Vincenzo Cirillo on Scientific Learning (and Boston Connection!)

I have been reading the very short essay by Vincenzo Cirillo entitled, “A Lecture on the Art of Singing” published in 1882. Wow – it’s a gem. And short!

My only acquaintance of Cirillo was from his famous quote on breathing. When asked how to breathe by a student, he is reported to have exclaimed: “Mio Dio! If God hasn’t taught you how to breathe it’s time you were buried!”

I was not aware that he lived here in our mutually adopted city of Boston teaching voice and directing a church choir.  As a Bostonian, I’ll be anxious to see what other local traces I can find to Cirillo! I am always amazed by the rich educational connections to great teachers and singers that I find right here in my own back yard.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception of Boston, where Vincenzo Cirillo was director of the choir and composed several of his own compositions, including his Stabat Mater for Six Solo Voices. Today, the building lies vacant.

According to my colleague Daniel Shigo, blogger of, as well as author of the wonderful book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method,  Cirillo’s biographical information can be found in the November 1882 edition of Music and Drama. 

Vincenzo Cirillo, the bass of the Church of the Unity, in Boston, is a teacher who represents the old, sincere, laborious Italian school. He came to Boston in 1873, under an engagement to teach singing at the National College of Music, and after the collapse of that institution, continued in the city, engaged in instructing his numerous pupils till the year 1880-81, which he spent abroad in the inspection of the best schools of singing in the Old World, and in the study of the latest phases of teaching as practiced in Italy. Signor Cirillo is a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Naples, and a member of the St. Cecelia Academy of Rome, as well as the holder of eight diplomas from various societies in Italy. His first teacher was Alessandro Busti. During his master’s sickness, Cirillo taught his special pupils, and after his death, continued at the Conservatory for five years, till the increase of his private pupils compelled him to resign his position. He also studied under Alfonso Guercia and Domenico Scafati, who shares with Lamperti and Vannuccini the honor of heading the list of modern Italian teachers. In 1879, Cirillo was appointed director of the choir of the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Boston, where he produced several of his own compositions, the chief being a brilliant and original “Stabat Mater” for six solo voices. He has published a lecture on the Neapolitan School, a method of vocalization in three divisions, and a large number of secular compositions. He is now at work on an opera founded on a Grecian story. 

Reading Cirillo, one is yet again struck by the simplicity and logic of his way of working and thinking “the old, sincere, laborious Italian school.” Cirillo was a member of a family of teachers and writers in the 19th and early 20th century that tried to move against the tide of scientific teaching gaining such traction at that time. He lays out his argument on the differences of approach as being one of nationality – an interesting concept when you consider that TO THIS DAY much of the science of singing continues to emerge from the United States alone.

It is impossible in Italy to teach any art by a written method, because the Italian mind is not scientific, but artistic. It sees the beautiful intuitively, it does not reason it out. In this respect, the Italians differ from all other races, even from the Spanish and French, who have the same Latin blood, and belong to the same family. Here, I may observe that these two races have no school of their own. Their famous singers studied in Italy and sang Italian operas, although they could never rival the Italian singers, who were always the most famous in the world.

We will not compare the different races in respect to their musical ability, for comparisons are always odious; but it may be said that the intuitive school of teaching ceases with the Italians, to whom music is a second nature, and all other races have to get into the mysteries of the art step by step.

I have observed, since the very beginning of my experience as a teacher in this country, that there is an instinct in the American people which makes them ask “why” of everything new that is taught them, particularly when they are studying an art. It seems as though they wish to reduce all beauty to theory and rules; but they are mistaken, for science is not art, and the old masters taught the art in two words, – namely, “Imitate me.” This was the school of Nuzar, given to his pupils; this was the school of Porpora, and also the school that made Michaelangelo, Raffaelo, Benvenuto Cellini, and many others.

