Rossini’s Exercise to Balance the Registers

“When I went back to stay in Bologna after abandoning my theatrical career, I was entirely taken up with the teaching of singing at the Liceo. I just mentioned homogeneity of timbre, equalization of the registers. Here, for example, is a model of the exercises that I prescribed, thanks to which I obtained astonishing results. It is simple, and the pupil himself, given a good ear, came to be able to correct himself.”  Then, sitting down at the piano, the Maestro struck the following notes:

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“After which the same exercise was continued through ascending semitones C-C-sharp, D-D-sharp, E, etc., to the limit of the voice’s tessitura, variable according to age and to the progress of the martyr or victim,” Rossini said, exchanging a smile with his illustrious former pupil Alboni.

“Without that first discipline, aimed at developing equality of timbre over the whole range of the organ, a voice, no matter how richly endowed by nature it may be, always will remain completely defective. Isn’t that the case, what’s more, with the brain, the most generous innate capacities of which demand long, studious effort if they are to acquire their full value?”


Michotte, Edmond, et al. Richard Wagner’s Visit to Rossini (Paris 1860): And, An Evening at Rossini’s in Beau-Sejour (Passy) 1858. Translated from the French and Annotated, with an Introd. and Appendix, by Herbert Weinstock. University Press, 1968.

The Experience is the Thing

Here’s a quote from Pedro de Alcantara’s book “Indirect Procedures.”

You can’t perform an act correctly until you’ve had the experience of performing it, and you can’t have the experience without performing the act. This vicious circle, kept closed by faulty sensory awareness, is one of the great stumbling blocks of musical pedagogy— and, indeed, of life. Every time a music teacher (or vocal coach, or conductor) asks you to do something, you interpret the teacher’s instructions according to your habitual, faulty sensory perception, execute the now-distorted instructions with your habitual misuse, and judge the results of your own playing through faulty sensory perception. If your sensory awareness is faulty, most of what you do takes you away from achieving your goals.

I’m reminded of Herbert Witherspoon’s analogy about tasting olives in his book Singing, published in 1925 – until you TASTE the olive, you don’t know the experience of an olive – even if you’ve heard everyone talk about olives and think you know what they taste like. This relates to EVERY dubious term we use in voice training: support, resonance, registers, squillo, etc.

“Support that phrase!” 

If you’ve never had the experience (or taste) of “support,” how are you going to achieve it or know what it is when you do it? The direction assumes the student knows 1.) what “support” means, and 2.) has experienced “support” previously.

Both may or may not be true.

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).

Once you have the experience of an olive, you have achieved an understanding of what is meant by olive. Witherspoon says the EXPERIENCE of singing well can only be had by SINGING WELL. It’s so paradoxical, and yet we don’t talk about this in pedagogy circles.

Joe Hyams describes the same phenomenon in his 2010 book, Zen in the Martial Arts:

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.

From the above, it would seem that our aim in pedagogy should be focused on the means whereby we can INDUCE the experience of good singing, not just assume fancy scientific descriptions of what is happening will do the trick. Even those are descriptions of something that has ALREADY occurred – not HOW to do it.

That would be something we could call voice pedagogy. Like fancy words about the taste of an olive  – until you experience it – all that language is meaningless. To use another humorous analogy: if you are training a dog to sit, the most important thing to do is GET THE BEHAVIOR FIRST, then you can call it whatever you want. It’s the behavior that matters. Dogs don’t come programmed knowing the meaning of “sit.” We must INDUCE the behavior!

My job as a VOICE TEACHER is to assist in the inducement of experiences of singing, and singing well, which may be a totally foreign experience. All fancy words and sciencey terms will prove to be an enormous stumbling block if I can’t ultimately get the student to the experience.

The Holy Buddha Smiled

“It’s interesting to watch the faces of classical musicians as they perform. Many players look as if they’re in pain: faces scrunched, heads and necks twisted, brows furrowed. And they look so regardless of the repertory they’re playing. A light-footed dance by Bach: scrunch, twist, furrow. A concerto by Mozart: scrunch, twist, furrow. Pain seems the primary emotion, and struggle the mode of work. In other domains of musical endeavor, however, there are many musicians whose dominant emotion is joy, and whose mode of work isn’t struggle but play. Take a guy like Elvis Presley. He was a consummate storyteller, and a singer of considerable vocal finesse. When performing, he seemed to be making fun of himself; he was both himself and his own knowing parody. His light-footed and light-hearted approach didn’t prevent his fans from going haywire!


