April 6, 2015

Leo Kofler: The Art of Breathing

Leo Kofler (1837 - 1909)
Always breathe through the nose while singing."

"Look twice at the most favorable operatic contract. Only phenomenally strong voices can endure the strain of singing in opera oftener than twice or three times per week."

"As to the larynx—do not do, but let it be done by the automatic influence of the breathing-muscles."

TO LOOK at Mr. Leo Kofler it is hardly possible to believe that twenty years ago an insurance company was so sure that he was going to follow five sisters, one uncle, an.aunt and a grandfather along the crowded path of consumption to the grave-yard that he could get only a policy of $1,000 at the enormous premium of $54.26 a year. He himself had shown many symptoms of the disease. He caught colds frequently and they almost always settled in his lungs. In spite of an abstemious life, his digestion suffered and he was almost chronically bilious. But he did not wish to die, and so he set himself to fight death off as long as he could. He took lessons in elocution; he studied all the books on breathing that he could get hold of and now he says, "Whatever I die of when my time comes, it will not be consumption." He is sure that correct breathing is what has preserved his life and has made him so hearty.

Mr. Kofler has an illustration of the value of laryngoscopy to the teacher of voice-culture that is characteristic of the man. He takes out his watch and shows you the face upside down.

"Could you learn from that how to make a watch? No? Neither can you learn voice-training from looking at the top of the vocal bands. What is beneath? Even if you could know exactly what goes on in the larynx of one singer, it might be wrong to make every other pupil do the very same thing. No. It is not this [pointing to his eye], but this [pointing to his ear] that must be the teacher's guide. I do not say that it is not worth the while of the investigator of vocal phenomena to pursue laryngoscopy, but it is not worth the while of the teacher of voice-culture. To the pupil, it is not only absolutely useless; he should not think for an instant of what the larynx is doing. He should not try to make it do this or that. You know how it is with the tongue. Tell a pupil to let his tongue lie flat in his mouth; he draws it back till it dams up his throat. Not until he takes a looking-glass and finds out what he is about can he learn how to do what he wishes to do with his tongue. But how can he look at his larynx? The whole throat ought to be free from the influence of the will-power and left under the automatic influence of the breathing- muscle, the diaphragm. Tone-production is not controlled by the throat, but by the breathing apparatus.

"Singing is divided into two sections. First, there is tone-production as from any other musical instrument. Second, there is the reinforcement of this tone on the resonance-cavities and the formation of words. No other musical instrument has a language. That is a vital point, all too little considered. The will-power influence in tone-production must be centred in the breathing, so that the throat is left free to respond to the automatic influence of the diaphragmatic action. As to the specific words, the will-power must express them and the sentiment embedded in them by means of the movable parts of the resonance-cavities."

"Do you have the pupil practice respiratory exercises without making tone?"

"Without doubt. Why does a singer need breathing-exercises? Simply because he can not afford to do without them. No one can sing without needing a great deal of breath and without being able to control it. Breathing-gymnastics not only increase the capacity of the lungs and call into use cells that would otherwise lie shrivelled up and never expand to their full size, but they strengthen and limber up the breathing muscles and give facility of control. Not only do I give exercises of inspiration, but, what is most important to the singer, exercises in expiration so that the breath taken in may be let out as gradually as is dedesired. It is the lack of control of the breathing-muscles that floods the voice with breath."

"Some teach that when a tone is made, the abdomen should round out; others teach that the chest should be lifted and the abdomen should press in to expel the breath. Which is your method?"

"The abdomen flattens to expel the breath. The other method I should consider particularly dangerous to women. This is the whole process of taking and emitting breath during singing: Take breath with considerable energy through the dilated nostrils, expanding the region of the waist and at the same time feel a slight expansion of the whole breathing-apparatus from the collarbone to the lowest point of the abdomen. Continue taking in air, expanding the whole circumference of the trunk in a complete oneness of action and, at the last moment, without overcharging the lungs with air, by raising the ribs, push up the collar-bone, drawing the shoulders slightly backward and pulling the lowest part of the abdomen slightly inward.

