Beauty is in the Ear of the Beholder

Remember learning to write?

At the start of the learning process we copied, traced, or imitated. We learned to speak our native language this way as well. Since music is also a language, it makes sense that we would learn to sing by modeling other singers, and monitoring our progress through our EARS.


In kindergarten and first grade we were given several examples of a letter to TRACE over. It gives a kinesthetic feel for the letter and shows how it is written. (Note that students aren’t told how to control specific writing muscles – a point I’ll return to later).  From that point, the page is blank. This allows us to practice, writing with NO guidance. The previously traced model serves as our VISUAL guide. The eye tells us if we have achieved our goal. We’d be able to tell how well we were doing at writing by LOOKING at what we were doing and measuring it against the model.

I believe that this can still be (and historically was) a template for GOOD voice training with the ear as the monitor instead of the eye. Voice-to-voice training took place for hundreds of years – at least from 1300 to 1840. This worked because voice teachers were themselves singers as well as composers. Edward Foreman argues in his book Authentic Singing that the SOUND (ergo the ear) was the guide until the mid-19th century, when Garcia II took pedagogy into an entirely new direction – seeing and controlling parts.

The mechanization of the voice instrument had begun.

This began a confusion and exchange of the senses in voice training that lasted throughout the nineteenth century to the present day.

To reiterate briefly the traditional position: The teacher’s concern was to get the sound right, which proved the rightness of the means of producing the sound. He needed to know little, if anything, of the structure and function of the musculature, relying instead on his ear and upon demonstrated methods of achieving the sound.

Garcia, starting with the mechanism, attempts to explain in what way the sound is produced, how it can be induced and manipulated to achieve the results which were desirable in his own day, results which were at extreme variance with the traditional Italian school.

Imitation is a dirty word in some modern voice teaching circles. With our modern scientific knowledge, we consider imitation as a lesser or cruder form of vocal education, perhaps it’s more primitive, and we prefer to work from a mechanistic/anatomical/acoustic template, knowing what the parts are and what they do.

Some modern pedagogies render a student hyper-conscious of vocal parts instead of focusing on the SOUND. This is a misunderstanding of older ideas that the voice should be managed through INDIRECT as opposed to direct means. Direct (or local) control leads to stiffness, self-consciousness, and constriction. As Cornelius Reid said, “Knowing how the system works is ONE thing, WORKING the system is another.” The admonition to Follow Nature, and Festina Lente (Hasten Slowly) point to a pedagogical philosophy which stands counter to our 21st century system of fast results and vocal tricks.

Taking a detour here into history, Pierfrancesco Tosi (1653-1732) thought words were a bad direction for teaching singing, and asserted that people learn how to sing by SINGING. This gives credence to Foreman’s argument above.

It would be needless to say, that verbal Instructions can be of no Use to Singers, any farther than to prevent ’em from falling into Errors, and that it is Practice only can set them right.

Imitation and modeling offer a way to improve the voice INDIRECTLY, and therein lies its value. But a very important cautiousness should be advised here: MODELS matter. This also from Tosi in 1723:

§ 13. Let him hear as much as he can the most celebrated Singers, and likewise the most excellent instrumental Performers; because, from the Attention in hearing them, one reaps more Advantage than from any Instruction whatsoever.

When the advent of the gramophone took place, great singers were anxious to preserve their voices as a record of excellence in singing. In 1923 soprano Luisa Tetrazzini wrote:

Beyond a doubt the gramophone should be the guide, philosopher and friend, the most trusted and most competent aid and coadjutor – not only to every student but also to every teacher of the present day.

She added:

One would think indeed that the coming generation should provide us with fine singers in such plenty as the world has never known before with the aid of such priceless help.

Singers learned to hear beauty not just in other voices, but in instruments as well. We should take a page from their book, and imitate the best qualities of the violin, the flute, the cello, the trombone, the clarinet, and oboe. As their ears improved, so did their voices.

How singers select models isn’t often discussed because FINDING those models can be challenging. The singing  in Tetrazzini time has changed in the intervening years,  verified by attentive and critical listening. The teacher must have a broad exposure to excellent singing since the dawn of recorded sound. We all generally do not listen broadly and critically ENOUGH.

Returning to our present argument, many children learn to sing freely and easily completely through imitation and modeling of others – through the ear. Personally, that is how I learned to sing. I did not take voice lessons as a child, and I sang quite well. But my models sang well, my mother had a lovely warm alto voice. I also had the benefit of growing up in a very musical home and music was a central part of family ‘togetherness.’

Kenneth H. Phillips in his book Teaching Kids to Sing, Second Edition asserts that children who receive exposure to music will likely become singers.

A number of researchers have investigated the effects of home environment on musical development and singing. One early study reported a strong relationship between the singing of prekindergarten children and their home musical environments (Kirkpatrick, 1962.) Excellent to good environments in which music participation was fostered produced singers and partial singers, with few nonsingers; poor environments in which music participation was not fostered produced no singers and many partial and nonsingers. Another early study found similar results for first-grade children, noting that children who were rated “musical” had frequent opportunities to hear and participate in singing at home (Shelton, 1966.)

My first teachers were the records that I listened to over and over. These albums were mostly in country and popular music, as well as classical singers like Adriana Caselotti from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I modeled my unchanged voice after female singers – which were in hindsight perfect models for a young child’s unchanged voice.

