Classical Vocal Training in the Age of Information

Anna E. Schoen-René (1864-1942) 
Anna E. Schoen-René was perhaps the last of her generation to teach classical singing as it had been taught for generations, having learned both the art of singing and its vocal pedagogy from two eminent masters—Pauline Viardot-García and her brother Manuel García, from whom Schoen-René specialized in the teaching of men.

Her procedures were geared towards those who had—in her own words—"good vocal material." Having been accepted into her studio, the student then had to be able to speak and sing all five of the Italian vowels (e, i, a, o, u) in an open-throated and pure manner; that is, with no hint of a guttural or nasal timbre—the result, of course, being placement. For those with ears to hear, this was not a big deal. However, this requirement was a real THING, the starting gate through which every student had to pass or there was no going forward. And if you couldn't do it, and do it in a reasonable amount of time, Schoen-René would drop you like a hot potato. Tough? You have no idea. 

When the student had learned how to create a beautiful tone, he or she was then made to exercise the voice on scales and exercises for the better part of a year before any repertoire was given. Mind you, this took place in the environment of the Juilliard School—a prestigious conservatory which admitted only the very best students on a scholarship basis. (Schoen-René's private students—who sang both classical and popular music, were subjected to the same kind of training.) Sadly, this kind of approach simply does not exist in any conservatory today.

What do we have instead? Repertoire is required from day one, and instead of Italian tonal values being the beginning point, languages are studied as electives. Vocal pedagogy is a science heavy endeavor, with voice students learning about anatomy, physiology and acoustics, but next to nothing about the procedures of the old Italian school. Sure, some may hear the names García or Lamperti, but have they read their works or studied their teachings? No.

Knowing about has supplanted doing—at least in terms of the procedures of the old Italian school.  And there is a lot to know as a result of recent advances in voice science. Because of this, voice teachers today are seduced into approaching the teaching of singing in a mechanical manner, which, if anything, recalls the period of late 19th century when there was an explosion of knowledge about the vocal mechanism, and brought about what one writer (Edmund Myer) called the "local effort" school.

"Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principles of their art." —Anna E. Schoen-René 

We have our own "local effort" school, which is less about the direct control of muscles of the body (the late 19th century preoccupation) and more about control of the muscles of the larynx as evidenced in an obsession with the separation of registers, and the larynx's articulation of certain vocal qualities, including falsetto, chest, mix and belt.

This is what you get when you pull up the roots of the tree of singing.