"Hold the breath a little while.

"As you let the breath escape very slowly, hold the chest firm to the last; by a stringent, antagonistic action of the lower abdominal muscles press the lower abdomen inward and upward very gradually and finally draw in slightly the region of the waist until all the breath as far as it can be used is exhausted. Then allow the chest and abdomen to return at once to their former condition of repose. "Some call this diaphragmatic breathing. What breathing is not diaphragmatic? Is it abdominal breathing? It is more. It is intercostal, clavicular and all. It is a full breath."

''You apparently believe in holding the air in the lungs a while, neither inspiring nor expiring. What is the good of that? What is the maximum period for holding the breath so?"

"Always hold the breath a little while before using it in song or speech otherwise some of it is lost between the taking of the air and the starting of the tone. It is good for the health. It is like opening the doors and windows for a moment to let the fresh air into a close and stuffy house. There are many little air-cells in the lungs that would not be expanded to their fullest for weeks together unless the chest is distended to its fullest capacity and held so for a few seconds. From the earliest ages physicians have recommended the practice and in some religions holding the breath was a ceremony counted beneficial to body and soul. Kant, the philosopher, even wrote of certain diseases that could be dispelled by holding the breath. In singing it has been noticed that it is easier to let the air out of the lungs more evenly and economically if it has been held a few seconds before being expired at all. Thirty seconds is the limit of safety in holding the air as hygienic practice. More than that is unnecessary and even dangerous. Up to that point it is a healthy practice and a good test of lungpower. Normally one inhales breath and immediately lets it go, but in singing there are phrases that must be sung in one breath that often last fifteen or twenty seconds, during which time one must defer gratification of the impulse to take in fresh oxygen. It is well to practice exercises that will inure him to this necessity of doing without new air."

"Do you give drills for the respiratory muscles without breathing?"

"No, never. I am sure it is absolutely useless, and my private opinion is that it sets up bad habits. If it has done anybody good, I'd like to hear of it. How can you use the respiratory muscles without taking breath unless you hold the nose and mouth shut? Perhaps you use the surface muscles instead, but then you do not build up the lungs or increase the size and strength of the chest. Any how what is the harm of taking breath? Is there danger of overworking the lungs?"

"Do you make any difference in the respiratory drills for men and for women?"

Not at all. The normal man and the normal woman breathe exactly alike. What difference exists between the respiration of the sexes is artificial and caused by costume. Now, do not think that I begin to argue with a woman and tell her how irrational is the corset and the tight waist. I might talk till doomsday and she would not be convinced. (I ought not to tell you this, for it is a kind of professional secret.) I employ the argumcntum ad mulierem. You have heard of the argument em adhominem. It is in plain English: 'Try it on yourself.' Well, I explain to my pupil how I want the exercises done at home without any encumberances whatever about the waist and ribs, not even a belt. The chances are that the girl has not know the luxury of a full breath since she was a little girl. Her lungs expand with the daily practice and by-and-by she can't stand it to wear anything that cramps her breathing. Then good-bye corset. She finds that she is able to hold herself up without props. Nowadays women are more sensible about such things."

"You spoke of daily practice. Do you allow your pupils to practice by themselves?"