Suppose that Presley represents profane energies, so to speak. Sacred energies, too, don’t need a furrowed brow. Consider the smiling Buddha, reminding us that in enlightenment you “embody light.” Or go on YouTube and watch the Golden Gate Quartet, a vocal group that has performed continuously (with personnel changes) since 1938. Their outlook in life is decidedly religious; after all, they sing mostly gospel, which is the word of God. Yet their music making is born of humor and joy. They deliver their songs with the cleverest rhetorical touches: accented off-beats, unexpected exclamation marks, the interplay of metronomic regularity and linguistic rubato. How about you take the same approach to your Haydn string quartets?


You can always decide that you prefer intense, passionate, and highly muscular interpretations. You can even decide that there’s no meaning in music unless there’s a fight between you and your instrument. I think you’ll be a better fighter if you know that you’re fighting; and you’ll know the fight more intimately if you ponder its alternative, which I’ve been calling the conversational approach.

By the way, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Bruce Lee, and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of aikido, a powerful martial art) were forever smiling. Strange, huh?”

BRUCE LEE - Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

de Alcantara, Pedro. The Integrated String Player: Embodied Vibration. Oxford University Press, 2017.

The Parable of the Crayon

Misuse of effort is an everyday occurrence in singing instruction, and getting a singer to a place of freedom and balance forms much of the pedagogical content of voice lessons. Theodore Dimon (whose book The Elements of Skill – a personal favorite) tells a story about a student struggling with learning to write:

Many years ago, when I was first starting to teach, a child was sent to me by his mother, who said that when he wrote at school, he tied himself up in knots and couldn’t write legibly. His teachers, who felt that he needed more practice, encouraged him to work harder at his penmanship. He was also sent to a specialist who gave him a number of exercises designed to improve his motor coordination. In spite of this advice, however, no one had been able to help Josh, for the simple reason that his teachers were so focused on what he was doing— on getting him to do the right things— that they could not see how he was quite literally trapped by his own efforts. What made matters even worse was that all the help Josh was given by his teachers further reinforced his already harmful tendencies, with the result that his problem got even worse. By the time Josh came to me, he was struggling to form his letters, gripping the pencil so tightly and working so hard to control it that his letters had become even smaller and more illegible.

How this parallels the journey of so many singers! In an effort to do it right, we end up doing too much or doing the WRONG things in order to achieve the ends we wish to attain. Tightness, constriction, fatigue, loss of range and power all indicate results of end-gaining.

F. M. Alexander termed this phenomenon end gaining, which he defined as:

the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved.

Should vocal pedagogy focus on the object to be learned (good singing), or HOW the object is being learned? When performances, juries, or competitions loom over a singer, tricks and rushing become the means-whereby the student gains faster results in order to stave off the fear and insecurity of a recalcitrant voice during a performance.


This has always been my criticism of the academic jury system of voice training in the United States. Regardless of a student’s particular vocal development, an impending jury causes all manner of end-gaining as the student struggles with new music, text, foreign language, technical skill – while under deadline. (Does nature work on deadlines?)  Students are rarely given lengthy semesters to explore, discover, or understand themselves through their voice. Combine this with a single-lesson week and the general level of stress the average student experiences, and it’s a wonder anyone learns to sing at all.

To all the above, a system of music practice is set up that encourages a repetitious drilling of music and exercise: a perfect recipe for constricted, muscle-bound singers literally teaching themselves the wrong things in every practice session. They are repeating (and therefore ingraining) errors. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT.

How did Dimon go about helping Josh learn to write?

Instead of asking Josh to write, I told him that I wanted to do some drawing; to this end, I asked him to gather a couple of crayons and to make some large circles. After he did this for a minute or so, I told him to try making the circles smaller and smaller, until he could make a very small circle without any sense of strain and struggle. This new strategy worked. By getting him to draw instead of write, he stopped using the tension he associated with writing and could then form letters without tying himself into knots.

At the simplest level, then, we can begin to unravel Josh’s problem by finding an alternative to his normal way of doing things. The problem in almost all forms of learning is that we get stuck by our own trying— stuck into ways of doing, into tension, into bad habits. The harder we try to make things right, the more we get in our own way. We have to learn instead to do something different, to focus our attention in a new way. We are then able to do easily what seemed so difficult.


How does this apply to singing?

Let’s consider that singing a specific pitch is a form of ‘letter tracing.’ As singers, we learn over time to trace notes with our voices in scale-based exercises – a learned behavior.

Perhaps, like Dimon, we should categorize differences of approach as vocal drawing and vocal tracing. And taking this analogy even further: what if end-aims of methods and systems of voice training are (in their own way) types of fonts and calligraphy the student must learn to master? Perhaps we are trying to make our voices match a particular font (or style)? Helvetica. Palatino. Sans-serif. All methods of writing style (singing).