An interesting anecdote: when I was six my mother was on the phone with my grandmother and I traipsed into the kitchen singing the staccati coloratura passages that I had heard Adriana Caselotti sing in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My mother was gobsmacked. She had never heard me sing like that and immediately had me demonstrate over the phone to my grandmother, who also knew singing since she was a public school music teacher for over 30 years.

My 6 year old nephew goofing around can imitate a soprano tone that has all the hallmarks of a lovely head voice. It is clear, resonant, and pure. He is not doing this because he has ‘trained,’ – he can do it because he has the precocious capacity for IMITATION. He is able to HEAR something sympathetically, make a demand from his brain that sends a signal to his voice, and his voice obeys. That’s it. What improves this over time? REPETITION. Much like learning to write, we get better at it because our practice of the model has become automatic. (Sadly for us, we never see – or hear – our idols “rough drafts.”)


If a young singer copies another’s vocal faults as the ideal, then it’s not hard to understand how a singer would struggle with a proper concept of singing. They’ve been copying the WRONG template. You wanted them to learn A but they’re tracing Q. MODELS MATTER!

According to biographers, Nelson Eddy taught himself to sing entirely from recordings of the greatest baritones of his time. Marilyn Horne was a self-admitted mimic, and learned singing as a child in this way. Rosa Ponselle also seems to have learned to sing in a similar fashion.

At nineteen, Nelson had been working for five years but was no closer to the real goal he’d set for himself: to be a singer. Lacking a voice teacher, he set about to teach himself. “I bought records of Campanari and Scotti and Ruffo and Amato and sat listening until I had learned an aria and then I would bawl out the notes at the top of my lungs. Of course I recognized the difference in my handling of the song and the way Caruso would have done it. But then I tried very hard to learn from the masters who sang from the little wax discs. I was used to teaching myself things after so many years of studying without any outside help.”

“I had a good range and plenty of volume — and I would sing to the phonograph accompaniment when guests would visit. And when I’d get to a part of the aria where the difference between my technique and Campanari’s was too obvious, I’d merely stick out my chest and take a long breath and drown Campanari out. It was very effective.”

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

There is also a story of Maria Callas sitting in a cafe with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Milan. Maria asked her how she sang a particular diminuendo in a certain way. Schwarzkopf demonstrated, Callas mimicked her, was content of her observation and sat back down to dinner, having resolved the issue entirely through imitation. There was no in-depth discussion of breathing, resonance, or anything of the like. Just two artists, one providing the model, the other imitating.

Perhaps that is why Old Masters kept singers on long tones for a some time. If you can get a good free tone, and identify it, and HEAR it – then why wouldn’t you build your entire voice from that free, lovely tone? Anything that fell off the model of those beautiful long tones was an aberration – a misdrawn letter A, if you will. The singer would HEAR the error, and correct with the guidance of their ear, and the teacher’s sympathetic ear. Is the tone throaty? Is the tone nasal? No? According to the Old Masters it was perfect. Leave it alone, and work continuously on freedom in the vowel (and therefore the throat). Develop the range with that free sound. Singers in the historical model wouldn’t move on from a long tone until they had established a clear, true pitch and vowel!

The challenge for us in the 21st century is our aural sensitivity has lessened. As Foreman states (again from Authentic Singing): 

We are supposed to be much more sensitive to music than we are. The omnipresence of noise, the increasing complexity of music, and the casual way in which we have allowed ourselves to abuse music as background to every event in our lives has so dulled our sensibilities to music—to all sounds—that the effects which Plato, Aristotle and Aristides Quintilianus attributed to it are no longer consciously available to us. We have lost the capacity for ETHOS. Only in recent years has “the Mozart Effect” been trumpeted as  curative therapy; but the knowledge of such therapies was widespread among the Greeks.

When we write letters, we judge our efforts based on our visual sense. When we sing, we should adjudge our success based on our hearing. Hearing IS the monitor for the sound.

If jerry-rigging with parts is not giving you success in singing, ask yourself if listening needs to retake its place as the guide for your progress.


Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

Phillips, Kenneth Harold. Teaching kids to sing. Schirmer, 1992.

Reid, Cornelius L. Bel canto: Principles and practices. Coleman-Ross, 1950.

Rich, Sharon. Sweethearts: the timeless love affair–on-screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Dutton Adult, 1994.

Tetrazzini, Luisa, and Enrico Caruso. Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing. Courier Corporation, 1909.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Opinioni de’cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi… Dedicate a Sua Eccellenza Mylord Peterborough... L. dalla Volpe, 1723.

More on Vocal Exercises

If you wanted to build a substantial physique and put on quite a lot of muscle, thereby changing the proportions of your body – you could get VERY far on the following exercises ALONE:

  • Squats (LOTS of these)
  • Overhead Press
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Bent-Over Rows

That’s it.

That’s FIVE exercises that would give most people the physique of their dreams.

However, the world of fitness is NOT immune from the boredom and intrinsic lack of glamour in these simple exercises. Despite their EFFECTIVENESS in most cases, people can’t seem to trust something that is just so B O R I N G. These exercises are just not TRENDY!!! A current glimpse at the exercise industry will reveal more fads and tricks than one can perform in TWO lifetimes. Thighmaster™? I rest my case.(Recognize similarities to current pedagogy? If you don’t think there are trendy ways of teaching singing you aren’t paying enough attention.)

We get bored  – so we INVENT new exercise routines that alleviate the boredom. We want the latest exercises! What are the cool kids doing? (Answer: they’re definitely NOT squatting – that area of the gym is ALWAYS empty.) Some teachers make it a fetish to COLLECT exercises, as if the exercise itself was the magic pill to vocal success.

