“Mindsets” of Cultivation and Production

Art consists in knowing where nature directs us, and to what we have been destined. By understanding the gifts of nature, and by cultivating them, man can perfect himself. How sure is harvest for the attentive farmer who has observed and understood the different seeds, which are fecund in different types of earth.

Mancini, Giambattista. Practical reflections on figured singing. Vol. 7. Pro Musica Press, 1967.

The understanding of voice training as an agrarian process appears to date to the early texts of Tosi and Mancini. The directive of ‘observing Nature,’ ‘following Nature,’ and ‘Nature’s Laws’ appear throughout most of the early writing on singing, as witnessed by the Mancini quote above.

Ideas of cultivation are one of the reasons why a reader will find many books using the term Voice Culture. While this prima facie may mean the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group, it could also be a nod to the understanding of cultivation, the process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill.

Cornelius Reid notes in his Essays:

At first, an analogy between voice and a harvested crop may seem far-fetched and implausible. In the twentieth century we are more comfortable with concepts associated with manufacturing, with producing things, whereas in an agrarian economy it was more natural to think in terms of cultivation, whether it be crops, the mind, manners, habits, behavior, friendships or voice. The concept of the voice being in nature, therefore, was a very different way of looking at things. In essence, the voice organs were viewed as an ecosystem (the relationship between a living organism and its environment), and believed to be directly influenced by the quality of the surrounding with which they interact, i.e., a vocal exercise, song or aria.

Edmund J. Myer, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, drew a distinction against two pervasive ideas in pedagogical competition at that time – as I will demonstrate below. Pedagogical philosophies of that time seem to have been formed along lines of either cultivation or production:

Nature is the great teacher and not man. Man, when he bases his teaching upon his own ideas of voice, is artificial; hence, artificiality. Witness the many ridiculous things singers are now taught to do. With such the effort is to make the voice, to compel it, instead of allow it. The voice is in nature, and by a study of nature and nature’s laws the voice is allowed to develop; is allowed or induced to reveal itself instead of being made, compelled or forced.

Sir Henry Wood, the English conductor who wrote The Gentle Art of Singing (1900), was very condemnatory in his beliefs on voice production:

I can hardly make my warning against the voice producers strong enough…Each of them teaches his fad. Walk through the passages of fashionable teaching studios and listen to the exercises and the quality of tone you hear through the green baize doors. A walk in the Zoo is more soothing to the ear and mind.

You can make a list of pet fads: excessive nasal resonance, the placing of the tone in the mask, over-blowing and violent forcing, learning to sing like Caruso, low diaphragmatic breathing, sucking air quickly through the nose, bleating vowels, a three-inch tremolo, placing favourite notes in the head, no registers – as if a one stringed fiddle could ever be a success! If you open a green door you will be introduced to a thousand other little fancies, too numerous to mention…

…I cannot recall one singer who has devoted the best years of his student life only to voice production and has taken any position in the operatic or concert world. All these voice producers’ pupils sing off the pitch.

Cultivation and production are two separate phenomena and carry a particular and specific mindset when approaching the training of voice. These mindsets filter down to the experience of the student and influence how the voice will be trained. Here are two lists of mindsets as they relate to processes of cultivation versus production.

Production Cultivation
Speed prioritized Speed contingent upon external forces
Standardization; conformity Unique variety of specimens
Factory Farm
Mechanical Manual
Pre-planned result Unknown result until growth achieved
Automated By hand
Multiple similar copies Unique, one of a kind results

Cultivation and production clearly have completely separate and diversified aims. They are not the same. It is my belief that this is a point worth considering because these mindsets could explain some of the argumentation and struggle over ways and means of teaching voice throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From the historical record, some teachers adopted a production mindset on training while others took contrasting views of cultivation. These contrasting mindsets set up thinking that was inherently opposed  – potentially causing argumentation and strongly held pedagogical views, as we see reflected in the historical record. These conflicting mindsets may very well explain the battle lines for many of the skirmishes amongst late nineteenth and twentieth century vocal pedagogues, singers, and writers.

To acquire more understanding of these two concepts, I wanted to track usages of the terms voice production, voice culture, and cultivation of the voice from the written books in English of the past 300 years. To do that I needed a software that would extrapolate selected terms from the extant literature to provide me with some hard data that I could use to interpret the data.

