(Editor’s note: Because I have the highest regard for Foreman’s writing and stunning scholarship, as well as his ethics and values with regard to singing, I am reprinting this article in its entirety. Mr. Foreman has shared this article with me directly, and I wish to distribute it to a larger readership. The reader would do well to consider its points when examining pedagogical texts. Foreman’s arguments are shared by the author of this blog. -JJP)
There is an unfortunate tendency among the most well-intentioned writers on singing to preface their remarks with some version of “of course you can’t learn to sing from a book” and then go on to attempt to contradict that obvious truth. There have been examples of this since the early 19th century, although some of the authors didn’t make the disclaimer overtly. Unfortunately I have met some singers who believed they had learned to sing from a book, and always sounded like it. It is somehow safer, or more reliable, to try to learn to sing from a recording.
Nowadays, there is such a load of “scientific” jargon in most books on singing as to make them incomprehensible and doubly useless to the autodidact. If there is any meaningful information in those books, it requires an intimate knowledge of one’s own anatomy in order to apply it.
Doubtless it is extremely useful to someone to know exactly how the vocal folds and the breath interact to produce sound, and which muscles are involved in each step of the process, but putting a name to a muscle is not the same as feeling how it works.
The problem which bedevils books on singing is unique: Singing is an auditory phenomenon which requires an ear capable of distinguishing good function from bad by sound, and we haven’t quite worked out a way to accomplish that by ourselves. All the descriptions, all the terminology, cannot convey what is heard, or should be heard, to anyone, either singer or reader.
Modern books on singing are made more problematic because while we know how bad singing is now, we don’t know how to fix it. “Science” has not come up with esthetic judgments, nor is there general agreement on vocabulary or on the actual mechanics of the voice. The end result of this is general disagreement about the aims and the methods of teaching vocal emission.
Only rarely do we encounter a book about singing in which the few good points of contemporary singing are pointed out and suggestions made for sensible improvements. The general run of books is about some new method or revolutionary technique which will magically enable any singer to sing the way everyone else does now. This is a little footless considering how poorly the vast majority of singers sing, how short their viable careers, and how ugly are the individual sounds they make.
Then we have the books which purport to teach the Old Italian method, or bel canto as it is misnamed, as a panacea for every vocal problem. This is futile, since history demonstrates that the Old Italian method—by which we more accurately designate the vocalism of the Baroque period—already proved completely inadequate by 1840, when a crisis in vocal emission caused teachers to begin to rethink the whole question of how the voice should be produced to meet the demands of the new music.
Their response invariably brought the words “pressure” and “effort” into the discussion, both words which should be anathema to the singer, even when cloaked with the specious respectability of “scientific” definition. I have never encountered a book written since 1800 in which any writer was not attempting, overtly or covertly, to explain that he had found the one and only way to sing; and almost all of them employ “pressure” and “effort” in one guise or another.
Does this mean there should be a moratorium on books on singing? Probably. Until we have so thoroughly studied the Old Italian texts—of which there are very few—and extracted some wisdom about the limits of the safe and healthy use of the voice, no one should be permitted to expound an approach to singing which employs “scientific” terms, or the words “pressure” and “effort.”
Since the majority of books on singing are about the vocal emission of the generation to which the author belongs, we should stop reading anything written after 1825, except for texts which can serve as really bad examples of the wrong way to sing. These should be studied as admonitions not to do it that way.
We should particularly avoid any texts which continue to promulgate the present deplorable vocal emission and do not deal with the narrow and ill-defined difference between the vocal abuse which usually results from singing music composed since 1825, and a healthy, acoustically secure sound which, while it will not give the volume and crude power of contemporary vocal emission, will at least permit the singer to have a career of a decent length without subjecting his listeners to the signs of early decay.
The early texts can guide us to a definition of that difference, and help the singer to find a reliable and healthy way of producing the voice.
Contemporary books are a little more problematic. I am currently looking over a book by an author who apparently thinks everything that has been written before him is “historical.” He quotes Italian phrases which may or may not have been used in the 19th century as though they explained the 18th century pedagogical principles. This is not as damaging as if he were relying on earlier pedagogy to prove his points, but it is an example of the sloppy thinking that muddies the waters and manages to obscure the real content of the older texts. It is especially annoying when we realize that the majority of 19th century sources are vain attempts to deal with a deteriorated vocal pedagogy which had lost its way and severed the connection to the older tradition.
Addendum in Light of Recent Experience
I have neglected a particularly pernicious species of books, those which teach the author’s personal language of singing, usually combined with claims to teach bel canto. The invention of terms which are purportedly either implied in the traditional literature or proposed as “rational” explanations of terms found in the traditional literature is dangerous and misleading. The invention of terms peculiar to the teacher’s own “system” is less so, because there is no rationale behind them except the necessity to clothe imagery in a vocabulary unique to one’s own students. The sole justification I can find for this is the immediate recognition of students of a particular teacher by other of his or her students. There is a certain clubbiness and exclusion inherent in such a vocabulary, even if we ignore the difficulties of imagery which supersedes the physical realities of the singing act.
The most recent example of this to come my way combines a new vocabulary of inflated imagination with the disclaimer that singing is very simple—one can hardly disagree with the obvious while deploring the need for a complex series of images both verbal and pictorial—and one is reminded of early books based on various forms of imagery which remain incomprehensible until explained in person by the teacher who invented them.
There is no doubt that the accurate vocabulary of singing is frustratingly limited, the teacher struggles constantly to find ways to communicate the simplest concepts to the singer and to remain fresh and challenged in his or her daily work. It is remarkable—in every sense of the word—that this often results in the development of a “method” couched in esoteric language and staggering in its technical instructions.
Garcia II, who probably taught longer than any other teacher—he lived to be 101 and taught from the early 1830s until very shortly before his death in 1906—admitted shortly before his demise that his famous Traité did not represent his teaching over the past several decades. The Traité is remarkably free from the kind of jargon which mars so many of its descendants.
In the present day books on singing are justified if they offer something hopeful to the teacher and student. It is difficult to believe that any new approaches to vocal emission are possible, although new ways of thinking about the voice—or the revival of traditional ways of thinking—may provide some sanity in an age of confusion.
The great problem facing teachers is the lack of time for concentration on the simple routine of learning how the voice works most efficiently with the least effort on the singer’s part. The demands upon teacher and student both in the academic context of the majority of teaching defeat the necessarily slow and meticulous interaction which produces healthy vocalism.
No book can reduce the time it takes to learn vocal emission. There are no shortcuts—on this most authors agree even while they disagree on the means of learning—but the non-musical demands on the student’s time create an unsettled climate within which the voice struggles for its necessary primacy.
My first teacher encouraged me to read as many books on voice as possible—he had a large library at his disposal and guided my choices—since he knew my inquiring mind would sort and sift and ask questions, a process which often confused me but provided an invaluable overview of the literature and stimulated my interest in the intellectual pursuit of the art of singing. At some level he was aware of the nature of my interest in the voice and that I would ultimately become much more interested in teaching than in performance.
“About Books on Singing” article by Edward V. Foreman, date unknown, unpublished.