What Teachers Knew, or Less Information, More Knowledge?

From Edward Foreman’s massive must-read text, “Authentic Singing: The history of singing” published by Pro Musica Press in 2001. There is NO text that brings together such a wide-ranging view of the history of the vocal art and craft. 


Bear in mind that nothing accurate was known about the physio-mechanical function of the vocal organs before Garcia II invented laryngoscope around 1855.

The prevailing theory of phonation was that of Galen:

“Voice could not be formed unless the passage is narrowed. For if the whole should lie widely open… voice could in no way be produced; for if the breath pass out gently, expiration is made without sound; but should it be sent forward in the volume suddenly and with vehemence, what is called a sigh occurs. In order, however, that the animal may emit voice it requires, no doubt, the motion of the breath, but none the less the narrowing of the channel in the larynx; not a simple narrowing, but one which can buy degrees be constricted and by degrees relaxed. Such as what the body we are dealing with effects accurately, and hence I call it the glottis or tongue of the larynx.”

Leonardo da Vinci had theorized that the windpipe must contract and expand in order to be like the pipes of an organ to produce the various pitches, but this theory was discarded by Marin Mersenne, who realized there was not enough room in the throat for such an action.

The investigations of Antoine Ferrein describe the true nature of the larynx, but he had not seen the living larynx in the process of producing sound. It was Ferrein who likens the action of the vocal folds to a stringed instrument and first called the lips of the glottis cordes vocales (vocal cords). It remained for Garcia II and those who followed him, laryngoscopes and other apparatuses in hand, to see the vocal folds in action.

Therefore, all voice teachers had to go on was analogies between the voice – which they could only see from the outside – and manufactured instruments as mechanical principles they understood. Two precepts emerge from the literature before 1840:

  1. The voice is like a flute, the glottis– a word taken from the Greek of Galen, denoting the reed of the aulos – producing the sound in a manner similar to a reed or the head of a transverse flute, or the fipple of the flageolet (recorder);
  2. The larynx was seen to rise in producing ascending scales or high notes, and lower in the production of low notes or descending scales.

In addition, it was obvious that the breath was controlled at the glottis – probably – by the vowel, and that control of the voice was gained by practicing sustained tones. At first the messa di voce was used in the very first lessons to stabilize the voice. Since it is an isometric exercise, it would also strengthen the voice and make the sound very firm and almost without vibrato, except for the natural vibration which is part of any sound.

This concept is the basis for calling ornaments gorga or gorgheggi in the earliest writings, since it involves a rapid and even movement of the laryngeal musculature – the throat, or gorga. Later names for florid passages, coloratura and agilitá,  are derived in the first instance from the color of the many fast notes on the page, and in the second, from the rapidity of the movements of the throat itself.

“Breath control” was not taught separately since it was part of the messa di voce, which automatically regulates the breath in the efficiency of the swelled and diminished sound.

Instructions in posture – including freedom from inappropriate wiggling about, and grimacing– were designed to free the voice from localized tensions, although it is improbable that this concept was consciously understood. Since this instruction included avoiding raising the shoulders, breathing would not have been clavicular, or high; standing still implies the chest would have been in active as well.

There are instructions which seem to suggest lifting the chest and holding it, but they are late in the period, and must be seen as relative to “normal” posture. It is unlikely that the rigidity of the modern”military brace” was ever permitted. Very little advice concerning specifics of posture is to be found in the early literature, except in those instances where it is obvious that a choir master is dealing with fractious young pupils.

Dominating the literature is the time required to accomplish mastery of the voice. Starting with repetition of simple exercises, and proceeding slowly to more complex figures, the voice was expanded in range and trained in agility. The messa di voce in its various forms insured a steady sound and the play of light and shadow called chiaroscuro  which was both a subtle interplay of timbres and nuances of intensity and volume.

In essence, this is the vocal omission which people mean when they talk about “Bel canto.” The legends surrounding singers like Farinelli, Marchesi, Pacchierotti, and the earlier Pistocchi and Bernacchi, have created a magnificent blind spot in the minds of teachers and singers alike, when they believe that a “revival” of the methods of “Bel canto” would provide some kind of magical solutions the vocal malaise of whatever period they’re talking about.

A source of considerable confusion is the question of the falsetto/head voice versus the chest voice. It is fairly obvious that in the early writings, “chest voice” referred not to a range, but to a sound quality different from the falsetto, and that all voice categories except “falsettists” were thought to sing in the chest voice no matter what pitch range was natural to their voices.

Modern vocal pedagogy differentiates registers on the basis of pitch ranges. Garcia’s (1847) were the first detailed descriptions, and are still generally accepted by teachers;

Contralto, Mezzo-Soprano and Soprano:

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Bass and Baritone:

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All of Garcia’s discussion of register violates the traditional nomenclature which may be deduced from the earlier writings. I believe this is because he was embarking on a new definition of registers in order to produce a new kind of voice, and careful scrutiny of his Chapter II, “Classification of Cultivated Voices,” reveals the direction his investigations were taking him.