"I certainly do. I make very plain to them, step by step, what I want them to do and besides my book I give them a sort of composition book or account-book in which I write the points of each lesson. If a pupil does not learn to be her own teacher, of what use is it for her to take lessons? Only in exceptional cases do I think it might be necessary to forbid them to practice by themselves and those will never learn to be singers. It is only parrot-work when the pupil may not use her own judgment and must copy only what the teacher does. Imitation is child's teaching. As to the length of the practice time, it varies. A beginner should never practice longer than ten or at the most fifteen minutes at a time, three times a day. She should never practice within an hour after a meal. If in good health, I see no reason why she should not practice before breakfast. So long as only soft exercises are to' be done, the pupil may increase the time to twenty minutes in a couple of months; in four months the time may be increased to thirty minutes and ten minutes extra may be given to the swelling out of the voice on sustained tones. At the end of a year the ultimate length of time may be reached, forty-five minutes three times a day, with ten minutes extra on swell-tones.I advise that they always wear the loosest dresses, seldom play their own accompaniments, stand straight, do not allow the head to bend forward or backward. Keep the pitch by striking the key of the piano once in a while with the left hand but do not become a slave to the instrument. Learn to take the tones independently. If they must play accompaniments, they should sit on as high a chair as possible and not far back on the seat. This will give the abdominal muscles more freedom."

"Do you have the pupil breathe and sing in various positions such as might be required in dramatic situations?"

"I do not, because I think it is a dangerous thing for any except those possessing phenomenal voices to appear in opera. The ordinary voice can not stand being used in all the postures required by intensely emotional music-drama, with the head bent down as in humiliation or thrown back as in supplication, etc. If it can be done without bending the head upon the neck stooping only with the backbone, not so much harm is done. To express the violent emotions with a cramped or relaxed throat, which must be the case if the performer has any sense of the dramatic requirements, is also destructive to the voice. Very few operatic singers last long."

"Patti has."

"Patti was the reigning queen of song, an absolute monarch. She could do as she liked. If she did not choose to sing, she did not sing. She took the utmost care of her voice and let nothing stand in her way. But there are not many Pattis. A concert singer may appear every night and if her voice shows signs of wear, then there is something-wrong with her method. Three performances a week of the leading role in any opera are the extreme limit of safety. Two performances should do no harm to one in good health. There is also to be considered the question of proper food and rest. Eating at different hotels, having to live in one's trunk, as the saying is, and traveling about in sleeping-cars is wearing on the health and nervous strength. A singer that wants to preserve her voice should look more than twice at the most favorable operatic contract ever written. The parts may not be fit for her voice, her talent or her physical powers. She will have to sing too many times a week. She will sing when she ought not to, because she is jealous of a rival, or because she wants the money, or because the management compels her to. Take the Castle Square Company as an example. In the early part of the season the performance was quite creditable. I went one evening toward the end of the season and I was obliged to get up and go out. The voices of the principals were tired and worn so much that it was painful to me to listen to them. No. I don't encourage my pupils to look forward to an operatic career."

"Has the term 'pure tone' any test other than the standard of each individual?"

"Each person has a face of his own that more or less departs from the standard of beauty. Each person has a voice of his own that likewise departs more or less from the standard of beauty, even in its best condition. There must be, it seems to me, a specific tone for each individual and purity of tone must be as surely an ideal as beauty of form and color. Those who profess to have a test for purity of tone with instruments I believe to be putting on scientific airs. I was present at a test of that kind once. The demonstrators had resonators, stringed instruments, tuning-forks, etc., and talked and talked. Finally, out of patience, a teacher demanded: 'Let us hear! Let us hear!' That is our test. Well the tones that were pronounced to be scientifically pure were ghastly things to hear. Madame Seiler was about the first, I think, to advocate the test of the overtones in the human voice. I heard a young woman pupil of hers, certificated as being a competent exponent of the method. The so-called 'pure tone' was the most sepulchral imaginable. Madame Seiler was accustomed to use the vowel oo in order, as she said, to place the voice well forward. I think it was admirably suited to misplace the voice. You can place a ray of light, for that goes straight. But sound travels in waves and how can you place waves? To be pure, the voice must be free. It must not be cramped or shut in. But oo is the next thing to a consonant and impedes the free outlet. For myself, I usually begin with a, as in father. If that has a tendency to stiffen the throat, I use another vowel. I even use soft humming exercises to get rid of the cramping of the throat and the stiffening of the jaw. But the humming must be done softly lest it develop a nasal habit. I am not one of those that think too highly of the nasal quality. For the vowels nasal resonance through the bridge of the nose is unnecessary. Shut your eyes and I will sing vowel tones, part of the time with my nose pinched shut and part of the time open and you can't tell which is which. The forward nasal cavity is needed to reinforce m and n, but when it reinforces vowel sounds it is then a fault."