Do you know why all those fads and tricks exist? Because we in Western culture are impatient with true mastery, and we want to look hot naked NOW. The idea that it would take 1-2 years of hard work and diet to look great makes us deeply uncomfortable. In the words of psychologist David Burns, author of the book Feeling Good, we become process resistant. 

Rather than stay with classic exercises, improving form, increasing weight, we bail on them and look for other more exciting exercises. This is the anti-Mastery syndrome that George Leonard talks about in his important book Mastery:

Going for mastery in this sport isn’t going to bring you the quick rewards you had hoped for. There’s a seemingly endless road ahead of you with numerous setbacks along the way and – most important – plenty of time on the plateau, where long hours of diligent practice gain you no apparent progress at all. Not a happy situation for one who is highly goal-oriented.

There are in reality FEW vocal exercises that will assist in the development of a good vocal technique, but our boredom with them usually precludes our interest in their application and refinement. Rather than stay with something classic, we lose enthusiasm and run on to different exercises that we feel are more exciting or fun. OR we just stop vocal exercises altogether and start singing songs. (Much like a bodybuilder posing in the mirror and not lifting any weights in the gym. Why? Premature celebration of gains not received is SUCH a gym turn-off.)

Remember the Karate Kid? Daniel grew exasperated by the repetition of ‘wax on, wax off” he was being asked to perform OVER and OVER again – mindlessly – until he finally confronted Mr. Miyagi.

This scene is that result (voice teachers, can you relate?):


So how should we think about exercises? Four ideas off the top of my head:

  1. We should NOT attribute any magical property to the exercise ITSELF. Remember my five bodybuilding exercises above? They can all be done BADLY or DANGEROUSLY if the person performing them has no idea what they’re doing. Bad form can ruin the BEST exercise and negate its positive properties. ALL exercise is only as good as the form and the understanding of WHAT IS BEING DONE in the exercise. Mindless squatting or ego-lifting are only going to get you injured or hospitalized.
  2. SIMILAR exercise gives us a barometer of how the voice is functioning (if it’s purpose is understood). If you did 1,000 exercises it would be VERY hard to measure progress in all of them. By simplifying a family of exercise, you give yourself something to measure yourself against. Is it freer? Sticky? Harder? Looser? If you have a similar exercise to measure, you will gain more insight into your body – in the same way that doing the squat regularly will tell you more about how your legs, buttocks, and hips FEEL on a given day – and how much you will be capable of lifting.
  3. Randomly done exercises are no different than someone walking around the gym and just tinkering with exercise. To achieve a high level of success every bodybuilder must have a PLAN. Sticking to the classic routine is going to give you more success in the long run than running all over the gym willy-nilly as the spirit strikes you. Of COURSE you can veer off course once in a while, but any bodybuilder will tell you they will ALWAYS come back to a classic exercise to measure their progress. These athletes tend NOT to get distracted by shiny things.
  4. Exercise PRINCIPLES MATTER. Why am I doing this? What is the purpose? What do I hope to achieve by doing this exercise? A bench press will not exercise your legs (unless you have bad form and lift them off the floor). Understanding a principle allows you to do LESS exercise with better intention! You will be able to do a lot more with your chest muscles if you understand you only need a few things to strengthen them! As F. M. Alexander said, “A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to ‘do an exercise’ will most assuredly have to go on learning to ‘do exercises’ ad infinitum.”

All the above brings me to an important final question: What ARE versions of classic exercise that could represent the core arsenal of vocal exercise? Here are some ideas that I have culled from most of the historical literature on singing. As with the above mentioned physical exercises, you could build a pretty substantial singing voice on the following exercises:

  • Sustained tones. This exercise is far too frequent in older texts to be convenient for modern pedagogy, and few teachers will commit to a program of sustained tone singing. The amount of technical and pedagogical goals that can be achieved simply by singing a single tone are staggering.
  • Messa di voce. Another ignored exercise owing to its intrinsic difficulty, few singers or teachers will embrace the messa di voce as a core exercise for vocal development and a measurement of vocal progress. To this author’s mind, there is no greater vocal exercise to show the development of the singer’s voice and technique than a beautifully performed messa di voce. It is the singer’s version of the squat – often neglected and totally unglamorous as it reveals everything.
  • Staccato. An important and spontaneous vocal utterance that clears up onset issues and helps a less-trained instrument to ‘speak.’ It has largely become the purview of sopranos and lighter voices, but all voices should have this spontaneity of utterance.
  • Vowel differentiation. The ability to sing various vowels with clarity is the lifetime work of the singer. This is an area of focus than can always be improved.
  • Movement of all kind. The voice should move. Strength without flexibility is imbalance. The voice should fluently render scales of an octave, an octave and a half, two octaves. Arpeggios should be included as the voice becomes more fluent. Trills, acciaccature, mordents all fit into this category. The voice is supposed to move. That “dramatic” voices ignore movement is to demonstrate a technical deficiency. No matter how large the voice, it should not lose its agility. This is a vital component.

When we can learn to understand and appreciate the purpose, value, and yes – SIMPLICITY of vocal exercise, we will have come a long way as teachers in determining how to effect change in the voice. Simple and well-performed exercise over a long time WILL make enormous changes in the vocal instrument, in the same way repetitive squatting changes the strength and appearance of the legs.  We must simply stick to simpler, core exercise and allow the instrument to respond, rather than running off somewhere else in the vocal gym because we have gotten bored. God forbid.

