Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: 20th Century Pedagogy – Part I

At no time in history has the diversity of ways in which vocal sound can be manipulated been more apparent. Nor has there ever been less agreement on how to achieve those diverse sounds, or what constitutes “good singing.”1 On the other hand, contemporary teachers proceed to disagree with much less public acrimony than in the 19th century—for the most part.

The primary consideration for teachers and singers alike is no longer only an “operatic” sound. In the 19th century, opera was the biggest game in town, and a singer trained for opera was expected to be able to scale down his voice for recital work. Let us remember that Tosi in 1723 said there were three styles, opera, chamber and church. He did not say there were three vocal emissions. Today there are dozens of kinds of vocal emissions in use, if we count—as I think we must—the exotic and ethnic styles which have been increasingly imported, and the varieties of “popular” singing, of which I count four:

  1. Ballad-crooning, which was the first of the new “popular styles” to make its appearance after the microphone was invented;
  2. Broadway singing, which inverts the usual order and ordinarily asks the female to sing in a chest voice known as a “belt,” and the male to sing in a heady near-falsetto;
  3. Rock and roll, a high-volume, often high-pitched style akin to shouting;
  4. “Folk,” in which I include traditional folksinging, Country Western, and contemporary folk styles.

To the “classical” voice teacher, the popular styles are anathema.

Here is a strong statement from Cornelius L. Reid:2

A correct technique of singing is a physiological fact, and the function of the vocal organs is governed by immutable laws. To succeed in formulating workable principles relating to that function, a proper foundation must be laid by asking and attempting to answer two fundamental questions. First, What is ‘voice,’ and what is the functional nature of the mechanism training methods are attempting to bring under discipline? Second, Why is it necessary to train the singing voice at all if its organic function is truly rooted in the natural?

In another book, Reid offers this definition of belting:3

“Belting: the practice adopted by “pop” singers (particularly women) of driving the chest register too high in the tonal range.

Belting is not a legitimate use of the mechanism and is extremely detrimental to vocal health. “Belters” frequently develop nodules on the vocal folds that require either long periods of rest or surgery for their removal.”

Taken together, these two statements seem to me to display a prejudice which excludes the possibility that good voice teachers will undertake to understand the necessary techniques which are in actual use, and learn to teach them sensibly and safely. Teachers who ignore this very large segment of the music industry, or whose critical attitudes encourage other teachers to abandon the aspiring popular singer, do themselves and the profession a disservice.

The very idea that there is one physiologically correct way to use the voice is immediately disproved when we begin to listen to the wide variety of ethnic vocal emissions available on CD. The longevity of Chinese opera singers—falsettists who often sing to an advanced age—belies this dictum, as do the varieties of polytonal singing coming out of Tibet, the Tuvan throat singers, and any number of vocal emissions which do no apparent damage to the physical organs of sound.

It is also apparent that Reid, distinguished teacher that he is, suffers from the same Western “classical” bias which limits the thinking of most voice teachers. I think we have already grappled sufficiently with the problem of a “natural” basis for vocal emission that I need not reiterate what kind of mare’s nest.4

But I think we have to infer that voice teachers teach what they have learned works most satisfactorily in their own singing, and that this is largely viva voce information, acquired by a combination of studying voice one-on-one, and listening to singers.5 A good deal may also be acquired through experimentation with students until one finds a systematic approach which works. This approach is generally termed “the empirical method,” and is looked down on by those who approach voice from the “scientific” standpoint.

It is also true that teachers need to come to grips with the question of “right” singing and “wrong” singing, and divorce the process from the application. Teachers at the end of the 20th century still display a lack of sympathy for the student who wants to sing popular music.6

There is a physical function which is efficient, well-coordinated and reasonably healthy, which can provide a fundamentally sound vocal technique for the popular singer in each of the four categories above. It is predicated not on “beautiful sound” in the old-fashioned operatic style,7 but represents a way of using the voice with fewer interferences and inhibitions, and thus a longer potential lifespan.

Increasingly, teachers and singers are coming to realize the very healthy fact that there is a significant difference between the act of vocal emission and the way in which that emission is put to the use of music.