"Do you try to exercise the soft-palate?"

"Certainly. A lax condition of the soft-palate is what makes a whining, unpleasant nasal tone in the speaking or singing-voice. If the uvula is abnormally long, a surgeon should attend to it; but where it is simply flabby and lax exercise on the vowel aa will tone it up. It varies its position with the different vowels, and so it is necessary to have it under control. This is one of the exercises I give. Stand before a mirror, take breath through the nose, open the mouth wide, hold air a little while, and with the handle of a spoon (if you haven't a tongue-depresser), press down the tongue as far back as you can without gagging and sing upon the vowel aa as long as the breath lasts a tone of the medium range. Do this several times in succession. At the same time direct the will power toward the uvula and softpalate so that they may lift themselves up and back against the entrance of the post-nasal tube Simple inhaling will not exercise the uvula. It rises automatically and hence acquires no strength by so doing."

[The conversation turned upon the power to make the sopracuta notes above high C which seem to be accompanied by a curling up backward of the uvula against the partition of the nasal cavity. Mr. Kofler has no great opinion of these high notes considered as human singing.]

"The seeking after them is what we Germans call: 'Effekt-has-cherei,'—a hankering after sensationalism, a running after showy things. A very high tone ceases to be human and becomes something like a piccolo or the note of a bird. It is mere bravura, a piece of display and not an expression of emotion. A good high tone, natural to the voice is valuable, but that is a different thing from 'made' or forced high tones. The effort to attain to such altitudes is ruinous to voices. What is the use of getting them at such a sacrifice? Nevertheless, when they are in the voice, they are to be developed by exercises of arpeggios taken lightly and staccato. But the wish to have them does not imply that they are there and the greatest care should be taken by the teacher in classifying the voice of the pupil. If a mistake of judgment is made in the first place, the teacher should not hesitate to say: 'I was wrong in my estimate.' It is hard to admit that one is not infallible, but to go on stubbornly refusing to correct a mistake in the classification of the voice, is criminal. The pupil may seem to have a tenor voice because he wants to be a tenor and mimics the quality of that voice. One of my pupils appeared to me to be a mezzo-soprano and I was deceived for some time. She was really a deep and full contralto but imitated her mother, who possessed a beautiful mezzo-soprano.

"Distrust those teachers that profess to be able to extend the compass to extremes. The full use of the natural capacity is all that the best instructor can give. To attempt to go beyond nature is to impair the organ. After all, it is the middle part that is the most valuable. Threefourths of the work in a song lie there. It is therefore the business of the pupil to endeavor to acquire beauty and freedom of expression in these tones rather than to sacrifice them all for the sake of a few high notes merely to make people stare. There are teachers that say: 'I made that voice. I made it.' What nonsense! No teacher can make a voice. He can look behind the faults and see what causes them and then show the pupil what to do to remedy them, but he can not make a voice where none exists. If it is small for natural reasons, he can not make it great. If she has small resonance-cavities, small larynx, thin vocal bands, what are you going to do?"

[Here Mr. Kofler brought in what is distinctly his contribution to the art of singing, —breathing through the nostrils always,]

"Always breathe through the nostrils."

"Even in the middle of a song?"

"More especially then than ever."

"But can one get enough breath in a quick inspiration through the nostrils?"


"And not make an unpleasant noise?"

"Not so unpleasant as if it were gasped through the mouth. Listen."

[Mr. Kofler sang a number of phrases on the vowel ah and took breath frequently. Just once was there a slight noise, caused inadvertently, something like gargling, but it was very slight indeed, and would not have carried half as far as the whistling or snorting noise of air rushing into the opened mouth.]

