The Lamperti School: Florenza D'Arona

Florenza D'Arona 
Florenza D'Arona is an interesting character as far as voice teachers go, having studied with the great Francesco Lamperti for eleven years, and other famous teachers like Pauline Viardot-García and Antonio Sangiovanni. While still at work on her biographical information, I have been able to ascertain that she was a second cousin to Theodore Roosevelt, married Carl le Vinsen—a dane who inherited a title and an old estate in Copenhagen—and taught in New York City. Below, the reader will find something of her method. That some of her suggestions seem rather quaint to us should not surprise, corsets and tongue depressors being something of a fad during the period. However, there is much that remains the same, especially the student's acquisition of a well-formed ah vowel. Only yesterday I heard myself say: "The person who has the most beautiful ah wins!" Ah, to hear this vowel beautifully sung, one which Old Italian School thought the basis for il bel canto.


Vocal teachers, as a rule, are unwilling to commit themselves to their methods and beliefs. Especially is this true of Italian teachers. They look upon all strangers with suspicion, and if, perchance, the visitor asks a question or two they think and perhaps even exclaim, as did Mme. Murio-Celli recently, "Ah, you weesh to get my method," and instantly draw back and show that they would be pleased to have you go. Fortunately, however, there are some teachers who are not afraid to let it be publicly know what they teach their pupils, else it would be difficult to keep track of the progress of vocal methods. I had recently a delightful chat with Mme. D'Arona-Davidson. 

"Yes, " said said," I was for 11 years Lamperti's pupil, accompanist and interpreter. So far as I know, Shakespeare, of London, and I are the only pupils having a certificate from Lamperti testifying to their ability."

"Signora Florenza D'Arona is one of my most distinguished pupils, possessing a mezzo-sopano-contralto voice of great compass and strength, exquisite quality, brilliant execution, and musical talent of a very superior order. All the qualities required in a perfect artist are united in this lady, and it is with pleasure I present her with this certificate. FRANCESCO LAMPERTI, Milan, January 9, 1880."  

Among the other things Mme. Davidson said: 

"Lamperti believes in and teaches diaphragmatic breathing. The shoulders must not move when breath is taken, but be kept firmly down. One of the very first and most important things in singing is to free from tension all the muscles of the body, particularly those of the throat. The throat should be perfectly relaxed and open, for the least tightness will show itself in the tone. The fault of too great tension is especially common to Americans. The language and their way of speaking it induces this condition. Italians, on the contrary, have a very open language and a relaxed throat. This, far more than the climate, which is much better for the voice than a dry atmosphere, is at times very disagreeable, particularly around Milan and in the north. The cold is intense and the snow as heavy as here. But the people do not have to content against artificial heat, for the houses are not kept at the temperature American houses are dying cold weather. There is scarcely a stove used for mere heating purposes in all Italy; therefore the throat is not subject to the sudden change of going from a very warm house into the cold air, a change more injurious than is generally believed. But it is the relaxed throat that makes Italians better natural singers than any other nation. It is almost impossible to overcome entirely the tension of the American throat."

"Again in singing the tone must be well front, the teeth forming a sounding board for the voice. The nasal muscles should be used, but never the posterior nasal, as they make the tone twangy. This is another fault of Americans; they do not distinguish between the use of the nasal and the posterior nasal muscles. Then I do not believe in public-school singing. As generally done, this, with the shouting way of reading, is enough to ruin any voice. More attention should be paid to elocution, for it is an invaluable aid to song."

Don't Begin Too Early

"In regard to cultivating the voice, I do not believe in beginning too early; at 17 or 18 is young enough. Many singers now holding good positions did not begin cultivating their voices until they were over 30. Christian Fritsch is one of this class, also Mr. Crispin at Trinity Chapel, New York. When I was singing with Mapleson's company in London, a lady about  60 years old came to me, saying that she was very fond of music, but she did not understand it, and could not criticize, and she wished some instruction. I tried her voice and, naturally, found it thin, quavery and old. Of course, it was out of the question to make a fine singer out of her at her age; but I did improve her voice and get her so that she could sing quite acceptably at parlor entertainments, and her singing gave more pleasure than that of some co-called artists. She had the advantage of having no cultivated bad habits, which are always more difficult to eradicate than natural ones."

One of the greatest troubles is, however, that pupils are not willing to take time enough to cultivate their voices. A pupil should be willing to give four years to the study of singing. Of course, I do not mean to say that at the end of that time he will know all their is to know about singing: a lifetime is too short of that. But he will be well grounded in the technique of song, and will understand the use of the voice. A teacher can only go just so far; after that point all depends on the pupils. But, generally, a teacher is hardly sure of a pupil from lesson to lesson, and must therefore work for immediate results. This forcing a voice is very bad. One can no more learn to sing in a few lessons than he can eat all his dinners at once, and even if he could eat enough in one meal to last several days, he probably could not digest it. This is even more true of vocal culture. He should have time between lessons to digest what has been given, he must think over what he has learned, for after all, singing is largely from the brain, a matter of mental growth. It is a combination of beautiful things that makes song."