If you are bored with the simplest of maneuvers, you are not looking or listening closely enough. Get back to the squat rack.

As my college piano teacher used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

An Experiment

An interesting pedagogical experiment:

Subject One: One high-level, expert voice teacher. Does not speak a word of English. Has trained many successful singers and has a high sensitivity to voice function and artistic use of the voice. A “Master” teacher.

Subject Two: One young adult American student. Intermediate beginner. Some experience singing in choir and in school musicals. Does not speak Italian.

Methods: Put these two people into a room with a tuned piano. Comfortable temperature – air controlled. Good lighting.

Hypothesis: Could the Italian teacher teach the American student how to sing better based on no common shared language? How would the teacher transmit concepts of good singing without readily available pithy, trendy pedagogical terms and words like:

  • Spin
  • Lift
  • Ribs
  • Support
  • Up and over
  • Lift up and pull back
  • Release into the top
  • Connect to the pelvic floor
  • Mix
  • Falsetto
  • Chest
  • Head
  • Diaphragm
  • Breath
  • Relax
  • Open/close
  • Tall/long
  • Tight/Released

It would be interesting to discover if great singing could be taught without recourse to a shared language. Can you teach someone to sing better without using a single comprehensible word?

Perhaps in this lexical impoverishment, voice teaching would recognize its particular (and in my opinion, it’s TRUEST) purpose: working with SOUND, and the systems that elicit such sound.

Other means of education would need to occur in order to transfer pedagogical information: gestures, facial expression, demonstration, and utilization of intelligently drawn exercise and maneuvers in something INTERNATIONAL and available in Western music: pitch, intensity, and vowel. All three of those things don’t need any language tied to them in order to teach them. Just think about that.

Words related to singing are a psychological byproduct to describe something that usually has ALREADY happened or something that one HOPES will happen – a means to describe the MEMORY or ANTICIPATION of sound – not the sound itself.

There is no guarantee (based on available scientific peer reviewed papers) that singers who think in words (like ‘support’ for instance) are accomplishing the particular pedagogical goal that those words are supposed to achieve. In other words, singers aren’t actually doing the thing their words are telling them they’re supposed to in the first place. Their bodies aren’t lying, their words are!

Many skills could be taught without the necessity of language: painting, dancing, sculpture –  just three among many.

Words can be an armor that voice teachers collect in order to appear intelligent. It won’t necessarily make them a better teacher if they can’t relate (or TRANSLATE) those words back to the thing that matters: the SOUND. Call it ‘peanut butter and jelly’ if the sound is right – that’s the goal of voice teaching in the first place! Not learning vocabulary lists.

Words can also baffle and confuse.

We can get ‘hung up’ on words, and miss the forest for the trees.

Let’s not hide behind or fetishize our words, teachers.


History of an Exercise: Cuperto

The cuperto has been described by NYC voice teacher David Jones as an exercise having the importance of uniting the registers through the ‘thin edges’ of the vocal folds:

The term cuperto in the old Italian School meant “singing through a tiny mouth space with a large throat space.” What is the result? A blending of the registers and the exercising of the thin edges of the cords from the high range to the low range. When Dr. Van Lawrence (laryngologist for the Houston Grand Opera) first saw the cuperto function on the fiberoptic camera, he said it looked as though the cords were receiving a massage. While doing graduate research at the University of North Texas, Dr. Barbara Mathis of Lamar University discovered that singing the cuperto exercise actually strengthens the “thin edges” of the vocal cords.

The embryo of such an exercise goes back in print (according to William Vennard) as early as Lilli Lehmann’s book How to Sing (1902).

She describes her version thus:

Registers exist in the voices of almost all singers, but they ought not to be heard, ought not, indeed, to exist. Everything should be sung with a mixed voice in such a way that no tone is forced at the expense of any other. To avoid monotony the singer should have at his disposal a wealth of means of expression in all ranges of his voice.


If, as often happens when the registers are sharply defined, tones fall into a CUL DE SAC, escape into another register is impossible without a jump, which may lead to disaster. With every tone that the singer has to sing, he must always have a feeling that he CAN go higher, and that the attack for different tones must not be forced upon one and the same point.

The larynx must not be SUDDENLY pressed down or jerked up, except when this is desired as a special effect. That is, when one wishes to make a transition, LEGATO from a chest tone to a tone in the middle or head register, as the Old Italians used to do, and as I, too, learned to do, thus: –

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In this case the chest tone is attacked very nasal, in order that the connection may remain to the upper note, and the larynx is suddenly jerked up to the high tone. This was called breaking the tone; it was very much used, and gave fine effects when it was well done. I use it to-day, especially in Italian music, where it belongs.


The scale proceeds from one semitone to another; each is different; each, as you go on, requires greater height, wherefore the position of the organs cannot remain the same for several different tones. But, as there should never be an abrupt change audible in the way of singing,  so should there never be an abrupt change felt in the sensations of the singer’s throat. Every tone must be imperceptibly prepared in an elastic channel and must produce an easy feeling in the singer, as well as an agreeable impression upon the listener.

The small peak indicated in the illustration is enormously extensible and can be shifted into infinite varieties of position. However unimportant its raising and lowering may appear, they are nevertheless of great importance for the tone and the singer.

