Conscious or Unconscious?

I remain convinced that voice training is a process that must be done through indirect rather than direct means. Localization of effort in any zone of the instrument leads to unnecessary muscularization, interference, and self-consciousness. The voice must be allowed to literally grow from within.

The concept of direct versus indirect control is a vital pedagogical question we must answer, as it frames and guides everything we do. Sadly, it is a discussion that rarely occurs. This is due to the fact that indirect teaching is not generally understood or appreciated, and the prevalence of local controls are common in modern training.

The allure of pedagogies centered on localized control give an unfortunate illusion that something is being DONE because the evidence of the accomplishment is VISIBLE and PALPABLE. But what has occurred is a very clever manipulation  – a vocal ‘trick’ – if you will. We are in serious trouble when we make controls of this internal nature paramount due to the fact that in most cases we have stopped listening to the voice. End-gaining is a term Alexander Technique used to describe the numerous ways we interfere with ourselves. As Theodore Dimon relates in his book The Elements of Skill:

The first prerequisite in educating the singer in proper vocalizing, then, is to restore the conditions of coordination in the torso that allow breathing to occur naturally and easily. In order to breathe properly, the singer does not have to involve himself in any direct attempts to improve his breathing, since the whole point is that the flow of breath occurs entirely as a result of the natural support of the body. In fact, such concern will only complicate matters, since it will invoke the wrong tensions that interfere with natural support. […] The intention to perform the action – even when that intention involves a desire to perform it correctly – invokes the very habits that interfere with breathing. Concern about breathing actually violates the principles upon which breathing is based. […] The act of vocalizing – no matter how complex the specific demands placed upon the voice- is first and foremost the result of coordinated movements of the body as a whole. Any skills involving deliberate use of this system – even when they may place unusual demands on any PART of it – must be built on the coordinated whole.

Dimon, Theodore. The elements of skill: A conscious approach to learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.

The argument for direct control comes from those asserting that singing is not natural – usually in reference to opera singers – and therefore demands extraordinary artificialities and external controls to be achieved. This viewpoint shows a misunderstanding of skill acquisition as well as a proper reading of historical vocal pedagogy. Most of the early singing treatises demonstrate a path of development from the simplest vocal utterances to the most complex.

Direct control of the voice started in the mid-19th century.

Manipulation attempted to achieve success in those internal, unseen structures of the voice. It was also a way of ‘speeding up’ training. We mustn’t underestimate the impact the Industrial Revolution (and subsequent injection of voice science) had on voice teachers of the time. It created impatience with voice training which historically had lasted from seven to ten years. (And this training was DAILY!)

Nothing in the tripartite instrument (breath, vibration, resonance) was immune from the fetishism of control. By the 1860s at the Paris Conservatoire, we see the following account of voice training at its most terrifying and sadistic:

Certain vocal classes resembled, as Gustave Bertrand remarked, cells of Charenton. In order to immobilise the thorax, pupils were made to sing while lying down on mattresses, sometimes with weights, more or less heavy, placed on the sternal region; masters were even said to make a practice of seating themselves familiarly upon the chests of their pupils. In the schools were to be seen gallows with thongs and rings for binding the upper half of the body, orthopedic apparatus, rigid corsets, kinds of pillories which enclosed the frame, and immobilised the ribs. Oscar Comettant relates that he had known a professor who reduced the whole art of singing to the following exercise: he placed a gag, a kind of “poire d’angoisse,” in the mouth of the pupil, and made him emit sounds which resembled a hiccough, obliging him to withdraw the diaphragm at each sound. This is the pleasant side of the campaign led by the enthusiasts of abdominal respiration.

Joal, Joseph. On Respiration in Singing. FJ Rebman, 1895.

The poire d’angoisse was an alleged instrument of torture in which the ‘pear’ was inserted into the mouth and then the opposing end twisted. These instruments were allegedly used as gags, a preventative to speaking, or a torture device, although this has been disputed as implausible by Jonathan Kirsch in his book “The grand inquisitor’s manual : a history of terror in the name of god.”

The description above of a voice lesson sounds like something out of the Marquis de Sade!! But here is our legacy of direct control in the 19th century. Could such a system of training induce freedom?? Those inserting the apparatus undoubtedly believed so.


