Year's End Musings

I've been blogging here on VOICETALK since 2009, and can hardly believe how fast time as zipped by—a curious thing considering the number of antique vocal texts I have read—time itself being rather malleable from this reader's perspective. 

The question I ask myself is this: Have things changed over time? 

From one perspective, one could say yes; they have, considering the technological advances that have been made since the invention of the laryngoscope in the early 19th century.

While Manuel García did not invent the laryngoscope, he was the first to use it for a practical purpose—his student Mathilde Marchesi noting that her teacher had a bad cold and wanted to see what was happening in his throat. Garcia's use of the laryngoscope had a life-changing impact even if he abandoned its use in teaching voice. Essentially, he confirmed his theories with it and moved on, and refrained from using scientific terms in the studio, observing that they only confused the student.

Are students that much smarter now?

It's quite common now to encounter a student with a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, acoustics, and physiology.  But all too often, these same students with advanced degrees have real vocal problems, problems that their knowledge base is helpless to address.

Then there are the gadgets.

It is now commonplace for a voice teacher to use acoustical data in the voice studio. Does this help the student? 

Call me old fashioned, but I belief that the best technology available to the student and teacher is a great pair of ears. Educated ears at that, since not all ears are equal and even the best voice print can't tell you if the tone is beautiful or not. 

Lilli Lehmann believed it took a good six months for a student to recognize differences in vowel quality—and the more I teach, the more I believe she was right. How long does it take for the teacher? I'd say about a decade. 

Back to all those texts I've read and what has changed. Reading a lot gives one perspective. You see things come and go. You notice what sticks, what stays, and what melts away. What that in mind, here's what I think, which is not a novel idea by any means.

We have gone from an auditory age to an intensely visual one, which is ironic when you consider singing is an auditory phenomena. In terms of bel canto this means beautiful singing. It means that the genesis of legendary vocal pedagogy happened long before there were any movie theaters, televisions,  flatscreens, and iPhones.

No technology. No second hand visual stimulus.

Even the greatest recorded voice—a second hand auditory stimulus—is no match for the living sound of the teacher's voice in the studio—the voice itself transmitting a wealth of information, that is, if the teacher has been properly trained and knows how to impart said training.

Now, teachers and students look at graphs, computer screens, into their phones; instagraming, creating memes, and spending a great amount of time using visual tools to communicate auditory phenomena.

Yet, how hard is it to get a student to look in a mirror?

Very hard indeed! 

While texts from a hundred and fifty years ago can only give us a hint of how great singers sounded, they do tell us what tools they used— and yes, mirror work was required. Those same texts also tell us what thoughts those singers were taught to think (yes, this is where I trot out the term voice placement). Taken as a whole, they remind us what Beverly Sills is noted for saying: "There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going."

What are some of the vocal abilities that were required that you hear little about today?

Messa di Voce

Mezza Voce

The Trill 

To date, I have not encountered one student, who, with the knowledge of their advanced degree, can demonstrate these terms. Sure, they can talk about them with academic precision, but these vocal abilities are dead to them functionally-speaking. As a result, the freedom of voice that they seek eludes them.

Where does this leave us?

Before we get all in a dither about the latest technology and join the cult of the straw, how about we all master the simple hard path that legendary vocal masters have laid out before us?

  1. How about we stand in front of a mirror and accept ourselves? How about we all sing in that mirror with a pleasant expression? Mind you, the mirror is cheap and never lies. So why aren't you using it? 
  2. How about we all learn to sing a real honest-to-god trill and not that bleat that passes for one? Marchesi's students are exemplars of the trill. Go find them. Go read Hermman Klein's instruction on the Trill. Jenny Lind that some salient points too. 
  3. How about we all learn to sing a true mezza voce instead of crooning? Yes, I have heard quite a few male opera singers do it onstage—and not when they are singing Musical Theatre. This has been going on for about a decade now and was once considered unacceptable. It continues only because conductors and coaches allow it to happen. Sorry, but crooning isn't bel canto. 
  4. How about we all learn to sing a true messa di voce? The hardest thing to do, and yet the most rewarding. Read Garcia on how to go about it. 

Find a teacher who can demonstrate and teach these required vocal abilities and you may have found your voice. 


  1. Not one of my 8 teachers taught me the trill. One of them , who had it, said to us that during the trill we should do exactly the contrary of what we do usually. It was a little too short as an axplanation.
    As a result , of course, I do not have a correct one.
    Most exercises proposed in the best methods Garcia, Viardot,Lehmann Klein did not help me.
    Save Jenny Lind's (in the little book by W.S. Rocktro and also in a letter of the diva to a friend.)
    This exercise (a vivacious jump of 4th or 5th) is very similar to another exercise given by Fleming for the head voice, on EE.
    Even if my career is over,(I am 71), I still try to learn it. I am sure this kind of work is good for the voice as a whole.
    Perhaps... "Un bel di vedremo"
    I am a faithful follower of Voice Talk, I thank you for it and wish you a very good year and a long life to the blog!
    JB, from Toulouse FRANCE

    1. Thank you for your comment JB (which I am just seeing today oddly enough). Yes, Lind has some good instruction re the trill, as does Klein at the end of the book (which I published). Lind mentions the "half trill," which is essentially a very slow oscillation between 2 notes at third apart. Once you get a feel for it, you can speed it up. All best regards, Daniel


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