Don’t Tell Me What To Do

There’s a great exchange involving the philosopher Epictetus that encapsulates my approach to thinking about marketing. “Tell me what to do!” the student says. Epictetus corrects him, “It would be better to say, ‘Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.'” It is true for marketing, just as it is for life. Principles are better than instructions and “hacks.” We can figure out the specifics later – but only if we learn the right way to approach them.

Ryan Holiday, “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts”

  • What exercise should I use for a trembling jaw?
  • How do I deal with a singer with no chest register?
  • How do I tame an unruly vibrato?
  • What can I do to get better breath-support in a singer?
  • What should I do with a student that can’t match pitch?
  • My soprano sings flat. Suggestions?

These are all “tell me what to do” questions.

As I contemplate our pedagogical world, I am struck by parallels Epictetus offers us as voice teachers. A better prayer should be:

“Make my mind adaptable to any set of pedagogical circumstances, I already have enough information!”

Many teachers (myself included) seek efficiency by being told what to do. Being told is such a mental relief. It makes us feel better about ourselves because we either get an answer or validation – both feel great!

But do not be fooled – even the BEST voice teacher suffers from an occasional sense of impostor syndrome! We all feel so unsure of our own choices and instincts. Having someone tell you what to do all the time lessens some of the heavy pedagogical lifting: critical thinking, reading, contemplating, analysis, philosophizing, re-reading, searching, listening, endless observation. 

Let’s also remember that voice teachers LOVE to tell other voice teachers what to do! We have whole conferences on it! 🙂 But needing constant validation can become unhealthy when taken to extremes – Consider for a moment the guru/disciple relationship and you’ll have a good grasp where ‘tell me what to do’ can lead. Buddha himself said if you saw the Buddha on the road you should kill him. That’s succinct and serves our argument well. 

On vocal “tricks”

In an effort to be ‘trendy,’ we often feel that we must incorporate the latest vocal tricks lest we be seen as retrograde amongst our colleagues. Richard Miller had strong things to say about those teachers that would build a pedagogy built upon collecting “tricks”:

Given the diversity of vocal problems and the individuality of the singing voice, it may at times indeed seem that no two voices can be taught in the same general fashion. Are we, however, really to believe that there are no universal principles on which to base a philosophy of vocal production? On the contrary, every voice teacher must obey certain functional laws if freedom is to result. Compensatory “tricks” may randomly be attempted, and on occasion may momentarily serve to correct some technical problem, in the same way that medicine from the medicine chest taken without a medical diagnosis or prescription may seem to alleviate the symptoms of an assumed illness. Just as assuredly as there is danger in “doctoring” without proper diagnosis and prescription, so “tricky teaching” not based on principles of mechanical freedom may cause detrimental reactions in the singing voice.

Miller, Richard. On the art of singing. Oxford University Press, USA, 1996.


For many teachers, methods can fill the “tell me what to do!” gap. They give us psychological security in knowing what to do – except when the method fails. Then what? We go back and ask for more tricks. We have to remember that even medicine (which has been vigorously tested in labs) does not work EVERY TIME. Why should a prescribed exercise?

Cate Frazier-Neely recently wrote an insightful blog on this particular issue and I recommend it as an important part of the “methods” puzzle. In it she smartly recognized the tendency that methods can quickly devolve into rigid, inflexible thinking.

One of the main differences between intelligence and creativity is that the creative person has the ability to draw connections among bits of information and imagine various paths and outcomes. And this is the missing ingredient with many voice teachers who run around collecting information, certifications and degrees by the boat-load.

Frazier-Neely makes a plea for more creative thinking in the studio and awareness when chasing certifications, and in my opinion she has zoned in on an important pedagogical element – application instead of collection of knowledge. Her thesis would argue for a pedagogy that was, to use Epictetus’s words: “adaptable to any circumstance.”

Methods at their worst lead adherents to rigid, inflexible thinking, making for a teaching that becomes fundamentalist and dogmatic.

Shifting the Paradigm

A paradigm shift would serve vocal pedagogy if we would learn to keep our minds flexible. Rather than thinking “What exercises do I need for a trembling jaw?” we should question how we need to be more adaptable in the circumstances. Perhaps a direct assault is NOT the best solution? By getting rid of one problem with a ‘trick’ what are we gaining? For example, now that the jaw isn’t moving anymore because of the application of a ‘trick’, you got unexpected tongue tension. Oops.

My pedagogical philosophy is to trust the body and allow the response to work its way out by constantly revisiting functional principles.

Learn from many places. Take information from many sources. Meditate on the voice from time to time. Go deeper than the surface “hack” or trick of the moment. Always remember that you are you – and what you do in the studio is uniquely YOURS filtered through the lens of your life, your experiences.

Ask for a flexible pedagogical mind – not a collection of vocal tricks.

Waiting to be “told” leads to the death of individual creativity, and sucks the artistry, imagination, and life-force out of teacher and student. Voice training becomes transactional (I would say “production oriented”) rather than being an occupation in discovering creative solutions to vocal issues as they arise (I would say “cultivated”) with compassion and empathy.

Festina lente. Hasten slowly.

Moderation in all things.