After Lehmann, a similar vocal maneuver was described by Douglas Stanley.  Stanley, acerbic writer that he was, left behind no written examples of exact exercises he utilized in lessons, and those he described in print are difficult to interpret without recourse to HEARING them performed.

Stanley did, however, describe an exercise that may be seen as fitting the requirements of the cuperto. From his book Your Voice: Applied Science of Vocal Art (1933):

An octave jump is sometimes a good exercise for purifying the registers and improving the resonance adjustment. The low tone must be sung loudly in the pure lower register. The pupil must then stop singing and IMMEDIATELY attack the upper tone in the pure falsetto, and then carry down on the vibrato to the low tone in the pure lower register once more. Owing to the vigor with which the lower register can be sung, the extensor muscles of the laryngeal pharynx are more apt to be in action for the lower register tone than for the falsetto. Hence, the “stop” and the immediately executed attack of the falsetto, after singing the lower register tone, has a tendency to bring these extensor muscles into action for the falsetto. It is important to note that the falsetto tone must be very dark, and will inevitably be darker than a lower register tone of the same pitch, until an advanced state of development has been reached.

Another version of the exercise fitting Stanley’s description would appear in the book The Living Voice (1935) written by John Wilcox. Wilcox was heavily influenced by Stanley, and Vennard states that Wilcox was an ‘interpreter’ of Stanley’s work.

Wilcox’s was one of the first to use the words Heavy Mechanism and Light Mechanism when referring to the two main registers, a concept perhaps inspired by Stanley’s two register view of chest and falsetto. Wilcox elaborates a step-by-step approach to the exercise whose purpose is the working out of registrational concepts. I’m including the entirety of Wilcox’s process as I feel it offers an unparalleled view of the process and reasoning behind the exercise that has come to be known as the cuperto.

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Based on the above, Wilcox viewed this exercise (which he doesn’t name) as a way of drawing the two register mechanisms into a functional balance. Wilcox is one of the first authors (along with Stanley) to discuss the importance of drawing the lower register UP in the scale. Wilcox takes the Heavy Mechanism as high as Aflat4, a demarcation point that surpasses the historical “Melba point” of E4. According to written accounts, Marchesi (Melba’s teacher) had a tendency to ‘whiten’ voices, reducing the amount of Heavy Mechanism in her students’ voices, giving their voices extensive coloratura but little dramatic élan.

Many pedagogies deny use of the Heavy Mechanism in women’s voices. Perhaps this in the interest of time, as the working out of the voice can be sped up by simply ignoring one of the two mechanisms. It’s relatively quick for men to learn to sing only in chest without including the head/falsetto; and women can make quick work of working the upper register without access to the chest. But both pedagogical systems leave the singer with half of a voice. This pedagogy is more common than we might care to admit in classical voice teaching circles.

I’ve covered this topic before – Garcia II and Hahn both stressed the importance of the lower register, especially in women’s voices. The idea that women should ignore the lower register is not supported by the historical evidence, or a thorough reading of the historical literature on the subject.

Husler and Rodd-Marling also stress the importance of developing and bringing DOWN the upper register in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organs (1965, 1976):

A reminder: the inner laryngeal muscle (vocal lip, vocalis), which has the active, and the most differentiated, work to perform in singing, is imbedded in a passive, elastic membrane. This elastic membrane is indirectly inspanned in a network of muscles (suspensory mechanism) and these, in turn, are decisively supported in their work by the breathing muscles.

The Tensor, i.e., the inner muscle of the vocal folds, is thus supplied with a very strong kind of framework whose action, a stretching process, gives it the freedom and agility to carry out its many tasks. We have called it the ‘elastic scaffolding’.

In spite of its capacity for autonomous action, the inner muscle would remain a blunt and semi-impotent muscle-body without this scaffolding and without the tautness provided by the stretching process; in most cases, moreover, it would probably stiffen as well in the effort to act as (false) antagonist to replace the missing elastic scaffolding.

If we recognize the existence of an anatomical and functional framework erected during production of the perfectly sung tone, then we will realize the importance of the elastic membrane that forms the vocal band (upper border of the Conus elasticus): for stretching of the vocal bands – if the inner muscle remains passive – produces the falsetto voice.

The best way to practise is as follows: to begin with, the singer should try to ‘support’ the thin falsetto (collapsed falsetto) which he will find most easily, at first, on very high notes. By increasing the activity of the muscles in which the larynx is suspended and simultaneously intensifying the work done by the breathing muscles he strengthens this falsetto, thus turning it into what we describe as the ‘supported falsetto’. In this way he forms his instrument’s ‘elastic scaffolding’.

The singer should then carry this ‘supported falsetto’ over the whole range of his voice, down to the lowest possible pitch.

The next step is to introduce the action of the vocal lip, i.e., the Tensor (the inner muscle of the vocal folds that produces the ‘chest voice’), into this scaffolding.

To do so, the tensing of the chest voice muscle must be reduced at first to the minimum so as to avoid rupturing the ‘elastic scaffolding’.

This is best practiced at the lowest pitch, where the throat is unavoidably drawn downwards and the chest voice muscle loses its usual rigidity.

To achieve this form of ‘chest voice’ the singer makes use of the type of placing known as ‘nasal’; after which he will place the tone forward, as described under 3b. This brings the Closers of the vocal folds into action and the voice loses its thickness and heaviness.

Formulated as briefly as possible: the aim is maximum stretching of the vocal folds with minimum contraction of their inner muscle. To what extent the tensing of the inner muscle (which strengthens the voice) can be increased in course of time, depends on the capacity of the elastic scaffolding to resist the tension. It is a matter that varies with each individual.