Here were my questions:

  • Is there a correlation between voice production and voice culture/cultivation, and if so, what was it?
  • Did the term voice production occur as believed during the time of the Industrial Revolution?
  • When did voice culture/cultivation disappear from the lexicon?

Along comes the N-gram!

From Wikipedia:

An n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., “British English”, “English Fiction”, “French”) over the selected years. Since Google Books has thousands and thousands of scanned books in their databases, extrapolating this data is a cinch, and can be visualized over a period of time.

Below is a chart showing frequency of the following three phrases:

  • voice cultivation
  • cultivation of the voice
  • voice production

All phrases were taken from scanned English books printed over the past three hundred years.

In examining this graph, the term voice culture spiked in the early eighteenth century, from 1720-30 and is the first term to appear followed by the phrase cultivation of the voice in the late eighteenth century.

The term voice production first entered the lexicon in the late seventeenth century and skyrocketed into use in the twentieth century. These potentially could correlate to developments coinciding with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. According to Wikipedia, the Industrial Revolution began from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Clearly, we can see from this chart that the term voice production had more occurrences in print than the term voice culture, despite the latter being the older term.


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To access this graph, click this link


Several observations from this graph:

  • Voice production has been a more popular phrase than any of the three terms searched.
  • Cultivation of the voice reached its peak in popularity from (roughly) the 1770s to the 1880s and was the most frequently used term for a period of about one hundred years.
  • Voice culture and voice production tracked together in a significant rise, with the latter outpacing the former, as more writings on the voice became available.
  • Voice production, once introduced, historically outpaced voice culture.
  • Cultivation of the voice stagnated and dropped significantly from the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Cultivation seems to have been the dominating training phrase known before production occurred. and during the age of musical composition known as bel canto.

Considering repertoire performed during the apogee of bel canto premiered during the early part of the nineteenth century (Bellini’s opera Norma premiered in 1831), this graph seems to show that dramatic changes in voice terminology and mindsets were reflected in the literature on singing. The ascendance of voice production would tend to support a view that training became more oriented along those lines, despite the fact that singers and teachers of the early bel canto era were operating under an assumption of principles and understanding of cultivation.

Continuing research on this topic is required to gain a greater understanding of these terms but the data collected does suggest a shift in thinking which can be directly tied to the late nineteenth century, continuing to the present day. Voice cultivation has fallen from favor and may reflect a diminishment of those terms when associated with voice training.

Link to NGram on Google Books.

Marchesi, Salvatore. A vademecum for singing-teachers and pupils. G. Schirmer, 1902.

Myer, Edmund John. Position and Action in Singing: A Study of the True Conditions of Tone: a Solution of Automatic (artistic) Breath Control. Boston Music Company, G. Schirmer, 1911.

Reid, Cornelius L. Essays on the Nature of Singing. Recital Publications, 1992.

Sending The Soul Through Time and Space

A lively and rewarding conversation with my wonderful teaching colleagues centered on ‘chronological snobbery,’ a term coined by C. S. Lewis to indicate an argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority.

I wanted to replicate my ideas here with a few amendments, mainly as a safeguard for my own reference and continuing path of discovery as I learn more about singing and teaching. I close with a poem that speaks to my heart very deeply about our connection to the past by the poet James Elroy Flecker.

Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford who has written about chronological snobbery said:

But what Lewis found—and what reading old books makes very clear—is that every age works with a large set of assumptions that seem to it so self-evident that they are never questioned. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we find it almost impossible to get a real sense of the water we inhabit, and can thus be blissfully unaware of how faddish our beliefs are. It is very tempting for me now to don the grand airs of a sage cultural critic and attempt to list what our unquestioned assumptions are today. But anyone reading this in fifty years’ time would only chuckle at the profound issues I had overlooked. They are simply part of the air we breathe every day, and as such are quite invisible to us.

This allies in toto with historical pedagogy and the research that I continue to uncover on the subject. The ‘self-evident’ subjects for the Old Italians seem to have been centralized on the topics they included and equally OMITTED, most tellingly on the subject of breath management and resonance (the latter term being coined in the early 20th century according to Herbert Witherspoon, writing in 1925). The oldest writings say nothing on these matters – taking breath management or resonance as SELF-EVIDENT.