So make sure you ignore the people trying to teach you how to find shortcuts to this destination or that destination. Be wary of those who claim to have an exact prescription on how to do some really hard thing. Learn how to be adaptable and flexible—learn how to learn. That’s a better recipe for lasting success.

– Ryan Holiday

The Chief Danger in Learning to Sing

It should be borne in mind that any undue or exaggerated attention or effort directed to any part of a bodily muscular coordination generally interferes with that coordination. This is one of the chief dangers in lea.png

Witherspoon was right.

The chief danger in learning to sing is fussing too much with parts.

We live in an age obsessed with controlling the voice.

The Old Masters “cultivated” the voice; they did not go in for “voice production.” Check out the wording on treatises of the 19th century. Books written early on discuss the ‘cultivation of the voice.’ Later books focused on ‘voice production.’

One belongs to Nature, the other to the factory assembly line.

We are NOT machines. We are human beings. You cannot push buttons to make a voice work better.

Until we honor and acknowledge the organic nature of the singing voice and stop trying to locally control everything, we will unable to find a pedagogy built upon respect for our fellow human beings and the wisdom of their bodies and throats.


We never see the rough drafts of the Masters.

Where are the tears or sweat on the canvas? We don’t see the crumpled drafts, the misdrawn sketches, the failed attempts.

Whether we listen to recordings or see/hear idols on television, we always get singing artists at their best. The most HUMAN recordings are LIVE, where our idols deal with nerves, the conductor, the orchestra, the audience, and their own particular feelings that night. There was no ‘cutting,’ no ‘do overs.’

Studio recordings give an unfair view of the artist and therefore ourselves in relation to them. They sound lush, wonderful – in short – perfect! (This is largely out of the control of the artist. They’ve been mixed and balanced by the skilled ear of a technician.)

Matt Edwards at Shenandoah University has a video of Broadway singers on and off-mic that is revelatory and gets played a lot in my studio.

Missing out on our idols’ rough drafts feeds our insecurity and skewed feelings of vocal progress. It makes us feel we can never attain our goals because the canvas we compare ourselves to is so overwhelmingly perfect.

A recorded revelation of my youth was hearing an outtake of Judy Garland coughing in the middle of “Over the Rainbow.” Judy COUGHED! It was a comforting moment to realize that this film star was not immune to a frog in the throat. I could connect to her in a very human way.

To help with perfectionism, we need more stories about singers working out technical problems. How long did it take them to learn that role? How many months did it take to get a predictable high C? How many takes in the studio were needed to get a good recording of the ‘Sempre libera’? Was the song or aria patched from MANY different recordings? How many times did Menzel have to sing “Defying Gravity” for the cast recording? What does Linda Eder do on a bad voice day?

Our issue with perfectionism is that we know our story inside out. We don’t know our idol’s. So we beat ourselves up for this lack of information. We constantly hear problem-free artists having problem-free performances. Joyce DiDonato is one of the rare artists who recently has humanized her process and her artistic and vocal journey.

We need to hear about tears spilled at the piano. The years of work spent. We need to understand the challenges. The difficulties. The fear. Not in a salacious, gossipy way – but as a means to connect in a deeper, more meaningful way. When we know something is difficult, we can be gentler with ourselves when we make mistakes.

Perhaps then, perfectionism can be seen as the unreasonable and self-defeating ambition that it is.


Language and Feeling

The relationship between language and feelings is not just a problem for voice teachers. It is an issue we all face as human beings.

According to philosopher Alain de Botton (a personal favorite), a breakdown between language and feeling has long created debate in philosophy as well. What is the intersection between a word and its experience? If we didn’t have the word would we have the experience? This is something philosophers tangle over.

What we encounter in pedagogical discussions (where WORDS are argued over) is fundamentally a PHILOSOPHICAL issue, not a pedagogical one. In trying to come up with common vocabulary and words for sound brought about by FEELINGS, perhaps we become resistant to words due to our own very personal and particular FEELINGS attached to such words? We could say “Well, a vocal sound SOUNDS a certain way, and so therefore – that’s its name.” Well, yes. But we mustn’t divorce the FEELING from the person MAKING the sound (the one FEELING the feeling) – they should be included in the process too. The student might be thinking of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!

I want to be crystal clear here: the diversity of feeling in singing is enormous. We use words to gain relationship to those experiences. What does knowing the word gain us? Control? Understanding? Children don’t have many complicated words and they sing quite well. It has only been through long and broad reading of many pedagogical texts that one can really begin to see shared EXPERIENCES under the words authors are trying to communicate, and therefore, their similarities. You begin to make connections between many far-flung texts. If you can get past the words to the experiences underneath, you begin to see shocking commonalities.

Take for example arguing over the word MELANCHOLY. Melancholy has many shades of experience and might feel DIFFERENT in two separate people. Would we need the WORD melancholy to know THAT was the specific emotion we are feeling? Does the word melancholy add to our experience of the feeling? Does it make us feel the emotion more fully?

For those of us that sing, we know that the EXPERIENCE of singing often overrides our ability to intellectualize or verbalize what it is we are doing and experiencing. I really can’t tell you specifically what I am doing when I am singing well – it just happens. Perhaps that is what makes it so mysterious and magical to another person – and they wish they could do what we do?

