Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Sixth (and final) Lesson

Lesson 36

Select songs with due regard for your own powers. Do not attempt to sing operatic arias when you are unable to sing an even and perfect scale.

Most American singers injure themselves greatly by attempting dramatic music before their voices are developed sufficiently to stand the strain of these dramatic pieces.

The first songs should lie in the easy part of your range, neither high nor very low. They should demand only a short range of notes, certainly not more than ten, i.e., two or three notes more than one octave.

They should also be easy legato songs with no rapid passages, thus giving time for perfect formation of each vowel and syllable.

For your next pieces select some easy songs which move more rapidly, but without elaborate ornamentation.

Now you may choose pieces which demand a longer range of notes and perhaps a little more power.

Finally you may attempt the easier airs from opera, but not until you have studied at least two years, and even three years would be better.

Some numbers from operas are no more taxing than songs. Try these first.

Again I caution you not to practise too long at a time, never to the point of fatigue of voice, throat, or breathing organs.

Stop before you are tired.

In the beginning, twenty minutes, or even fifteen minutes, is enough of practise at one time. Two periods a day may be indulged in with safety. The practise period may be gradually increased after some weeks to half an hour, also twice a day. But if this half hour fatigues the student, it should be curtailed at once. Make haste slowly, and learn to study so that each minute counts. If you really study with mind, ear, and eye, you will learn much in a short time.

Singing is a beautiful art, a charming and delightful accomplishment. It has an appeal all its own, and of all the arts it has perhaps the most direct appeal to many, because its dual mission of interpreting both words and music.

As you progress, study the meaning of the accompaniment of the piece you are singing. Hear what kind of a background it supplies your voice, what picture it paints, or what it suggests. Never slight the accompaniment. And remember that there are not mere ACCOMPANIMENTS or ACCOMPANISTS. The accompaniment is part of the piece, very important, and the one who plays the piece for you is a performer like yourself. Always recognize this fact and give due credit to your accompanist.

The study of a song should not be attempted in the usual superficial manner.

Adopt a definite method of procedure so that you will be imbued with the meaning of the song and the real wishes of the composer.

  1. Read the text of the song. Read it with real intelligence and recite the words two or three times.
  2. Play the song through if you play the piano, or get someone to play it for you. At least you can play the melody and then you can sing the melody quietly and without attempting too much expression, perhaps with the AH using the song as a vocal exercise.
  3. Sing the song through several times until you get the real meaning of both words and melody, and the descriptive effect of the accompaniment. The accompaniment may be merely a background to the melody and words, or it may contribute much in the way of scenic effect or description of nature, or things, or movement such as the dance, or walking, or many other things.
  4. Be sure to get the real meaning of the accompaniment.
  5. Study the mood of the song and decide as to the color of voice demanded, the range of dynamics (loudness or softness), accentuation, size of speech, etc.

You should sing the song before a mirror, watching the facial expression, the attitude of your body, the personal effect you are giving to the message of the song.

You are to be obedient to the will of the composer, but you must also contribute your own self and your own feelings to what the composer has given you to work with.

If you have a good accompanist use him as a critic regarding your diction and expression. Be sure to have the accompaniment and your voice adjusted to the best effect, in absolute sympathy.

This is especially important in respect to tempo and dynamics.

Do not humor yourself for reasons of imperfect technique and thereby destroy rhythm. Feel the real movement of the piece and never allow it to be interrupted.

If you have trouble in singing certain passages or notes, speak the words clearly and freely several times and then sing the passage again. If this does not suffice, use the arm gestures to aid the breathing and poise, try some phonetics allied with the vowels you are attempting on the pitch and then try the passage again.

It takes patient and continued study to work out a real interpretation of a song. Above all, SING GOOD MUSIC.


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