Quote of the Day

Regardless of the methods adopted or the theoretical stance assumed, however, one fact stands clear: the difficult transition points experienced by singers, which have led to such pedagogic panaceas as “hooking,” lifting “up and over,” getting the tone “forward,” “high and low placement,” and “covering,” all direct themselves to difficulties that are related to registration.

The mechanistic training methods based on the precepts noted above have not proved successful. Few singers appearing before the public could justly be said to have more than marginally fulfilled their potential, and the throat constriction that is the logical outgrowth of such practices is encouraged rather than cured by these techniques of tone production.

In the final analysis, vocal training and artistic singing should be founded upon principles which agree with the laws of physics, physiology, and acoustics. Short cuts are not the answer. What is patently clear is that all music, whether dramatic or lyric, and whether composed by Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, or Berg, can be best be sung when the mechanical parts responsible for producing vocal tone work in accordance with nature’s laws. The practice of covering does not conform to those laws.

The history of great singers and singing is replete with names of those who used their voices lyrically and in the true Bel Canto tradition even when the voices were heroic in size. Frequently, these voices are described as being “unusual” and “exceptional,” but this fact remains: while they are rare, these singers nonetheless are exceptional not because of any anatomical superiority, but because they use their voices exceptionally well, and avoid such unnecessary and inhibitory devices as “covering.” Duprez had a short career. He was able to sing at one dynamic level (high), and he had little flexibility. His was at best a limited technique. In large part, those limitations were and are the equivalent expression of “covering.”

Cornelius Reid, Dictionary of Vocal Terminology

Issues with Fach

The American vocal pedagogue who has a serious addiction to early Fach designations, thus relying on a European system, suffers from a pedagogical disease against which the student should be on guard.

Richard Miller, On the Art of Singing 

Many young singers are desperate for a Fach designation. Somehow when they have their Fach, every fear will be eradicated and all vocal problems will somehow be solved.

Fach is a German word that means category and is used to divide the four basic voice types (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) into further categories. For example, the soprano voice might be classified as Soubrette Soprano, Lyric Coloratura Soprano, Dramatic Coloratura Soprano, Lyric Soprano, Character Soprano, Spinto/Young Dramatic Soprano, Dramatic Soprano.

When these categories fail to classify a voice, further ingenuity is required, and we get more outlandish classifications, “I’m a young Lyric Soprano with Coloratura tendencies and a Mezzo extension.”

The quest to determine scientifically how the voice works may have contributed as much to the standardisation of singing (the general absence of individuality) as the ready availability of vocal recordings, the German Fach system and the proliferation of vocal techniques with fixed agendas.

Harrison, Peter T. The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a sound basis for Teaching and Learning. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2016.

One of the voice training directives that sprang up in the early 20th century was to determine the category of voice by the location of register changes. Herbert Witherspoon (recently covered extensively on this blog) was one of the first to codify voice types by register transitions while simultaneously denying the existence of registers – (cognitive dissonance much?)

Richard Miller also elaborated on Witherspoon. Miller’s book The Structure of Singing (1986) lays out the following charts for male voices, sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos. Because of the influence of Miller’s work, I have seen teachers work first-hand to put these transition locations into a singer’s voice. (“Well you sound like a baritone, so I’ve got to hear that primo passaggio at B3!”) I’ve also seen these charts used in first lessons to diagnose the singer, with no previous history or knowledge of the voice.

Many believe these changing tones are the ‘key’ to finding the Fach of the singer’s voice. But what happens when the singer doesn’t have these transitions? For example, if the singer is a baritone, what happens when nothing is felt at B3, or Bflat3? Does the baritone think he’s a bass? tenor? Could a lower-voiced male with a robust voice be classified as a tenorino if he didn’t feel or hear any register shifts until F4?

And consider this observation: shouldn’t a fairly well advanced voice have NO perceptible register shifts anywhere in the scale?

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Cornelius Reid took umbrage at classifying voices by a ‘changing note’ in the scale. For him, the classifying of voices by a particular ‘note’ was a dangerous process that served to lock in a singer’s vocal faults.

Although one may believe that “changing notes” are located at specific intervals in the harmonic series, this correlation is unlikely. Too many individual exceptions violate the rule, and since changing notes (“lifts” or “breaks”) do not occur when the vocal registers are perfectly balanced, it appears that the supposition is baseless. More reasonable is the concept that changing notes are physiological rather than acoustic phenomenon that reflect slight imbalances in the segmentation points relative to registration.

