimental to the voice: (b) Forcing and straining either of power or compass; (c) "Scooping" (attacking the note from below) and slurring, two common faults; (d) Tremolo and vibrato, both of which indicate lack of breath and a wrongly-poised larynx, 
  7. Recognition of the fact that the voice, though primarily an instrument of sound, is mainly a means of expression, and the development of the singer's mentality as well as the voice should be the teacher's aim. Students must be made to realise that the cultivation of the voice is only a means to an end, that end being the expression of thought, feeling, and emotion in accordance with the laws of musical aesthetics. In the beginning, however, technique alone should occupy the student's attention for some considerable time until the initial difficulties have been overcome.


These are three closely related and interdependent elements in voice training and upon their proper understanding a great deal depends. 

The word "attack," being associated in the mind with violence, has unfortunately given rise to much misapprehension with regard to the commencement of to tone, as already mentioned in connection with "the shock of the glottis," Actually, what Garcia intended was a clean, neat beginning exactly on the pitch of the note without a jerk, scoop, glide or aspirate. The "click" that sometimes precedes a vowel sound, with elocutionists as well as singers (on such words as "at," "all, "and," it," etc.) is entirely wrong and quite unnecessary. 

The Model Tone.  IT IS BETTER TO HAVE THE TONE LIGHT AND RIGHT THAN TO HAVE IT STRONG AND WRONG, is a cardinal principle which should always be borne in mind. 


As may be gathered from his title, "Gentle Art of Singing," Sir Henry was no advocate of strenuous ways and means. 

Bellowing, forcing and shrieking are anathema to him and he regards, "overblowing" and over taxing the voice as the chief defects of modern singers. Nor has he any time for dull, hollow, wooly or anemic voices. 

His opinion, with which I most heartily concur, is the RING in the tone is the great desideratum. 

Bright, clear resonant, musical tone, clean and concentrated, unforced and free from strain. "It is the amount of ring in the voice (Sir Henry states) which distinguishes the highly trained professional voice from the merely pretty amateur voice. And this takes many years of careful and diligent practice to obtain!" 

Note well the words "many years," ye budding Melbas and Carusos who expect to astonish the world after a couple years' training. (Or possibly less.) The amount of genuine "ring" of which the untrained voice is capable is very small and not until the strengthening of the vocal mechanism has been carried on for some time can any marked increase be expected. 

Young singers must be content at first with a light, soft, well-balanced tone.  Premature attempts to get a solid "ring" into the voice generally set up muscle-tightening which puts an "edge" on the voice. "Edge" is altogether different from "ring." It is hard and penetrating and becomes more and more so as it grows stronger. Ring, on the other hand, is musical and pleasing, and does not lose quality, however loud it becomes. 


In the development of a clear, ringing tone the vowel "ee" is particularly useful when sung correctly with a perfectly relaxed throat and loose "floating" jaw. 

A controlled breath and easy production will enable the voice to find its own way to the correct spot, as it were. The correct mental attitude towards the tone is all that is necessary. "Forward" production is an effect, not a cause of going singing:  and is obtained by liberating the tone so that it appears to be formed right behind the teeth in the lower register, on the hard palate above the teeth in the middle register, and "in the head" on high notes. Remember that these sensations are effects of correct production, not causes. But the will to produce a given effect helps to set the cause into operation. So that the thought of focusing or forming the tone in a certain way indirectly produces the correct action, especially with high notes, the attention being diverted from the throat. 

Never forget that beauty will carry you farther than strength. 


Pressure on the vocal cords and contraction on the throat muscles interfere with resonation and compel the singer to use more physical effort in the production of tone. Some singers endeavor to increase nasal resonance by pushing the tone up behind the soft palate into the back of the nose. This is a great mistake and far from improving the tone, gives it a definitely unpleasant quality besides interfering with the proper muscular action. True nasal resonance is spontaneous, not forced, and is a sensation partly caused by transmission of the mouth vibrations through the hard palate which is a cellular, not a solid substance.

