Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Fifteenth Lesson

Lesson 15

You should now learn the meaning of a few terms used in the study of singing:

Attack. The sounding of a note exactly in pitch, on center of the tone so to speak, without slurring upwards or “scooping.” The vowel must immediately attain its real sound and must not alter its formation or sound as long as you hold it.

Sustaining a tone means to hold it pure and certain without variation in vowel or tone quality and purity. Sustained tones on one single pitch should be an important part in your daily practice.(Ed. Bolding mine) Finish the sound with exactness and without a gasp of escaping air or a grunt.

Portamento means carrying one sound gradually from one tone to another with smoothness. It is either a beautiful form of smoothness and expression or vulgar and “SCOOPING.”

Messa di voce. An Italian term for swelling and diminishing a tone gradually to loudness as desired and gradually returning to much less loudness or what we call “PIANO.”

Piano means softly.

Pianissimo means very softly.

Forte means loudly.

Fortissimo means very loudly.

Mezzo-forte means “half-loudly” or fairly loudly.

Legato means smoothly or “BOUND TOGETHER,” in a very smooth manner.

Staccato means just the opposite of Legato. It signifies “in a detached manner,” each note attacked separately without connection with the notes preceding or following. It demands very clean and clear attack and excellent management of the breath.

These terms will be all you require at present.

You should also provide yourself with a good book of pieces without words.

The books in the series published by G. Schirmer, Inc., of New York City, entitled, “Masterpieces of Vocalization” are excellent. The first volume according to your voice is all you require. These books come arranged for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass.


Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.