April 23, 2016

The Art of Teaching Singing by Agnes J. Larkcom

Agnes J. Larkcom (1865-1931)
The following is the text of a paper by Madame Larkcom read before the Society of Women Musicians. Madam Larkcom is one of the best-known and most highly-esteemed teachers of singing in London. She is therefore entitled to speak with authority on this much-discussed question.—Ed., M.T.

We have met together to-day to consider seriously some aspects of the art of teaching singing. This subject was brought forward prominently lately by the Society of English Singers, particularly in a kind of manifesto which appeared in the Musical Times for July, 1916, and which was issued apparently as an authoritative statement of the aims of the Society. In view of these activities, and considering that the subject generally seems to be arousing more interest and attracting greater attention than it has been favored with in the past, I have though that it would be desirable for women to arrange some sort of meetings for discussion in order to trash out from a woman's point of view some of the theories which obtain as to the foundations of good singing and teaching about which at present there is a diversity of opinion. I thought it would be a very fine thing if this study could be organized and set going by the Society of Women Musicians. The Society numbers among its members a good many women who have had wide experience both as performers and teachers, and I feel strongly that the moment has come when we ought not longer to sit down tamely and allow men alone to decide what we can and what we can not do, what is right and what is wrong, and in fact take up the position of final arbiters with regard to our development mentally and artistically. I consider women know best about their own physical powers and limitations, and I also think we ought to establish a standard of taste and excellent of performance for ourselves, and endeavor to help the younger members of the Society by giving them the benefit of the collective experience of those of us who have had wider opportunities. Women are apt to be timid and afraid to assert themselves—if they hold original views, they give them up too readily if a man comes along and attacks them. I am inclined to hope that if various aspects of the art of singing and teaching singing were dispassionately discussed here, we might feel more certain of ourselves and be able to inspire the less experienced members of the Society with greater confidence and enthusiasm. 

What Can Women Do? 

It has been asked by a good many persons 'What can we do?' or 'What are we ready to do?' Well, at the present time, when everything around us is giving evidence of the extraordinary capacity of women and the wonderful adaptability they have shown in taking up work of kinds hitherto deemed quite outside their sphere, I do not think we need fear to attack the problems connected with good singing or the teaching of singing. This at least is legitimately our business, and there is no reason for hesitation. 

The 'Public School Spirit' 

There is one thing, however, we ought to do if we hope to achieve good and lasting results. We ought to try and cultivate a good deal of what is sometimes called the 'public school spirit.' That is, we must be ready to give and take, play fair, enjoy the success of others, and as a result of real esprit de corps award generous recognition and appreciation to the work of our fellow-artists. We know that amongst scientists every profound thinker expects his theories to be subjected to severe tests and all sorts of criticism. When tests are applied or criticism is offered for the sake of advancing knowledge and discovering truth, no scientific worker id disturbed even if eventually he has to modify his theory and re-form his conclusions. The object he has to view is the unveiling of truth; he learns by making mistakes, and benefits by critical attitude of his fellow-workers. I am afraid in the musical profession there is not enough of this philosophic state of mind. We are many of us rather apt to take offense easily, we do not like criticism, and instead of welcoming suggestions from experienced persons, we sometimes treat them with a little less respect than they deserve. Now when the whole world is at war and we have before us such an awful lesson as to the evils of unbounded conflict, it is not possible that we, the members of this first little Society of Women Musicians, may work together instead of competing and endeavor to lift our art to a high or level than it has ever reached by united effort and friendly co-operation? 

It seems to me to be more in harmony with woman's nature to build up rather than pull down; at the bottom of our hearts we all prefer to construct rather than destroy. In order to do good work we must have definite aims, and before going into the details of the scheme of study I have in mind, I should like to say a little about the qualifications which we have a right to expect from students of singing, and the kind of knowledge which a teacher of singing ought to possess if she wishes to do work of real value and importance. 

Qualifications Necessary for a Singer 

I do not think we are nearly exacting enough with regard to the qualifications of the would-be singer. People seem to think that anyone can sing, and that a few lessons are quite sufficient to prepare a girl to sing prettily to her friends. I think it is time we asked for more, and began to try and make people understand that singing is a very difficult and beautiful art—that it is probably not a branch, but the very root from which music has sprung. It is certainly the most human aspect of music, and emotion expressed by the voice must surely enter more readily and intimately into the heart than when conveyed by an instrument, no matter how skilfully used. Let us, then, take an exalted view of the art of singing, and do our best to break down the prejudice which exists as to is value and beauty. 