Like Dimon’s approach, a singer should be allowed to draw freely with the voice – move up and down, sliding, gliding, exploring (in a totally mindless fashion) the movements of the voice up, down, loud, soft, fast, slow – any number of explorations which are only limited by the student’s creativity.  What’s happening in the neck, shoulders, torso, jaw, tongue while all this free exploration is being done? Can we notice and make subtle changes during free play? Some singers have never been afforded play in singing.

This play requires a rather childlike submission to making sound. Intellectualism is not welcome here and will only serve to stifle the process and the creativity. Laughter may ensue – so much the better!

Students who cannot match pitch will gain greater skill in singing if they are allowed some time to play and draw with their voices in meaningless patterns. They gain greater motor skill by being allowed to devise unique patterns with their voices instead of being forced to follow a pre-existing one. I often call this process ‘reconnecting the voice to the ear.’

To immediately demand a voice respond to a tracing process (in exercise or song) is to cause a voice to potentially end gain to achieve the goal. Getting a student to trace letters before they have good motor skills and understand how to use their hands (voice), works them into an end. This will only cause an increase in problems later on, not eliminate technical misuse.

But we are often blocked precisely because we want and need to accomplish something; our instinctive focus on “doing” brings into play the very habits that interfere with our capacity to learn. As an alternative to our usual modes of trying, we must find out how to transform our responses to the challenge into constructive means by shifting our focus and circumventing these harmful habits. This is when we forget about trying to “do” the right thing and start thinking creatively for our purposes. This is when we begin to learn how to learn.




Dimon, Theodore. The elements of skill: A conscious approach to learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.


Inayat Khan on Voice for World Voice Day 2018

For World Voice Day I want to share the profound wisdom of Sufi Inayat Khan, the founder of the Sufi Order in the West in 1914, and teacher of Universal Sufism. Historian Edward Foreman has declared that Khan’s essay on voice is one of the single most important writings on the voice – which is rather laudatory when you consider the sheer volume of material that Foreman has read and covered in his research on singing. You may not find a more fully-fleshed, contemplative view of the voice’s role in our human experience than Khan’s remarks below.

Khan’s text is a meditation to savor, consider, re-read, contemplate and enrichen one’s philosophy of voice. As he concludes so beautifully, “If there is any real trace of miracle, of phenomena, of wonder, it is the voice.”

The voice is not only indicative of man’s character, but it is the expression of his spirit. The voice is not only audible but also visible to those who can see it. The voice makes impressions on the ethereal sphere, impressions which can be called audible; at the same time, they are visible. Those scientists who have made experiments with sound and who have taken impressions of the sound on certain plates — which impressions appear like forms — will find one day that the impression of the voice is more living, more deep, and has a greater effect. Sound can be louder than the voice, but sound cannot be more living than the voice.

Knowing this the Hindus of ancient times said that singing is the first art, playing the second art, and dancing the third art which make music. The Hindus who have found that by these three different aspects of music one attains to spirituality much sooner than by any other way, have discovered that the shortest way to attain spiritual heights is by singing. Therefore the greatest prophets of the Hindus were singers: Narada and Tumbara. Narada inspired Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana and the Mahabharta, the great Hindu scriptures.

There are three principal kinds of voices: the jelal voice, the jemal voice, and the kemal voice. The jelal voice indicates power; the jemal voice indicates beauty; the kemal voice indicates wisdom.

If you take careful notice in everyday life, you will find that sometimes before a person has finished his sentence you have become annoyed. It is not because of what he has said, but it is his voice. And you will also notice — perhaps not every day in your life, but sometimes — that you once heard someone say something that has always remained with you: it gives always a beautiful feeling, it is always soothing, it is healing, it is uplifting, it is inspiring.

A doctor coming to see a patient may, by his voice, frighten the patient and make him more ill if his voice is not harmonious. And another doctor may, by his voice, treat the patient so that before the medicine is brought he is already feeling better. The doctor gives the medicine, but it is the voice with which he comes to the patient that counts.

In the history of the world have not men marched hundreds of miles with strength and vigor, not knowing what they were going to face, on hearing the voice of their commander: “Quick march!’? It seemed that all fear, all anxiety were taken away, and all vigor and courage were given to them, as they were going to march. And again have you not heard of commanders who said: “Fire!”, and the soldiers turned back and fired at them? That is the voice too.

The voice, therefore, is a wine. It may be the best wine, and it may be the worst liquor. It may make a person ill, or it may uplift him.

