Cultivation vs. Production in the Voice Studio

One of the most interesting words that comes up over and over again in treatises and writings on the singing voice pre-1850 is the world CULTIVATION.

Books on singing from pre-1850 or so are entitled, “Bassini’s Art of singingan analytical, physiological and practical system for the cultivation of the voice.” Another singing text is “Baker’s Formation and Cultivation of the Voice: A Complete and Practical Method of Vocalization, Consisting of Every Variety of Scale Exercises and Solfeggios, Progressively Arranged, and Adapted to the Wants of Beginners and Advanced Pupils in the Art of Singing.

Analogies of planting and farming go all the way back to the Italian singing masters Tosi and Mancini. In his book on singing from 1774 Mancini invokes an analogy to farming:

“Art consists in knowing where nature directs us, and to what we have been destined; understanding at once the gifts of nature, cultivating them easily, man can perfect himself; how sure is harvest for the attentive farmer, who has observed and understood the different seeds, which are fecund in diverse types of earth.”

The analogy of cultivation from an agrarian society makes total sense: the pace of life was much slower. Anyone who ever spent time or grew up on a farm (as I did) knows that the cycles of planting and harvest aren’t quick. You have to WAIT for those buds to bud. It’s NOT a quick fix to plant something in the ground and expect instant results. Mums must be planted in the summer for a fall harvest.

The training of singers up to that point in time was a daily affair that lasted for 7-8 years. While considerable, efforts were able to be made over a gradual period, and voices were able to bloom in their own time.

However, a dramatic shift occurred in vocal pedagogy in the mid-nineteenth century, and the word voice CULTIVATION began to be replaced by voice PRODUCTION. Books appeared on the shelves of music stores like Wesley Mills “Voice Production in Singing and Speaking,” and Floyd S. Muckey’s “The Natural Method of Voice Production in Speech and Song” which included a picture of the author at some supposed contraption that was helping him with his voice “production”. Henry Harper Hulbert’s text “Breathing for Voice Production” showed all about how to produce the voice with the proper exercises of the lungs and torso. Pattou’s “The Art of Voice-Production” is another text in that vein.

From my research the word PRODUCTION did not enter the vocabulary of the singer and the voice teacher until about 1850-1860. So, what changed that affected that shift in wording with regard to developing the human voice?

My take is that the zeitgeist of the 1800s affected how voices were trained.  With the impact of the Industrial Revolution, people were looking for ways of ‘speeding up’ processes that normally took great amounts of time. It would only be natural for vocal pedagogy to take a share in the cultural shift toward greater efficiency and faster development. Hence, a shift into a mode of ‘producing’ voices instead of ‘cultivating’ them. Vocal science also came into the voice studio, and many writers and authors point to this as the watershed moment in voice training.

Manuel Garcia II wasn’t immune from this cultural temptation of productivity and heightened awareness of science. His inventing of the laryngoscope was done in an effort to ‘speed up training.’ However, Morell Mackenzie (1837-1892) said that “once the laryngoscope was invented, it threw the whole training process into chaos, because people stopped listening to the voice and began to LOOK at it.”

Salvatore Marchesi had this to say in his book “A Vademecum for Singing-teachers and Pupils” (1902):

But Manuel Garcia, when trying to investigate the mechanism of the vocal organ, aimed exclusively at establishing a rational physiological system for the production and development of the voice in connection with the art of song, and proposed putting an end, if possible, to the dangerous interference of dabblers. We regret having to place on record the fact that the great man did not see his aspirations realized. On the contrary, the new scientific path he had opened to the cultivation of the human voice fell a prey to empiricism ; thousands of undesirable meddlers seized upon the subject and brought about confusion, and, as a consequence, the inevitable decline of the finest of all the fine arts.


Marchesi also had this to say about doctors and speech therapists encroaching into the arena of the voice trainer:

With regard to laryngologists who publish works on “voice-production” and “voice-culture,” I declare openly that they betray their moral, human, and scientific mission, which should be to visit patients and cure diseases of the throat. Instead of so doing, through the publication of books on “voice-production,” complicated with scientific quotations and dilemmas, and consequently out of proportion to the general standard of instruction, they create unconsciously a number of physical disorders and diseases among singing people, and thus contribute to the decline of the art of song. Teachers and scholars, reading a work published under the authority of a well- known laryngologist’s name, try to adopt the new theories proposed by the author, understanding them but partially, incorrectly, or not at all, and viewing the new dilemmas in the light of their own intelligence and knowledge. In so doing, through the inadequate interpretation of what they read, they invent false theories of their own, and ruin thousands of the best voices.


Music style also shifted as well. The humanism of the Enlightenment looked upon the practice of castration as barbarous, and so by the middle of the 1800s there were no more castrati to be found on the stages of the opera centers of the world. The opera buffa also sounded a death knell to the castrato voice: there were no parts in comedy for the evirati. Their voices were more suited to serious opera. So, the virtuoso training practices of these singers were gradually neglected or lost over time. Rossini was one of the last composers who had been highly influenced by the singing of the castrati that he had heard in his youth. Rossini’s music still carried much of the tradition of this earlier school in its approach to vocal display and ornamentation.

Orchestral demands also changed the way singers trained their voices. Orchestrations thickened and suddenly singers had to ‘compete’ with larger symphonic sound. The orchestrations for Bellini’s Norma and Beethoven’s Fidelio are distinctly different. It’s interesting to note that for those singers that had been trained along Old Italian school lines, they remarked they were able to sing all styles of music. The older training was still seen as superior to any newer ‘methods’ of singing. Adelina Patti had never heard the word ‘diaphragm’ until she visited the voice studio of Jean De Reszke in Paris.

It’s interesting to live with this word CULTIVATION in the voice studio. I have come to embrace it as I work with all types of singers to help them understand the path of learning to sing. CULTIVATION to me speaks of indirectness, an allowing of something to happen, and a ‘weeding out’ of improper response. PRODUCTION on the other hand reminds me of DIRECT controls, DOING something, MAKING something happen, and SPEED, as well as conformity and corporatism. I find the latter incongruent with the Old Italian School. By working indirectly on the voice through combinations of vowel, volume, pitches, and consonants, I’m able to cultivate the inherent ‘seed’ that is already in the voice, waiting to be developed at the right time and harvested for a beautiful performance.

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