Whether consciously or not, the procedure adopted by all good schools and all great singers invariably follows the same pattern: to start with lyrical roles and pass gradually to dramatic ones.

A singer who is able to activate his vocal instrument in this way will have acquired most of the elements essential for making music with the voice. Because of the remarkable physiological-physical law governing the manner of functioning, he will now have at his disposal the ‘long breath’: the vocal folds are able to vibrate with the minimum expenditure of breath. So-called phrasing, guiding the voice in a broad and flowing line, will happen automatically as the result of things that take place in the organ itself. He will have no trouble in increasing or diminishing the tone (crescendo, decrescendo; messa di voce): it requires no ‘technical skill’, no ‘art’, but happens simply through the play between the stretching and tensing of the vocal folds. Neither will he have any difficulty in ‘bringing the tone forward’, in ‘making the voice slender’, as it has to be for singing coloratura and other such embellishments: the Closers of the vocal folds are free and unrestricted in their work.

No danger whatever is attached to exercising the ‘elastic scaffolding’, that is to say, in strengthening the falsetto. On the contrary, practising it strongly enough eliminates the danger of ‘cracking’ from one register into another, because ‘registers’ as such will no longer exist.


Vennard also views the exercise described as cuperto as a form of register unification.

(548) Some teachers feel that getting lightness of registration is easier with the vowel [u] than with the others, possibly for the same reason as I have mentioned. Clippinger recommends using it in developing what he calls the head voice, (p. 19). I much prefer to begin with [ɑ], and to work as long as necessary in getting a well rounded production with both “forward placement” and “depth.” However, I also use the other vowels to induce these qualities in the [ɑ]. I have the student sing [i, e, ɑ] to “focus” the [ɑ], and I use [o] and [u] to “free” it. It is said that Lamperti used [ɑ] primarily, but considered [u] “the medicine of the voice.” A useful vocalise is the descending octave diatonic scale, on “lu, lu, lu,” etc., sung as softly as possible, almost falsetto and perhaps breathily. This may be transposed freely. It is then followed with this melody on the vowel [ɑ]:

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The low three-tone scale is sung loudly in the chest, or nearly so in the case of women’s voices. Then there is a portamento to a pianissimo head tone at the top with a crescendo as the singer returns to the heavy registration at the bottom. The student should “place the high head tone where he felt the [u].” Transpose freely. Finally the vocalise can be repeated with a crescendo on the top tone before coming down. This must be done with some caution, and not transposed too high. It is an adaptation of an exercise by Stanley (p.143), and reminds us of one by Lehmann which she called “breaking the tone,” (p. 146). I sometimes use a more radical form, developed by Wilcox (p. 27), who was an interpreter of Stanley. In this exercise the leap is two octaves, going into falsetto and descending a two-octave scale with as little break as possible into chest. High voices, especially tenors, benefit greatly from it, and usually can do the two octaves without a break.

The cuperto as described by David Jones matches much of the pedagogical directives of the previous authors.  Jones’ teacher Alan Lindquist was a colleague of William Vennard, but I have not been able to locate the exercise maneuver in Lindquist’s written legacy. Additionally, I have not been able to trace the term cuperto to any historical Italian text of merit of the 18th or 19th centuries. Its description in vocal pedagogy appears to be limited to the 20th century.

That being said, considering that register balance has been the goal of much of the training of the human voice throughout history (or at least since the late 18th century if Tosi and Mancini are to be believed), it is not difficult to imagine such an exercise would be included in voice work of previous centuries. We must remember Garcia’s VERY first exercise in the Traité de l’Art du Chant (1841) was, in effect, a register breaking exercise, in order to unite the two mechanisms. While the cuperto may not be traceable to a specific bel canto tradition or manual on singing from the Old Italian School, register unification can easily be found as early as Tosi and Mancini in the late 18th century.



Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. Singing: the physical nature of the vocal organ: a guide to the unlocking of the singing voice. Vintage, 1976.

Jones, David:

Lehmann, Lilli. Meine gesangskunst. Verlag der Zukunft, 1902.

Stanley, Douglas. Your voice: applied science of vocal art. Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1957.

Vennard, William. Singing: the mechanism and the technic. Carl Fischer, LLC, 1967.

Wilcox, John C. The Living Voice. C. Fischer, Incorporated, 1945.

Volume Continued: Mancini and Tosi

From this comes the rule that he who departs from natural usage passes from pleasure into annoyance. Above all else the young singer should avoid exercises and studies sotto voce, because not only the trill, but every other ornament of singing, more and more, when sung sotto voce, makes it impossible to execute them any other way, and every time that he wishes to produce them in full voice, huge in large and vast places, he cannot execute these passages, or if he executes them, they cannot be other than full of imperfections, and unpleasant. While it is easy to execute any ornament in a weak and soft voice, it is very difficult to execute them with a large and strong voice.

Mancini, Giambattista. “Pensieri, riflessioni practiche sopra il canto figurato (Vienna, 1774), trans. and ed.” E. Foreman as Practical Reflections on Figured Singing (Champaign, 1968): 74.

Gathering from the above passage from Mancini, it would appear that he wanted singers to sing their music, especially of a more decorative nature, in piena voce “full voice.” This is a far cry from the methods of modern practice which aim to ‘lighten’ the coloratura passages in order to render them.

Perhaps a reassessment of our relationship to ‘soft singing’ is in order, especially from the point of view of actual voice building in the studio.