"Everybody agrees that the air we take into our lungs and over our vocal bands should first of all be warmed and filtered by the nostrils. It is well-known that cold air gulped in through the mouth causes sore throat. If you sleep with your mouth open all night, in the morning your throat is parched and feverish, you have nausea and headache and feel thoroughly miserable, a proof that you have been doing something bad for the health. So injurious is the practice of mouth-breathing that children that have that habit grow up feeble-minded. The nostrils are the defences of the delicate membranes of the throat. The two narrow tortuous channels of the nose are fringed with bristling hairs that sieve out the flying particles of dust and the air is warmed to a temperature that makes it respirable by the lungs without danger. During singing it is particularly essential that the vocal bands should be protected from anything that would irritate them and yet all teachers agree that it is impossible to breathe through the nose at this critical time. They say that it is impossible to get enough air and that the disagreeable sound of sniffing can not be avoided. They would agree that it would be well if nose-breathing were possible. But it is possible. I got all the breath I wanted and I could have avoided making that noise if I had directed my attention to it. Anyone can learn to do it with a little trouble and surely the trouble is worth taking if it will preserve the voice. It is easy enough, when you know how, like a good many other things. You remember what I told you about the tongue. I said that pupils usually did exactly the opposite of what they were told to do with it, and that they have to look in the glass to find out what they were about. It is so with the nostrils. When one thinks of expanding the nostrils, he contracts them because he tries to do the same thing as smelling a flower. But when one inhales an odor, he contracts the nostrils so as to direct the current of air against the olfactory nerves. He narrows the opening instead of widening it. Be assured that in all songs there is as much time to draw the air in through the nostrils as there is to draw it in through the mouth. Nose-breathing in a song is like Columbus making the egg stand on end. First it is impossible; then, everybody can do it, a soon as he knows how to do it.

"Do you practice the 'direct attack,' that is, have the breath and the tone come together, or the 'indirect attack,' that is, have the breath open the glottis first and the tone follow?"

"Under no circumstances should the breath in singing go without the tone, except of course in dramatic music where the tone is strongly aspirated to show passion. The tone and the breath should be absolutely together; no slurring, sliding or scooping, no hammering either. The tone should be distinct without being harsh or swimming in breath. This is what I seek for my pupils. • It is also of as much importance to know how to quit a tone as to attack it. Some singers show great ingratitude; they kick a tone out of doors as soon as they have done with it."

"Should the larynx be fixed or movable?"

"You must not do anything with the larynx: rather let it be done. The breathing-muscles and the tongue-muscles control the up-anddown movements of the larynx. Those who say that it must be held thus and so are wrong, for the test of tone is not the eye but the ear. By their fruits ye shall know them. When their exemplars sing you want to stop your ears. There are so many ways of doing the same thing that it is hard to say in advance which is the right way. Theoretically it may be just the thing but the practical way to find out,is to hear how it sounds. The proof of the pudding is the eating."

[The catechism went on and Mr. Kofler was asked about the "falsetto" and its use and value in song. He threw up boih hands and shook his head.]

"I give it up. I know what 'falsetto' is when I hear it, but I can't describe it to you or tell how it is made. I have read many physiological descriptions, but I can't make out whether it is produced by the vibrations of only the edges of the vocal cords or by the action of the resonance-cavities. Perhaps it is both. The post-nasal cavity has something to do with it, that's sure, but I can not follow the tone in laryngoscopic observations no matter how much I have tried. I don't know what the 'falsetto' is, physiologically and I don't think anybody else knows."

"You haven't said anything so far about 'the natural method' and 'nature.' Why not?"