As de Botton states:

Some thinkers have proposed that feelings are independent of words: babies, for example, can feel things long before they know how to pin words to their sensations. But other philosophers have insisted that certain feelings would remain essentially unknown to us if we didn’t have the words to help us recognise them.

The truth – as so often – lies somewhere in an intriguing middle zone. Language may not wholly create feelings, but it most definitely and beautifully deepens and clarifies them. The right words help us to know ourselves; through their agency, we can more accurately and securely identify the contents of our inner lives.

Would we know what chest voice was if we didn’t have a NAME for it? How about head voice? Falsetto? How about chiaroscuro?

What is REMARKABLE from history: the earliest terms used for singing were terms given in response to a direct FEELING of sound. The most glaring example, still with us, are the terms head voice and chest voice. Of COURSE, these terms have become better understood over time and in some pedagogies are changed, enlarged, or deleted. Today we may know them as Mode 1 and Mode 2 (terms that, I might add, do NOT tie to sensations directly).

A terminology based on direct feeling was not always the case. In VERY early writings chest voice and falsetto were known in Latin as vox integra and vox ficta (“True/integral voice” and “false voice”). These words describe a LISTENER’S perception, not a singer’s. When voce di petto, voce di testa, and falsetto came to exist as terms, only the falsetto stood alone as not tied to a physical feeling or location. Perhaps that explains our long trouble with it? Interestingly, in some very early pedagogies, the falsetto was called voce di gola “voice of the throat.” Voce di gola would place the concept back into the area of physical sensation quite nicely.

In the teaching philosophy to which I ascribe, I prefer the student have the FEELING or the EXPERIENCE of a vocal concept first. I try very hard not to postulate fancy theories for them. I try not to go into long-winded diatribes (even though it is so much fun to share what we know!!). I often have to be very careful with this because, I too, get VERY excited sharing information.

In three words, we can call this: GET THE BEHAVIOR. 

Trying to work BACKWARD from the word causes no end of problems, especially if the student has NEVER experienced that ‘word’ before. Tosi remarked, and I believe him, that very little speaking needs to occur in a lesson – words tend to clog up the mind when we’re trying to work with the body. In the most rudimentary fashion, we can train dogs to do amazing things with not a SINGLE word – just hand signals. Through training of the animal we got the behavior, and rewarded it.

Cornelius Reid felt the same regarding words:

Verbalization is extremely unimportant unless one wishes to teach others. Even here, on the basis of our theory of the vocal organs being a reacting mechanism, surprisingly little needs to be SAID at all. With almost no verbal instruction, the teacher who undertakes stimulus control can quite easily induce reacting patterns which will literally transform the technique. As long as the singer is gaining freedom of function, functional laws will be recognized and understood experientially.  Correct technique, however, while rising above mere intellectual comprehension, does not necessarily exclude it. The ideal is not only to have knowledge within the knower, but to have knowledge of that which is known.

Reid’s philosophy echos Tosi, that experience of the word is what counts. Not the word itself. Recall those individuals said to “Hide behind their words.” That’s a powerful statement with pedagogical ramifications. One’s vocal truth comes from a release of what is inside oneself, not through external verbal forces alone.

Taking this to language, there are words in foreign languages that describe emotions and feelings we feel deeply and comparatively in English, but we don’t have NAMES for (Schadenfreude comes to mind). Here are a two terms from Czech and Portuguese that verbalize a feeling – an experience. As you read them, see if you recognize the FEELING without sense of the WORD. This is our pedagogical word conundrum in a nutshell. Again, from de Botton. What he calls “Untranslatable words”:

Litost (Czech): The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. They casually allude to a luxurious house they are renting for the holidays. They mention the glamorous friends they have had for dinner. We feel searing self-pity at the scale of our inadequacies.

Saudade (Portuguese): A bitter-sweet melancholic yearning for something beautiful that is now gone: perhaps a love affair, a childhood home, a flourishing business. There is pain yet also a pleasure that such loveliness once graced our lives.

We KNOW these feelings. We have EXPERIENCED them as English speakers. But what we don’t recognize is the WORD. Do you now see our very tricky pedagogical position as it pertains to words for singing? Working from the word before understanding the feeling is a little backwards.


Philosophically speaking, if we didn’t have a word for falsetto, chest voice, or head voice would they exist? Would we find them? Worth considering.

Perhaps this is the reason pedagogical treatises on singing are so confusing and mysterious to us today? They are frustratingly simple and not very wordy. Perhaps it points to a pedagogy that was intent on the EXPERIENCE of singing, and then modifying corrections from there. Only after Manuel Garcia’s Traité (1841) do we get WORDS, WORDS, WORDS when it comes to vocal training and pedagogy. The Traité marked a NEW kind of pedagogy – one based on words, intellectualization, and theories of all kinds. This is in stark contrast to the manuals and writings pre-1841.

Maybe that’s why even Garcia had to admit the word problem of the aforementioned falsetto/head conundrum? “Here are words/names, but they’re wrong”:

Every voice is formed of three distinct portions, or registers, namely, chest, medium, and head. The chest holds the lowest place, the medium the middle, the head the highest. These names are incorrect, but accepted.

Perhaps another potential confusion in early texts is the battle between the DOER and the HEARER, and the confusion that occurs between these two vantage points? Something to consider.