The following is his “Picture of the classification of voices”:

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Garcia reminds us that the classical range for all voices was:

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And that any additional notes above or below her left of the skill and ability of the singer. He also mentions singers who had unusual ranges, and among haute-contres he names Rubini and Haitzinger.

Modern vocal pedagogy has in general accepted these outlines of the ranges of voices, although nearly every teacher will have encountered individuals who do not fit the neat categories, and whose voices do not operate according to “the rules” suggested by these outlines.

Is my general observation that for all his methodical analysis of registration, Garcia got it wrong, espousing a three-register system which results in the erection of a three-tiered voice with “joints” at the intersections of the registers.

This leaves unanswered the following questions:

  1. Why did the 18th Century teachers recognize only two registers?
  2. How is it that other ways than Garcia’s of employing the registers produce different, often more satisfactory results?

When Tosi and Mancini advise teaching sopranos how to use the falsetto, they are probably speaking only of castrati, which leads to the obvious conclusion the other voices stayed in the chest voice, and that acquisition of the falsetto was a matter of range for the castrati. The general picture of the castrati is that they lost their upper ranges fairly early and settled into the alto range; some, like Pistocchi and Bernacchi, were always altos.

It was said of Conforto, who was a falsettist, that he “sang as high as the stars,” which implies that he did not sing in the alto range at all. On the other hand, the male alto falsettist had been known for a very long time in Italy, and presumably some version of it is familiar to us from English cathedral choirs.

We will, unfortunately, never know how the castrati dealt with ranges and registers, and our understanding of these questions in terms of modern voices has been confused by our experience with the male “falsetto” register as heard in the voices of singers like Alfred Deller, and the recent spate of “countertenors,” who are really falsettists. It is further clouded by the appearance of some “soprano falsettists” like Randall Wong.

The conclusion which we might draw is that the “classical range” of an octave and a fifth represented the “chest voice” in every singer, and that natural variations account for the extension of range of some singers, until sometime in the late 18th century, when tenors begin to extend the range by developing a “male alto” extension above the chest voice. It is almost always of tenors that the objection is made “he used the falsetto too much.”

That solution leaves many unanswered questions, but we ought to remember that, despite the furor made now over the “High C from the chest” of Duprez, it was the timbre oscure which upset the academic and scientific auditors.

The story of Rubini cracking his clavicle while singing a “High B” would sustain this theory, since the note was obviously one which he had sung before, and the stress was brought on by his forcing the voice when the note refuse to speak as it normally did. 

These voices are gone forever, without a sonic trace. All we have is their music and contemporary comments about their singing, much of which is from England, and is perhaps biased by fundamental resistance to Italian singers at their most expansive.

After about 1840, the composer – as differentiated from the earlier singer-composer or composer-singer – begin to design music differently. This was clear in Verdi’s Nabucco, in which he threw down the gauntlet of dramatic expression at the expense of “vocal” composition. In Verdi’s hands the singer became a vehicle for melodramatic passion without due regard for the nature of the voice or the traditions of vocal composition. Verdi was not alone in this, but was the most influential composer, because he was prolific, popular and much imitated.

The old traditional methods of vocal emission were not sufficient for Verdi’s operas, and only barely for those of Donizetti and Bellini; a whole generation of singers destroyed themselves trying to play “catch up.” It remained for a new generation, emerging in the 1850s to offer new solutions to the new problems posed by 19th-century operatic writing.

The situation in the voice studios was chaotic; nobody knew how to cope with the larger orchestras, the higher tessituras, and the basically declamatory nature of the new operas. A return to the old traditional methods of teaching would have been possible only if composers had returned to the older styles of writing for the voice; and that was not in the cards.

There is no question that by about 1870, a new kind of vocal emission had been worked out. Actually, several kinds appeared, each promising the singer a secure vocal emission for the new music. Almost without exception, they were based on “breath management,” manipulation of the registers in a new way, and a consistent forcing of the voice which produced a cutting edge to compete with the thick orchestrations.

The new methods were the result of the widespread adoption of “science” to the voice; it had become the trendy watchword of the up-to-date teacher, and the literature became crowded with conflicting explanations of how every aspect of vocal emission worked as demonstrated by anatomists, laryngologists and physicists.

Apparently it never occurred to anyone amidst the welter of “discoveries” about the voice – Seiler’s “flageolet register,” the various types of breathing and “resonances” – that the nature of the instrument itself had undergone no significant changes since the dawn of time. It is the the sign of the impact of Darwin’s theory that humans began to study themselves in different way; and of course the way predicted the outcome.

The commonsense empirical observations of the old Italian teachers were relegated to oblivion in favor of novel theories which turned out to be fancy variations on local manipulation of unseen and unsalable functions.

Teachers had more information and less knowledge.

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