"I don't think the use of these terms gives any clear idea of what is meant. 'Natural' is often used as a synonym for 'habitual,' which may be very unnatural. I don't use the terms because it is a waste of time. I don't subscribe either to that school that talks about 'nature being so beautifully simple.' It is my experience that nature is tolerably complex, not to say extremely difficult to see through. The human voice simple? It's the most complex of musical instruments. Of all manmade instruments, the grand organ is the most involved, but it is simplicity itself compared with the voice. All its mechanism of bellows, actions and pipes is easily comprehended. You can get in and look at them. You can take them apart and mend them, when they go wrong. But you can not see into the larynx at all when it is working normally. You must distort the mouth and pull the tongue forward and put a mirror against the uvula so that the oral cavity is certainly out of shape and presumably the post-nasal cavity and even the larynx itself. From the dissected larynx there is little to be learned. Take the pipe-organ apart and it is still there, for you can put its rank upon rank of pipes back again. Take the voice apart and—you have no more voice."

"In your teaching do you say: 'Don't' or do you say: 'Do.' Don't you think that calling attention to a defect sometimes intensifies it?"

"When pupils do a thing wrong, I say, 'Stop!' I want them to know that they are wrong. Then I tell them what to do and how to do it."

"Suppose one comes to you unable to sing in tune, what do you do?"

"If the applicant sings 'off' and can not perceive that she is singing 'off,' can not detect any difference in the tones, there is little hope. I would not take the case. But if when I strike a key on the piano and she sings 'off' and knows that she is wrong, then the fault is not with the ear but with the experience. She does not know how to control the vocal apparatus—usually she has an incorrect way of breathing. The daughter of the late George H. Pendleton, the author of the Civil Service Reform Law, was such a case. Mrs. Pendleton was a charming singer, but Signor Alfisi, then an authority in Cincinnati, had declared that the girl had no ear for tune. I discovered that she could tell that she was not singing the right tone and that she knew whether she was above or below the pitch. She finally learned to sing very well and to keep in perfect tune. But generally speaking the cultivation of ear-perception is rather the work of the period of childhood than of later years. If most of those that now sing out of tune had been caught young and trained patiently and no faster than their perception could go, very few would be unable to sing, but I nevertheless believe that there would be some that never could learn an air. '

"Do you believe in State supervision of singing-teachers as of physicians and lawyers?"

"Indeed, I do not. It is absolute nonsense. If the qualifications of a singing-teacher were left in the hands of the politicians, we should be worse off than we are now. There would then be no honesty in the profession. I do not mean that there would be no honest men left in it, but I mean that as a profession it would be degraded. The worst humbugs would be certificated as well as the most competent. How could that be? By this [rubs thumb and finger together making the gesture that stands for bribery]. Even in the great European universities there is no chair of vocal culture. No. It is a madness that comes over people that impels them to put everything into the hands of the government, instead of having faith in the ultimate victory of common sense and honesty of the people."

"Have you any theory as to the part that the 'false' vocal cords play in the production of tone? "

''As the devil said of the pig, there is much cry and little wool. What are they for? What are the tonsils for? The less one thinks of such matters the less trouble he will have."

"How do you define the terms 'throaty,' 'breathy,' 'open tone,' 'covered tone?'"

"By 'throaty' I mean the tone produced when the muscles of the throat are cramped and constricted; by 'breathy' I mean that the singer wastes breath when he produces tone. A 'covered tone' is one in which more than one kind of resonance is used, as the head and chest-resonance at the same time. An 'open tone' I suppose is a kind of bawl like that of a ranting preacher or an uneducated singer."

"How many registers are there and what is a register?"

