The Fogs of Voice-Culture

Mme. Florenza D'Arona 
WERNER'S MAGAZINE has frequently urged teachers to explain their methods of voice-culture, saying this should be done for the benefit of all interested in the Art and Science of Singing, or words to that effect. In the July issue the question is asked, "If they cannot satisfactorily explain their methods of procedure are not such teachers empiricists?" and that "were a written report of the theoretical methods of New York's leading teachers written, not twenty would harmonize in their views." 

In the first place, singing can never be taught or satisfactorily explained by written articles or books, for no matter now lucid they may be, no human being can follow directions without the aid of a teacher, for the simple reason that set rules and directions in nine cases out of ten would not suit the case. A method to succeed must be adapted to each pupil and his own individual requirements, according to the judgement and proficiency of a teacher who appeals to the child nature with simple similes and easy explanations. No two explanations will suffice for two individuals, but the theory of sound focus, location of notes and the desired quality, can be termed in set phrases, if necessary, and drawn with the pencil to be seen as well as heard and reasoned out. But one who does not know his faults and attempts a new theory, while still unconsciously clinging to them, reaps nothing but failure, and brands as a humbug the method he has wasted as much time trying to work out alone. Illustration and a teacher's acute ear divine a means or reaching the difficulty, and comprehension of each individual brings him where he can see, hear, and feel the method, in its delicious difference from that which he has hitherto employed, either from ignorance or delusion. What appeared so contradictory, so downright senseless, is now understood as different forms of expression; and although many were used that were not useful in his case, he now sees them as so many channels leading to the truth, and treasure them in turn to meet the different difficulties and understandings of those who may some day study with him. The physician who conscientiously studies every one of his patients treats accordingly, so the teacher has to study each pupil many an hour outside of the lesson hour, if justice is to be done the voice in charge. Because we cannot teach every pupil alike, is this empiricism? 

Were teachers to write forever upon their methods, little good and much harm would probably be done, for students would experiment more than they do now even, and ruined voices and blasted faith in teachers generally would be the result. Taking another view of it, were it possible to teach, or benefit the people through written articles, why should vocal philanthropy be expected, of singing-teachers? Has it not cost the capable teacher a small fortune to gain his knowledge, and will a pupil pay for lessons that are printed broadcast throughout the land? Does not a manufacturer guard his secret of success, and is not the vocal teacher's method his secret of success and stock in trade?

Now I come to the various methods of vocal teachers and the many poor results of their teaching. Has it never occurred to the thinker that of all professions in this world the vocal profession is the most infringed upon? If discrimination were used, all who teach would not be termed " teachers." A few lessons from a good teacher or one lesson from every known teacher is sufficient, with the aid of an accompanist, to place the adventurer's and experimenter's name under the head of "vocal teacher," pupil of this or that celebrity, and nine cases out of ten sharp business tact will reap success.

The following three examples recently came to my notice: While on an engagement in a western city a celebrated teacher there called on me. He stated who he was, and informed me that several of his pupils were coming that day to induce me to give them lessons during my stay there, and he added: ''Now, Mme. d'Arona, let me off easy with them, and permit me also to study with you so as to head them off." He begged me to keep his confidence, and, in answer to my inquiries, told me he had been to Italy, and had taken one lesson from Lamperti, and had since used his name to give him prestige. Observing my disgust, he added quickly: "Come, now, Mme. d'Arona, I am the right man in the right place. A great teacher would not be appreciated here, and you would not earn your salt, while I am getting rich." Early last winter a New York teacher came to me and wrote down every word I said without asking for explanations. On reprimanding her, she said: "I've got to teach, Mme. d'Arona, and if I can just memorize your terms of expression, etc., my pupils will think I know it all even if I don't explain to them." This same teacher (?), on hearing Melba and Calve sing, said to me: "Oh pshaw! Mme. d'Arona, I'd rather go to the circus." Last month I received a letter from a vocal teacher in a seminary down South, asking if she came to New York for ten lessons if I would give her a certificate. I could cite many similar examples.

Again, there are good musicians, orchestra leaders and excellent pianists, who give singing-lessons. Why? Because they have applicants, and think they can do something for a pupil any way, from a musician's standpoint. So by degrees piano teaching gives way to vocal teaching. As well go to the pianist to study the violin as to entrust the vocal instrument to a pianist. Harmony, contrapoint, musical history, anatomical throat-studies, sight-reading, etc., are all well enough, but why pay a singingteacher's price for cheaper studies, when to learn to sing is the desired object?

In selecting a teacher a pupil may go from one teacher to another, thinking he knows well what he wants; whereas, if he would but reflect, he would see that the teacher who made the best impression upon him in an interview might not necessarily be the best teacher. The would-be student's readings upon the voice, etc., give him the idea that from a doctor's book to one on thorough bass must necessarily be included in the singing-lesson, and under this erroneous impression goes to the teacher who teaches everything but singing! Becoming dissatisfied after a while, he leaves; and, going this time to a genuine singing-teacher, is inclined to be suspicious and doubtful especially when, like the physician, the teacher tries to take his mind off his disease (wrong impressions or pet-hobbies) to cure him, and when giving him other food for reflection, he glares and thinks he detects ignorance. A work is before the conscientious teacher that cannot be done in a day. Many lessons may be lost before confidence is gained, and without confidence nothing can be done.

