The voice is a donkey; it wants working every day

“Our exponent (Riccardo Daviesi) would preamble the first lesson by stressing the importance of la ginnastica vocale, vocal gymnastics, by means of a series of well-devised exercises to render the vocal muscles supple, pliant and resilient, and build into the whole apparatus a finely balanced well-tempered strength and stamina with powers of rapid adjustment, fully aware of course that suppleness, resiliency, responsiveness, strength and stamina reside primarily in the mind, and that these and all other contributing factors are susceptible of development into mental muscles. Everything possible was done to cultivate the student’s mental realm as the prime mover of things vocal.

Some of the vocalizzi consisted of very slow, more than adagio, ascending scales. Two in particular (now almost forgotten and rarely, if ever, employed today) took anything from twenty to twenty-five minutes to cover the entire compass, with, naturally, short intervals of rest; fifteen to thirty seconds is often sufficient, as the recovery rate of the laryngo-pharyngeal muscular system from physical fatigue is extraordinarily rapid. These slow, very slow plodding vocalises are grand voice-builders in every sense. In slap-dash today they are not popular. The tempo of living has reached accelerando and there seems little time, or desire, for the festina lente of yore. Students-cum-singers were once encouraged to exercise their voices daily even in the fullness of an operatic career in order to retain flexibility, suppleness, rapid adjustability, and the pristine freshness of the voice. I well remember the famous Antonio (“Toto”) Cotogni telling me in 1907: “The voice is a donkey; it wants working every day.” He meant rock-bottom exercises, and not songs and arias. We all know how Battistini, a brilliant product of the Old School, kept up his daily vocalizzi even when advanced in years. Inversely, today the tendency is that “exercises are old-fashioned, and not necessary”. So also this vital voice-preserving, athletic vocal training has gone by the board. Is it a coincidence that in all sports the athletes who train the best and the most, with continuity, are generally the winners?”

Herbert-Caesari, Edgar F. Tradition and Gigli, 1600-1955. Hale, 1958.

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