(SIDEBAR: To give a modern spin, I’m immediately reminded of the usage of ‘self-evident’ in our United States Constitution – “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” we continue to battle over the term ‘self-evident’ as the Founders understood the term in this preamble – drawn into sharper relief when considering that these men owned slaves).

Coming back to the subject, a tantalizing clue to breath and resonance perhaps rests in the importance they placed on long tones and the messa di voce, but that is merely my conjecture as to how this may have been tackled from the evidence (messa di voce being a combination of breath management and resonance into a gestalt). What they INCLUDED shows what they valued, in particular, vocal style and the delight (“delitto”) of the listener. An early treatise states that the goal of singing is to ‘muovere gli affetti’ (move the emotions), this tracks with the visual evidence we have from Baroque art, which became a high point of EMOTION in artistic expression, as evidenced in the sculptures of Bernini, depicting scenes of high emotional content through movement.

Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Dafne at the Villa Borghese Gallery in Rome is a wonder of Baroque artistic sensibilities. The raised foot of Apollo is a miracle of creation and construction. The use of MOVEMENT to create drama or emotion was the hallmark of the Baroque style. In architecture, the Baroque church gives one a sense of spectacular movement writ large. The sculptures and painting SPRING to life, in what might be considered a ‘special effect’ of the Baroque. Vocal composition followed suit as singing expressed its emotional truth through a vast language of melismatic singing and embellishment – movement. This stands in contrast to the Romantic era, which aimed to express emotion through high notes, and louder, dramatic singing.

Tosi and Mancini operated on completely different sets of assumptions than Garcia, and later Vennard (although I think there are others during the span of those years equally important but unmentioned here). But understanding assumptions is the first step in understanding the wisdom of previous generations because, despite their assumptions, the human singing voice flourished – as the historical literature, treatises, and surviving music demonstrate. (Lest I find this vexing to my current set of modern assumptions and sensibilities, a recent visit to Italy to see the remnants of previous generations gave me even greater respect for their efforts – Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence being a particularly staggering example to me of achievement without modern technology. One felt connected to him through space and time in a way that could only be described as ‘mystical.’)


Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, Italy, was built without the aid of computers or modern drafting technologies – convincing me that beautiful objects could be built without recourse to modern knowledge. So, too, voices could be trained and ‘built’ upon similar principles and simplicity – coupled with an ingenious eye and ear.

Combatting one’s tendency to fall prey to chronological snobbery is given a cure by Lewis, who beautifully wrote that ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

Writing in the introduction to On the Incarnation, by Athanasius (London: Centenary, 1944; repr. Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1998), 5.:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. . . . Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.


As benediction, I’m including Flecker’s poem as a meditation on the traditions of our vocal past.

The great vocal pedagogues of the past wish to speak to us. They carry messages of importance and inestimable value.

Will we be willing to listen?



I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

By James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

Postcard from Milan: Lamperti, Listening, and Speed

Clara Kathleen Rogers, also known as Clara Doria, was an American singer, composer, writer, and music educator. She is buried here in Boston mere steps from my home in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’ve covered her before on my blog before:

Ten Conclusions from Clara Doria

Memorial Day Reflections…

Artificial Methods of Breathing

How To Execute the Messa di Voce?

I recently opened up a copy of her biography Memories of a Musical Career which can be read for free at this link.

Two parts that struck me were her assessment of Lamperti and his allure as a teacher. We venerate Lamperti today, but taking into consideration Doria’s observation, it shows Lamperti in a very different light. She rather pointedly states that the overwhelming interest laid at the feet of Lamperti was in large part due to the fact that he ran an operatic agency. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose…

For Doria, she knew she had technical limitations and wanted a teacher that could help her solve her vocal problems, and not necessarily land her a career. So in 1861, she went to Milan from Berlin with her sister. They were in hot pursuit of a teacher and believed their options would rest upon Lamperti or San Giovanni.