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


  1. There is no discussion here of the popular “How to Sing” books which appear every once in a while, to teach popular singers how to get by. They are, in general, a collection of maxims, familiar exercises, and personal anecdote which have little value.
  2. Reid, Cornelius L.: The Free Voice. NY, 1965, p. 13.
  3. Reid, Cornelius L.: A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology, An Analysis. NY, 1983, p. 32.
  4. The only book on voice which I consider indispensable is a small work extracted from the large corpus of writings by Sufi Inayat Khan: Music. New Delhi, 1973. It gives a spiritual dimension to the whole of music, especially voice, which is missing from the majority of western writings, and can liberate the careful reader from many limitations about his own sound and its application to singing.
  5. Unfortunately, this has led many fine singers to teach badly at the end of their performing careers, because they teach the distortions and compromises which have enabled them to survive when good vocal emission was absent, or failed.
  6. This is a generalization; I know it’s a generalization, and I know that there are many fine teachers out there who encourage their students to acquire a good functional use of the voice for whatever career they may aspire to. To them I apologize. But I have met far too many of my fellow teachers who still consider popular singing beneath contempt, and who therefore deprive potential students of the right to a sound foundation. This is nothing more than an ostrich-like attempt to ignore the statistics which demonstrate that the “high culture” of opera is gradually being overtaken by a very real, definable “popular” culture.
  7. Which has pretty much disappeared anyway into a welter of mellow tone production which is boring in the extreme.

Handel and Bel Canto

There is one man who is sufficiently authoritative to help us to a fairly reliable account of bel-canto, viz., Handel. The words of Robert Franz to Waldmann (quoted by Mr Finck in “Songs and Song Writers”) are definite: “If anyone understood the ‘bel-canto’ of the Italians, it was Handel.”  Here then is firm earth. Handel understood Italian bel-canto. A modest, docile study of the man and his work will reveal something of the principles of this school of singing.


The oratorio giant has suffered much from the assumptions of those who have claimed that all that is demanded of Handelian singers is “harmonious sounds and nothing else.” Imagine if you can the genial, poetic, imaginative, graphic Handel who set to music most of the human emotions, from the reflective “Passion” to the thunderclap of the joyous “Hallelujah” in “The Messiah,” and who certainly sounded some depths in emotional differentiation in “Samson” – imagine him being put off with “pretty” sounds! “No differentiation” necessary in such opposite rôles as those of Manoah and Harapha; in “Rejoice greatly” and “I Know My Redeemer Liveth”!  Could “harmonious tone and musical plastics” have enabled Jenny Lind (whose voice was not of the finest character by nature) and Sims Reeves, to seize upon the inner meaning of these great Handelian works, and to present them as living entities?


Nor may we suppose that Handel would have been satisfied with a less just expression in his operas than he must have demanded in his oratorios. True it is that he made use of the peculiar form of voice (castrati) which the times gave him, for certain parts; he wanted to attract the public to the operas for which he fought so long and so unsuccessfully…Handel was a theatrical manager as well as a composer. The student may safely conclude that bel-canto meant mastery over the voice. The singers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries prepared themselves by years of long study to give expression to the music allotted to them. The singing of the twentieth century has precisely the same task to negotiate.


From the vocal point of view, this idea of mastery over the voice (and there is, too, a clear gain in vocal power) represents the benefit the world reaped from music which lived long enough to accomplish this purpose, and then perished.

Ffrangcon-Davies, David Thomas. The singing of the future. J. Lane, 1907.

Bel canto by way of the Netherlands (or Musica Transbelgio), part 1

Last year I had the distinct pleasure of reading Daniela Bloem Hubatka’s book “The Old Italian School of Singing,” I know that I quote her book quite a bit on this blog, but I wanted to share with my English readers the transcript of a radio interview that she did in the Netherlands.