Breathing-Exercises and the Glottal Stroke

"Breathing-exercises are invaluable, not only for singers, but for everybody. But they should never be done in a close atmosphere. In the woods, where one can inhale the balsam from the trees, is the best place. Such exercises should be practiced in all positions: lying, standing, sitting, kneeling, with arms raised above the head, etc. I would also emphasize the importance of the glottal stroke. The singer should always be conscious of this click. But there is a right and a wrong glottal stroke, and one should be very careful which one he is practicing. Of course, it requires compression of breath, but this compression may be make with such tension of the throat muscles as to hurt the voice. An excellent practice to teach correct emphasis and expression is to read a sentence aloud, as, for instance, 'The day is dark and dreary.' Ask yourself what is hard and dreary: what find of a day is it; is the day dreary but light; it is dark but nevertheless cheerful, and so on. This calls attention to every important word in the sentence. In a song not only every word but every note must be studied. It is not enough to now the tune. The piece must be literally absorbed. Every note should be related to the other notes, and the climax should be always kept in view."

"In regard to ah. It should be almost the last vowel used. It is hard for an untrained singer to get the correct pitch of a note on ah. A as in ate, is the best vowel to begin with. The object of using using ah is to open the throat and mouth; but while one must open the mouth to say ah, he need not open the throat. For instance, I place my hands together at the wrist and open them keeping the wrists touching. The wrists representing the throat and the hands the mouth. You see the wrists are shut while the hands are wide apart. That is the way in which ah is often practiced. The correct ah is when the hands and the wrists are both open, making a wide channel. It is not enough to tell the pupil to sing ah; you must see that he sings it right. As for the tongue, of course it must be flat. A tongue-depressor is necessary at first. The tongue must be held in place until the pupil becomes accustomed to produce tone without its rising at all. It is not a question of strengthening the tongue-muscles to keep it flat; they should be rather relaxed. If the tongue swells or rises, you are using a wrong muscles to produce tone. Another reason for using a tongue-depressor is that you are sure that the tongue is flat throughout its whole length. It may be perfectly flat in front and yet be raised at the back of the mouth. The mouth should not be opened too wide, as that strains the throat. In high notes it should be opened so as to admit the first two fingers sideways, and not quite as much for low notes. In singing high notes the head should be a little forward, the body firmly poised one on foot and balanced by the other. The larynx should be up for all notes. The throat will explained in singing the same as a canary bird's does."

Fixed-Larynx System Dangerous

"As regards a person going abroad to study, there are good teachers here, but there are also a vast number of very poor ones. A pupil came to me about six months ago for lessons. She had been studying with a teacher who believed in holding the larynx down in the throat. Her vocal cords were almost paralyzed and were quite immovable. She had been under a throat physician for several months and her vocal cords are improving rapidly, yet they are still very stiff. In Italy teachers much pass an examination, and then pass through the 'National Conservatory,' so that one has some guarantee of their ability. Here anyone can teach, whether he knows anything or not. Some of the doctrines and exercises would be amusing if their affects were not so sad. The health of a great many pupils is ruined by these charlatans. What this country needs is a committee of known and accepted first-class teachers who will examine teachers and give them certificates according to their ability. People would then have some guarantee when they went to a teacher."

"This would also be a great benefit to artists wishing engagements. Their voices could be examined by the judges and a certificate given as to their artistic ability. It would save the managers having to try voices. Of course, the manager would still have to hear the singer to see if the timbre, etc., was suited to the part he had to fill, but he would have no doubt as to the real artistic merit of the applicant; the only question would be the quality of voice. A certificate of this kind should be accepted everywhere the same as a diploma from a college."

American Singers Have Grievances

"Singers, and especially American singers, having many things to complain of. It is almost impossible for an American girl to find a position in this country. I myself know many voices in New York that are equal to any now before the public, but the poor girls cannot get an opening. If they go to a manager he will ask where they have been singing."

"Nowhere," is the reply. 

"Who have you studied with?" They mention perhaps famous teachers. 

"That is very well, but you have no reputation.." 

"But how can I get a reputation if no one will give a chance" is the pitiful answer. 

"When we have calls for singers the persons usually designate the singer wanted. Even if we said we had another just as good she would probably not be accepted, as it is the name that draws. If we work you up, are you willing to pay for it? It coast to advertise a singer, and we can take no risk." 

