January 22, 2016

The Traditions of Fine Singing: An Interview with Anna E. Schoen-René

Anna E. Schoen-René (1864-1942)
Data on tone production is readily obtained, but the singer soon discovers that technical instruction amounts to little unless it is fortified by purity of style. The acquiring of traditional vocal style remains one of the chief problems of vocal mastery. It is rare to encounter a person whose authoritative knowledge of tone production stems back directly to the founder of vocal science; who's traditions of art reach in an unbroken line to the days of Mozart. Such a person is Mme. Anna Schoen-René, one of the world's foremost voice teachers, currently active in the Vocal Department of the Juilliard Graduate School, and private teacher of celebrated singers both here and abroad. Mme. Schoen-René was a pupil of, and for many years associated with, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, one of the greatest authorities on the art of singing; and she specialized in the teaching of male voices with Manuel Garcia. The traditions she absorbed from them go further than upholding the best standards in art (an achievement in itself); actually, they set the standards which subsequently have guided the development of Bel Canto. 

The principles of correct singing were first formulated by Don Manuel Garcia (father of Manuel, Pauline, and Maria Malibran), the most distinguished singer of the Romantic Epoch, who prepared his first operatic performances under Mozart's guidance. Don Manuel taught his three children singing which has come down through succeeding generations as Bel Canto. 

"My own great teachers often told me how their father came to formulate the knowledge of tone production which the son, Manuel García, was later to develop as the foundation of all good singing," says Mme. Schoen-René. "Manuel, the son, did not like to hear it called a 'method'—methods, he said, were patterns for shoemakers to follow! He preferred to think of his work as a scientific education in vocal art—which is exactly what it is. 

The Italian Tone 

"Even in Don Manuel's time, it was common knowledge that the old Italians sang more beautifully than any other vocalists in the world. Purity of tone and evenness of line distinguished their performances, and with the Italian development of stringed instruments, this preeminence increased. Don Manuel, who possessed not only a magnificent voice but a great mind as well, determined to investigate the 'Italian tone' and to analyze the elements that made it outstanding. His researches indicated the basis for all good tone production consists of breathing, breath support, vocalization, and resonance. Manuel, the son, perfected the studies which his father had indicated, and he became perhaps the greatest voice teacher that the world has ever known. (In studying the scientific aspects of singing, he was the first to invent the laryngoscope.) Around him and his distinguished sister, Mme. Viardot-García, gathered a circle that included George Sand, Chopin, Heine, Schumann, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Lablache, and many others. Those who were fortunate enough to study with the Garcías have made a life work of keeping their traditions absorbed from such a source.

The old Italians relied entirely upon the ear to guide them in tone production. Actually, the ear is still the best diagnostician in detecting tonal values—but the ear alone is not enough! The singer must understand the anatomical principles underlying their production; he must put these principles into practice, learning the sensations they cause.

"In Manuel García's day it was considered revolutionary to hold that singing originated, not in the throat, but in the breath which serves as the connecting support between the body and the tone. The old Italians relied entirely upon the ear to guide them in tone production. Actually, the ear is still the best diagnostician in detecting tonal values—but the ear alone is not enough! The singer must understand the anatomical principles underlying their production; he must put these principles into practice, learning the sensations they cause.

"The García principles of singing—better, the only correct principles of singing as laid down by García—begin with breath and breath control. The breath must be full, deep, low-taken, It must be supported by the strong abdominal muscles. Practice in correct breathing should precede all exercises in singing. When the breath has been properly taken, the singer must learn to send it in a steady flow against the diaphragm, through the entire respiratory tract, towards the vocal cords, the vibrations of which produces tone. Tone is supported by the long column of breath; it 'sits upon it.' If the flow of breath is unsteady, the resulting tone becomes unsteady. Next in importance to the control and support of breath is its resonance. Tone must be resonated entirely from the face—never in the throat, never in the nasal passages. Defective tone and loss of range result from incorrect resonance. The tone should be sent into the cavities bounded by the cheek bones, and allowed to vibrate freely there. Manuel García stressed this freedom of tonal vibration, warning emphatically against constriction in the nose or in the throat.