But what can be done with a pupil who asks at the first lesson: “What is your method of breathing?” “Do you want me to breathe from the diaphragm or from my intercostal muscles or from my abdomen?” “What is your method?” “How long does it take to become a perfect singer?” “What do you call my voice?” “To what celebrated artist’s voice can mine be compared?” “Do you teach the oratorio voice? I mean that broad voice, rather solemn and pompous?” “How long shall you require me to practise every day?” And many other questions of the same kind.

To read this essay (which I recommend considering Cirillo’s impressive pedigree) visit and download it from Daniel Shigo’s resource page, found here.

And for some tantalizing glimpses into his potential work in vivo with students, you can find his book of 40 Vocalises here. The exercises have been ‘Progressively Arranged to develop the Voice and Render it Flexible.’

I like those pedagogical priorities.

Edited to add: Did some more digging on Cirillo, and found an interesting connection: Cirillo’s beloved teacher was Alessandro Busti at the Conservatory of Naples. Busti wrote a book of daily exercises. Busti’s teacher was NONE OTHER than the celebrated castrato and teacher Girolamo Crescentini, who is one of the truly great teachers of the earliest bel canto of the 18th century! So, it’s possible to draw a direct line from the 18th century castrati right here to Boston, Massachusetts.







Conscious or Unconscious?

I remain convinced that voice training is a process that must be done through indirect rather than direct means. Localization of effort in any zone of the instrument leads to unnecessary muscularization, interference, and self-consciousness. The voice must be allowed to literally grow from within.

The concept of direct versus indirect control is a vital pedagogical question we must answer, as it frames and guides everything we do. Sadly, it is a discussion that rarely occurs. This is due to the fact that indirect teaching is not generally understood or appreciated, and the prevalence of local controls are common in modern training.

The allure of pedagogies centered on localized control give an unfortunate illusion that something is being DONE because the evidence of the accomplishment is VISIBLE and PALPABLE. But what has occurred is a very clever manipulation  – a vocal ‘trick’ – if you will. We are in serious trouble when we make controls of this internal nature paramount due to the fact that in most cases we have stopped listening to the voice. End-gaining is a term Alexander Technique used to describe the numerous ways we interfere with ourselves. As Theodore Dimon relates in his book The Elements of Skill:

The first prerequisite in educating the singer in proper vocalizing, then, is to restore the conditions of coordination in the torso that allow breathing to occur naturally and easily. In order to breathe properly, the singer does not have to involve himself in any direct attempts to improve his breathing, since the whole point is that the flow of breath occurs entirely as a result of the natural support of the body. In fact, such concern will only complicate matters, since it will invoke the wrong tensions that interfere with natural support. […] The intention to perform the action – even when that intention involves a desire to perform it correctly – invokes the very habits that interfere with breathing. Concern about breathing actually violates the principles upon which breathing is based. […] The act of vocalizing – no matter how complex the specific demands placed upon the voice- is first and foremost the result of coordinated movements of the body as a whole. Any skills involving deliberate use of this system – even when they may place unusual demands on any PART of it – must be built on the coordinated whole.

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

The argument for direct control comes from those asserting that singing is not natural – usually in reference to opera singers – and therefore demands extraordinary artificialities and external controls to be achieved. This viewpoint shows a misunderstanding of skill acquisition as well as a proper reading of historical vocal pedagogy. Most of the early singing treatises demonstrate a path of development from the simplest vocal utterances to the most complex.

Direct control of the voice started in the mid-19th century.

Manipulation attempted to achieve success in those internal, unseen structures of the voice. It was also a way of ‘speeding up’ training. We mustn’t underestimate the impact the Industrial Revolution (and subsequent injection of voice science) had on voice teachers of the time. It created impatience with voice training which historically had lasted from seven to ten years. (And this training was DAILY!)