"That is a question that perplexes not by its difficulty, but because so many have darkened counsel by words without knowledge. The old Italian masters looked upon the registers as the different ranges of the voice in reference to the three resonance cavities: (i) the low range or chesttones, main resonance in the windpipe; (2) the medium range or register, main resonance in the mouth and pharynx and (3) the highest range or register with its main resonance in the post-nasal tube. I suppose the name came from the grand organ where a set of pipes of a particular quality is governed by pulling a stop that admits or shuts off air and is called a register. There are some that say there are no registers. It is true that the transitions ought not to be observed, but there are in every voice the chest, the medium and the head-registers or resonances. But there ought to be no breaks as geographical dividing lines, to define one part of the range from another. In a cultivated voice they are so smoothed over as not to be noticed. There must be an even chain of tones from the lowest to the highest. It is the teacher's part to see to it that the chest and the medium registers are not carried too high. The registers must be trained downward rather than upward."

"Who was your instructor and who are some of your pupils?"

"The man to whom I owe the most was Rudolph Otto, in his days a famous concert-singer of Berlin and the tenor soloist of the Dom-chor of the same city. His was a voice not naturally powerful or beautiful. It was all art with him and he sang with the most exquisite taste. Of what school was he? He was an adherent of the Old Italian School of voice culture. Is there a French, German or Italian school other than the difference in the language? In these days of the contact of nations in travel there is no national school of singing. There are good teachers and poor ones in Paris, Milan and Berlin, and the good ones arrive at much the same results.

"As to my pupils I have been unfortunate in that so many of them have married and withdrawn from the profession. Laura Bellini was a pupil of mine. So was Fred Harvey, who sang with Leopold Damrosch and Theodore Thomas as solo tenor. Miss Belle Watson, Miss Lydia Starritt, who was with Aronson in the 'Fencing-Master,' Miss Mary Lancaster, Miss Edith Tuttle, who has been contralto soloist of St. Paul's chapel choir since 1884."

[Mr. Kofler has been the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul's chapel since 1877. One of the features of the musical arrangements there is the volunteer choir. There are two solo quartets and the volunteer chorus and all the volunteer members receive a private lesson weekly in the cultivation of the voice. The more advanced members of the volunteer choir may be selected for the salaried positions; if they are fitted for it solos are given them to encourage them to work harder and take a greater interest in their studies.

It is Mr. Kofler's experience that there are more women than men studying vocal culture and that the women are more diligent and persevering. The men are mostly in business and hope to attain the point where they may give up trade and devote themselves solely to singing for a living, but it is haid for them to spare the time from the office to take lessons and they hate to give up their evenings and the possibilities of amusement. Most of Mr. Kofler's pupils expect to become professionals, for the unvarying question is: "Do you think I can do anything with my voice? " and to "do anything with a voice " means to make money with it.

To ask Mr. Kofler what he thought about a teacher giving instruction to pupils speaking a language not his mother tongue was bringing the question very near home, for Mr. Kofler was born in the Tyrol and was a man grown when he came to America.]

"I can detect the faults of pronunciation in English-speaking people as well as if it were my native tongue. I have gone into the subject of speechdefects quite considerably and my ear notes the slurring over of the consonants at once. My own English was acquired after I was a man and very few are able to speak another language than the one learned in childhood without an accent, even though they observe the slovenly speech of others and are able to tell the pupil what to do to overcome the error."

"Is it necessary to go to Europe to study singing?"

"Europe has this advantage: It is a great deal cheaper. You get more education for the same money there than here. Living is less costly there; there is more time to study, because the student does not know the language and must put in the time attending to his studies. He has no friends to visit and waste time on. He has no social duties. He can not fritter away his energies on making money, for there is no money to be made there by a beginner. As to the value of the teaching, there are as many humbugs and incompetents there as here. What hinders progress here is the fact that pupils, particularly ladies, get together and all talk at once. In one afternoon the good results of months of teaching are counteracted. When each tries to out-talk the other, good-bye throat!"

"What is the best instrument to use in giving lessons? What do you think of the violin for that purpose?"

"The piano is the most convenient for private lessons for the adult. For choruses of children, the violin is the best thing. If you take the tone and put it right into the ear with the violin, ee-ee-ee, they can't miss it."

"Have associations helped the profession of vocal teaching?"