With regards to qualifications which we should demand from the pupil in singing, there are five which I consider absolutely necessary. They are:

  1. A good voice;
  2. Musical aptitude; 
  3. General intelligence;
  4. Good health; 
  5. Character. 

I do not consider that we can ever make a good singer if the individual  being trained does not posses these qualifications in a very fair degree. I am afraid that two latter—health and character—are not considered nearly enough. By good health I do not mean merely general health, but the local well-being of the organs engaged in voice-production—the nasal passages, throat, lungs, &c. Teachers often strive for weeks and months to cure defects of production which arise from some local obstruction, and it is quite necessary for a teacher to train herself to recognize the peculiarities of sound which are caused by different kinds of diseases such as adenoids, granulation, enlarged tonsils, weak lungs, &c. They each have their own particular manner of affecting the voice, and it is useful to be able to detect the various symptoms. 

What I call 'character' is of the utmost importance—I mean the possession of the qualities of patience, perseverance, industry, self-control, and joy in overcoming difficulties which takes the pupil so quickly along the path of progress. I often think that 'character' is rarer than intelligence. So many students are clever, but flippant; they cannot, or will not, see the necessity for practice. They forget their breathing exercises, laugh at their diction exercises, and demand silly little songs or ragtime ditties instead of trying to understand beautiful music! 

The Teacher's Knowledge 

Now with regard to the kind of knowledge the teacher ought to possess before she can hope to deal successfully with the various kinds of pupils who will be placed in her care. What ought to be the fundamental idea which should underlie her work and direct her aims, and how can she best prepare herself to put in practice the theories which inspire her work? 

I think we are all probably agreed in believing that music has been a wonderful power of stimulating and enhancing emotion. When fine music is added to beautiful words we are all conscious of being able to enter with greater understanding into the inmost thoughts and meanings of the poet much more than when the words are merely read or spoken. In fact we most of us feel that music can convey to us degrees of emotion which lie beyond the region of words, and are too find and subtle for ordinary expression. The special art of the singer seems to me to consist, speaking broadly, in the 'adequate expression by means of the human voice, used in conjunction with music, of any or every kind o formation.' To attain to this power the singer music be trained in every way—patiently, methodically, and persistently. Without intelligent training I cannot think it is possible to arrive at really great and lasting results. 

Physical Training 

No one can teach anything without being observant, and we often learn from outside subjects facts which enable use to understand better our own particular study. It has always interested me to notice the effects of training on different persons and classed. Let us for example consider that which is very much in evidence just now, as revealed in our new armies. It is a mere truism to remake that under the server discipline of the sergeant-major, many a slouching, sluggish loader has been changed in a few weeks into a smart, alert, and active solders on whom it is a joy to look, and who has often improved mentally and morally as much as he has in bodily grace and perfection. Then let us look at the ordinary acrobat. I do not suppose that Nature has gifted the majority of these persons with particular or special powers: in fact I imagine most acrobats begin their training so early that there would not be time to find out whether they are specially gifted or not: they are made—not born, and yet we see from ordinary children of ordinary parents with unusual ability or exceptional physique, performances exhibiting the most remarkable agility, suppleness, and strength, showing frequently a perfectly beautiful physical development, and usually giving evidences of the possession in a remarkable degree of the moral qualities of courage, judgment and control. If these wonderful results can be obtained by discipline and training from the raw material of which so much of our splendid new arias is composed, and from the probably unscientific and not particularly sensitive persons who provide entertainments based on physical display, how much may we not expect to result to the student of singing, from careful training by informed and educated persons, of the organs engaged in voice-production. To my mind most of the failures we so frequently hear of in modern times—the inability to endure the strain of modern vocal music the harshness, tremulousness, and fatigue noticeable in so many voices—result from the want of sufficient technical training—both students and teachers are in too great a hurry. Instead of following patiently the long path of slow development, they ask for short cuts to excellence and only arrive at disaster and disappointment. The training which will fit the student to become a fine and successful vocalist must deal first with the physical, and then in turn with the mental, aesthetic, and sympathetic aspects of the singer's art. 