Since reading her book, Daniela and I have become FAST friends over our mutual love for the teachers of the the bel canto traditions, and a shared passion for beautiful, natural, and uncluttered singing. Both of us work to bring the knowledge of these great Masters to the community of singers, teachers, and avocational singers that thirst for deeper knowledge and history of singing.  Daniela has provided pretty strong evidence for a school of singing that should be revived or at least reconsidered in the light of present knowledge, and her assertions are deeply profound on the current state of singing.

I will be blogging her interview’s transcript over several posts, so as not to overwhelm the reader. I hope you will purchase her book, and find it as stimulating and exciting as I have.

The interview is between Daniela Bloem-Hubatka, her husband, Jan Hubatka, and the interviewer, Petra (Last Name Unavailable). The conversation has been translated from the original Dutch by the contributions of Daniela, and my friend Dirk Gevers.

Petra: Authentic instruments have been popular for years, but only the singing voice has been forgotten in that trend and that is why I have invited Daniela to tell us something about it. Her husband Jan Bloem also knows a lot about this subject. But first a little introduction. Daniela tell us, how did you get involved in all this. Have you always been interested in singing? And what background do you have in singing?

Daniela: It has already been said in the papers that I had always been involved with singing. But that was nothing special, it was just part of life. You were always singing. My sister sang, my father played the violin. And then I married a singer and he suddenly supposedly discovered my voice. He said: “What a very beautiful voice you got that should be developed!” I had never given it any special attention but my voice then was schooled in the present day manner. And that did not completely satisfy me. I did not feel at home with it. I did not feel that I sang as I used to previously, it was different. I did it more by imitation, those things I was told to but I never thought it really suited me and that it ought to be like this. I investigated this and consequently I discovered that singing was different and done in another manner in olden days which makes the voice sound more natural and what is also very important is keeping it fresh and young for a long period of time.

Petra: That’s really the crux of the matter, a young voice sounds different from an old voice where the years have taken their toll or not.

Daniela: You really can see that for yourself if you wish, for example when looking at young singers when they are being interviewed, who have a pleasant young speaking voice suited to their lovely appearance. But as soon as they start to sing they put on a different kind of voice that I could describe as pompous, certainly older sounding, often also melancholy but not suited to their young looks.

Petra: Okay.

Daniela: And with older singers who sang in the historical method it is just the other way around, older singers, like myself, have a young voice when they sing, like their speaking voice, they remain themselves.

Petra: That is the crux of the matter, they remain themselves.

Daniela: Yes that is right, then you can sing from your heart like you wish to.

Petra: Yes indeed for I read that nowadays they do not sing from their heart but from their head.

Daniela: Yes that is rather like it.

Petra: Next to you your husband Jan Bloem is sitting who discovered you and who stood at the beginning of your vocal journey of discovery.

Jan: Yes what should I say about that?

Petra: What is your background?

Jan: I studied singing rather late when I was already grown up and in those days there was no money. I studied at the Utrecht Conservatory and did my exams there and that is very long ago! I met Daniela years later after a first marriage that failed with a pianist who always knew everything better than I, and that did not work.

Petra: That usually causes some friction.

Jan: And then I met Daniela, I sang and she wanted me to sing and she promoted what I did and I gave lessons too and we were still young and nothing happened till a certain time when I had a pupil who didn’t do what I wanted her to do, that happens sometimes, my wife was in the kitchen and I asked her to join in the exercises.

Petra: And to stimulate the pupil positively…

Jan: And a quarter of an hour later Daniela sang like a nightingale and the pupil shut up and never bothered me again. Her voice was schooled, but she did not perform in public immediately and it was I who had to sing and I did even though I was really too old for the role I was given which was not even my voice type. I sang in opera and did rather well for the opera was performed more than 50 times. So that kept me busy for 2.5 years and after that I gave lessons until my pension. I was asked to stay on for they had nobody else to give the courses that I gave and so I stayed till my 80s. You have seen the courses on my website but they have to come off that now for I am too old and I leave it to my wife. I have always searched for a natural way of singing that I had not been taught myself but I wanted to do a good job, I have not found it but she has and she has written about it.

Petra: I have also seen that you were a singing therapist. But you are also opera singer and concert pianist, did I understand that rightly?