An interesting account of a singer and teacher who straddled this era in voice history was Louis-Antoine Ponchard, French tenor and pedagogue. Ponchard sang many of the leading roles in the operas of Grétry, Auber, and Boïeldieu. Among his students were Henri-Bernard Dabadie, Jean-Baptiste Faure, Giovanni Mario, Louis-Henri Obin, Anaïs Fargueil, Rosine Stoltz, Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, Gustave-Hippolyte Roger and Charles-Marie Ponchard.

He had this to say about the pedagogical shift:

No one has sung more than I. It is true that in my time music was not taught as scientifically as to-day. We sang with the means with which nature had endowed us, without troubling ourselves whether we breathed with the ribs or the diaphragm.

And it is a singular thing that, in spite of our profound ignorance of the art of breathing, and of many other things, we sang well and for a long with our poor natural voices. Since then scientists have set themselves to fatigue voices, and we hear speak only of ruined singers and lost voices.

Lest you think that the days of Charenton are over,  I recently saw a celebrated opera singer teach a masterclass who had students lean forward at a 50 degree angle while he inserted his clenched fist forcefully into their epigastrium!! What this maneuver intended to accomplish wasn’t communicated, but it had something to do with support. Those who saw the maneuver (including other opera singers) were in approval that this was an ingenious way to teach breathing. In truth, what it displayed was a shocking ignorance of the physiological realities of the human body.

Singer, teacher, impresario, and author Herbert Witherspoon was adamant in his opposition to localized controls and said so in an interview in Vocal Mastery Talks with Master Singers and Teachers, originally published in 1920.

Do you advise conscious action of the parts comprising the vocal instrument, or do you prefer unconscious control of the instrument, with thought directed to the ideal quality in tone production and delivery?”  was asked.

“By all means unconscious control,” was the emphatic answer. “We wish to produce beautiful sounds; if the throat is open, the breathing correct, and we have a mental concept of that beautiful sound, we are bound to produce it. It might be almost impossible to produce correct tones if we thought constantly about every muscle in action. There is a great deal of nonsense talked and written about the diaphragm, vocal chords [sic] and other parts of the anatomy. It is all right for the teacher who wishes to be thoroughly trained, to know everything there is to know about the various organs and muscles; I would not discourage this. But for the young singer I consider it unnecessary. Think supremely of the beautiful tones you desire to produce; listen for them with the outer ear – and the inner ear- that is to say – mentally – and you will hear them. Meanwhile, control is becoming more and more habitual, until it approaches perfection and at last becomes automatic.  When that point is reached, your sound producing instrument does the deed, while your whole attention is fixed on the interpretation of a master work, the performance of which requires your undivided application. If there is action, you control that in the same way until it also becomes automatic; then both singing and acting are spontaneous.”

Brower, Harriette. Vocal Mastery Talks with Master Singers and Teachers. tredition, 2012.

How might this shift of philosophy appear in training? Here are some quick examples of an indirect approach to teaching breathing for singing:

  • address good and easy posture/alignment and freedom of movement in the ribs and torso without gripping or tensing.
  • Raise the arms from the sides while easily breathing in to help stimulate movement in the ribcage. Note the sternum does not overly rise or collapse. This is from Lamperti, Jr. 
  • Have the singer sing SHORT vocal phrases (seconds, thirds, then fifths).
  • Gradually add repetitions of short scales, thereby lengthening the duration of the exercise.
  • Over time add volume/intensity as the ribs and torso gain greater strength.
    • Long tones as well as scales with repetition are excellent indirect ways of training the breathing necessary for good singing.

It’s rather simple, but good singing can be learned gradually over time. Fantastic results CAN be had without recourse to outward manipulations or controls. But one must have faith in the body, and trust that with enough exposure and repetition, the voice will begin to operate as a gestalt and proper responses will reveal themselves over time. This requires an act of faith on the part of the student and teacher.

I refuse to believe that voice training has to be hard, cloaked in verbosity, or complicated. Happily, I can assure that working indirectly will deliver lasting and fulfilling results. But we must step away from our straps, our muzzles, our belts and corsets, and all other apparatus that would seek to constrain the human voice, mind, and heart standing before us.

As David Ffrangçon-Davies stated so beautifully:

Slowly, very slowly, the student who is true to himself in the best sense, will discover that he can get the forces of his soul and of his body to bear upon his vocal cords. Gradually there will come a ring of truth and sincerity into the singing voice…The voice for you, your voice, is there […] Nature secretes, and waits till the hour arrives, and then brings out from her store things new and old…


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