Training for the Expression of Emotion 

We will now consider in what this training should consist, and what ought to be the objects in the teacher's mind while striving to develop the powers of a student. In order 'to express adequately any or every kind of emotion,' the physical organs engaged in singing must first be brought to such a point that they can produce fine resonant tone, and endure hard work without fatigue.  They must be able to respond instantaneously and accurately to the mental images in the mind of the singer, and they must also be capable of reproducing at will the bodily conditions which would obtain were the artist actually moved by the emotional he is seeking to interpret. We must remember that every passing thought affects us physically and middies to a certain extent our physical condition. We must realize, too, that there can never be perfectly appropriate tone-color unless the organs concerned are brought into the state they would assume if the performer were really experiencing the emotions about which his is singing. These conditions will probably be obtained fairly easily by the individual when the subject deals with emotions natural to himself and with which he sympathizes, but those ideas with which he is unfamiliar, or to which he is opposed, will be more difficult for him to convey. In these cases mind and body are less alert, the vocal mechanism does not adept itself so readily to the will there is less flexibility and a slower response, because the desired conditions are unusual or dislike. From the physical point of view then, the organs must not only be developed as much as possible and made strong and healthy, but they must also be flexible, supple, and well under control.

Physiological Knowledge Necessary for the Teachers 

How are teachers to prepare their students for these conditions of strength, response and control? They must first have a certain amount of knowledge of the structure of the vocal organs, which consist of the lungs (the motive power), the larynx (or vibrating element), the pharynx (the chief reflector or resonator), and the mouth (containing the organs of articulation). Secondly, teachers ought to be so well-informed musically that they can select the best for their pupils out of the wide field of musical literature which lies before them, and by knowledge of musical structure prepare their pupils for intelligent phrasing. Thirdly, they should be educated so that they can appreciate the beauties and understand the importance and values of the words they desire to interpret. Finally, they should be sufficiently cultivated to enter into the spirit of the different periods and nationalities to which the music they are studying may belong, and sympathetic enough to understand the various states of mind of the different characters (particularly in opera) whose sentiments it may be necessary for the student to express. The whole art of vocal perfection rests fundamentally good breathing. In order the teachers may give stumble exercises for the development and strengthening of the lungs, they should study those organs in many and various ways; first, as to their texture—the sun substance is somewhat delicate, and can be easily injured; then their shape—it is well to notice in what direction expansion can most easily take place; then their size and surrounding framework. Breathing for speech and song differs from ordinary inspiration in that a new feature is introduced, that of voluntary control. In ordinary life the aeration of the blood is effected by action which is practically unconscious of subconscious, and goes very little beyond a slight movement of the diaphragm. In singing or sustained speech a larger movement ob breath is necessary and control is absolutely essential. This new aspect makes breathing exercises as necessary to the finely developed healthy person as to the delicate one; in fact, the outpouring of breath from a vigorous singer impinging on the vocal cords unchecked and uncontrolled is capable of doing a great deal of mischief in a short time. The teacher therefore must devise exercises which will develop the lungs so that their may be ample quantity of breath, then direct their action in such a way as to avoid interfering with the freedom of the neck or throat, then bring about a method of expansion which does not induce fatigue, and finally, by attention and concentration, gain such control of the intercostal and the diaphragmatic musics that there is not chance of work being thrown on the larynx of a kind for which it is undesigned or unfitted. The larynx, which we may take as the only organ engaged in the actual formation of sound, is a very delicate instrument. It must be trained and strengthened so that its movements may become both free and rapid. It must be capable of sustaining sounds steadily, and adjusting different degrees of tension so that attack may be pure and pitch accurate. It must also be able to modify its action in the way usually spoken of as 'changing the registers'—modifications which, in my opinion, are necessary to avoid strain, and desirable as a means of ensuring the best results both as to compass and quality. Above all things, teachers ought to be sure that no attempt to control the breath-pressure should be made by the larynx. It is enough to compare this tiny organ delicately poised on the top of the windpipe, with the large mass of the lungs with their heavy, bony framework and powerful muscles, to realize that unless the breath is controlled by the proper muscles, the vocal cords and little larynx are quite unable to resist the rush of air, and tremulousness, uncertainly, and strain are the unfailing effects of misdirection of energy and lack of proper control.


We now come to the pharynx and resonators. Resonance presents one of the most fascinating aspects of vocal art, but it is far too wide a subject for me to do more than touch on it. Suffice to say that although some of the resonating cavities are not subject to modification, the greater part of the pharynx is susceptible of change, and it is to this power of altering its shape that we owe the almost limitless variety to tone-color which is possible to the cultured singer. It is the pharynx and resonators which provide the characteristic which distinguish every individual voice and modify every sound from the deepest to the most acute. The organs or articulation are also much in need of training. The tongue, lips, and soft palate need to be brought thoroughly under control; and as neatness, quickness, and accuracy of adaption are essential for the production of good tone and distinct diction, exercises must be given which will bring about the facility and do away with the dullness which results from sameness of tone and badly-enunciated words. 