There are five different qualities of the voice, which are connected with the peculiar character of the person.

  1. The earth quality of the voice is hope giving, encouraging, tempting.
  2. The water quality is intoxicating, soothing, healing, uplifting.
  3. The fire quality is impressive, arousing, exciting, horrifying; at the same time it is awakening, because very often warning is given in the voice of the fire quality. The use of the words “tongues of flame” in the Old Testament is narrative of that voice and word which were warning of coming dangers. It was alarming for the people to awaken from their sleep, to awaken to a greater consciousness, to a higher consciousness.
  4. Then there is the air quality of the voice. It is uplifting, raising a person, taking him far, far away from the plane of the earth.
  5. And the ether quality of the voice is inspiring, healing, peace giving, harmonizing, convincing, appealing; at the same time, it is most intoxicating.

Every Jalal voice, Jamal voice, or Kamal voice has one or another of these five qualities predominant in it, and according to that, it creates an effect.

The most wonderful part in the study of voice is that from the voice you can find out a man’s particular evolution, his stage of evolution. You do not need to see the person, just his voice will tell you where he is, how far he has evolved. There is no doubt that the character of the person is apparent, is evident in his voice.

There is another most wonderful thing to be found in the science of the voice: that the fortunate person has a different voice from the one who is not so fortunate. If you gather five persons who have really proved to be most fortunate, and you hear their voices, you will find what great difference there is between their voice and the ordinary voice. When you compare the voice of great people – no matter what their line may be – with the voice of others, you will find that there is a difference.

But what is meant here is the speaking voice. When we come to singing it is quite different, because today the art of singing has become as artificial as can be. The whole idea is to train the voice and make it different from what it is naturally. The training of the voice does not develop what is natural in it, it mostly brings into it something which is not natural to it. Therefore when a person sings according to the method of the day he has a different voice. It is not his voice, it is not his character. He may have a great success, he may be audible to thousands of people, but at the same time he is not singing in his natural voice. You cannot see his stage of evolution in his voice. Therefore the real character of the person is to be seen in his speaking voice.

Then there is another thing to be understood: that is the softness and the loudness of the voice; that there are times when the voice is softer, and there are other times when the voice is louder. Naturally that shows the condition of the spirit at that particular time, because sometimes the spirit is tender, and with the tenderness of the spirit the voice becomes softened. Sometimes the spirit is harder, and with the hardness of the spirit the voice becomes hardened. In order to scold a person you do not need to put on a hard voice; the voice becomes hard naturally. In order to sympathize with a person, in order to express your gratitude, your love, your devotion, your affection to someone, you do not need to soften your voice; your voice is soft before you can feel it, before you can think about it. This shows that the voice is an expression of the spirit. If the spirit is soft, the voice is soft; if the spirit is hard, the voice is hard; if the spirit is powerful, then the voice has power; if the spirit has lost its vigor, then the voice loses its power.

Furthermore, I should like to tell you an amusing thing on this subject. Sometimes a person comes to you and begins to speak about something; and then he says: “Hm, hm”; next he says another word and then continues to say: “Hm, hm.” It may be that he has a cold, but it may be that he has not. Yet at that time he is doing this. Why? Because there is something that he is bringing forth from his mind, and it does not come quickly. The same condition that is going on in the spirit is manifesting in the voice. He wants to say something, but he cannot say it: the voice does not operate, because the mind is not operating. If in the mind there is some obstacle, some hindrance, then in the voice there is also something hindering.

Inspiration chooses its own voice, and when a speaker has to change his voice in accordance with the hall where he is going to speak, then inspiration is lost. Because the inspiration begins to feel: “It is not my voice”, it does not come. Then the speaker has to struggle twice: one struggle is that he must speak without inspiration, and the other struggle is that he must be audible to the number of people present. That cannot be done!

Nowadays people have adopted a new method of elocution. A person who has learned elocution can shout as loudly as ten people shouting at the same time, and everyone will think: “How wonderful!” But what impression has it made? None!

Nowadays radio technicians have made a kind of horn which they use at stations in the United States. A person takes that horn and on speaking into it his voice becomes twenty times louder. It is all right for trade and business purposes, but when you come to life itself, and when you come to conversation, to speaking to your friends, it is different.

It is a most psychological occasion when you speak to one person or to many persons, because something is taking place which has its echo in the cosmos. No word ever spoken is lost; it remains, and it vibrates according to the spirit put into it. If a person makes his voice artificial in order to convince people, in order to be more audible, and in order to impress people, it only means he is not true to his spirit. It cannot be. It is better for a person to be natural in his speech with individuals and with the multitude, rather than that he should become different.