"So unless the girl has plenty of capital to back her she can do nothing. It is much easier to get a hearing in Europe, so most of our singers make a reputation there before they try their own country. And that is also one reasons why most take Italian names. Another reason for this is that in Italy one must have an Italian name and sing pure Italian, else he will be hissed off the stage."

Patti an Automaton

"A singer should know before a tone is sung just how it will sound. Nothing must be left to chance. Yet I have heard Patti say that often she did not know whether a scale should come out perfectly or not. But Patti is an automaton. She is a marvel, but she does not move an audience. Properly sung, one can convey the whole story of a piece without the aid of words. A slight change of facial expression of of the mouth cavity will produce a corresponding change of tone. For instance, the mouth well open with a smiling expression will make a joyous tone; a decidedly glottal stroke expresses levity; the letter h with the glottal stoke would be sorrowful, and so on. The perfection of singing is to tell a story in this way. Every part of the vocal apparatus must be in position before a sound is emitted. By practice this can be done almost simultaneously. Care should be taken to produce the voice in the mouth and not in the throat. One hears so much of the guttural quality in both speaking and singing, arising from the use of the throat instead of the mouth. As I have said, the voice must hit against the teeth. The tip of the tongue must be flexible. The letter l  combine with the different vowels as la, lah, lee, lo, lu is a favorite exercise of Lamperti, alway taking care to produce l  with the tongue-tip and not by a chewing motion of the jaw. I prefer to use regular pieces instead of vocalizes, when the pupil is sufficiently advanced, as they give more and better exercise and different consonantal combinations. Too little attention is paid by singers to the beginning and end consonants of words. And just here I would say that Italian teachers cannot English singing. They do not understand and are in even less degree able to pronounce English."

Right Voice-Placement Vitally Important

"There are a great many more blunders made in placing the voice than is supposed. This is perhaps the most important point for a singer; with wrong voice-placement the voice cannot hold out. One of my present pupils is a case in point. He told me that his voice was a bass and had received some cultivation. I tried it, and found it of a disagreeable quality though apparently bass. He had four or five low tones that were very good, and from these I began my work. When I took his voice below these notes it had a hollow quality and lacked life and vitality; but I noticed that when I went above these notes it seemed better. In the course of this digging around I became convinced that he was not a bass, and today he is a delightful tenor, with a clear high D. This is but one of many instances that have come to my notice. A pupil will go to a teacher and say: 'My voice is a contralto, a soprano, a bass,' as the case may be, and very often the teacher will accept the pupil's verdict, or, I might say, desire, and proceed to cultivate the voice accordingly. Is it any wonder that voices so trained do not last? We do not have real tenors in this country. All of our tenor voices partake of the baritone quality. The real, pure, Italian tenor is almost unknown in America."

Women Should Be Trained By Women

"A woman should be trained by a woman, and by one that has a fresh voice. The pupil has so often to hear the teacher's voice in illustration of some point and to imitate her that freshness is necessary. Then, a woman feels freer with a woman. The teacher should see that the clothing is not too tight and attend to various other things more or less unpleasant to a man. Tight dressing must be avoided by singers. Of course, a singer wishes to have a neat, trim figure. This is best accomplished by having any tightness in the clothing come below the diaphragm, just by the hips. In other words, have the dress long waisted. Bu having the snugness below the diaphragm it does not interfere with the breath, and serves as a purchase for the breath. One can lean against it, as it were."

"Besides my 11 years with Lamperti, I have studied with Sangiovanni. He is one of the best teachers. He does not give method, but is more for style and finish. Another excellent Italian teacher is Vannuccini. In France are Mme. Viardot-García, with whom I have studied, and Marchesi. Shakespeare, in England, is very good. He teaches real Lamperti method, and goes nearly very summer to brush up his ideas with Lamperti. Randegger is another English teacher, but he is better for oratorio than for regular voice-culture. After all, it is the Italians that have produced the greatest singers. The Germans have what I may call the arithmetic of singing; but the Italians seem to understand bringing out the voice. Of course, I should not go to Lamperti to study German opera; he prefers Bellini, Rossini and that class of operatic work." 

Mme. Davidson's conversation might be called a bird's-eye view of vocal culture, touching, as it does, upon the most vital and fundamental points of song. Her ideas regarding an examination of vocal teachers and singers, giving them certificates if they reach a certain standard, are, to a certain extent, embodied in the plan of the American College of Musicians, and outgrowth of the Music Teachers National Association. The aim of this college is to give both vocal and instrumental art a standing that it does not now have in this country. While the vocal department may not receive the attention it deserves, being somewhat overshadowed by the instrumental department, it is, nevertheless, doing good work. It is the fault of the vocalists themselves that they do not receive more recognition. A strong pull, a long pull and a pull altogether and their strength and influence will be acknowledged, and song will occupy its rightful place above digital dexterity. 


Werner's Magazine, June 1889.