Importance of Vocalization

"Extremely vital to tone quality is vocalization. Tone cannot sound forth until it is fixed within the limits of some vowel or consonant. The most primitive cry is formed on some vowel sound. Complete singing requires the constant juxtaposition of vowels and consonants, purely vocalized. The singer should devote great care to formation of pure vowel sounds. This is especially important to English-speaking singers, because the English language has no pure vowels. English vowels tend to trail off into diphthongs. In ordinary English speech, an A becomes A-EE; and and I becomes A-I-EE; an O becomes O-DD. This is fatal to pure vocalization, and consequently, to pure tone. The trailing of the vowel into the diphthong causes a scooping, swooping approach which mars clean, precise tonal attack. Italian, German, and French contain pure vowels in ordinary speech, making pure vowel vocalization easier for those who project their tones naturally in terms of those language-sounds. All English-speaking singers must cultivate pure vowels as part of their vocal equipment. Purity of vocalizations is far more than a matter of good diction; it is the secret of pure singing. 

"The exercises prescribed by the Garcías (obtainable in their published manuals of vocalises, notably 'Une heure d'etude,' by Pauline Viardot-García) were  always extremely simple and natural. They explored the voice with a the long, sustained tones of the grand scala, and perfected evenness in passing from one register to another, preparing the way for coloratura technic. The development of florid and flexible technic is advisable for every voice, high or low, male or female; but important as technical mastery is, it must always remain secondary to the production of pure tone itself. Fiorituri without a foundation of pure tone (like a roof without a house!) come crashing down to ruin. 

A Phase of General Culture

"One of the chief charms of the Garcías as teachers lay in the fact that their instruction was by no means confined to voice problems. Their culture was so wide that they did not need to 'specialize!' Singing, to them, was simply one very important aspect of that general cultural education without which no one can hope to understand or project art. Mme. Viardot examined all candidates who wished to study with her, and the examination began before they had sung a tone! The moment a candidate entered the room, Mme. Viardot noted his approach, his manners, his attitude, thus judging his bearing, his background. And, in their conversation, she judged his educational and esthetic equipment. Mme. Viardot never refused a gifted pupil because of lack of culture or breeding, but those who revealed the lack were immediately trained in that respect. Mme. Viardot held deportment to be of vital importance in the building of a complete artistic personality, which, of course, it is! She exacted obedience from her pupils and imposed rigorous discipline upon them; never in the sense of dominating them, but in order to help them acquire that self-discipline which is the foundation of all art. As part of our singing courses, we were required to read the great classics, to acquaint ourselves with Titian and Rembrandt in the museums, to observe models of acting in the theatres. The goal of her tuition was no 'specialization' in tones and roles, but the formation of complete self-expression and self-control. 

"I often think back to those teachings to-day when, regrettably, a wholly mistaken concept of freedom tends to undermine our regard for discipline, authority, respect, control. Perhaps the most valuable precept we can give our students is that freedom comes only as a result of self-control. Freedom is not a lack of discipline; it consists, rather, in controlling one's self so effectively that discipline from the outside world becomes less necessary. Self-discipline makes a great career for the individual singer. 

Voice Culture for Composers

"Voice study is as valuable for composers as for singers. The unsurpassed melodic line of Bach and Mozart results from their familiarity with the possibilities of the human voice. Many modern songs, alas, reveal that their composers lack such knowledge. Their skipping, shifting intervals cannot be encompassed in a pure vocal line; and consequently they remain worthless as practical music. The composer who would write for the voice must understand its scope, its uses, its limitations. Liszt once sent a highly interesting young man to Mme. Viardot of her advice. Liszt believed the youth to be 'full of music,' but was undecided whether to encourage him in a pianist's career. Mme. Viardot was delighted with the young man's gifts, and employed him as an accompanist and later as a coach to her pupils, in Baden-Baden. In this way she came to hear some of his own compositions. He name was Johannes Brahms! Undoubtedly, this early acquaintance with the principles of vocal technic helped shape the exquisite line of Brahms' songs. Our own young composers would do well to follow his example. Then, perhaps, we should find new vitality in our modern song material." 

Mme. Schoen-René is currently arranging of the publication of her memoirs, which begin with her student years in the late 1880's and continue through her activities as a teacher in Europe and America, where she has prepared many of the younger members of the Metropolitan Opera. After passing her state examinations at the Royal Academy of Music, in Berlin, she was granted royal fellowship to study voice and vocal pedagogy with Mme. Viardot-García, in Paris. Later she came to the United States to become a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company. However, the excessive work of preparing for her own career, while mastering the pedagogical aspects of singing, led to a severe breakdown. To win back her health, Mme. Schoen-René went to visit her sister, then Exchange Professor of Languages at the University of Minnesota. While residing there, Mme. Schoen-René undertook to organize the Department of Music at that University, founding glee clubs, giving lectures, and inviting notable artists to visit. Also, she founded the first symphony orchestra in the American Northwest. She has contributed much to American musical life, and believes American students to be among the most highly gifted in the world.

