“Mindsets” of Cultivation and Production

Art consists in knowing where nature directs us, and to what we have been destined. By understanding the gifts of nature, and by cultivating them, man can perfect himself. How sure is harvest for the attentive farmer who has observed and understood the different seeds, which are fecund in different types of earth.

Mancini, Giambattista. Practical reflections on figured singing. Vol. 7. Pro Musica Press, 1967.

The understanding of voice training as an agrarian process appears to date to the early texts of Tosi and Mancini. The directive of ‘observing Nature,’ ‘following Nature,’ and ‘Nature’s Laws’ appear throughout most of the early writing on singing, as witnessed by the Mancini quote above.

Ideas of cultivation are one of the reasons why a reader will find many books using the term Voice Culture. While this prima facie may mean the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group, it could also be a nod to the understanding of cultivation, the process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill.

Cornelius Reid notes in his Essays:

At first, an analogy between voice and a harvested crop may seem far-fetched and implausible. In the twentieth century we are more comfortable with concepts associated with manufacturing, with producing things, whereas in an agrarian economy it was more natural to think in terms of cultivation, whether it be crops, the mind, manners, habits, behavior, friendships or voice. The concept of the voice being in nature, therefore, was a very different way of looking at things. In essence, the voice organs were viewed as an ecosystem (the relationship between a living organism and its environment), and believed to be directly influenced by the quality of the surrounding with which they interact, i.e., a vocal exercise, song or aria.

Edmund J. Myer, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, drew a distinction against two pervasive ideas in pedagogical competition at that time – as I will demonstrate below. Pedagogical philosophies of that time seem to have been formed along lines of either cultivation or production:

Nature is the great teacher and not man. Man, when he bases his teaching upon his own ideas of voice, is artificial; hence, artificiality. Witness the many ridiculous things singers are now taught to do. With such the effort is to make the voice, to compel it, instead of allow it. The voice is in nature, and by a study of nature and nature’s laws the voice is allowed to develop; is allowed or induced to reveal itself instead of being made, compelled or forced.

Sir Henry Wood, the English conductor who wrote The Gentle Art of Singing (1900), was very condemnatory in his beliefs on voice production:

I can hardly make my warning against the voice producers strong enough…Each of them teaches his fad. Walk through the passages of fashionable teaching studios and listen to the exercises and the quality of tone you hear through the green baize doors. A walk in the Zoo is more soothing to the ear and mind.

You can make a list of pet fads: excessive nasal resonance, the placing of the tone in the mask, over-blowing and violent forcing, learning to sing like Caruso, low diaphragmatic breathing, sucking air quickly through the nose, bleating vowels, a three-inch tremolo, placing favourite notes in the head, no registers – as if a one stringed fiddle could ever be a success! If you open a green door you will be introduced to a thousand other little fancies, too numerous to mention…

…I cannot recall one singer who has devoted the best years of his student life only to voice production and has taken any position in the operatic or concert world. All these voice producers’ pupils sing off the pitch.

Cultivation and production are two separate phenomena and carry a particular and specific mindset when approaching the training of voice. These mindsets filter down to the experience of the student and influence how the voice will be trained. Here are two lists of mindsets as they relate to processes of cultivation versus production.

Production Cultivation
Speed prioritized Speed contingent upon external forces
Standardization; conformity Unique variety of specimens
Factory Farm
Mechanical Manual
Pre-planned result Unknown result until growth achieved
Automated By hand
Multiple similar copies Unique, one of a kind results

Cultivation and production clearly have completely separate and diversified aims. They are not the same. It is my belief that this is a point worth considering because these mindsets could explain some of the argumentation and struggle over ways and means of teaching voice throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From the historical record, some teachers adopted a production mindset on training while others took contrasting views of cultivation. These contrasting mindsets set up thinking that was inherently opposed  – potentially causing argumentation and strongly held pedagogical views, as we see reflected in the historical record. These conflicting mindsets may very well explain the battle lines for many of the skirmishes amongst late nineteenth and twentieth century vocal pedagogues, singers, and writers.

To acquire more understanding of these two concepts, I wanted to track usages of the terms voice production, voice culture, and cultivation of the voice from the written books in English of the past 300 years. To do that I needed a software that would extrapolate selected terms from the extant literature to provide me with some hard data that I could use to interpret the data.

Here were my questions:

  • Is there a correlation between voice production and voice culture/cultivation, and if so, what was it?
  • Did the term voice production occur as believed during the time of the Industrial Revolution?
  • When did voice culture/cultivation disappear from the lexicon?

Along comes the N-gram!

From Wikipedia:

An n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., “British English”, “English Fiction”, “French”) over the selected years. Since Google Books has thousands and thousands of scanned books in their databases, extrapolating this data is a cinch, and can be visualized over a period of time.