Maybe, just MAYBE, the Old Masters knew something of philosophy that we have forgotten in our quest to name and label every little thing – they apparently were not very name obsessed, as we can tell from the historical literature. We also know the education of any early singer was an intensive reading of the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Maybe they had a philosophical bent regarding words and their experiences?

How do we modern teachers balance our worry over words with the EXPERIENCES the student should have? This is a pedagogical question worth exploring further.

As Shakespeare’s knew, so tantalizingly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.



“How the Right Words Help Us to Feel the Right Things.” The Book of Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2017.

Garcia, Manuel. Hints on singing. E. Ascherberg, 1894.

Reid, Cornelius L. The free voice: a guide to natural singing. Joseph Patelson Music House, 1978.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. “Observations on the florid song.” New York (1967).

Pedagogical Wonder Woman: Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni

The ONLY Italian method of singing published from 1777-1820 (43 years!) was written by a woman: Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni. Her book entitled Grammatica o siano regole di ben cantare (1810) had several slight changes to wordings to its title, but nothing that changed the meaning too terribly. It may be best to name it the Grammatica. 

All of the singing manuals we have dating from that time period are either from England or France. I think that is remarkable and rather vexing when you consider that Italians were considered the great masters of voice teaching for centuries and yet they published so very LITTLE. And how phenomenal to have a text written by a WOMAN during a time when much of the ink that was spilled on voice was done by men. Her viewpoints set her ahead of the 19th century pedagogical sisters that would follow in her footsteps.

Richard Miller has written on the paucity of Italian sources for singing instruction during the period of Celoni’s book. What is even more interesting are the operas that were composed from 1777-1820. Mozart, Gluck, Paisello, Cimarosa, Cherubini, Spontini, Beethoven, and Rossini were all writing their masterpieces during this time.

Celoni straddles a period in history when the ‘natural’ singer was beginning to replace the castrato singer on the opera stages of the world. Her writing is clear, and free of any of the floridity of other vocal texts. She is definitely carrying on the mantle of writers like Tosi and Mancini, and I would place the three of them together as a trilogy of writers on the bel canto schooling of the 17th and 18th centuries.

There are no anatomical charts, no exhaustive discussions of breathing maneuvers, nothing of a method that would lie outside the realm of anything found in the classic literature. Her system is based on three pillars: Fermare, Formare, e Spianare (Firmness, Formation, and Smoothness). Her method is built upon PRACTICE and sound-making. Time was the key to her training. One is reminded of the maxim of voice teacher and pedagogue Jeannette LoVetri to “Wait for the bus!” when it comes to patience in voice education.  Celoni shared these same ideals.

According to Chiti in Donne in musica (1996), she was born in Rome in 1780 and died in 1835. Celoni was a composer, singer and pianist, in addition to being a teacher of singing. We know that she was married and had two daughters, one of whom died young.

Manuel Garcia II quotes her several times in his Traité de l’Art du Chant (1841), with an inaccurate reproduction of her exercise for the spianato (see below). In Garcia’s 1894 text Hints on Singing he gives a quotation of her, while constantly misspelling her last name: “Celloni.”

He who knows how to breathe knows how to sing.

Here’s the troublesome slice of information: This statement DOES NOT EXIST in any of Celoni’s two versions of her method! So unless we have a personal anecdote of Garcia’s, we should view this statement with some healthy skepticism. The phrase is also attributed to Crescentini and Pacchierotti, and over the intervening years it has become one of those historical “Who said it?” questions for which we’ll never have a conclusive answer. We simply do not have conclusive historical evidence of its authorship in the written evidence.

She lays out her requirements for a singer, which we would do WELL to consider in 2017:

Here are three qualities which should be joined in one who sings, that is, GOOD SENSE, GOOD STYLE, AND A SENSIBLE HEART.

What I find so endlessly interesting is her admonitions on forming the voice. I’m struck by her remarks on the voice ‘being heard,’ in a time when the excesses of orchestral doubling and textures had not yet been realized.

Forming the voice well is a very different thing from firming up the voice, since the latter depends on always sustaining it on every note with perfect intonation, and the former in rendering the voice sonorous, robust, spacious, elastic, obedient, and agile; capable, in sum, of any expression whatsoever, so that even in the midst of other voices and various instruments, it makes itself heard easily, and distinguished not by its hardness, as so often happens, but by the beauty of its formation. Good body in a voice (“Un bel corpo di voce”) is a gratuitous gift, purely an affair of fate. It is like a jewel which has been excavated from the mountain: Its intrinsic natural beauty needs the influence of art so that it can be appreciated and admired. So much so: this lovely full voice will either remain unknown or it will be rendered annoying and displeasing if not brought to perfection by the Laws of Art.

She goes on to explain how lesser voices were built:

There are many who practice the law of this craft, but lack the voice; yet how often it happens that some, gifted with small and unhappy voices, come to gain the admiration of the Public; they have exercised every day, and in opportune hours by singing varied little scales of held notes, adagio, firming up the voice well, and little by little, with great art have smoothed it out, until they have come to sing the respective notes necessary to the voice, either Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone, or Bass, and in time they are able to approach the sonorous notes of the extension and formation of the voice which we have indicated above. But I must advise that such an exercise will depend above all else on the age of the Student and his temperament: Two exercises a day, no more than half an hour each, and at a good time of day, seem to be sufficient.