Nothing in the tripartite instrument (breath, vibration, resonance) was immune from the fetishism of control. By the 1860s at the Paris Conservatoire, we see the following account of voice training at its most terrifying and sadistic:

Certain vocal classes resembled, as Gustave Bertrand remarked, cells of Charenton. In order to immobilise the thorax, pupils were made to sing while lying down on mattresses, sometimes with weights, more or less heavy, placed on the sternal region; masters were even said to make a practice of seating themselves familiarly upon the chests of their pupils. In the schools were to be seen gallows with thongs and rings for binding the upper half of the body, orthopedic apparatus, rigid corsets, kinds of pillories which enclosed the frame, and immobilised the ribs. Oscar Comettant relates that he had known a professor who reduced the whole art of singing to the following exercise: he placed a gag, a kind of “poire d’angoisse,” in the mouth of the pupil, and made him emit sounds which resembled a hiccough, obliging him to withdraw the diaphragm at each sound. This is the pleasant side of the campaign led by the enthusiasts of abdominal respiration.

Joal, Joseph. On Respiration in Singing. FJ Rebman, 1895.

The poire d’angoisse was an alleged instrument of torture in which the ‘pear’ was inserted into the mouth and then the opposing end twisted. These instruments were allegedly used as gags, a preventative to speaking, or a torture device, although this has been disputed as implausible by Jonathan Kirsch in his book “The grand inquisitor’s manual : a history of terror in the name of god.”

The description above of a voice lesson sounds like something out of the Marquis de Sade!! But here is our legacy of direct control in the 19th century. Could such a system of training induce freedom?? Those inserting the apparatus undoubtedly believed so.


An interesting account of a singer and teacher who straddled this era in voice history was Louis-Antoine Ponchard, French tenor and pedagogue. Ponchard sang many of the leading roles in the operas of Grétry, Auber, and Boïeldieu. Among his students were Henri-Bernard Dabadie, Jean-Baptiste Faure, Giovanni Mario, Louis-Henri Obin, Anaïs Fargueil, Rosine Stoltz, Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, Gustave-Hippolyte Roger and Charles-Marie Ponchard.

He had this to say about the pedagogical shift:

No one has sung more than I. It is true that in my time music was not taught as scientifically as to-day. We sang with the means with which nature had endowed us, without troubling ourselves whether we breathed with the ribs or the diaphragm.

And it is a singular thing that, in spite of our profound ignorance of the art of breathing, and of many other things, we sang well and for a long with our poor natural voices. Since then scientists have set themselves to fatigue voices, and we hear speak only of ruined singers and lost voices.

Lest you think that the days of Charenton are over,  I recently saw a celebrated opera singer teach a masterclass who had students lean forward at a 50 degree angle while he inserted his clenched fist forcefully into their epigastrium!! What this maneuver intended to accomplish wasn’t communicated, but it had something to do with support. Those who saw the maneuver (including other opera singers) were in approval that this was an ingenious way to teach breathing. In truth, what it displayed was a shocking ignorance of the physiological realities of the human body.

Singer, teacher, impresario, and author Herbert Witherspoon was adamant in his opposition to localized controls and said so in an interview in Vocal Mastery Talks with Master Singers and Teachers, originally published in 1920.

Do you advise conscious action of the parts comprising the vocal instrument, or do you prefer unconscious control of the instrument, with thought directed to the ideal quality in tone production and delivery?”  was asked.

“By all means unconscious control,” was the emphatic answer. “We wish to produce beautiful sounds; if the throat is open, the breathing correct, and we have a mental concept of that beautiful sound, we are bound to produce it. It might be almost impossible to produce correct tones if we thought constantly about every muscle in action. There is a great deal of nonsense talked and written about the diaphragm, vocal chords [sic] and other parts of the anatomy. It is all right for the teacher who wishes to be thoroughly trained, to know everything there is to know about the various organs and muscles; I would not discourage this. But for the young singer I consider it unnecessary. Think supremely of the beautiful tones you desire to produce; listen for them with the outer ear – and the inner ear- that is to say – mentally – and you will hear them. Meanwhile, control is becoming more and more habitual, until it approaches perfection and at last becomes automatic.  When that point is reached, your sound producing instrument does the deed, while your whole attention is fixed on the interpretation of a master work, the performance of which requires your undivided application. If there is action, you control that in the same way until it also becomes automatic; then both singing and acting are spontaneous.”