From her account on page 226:

One of the first things to be decided on when we were settled in our apartment was which of the two teachers we should elect to study with, —Lamperti or San Giovanni? De Lorenzi, who undertook to obtain a consensus of opinion as to their relative merits, reported that what he had gathered was that the greater vogue of Lamperti, whose name was so frequently associated with successful singers, was largely due to his control of the most active operatic agency in Italy, which caused numbers of ready-made singers who wanted to be launched to study with him for a few months in order to obtain his interest in getting them engagements to sing in good opera houses; that Lamperti, as a musician and interpreter, did not compare with San Giovanni, who had been for many years coach to the celebrated contralto, Alboni, and constantly in attendance in all her travels, which gave him the opportunity to hear all the greatest singers of the day and become familiar with their interpretations.

These qualifications appealed to my father, for Alboni had been a name to conjure with in England and the names of the great artists who composed the casts of the operas she sang in —such as Pasta, Donzelli, Tamburini, La Blache, Rubini, and a host of others —were guarantee that San Giovanni had the traditions of all that was best in Italian operatic art.

As a sidebar –  I wanted to share this little vignette in which she describes the palmy days of the Milanese musical world of the nineteenth century. It’s so enchanting to imagine such musical life in an Italian city, perfumed with music from every window.

As one trod the streets of Milan song was in the very air. From almost every open window there issued vocalized arpeggios and scales, with frequent strains from some opera of Verdi or Donizetti. Milan was like one huge conservatory of singing. Teamsters, errand boys, and workmen hummed or whistled tunes from the operas as they went on their way. The potential “Prima Donna,” tenor, or baritone was in evidence at every turn.

Coming back to Lamperti, it’s fascinating to read of Doria’s comments. Perhaps a re-evaluation of Lamperti is in order. Especially if those singers he engaged only worked with him for several months before landing roles in opera. No voice is built in six months to such a degree to prepare it for the professional operatic stage. Was Lamperti a true voice builder in the Old Italian fashion or merely a teacher-cum-impresario? Vocal wisdom indeed…

It’s vexing since it appears from the historical record that the Lampertis were the first to foist ways and means of breath management (appoggio, a concept on which many old treatises are mute) upon the pedagogical literature. In this fast-paced pedagogical Zeitgeist, could Lamperti’s breath techniques be some of the first proofs of direct-control to accelerate voice training in his career-minded clients? The Old Masters said nothing about breath, let alone had a method or system for its management or control.

San Giovanni came to Doria’s apartment three times a week for lessons! Interestingly, he didn’t spend much time with the sisters on voice building but preferred to focus on coaching the repertoire. However, to his credit:

He laid particular stress on the value of constantly hearing good singing and becoming familiar with the sound of fine voices. He wished us therefore to be regular subscribers to La Scala, where all the best singers were to be heard because adequate salaries were paid by means of an ample subvention from the Government which rendered the success of an ambitious impresario an assured thing. Accordingly we attended, from the first, every performance, which means that we heard the best singers in all the current operas every night of the opera season, except Fridays, during the year and a half that we studied in Milan. What an opportunity! We occupied nightly the same seats in the orchestra —Mamma, Rosamond and I —and our devoted friend De Lorenzi, who, as he also was in the habit of subscribing, constituted himself our escort and companion.

And here we have a living proof that a part of Doria’s education was done IN TANDEM with listening, and listening to plenty of singers at that! How very right San Giovanni was to send Doria to the opera. Listening should always be one of the most important practice modalities for any singer or musician.

On her confrontation with the singing at La Scala, she rather emotionally decries:

The singers at La Scala had no such fluctuations of voice as I had. They sang night after night with the same fluency —the same security —the same spontaneity — the same control of expression. How did they do it? I would have been willing to give up ten years of my life to any one who could tell me the secret. But there was no one! I heard from time to time much talk about the right emission of tone, but when it was a question of what it was or how to get it, no one seemed to know!

How I worked! How I strove! How I listened to those great ones at La Scala with devouring ears in the effort to extract their secret from them! How I watched them to see what was happening at the throat and chest, never suspecting that what I saw was not the cause of what I heard; that the cause was hidden and invisible, because it was of the musical sense —of the mind and spirit. The more I tried to imitate what I saw, the farther I seemed to slip from my bearings.

And so things went on from month to month without any conspicuous change, although there was some added substance to my voice, due, no doubt, to the impres- sions received from the voices I heard at La Scala.