Some teachers try to categorize voices by the location of changing notes in the tonal scale, since it would appear that heavier voice types might have slightly thicker vocal folds, and consequently lower changing notes than their lighter counterparts. This practice, however, is exceedingly dangerous, as breaks and noticeable changing notes often indicate the presence of technical limitations, and cannot be considered fixed installations.

To establish vocal categories on the basis of changing notes, or even tonal range, is an a priori judgement. It leads to an acceptance of a status quo, the avoidance of making necessary changes, and procedures which avoid the employment of those functional principles which alone are capable of developing the voice properly.

Cornelius Reid, A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology

Maria Callas had this to say on Fach in her masterclasses at Juilliard in 1971:

Once upon a time, however, one soprano sang Norma, Puritani, Sonnambula, Lucia. She was a soprano – basta! I have a poster in my home of an evening with Maria Malibran in which she sang both Sonnambula and Fidelio! It’s a matter of technique. Today, if a soprano does not have her high notes, she is a mezzo. But we all must have our high notes, our low notes. We must have everything.

Can you imagine a violinist without his high notes, his low notes, his abellimenti? `Cantabile’-what does this mean? It means you have a singing ing tone. But we all must be cantabile, not just basso cantabile but baritono cantabile, soprano cantabile. We must also sing what is written. How do you get out of notes which are there, staring you in the face? You must have your trill, your acciaccature, your legato; otherwise don’t call yourself a singer.

John Ardoin, Callas at Juilliard

W. Stephen Smith also agreed that the obsession with categories could lead to stale, lifeless performances, as well as the maintenance of a status quo.

We have all become so category-minded these days that it seems building a career is all about choosing the right repertoire. The problem is that every coach, conductor, and teacher will have a different opinion of what each singer’s voice is and what music is appropriate to that voice. It is a never-ending, losing battle. While acknowledging the expectations of the business, we should not feel compelled to cater to those expectations but rather be true to ourselves. If singing Carmen and “Je suis Titania” both feel right and true for a soprano, then I dare her to sing both. The same company might not hire her for both roles, but one could hire her to sing Carmen and another to sing Philene (the coloratura role in Mignon). It all depends on their personal tastes, who else is already cast, or the kind of sounds that the casting director happens to like. It is pointless for a singer to second-guess the expectations of the people listening to auditions because everyone’s opinion is different.

The task of choosing repertoire really matters only after we have done the work of uncovering the naked voice—learning to sing with free phonation and airflow. The more aligned the voice becomes, the more naturally the right repertoire will emerge. Sometimes young singers will ask me if they can sing a particular aria, and I tell them to wait a few years. If they work on that aria before their technical issues are more ironed out, they are likely to develop habits they will have to unlearn later. It is not that their instincts are wrong or that they should never sing that piece; rather, they should just wait until they are more technically secure so they won’t have as much baggage to deal with when they truly are ready to sing it.

Smith, W. Stephen; Chipman, Michael. The Naked Voice:A Wholistic Approach to Singing . Oxford University Press. 2007.

In closing, I’ll share my favorite remark on the Fach system from soprano Jessye Norman, an artist who made a career on diverse roles and performances:

I think one of the things, when I talk to younger performers, whether they’re singers or violinists or pianists, is that I feel that I have encouraged them to go beyond the limitations of the box in which we can be placed as classical performers. That it really is all right to be a cellist, and to play the Elgar Concerto, but to be also interested in the music of the Silk Road, as Yo-Yo Ma has shown so brilliantly. That the music need not have been composed originally for the classical cello. That doesn’t mean that you can’t play it, and that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be interested in it. Why should a person who’s playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto not be interested in the ragtime music of Scott Joplin? Why should a singer who’s singing Mimi — a Puccini (role) — not be interested in the music of Cole Porter? I feel that we so often limit ourselves, because we think that we have to follow a certain line, that we have to follow and do what’s been done before, instead of finding our own paths and making our own way. I hope that my performance life encourages — particularly other singers — not to be limited, not to be put into a box and to be told, “You are that kind of soprano, so therefore this is the kind of music that you’re supposed to sing.” I said one clever thing — and I say this all the time — I said one clever thing in my entire life, and I was asked this question when I was about 23 or 24 years old. When I was doing probably the second interview I’d ever done in my life, and the interviewer said, “What kind of soprano are you? You sing this and you sing that and you’ve got sort of fiorituri possibilities..” meaning sort of like coloratura sopranos, “…so what kind of soprano are you exactly?” And so then I said, in all of my sort of 23 or 24 years, “I think that pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons.”

