Frederick Root: A Cross-Trainer from the Past

As I get older, I’m becoming less dogmatic. Perhaps my youth is wearing away and I don’t feel the need to be as naively egotistical and self-assured as I was then. There’s so much I still don’t know. Additionally, I don’t feel I’m in a position to defend anyone else’s ideas or work – they are dead, and the best I can do is share what they wrote to learn from their successes and their mistakes.

I don’t cling to strict ideologies as much as I used to and my views on singing pedagogy are tempering with age. I realize the value in many different approaches to pedagogical thought at this stage in my life.

I think I’m softening with age.

This could owe to a deepening understanding of the human body and throat and a general rejection of black-or-white pedagogies. When you have read enough pedagogical material from the past three centuries, you begin to connect dots and see similarities and connections between ideas, even if the terms used are not the same. The general idea is what remains. You get less fired up about things because you’ve seen or read about it all before. We aren’t re-inventing the wheel, as much as we think we are. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

One of the features of the modern training system is the urge towards cross-training in the voice studio. In their book of the same title, Norman Spivey and Mary Saunders Barton lay out a pedagogical framework for working the voice in different resonance and registration strategies in order to develop the singing voice into something flexible, and stylistically varied. No ONE particular function gets over-developed, keeping the voice in a state of balance throughout a lifetime of singing.

When you read the historical writings of the past, you might be tempted to believe in a one-sided all-or-nothing approach to the training of voice. For example, some contemporary pedagogues reading these older texts will erect entire pedagogies upon Garcia’s timbre sombre, and leave the voice there – rejecting anything remotely near his equally addressed timbre clair. In the same way, systems of resonance placement, coup de glotte, or breathing become the ONE TRUE WAY™ and teachers hold on to their beliefs with religious fervor. In this way, they miss the forest for the trees. This is what creates the worst of a ‘school’ of singing, and all the psychological baggage that accompanies it.

This ‘strict view’ was not always the case. Some teachers, even in the 19th century, adopted a more holistic view in training the singing voice, rejecting nothing out of hand, but incorporating many good ideas from various pedagogies, and working around the instrument with a greater holistic view of its functions. Garcia himself made people quack like a duck to find chest voice, yet he didn’t write that down in his treatise on singing from 1841.

Take in point this wonderful example, written by an anonymous author, on the teaching of Frederick Root. Trained by Carlo Bassini in New York and Luigi Vannuccini in Florence, Root was a composer, teacher, and writer on the voice with a vast experience of the best pedagogies of his time.

Rather than become dogmatic, Root demonstrated allegiance to nothing but good ideas, and taught a more (what we could call) spiral-learning approach to singing. Root appears to be the kind of teacher that I want to be: non-dogmatic, but taking the best ideas from many places in order to develop a good singing voice. Nothing sacred.

I like that. Root’s a great role model from the past.

Lineages at their very best can be valuable apprenticeships – passing down good examples of teaching and learning over the decades to future generations. At their worst, pure-bred lineages lead to in-breeding and birth defects of the worst kind. If it’s not good for our DNA, it may not be good for pedagogy.

The quote below demonstrates (in my opinion) what made Frederick Root a fabulous teacher of singing:

Mr. Root’s method of teaching voice is intended to be comprehensive, including and classifying many things rather than emphasizing some specialties. For instance, instead of maintaining that breathing for singing must be done in one way, he develops all the breathing actions and assigns to each the resources of expression or technique which belong to it; or, rather than teach that the voice should be drilled in clear timbre mainly with open and forward tone, or, on the contrary, in deep, covered, sombre tone, he holds that both are equally necessary in training, being complementary halves of voice-production. Instead of condemning this or that course in voice training as ruinous to voices, he is in the habit of assorting all reputable methods that come under his notice as good for certain states and conditions of pupils, and determining in his own mind their relative values and special uses. He has an omnivorous way of assimilating everything that is going.

“Frederic W. Root,” The Musical Visitor, 20, no. 4 (1891): 90.