Clara was obviously in an enviable position historically to hear those great singers, but she knew that the most important element of her musical education was a grounding in the fundamentals of her art. She mentions “the aged [Gaetano] Nava – a famous teacher in his day,” but notes that his “laborious method was ill-suited to the prevailing impatient spirit of the modern student.” Apparently, Nava’s work was clearly more aligned with Old Italian principles – slow and steady cultivation of the voice over many years. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution had taken its toll on the mid-nineteenth-century singer, and speed was in full swing –  the sine qua non of voice training.

As a footnote to this last point: in Clara’s later book My Voice and I, she goes on to say that Nava was probably one of the great teachers of the past, including in that same list Porpora, Tosi, Mancini, and Cattaneo. Apparently, after a life of seeing speed-oriented singing, she realized the true value of the slow and steady Old Masters.



Quote of the Day

The larynx must not be pressed either too high or too low, but must work freely…The larynx must rise and descend unimpeded by the tongue…The matter of chief importance is the position of the tongue in the throat [and the tongue must remain flexible], that it shall not be in the way of the larynx, which must be able to move up or down, even though very slightly, without hindrance.

Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929)

Vocal Automatons

Here is another basic rule: practising should never deteriorate into something mechanical. The term ‘training’ must be taken in its original sense: to draw out, to foster, to release.

An organ is ‘mechanized’ when regulated artificially to such a degree that its unconscious natural impulses no longer take much active part in its movements.

Husler and Rodd-Marling understood that a deadening of the voice occurs when training becomes mechanically oriented. It seems that mechanization continues to be a very real struggle as we look for vocal solutions to the singing conundrum. The emotional, spontaneous nature of the voice is rarely discussed in modern pedagogy. We stay in safer, less subjective waters by talking about scientific concepts and mechanical functions. Nature, spontaneity, intuition and that je ne sais quoi of singing are harder to pin down.

My personal fear is that an exclusionary focus on these more scientific areas (and their inherent elevation) lead to a kind of singing and teaching that becomes ‘mechanized’ to affirm a scientific theory. Subsequently, the singer becomes detached from him/herself in an effort to validate and ‘hit the targets.’

A number of things can be responsible for mechanizing the vocal organ. For instance, practising in a routine way by reeling off a prescribed series of exercises for a prescribed length of time, thoughtlessly running up and down the scale, and so on, while excluding the ear as much as possible. This, unfortunately, seems to be a favourite form of teaching.

I get really concerned about ’empty’ practicing with my own students. Often I don’t WANT them to practice on their own because I have no way of knowing what they’re doing or what they listen for in practice. Even more concerning, they could be practicing the wrong (albeit familiar) responses. Empty running up and down of scales can lead to a sort of ‘one step forward two steps back.’

Rote, mindless running of exercise mechanizes the vocal organ, according to Husler and Rodd-Marling.

I’m struck by Husler’s and Rodd-Marling’s observation on the exclusion of the ear. That resonates with me. Another fear I hold is that in the rush to gaze upon the charts and the spectrograms bandied around we inadvertently develop a dissociation with the ear and our ability to hear qualities of sound for their spontaneity, FREEDOM of function (i.e., health), and their emotional content or lack thereof (something I’ve never seen discussed in chart analysis).

In science, the primary aim is to describe and explain, not to induce – and that is where the lacuna between science and teaching occurs. Our primary job as teachers of voice is TO INDUCE! Einstein is reported once to have remarked that it is not the purpose of chemistry to reproduce the taste of the soup. Chemistry may nevertheless explain it, and that provides not a bad analogy for the relation between voice physiology and the phenomena of the voice as metaphorically described – but the teaching of voice is mainly induced by the teacher’s jargon along with verbal illustrations, imitation and other less direct means.


For those that would construct a ‘scientific method’ of teaching, the authors go on to state:

But the voice is mechanized most consistently by the type of teacher who, with enthusiasm plus a ‘scientific method’, does his best to transform the vocal organ into an artificial instrument. He works with ‘attitudes’ and ‘adjustments’, he forms ‘props’ and ‘supports’. Using all sorts of intricate methods, he fixes every part of the instrument: tongue, palate, throat, chest, diaphragm, abdominal wall, until the organ’s original vitality has entirely disappeared. The ultimate result is a badly damaged voice. The dangerous thing about such methods is that they very often appear to be successful; they may stimulate the organ for a short time, but the success is never more than temporary.

