The Abt Collection

Many fine vocalization books have been published since the 18th and 19th century. In general, these books follow the same format of beginning with simple vocal concepts and gradually building more and more complex musical skills.

While many teachers readily grab a copy of the Marchesi book, or the often utilized Vaccai, there is another lesser known book that I feel offers quite a broader array of musico-technical exercises for the singer. That is the collection of books published by Franz Abt, Op. 474 in the Schirmer library, published in 1892, The Practical Singing Tutor.

Franz Abt’s vocalization book offers the modern teacher of voice a wonderful and progressive volume of exercises to develop musico-technical skills.

Franz Abt (1819-1885) was a German composer and choral conductor who wrote nearly 3,000 compositions. While not an Italian, Abt’s vocalization book follows much of the accepted pedagogical development seen in the treatise of the Italian literature. His book begins with simple concepts and gradually develops the fluency of the voice to include all the hallmarks of what was considered to be excellent singing of the 19th century: wide range, dynamic contrast, flexibility, and strength.

The book begins with a very brief treatise on singing with some rather insightful pedagogical theories, among them the idea of mouth shape upon the resonator. Additional information on the taking of breath has common sense reminders for the teacher and singer. One favorite repeated frequently in my studio is the following:

“It is not important always to have a great supply of air at command, as to know HOW TO MANAGE A MODERATE QUANTITY ECONOMICALLY.”

Noiseless breathing was de rigueur for Abt and all great Old School teachers, and his brief treatise is a great reminder of the ‘basics’ of good vocal production.

The Practical Singing Tutor was first published in 1892, and is divided into four parts, described as follows:

Part 1: Production of Tone – Intervals

In this beginning section, Abt begins (as do all great Italian vocalization materials) with the long tone. This work builds stability of the breath/voice, clarity of the vowel, and uniform intensity – all hallmarks of a good tone production.

From the long tone exercise, the book moves into a long chromatic scale up and down the octave. Singers of old spent hours and hours just in the work of long tones – many singers stating that this work was what built their voices. Very few modern pedagogies feature the long tone today, which is unfortunate. It is a wise and wonderful way to build the singing voice on a solid foundation.

Part 1 – Section 2 – Intervals continued

The second section of Part 1 is a study in intervals with piano accompaniment. The singer is taken through major seconds, major thirds, perfect fourths, perfect fifths, major sixths, and octaves. These studies are wonderful for musicianship and ear training and the singer can spend many hours in the study of perfecting the intonation of the voice on these exercises, which also feature a grateful piano accompaniment.

Once these basic intervals have been studied, the singer then moves through the intervals in the order of the scale, moving from major to minor intervals as the exercises rise in pitch. This allows the singer to learn the relationships of minor that exist in major scales as well (between the mediant and subdominant and the leading tone and tonic). Exercises in the Perfect Fourth and Fifth feature the augmented and diminished versions of those intervals as well – another helpful ear training and musical developmental skill.

Additional exercises in intervals also include minor, augmented, and diminished intervals in the rising scale to develop the ear.

Part 1, Section 3 – Intonation

The third section of Part 1 continues with exercises in intonation that feature the major and minor triads, as well as dominant seventh chords and diminished seventh chords.

Part 1, Section 4 Messa di voce, and Portamento

This section focuses on the technical development of skills such as the messa di voce, and the portamento all done with varying pitches and intervals.

One nice use of the Abt is that the teacher and singer can ‘mix and match’ exercises as the voice needs. I would not recommend moving through ANY vocalization book in a linear fashion per se, as each voice will have technical facility at hand already in certain areas and some exercises simply may not be grateful to an emerging voice.

Part 2 – Exercises for the Cultivation of Fluency

It is in this second section of Abt’s book where development of agility and coloratura begins. The first exercise of this section has six variations on agility, from simple to complex. With the piano accompaniment, the teacher can play for the student as agility is acquired. The entirety of this section focuses on exercises of scales in various rhythmic patterns.

Six variations on agility allow the singer to move from simple patterns to complex scales while preserving the piano accompaniment.

The work of Part 2 supplies more than enough agility vocalization for a singer’s lifetime and all the great scale patterns are here, ready for the singer and teacher to take advantage of them in the equalization of the voice.

Part 2, Section 2 – Arpeggios

The second section of Part 2 includes the work of arpeggios, with the first exercise an arpeggio of an octave and a third. It’s all here, triplet arpeggios, the famous Rossini scale of an octave and a fifth with a descending V7, and other useful long arpeggios. It’s really in the arpeggiated exercises that vocal equalization bears fruit. If the singer is incapable of an even quality from the bottom to the top, it points the way for more vocal development in the technique.

Part 2, Section 3 – Ornaments

The delight of the bel canto school was in its ornaments, something Maria Callas referred to as a ‘vast language all on its own.’ In this section, the singer works on skills of acciaccatura, acciaccatura doppia, inverted mordents, and turns. The demands of bel canto singing as late as Verdi require mastery of these ornamental figures. Turns can be found all throughout the German Lied as well – and therefore good time should be spent in the development of these skills.

Acciaccature are often mistaken for appoggiaturas. They are not the same. These ‘crushed’ notes occur quickly against the note to which they are adjacent. These ornaments are found all throughout the work of Rossini and other bel canto composers.

Part 3, Section 4 – The Trill

This section begins the work of the trill – that ornament prized by singers up to the end of the 19th century. It is rarely cultivated today as the voice requires a great deal of flexibility to execute it properly. Its use can assist a modern teacher in the development of a feeling of ‘letting go’ in the throat – something that was its original intent according to Pauline Viardot Garcia.

Part 3, Section 1 – Solfeggio

The third section of Abt includes twenty solfeggio exercises of varying difficulty, allowing the singer to develop musicianship skills in reading music. The solfeggio that is used is fixed do, in the European tradition, so teachers can either use the version included, or have the student sing the moveable do they are accustomed to using. These vocalises are quite lovely, and offer a nice alternative to other vocalise collections like Concone and Panofka. Their study ‘bridges the gap’ to art song and operatic repertoire. Often students are at a loss of what to do while their technique is developing when certain songs may be out of the range of their skill level. The Abt vocalise offer lovely simple alternatives to song while technical skills are being ironed out.

Part 4, Vocalization

The final section of Abt’s book are twelve exercises in vocalization. These are, for all intents and purposes, actual compositions comparable to many Italian art songs and bel canto arias. All of the singer’s technical and musical abilities are brought to bear in these last pages, and become the ’embryos’ for future study of actual vocal literature. These vocalise are a true test of the singer’s ability, and would lead credence to the idea that mastery of these materials would enable a singer to sing most any operatic repertoire, having solved musico-technical difficulties in these exercises.

The Abt Practical Singing Tutor offers a modern teacher a framework of skill development for the classical singing voice, but its exercises are not limited to that style. Any singer can excerpt these exercises in lessons or in private study to work out areas of technical development. The book offers a great compendium of the skills necessary for the classical singer, and also offers other singers great skill development of their voices in a musical context. While not an Italian, Abt’s pedagogy is in lock-step with all that came before and is a must own volume for the teacher of voice looking for alternatives to the warhorses of Marchesi, Vaccai, Panofka, and Concone.