There is so much amazing information to unpack just from that paragraph alone. First, it’s remarkable that we have an early author saying, in not so many terms: ANYONE can learn to sing very well. This is a remarkable piece of knowledge from Celoni. It would carry in it the entire premise of the Old Italian school of singing: that the voice can be built by conscientious attention and intelligent practicing. Many have received a voice as a gift of Nature, but those less fortunate should not be without hope that they, too, can build a sonorous and beautiful voice.

Another point I wish to highlight is that Celoni believes in firming up the voice through varied scales of HELD notes, sung adagio. AGAIN, we have the admonition to sing for some time on LONG tones. Long tones are voice builders, and more teachers in 2017 should include them in their pedagogies. In my opinion, if you are working on long tones, you are working on three crucial elements of the principles of voice building: PITCH, INTENSITY, and VOWEL. All three of these components can be ELEGANTLY handled in a single note!

A third point, which I must underline is the fact that she wanted singers to exercise on TWO exercises a DAY for a half an hour. Two exercises ONLY. Can you imagine?

In our exercise-crazed pedagogies, we should consider: how many exercises are really NECESSARY? If one exercise could fill the role of thousands of others, I’d like to know about it. For Celoni, it appears that she wanted lots of long tones, and as we’ll see messa di voce, or what is referred to in her book as spianata di voce. 

To smooth the voice, Celoni requires that classic vocal maneuver: the messa di voce. This is what Celoni refers to as the spianata di voce. She indicates the intensity of the tones by using numbers, as follows. The numbers are above the treble clef:

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 7.38.04 PM


What I absolutely and irretrievably LOVE about Celoni’s messa di voce exercise is the anacrusis of the G before the C! To my pedagogical mind, this anacrusis creates a certain level of laryngeal flexibility and movement before the C is attempted. It’s equally amazing to see the short sixteenth note that precedes the conclusion of the exercise in the penultimate measure. Again, a sense of MOVEMENT seems to be indicated in this messa di voce that isn’t often found in other examples, which can become stiff and forced without these additional figures. The tonal movement preceding and ending the long tone creates a sense of what my colleague Brian Lee calls, “Potentiality of movement”  – that the vocal system can (and should) be calibrated to MOVE at any time in any direction: volume, pitch, or intensity.

Celoni’s spianata di voce had a purpose:

The spianata is useful also for cadenzas and half-cadenzas, for all those Singers, who have not been endowed by nature with a good metal and a voice clear, sonorous, well-tuned, but for the ordinary, the heavier, the slower, and less agile and flexible. The same advantage will also enrich those gifted with a beautiful voice but lacking genius, to replace the usual cadenzas, etc., and being able to replace them with a beautiful and long spianata, with its trill at the end. Finally the spianata serves to signify the sense of many words, for example, constancy, peace, repose, calm, sleep, lethargy, etc. I do not give scales here to learn to smooth the voice well, because the same ones written above for forming the voice will serve.

WOW. What an amazing little slice of pedagogical process. Since we so seldom hear a well performed spianata di voce/messa di voce, it’s fascinating to see Celoni assert that other scales weren’t necessary if the voice had been firmed in such a manner. The ability to build metallo in the voice was additionally viewed as due to exercise in the spianata di voce. What an interesting (and rather healthy) way to build squillo into the voice!! I intend to use exercises of this sort more often in my studio teaching. I always tell students that the piano and forte should be related – it shouldn’t sound as if you’ve put down a flute and picked up a tuba.

What about coloratura?

Celoni’s ideas are no less applicable than they were in 1810. Isn’t this little book wonderful!?

There is not doubt that agility is one of the greatest accomplishments of an excellent Singer, because the name of false-singer will be given to one who lacks it, always supposing that he knows how to firm and form the voice through art. Besides, a Musician is sluggish and lazy if he is unable to execute with exactness those passages of many rapid notes in going brightly, vivaciously and joyfully, which are so very often encountered written with a great sense by the Contrapuntists, where they clearly explain the significance of the words, that is, of anger, of furor, of a storm, of flight, of hurricane, of a flash of lightning, of thunder, of invective, or rage, or great happiness, etc., and these passages are nothing more than masses of little notes, which form a volata semplice (simple flight), or redoubled now and above and now below, mezzo volatine (medium little flights), or yet varied arpeggios, or little groups of notes, etc. Since agility is so very necessary, one should apply oneself with all his strength to acquire it well. All the greatest Masters of Singing, in order to methodically indoctrinate their scholars in acquiring it, begin with little, and gradually arrive at many, very many, and with going brightly, joyfully, brilliantly, vivaciously, fast, and very fast.

Celoni’s method is a fascinating journey into a vocal time and place that has long since vanished, but stands as a tantalizing reminder of what was expected of the singers of her time. That this book was written by a woman during a period of history when so few Italian resources were being published makes this a significantly important document.

The adventurous teacher might take some of her wisdom to reap some interesting benefits. Exercises in the long tone, and the spianata di voce could provide some fascinating vocal work in the studio and in practice sessions.


Celoni, Anna Maria Pellegrini. Grammar, Or, Rules for Singing Well. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

Chiti, Patricia Adkins. Donne in musica. Armando Editore, 1996.