Brower, Harriette. Vocal Mastery Talks with Master Singers and Teachers. tredition, 2012.

How might this shift of philosophy appear in training? Here are some quick examples of an indirect approach to teaching breathing for singing:

  • address good and easy posture/alignment and freedom of movement in the ribs and torso without gripping or tensing.
  • Raise the arms from the sides while easily breathing in to help stimulate movement in the ribcage. Note the sternum does not overly rise or collapse. This is from Lamperti, Jr. 
  • Have the singer sing SHORT vocal phrases (seconds, thirds, then fifths).
  • Gradually add repetitions of short scales, thereby lengthening the duration of the exercise.
  • Over time add volume/intensity as the ribs and torso gain greater strength.
    • Long tones as well as scales with repetition are excellent indirect ways of training the breathing necessary for good singing.

It’s rather simple, but good singing can be learned gradually over time. Fantastic results CAN be had without recourse to outward manipulations or controls. But one must have faith in the body, and trust that with enough exposure and repetition, the voice will begin to operate as a gestalt and proper responses will reveal themselves over time. This requires an act of faith on the part of the student and teacher.

I refuse to believe that voice training has to be hard, cloaked in verbosity, or complicated. Happily, I can assure that working indirectly will deliver lasting and fulfilling results. But we must step away from our straps, our muzzles, our belts and corsets, and all other apparatus that would seek to constrain the human voice, mind, and heart standing before us.

As David Ffrangçon-Davies stated so beautifully:

Slowly, very slowly, the student who is true to himself in the best sense, will discover that he can get the forces of his soul and of his body to bear upon his vocal cords. Gradually there will come a ring of truth and sincerity into the singing voice…The voice for you, your voice, is there […] Nature secretes, and waits till the hour arrives, and then brings out from her store things new and old…


Quote of the Day

For the first three years singing students should be trained to make their voices like a beautiful even instrument. There are registers in every musical instrument, but they must not show. There are muscles, there are reeds, but they must never be perceptible in an artist. There is breath, but never, except at the will of the singer and for a dramatic purpose or colour effect, must the hearers be aware of it.

-Henry Wood

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

There’s a great exchange involving the philosopher Epictetus that encapsulates my approach to thinking about marketing. “Tell me what to do!” the student says. Epictetus corrects him, “It would be better to say, ‘Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.'” It is true for marketing, just as it is for life. Principles are better than instructions and “hacks.” We can figure out the specifics later – but only if we learn the right way to approach them.

Ryan Holiday, “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts”

  • What exercise should I use for a trembling jaw?
  • How do I deal with a singer with no chest register?
  • How do I tame an unruly vibrato?
  • What can I do to get better breath-support in a singer?
  • What should I do with a student that can’t match pitch?
  • My soprano sings flat. Suggestions?

These are all “tell me what to do” questions.

As I contemplate our pedagogical world, I am struck by parallels Epictetus offers us as voice teachers. A better prayer should be:

“Make my mind adaptable to any set of pedagogical circumstances, I already have enough information!”

Many teachers (myself included) seek efficiency by being told what to do. Being told is such a mental relief. It makes us feel better about ourselves because we either get an answer or validation – both feel great!

But do not be fooled – even the BEST voice teacher suffers from an occasional sense of impostor syndrome! We all feel so unsure of our own choices and instincts. Having someone tell you what to do all the time lessens some of the heavy pedagogical lifting: critical thinking, reading, contemplating, analysis, philosophizing, re-reading, searching, listening, endless observation. 