Singing is the study of a life-time. After a pupil leaves the studio for public singing, he only then graduates to another school. His voice is now placed, to be sure. He has a good repertoire of memorized operas, oratorios, and concert selections. He sings with style and finish, but breadth, abandon, confidence in his own ability, footlight inspiration and an experience of years before the audiences of many nations aie necessary for him to develop to the fullest extent.

The reason why the results of teachers' work are so unsatisfactory, lies in the fact, that where in Europe only those whose voices are pronounced superior by competent persons study singing, here in America it is the fashion, and all who love it, and many who do not but crave popularity, study, or rather they take finishing lessons, each one secretly anticipating phenomenal success, which the display teacher humors to an incredible degree.

Outside of the profession, the standard of a perfect tone is most pitiably at variance in this country. I much question if it is ever analyzed. The public generally judge a voice from its style and finish, and the selection rendered. As well buy a sofa whose pretty covering conceals poor upholstering, or wear an elaborately trimmed dress before the seams have been stitched. Something is bound to give way and in these instances everybody knows it.

When a pupil commences to study singing, that is the time she should say good-bye to singing, and under the guidance of a good teacher never open her lips while the necessarily delicate work is going on. The contrary is the rule. As soon as a few lessons are taken everyone asks pupils to sing and looks with contempt upon any teacher who is, as they put it, afraid to let a pupil be heard. Another fact: In Europe a teacher is not obliged to work quarter after quarter upon peculiarly personal faults. I often wonder what European teachers would do with some of the pupils American teachers are expected to make prima donnas of! The first thing done in Europe is to send pupils to the opera for every performance, which, with lessons, is a boon to both pupil and teacher.

Crowning all these difficulties for the advancement of our pupils in America is the lack of encouragement and appreciation accorded their painstaking efforts by the American public itself. There never was a nation of students (I refer to the genuine student) with greater determination to surmount all difficulties and succeed than are Americans. There are no people on the face of the earth more intelligent, more persevering than are our struggling American vocal students. That all of our famous American singers and artists, such as Albaui,Van Zandt, De Lussan, Emma Eames, Nordica, Valda, Hope Glen, Belle Cole, etc., etc., made their reputations in Europe and now live there, is plainly significant.

I now touch the point of the much doubted truth "of there being a vocal science," because vocal teachers' views upon the subject seem to clash. I repeat "seem to clash," for of all the teachers represented by my pupils, many misunderstandings have been cleared away by the pupils themselves recognizing what some previous teacher tried to explain to them. That there are differences in methods, is only too true. That there are different theories and that the apparently most successful teachers are not the best, is also a fact, but not a greater fact than that all bona fide teachers work for the same results. It makes little difference how you get there, if you only arrive. It is the result which tells.

The fundamental truths of the art of singing are based upon the European standard of the old masters, and the truths so much discussed as new discoveries were taught many, many years before present-day discoverers were born. That these latter-day theorists are not indebted to the old masters for their knowledge, may also be true, for study and experience are great teachers as is proved by de Rialp's book which, in some points, is the very Lamperti method through and through. The points in said book of "mother tone," "pitch," etc., are solid truths, which by the clothing of expression confuses many. De Rialp is wise in offering no further explanation of his terms, since only those who have had these points viva voce illustrated, and themselves put them into practice by the side of a keenly observant teacher, can fully comprehend their meaning. So it is with many of the expressions of vocal teachers which seem so at variance. That these erroneous ideas concerning their methods are so prevalent, is due almost entirely to the teachers themselves, who from intense greed, jealousy, and the foolish idea that they must be the first and the only perfect teachers living, has so blinded them that they will not acknowledge as correct one point written or taught by any other teacher.

That the best American teachers are the best teachers in the world to-day, there is not the slightest doubt; that they understand American faults, needs, temperaments, and ambitions better than any foreigner possibly can understand them, is also a truth, but that it is a difficult task to steer a pupil through ignorant home influence and prejudice and insulting opinions openly expressed by rival teachers and their allies, is another truth, but one that could be easily relieved if teachers would only unite in observing a little professional courtesy toward one another, as is shown among physicians. Then, although we might all wish for the steamboat to success, the chip, if only started in the right direction, would feel secure, knowing powerful and friendly aid was on either side; and no matter what difficulties it encountered, with a guarantee of good will to unite all interests, the success of conscientious and honest achievements would be assured.

—Florenza D'Arona, "The Fogs of Voice-Culture," Werner's Magazine, September 1894: 314-5. 


Florenza D'Arona was a student of Francesco Lamperti, the Milanese martinet who taught his students to sing based on what his ear told him rather than his understanding of anatomy, physiology and acoustics—the latter only becoming a subject for study after his death in 1892. He was highly successful empiricist, taught in a class environment, and held his students to one concept at a time, often allowing them only one aria for more than a year. 

As Lamperti's pupil, D'Arona outlines many of the issues that voice teachers and their students still face today. Her criticisms of teachers and students alike still holds true, which may say more about human nature than anything else. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same!