Jessye Norman
Interview can be found here: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nor0int-5


Using Solfeggi in Voice Development

Again, from Foreman’s bel canto Method:

Theoretical Discussion: As mentioned before, the difference between solfeggi and vocalizzi is not well-defined. Solfeggi are to be sung with the solmization syllables as shown below. Vocalizzi are intermediate pieces preparatory to working on arias, and sung on [a] or [e]. (Most teachers recommend avoiding [i] and [u]; Mancini and Manfredini advise familiarity with all the vowels.)


THE SOLFEGGIO Is the art of sounding the seven notes of the Gamut with the Syllables annexed to them, viz:

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The following exercises, constructed on the Scaletta, may seem boringly simple, but if they are done painstakingly and with great care for the intonation of the intervals, they will help to keep the voice steady and accurate in pitch. They should be sung at a moderate speed, and a breath taken where necessary. [Author through end of “to mix intervals.”]

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The reason for using the Fixed-do system in preference to “movable-do” is that solfège is a useful tool, not an obstacle, and the ear learns intervals more accurately if there is an anchor – the gradually acquired sense of where C is – to which all other pitches can be related.

For a little more challenge, and to introduce more difficult intervals, here are three versions of Mozart’s Exercizio per il canto, the original and two complications:

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At this point the scholar is advised to acquire as much speed in solfèging as possible, consistent with clarity and easy articulation on the syllables. The following exercises, purported to come from Porpora, should be solfèged in as rapid a tempo as possible, and transposed for the easy range of the voice.

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There are many other sources for solfeggi, and the more often the student practices with seven syllables in varying tempi and melodic shapes, the better. A random example from Aprile’s 36 Solfeggi is given here.

This is Aprile’s Solfège #1:

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This is his #3:

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And for a bit more challenge, #24:

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Foreman, Edward. A bel canto method: or, How to Sing Italian baroque music correctly based on the primary sources. Vol. 12. Pro Musica Press, 2006.

Quote of the Day

It is a curious but revealing coincidence that specialized breathing exercises originated not only from the time of the heavy orchestrations of late nineteenth century vocal writing, but also from the era when the so-called “Bel Canto” tradition was lost. As the demand for full, opulent voices increased, less attention was apparently directed to the functional mechanics of vocal development, and more to the subjective impressions of singers (many of whom had “natural” voices) who possessed the requisite power to be heard in large houses over modern orchestras. Thus, the pedagogic concerns of training the singing voice were gradually diverted from the core of the functional process (i.e., registration) to secondary concerns such as resonance and volume.

Cornelius Reid, “A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology.”

Registers and Ranges in the Old School

From Edward Foreman:


All of our sources consider the voice to have but two Registers, variously the Natural Voice or Chest Voice, and the Head, Falsetto or Feigned Voice. According to Tosi and Mancini – who were writing about the castrato voice – it was rare to find a voice without a clear division between the Registers, although neither of them used the word “break.” (They imply the single register voices were usually female.) In most cases the Chest Voice was the stronger register, in which case the Head Register was exercised and then the range was extended upwards from the Chest, singing gently without forcing, taking the high notes with sweetness.

No one before Corri actually provides illustrative exercises for extending the Range. (The limits of the Chest Voice given by both Tosi and Mancini are much higher in pitch than those of modern “normal” voices, another indication they are speaking of the castrato voice.) In part because the very young castrati had flexible cartilages and muscles, and it was fairly easy to get the voice to “stretch.”

Corri gives the extent of the Natural Voice as “no more than one Octave and 2 3 or 4 notes beyond […]” He advises the Scholar to attain as much of the Natural Voice as possible, and likens the process to stretching leather – if done gently, it stretches, if done violently, it breaks. When the full extent of the Natural Voice has been achieved, “his great study should be to contrive to unite the Natural to the first Note of the Falsetto, to blend them with such nicety, that the union may be imperceptible.” Transposition may be necessary to accommodate the extent of the Natural Voice without breaking into the Falsetto inappropriately, although it may sometimes make a necessary effect.