Garcia, Manuel, and Donald V. Paschke. A complete treatise on the art of singing: complete and unabridged. Da Capo Pr, 1975.

Garcia, Manuel. Hints on singing. E. Ascherberg, 1894.

Lee, Brian. “Potential in Every Note.” D. Brian Lee, Voice Teacher. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.

LoVetri, Jeannette. Somatic Voicework™ Method in Voice and Singing for Voice Teachers and Voice Students. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.

Mancini, Giambattista. Practical reflections on figured singing. Vol. 7. Pro Musica Press, 1967.

Miller, Richard. National schools of singing: English, French, German, and Italian techniques of singing revisited. Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. “Observations on the florid song.” New York (1967).



Difficult Conversations

A great blog post by Canadian voice teacher Nikki Loney, author of The Full Voice series, reminded me of one of my favorite books. I revisit it regularly to incorporate more of its wisdom into my personal and professional life. That book is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone.

A huge (and often neglected) part of professional development is learning how to manage difficult conversations. Otherwise, all the time spent learning about pedagogy, history, IPA, acoustics, anatomy, biology, music theory, sight reading, etc., will be for NAUGHT if you cannot address difficult conversations with those around you as they arise. (Who cares how much you know if you become a doormat or a bully?)

This is a sorely lacking skill in our profession, as emotional intelligence often gets lost in the training shuffle when becoming a voice teaching professional.

What is a difficult conversation? According to Stone, it’s this:


Here are some examples:

  • How do I engage with a colleague that has disrespected me on social media?
  • How do I deal with a parent that wants to sit in on every lesson?
  • How do I engage with a student that is resisting my teaching, isn’t practicing, doesn’t show up on time?
  • How do I deal with a mom making extra demands on my already full calendar?
  • How do I have the conversation to get a family to pay me on time?
  • How do I have an honest conversation with a student I’m worried about?

Pithy quotes and advice from fellow teachers on social media can be rarely helpful. “FIRE THEM!,” lacks nuance and misses the humanity of the situation. If only the world could exist in such absolutes! I wish more teachers would be careful of the pedagogical company they keep when asking for advice of such a nature. Pedagogical collectivism doesn’t always work on a personal level.

Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there’s no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you’ve pulled the pin.

To have a difficult conversation, it’s helpful to have a strategy and understanding of the different types of conversations one might have as a voice teacher. Holding on to the conversation is NOT the way to go. Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason!! And they will always pose a challenge, even when you feel equipped to have them.

Understanding the structure of difficult conversations can go a long way to building strategies for engaging more effectively. Stone points out THREE main types of difficult conversations:

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #1: The “What Happened?” Conversation:

These conversations include disagreement about what happened or what SHOULD happen. Who said what? Who’s right? Who’s to blame? TRUTH-INTENTION-BLAME

As teachers we will have this conversation A LOT. Whether it comes to billing, or lesson times, or schedules, or email conversations, this is a common one for all of us.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #2: The Feelings Conversation:

Every difficult conversation is going to ask and answer questions about feelings. Is how I am feeling appropriate? Are my feelings valid? Should I deny them or acknowledge them? What am I gonna do about the other person’s feelings? What if they’re angry or hurt?

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION #3: The Identity Conversation

This is the conversation we have with ourselves about WHAT THE SITUATION MEANS TO US. Does this mean I’m incompetent? Good or bad? Worthy of love or unlovable? Talented or untalented? Smart or stupid? A large part of feeling balanced in a conversation is addressing these issues. If we don’t, we’ll feel anxious or off-center: “What are they trying to say about me?”

Here’s the rub: EVERY difficult conversation you will ever have includes aspects of ALL THREE of these conversations. EVERY ONE. It’s vital that we learn to operate in ALL THREE of them. (Once when I was in a book club for this book, participants mocked having difficult conversations, and BOY was that an educational experience!!)

Difficult conversations are not about getting facts right, although our egos love a ‘win.’ They’re about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and VALUES.

The answer to having better difficult conversations is to switch to having a LEARNING conversation. YOU be the learner. Work through the three conversations above on your own. Mock it with your spouse, friend, or helpful colleague. You’d be surprised what a good rehearsal of a difficult conversation can do for your confidence when you DO engage.

Here are some quick tips when approaching a difficult conversation:

  1. Learn THEIR story.
  2. Express YOUR views and YOUR feelings
  3. Problem solve together

In every case, work through the Three Conversations as best you can. Get a better handle on your feelings, key identity issues, and possible distortions or gaps in your perceptions. Think clearly about what you do know (your own feelings, your own experiences and story, your identity issues), and what you don’t know (their intentions, their perspective, or feelings).

This approach will help you become more aware of the process of communication and gain insight into what’s making your conversations difficult. Sometimes the insights you find will present a clear answer: “Raising this is important, and now I have some ideas about how to do it differently” or “Now I’m starting to see why having a conversation probably won’t help.”

Here are some helpful things to remember:

  1. It’s not your responsibility to make things better; it’s your responsibility to DO YOUR BEST. Some people cannot be changed.
  2. The other person has limitations too. They are just as imperfect as you are.
  3. This conflict is NOT who you are.
  4. Letting go doesn’t mean you no longer care. Letting go of emotions and identity issues wrapped up in difficult conversations is one of the most challenging things you can do.

