Nature Under High Cultivation

“One of the writer’s acquaintances has declared it to be his belief that there is no such thing as a natural method of singing, because singing is an artificial achievement. It is art. We were never intended by nature to sing, but simply to speak. In a measure this is true. Singing is art, while speaking is nature. But singing can be done by methods entirely opposed to nature, and also by other methods amicably related to her. These latter methods are all simple, the others are all complex.


The truth is that while speaking is nature, singing is nothing more than nature under high cultivation. The culture of wildflowers has in some instances given us beautiful additions to the garden. Speaking is like the wild rose; singing like the American Beauty. The student of singing should always keep this thought in mind, and when he finds himself confronted with some theory which makes the act of drawing and exhaling the breath or beginning the emission of a tone appear to be a complex process, depending on the voluntary guidance of a number of muscles and ligaments, he should examine it very closely and with suspicion.

The art of singing is an aesthetic art, not an anatomical study. It begins with an ideal dwelling in the realm of the conception of tonal beauty, not in the domain of correct movement of muscles. The problem of the great masters of the early period was to ascertain the best way of singing beautiful tones on every vowel sound throughout the entire range of a voice, not to find how to operate certain parts of the body and decide that such operation ought to give the tone.

They reasoned from the tone to the operation, not from the operation to the tone. Too many modern theorists seem to proceed in the latter way, and that is why they build up complicated and unnatural processes which confuse students and do incalculable harm.”


Henderson, William James. The Art of the Singer: Practical Hints about Vocal Technics and Style. C. Scribner’s sons, 1906.


4 thoughts on “Nature Under High Cultivation

  1. When I was in college, my then boyfriend asked me how someone could “major” in singing. My 18 year old self said “well, I am learning the proper way to sing. To which this boyfriend said “do you mean to tell me the entire continent of Africa is not singing properly?” In African religious ceremonies they sing for three hours at a stretch without getting tired! This boyfriend became my husband of now 40 years. A method can only serve singing if it is to enhance the reason, the ideal, the purpose TO sing in the first place. I am sick to death of mechanics. Over these many years I have seen voice science go from informing what we know of our natural world and what a miracle the human body is to putting a choke hold on vocal expression of any kind. This split has shown up in the literature for well over a hundred years now, and it is getting worse. And where is this split seen more than in any other areas of pedagogy? Many vocal pedagogues who are caught in the power struggles of ego, competition, keeping their college posts and left-brain thinking who have lost their connection to their RIGHT brains. This is passed on to their students to great detriment. How do I know this? My studio is filled with people with advanced degrees in performance and pedagogy who are struggling to sing, to find their hears, their creativity and have their technique serve a Greater Good. It is sad and has to be transcended and evolved or academic arts’ programs will die out in 20 years or sooner.

    1. Thank you so much for this Cate. We CAN’T lose the humanist point of singing in the training equation. I, for one, would like to see more explorations of psychology as well as imagination in the training of singing. I’ll keep posting the wisdom of older writers here to keep their ideas present as we move forward.

      As Stephen F. Austin said, “There is an important written legacy that should serve as the foundation for what we do as voice teachers. Why would we ignore it? Why should our practitioners be deprived of benefitting from the experience of those who have successfully taught over the past 300 years?”

      I will keep uncovering these jewels of the past, offering alternate views to the issue of singing as a human endeavor.

  2. Hello from Vancouver Island!
    The lineage of knowledge passed down from teacher to student is a beautiful human experience when it comes to the vocal arts. It is an extremely physical pursuit, and when we reach a high point of understanding, it’s nice to be concise with anatomical terms, and pictures help too. It’s encouraging as a student to be reminded that we all come stocked with the same equipment.
    I had a beautiful singing teacher at university, and she and her husband still solo today in their late 70’s in our regional consort. Activities like yoga, running, and singing – these pursuits are demanding and we often dance between growth and injury. Peppering anatomy into vocal study can be beneficial when the performance commitment becomes demanding, enabling singers to adjust their body mechanics. No point in complicating the voice of a student with excessive or unnatural technique though. The body will offer everything it can to carry the aesthetic. But healthy singing for a life time is a true gift.

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