Corri gives four exercises for “encreasing [sic] the compass of the Voice.”

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The interesting point about these exercises is that Corri says the compass of the Natural Voice is ordinarily an octave and 2-4 notes, yet he gives a two-octave exercise. (There is corroborative evidence, however. In “The Art of Singing,” a book purportedly written by Luisa Tetrazzini in 1909, she advises that singing this kind of scale will eventually result in smoothing the registers and opening the top of the voice.) Nevertheless, if the singer will assiduously practice these exercises – transposed to a key comfortable for the Natural Voice – and not force the high notes, great benefit will accrue.

Celoni does not mention the Registers, or Range. Manfredini, quoted in the first section, says the vocal range is 12 or 13 notes in the Chest Voice, to which the Falsetto must be joined. Garcia gives an octave and a fifth as the usual range of the voice. Longer ranges were not rare among the castrati, especially in their younger years. Some of the castrato soprano voices sank to contralto, and Farinelli seems to have had at least a three octave range, from C in the bass clef to soprano C above treble clef. No female voices seem to have had as great a range as that, and two octaves was considered quite acceptable for them. Tosi and Mancini are indefinite about Range, beyond their comments on the upper limit of the chest voice. Neither of them suggests a limit on the Falsetto. [Example by Author]

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Since this applies to the castrato voice, it is given here as a curiosity rather than an aid. When the singer has mastered the Messa di voce and the Portamento, extending the range with care, comfort and common sense – while it is painstaking and somewhat tedious – is not difficult. The exercises on the Scaletta, transposing it upwards, followed by Corri’s exercises is as good a way as any, if done rapidly and lightly. There is an old saying: “Quantity first, then comes Quality,” which refers to extending the range and then smoothing the sound.


Foreman, Edward. A bel canto method: or, How to Sing Italian baroque music correctly based on the primary sources. Vol. 12. Pro Musica Press, 2006.

Starting the Voice, According to the Old Masters

The following excerpt is taken from Edward Foreman’s “A bel canto method, or How to Sing Italian Baroque Music Correctly Based on the Primary Sources, Pro Musical Press, 2006.” I am including his footnotes in the BODY for ease of reading in parentheses.

As a private teacher, I can attest to success with the “long tone” and messa di voce in the studio. The difference in the voice over time is significant, and in this blogger’s opinion is one of the vital exercises in the singer’s arsenal. This exercise should be mastered before any such agility exercises are attempted. From a registrational, functional perspective, a sustained tone encourages the action of the chest register, a thyro-arytenoid dominated sound, especially as more volume is added.


Theoretical Discussion: This section deals with the most fundamental moment of training, when actual vocal emission is begun. Presumably the teacher has ascertained if the student possesses the disposizione to become a singer, and may now proceed to undertake lessons.

Practical Exercises

Typically, exercises in intonation went hand-in-hand with the beginning solfeggi. Various authors gave directions for these first exercises, but in general the procedure was to begin with single pitches of a whole note or two duration, accompanied by a messa di voce. 

The first exercise is based on Tosi’s use of the Scaletta, the six-note scale which was the original basis of the modes. It seems easiest to begin with a modest challenge. The messa di voce should be made on each pair of tied whole notes, as indicated, and a breath taken at the comma between tied pairs. The tempo should be as slow as possible without running out of breath. Practice over time will permit the messa di voce to be held longer. [Author, adapted from Tosi.]

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The manner of executing the messa di voce is this:

6. With a relaxed but not limp body, well-balanced on the feet, the chest comfortably open but not rigid, relax the abdominal wall and let the lungs fill with breath.

Author’s Note: Based on the information in the sources, this may be called a “natural” breath, one which is neither forced, contrived nor “managed.” When the abdominal wall is relaxed and the chest does not cave in – erect posture without rigidity – the lungs fill to their comfortable capacity automatically. Since this does not introduce any pressure into the thorax, it takes no energy to maintain a full breath.