Let the Master instruct him in the Forte and Piano, but so as to use him more to the first than the second, it being easier to make one sing soft than loud. Experience shews that the Piano is not to be trusted to, since it is prejudicial though pleasing; and if any one has a Mind to lose his Voice, let him try it.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Observations on the florid song. J. Wilcox, 1742.



The Restricted Larynx (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Intensity)

Primum non nocere.

“First Do No Harm.” Don’t hurt someone’s voice or their psyche – good teaching goals, right? I agree 100%. But I also think that ALL voice training carries with it some risk, both good and bad. This is something that we don’t talk about too much in the profession. Oh well.

As a singer who experienced functional deterioration myself, I find I project my own history on my students: being overly cautious, maybe a little too gentle. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been questioning my approach. Am I doing enough to stimulate positive change in the vocal mechanisms of my students?

The answer that I’ve come up with is, no, I’m not.

I want students to build strength in their voices and that doesn’t come by singing gentle scales all the time. “Building on the soft” will NOT work for a student as a strength-building approach. If you lift the pink weights at the gym, you will register a change at first, but you must lift the SAME weight more and more to continue to build your muscles. Do you want to do 1,000 reps? 10,000? How much time will that take?

How does intensity manifest in a lesson? I ask students to give me a full sound in their chest register (Mode 1), rising ABOVE the speech pitch (F0) and usual intensity of speech range on open vowels. (Think open mouth “ah” or “eh” or “ay” on slides.) We do exclamations: “HEY!””WHOA!””NOOOOO””YEAAAH!” ALL in chest register, (Mode 1).

The students are excited about taking the vocal “horse” out of the barn and giving it a trot around the field. They get excited about what good volume feels like – even my gentler female students have been coaxed to make more assertive exclamations. (Another benefit of this: these gentle ladies become MORE assertive and more communicative in lessons as their voices get stronger!)

The timeliness of Ingo Titze’s recent paper in the Journal of Voice “Human Speech: A Restricted Use of the Mammalian Larynx.” Journal of Voice 31.2 (2017): 135-141” confirmed a lot of suspicions I was having in my own work regarding intensity.

Here are some quick takeaways from this article:

  1. Speech is not varied enough in pitch or intensity to stimulate the intrinsic structures of the larynx.
  2. The lack of calling, yelling, howling, hooting, roaring, screaming, chanting in our civilized society MAY pre-dispose a student to motor control issues in the larynx. Students who present with vocal control problems may have lost touch with inner laryngeal function.
  3. The laryngeal mechanism’s evolution can be attributed to a need to communicate over great distances. Current speech habits restrict the use of the voice, and in time, may cause the evolution of the larynx to naturally select ‘out’ the fullest properties of voice. Full, open, ringing sounds may become a thing of the past if the larynx isn’t stimulated enough in our species.
  4. Certain consonants do not possess the carrying factor. Vowel sounds are best for this type of communication. (Could this be why the vowel centricism of Italian was SO successful in the training of voice?)
  5. Children with developmental issues that do not use the voice NEVER develop a vocal ligament. Adults that lose the ability to talk also lose the ligament structure of the folds.
  6. Titze argues that speech alone uses about 10% of the sarcomere length of our vocal folds (the length at which the actin-myosin overlap produces the maximum contractile force).
  7. Functional issues such as spasmodic dysphonia (where patients can SING but not speak), may point to this restriction of usage that fails under speech conditions.
  8. Semi-occlusion and vocal function exercises (VFEs) are the vocal equivalents of taking the voice to “the gym.”

I was immediately struck by similarities to Frederick Husler’s book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler’s entire pedagogy was built around ‘unlocking’ the functions of what he called a ‘normal’ mechanism.

…forming, training a voice is a process of re-generation. It consists in restoring the organ of singing to the condition intended by nature, or strengthening and revitalizing it in all its many parts. It is essentially a remedial operation. Leaving aside all artistic considerations, voice training as such is therapy more than anything else.

Husler goes on to state (echoing Titze):

There can be little doubt that the larynx, together with its other functions, was planned and constructed as a specific instrument for singing, if only for this reason: the edges of the vocal folds divide into harmonically ordered sections which can have no purpose other than to produce ‘useless’ aesthetic sensations. No such complex mechanism is necessary for speaking. If we may express it, the mind that formed speech took possession of the organ of singing.

Titze argues that mothers and babies speak in “mothereses” with each other, gliding up and over the F0 area of the voice, reflecting the evolutionary move from an early singing quality to a lower restricted laryngeal use as the infant becomes socialized.

From Husler again:

In many ways Man developed his most human attributes with the invention of language, and speech grew into so vast a superimposition that it has resulted in a chronic lack of INNERVATION, a lack that affects the purely SINGING function of the vocal organ.


As a result of this long and persistent disuse, the musculatures concerned have generally become extremely weak, even atrophied (atrophy through inaction), with a parallel fading of what is known as ‘organic memory.’

This civilizing process on the voice is ALSO interesting from an historical pedagogy concept. Edgar Herbert-Caesari in Tradition and Gigli believes that much of the Camerata’s work to develop their masterful vocal techniques were taken from observations of the lower classes of society that had not been subject to a ‘civilizing’ process: loud farmers, tradesmen, and field workers with impeccable laryngeal coordination. The Camerata was observing those human beings that had NOT lost their ‘organic memory’ of their vocal mechanism.