The correct state of throat relaxation allows the vibrations to rise unimpeded into all the various cavities which so powerfully influence and colour the tone, thus procuring the condition known as "balanced" resonance. Being variable in shape and size, the mouth is the resonance chamber with which the singer is most intimately concerned. Many singers make the mistake of opening the mouth too widely on low and middle notes, this allowing the tone to "spread" and lack "concentration: or to escape without full resonation.


It is important to realise that the sense of hearing must be cultivated as well as the voice itself, the untrained ear of the student being an unreliable guide. That we do not hear ourselves as others hear us is swell-known fact, responsible for many illusions on the part of self-complacent singers.

The student's aural perception or conception of tone must be carefully guided by the teacher until it becomes highly sensitive to variations of tone quality as well as to variations of pitch.


The difference between a good tone and one not quite so good is sometimes as slight as the difference between two delicate shades of pink; but one should be able to perceive it. Improvement begins when you are able mentally to form the tone in advance. After you have sung it, you may know it is wrong, but its too late to correct it then. When you feel that you are getting the right kind of tone you must keep on working at it until it becomes a habit, a standard tone upon which you can rely. Too many singers "listen backwards"; they are thinking of the tone just sung instead of the tone that is coming.

Great power and intensity are required in grand opera yet even there in the case of some of the finest singers I have recently heard, their voices were not remarkably big but they were remarkably beautiful and also noteworthy for ease of production and perfect control of dynamics and delicate nuances with a "floating" effect falling delightfully on the ear.


Now we come to what is nowadays recognized as one of the most important and most valuable factors in vocal training. The innovations of yesterday become commonplaces to-day, and vocal ideas which forty or fifty years ago had comparatively few adherents are widely accepted, having proved their efficacy and reliability. Conversely, many fads and fanciful theories then in vogue have failed to survive the test of time. 

It may be definitely be said that a method which is not "easy" at first (in the sense of avoiding physical strain), will not become more easy as time goes on. Effort begets increased effort, and although a few voices maybe able to stand up to the strain the great majority will go under. 

But teachers who understand the "head-voice" and know how to use it will have no difficulty in getting favorable results from every voice, big or little, high or low, entrusted to their care. 


The "head-voice," so-called, is not confined to the highest or "head" register in women's voices as one might suppose. Neither is it "falsetto," that "whoopy" effeminate kind of tone found in the upper part of men's voices. "Head-voice" is a very pure, light tone produced by a particular acton of the vocal cords, and extending throughout the entire range of the voice from highest to it's lowest notes.

Scientists tell us that "head-voice" is produced by vibration of the extreme edges of the cords, while the full voice throws their entire width in vibration.

In using "head-voice," the test of correct action is a perfectly pure, soft, rounded tone, something like the sound of a note on the piano when prolonged by means of the pedal. In descending the scale, if the tone becomes reedy, metallic, wheezy, or breathy, control has been lost.

On the higher notes of female voices the "head" tone is capable of immense development. But to begin with, extreme pianissimo practice is most advantageous, and a certain amount of this kind of practice is desirable even for the most advanced singers as it helps to keep the mechanism in perfeect working order, exercising it in the easiest possible way. Remember, pianissimo "head-voice" represents the lightest, purest tone of which the voice is capable and the smallest possible expenditure of breath. It will be generally found that beginners, previously untaught, can produce this kind of tone with the greatest ease, straightaway. On the contrary, singers who have used their voices in the ordinary way with unnecessary (and avoidable) muscular tension, find it hard to make their organs act with the necessary delicacy. Accustomed to use more or less force, when they attempt to sing very softly and with very little breath pressure the tone won't come out at all. In such cases the voice must be "coaxed" until it responds. Gentle treatment invariably succeeds. As I often say to my own pupils," "It is all done by kindness."

In men's voices the "head-voice" has a light pure quality differing from the whoopy falsetto, and its practice helps the proper placing of the upper notes and brings refinement of tone. When sufficient control over the breath has been obtained a true head-tone can be "swelled" gradually until it blends with full voice, without change of action, in any part of the voice. Only advanced singers, however, can do this on the highest notes; others must be content to practise it on the middle and lower notes of the voice. Starting a high note softly in "head-voice" and making a gradual crescendo on a descending scale helps to lay the foundation of an even scale and maintain the "thin" adjustment of the vocal cords, which is most favorable to the development of ring and clarity. A rich, full, warm tone can eventually be developed without losing this intrinsic ring. Nobility in tone-qaulity is derived from a combination of brilliance and roundness, avoiding a white colourless tone on the one side and a dead sombre tone on the other.