And this is something I struggle with: turning voices into machines. Dead, inanimate things – or trained monkeys. Push this button to make the voice do this, another to accomplish that. I’m concerned about the props and supports brought in today to help the voice trainer in their job.


If the voice is organic, are we able to find a distinction between training that allows a response from WITHIN versus one that imposes technique from WITHOUT? Would we know the difference? Straws, balls, straps, bands, vibrators, and all sorts of ‘supports’ are used today in training – but what is the endpoint? Are we training a machine? Does the voice need a prop to find itself? How much MUSCLE does the voice need? If a voice is that badly in need of props, is it pathological? Why were the Old Masters adamant about lack of effort or force in singing? Did Farinelli learn to sing with aid of a vibrator? I don’t have an answer to this, but I feel today we consider props and supports as a requirement in training – they are our salvation. And a more pointed question:

If we need so many props to sing, is there too much force and pressure in the first place?

Why aren’t we talking about that?

A word here about the term ‘technique’. To define it is a matter of some difficulty, because it is not easy to decide whether technique applies to singing at all; if it does, where does it properly belong, and where does it end, or where should it end? This may be a pointer: organic being has no capacity for living ‘technically’: to impose technical measures upon it invariably signifies the presence of some alien force. Technique, in short, is not a physiological term. Of course the singer, and especially the voice trainer, cannot altogether dispense with so-called technique, if the problems involved with singing are to be dealt with successfully. The latter must have recourse to ‘technical’ practices to unlock the organ, while the singer is forced to employ them because what he has to perform often exceeds the present capacity of his vocal organ. ‘Technique’, in other words, is a useful tool but nothing more; a crutch, as it were, to help the unfinished or the ungifted singer. Technique as such has nothing to do with the true singing principle. The perfect singer (ideally speaking) is one who has succeeded in overcoming all forms of technical usage; he is past the stage of needing help, he sings with a fully liberated vocal organ, from its inmost nature, with every impulse, urge and drive belonging to it. His singing is a continually creative act. To create is to bring forth from an existing reality; technique is ‘fabrication’.


There are some really philosophically profound things to consider in this assessment of the concept of technique. Technical singing can quickly become mannered singing. The voice has been constructed, and the singer stands apart from it à la The Wizard of Oz – flipping switches behind the green curtain. Many great singers said they were only peripherally aware of technique – calling upon it under duress brought on by illness or suboptimal vocal function. Paradoxically, children sing, often quite beautifully, with no time to acquire ‘technique’. Their voices are free, clear, and resonant and yet they remain ignorant to concepts of vocal pedagogy.  Singers in the 19th century remarked that the best teachers of that time PRESERVED these children’s natural function into adulthood – which would betray a sense of technique. Organic development from within?

If technique isn’t the answer what is? It would appear we need to maintain the emotional, intentional aspects of the voice as a corollary to solving functional problems. The joy of singing must be ever-present. Something I covered earlier in this blog. Keeping the singer in his voice, his ear, his heart, and his mind seems to be the best way forward as we pursue this amazingly challenging world of voice training.

Consequently, though training cannot be carried out entirely without technical means, it must always include a purely irrational factor, a certain psychic state, call it emotive expression, to draw the vocal organ back to its intrinsic nature. It must never be excluded from the voice for any length of time because, in the most natural manner, this strange efflux establishes the closest connections between physical and spiritual, material and subliminal. Creative forces are called up by the ‘joy of singing’. The true singer’s need of melos points out the path he should follow. The desire to produce tonal beauty summons up some of the most vital processes in the organ of singing. And in our case, beauty, that intrinsic element in all organic being, does indeed, and quite automatically, exercise a regulation influence.

To recapitulate: avoid too much EMPTY TECHNICAL gymnastic; it injures, brutalizes and ruins all substance. The only reason for ‘technical’ practising is to overcome technique.

And here is an ancient maxim: ‘Sing often – but a little at a time’ (Giuseppe Aprile)

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.