All this correlates to a lively and active use of the voice in a training program. In my studies and work as a teacher, I have come to realize the importance of full-throated sound to innervate the instrument, evoking the liberated sounds of childhood. (And yes, it also helps the head voice when the chest register is strengthened.)

Vocal intensity is good.

Intensity is healthy.

Intensity is what the mechanism was intended for.

We should consider our training directives, and question if a diet of gentle and easy is really going to do anything to build a sturdy voice, and then proceed accordingly.

However, Primum non nocere. 

The Taste of Sugar

Although one can read about the Zen in the martial arts, true knowledge of it is experiential. How do we explain the taste of sugar? Verbal descriptions do not give us the sensation. To know the taste, one must experience it. The philosophy of the arts is not meant to be mused over and intellectualised; it is meant to be experienced. Thus, inevitably, words will convey only part of the meaning.

Hyams, Joe. Zen in the martial arts. Bantam, 2010.

Hyams has nailed a foundational and often neglected element in voice training: learning to sing is an experience.

The voice profession has terms for thousands of vocal qualities (some proprietary to the individual teacher!). A student will walk in and may have NO prior experience with the following expressions:

Head voice Spin Lift
Support Stable larynx Legato
Staccato Chest voice Mix
Legato Edge Falsetto

My central aim is to get the student to EXPERIENCE particular vocal qualities. Working from the WORD we get confusion and end-gaining. Striving to achieve the word. I want a student to experience the above qualities in an indirect way that allows them to experience it- and THEN we can name the behavior. The student may very well have THEIR OWN WORD for the experience they’ve had! We should leave room for that.

This is why I will always struggle with directives such as:

“Support that phrase more!”

“Spin the tone more there.”

“Lift up before you go down.”

All of these terms ASSUME that student 1.) knows what you are talking about and 2.) has HAD that experience before. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Let’s rework them from another angle:

Soufflé that phrase more.”

Chocolate the tone more there.”

Purple up before you orange down.”

Make sense to you? Think how the student feels hearing the above-mentioned directives in a master class with a famous teacher/singer, all WORD based.

WORD orientation is also a huge trap for intelligent singers who believe they are “doing the words,” when in fact, their EXPERIENCE of that word is entirely different.

Some of my favorite moments in lessons:


STUDENT: Gee, it feels like the tone is really spinny and alive and I have a good sense of elasticity in my body, and my breath seems to be lasting a lot longer.

ME: What you are feeling and experiencing is what some voice teachers and singers have called “support.”

STUDENT: Wow, I would never have thought that “support” would feel like that.


STUDENT: I really want to work on my “mix.” (Student begins to vocalize in what they believe is a mix, but is in reality just a long head voice.)

ME: So, that’s your “mix,” yes?

STUDENT: Yes, my last teacher and I have been working on it, but I can’t seem to get any chest quality into it.

ME: O_o

Clearly, each student was having a different experience in relationship to a concept through LANGUAGE. In the first example, the student had NO word or concept to work from and was able to find the “word” through the coordination of the body first. Their experience was remarkably different from how they interpreted the word from conversations with other singers and teachers.

In the second conversation, the student had been given the word first and told that their experience of that word was a mix,  but in reality, it was a head-dominated registration with little to no chest register participation. Both examples demonstrate how words can potentially get in the way of proper concepts.

I think that athletic coaches have a distinct advantage over us, they can monitor largely through their eyes. We voice teachers must monitor another person’s experience through their SOUND. When a student finds a very strong chest register participation, what is more important?: – that they understand a WORD or they have an EXPERIENCE of chest register? Once experienced, it lodges in the student’s consciousness and becomes an indelible experience in learning how to use the voice.

Coming back to our topic, I invoke the comparison with food and taste regularly in lessons. If you have never tasted sugar, you would be hard pressed to describe it. Using an adjective like sweet isn’t good enough. It’s the same with the word ‘support’ if you have never experienced that in YOUR body –  We voice teachers are a loquacious bunch and will do our best to ‘describe you there.’ Nonetheless, real time and energy can be spent in developing a pedagogy that can elicit the behavior first and then name it. Once experienced, the student has acquired an invaluable piece of information: what a particular vocal behavior FEELS and SOUNDS like.

Perhaps this is why TRULY great singers are so hard-pressed to describe their experience? It goes BEYOND MERE WORDS.

Pedagogue Herbert Witherspoon found a similar strain of thought in his book Singing:

Sensation is responsible for much of the confusion in teaching, because teachers try to induce correct sensation in the pupil through imagination, imitation, or suggestion, in order to get the correct tone, instead of asking the pupil to”do” something to cause correct action which produces correct tone, and which in turn will cause the correct sensation. That is, sensation is an effect and not a cause of tone. Correct sensation may be a guide after it has once been experienced by correct singing; it cannot be obtained except by correct singing. We may ask a man who has never eaten an olive what an olive tastes like, or what is the real “taste sensation” of eating an olive. He will promptly voice his ignorance, and say, “Let me eat an olive and I will tell you.” The sensation then becomes a guide for future eating.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).

WORDS in teaching only convey a mere SHADOW of the experience. They are NOT the experience.

Again: the word is NOT the experience. This should be taken to heart and contemplated as one works with all sorts of bodies and intellects. Experiential pedagogy also leads to a pedagogy that is student/experiential oriented and attempts to draw out the voice that is already there. WORDS can be an intellectual block and create a pedagogy that attempts to introduce controls from the outside in.

Get the behavior. Then name it.