Let’s also remember that voice teachers LOVE to tell other voice teachers what to do! We have whole conferences on it! 🙂 But needing constant validation can become unhealthy when taken to extremes – Consider for a moment the guru/disciple relationship and you’ll have a good grasp where ‘tell me what to do’ can lead. Buddha himself said if you saw the Buddha on the road you should kill him. That’s succinct and serves our argument well. 

On vocal “tricks”

In an effort to be ‘trendy,’ we often feel that we must incorporate the latest vocal tricks lest we be seen as retrograde amongst our colleagues. Richard Miller had strong things to say about those teachers that would build a pedagogy built upon collecting “tricks”:

Given the diversity of vocal problems and the individuality of the singing voice, it may at times indeed seem that no two voices can be taught in the same general fashion. Are we, however, really to believe that there are no universal principles on which to base a philosophy of vocal production? On the contrary, every voice teacher must obey certain functional laws if freedom is to result. Compensatory “tricks” may randomly be attempted, and on occasion may momentarily serve to correct some technical problem, in the same way that medicine from the medicine chest taken without a medical diagnosis or prescription may seem to alleviate the symptoms of an assumed illness. Just as assuredly as there is danger in “doctoring” without proper diagnosis and prescription, so “tricky teaching” not based on principles of mechanical freedom may cause detrimental reactions in the singing voice.

Miller, Richard. On the art of singing. Oxford University Press, USA, 1996.


For many teachers, methods can fill the “tell me what to do!” gap. They give us psychological security in knowing what to do – except when the method fails. Then what? We go back and ask for more tricks. We have to remember that even medicine (which has been vigorously tested in labs) does not work EVERY TIME. Why should a prescribed exercise?

Cate Frazier-Neely recently wrote an insightful blog on this particular issue and I recommend it as an important part of the “methods” puzzle. In it she smartly recognized the tendency that methods can quickly devolve into rigid, inflexible thinking.

One of the main differences between intelligence and creativity is that the creative person has the ability to draw connections among bits of information and imagine various paths and outcomes. And this is the missing ingredient with many voice teachers who run around collecting information, certifications and degrees by the boat-load.

Frazier-Neely makes a plea for more creative thinking in the studio and awareness when chasing certifications, and in my opinion she has zoned in on an important pedagogical element – application instead of collection of knowledge. Her thesis would argue for a pedagogy that was, to use Epictetus’s words: “adaptable to any circumstance.”

Methods at their worst lead adherents to rigid, inflexible thinking, making for a teaching that becomes fundamentalist and dogmatic.

Shifting the Paradigm

A paradigm shift would serve vocal pedagogy if we would learn to keep our minds flexible. Rather than thinking “What exercises do I need for a trembling jaw?” we should question how we need to be more adaptable in the circumstances. Perhaps a direct assault is NOT the best solution? By getting rid of one problem with a ‘trick’ what are we gaining? For example, now that the jaw isn’t moving anymore because of the application of a ‘trick’, you got unexpected tongue tension. Oops.

My pedagogical philosophy is to trust the body and allow the response to work its way out by constantly revisiting functional principles.

Learn from many places. Take information from many sources. Meditate on the voice from time to time. Go deeper than the surface “hack” or trick of the moment. Always remember that you are you – and what you do in the studio is uniquely YOURS filtered through the lens of your life, your experiences.

Ask for a flexible pedagogical mind – not a collection of vocal tricks.

Waiting to be “told” leads to the death of individual creativity, and sucks the artistry, imagination, and life-force out of teacher and student. Voice training becomes transactional (I would say “production oriented”) rather than being an occupation in discovering creative solutions to vocal issues as they arise (I would say “cultivated”) with compassion and empathy.

Festina lente. Hasten slowly.

Moderation in all things.

So make sure you ignore the people trying to teach you how to find shortcuts to this destination or that destination. Be wary of those who claim to have an exact prescription on how to do some really hard thing. Learn how to be adaptable and flexible—learn how to learn. That’s a better recipe for lasting success.

– Ryan Holiday