Foreman’s Historical Perspectives – Traditional Teaching: The “Natural” Voice, Part II

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

E. Herbert-Caesari, one of the most prolific authors, gives us this definition of the natural voice:

A completely natural voice is one that, without training, is able to articulate, enunciate, and sustain with perfect ease and freedom all vowels an all pitches in its particular compass. In other words, a voice that has no mechanical defects or difficulties, no matter the pitch or the vowel on that pitch, a voice in which exact laryngo-pharyngeal adjustments obtain automatically at any and every pitch with any and every vowel within its compass, a voice that will sing on any pitch within its compass with any and all vowels, sing and sustain with ease and freedom. A completely natural voice while acoustically perfect and physiologically balanced is not necessarily beautiful (although it often is); it can possess mechanical perfection and yet be divorced from beauty. [Italics his.]1

Of course Herbert-Caesari is speaking of a voice which has been trained in his particular system of “natural singing.” And here’s the inevitable rub: He recognizes two kinds of “natural”:

  1. The completely untrained voice, which Herbert-Caesari mentions in a footnote in this same chapter;
  2. The voice assiduously trained to avoid mechanical or physiological considerations, to sing “spontaneously” and “without thought.”

His “natural” training requires complicated diagrams of the singer’s sensations in order to be “spontaneous” and “without thought”:

The following diagram illustrates theoretically the relation between primary element and secondary element, that is, vocal cords and resonance. It is intimately connected to the triangle of laryngeal settings (platforms).2

From which we deduce that the greater or thicker the primary element (vocal cords) the smaller, and lower, the resonance; and vice versa, the smaller the primary element the greater, and higher, the resonance.

The following diagram illustrates the same principle in another way: in which the four lines correspond to four laryngeal adjustments, or platforms, and the dotted lines to the relative resonances.3

The student must bear in mind that size of platform and shape of vowel are physiologically and acoustically inseparable concomitants in good singing.4

So much for a “natural approach” to teaching voice. Herbert-Caesari is an extreme example of the manipulative, overly-intellectual and analytic approach to voice, despite a long friendship with Beniamino Gigli, who wrote an “Introductory Lesson” for a later Herbert-Caesari book, The Voice of the Mind.

Gigli’s “Lesson” has several italicized insertions by Herbert-Caesari “explaining” what Gigli means in terms of Herbert-Caesari’s methods. Gigli, widely considered a “natural” singer in both senses above, and a fellow-student with Herbert-Caesari of Cotogni in Rome, speaks mostly of the need for pure Italian vowels, and easy low breathing. There is nothing here of “platforms” or “laryngeal adjustments.”

It is not my intention to ridicule Herbert-Caesari, but to point out the seeming anachronism of preaching a “natural” approach and then gumming up the works with an imagery that is based on sensations—which notoriously differ from singer to singer—and a good deal of pseudo-physiology and a complex intellectual structure.5

If we contrast Herbert-Caesari with David C. Taylor’s approach—both of them claiming to be rooted in the old Italian school, and citing some of the same “maxims” like “the voice on the breath”—we find Taylor eminently practical, perhaps simplistic:

A single half-hour of practice will suffice for anyone to grasp and to apply the old masters’ principle of vocal management. Begin by singing a sustained tone on the vowel ah, on any note in the medium range of the voice. Just sing the tone steadily and listen to it. Repeat this on various notes, higher and lower. Then sing a few tones with nasal quality, and a few more of a throaty type. Once more sing some pure tones, free from the faults of nasality and throatiness. Naturally these will sound vastly better than the faulty tones. Try again, seeking to improve even on the correct tones; make them clearer, purer, and more beautiful. Practise now for fifteen or twenty minutes in this way. As you hold a tone, listen to it. Sing it again, and make it more musical. Let your ear tell you in what respect it falls short of the ideally perfect tone you have in mind, and sing it a third, a fourth, and a fifth time, with each repetition striving to come closer to your mental ideal. Vary the experiment by singing scales as well as single tones. If you have never tried to sing in this way, you will be surprised to see how perfectly your voice responds to your ear, and to your mental demand for pure musical tones of beautiful quality.

So soon as you have satisfied yourself by a practical demonstration that you can govern your voice through the influence of your sense of hearing, and have seen how easy it is while singing to center the attention on sensations of sound, you have grasped the fundamental principle of vocal management embodied in the old Italian method.

This does not mean that your tone production will necessarily be perfectly correct, as the result of one half-hour’s practising. It means simply that you are singing in the manner which leads ultimately to perfect tone production. So far as the manner of controlling the vocal organs is concerned, absolutely nothing more than this was taught by the old masters. Their method of instruction consisted of exercises of various kinds, to be sung with various tone qualities and degrees of power. But the student always addressed himself to the act of singing in the spirit just described. He simply practised the exercises assigned to him at each lesson, and sang them with the tone qualities prescribed by the teacher. To obtain the required quality of tone he simply had this quality in mind, listened to his own voice, and at every instant compared the tones he sang with the tones mentally conceived.

A vocal teacher can begin at once to apply this principle in instruction. It will be necessary however to abandon entirely the mechanical principles of present methods. The two cannot be combined, for each contradicts the other. If the voice is to operate according to its own instincts, it must be allowed to do so without interference. In the same way, when the formation of the voice’s tone is consciously regulated, there is no scope for instinctive action.”6

But as he insists—despite his reliance on those invented “maxims”—simplicity and repetition were cornerstones of the old Italian school. In that he is quite correct, and other attempts to “explain” the old Italian school in more modern terms always sound like special pleading, like an attempt to justify “scientific” observations.7

An egregious example of this is Franklyn Kelsey’s article “Voice-Training,” in Grove V.8 He starts out innocently enough by discussing what few instructions there were in the Italian school before Garcia, then he garbles in advice from Jenny Lind and the Garcia school, spends a long section on establishing a “method” of controlled breathing based on the “floating maxim” Chi sa respirare sa cantare [He who knows how to breathe knows how to sing]—which he wisely does not attribute, since it can’t be found in the literature—cites the “voice on the breath” and provides a purely mechanical explanation in modern terminology of how the old Italian school must have taught breathing in order to achieve the results which he believes were those of a self-conscious control of the voice from the breathing mechanism.

It’s a circular muddle, and wisely is not included in New Grove.


  1. Herbert-Caesari, E.: The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone, A School of Natural Vocal Mechanics. London, 1936, 1968, p. 4.
  2. Op. cit., p. 42.
  3. Loc. cit.
  4. Op. cit., p. 43.
  5. Herbert-Caesari, The Voice of the Mind. London, 1951 and 1963, pp. 19 ff.
  6. Taylor, op. cit., pp. 123-5.
  7. Cf. Stark, James: Bel Canto, mentioned previously.
  8. Franklyn Kelsey, article “Voice-Training,” Grove V, 9, pp. 43-66.