Beauty is in the Ear of the Beholder

Remember learning to write?

At the start of the learning process we copied, traced, or imitated. We learned to speak our native language this way as well. Since music is also a language, it makes sense that we would learn to sing by modeling other singers, and monitoring our progress through our EARS.


In kindergarten and first grade we were given several examples of a letter to TRACE over. It gives a kinesthetic feel for the letter and shows how it is written. (Note that students aren’t told how to control specific writing muscles – a point I’ll return to later).  From that point, the page is blank. This allows us to practice, writing with NO guidance. The previously traced model serves as our VISUAL guide. The eye tells us if we have achieved our goal. We’d be able to tell how well we were doing at writing by LOOKING at what we were doing and measuring it against the model.

I believe that this can still be (and historically was) a template for GOOD voice training with the ear as the monitor instead of the eye. Voice-to-voice training took place for hundreds of years – at least from 1300 to 1840. This worked because voice teachers were themselves singers as well as composers. Edward Foreman argues in his book Authentic Singing that the SOUND (ergo the ear) was the guide until the mid-19th century, when Garcia II took pedagogy into an entirely new direction – seeing and controlling parts.

The mechanization of the voice instrument had begun.

This began a confusion and exchange of the senses in voice training that lasted throughout the nineteenth century to the present day.

To reiterate briefly the traditional position: The teacher’s concern was to get the sound right, which proved the rightness of the means of producing the sound. He needed to know little, if anything, of the structure and function of the musculature, relying instead on his ear and upon demonstrated methods of achieving the sound.

Garcia, starting with the mechanism, attempts to explain in what way the sound is produced, how it can be induced and manipulated to achieve the results which were desirable in his own day, results which were at extreme variance with the traditional Italian school.

Imitation is a dirty word in some modern voice teaching circles. With our modern scientific knowledge, we consider imitation as a lesser or cruder form of vocal education, perhaps it’s more primitive, and we prefer to work from a mechanistic/anatomical/acoustic template, knowing what the parts are and what they do.

Some modern pedagogies render a student hyper-conscious of vocal parts instead of focusing on the SOUND. This is a misunderstanding of older ideas that the voice should be managed through INDIRECT as opposed to direct means. Direct (or local) control leads to stiffness, self-consciousness, and constriction. As Cornelius Reid said, “Knowing how the system works is ONE thing, WORKING the system is another.” The admonition to Follow Nature, and Festina Lente (Hasten Slowly) point to a pedagogical philosophy which stands counter to our 21st century system of fast results and vocal tricks.

Taking a detour here into history, Pierfrancesco Tosi (1653-1732) thought words were a bad direction for teaching singing, and asserted that people learn how to sing by SINGING. This gives credence to Foreman’s argument above.

It would be needless to say, that verbal Instructions can be of no Use to Singers, any farther than to prevent ’em from falling into Errors, and that it is Practice only can set them right.

Imitation and modeling offer a way to improve the voice INDIRECTLY, and therein lies its value. But a very important cautiousness should be advised here: MODELS matter. This also from Tosi in 1723:

§ 13. Let him hear as much as he can the most celebrated Singers, and likewise the most excellent instrumental Performers; because, from the Attention in hearing them, one reaps more Advantage than from any Instruction whatsoever.

When the advent of the gramophone took place, great singers were anxious to preserve their voices as a record of excellence in singing. In 1923 soprano Luisa Tetrazzini wrote:

Beyond a doubt the gramophone should be the guide, philosopher and friend, the most trusted and most competent aid and coadjutor – not only to every student but also to every teacher of the present day.

She added:

One would think indeed that the coming generation should provide us with fine singers in such plenty as the world has never known before with the aid of such priceless help.

Singers learned to hear beauty not just in other voices, but in instruments as well. We should take a page from their book, and imitate the best qualities of the violin, the flute, the cello, the trombone, the clarinet, and oboe. As their ears improved, so did their voices.

How singers select models isn’t often discussed because FINDING those models can be challenging. The singing  in Tetrazzini time has changed in the intervening years,  verified by attentive and critical listening. The teacher must have a broad exposure to excellent singing since the dawn of recorded sound. We all generally do not listen broadly and critically ENOUGH.

Returning to our present argument, many children learn to sing freely and easily completely through imitation and modeling of others – through the ear. Personally, that is how I learned to sing. I did not take voice lessons as a child, and I sang quite well. But my models sang well, my mother had a lovely warm alto voice. I also had the benefit of growing up in a very musical home and music was a central part of family ‘togetherness.’

Kenneth H. Phillips in his book Teaching Kids to Sing, Second Edition asserts that children who receive exposure to music will likely become singers.

A number of researchers have investigated the effects of home environment on musical development and singing. One early study reported a strong relationship between the singing of prekindergarten children and their home musical environments (Kirkpatrick, 1962.) Excellent to good environments in which music participation was fostered produced singers and partial singers, with few nonsingers; poor environments in which music participation was not fostered produced no singers and many partial and nonsingers. Another early study found similar results for first-grade children, noting that children who were rated “musical” had frequent opportunities to hear and participate in singing at home (Shelton, 1966.)