In the upper range of male voices (from about C in Basses, D in Baritones and E in Tenors) the use of "closed" or "covered" tone (as it is variously called) becomes essential to the equalisation of the scale and the development of ease and beauty on the highest tones. The term "closed," however, is often misconstrued as applying to the throat instead of the tone, thereby producing a "squeezed" or muffled effect—the very opposite to what is intended. The throat and mouth should be as open and free as in singing "open" tones, but the tone itself (and also the vowel) is slightly darkened or rounded to avoid the crude quality and the physical strain which accompany open tones above a certain point on the ascending scale. 

This "closing" or "covering" of the tone, which is more easily demonstrated than described and needs the expert guidance of a teacher, applies more particularly to the high tones of male voice, as already indicated. There is another application of the term "covered" tone, however, to describe a distinctive quality which permeates the whole voice and is used by the greatest and most distinguished singers, in contra-distinction to a heard, white, open, colourless tone lacking in richness and mellowness. 

"Open" tone, though it sounds stronger at close quarters, does not "carry" as well as covered tone, because it comes straight out of the mouth without making full use of the resonating cavities; whereas covered tone, being fully concentrated in the resonance chambers, radiates from the singer's face and head as if from a bell. In fact, the old Italian masters spoke of a well-produced tone as "enclosed in the bell of the head." Open tone is favored by some teachers because it comes of its own accord and enables a student to make a considerable amount of noise straightaway—to his own satisfaction if not to that of his listeners. 

"Covered" tone, on the contrary, requires time for its full development and is an artistic product which appeals to the cultivated ear. 


Personally I have found that in all female voices the development of "head" voice by "pianissimo" practice on the downward scale is an infallible method of removing inequalities and giving the voice a perfectly uniform scale. Sir Henry Wood evidently had the same experience, for in the "Gentle Art of Singing" he recommends with regard to the exercises therein: "Start at the top and work downward. This method has been found to be valuable in equalising the voice and bridging over registers." Charles Kennedy Scott gives similar advice in "Word and Tone." With regard to "breaks" Sim Reeves also advised that "no matter where the break occurs, the "head-voice" should be employed to overcome it"' and Madam Tetrazzini uses almost exactly the same words, "Remember that no matter where the break occurs it is only by cultivating the 'head-voice' that a cure can be obtained."  

Basses and baritones who carry the lower chest tones above middle E generally develop an unpleasantly "thick" and unresonant quality quality between F and A, not infrequently accompanied by a decided "break." Here, as in the case of contraltos, it pays to work on a thinner, clearer kind of tone which develops enormously with practice, although relatively lighter and less effective in its original state. What is "natural" is not always best; the artistic tone is produced by cultivation. Basses need to cultivate the "closed" upper quality form their high C upwards; Baritones from D upwards; and tenors from E upwards. Neglect of this principle causes vocal difficulties on the notes higher still, and marked inferiority of quality. 

In ALL VOICES, male or female, the voice must be allowed to rise well into the head on high notes, "letting go" completely at the throat. Imagine that you are singing (and pronouncing) with the upper saw; forgetting the lower one entirely. 


Habits of muscular contraction, unnoticed in everyday speech, are serious obstructions to the emission of pure vocal tone, and often make singing much more difficult that it out to be.  Words should be like boats floating along on a stream of tone, not like rocks intercepting and interrupting its smooth onward flow, as is so often the case. 

One of the best books on vocal pronunciation and its special difficulties is "Lyric Diction" by Dora Duty Jones, with a preface by Dame Nellie Melba. Miss Jones defines singing as "the art of combining speech processes and sustained musical tones in such a manner that both word and tone, both thought and emotion, shall retain their full value." 

The exaggerated mouth positions and facial distortions indulged in by many singers with the mistaken idea of making the words distinct are quite unnecessary and even harmful. 