—Stephen West. "The Traditions of Fine Singing: An Interview with Mme. Anna E. Schoen-René," The Etude, November 1941.


Anna E. Schoen-René (1864-1941) was one of the last direct representatives of Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Manuel Garcia. She taught in America and Europe before becoming a professor of singing at The Juilliard School, where she taught from 1925 to 1942. He students included many well-known singers, among them: Putnam GriswoldFlorencio Constantino, Sonia Essen, Mack HarrellFlorence Easton, Margaret HarshawRisë StevensLillian BlauveltKarin BranzellCharles KullmanThelma Votipka, George Meader, Paul RobesonEva Gauthier, Lanny Ross, and George Britton.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the interview above with Schoen-Rene is the only one given during her life-time that includes anything remotely related to vocal technique. It appeared the same year her memoir America's Musical Inheritance was published.  She died a year later.   

One of the more interesting things contained in the article is Schoen-René's assertion that the student must not only judge tones after they have been produced, but must “understand the anatomical principles underlying their production and the sensations they cause." Schoen-René also asserts that the voice must be resonated from the face, and vibrate freely there. This is the concept of voice placement, and is addressed in my little book: Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia. 

The article above originally appeared here at VoiceTalk on August 27, 2010. However, after Blogger changed its formatting, the original document was no longer easily accessed. Hence, I have reproduced the article as well as the content from the original post. 

January 13, 2016

NYCO-Renaissance: A Wandering Minstrel

The New York City Opera emerged from bankruptcy court yesterday as noted by the New York Times, which reported judge Sean Lane's approval of a plan by hedge fund manager Roy Niederhoffer and his chosen general director Micheal Capasso to reconstitute a leading company that had floundered on the rocks of bad management, left its home at Lincoln Center, lost its subscribers, sold off its sets and costumes, and watched its history drown in hurricane Sandy.

Social media reports indicate that the orchestra is thrilled to be working again, which it will do on January 20 in an NYCO-Renaissance performance of Tosca at a theater in the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. As of this writing, however, the newly appointed company directors have yet to hammer out an agreement with members of The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which represents singers, stage managers, dancers, and stage directors. Matters are further complicated by the recent death of AGMA's executive director Alan Gordon on New Year's day.

Long-time readers of VoiceTalk will know that this blogger sang at NYCO for twenty-three seasons, that is, until the company's untimely demise in 2011. And while he wishes the new company success, he also fears for its long-term viability since—assuming an agreement with AGMA can be reached—current plans have the company wandering the streets of New York City.

The director would be Michael Capasso, the former head of Dicapo Opera Theater, which closed in 2013 after 33 years after it too went broke. While the revamped City Opera hopes to perform often at Lincoln Center, it sees itself as a wandering minstrel, playing in “novel and unconventional” venues around town, such as the Culture Shed under construction at Hudson Yards.  —City Opera's new revival will be its own, Crain's New York Business, January 11, 2016. 

New York City Opera needs a home to survive and thrive. Can new management, like any good parent, provide that? Only time will tell.  

Photo Credit: NYCO's former home at Lincoln Center 

January 11, 2016

École de García

A trip to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center this past week included something equally interesting and fascinating to this researcher: a beautiful 1847 edition of Manuel García's Traité Complet de L'Art du Chant published by Fuzeau (Courlay, France) in 2005. 

Original, you say? Very much so. And the musical bible to which all singers and voice teachers should acquaint themselves. Why? García is the father of voice science. 

You can find more accessible editions on the Download page along with García's Hints on Singing (1894). 

January 5, 2016

One Month's Singing Lessons

THE first step is to obtain the delivery of a firm, vibrant vocal tone on every note of one's proper voice, in such range as is called for by composers. Obtaining delivery of a firm, vibrant tone through complete range of voice requires daily practice—correct practice based on knowledge of voice and what makes it. Practice following exercises:

EXERCISE I.—Use scale of D. Begin to sing on a of scale. singing downward. a, g, f, e, d; then up the scale, a, b, c. d. Each tone is to be held four seconds. Is the tone breathy, throaty, nasal, blank, shrill, wobbly? Let no one feel discouraged if he has one or even all of these faults. Nearly all untrained voices are unable to carry perfect tune.