I encourage every voice teacher to read and practice the ideas set forth in Stone’s book. It is an empowering read, and I have found that when we know how to engage in difficult conversations it gives us a sense of control and confidence to go forth and deal more effectively with all aspects of our interpersonal lives. Find a friend and read it together – practice with each other. You’ll be surprised at how liberating and FREEING a difficult conversation will be, and you’ll tend to be less fearful of them in the future. Having the understanding and tools for a difficult conversation is something that should be in every voice teacher’s back pocket.



Stone, Douglas, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton. Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin, 2010.


Beauty is in the Ear of the Beholder

Remember learning to write?

At the start of the learning process we copied, traced, or imitated. We learned to speak our native language this way as well. Since music is also a language, it makes sense that we would learn to sing by modeling other singers, and monitoring our progress through our EARS.


In kindergarten and first grade we were given several examples of a letter to TRACE over. It gives a kinesthetic feel for the letter and shows how it is written. (Note that students aren’t told how to control specific writing muscles – a point I’ll return to later).  From that point, the page is blank. This allows us to practice, writing with NO guidance. The previously traced model serves as our VISUAL guide. The eye tells us if we have achieved our goal. We’d be able to tell how well we were doing at writing by LOOKING at what we were doing and measuring it against the model.

I believe that this can still be (and historically was) a template for GOOD voice training with the ear as the monitor instead of the eye. Voice-to-voice training took place for hundreds of years – at least from 1300 to 1840. This worked because voice teachers were themselves singers as well as composers. Edward Foreman argues in his book Authentic Singing that the SOUND (ergo the ear) was the guide until the mid-19th century, when Garcia II took pedagogy into an entirely new direction – seeing and controlling parts.

The mechanization of the voice instrument had begun.

This began a confusion and exchange of the senses in voice training that lasted throughout the nineteenth century to the present day.

To reiterate briefly the traditional position: The teacher’s concern was to get the sound right, which proved the rightness of the means of producing the sound. He needed to know little, if anything, of the structure and function of the musculature, relying instead on his ear and upon demonstrated methods of achieving the sound.

Garcia, starting with the mechanism, attempts to explain in what way the sound is produced, how it can be induced and manipulated to achieve the results which were desirable in his own day, results which were at extreme variance with the traditional Italian school.

Imitation is a dirty word in some modern voice teaching circles. With our modern scientific knowledge, we consider imitation as a lesser or cruder form of vocal education, perhaps it’s more primitive, and we prefer to work from a mechanistic/anatomical/acoustic template, knowing what the parts are and what they do.

Some modern pedagogies render a student hyper-conscious of vocal parts instead of focusing on the SOUND. This is a misunderstanding of older ideas that the voice should be managed through INDIRECT as opposed to direct means. Direct (or local) control leads to stiffness, self-consciousness, and constriction. As Cornelius Reid said, “Knowing how the system works is ONE thing, WORKING the system is another.” The admonition to Follow Nature, and Festina Lente (Hasten Slowly) point to a pedagogical philosophy which stands counter to our 21st century system of fast results and vocal tricks.

Taking a detour here into history, Pierfrancesco Tosi (1653-1732) thought words were a bad direction for teaching singing, and asserted that people learn how to sing by SINGING. This gives credence to Foreman’s argument above.

It would be needless to say, that verbal Instructions can be of no Use to Singers, any farther than to prevent ’em from falling into Errors, and that it is Practice only can set them right.

Imitation and modeling offer a way to improve the voice INDIRECTLY, and therein lies its value. But a very important cautiousness should be advised here: MODELS matter. This also from Tosi in 1723:

§ 13. Let him hear as much as he can the most celebrated Singers, and likewise the most excellent instrumental Performers; because, from the Attention in hearing them, one reaps more Advantage than from any Instruction whatsoever.

When the advent of the gramophone took place, great singers were anxious to preserve their voices as a record of excellence in singing. In 1923 soprano Luisa Tetrazzini wrote:

Beyond a doubt the gramophone should be the guide, philosopher and friend, the most trusted and most competent aid and coadjutor – not only to every student but also to every teacher of the present day.

She added:

One would think indeed that the coming generation should provide us with fine singers in such plenty as the world has never known before with the aid of such priceless help.

Singers learned to hear beauty not just in other voices, but in instruments as well. We should take a page from their book, and imitate the best qualities of the violin, the flute, the cello, the trombone, the clarinet, and oboe. As their ears improved, so did their voices.

How singers select models isn’t often discussed because FINDING those models can be challenging. The singing  in Tetrazzini time has changed in the intervening years,  verified by attentive and critical listening. The teacher must have a broad exposure to excellent singing since the dawn of recorded sound. We all generally do not listen broadly and critically ENOUGH.

Returning to our present argument, many children learn to sing freely and easily completely through imitation and modeling of others – through the ear. Personally, that is how I learned to sing. I did not take voice lessons as a child, and I sang quite well. But my models sang well, my mother had a lovely warm alto voice. I also had the benefit of growing up in a very musical home and music was a central part of family ‘togetherness.’