7. The articulating of the vowel – “phonation” or “the onset” of the “tone” (Another stuffy point: the voice does not produce “tone.” It produces vowels and only vowels. The origin of the word “voice” is Latin “vox,” which means both vowel and voice. By definition then, the voice is a vowel.) should be carefully attended to. It wants to be neither nasal nor throaty, (Nasality and throatiness – which is extremely prevalent in modern “power” singing – were the two faults most often mentioned in the sources as far back as the Late Renaissance. They are to be avoided and corrected whenever heard.) but rather precise and neat.  The IPA symbol for the preferred vowel is [a], as in “father.”

8. The vowel should commence exactly on pitch – no scooping or sliding – at the softest dynamic level of which the scholar is capable. It is then swelled or crescendoed – increased in volume – through every possible gradation to the loudest comfortable volume, and then decreased by the same gradation back to the original soft volume.

Author’s Note: It is difficult to explain this verbally, but the smoothness of the increase and decrease of volume is essential, as is the “centered” quality of the vowel, which should not seem to touch the sides of the throat or require any effort in the increase or decrease of volume. Modern singers have a tendency to get caught in the throat as they get louder.

One of the principle difficulties arises from trying to describe “how to get louder.” One just does, and trial and error will make this apparently mysterious action quite clear, if the singer bears in mind that neither force nor effort is part of the process, and if the vowel is kept accurate and centered. The tendency to make the simple vowel “interesting” must be avoided, and under no circumstances is it to be “modified” as it rises in pitch.

The vowel [a] should be sounded with the utmost simplicity and directness. The exercise should be done very slowly, the vowel and the steadiness of the messa di voce requiring concentration – without tension – so that the voice can unfold. Daily repetition will increase the steadiness of the sound, the degree of softness and loudness and the length of the messa di voce the scholar can sustain.

This quote from Tosi’s Observations explains it quite well:


Let them be taught to sustain the notes without letting the voice waver or hesitate, and if the teaching begins with a note of two measures length, the profit will be greater; otherwise the inclination which beginners have for moving the voice, and the fatigue of steadying it, will accustom them to not being able to sustain, and they will indubitably have the defect of fluttering, which is always in use by those who sing with the worst taste.

With the same lesson teach them the art of giving the voice, which consists of letting it come out softly from the least piano, so that it goes little by little to the greatest forte, and then returns by the same artifice from the forte to the piano. A beautiful messa di voce in the mouth of a professor who is not stingy with it, and does not use it except on the open vowels, will never fail to make the greatest effect. There are now very few singers who esteem it as worthy of their taste, whether because they love instability in the voice, or because they wish to remove themselves from the despised past.

The “fluttering” to which Tosi refers is the modern “wobble,” not to be confused with the natural vibrato of the steady sound. (There is nowhere in the literature a suggestion that “straight tone” was desired or attempted. This is a vocal anachronism created by tension.)

Author’s Note: The Scaletta from C-A should be comfortable for every voice range, transposing an octave down for low male voices. This first exercise is tedious, but it is necessary to lay a good foundation of simple notes, sung with a steady sound and a clean [a] vowel.

When the Scaletta is mastered, this more ambitious exercise may be undertaken, transposed to suit the comfortable range of the voice. (This purports to be from Nicola Porpora, teacher of Farinelli and Caffarelli, from “Porpora’s Elements of Singing. Adopted by Righini et all eminent Masters since his time. Extracted from the Archives at Naples. Edited by Marcia Harris, Professor of Singing and the Pianoforte, London, 1858.” Several other exercises will be used below.)

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The scale is to be sung slowly on [a], with a breath on each fermata, and as indicated, a messa di voce on each note.

It is hard to know how long this practice should continue, but at least as long as it takes to get it to be easy, and the voice steady, without nasality or throatiness, which are functions of a good vowel concept. The longer the student works with a “pure” [a] vowel, the better.

Foreman, Edward. A bel canto method: or, How to Sing Italian baroque music correctly based on the primary sources. Vol. 12. Pro Musica Press, 2006.

6 Problems With Nose Breathing

  1. Excessive inspiratory effort is required;
  2. It does not, as some believe, “open the pharyngeal resonators;”
  3. It takes too long;
  4. It is noisy;
  5. It tends to tense and raise the chest, and
  6. It prohibits respiratory parts set in motion during inspiration from recovering in time to make swift, easy adjustments for phonation.


Taken from “A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology” by Cornelius Reid.