EXERCISE II.—Sing “one” on each note of scale five times, prolonging the fifth “one" several seconds. Sopranos and tenors will use the scale of D; altos and basses the scale of C. Do not sing rapidly. Begin each word promptly. without hesitation. Let lips round easily, as “wo” sound is made. Let “n" sound freely through nose. Connect words smoothly; speak them rather than sing them; never shout. During first week this exercise should be used five minutes, twice a day. During the other weeks of month, only once a day.

EXERCISE III.—Use scale of C. Begin to sing on lower c of scale, singing upward, two notes together, c-d, d-e, e-f, f-g, g-a, a-b, b-c. Sing with “ah.” Higher voices use scale of D. Give each note four beats, each a second long, take breath after each couplet. Take a comfortable breath, avoiding raising shoulders or distending chest. The use of "ah" leaves organs very nearly in same position as when not singing. The tongue lies at rest; the throat is not drawn on; the lips part a little. As one approaches the higher voice the tendency is to sing louder and to hasten. Seek not to give way to such tendency; self-control is essential in all training. The time in which to sing this lets us use eight seconds in one breath—long enough for beginners. Same volume of voice is to be used throughout exercise, and only moderately loud voice should be used. Be sure to end second note of each grouping easily—without tension on throat. Connect the two notes smoothly. Practice five minutes. twice a day, during first week; once a day, later.

EXERCISE IV.—Use scale of C. Begin to sing on lower c of scale, singing upward, three notes together, c-d-e, d-e-f, e-f-g, f-g-a. g-a-b, a-b-c. This is the same exercise as No. 3, only it has three notes in place of two; that means, it takes twelve seconds to sing each group. The same instruction applies. It is not to be used by young singers during the first week of drill. The second week use it once a day, for five minutes; later, twice a day. 

Such practice leads directly into use of melody. That is a long step into singing. Conversational voice steps directly into reciting, which in music is used in the form of recitative. Melody is the next step. Know that good melody is based on inflections of conversational voice. Singers, as a rule, do not know that. Most people have little idea that conversational voice covers enough range of pitch to give a melody. One can easily observe what great range the voice has by expressing in the most natural way various sentiments. Give a common remark, like "That dog, out there, is lively,” and one will find himself pitching the voice on its middle notes (D, E, or F). Then if he assumes a very sympathetic tone, such as he would in saying “Poor doggie, I’m so sorry you hurt your paw!” the voice drops half an octave. Let him run and greet a long-absent friend with “Hulloa! I’m so glad to see you,” and the voice will go an octave higher than the place it takes on the sympathetic tone. Now, if one cries out in fear, or in anger, up goes the voice another half octave.

EXERCISE V.—Use "Ah" on this and other exercises unless another vowel is given. Higher voices use scale of D. Sing in regular time. Be sure to give four beats (pulses) to the whole note. Attack first note promptly and end last note with freedom. Extend this short phrase into upper voice as far as it can be made with comfort. Low voices should sing it easily to D; high voices to G. Use five minutes twice a day on this during the first two weeks; after that, once a day. Take special care to join the fourth and fifth beats of each phrase neatly and without special stress. 

EXERCISE V I.—The purpose of this exercise is to carry the higher registers (a term which will be fully explained as time goes on) downward. A note attacked easily will be pretty sure to be in the right register. Seek to carry the kind of voice used on that first note downward on all notes of descending scale. A very common fault of students in the early days (and often, years) of practice is to push notes of lower registers upward, beyond the places where nature intended a change to be made. That is the cause of those distressing sounds which many alto singers make. This exercise will make all voices sweeter. Some will think it makes their voices smaller; but they are made sweeter, even if they are smaller. Voices cultivated on right lines become very strong, although they may at first lose power. Good quality is essential to good singing. Seek good quality first. This exercise should be adjusted according to the kind of voice which uses it. All should begin their practice upon it in the key in which it is written. Higher voices should then transpose it higher, but not carry it higher than key of G. This gives them eight keys in which to sing it. Lower voices transpose it lower. It may be sung downward as far as the voice can go. Very low voices will then have as many as fifteen points - from which to start it. This exercise should be used every day for one month. Five minutes, if it is carefully sung, will be enough. Remember not to sing with very loud voice. Shouting is always something besides singing—shouting is uncouth and rude.