Jan: Opera singer and lieder singer and we have a house pianist with us that is Brian Lamb.

Petra: Whom I had on the phone.

Jan: And he has accompanied my concerts has also helped with the lessons I gave at the Lindenberg in Nijmegen and he works with Daniela too, we have a trio.

Petra: Very musical there in your home, here in Zeist.  We’ll come to the important bit after a little break.

Cultivation vs. Production in the Voice Studio

One of the most interesting words that comes up over and over again in treatises and writings on the singing voice pre-1850 is the world CULTIVATION.

Books on singing from pre-1850 or so are entitled, “Bassini’s Art of singingan analytical, physiological and practical system for the cultivation of the voice.” Another singing text is “Baker’s Formation and Cultivation of the Voice: A Complete and Practical Method of Vocalization, Consisting of Every Variety of Scale Exercises and Solfeggios, Progressively Arranged, and Adapted to the Wants of Beginners and Advanced Pupils in the Art of Singing.

Analogies of planting and farming go all the way back to the Italian singing masters Tosi and Mancini. In his book on singing from 1774 Mancini invokes an analogy to farming:

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

The analogy of cultivation from an agrarian society makes total sense: the pace of life was much slower. Anyone who ever spent time or grew up on a farm (as I did) knows that the cycles of planting and harvest aren’t quick. You have to WAIT for those buds to bud. It’s NOT a quick fix to plant something in the ground and expect instant results. Mums must be planted in the summer for a fall harvest.

The training of singers up to that point in time was a daily affair that lasted for 7-8 years. While considerable, efforts were able to be made over a gradual period, and voices were able to bloom in their own time.

However, a dramatic shift occurred in vocal pedagogy in the mid-nineteenth century, and the word voice CULTIVATION began to be replaced by voice PRODUCTION. Books appeared on the shelves of music stores like Wesley Mills “Voice Production in Singing and Speaking,” and Floyd S. Muckey’s “The Natural Method of Voice Production in Speech and Song” which included a picture of the author at some supposed contraption that was helping him with his voice “production”. Henry Harper Hulbert’s text “Breathing for Voice Production” showed all about how to produce the voice with the proper exercises of the lungs and torso. Pattou’s “The Art of Voice-Production” is another text in that vein.

From my research the word PRODUCTION did not enter the vocabulary of the singer and the voice teacher until about 1850-1860. So, what changed that affected that shift in wording with regard to developing the human voice?

My take is that the zeitgeist of the 1800s affected how voices were trained.  With the impact of the Industrial Revolution, people were looking for ways of ‘speeding up’ processes that normally took great amounts of time. It would only be natural for vocal pedagogy to take a share in the cultural shift toward greater efficiency and faster development. Hence, a shift into a mode of ‘producing’ voices instead of ‘cultivating’ them. Vocal science also came into the voice studio, and many writers and authors point to this as the watershed moment in voice training.

Manuel Garcia II wasn’t immune from this cultural temptation of productivity and heightened awareness of science. His inventing of the laryngoscope was done in an effort to ‘speed up training.’ However, Morell Mackenzie (1837-1892) said that “once the laryngoscope was invented, it threw the whole training process into chaos, because people stopped listening to the voice and began to LOOK at it.”

Salvatore Marchesi had this to say in his book “A Vademecum for Singing-teachers and Pupils” (1902):

But Manuel Garcia, when trying to investigate the mechanism of the vocal organ, aimed exclusively at establishing a rational physiological system for the production and development of the voice in connection with the art of song, and proposed putting an end, if possible, to the dangerous interference of dabblers. We regret having to place on record the fact that the great man did not see his aspirations realized. On the contrary, the new scientific path he had opened to the cultivation of the human voice fell a prey to empiricism ; thousands of undesirable meddlers seized upon the subject and brought about confusion, and, as a consequence, the inevitable decline of the finest of all the fine arts.


