The idea that the teaching of the Old Italian School was always an infallible one is simply not true. Poor teaching has always gone hand in glove with our profession since the balmy days of the old bel canto. No one was assured success in singing, even then.
We sometimes believe that every singer trained in the Italian tradition was perfected in singing, and every teacher in this tradition was a Master, able to take anyone and turn them into stars. While teachers of that time did not argue PEDAGOGICALLY, per se, they did call out bad teaching in their midst. They didn’t often argue over the WHAT of teaching, but the HOW. These remarks are found in the work of Manfredini and others of the period.
A most pointed account of ineffective teaching from this time comes from Giambattista Mancini in his book Practical Reflections on Figured Singing of 1774, then revised 1777. In it, he gives the account of a student who was ‘given up’ by other teachers as having been unsuited to the art of singing.
This still occurs today amongst teachers who cannot seem to make their students progress according to their own idiosyncratic ‘method.’ And when the student cannot develop, the teacher never questions THEIR role in why the tuition was unsuccessful. How many singers have been cast out of studios through history because their teachers thought them untalented for the art of singing?
Is that the hallmark of a good teacher?
Mancini teaches us that there have always been those teachers ready to dump students that could not grasp the craft of learning to sing, and there have always been students who have been abandoned by teachers.
That Mancini gains success with this abandoned student should help us understand that each student should be given a fair chance of success at learning to sing. Mancini apparently was able to gain quite a level of success with this poor hapless student, who had been discarded by not one, but TWO teachers.
Let Mancini’s example be a reminder that every student deserves a fair chance at learning how to sing.
I had experience of this remedy in a case followed carefully by me, one which I cannot ever forget, nor ever shall forget. Into my hands there came a youth who had been abandoned by two masters, otherwise very reputable, who firmly asserted that he did not have a good chest nor a good voice, and thus was useless to the art. I wished to examine him, for certain signs (signs which only the fine discernment of a practical Master can recognize) reveal an occult inclination regarding singing, and in my soul I have great hope in such happy concepts. I undertook voluntarily the fatigue and the work of exercising him, without fear of weakness and his tender age of thirteen: for a long space of time I never strengthened his voice; I paid attention only to perfect intonation, gradation and unification of his voice. With this method, after a certain determined time, I succeeded, with the growth of his years, in advancing him little by little in his studies to the point that he found his voice now florid, robust, and rich in its range, able to ascend with ease to high D-la-sol-re, and in consequence worthy to perform in any noble theater. I do not need to express the pleasure which I derived from this discovery of signs, and in this achievement. My dear Professors, do you not know the consolation we feel when a scholar succeeds in this manner?