Patience, Intelligence, and Experience Needed

Briefly as I have touched on the necessity for training in the student and knowledge on the part of the teacher, I think i have said enough to show that it needs a good deal of time and a great deal of patience and intelligence to make a really good teacher of singing. Experience is of course a great instructor, but do we not sometimes gain our experience at the expense for the pupil? The vocal organs are so delicate, so liable to injury—they are living things which grow and can decay—if injured they can never be replaced. Sometimes the mere touch of the ignorant can inflict a severe wound. The Society of Women Musicians is alive to the difficulties which confront the teacher and the dangers to which the pupil is exposed, and it is suggested that a committee should be formed of experienced teachers and singers who would take various subjects connected with singing and by patient study and consultation endeavor to arrive at some conclusions which all felt to be true, and on that basis formulate some recommendations to young teachers which would perhaps assist the conscientious and enthusiastic beginner. 

After a time I have proposed that short lectures should be given by different members of the committee to members of the Society of Women Musicians, and free discussion invited. The subjects might include: 

Suggestions for Lectures and Discussions 


Breathing, from the point of view of: 

  1. Structure of the lungs;
  2. Methods of breathing;
  3. Exercises for development;
  4. Exercises for control.


The registers: 

  1. What they are;
  2. How to use them;
  3. How to blend and control. 


Beauty of Tone: 

  1. Characteristics;
  2. How to acquire purity and sweetness;
  3. How to acquire steadiness;
  4. How to improve resonance;
  5. Exercises for all these qualities.



  1. How vowels are formed;
  2. How consonants are formed—The difference between simple vowels and diphthongs;
  3. Exercises for pure vowels and vigorous consonants.


  1. The principles which underlie the art of phrasing;
  2. Good places for breathing, how to select;
  3. Light and shade;
  4. Variety of tone-color—its cause, effect, and means of attaining it.

The Testing and Certification of Capacity 

I suggest too that later on young teachers should have the opportunity go going before the committee from time to time in order to have their knowledge and capacity tested, and if found to be thoroughly well grounded in the art of teaching, to be given a certificate from the Society of Women Musicians to that effect. The certificate is no case to be given until the candidate had appeared several times. 

That young singers should also be given similar opportunities of singing to the committee, and if their voices were found to be well-produced, their method good, diction clear, and phrasing intelligent, they should be asked to perform at the Society's concerts, and perhaps recommended by the Society to different concert-managers. 

I believe that if we could establish a very high standard of excellent amongst our members we might in time find ourselves wielding a good deal of influence. I should make clear that our certificates or recommendation would never be given until the candidate had been tested again and again. The aim of the whole things would be to arrive at a very high level of excellence, and patient endeavor is in my opinion of the utmost value towards that end. 

If these meetings were successful it would be useful to study the general physiology of eh vocal organs, and try to get out some diagrams which would be useful to young teachers. I do not think those in existence quite fulfill their purpose. 

Interpretation of Standard Works

I should very much like in the future to see meetings arranged for the purpose of studying the interpretation of standard works of art, beginning with the classics and coming down to modern times. Recitative is not at all well understood, and my own opinion is that eh best and most appropriate phrasing is only to be learned if the works are studied in their original languages. Accurate translations could be given, and the styles appropriate to the different periods and nationalities could be studied, so the they might each be appreciated and understood. 


I hope I have made fairly clear the kind of knowledge I think a teacher ought to possess, and that you have been able to follow the details of my little scheme or work for mutual study and improvement; but it is well to remember that although you cannot be a good teacher without knowledge, it is quite possible to be very learned and yet fail to be able to impart. There is something needed beyond knowledge, and in this lies the great distinction between art and science. A science is only a science when everything about it has been tested and organized, but art seems to cease to be art when it can be explained. The best of teaching comes from a ready perception of the pupil's needs, and rests fundamentally on sympathy, imagination, and intuition; it is also to a certain extent creative. I believe it is as essential to a teacher to form a mental ideal and work towards its realization as it is to a composer or a poet. The singer's art, too, is largely creative, and probably it is the lack of appreciation of this point of view by modern composers and conductors alike which so greatly discourages the most highly-gifted and sensitive vocal artists of to-day, and gives too much importance to the loudly-vulgar singer who is so much in evidence.

Agnes J. Larkcom, "The Art of Teaching Singing," The Musical Times, June 1, 1918: 261-263.

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