Marchesi also had this to say about doctors and speech therapists encroaching into the arena of the voice trainer:

With regard to laryngologists who publish works on “voice-production” and “voice-culture,” I declare openly that they betray their moral, human, and scientific mission, which should be to visit patients and cure diseases of the throat. Instead of so doing, through the publication of books on “voice-production,” complicated with scientific quotations and dilemmas, and consequently out of proportion to the general standard of instruction, they create unconsciously a number of physical disorders and diseases among singing people, and thus contribute to the decline of the art of song. Teachers and scholars, reading a work published under the authority of a well- known laryngologist’s name, try to adopt the new theories proposed by the author, understanding them but partially, incorrectly, or not at all, and viewing the new dilemmas in the light of their own intelligence and knowledge. In so doing, through the inadequate interpretation of what they read, they invent false theories of their own, and ruin thousands of the best voices.


Music style also shifted as well. The humanism of the Enlightenment looked upon the practice of castration as barbarous, and so by the middle of the 1800s there were no more castrati to be found on the stages of the opera centers of the world. The opera buffa also sounded a death knell to the castrato voice: there were no parts in comedy for the evirati. Their voices were more suited to serious opera. So, the virtuoso training practices of these singers were gradually neglected or lost over time. Rossini was one of the last composers who had been highly influenced by the singing of the castrati that he had heard in his youth. Rossini’s music still carried much of the tradition of this earlier school in its approach to vocal display and ornamentation.

Orchestral demands also changed the way singers trained their voices. Orchestrations thickened and suddenly singers had to ‘compete’ with larger symphonic sound. The orchestrations for Bellini’s Norma and Beethoven’s Fidelio are distinctly different. It’s interesting to note that for those singers that had been trained along Old Italian school lines, they remarked they were able to sing all styles of music. The older training was still seen as superior to any newer ‘methods’ of singing. Adelina Patti had never heard the word ‘diaphragm’ until she visited the voice studio of Jean De Reszke in Paris.

It’s interesting to live with this word CULTIVATION in the voice studio. I have come to embrace it as I work with all types of singers to help them understand the path of learning to sing. CULTIVATION to me speaks of indirectness, an allowing of something to happen, and a ‘weeding out’ of improper response. PRODUCTION on the other hand reminds me of DIRECT controls, DOING something, MAKING something happen, and SPEED, as well as conformity and corporatism. I find the latter incongruent with the Old Italian School. By working indirectly on the voice through combinations of vowel, volume, pitches, and consonants, I’m able to cultivate the inherent ‘seed’ that is already in the voice, waiting to be developed at the right time and harvested for a beautiful performance.

La scuola del bel canto/The bel canto school

I am including the below essay in Italian and English from Luigi Leonesi as an example upon which the bel canto school was primarily focused: register unification. Leonesi derided the modern singing of this time (1904) as functionally inferior to the vocal precepts of an earlier time.

It is interesting to read here an Italian speaking of these things, as the veristic school of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and the Germanic approach shifted the pedagogical territory to an air of almost moral superiority in loud (not necessarily big) singing. For Leonesi, register unification was the hallmark of the Old Masters, and once this was accomplished the fullest extension and capacity of the instrument was available for the purpose of EXPRESSION. He notes that those without registrational unification are doomed to a limited palate of choices in their artistry. I often describe the registers as giving the singer the fullest palate of color possible. This way, they are able to paint whatever they wish. To focus on one register is to give a singer one jar of red paint and wish him or her luck in figuring out how to get blue.

Leonesi describes what might be described as a ‘pulled-up’ chest voice all the way to the top of the range, which without the benefit of register unification takes on a screamy, yelly, belty quality. This assertion tracks with much of the literature of Tosi, Mancini, and Garcia as well, and touches upon the point I made in an earlier post on the faddism of vowel modification as the only route to bridging the passaggio, instead of an equitable muscle balance in the larynx.

We have to remember that the pervasive idea of ‘vocal miniaturism’ so prevalent when thinking about anything pre-1830 or so, is patently false. Voices were large and penetrating as well as flexible. The A-B-A form of Handel’s arias exemplified this demonstration of agility coupled with dramatic sustained singing. The arias of Broschi, Vivaldi, and Handel demand register unification and phenomenal breath control (as a result of this unification). They’re also NOT short on DRAMA. Later on this musical (ABA) form mutated into the cavatina/cabaletta in the high cult of bel canto in the early 19th Century. The poles of bel canto (agility/sustained singing) were the RULE not the exception as they are today.

