A Tour of Vocal Studios in Italy in the Year 1893-1894

“Recently in looking through a twenty years accumulation of papers and documents of more or less interest, we found an old note book in which were memoranda made during the years 1893-1894 while sojourning in Europe for the purpose of making observations of musical education in general, and voice matters in particular.

It was thought that some of these memoranda would be interesting to the readers of this department, partly because of the suggestions therein contained, and partly as giving some data by which to estimate the progress of voice teaching in the last twenty years; some ideas that were not generally received then have become the commonplaces of today.

Vocal Ideas From an Italian Source

Signor G. in one of the musical centers of Italy occupied a high official position and was the teacher of some artists of eminence. He exercised pupils with runs almost entirely, no sustained notes, and made exclusive use of “ah” for this practice. He said that one should not show the teeth in vocalizing but should keep them covered. Neither did he sanction sensation of tone high in the head, saying that it makes the voice too sombre. He would have the pupil “fill the mouth full of vibrations” and feel the voice not behind the bridge of the nose but in and about the ears. In explaining his he pointed to the cheek bones. Breathing was to be with the diaphragm, though in showing how, Signor G. raised his shoulders. He advocated covered tone in the upper voice and used the term “mixed voice” in connection with tones of the male voice at G (fourth space, bass clef). He advocated putting force into the voice in practicing and quoted Signor Marchese to that effect. Nearly all the pupils had a marked tremolo; and our impression was of voices being driven into place rather than being “built.” This teacher did not approve of the modern Italian songs by composers like Tosti and Denza; he used the old classics of the Pergolese and Scarlatti period in addition to work with modern opera.

Signor L.’s pupils, eight of whom we heard, did not use the far forward tone that we associate with Italian singing; indeed some of them showed quite sombre tones in the lower voice. But they sang well and with even voices.

His exercises were scales and runs, but we heard no hint of how the voice or the breath was to be used in doing them. These pupils of Signor L., had loose breathy low notes; but their high notes were brilliant and good.

Signora F., a conservatory teacher, told us that she did very little explaining – that pupils would not understand; but there were no pauses in her work with each pupil at a lesson and the singing was good in the Italian style, with tremolo. This teacher used the Crescentini vocalizes with the vowel ah, also scale work. In seven lessons we did not hear her refer to breathing. The singing was with mouth sometimes widely open and sometimes nearly closed. The middle notes of these pupils, all ladies, were strengthened by carrying up something very like chest tones, which, however, the teacher said were not in that register. She seemed not to be particular about the first head tones which were sometimes hard like many of the German voices. Her work with operatic arias was closely analytical and effective. Her voice sounded worn and had some nasal twang in it; but it served to illustrate all points in agility and expression.

Signor V., a popular teacher, with at least one of the opera artists in his class, appeared to do more detailed work with voices. We heard in his studio some fine elastic mezza-voice exercises sung without external effort unless it were in a slightly forward position of the lower jaw. Signor V. used the early Lamperti exercises with lah, lay, lee, lo, loo, directing that the voice be up in the head and forward. He required pupils while singing vowel elements to hold the lips so as to show the teeth; this applied even to oo. We did not hear him speak of breathing or registers to any of his pupils; but there was some forcing of registers upward in the exercises. Some of his work struck us as rough. One young lady, working up to it with transpositions, sang this exercise at this pitch:

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This performance, repeated several times, was accompanied with spasms of effort in the pharynx which hurt our feelings, whatever it may have done to the lady’s voice. There was some beautifully rich and expressive singing by some of the pupils; but the trail of the tremolo was over them all.”

Root, Frederick. “Observations on Voice Study in Europe”, Etude Magazine,  June 1913:

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