Technique Before Repertoire

WE have solicited the views of distinguished singers and practical and successful teachers upon the following points of moment to the profession and to prospective pupils: 


  1. Conservatories of music are multiplying. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of conservatory work? 
  2. How often should singing-lessons be taken in order to secure the best and most permanent results? What arguments can you advance in support of your opinion? 
  3. Do you approve of pupils asking part regularly in church-choirs or other singing-societies while undergoing instruction? Why? 
  4. What means can be recommend to get pupils before the public? 


Mme. Anna Lankow, Concert Singer and Voice Teacher 

  1. Having studied in the three most renowned German conservatories, Cologne, Leipsiz, and Dresden, and taught for four years at the Berlin Scharwenka Conservatory, I do not hesitate to reply to this question. My experience convinces me that no one can acquire a thorough knowledge of the art of voice-production (pure and simple) in the limited time allotted to each pupil by the "conservatory" method. There are undoubtedly advantages in class-lesson, provided this general study is supplemented by private and special enlightenment—as is done in Germany. Each pupil has individual defects which need special instruction by a gifted teacher; for without the solid foundation of a properly developed, perfectly controlled voice, attempts at music-interpretation are futile. The figure of an architect giving his attention to the appearance of the superstructure, quite indifferent as to the strength of the base is a parallel. His pretty house will one day tumble down. Your singer with style and no knowledge of a free, intelligent emission of tone will one day strain this throat beyond endurance, and his voice will be done. This happens so often that it scarcely occasions comment. A pupil having private and special instruction will, however, find advantage in lessons associated with other students. Theoretical music, style, and more or less of interpretation, can be taught by competent instructions to a group of students; but I know positively that the class-system of teaching pure vocalisation is entirely inadequate.
  2. The first and absolute essential thing is for a pupil to produce his tone properly. This requires hard work and great patience of both teacher and pupil. My own teacher, Prof. Adolf Brómme, then at the Royal Dresden Conservatory, himself a genuine pupil of old Manuel Garcia, insisted upon one lesson every day for at least a year. What he can do is shown in my room-mate, Pauline l'Allemand, now at the Casino in New York. We had lessons together, she, that her very light voice might gain in color from my voice dark one—and vice versa. Later on, two lessons a week were sufficient, and being only for voice-production. 
  3. Indeed, I do disapprove of pupils taking part in any other kind of singing while building the voice. The pupil has a very complicated task, and before he really acquires the knack of voice-control he should refrain from all vocal effort. A student must have an ideal tone in mind; each day he strives to make the actual like the ideal. Continued work stamps, with every effort, a more indelible impression upon his mind, until finally a time comes when the thing is finished. The ideal tone is at his command. That is, it comes if he continues with one intelligent sort of practice sufficiently long. The voice of a beginner who does his exercises, sings in church choirs to please friends, and here and there, will be in tone-color about as near the perfect tone as a composite photograph of fifty people is like that of the first subject. Continued impressions of one and the same thing will give a clear, fixed result; a hodgepodge effect comes from the mixing of impressions. A voice once settled, no harm can come to the vocal instrument, for there will be no ill use. Uncertain of the technique, beauty and freshness will depart with the use of the voice. 
  4. It is difficult to place a pupil before the public if he has no social influence. Merit and ability will probably win in the end, in any event; but there must be great patience. When I personally have a pupil sufficiently advanced to present to the public, I introduce her at a concert, and have critics and agents present, as far as my personal influence goes. 
Werner's Voice Magazine, December 1891: page 202. Find out more about Lankow by clicking on her label below.

What I want to emphasise here is the demand made by old Italian school pedagogues that students refrain from singing repertoire before acquiring absolute vocal control through exercises and scales. Is this done at the conservatory level today? No. Repertoire is given from day one. 

Lankow notes that she studied with her teacher every day, then had two lessons a week—this latter approach also being that of Anna Schoen-René (another García school exponent) who taught at Julliard. Unusual? Not at all: If you studied with a García or Lamperti teacher this is how your studies unfolded. Technique before repertoire. That was the rule. Today, students usually receive one lesson a week, while repertoire is assigned from the get-go. It's a catch-as-catch-can approach—both teacher and student making do and hoping for the best. 

Here's what I think: if we really want old-time religion singing, we had better rethink how we train singers.