To disregard the registers of the voice and believe that breath or resonance alone are the focus in training (especially for those teachers who wish to understand bel canto schooling) is to prefer a latter school of thought on the voice, and not the empirically tested (tried and true) ideas of the earliest Masters of singing. To deny the primacy of head voice/falsetto and chest voice in training is to misconstrue the extant writings that we have and shoehorn modern ‘square’ aesthetic preferences into a 19th Century ’round’ hole. It is also lazy scholarship.

From Leonesi:

Le condizioni in cui ci troviamo sono molto peggiori del primo periodo, chè, se allora abbandonarono lo scopo del canto, conservarono però la perfezione del meccanismo, mentre noi oggi abbiamo abbandonato e smarrita e l’uno e l’altra.

Per dar qui un esempio, dirò che la voce naturale cantata senza sforzo dà poco più di un’ottava d’estensione, mentre per l’arte del canto ne occorrono quasi due. Quindi come procurarsi gli altri suoni?

Gli antichi maestri, con una trovata di genio, che può dirsi più miracolosa che famosa, riuscirono ad unire la voce naturale con la voce di falsetto o testa, in modo che non distinguevasi l’una dall’altra, mentre noi ora sforziamo la voce naturale, più o meno chiusa, a salire in alto, credendo così, in buona fede, di essere tecnicamente eguali alla scuola antica.

Con l’unione dei registri, come l’intendeva l’antica scuola, era possibile ottenere dalla voce umana una grande espressione insieme alla purezza di suono e d’intonazione, con il più lungo fiato possibile. La voce piegavasi facilmente a tutte le esigenze del bel canto, non che agli abbellimenti: messa di voce, portamento, agilità, trillo, ecc. ecc. Col sistema moderno, facendo doverose eccezioni, regna lo sforzo, anzi la violenza, ed in breve lo sfiatamento. Chi resiste a tanti conati può disporre soltanto d’una espressione e d’una intonazione appenna approssimative, una pronunzia impossibile ed un’enorme differenza di timbri impiegati senza concorso della voluntà, fiato cortissimo, tralasciando di parlare degli abbellimenti del canto, che riescono ineseguibili. 

Qui nasce spontanea l’idea che per rimediare a tanto sfacelo nell’arte, non rimane altro che ritornare all’antica scuola, e su questo son tutti di accordo.

(The conditions in which we find ourselves are much worse than in the first period, which, if in abandoning the scope or purpose of the song, conserved the perfection of the vocal mechanism, while today we have abandoned and lost the one for the other.

To give an example here, I will say that the natural voice (ed. or chest voice) without effort gives less than an octave of extension, while the art of singing demands at least two octaves. So how do we get these other sounds?

The Old Masters, by an invention of genius, that can be said to be more miraculous than famous, managed to combine the natural voice with the falsetto or head voice, in a way that one could not distinguish the one from the other, while now we strain the chest voice, more or less “closed”, in going from the bottom to the top of the voice, believing that, in good faith, this is the technical equivalent of the Old School.

With the union of the registers, as the Old School intended, it was possible to obtain from the human voice a great expression along with a purity of tone and intonation, with the longest possible breath. The voice bent itself easily to all the needs of the bel canto, not only to the embellishments: messa di voce, portamento, agility, trill, etc. With the modern system, making dutiful exceptions, effort reigns, as well as violence, and in short “blowing off”. Those who withstand such retching only have one expression and a hardly approximate intonation, an impossible pronunciation as well as an enormous difference of timbres employed without contest of will, very short breath capacity, prohibiting us to speak of the embellishments of the song, which cannot be performed.

Here arises the idea that in order to remedy such destruction in art, nothing remains but to return to the old school, and I am in agreement on this.)

Notes from Luigi Leonesi from “Scuola di Canto dell’epoca d’oro: Secolo XVII), Opinioni de’ Cantori Antichi e Moderni“, published in 1904.