Kenneth H. Phillips in his book Teaching Kids to Sing, Second Edition asserts that children who receive exposure to music will likely become singers.

A number of researchers have investigated the effects of home environment on musical development and singing. One early study reported a strong relationship between the singing of prekindergarten children and their home musical environments (Kirkpatrick, 1962.) Excellent to good environments in which music participation was fostered produced singers and partial singers, with few nonsingers; poor environments in which music participation was not fostered produced no singers and many partial and nonsingers. Another early study found similar results for first-grade children, noting that children who were rated “musical” had frequent opportunities to hear and participate in singing at home (Shelton, 1966.)

My first teachers were the records that I listened to over and over. These albums were mostly in country and popular music, as well as classical singers like Adriana Caselotti from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I modeled my unchanged voice after female singers – which were in hindsight perfect models for a young child’s unchanged voice.

An interesting anecdote: when I was six my mother was on the phone with my grandmother and I traipsed into the kitchen singing the staccati coloratura passages that I had heard Adriana Caselotti sing in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My mother was gobsmacked. She had never heard me sing like that and immediately had me demonstrate over the phone to my grandmother, who also knew singing since she was a public school music teacher for over 30 years.

My 6 year old nephew goofing around can imitate a soprano tone that has all the hallmarks of a lovely head voice. It is clear, resonant, and pure. He is not doing this because he has ‘trained,’ – he can do it because he has the precocious capacity for IMITATION. He is able to HEAR something sympathetically, make a demand from his brain that sends a signal to his voice, and his voice obeys. That’s it. What improves this over time? REPETITION. Much like learning to write, we get better at it because our practice of the model has become automatic. (Sadly for us, we never see – or hear – our idols “rough drafts.”)


If a young singer copies another’s vocal faults as the ideal, then it’s not hard to understand how a singer would struggle with a proper concept of singing. They’ve been copying the WRONG template. You wanted them to learn A but they’re tracing Q. MODELS MATTER!

According to biographers, Nelson Eddy taught himself to sing entirely from recordings of the greatest baritones of his time. Marilyn Horne was a self-admitted mimic, and learned singing as a child in this way. Rosa Ponselle also seems to have learned to sing in a similar fashion.

At nineteen, Nelson had been working for five years but was no closer to the real goal he’d set for himself: to be a singer. Lacking a voice teacher, he set about to teach himself. “I bought records of Campanari and Scotti and Ruffo and Amato and sat listening until I had learned an aria and then I would bawl out the notes at the top of my lungs. Of course I recognized the difference in my handling of the song and the way Caruso would have done it. But then I tried very hard to learn from the masters who sang from the little wax discs. I was used to teaching myself things after so many years of studying without any outside help.”

“I had a good range and plenty of volume — and I would sing to the phonograph accompaniment when guests would visit. And when I’d get to a part of the aria where the difference between my technique and Campanari’s was too obvious, I’d merely stick out my chest and take a long breath and drown Campanari out. It was very effective.”

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

There is also a story of Maria Callas sitting in a cafe with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Milan. Maria asked her how she sang a particular diminuendo in a certain way. Schwarzkopf demonstrated, Callas mimicked her, was content of her observation and sat back down to dinner, having resolved the issue entirely through imitation. There was no in-depth discussion of breathing, resonance, or anything of the like. Just two artists, one providing the model, the other imitating.

Perhaps that is why Old Masters kept singers on long tones for a some time. If you can get a good free tone, and identify it, and HEAR it – then why wouldn’t you build your entire voice from that free, lovely tone? Anything that fell off the model of those beautiful long tones was an aberration – a misdrawn letter A, if you will. The singer would HEAR the error, and correct with the guidance of their ear, and the teacher’s sympathetic ear. Is the tone throaty? Is the tone nasal? No? According to the Old Masters it was perfect. Leave it alone, and work continuously on freedom in the vowel (and therefore the throat). Develop the range with that free sound. Singers in the historical model wouldn’t move on from a long tone until they had established a clear, true pitch and vowel!

The challenge for us in the 21st century is our aural sensitivity has lessened. As Foreman states (again from Authentic Singing): 

We are supposed to be much more sensitive to music than we are. The omnipresence of noise, the increasing complexity of music, and the casual way in which we have allowed ourselves to abuse music as background to every event in our lives has so dulled our sensibilities to music—to all sounds—that the effects which Plato, Aristotle and Aristides Quintilianus attributed to it are no longer consciously available to us. We have lost the capacity for ETHOS. Only in recent years has “the Mozart Effect” been trumpeted as  curative therapy; but the knowledge of such therapies was widespread among the Greeks.

When we write letters, we judge our efforts based on our visual sense. When we sing, we should adjudge our success based on our hearing. Hearing IS the monitor for the sound.

If jerry-rigging with parts is not giving you success in singing, ask yourself if listening needs to retake its place as the guide for your progress.


Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

Phillips, Kenneth Harold. Teaching kids to sing. Schirmer, 1992.

Reid, Cornelius L. Bel canto: Principles and practices. Coleman-Ross, 1950.

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

Tetrazzini, Luisa, and Enrico Caruso. Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing. Courier Corporation, 1909.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Opinioni de’cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi… Dedicate a Sua Eccellenza Mylord Peterborough... L. dalla Volpe, 1723.