Now coming to the subject of singing: there are certain things which must be retained in the voice. However much the voice may be developed, however great its volume, however far reaching it may be and should be made by practice, at the same time one must feel responsible for keeping one’s natural voice through every stage of development – that the natural voice is not hurt by it. It does not mean that one should not have a far reaching voice, it does not mean that one should not have a voice of a larger volume, that one should not have a voice that is vigorous and flexible. Everything that enriches the voice is necessary and must be developed by practice, but all the time keeping in view: “I must not sacrifice the natural quality of my voice.” For every person, every soul must know that there is no other voice like his. And if that particularity of its own voice which each soul has is lost, then nothing is left with it.

Besides this, every person is an instrument in this orchestra which is the whole universe, and his voice is the music that comes from each instrument. Each instrument is made distinct and particular and peculiar, so that no other voice can take the place of that particular voice. If then – with the instrument that God has made and the music that God has intended to be played in the world – one does not allow that music to be played and one develops a voice which is not one’s own, naturally that is a great cruelty to oneself and to others.

For those on the spiritual path, thinkers, students and meditative souls, it is of the greatest importance to know the condition of their spirit from time to time by consulting their voice. That is their barometer. From morning till evening one can see the weather – the weather created by oneself: whether it is warm or cold, or whether it is spring or winter. One’s voice is that barometer that shows to us what is coming, because what will come is the reaction, the result of what is created, and the voice is indicative of it.

Those who think still more deeply on this subject will be able to see how, step by step, they are progressing in the spiritual path, if only they consult their voice. Every step in the spiritual path brings about a little change. By a distinct study of the voice you will find that it is so. When you go back, you will find by the change: “I had gone so much further, and I have gone back again.” The voice will tell you.

There is another point which is most wonderful about the voice: that once you have worked with the voice and have cultivated it, deepened it, widened it, and it has become invigorated, and then you have left it, you may leave it for months and years, and the voice may take a different shape and a different appearance, but at the same time what you have once developed remains with you somewhere. It is just like a kind of deposit kept in a bank. You do not know of it, you have forgotten it perhaps, yet it is there. The day when you will touch it again, it will come back in the same way and it will take very little to complete it.

If the voice has developed a spiritual quality and one finds later that it has lost that spiritual quality, one must not be discouraged or disappointed. One has not lost it. One must correct oneself and want to go forward again, and be sorry for having gone backward, but never be discouraged, never be hopeless, because it is there; it only wants a little touch. It is just like a little candle which has gone out, but once you strike a match it is lighted again; it is a candle just the same. The voice is light itself. If the light has become dim, it has not gone out, it is there. It is the same with the voice. If it does not shine, it only means that it has not been cultivated. You must cultivate it again, and it will begin to shine again.

Question: Is it advisable to train one’s voice, if one has not much of it.

Answer: One might ask: Is it advisable to do physical exercises when one is very thin? If one is thin, it is even more necessary to do physical exercises. So if there is no voice, it is more necessary that one should develop it.

Question: Does the voice change through the different ages?

Answer: Yes. Every age, infancy, childhood, youth, and more advanced age changes the pitch of the voice. The advanced age is an expression of what a person has gained, and so the voice is also indicative of his attainment. No doubt, as with every step in the age of a person, so with every step forward in spiritual evolution, there is also a difference in the voice. Every experience in life is an initiation. Even in the worldly life it is a step forward, and that experience changes the voice.

Question: Do the words one has spoken in the past continue to affect one’s life?

Answer: Certainly, certainly.

Question: Which is more powerful: to say something mentally or to say it aloud?

Answer: If you say it mentally and do not speak, it is powerful. If you speak and do not say it mentally, it is powerless. If you say it mentally and speak it at the same time, it is most powerful.

Question: Would you say a few words about the modern art of declamation or recitation?

Answer: There is little to be said about it. Very often people think that, when they have to recite, they must have a different voice, they must become a different being. A person does not want to remain what he is, he wants to be different. There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more convincing and appealing and impressive than reciting in one’s own natural voice.

Question: Would you tell us how it was that Tansen kindled candles by singing?

Answer: It is told that Tansen, the great singer, performed wonders by singing. Tansen was a Yogi. He was a singer, but the Yogi of singing. He had mastered sound, and therefore the sound of his voice became living, and by his making the voice live everything that he wanted happened.

Very few in this world know to what extent phenomena can be produced by the power of the voice. If there is any real trace of miracle, of phenomena, of wonder, it is the voice.