"Oh, decidedly. It is a great advantage to teachers to get together and become acquainted with one another. Each finds out that the other is not such a fiend as he thought he was. Enmity thrives on ignorance of our neighbors. One finds out that they are pretty good fellows and are honestly trying to do good work. Each learns from the other and none knows so much that he can not learn more. By working together financial interests are improved and the whole profession is benefited. It is the Scripture over again: 'A house divided against itself can not stand.'"

"Does the vocal profession offer to a man as good opportunities as the professions of medicine, law and the like, or even a mercantile life?"

''I really could not say. It is something to be able to make a living doing what one loves to do. There are some very successful men in the vocal profession, but the majority are not distressed by having more money than they know what to do with. There is room at the top, but only for a very few."

"What songs and what vocalises do you give?"

"Sieber's, Concone's and Bonaldi's exercises and many others. Songs? The greatest variety that are suitable, English, French, German. Italian, whatever is fit to be used."

[It was the writer's privilege to be present at two lessons that Mr. Kofler gave to two young women. The first one was a beginner, who was learning to get the head-register clear and soft and sweet without shrillness. This was the way Mr. Kofler went at it: He told her to stoop over keeping her head as straight on her neck as if she were standing up and as she bent down to sing five tones, g, a, b, c, d, to the vowel o, and so on chromatically rising to an upright position on the last tone. Said Mr. Kofler:]

"The head-register has its resonance in the post-nasal tube and you want to feel it under the base of the skull and in the back of the head. Now take a full breath, retain it a little while, and then stoop gradually over and sing."

"Can temperament be cultivated?"

"Certainly it can. But it is for the pupil to do. How? One must hear music, not the interpretation of those that know no more than the pupil, not mere piano-playing, but orchestral music, symphony concerts and operas. One should look over beforehand the music that is to be played and think how it should be interpreted and then listen carefully and see how others do it."

It is the commonest accusation in the world against singing-teachers, and indeed musicians generally, that they are an ignorant lot of men. "Oh, yes, he understands music all right," they say, "but take him outside of that "and they shake their heads and add some remark about a last year's bird's nest. There is some excuse for musicians not being highly educated, for the art is so exacting that the years of youth, when the rest of us are studying "mensa, mensae," must be given up to weary hours at the piano. Most musicians find that life is all too short to acquire a working knowledge of their profession and know better than all others how true it is that "Art is long and Time is fleeting." Mr. Kofler has the advantage of most in this way: He can not remember when he could not play the organ, for his father had charge of the music of the cathedral church at Brixen in the Tyrol, and the boy had to help him with that and the two other churches in the same square. Also, the career mapped out for him by his parents was such that he had to learn Latin and if he can not carry on a conversation in that language now, it is because he has forgotten it. But he is a learned man after the pattern of the old scholasticism and one does not talk long with him before finding out that he has something to say in the light of the newer learning.

A rather interesting thing about Mr. Kofler's book on "The Art of Breathing" is that it was written in English by a man whose mothertongue is German; that it contains a most careful study of vowel and consonantal sounds and that after having attained prominence among English-speaking students of the vocal art, it was translated into German in Germany purely on account of its value and without suggestion on the part of Mr. Kofler. Other treatises on this subject have commonly passed through the reverse process.

Werner's Magazine: A Magazine of Expression, "New York Singing Teachers: An Inquiry Into Their Qualifications, Their Theories, Their Practices, and Their Results—Leo Kofler," Vol. 24, No. 2, October 1899: 110-120

Note: Leo Kofler was one the big Kahunas at the beginning of the 20th century in terms of his influence on vocal pedagogy, his book "The Art of Breathing" having a wide impact on the teaching of voice. My next post will feature his earlier work, which focused on the lineage and teaching of the Old Italian School. 


  1. Very interesting. Thank you. But, please, where could I find the book: THE ART OF BREATHING?

    1. A link to Kohler's book is contained within the post above, and can also be found on the download page in the right-hand column.


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