The exercises are all written with the treble clef, for convenience in writing. In actual pitch men are sing— ing one octave lower than the exercise is written. Men are, however, so accustomed to the accompaniment of the piano that if they play it as written and sing at all, they will pitch the voice at the right starting-point.

EXERCISE VII.—“1-2-3-4-5-6 ah, 1-2-3-4-5-6 ah.”

Select the scale suitable for the kind of voice; that is, high voices use scale of D; low voices use scale of C. Attack the word “one" promptly, and say the numbers rapidly but smoothly. Hold the word “ah” four seconds, and proceed, in same breath, into second half of exercise. Select the character of voice which one would employ in greeting very pleasantly one's friend—it is the genial voice. First attempts may be ludicrous. They will certainly be artificial. Repeat attempts, on first note, until satisfied that the real conversational voice is found; only then should one try the exercise on second note, and he should not go higher into the voice except as he can bring each note into satisfactory conversational tone. He will find that the face will relax into a pleasant one. We wear a look of pleased interest when we greet a friend. This exercise should never be practiced with the face drawn and with a cross expression. Of course, it would be silly to try to laugh as one sings. Teachers used to tell their pupils to smile while practicing. It may be all right to smile in the right way, but pupils who try to smile while singing are liable to look very silly. Let them, instead, assume the genial mood of mind and be pleasant in speech, and they will get a result in tone which will surprise them. Again, remember that this exercise is only to be practiced on the notes on which one can speak pleasantly. It does no good to practice wrongly. First get a note right, and then is the time to work upon it. Practice this exercise ten minutes every day.

The object of singing is to express emotion. It is not, as some seem to suppose, to sing notes. Expressing emotion is the actor's art. When we think of acting in connection with singing we are liable to imagine ranting about stage or about room. But, every motion, and even every expression of the face is acting. In directing our students to secure pleasant looks we are opening the first pages of the book on acting. It is an important opening, much more important than most singers think.

A second step relates to position while practicing. Do not, under any circumstances, sit at piano. Stand always. If you are where the piano is, strike a chord on the instrument so you may know the key. Then sing, without further playing. Do not have any one else play for you while prac— ticing exercises. You should work alone, for much depends upon concentration of mind. The position you should take is: Advance one foot forward and lean forward far enough to have weight of body fall on forward foot. It does not make any difference which foot is forward. If one becomes tired of standing on one foot, change to the other, but always leaning forward far enough to let weight fall on ball of forward foot. Shoulders should be released and comfortable; not thrown back, nor yet bent forward. Body should be erect, a little raised from hips. Do not strain upward. Let all be easy and comfortable. Now, in this position, with this feeling of comfort and with the genial voice, practice as directed the seven exercises of this lesson. During the month there will be improvement of every voice.

Mr. Tubbs, ever energetic and progressive, gives singing-lessons not only in person, but also in print. His course is in striking contrast to those teachers who are forever afraid that they may give out something without getting paid in spot cash. As a result of his liberal and enlightening activity, Mr. Tubbs is one of the busiest and most successful of New York teachers. —Editor.

—Frank H. Tubbs, "One Month's Singing Lessons," Werner's Magazine, September 1900: 16-19.

Tubbs was a student of Manuel García, Francesco Lamperti and William Shakespeare. See his label below for more information.


Has anything changed in the last one hundred years? Hardly. Search the internet today, and you will find plenty of voice teachers offering instruction like Tubbs did in 1900—the only difference being the method of delivery.

If voice teachers once gave instruction in magazines, they now record videos and upload them on a web platform for all to see. Teachers will, of course, say that they have an interest in giving more students instruction—and while that may be true, the actual reason they are doing it is to create a funding stream, make money, survive, pay their rent or mortgage. In short, it's PR for business. High quality instruction that enables a student to actually to sing well and even have a career? You can only get that one-on-one in the studio, where feedback can be given, and where the voice can be heard clearly in 3-D. (Skype lessons—I give them btw—have their limitations too insofar as the delivery of musical accompaniment in real time.) That takes time too, time that those in a hurry aren't interested in usually. They want what they want fast and cheap. This is what you find on the internet.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. —Beverly Sills