My first teachers were the records that I listened to over and over. These albums were mostly in country and popular music, as well as classical singers like Adriana Caselotti from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I modeled my unchanged voice after female singers – which were in hindsight perfect models for a young child’s unchanged voice.

An interesting anecdote: when I was six my mother was on the phone with my grandmother and I traipsed into the kitchen singing the staccati coloratura passages that I had heard Adriana Caselotti sing in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My mother was gobsmacked. She had never heard me sing like that and immediately had me demonstrate over the phone to my grandmother, who also knew singing since she was a public school music teacher for over 30 years.

My 6 year old nephew goofing around can imitate a soprano tone that has all the hallmarks of a lovely head voice. It is clear, resonant, and pure. He is not doing this because he has ‘trained,’ – he can do it because he has the precocious capacity for IMITATION. He is able to HEAR something sympathetically, make a demand from his brain that sends a signal to his voice, and his voice obeys. That’s it. What improves this over time? REPETITION. Much like learning to write, we get better at it because our practice of the model has become automatic. (Sadly for us, we never see – or hear – our idols “rough drafts.”)


If a young singer copies another’s vocal faults as the ideal, then it’s not hard to understand how a singer would struggle with a proper concept of singing. They’ve been copying the WRONG template. You wanted them to learn A but they’re tracing Q. MODELS MATTER!

According to biographers, Nelson Eddy taught himself to sing entirely from recordings of the greatest baritones of his time. Marilyn Horne was a self-admitted mimic, and learned singing as a child in this way. Rosa Ponselle also seems to have learned to sing in a similar fashion.

At nineteen, Nelson had been working for five years but was no closer to the real goal he’d set for himself: to be a singer. Lacking a voice teacher, he set about to teach himself. “I bought records of Campanari and Scotti and Ruffo and Amato and sat listening until I had learned an aria and then I would bawl out the notes at the top of my lungs. Of course I recognized the difference in my handling of the song and the way Caruso would have done it. But then I tried very hard to learn from the masters who sang from the little wax discs. I was used to teaching myself things after so many years of studying without any outside help.”

“I had a good range and plenty of volume — and I would sing to the phonograph accompaniment when guests would visit. And when I’d get to a part of the aria where the difference between my technique and Campanari’s was too obvious, I’d merely stick out my chest and take a long breath and drown Campanari out. It was very effective.”

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

There is also a story of Maria Callas sitting in a cafe with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Milan. Maria asked her how she sang a particular diminuendo in a certain way. Schwarzkopf demonstrated, Callas mimicked her, was content of her observation and sat back down to dinner, having resolved the issue entirely through imitation. There was no in-depth discussion of breathing, resonance, or anything of the like. Just two artists, one providing the model, the other imitating.

Perhaps that is why Old Masters kept singers on long tones for a some time. If you can get a good free tone, and identify it, and HEAR it – then why wouldn’t you build your entire voice from that free, lovely tone? Anything that fell off the model of those beautiful long tones was an aberration – a misdrawn letter A, if you will. The singer would HEAR the error, and correct with the guidance of their ear, and the teacher’s sympathetic ear. Is the tone throaty? Is the tone nasal? No? According to the Old Masters it was perfect. Leave it alone, and work continuously on freedom in the vowel (and therefore the throat). Develop the range with that free sound. Singers in the historical model wouldn’t move on from a long tone until they had established a clear, true pitch and vowel!

The challenge for us in the 21st century is our aural sensitivity has lessened. As Foreman states (again from Authentic Singing): 

We are supposed to be much more sensitive to music than we are. The omnipresence of noise, the increasing complexity of music, and the casual way in which we have allowed ourselves to abuse music as background to every event in our lives has so dulled our sensibilities to music—to all sounds—that the effects which Plato, Aristotle and Aristides Quintilianus attributed to it are no longer consciously available to us. We have lost the capacity for ETHOS. Only in recent years has “the Mozart Effect” been trumpeted as  curative therapy; but the knowledge of such therapies was widespread among the Greeks.

When we write letters, we judge our efforts based on our visual sense. When we sing, we should adjudge our success based on our hearing. Hearing IS the monitor for the sound.

If jerry-rigging with parts is not giving you success in singing, ask yourself if listening needs to retake its place as the guide for your progress.


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

Phillips, Kenneth Harold. Teaching kids to sing. Schirmer, 1992.

Reid, Cornelius L. Bel canto: Principles and practices. Coleman-Ross, 1950.

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

Tetrazzini, Luisa, and Enrico Caruso. Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing. Courier Corporation, 1909.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Opinioni de’cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi… Dedicate a Sua Eccellenza Mylord Peterborough... L. dalla Volpe, 1723.

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