Below is a chart showing frequency of the following three phrases:

  • voice cultivation
  • cultivation of the voice
  • voice production

All phrases were taken from scanned English books printed over the past three hundred years.

In examining this graph, the term voice culture spiked in the early eighteenth century, from 1720-30 and is the first term to appear followed by the phrase cultivation of the voice in the late eighteenth century.

The term voice production first entered the lexicon in the late seventeenth century and skyrocketed into use in the twentieth century. These potentially could correlate to developments coinciding with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. According to Wikipedia, the Industrial Revolution began from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Clearly, we can see from this chart that the term voice production had more occurrences in print than the term voice culture, despite the latter being the older term.


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To access this graph, click this link


Several observations from this graph:

  • Voice production has been a more popular phrase than any of the three terms searched.
  • Cultivation of the voice reached its peak in popularity from (roughly) the 1770s to the 1880s and was the most frequently used term for a period of about one hundred years.
  • Voice culture and voice production tracked together in a significant rise, with the latter outpacing the former, as more writings on the voice became available.
  • Voice production, once introduced, historically outpaced voice culture.
  • Cultivation of the voice stagnated and dropped significantly from the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Cultivation seems to have been the dominating training phrase known before production occurred. and during the age of musical composition known as bel canto.

Considering repertoire performed during the apogee of bel canto premiered during the early part of the nineteenth century (Bellini’s opera Norma premiered in 1831), this graph seems to show that dramatic changes in voice terminology and mindsets were reflected in the literature on singing. The ascendance of voice production would tend to support a view that training became more oriented along those lines, despite the fact that singers and teachers of the early bel canto era were operating under an assumption of principles and understanding of cultivation.

Continuing research on this topic is required to gain a greater understanding of these terms but the data collected does suggest a shift in thinking which can be directly tied to the late nineteenth century, continuing to the present day. Voice cultivation has fallen from favor and may reflect a diminishment of those terms when associated with voice training.

Link to NGram on Google Books.

Marchesi, Salvatore. A vademecum for singing-teachers and pupils. G. Schirmer, 1902.

Myer, Edmund John. Position and Action in Singing: A Study of the True Conditions of Tone: a Solution of Automatic (artistic) Breath Control. Boston Music Company, G. Schirmer, 1911.

Reid, Cornelius L. Essays on the Nature of Singing. Recital Publications, 1992.

7 thoughts on ““Mindsets” of Cultivation and Production

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post. I had fun entering “vocal culture” as a search term only to find that it has a “peak” in 1882—some years before “voice culture” in 1910—the latter taking off and tracking, as you note, “voice production.” Fascinating and thought provoking. This really should be an article in the JOS or VOICEPrints.

    1. Thank you so much, Daniel. That means a great deal! I’ll have to keep thinking about this, but it was fascinating to see the usage of the terms in frequency throughout the past several hundred years!

  2. I wonder if there is an additional factor muddying the water here: voice production refers to more than the just the period of training–it refers to present sound making, which voice cultivation does not imply. “Produce a sound” and “make a sound” are synonymous, I think. Whereas “cultivate a sound” definitely refers to the developmental training phase. Might that skew the study of incidence of terminology? That said, it is a very interesting distinction!

    1. Thank you so much for that broadening point! My thinking on this is very embryonic and mostly I was interested in learning about those words and the history of their usage. I’ll have to do some controls and further investigating for sure, but it was an interesting thing to discover in the graph!

      1. Yes to your comments! I do think you are making (or reporting) a useful distinction, though I suspect there is a little of both going on in the training of a singer. In other words, there is nonetheless a little of the “body trainer” or sports analogy at play where certain activities (exercises?) actually not only improve coordination but develop muscle tissue in ways that might not happen otherwise. That may not have a clear corollary in the cultivation analogy, but then much of our work is surely cultivation! And the manufacturing image is not very appealing! So the language of cultivation is both a helpful and probably necessary reminder.

      2. Cultivation seems to be a mindset that honors and observes the Nature before as we sit at the piano. I like the implications of that very much when considering a deeper philosophy of Why We Teach to begin with! A gardener of voices seems a lovely profession.

  3. I must tell you as an addendum that one of my favorite things is a picture I have in my studio of Herbert Witherspoon working in his garden. The connection between his life and efforts as a voice teacher (especially to simplify much of the nineteenth century’s verbosity on the subject of voice) and that simple picture of him taken right there in his garden was just too wonderful for words. It seemed to connect so many of the threads of voice training and cultivation for me, and it remains a dear picture and a lively jumping off point for discussion when students ask “Who is that?” in lessons.

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