In the case of all the greatest women singers I have known, their method of breathing was that usually described as "diaphragmatic—costal," carried out by the combined action of the diaphragm, lower ribs and upper abdominals. The upper chest should remain firm and buoyant, neither rising nor falling visibly, while the lower abdominal muscles act as a support and assist in controlling the degree of breath-pressure applied to the voice.


It is not the exercise itself that matters, but the way in which it is done. Ten minutes; systematic practice with concentration of mind and voice will bring better results than two hours' haphazard singing. Thoroughness is the thing that counts most in the long run. A moderately good voice, backed by brains and industry, will often take its owner further than a splendid natural organ which is expected to succeed of its own accord. I know of dozens of instances in which might-have-been "world" voices have never accomplished anything because their possessors lacked that indomitable will to work which is the main-spring of successful ambition and tends to overcome all obstacles. But "working" is not necessarily "singing." It means also thinking, studying, reading, observing, listening, comparing, improving one's self in every possible way. 

Correct tone production is materially aided by correct position and bodily action. Freedom buoyancy and alertness are essential  conditions for good vocal results.  Never lounge or loll when practising. A state of PHYSICAL and MENTAL ENERGY should be maintained. 


The way you stand has considerable influence upon your vocal tone. 

The "focus" of the voice in the middle register should be felt in the peak of the hard palate (its highest point) just behind the nostrils. The roof of the mouth forms the floor of the nasal cavities and it is the concentration of vibration on the hard palate that is the principle cause of the sensation described as "nasal resonance." 

You must learn to THINK before you sing. Always have mental conception of the tone you want to produce before you actually sing it. BREATH—PAUSE—SING should be your rule in practice. 

The MIDDLE octave of the should should be the first to be strengthened. To be continually trying to make your high notes stronger—which seems to be the first aim of many students—is fatal to the stability and finest qualities of the voice. Content yourself with singing high notes lightly at first, then with MODERATE power for some time. Power should always go hand in hand with quality. The voice will GROW if you use it with discretion and don't try to force it out. 

When doing technical work, whether high, middle or low, you should make a point to trying to produce the notes WITH EASE. Any feeling or sound of strain is an indication of wrong action or unconscious forcing. 

Singing high notes correctly is a matter of skill not strength, when properly done. Contrary to the general supposition, high notes require less expenditure of breath than low ones. But they do require more physical support—a certain bracing of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles which takes the strain off the throat, leaving it perfectly free and unconstrained. 

The vibratory sensation and the apparent formation of the tone should be at the front of the mouth rather than at the back of the mouth. 

You should enjoy listening to the sound of your own voice if you want other people to do so.

Many singers in sustaining a long note do so in the wrong way by gripping it with the throat muscles instead of allowing it to float on the breath.

The habit of MENTAL ANTICIPATION will enable you to make sure beforehand of the kind of tone you are going to sing. Of course at first you will have to make many trials before you can get satisfactory results. But a trained singer doesn't have to wait until he has sung a note of passage before he can tell how it sounds. And this is the goal at which you must aim. 

Power without beauty is valueless.

The baritone voice has several sub-divisions—the high or operatic, the heavy or bass-baritone, and the light baritone, most at home in sentimental music or musical comedy. Many first-class baritones I have heard could sing a fine resonant low F and a beautiful top A; and Charles Tilbury, an Australian bass-baritone who joined the Carl Rosa Opera Co. used to annoy his tenor confréres by showing them a high B flat better than their own. Most first-class professional singers, as a matter of fact, have a note or two at their command beyond those required for public singing. A voice which has to be pushed to its extreme seldom lasts any length of time. And most of them know how to take care of their voices. I remember Sir Charles Santley telling me, apropos of practice and rehearsal; — "Never sing fortissimo unless you are getting well paid for it!" 


  1. This is the best article i have read so far....Bravo!!!

  2. My father George was taken on by Foster as a mature age (33) student of base tenor opera, in 1955, at the NSW Conservatorium. Dad broke his jaw badly in 1956 so the lessons ended then. It was back to his daytime job of an air traffic controller at Mascot.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It sounds like Foster knew a good voice when he heard it. So sorry matters did not work out for your father!


I welcome your comments.