A Baritone’s Letter Home…

Francis Walker was an American baritone student in the early 1880s in Florence. Each day his teacher listened to him sing slow sustained tones (hmm…where have I heard that before?) and scale work, and he described this process of training in letters back to his sister, living in New York. Highlights in his letter are mine.

My main difficulty in “placing” has been in getting a sufficiently bright tone – all my middle and upper voice being deficient in frankness. Doubtless you remember how I had been taught to sing “open” tones up to [middle C] and then upward to make “covered” ones. The quoted words are, perhaps, as good terms as any, but the trouble is that I had not learned how to direct my voice so as to keep any definite texture in it, and the result was that all the tones below the C were veiled, uncertain of intonation, and wholly lacking in any character or timbre, while those above were forced into such pose as they had, and were quite incapable of modulation. In brief, there was almost nothing spontaneous and sure in my entire range. 

At first, with habit and wrong ideas so strongly fixed, it was most difficult to get any tone freely and frankly delivered…For several lessons, that dreaded tone [middle C] would come in the old way – dead in sound, devoid of all resonance. One Friday he [the teacher] said to me: “Now we can get no farther until that tone is given freely and clearly.”…

The struggle with the middle C was not, let me explain, for the sake of getting an “open” tone thereon, but to wrench myself away from old mannerisms of production – things learned from so-called “scientific” teachers.The particular trouble in this matter was that I had been taught to press the larynx down as far as possible. The result was the dull, veiled, middle tones, and no mental sense of directing the voice so as to produce anything firmer and brighter. Pressing the larynx down, forsooth! One might as well attempt to cool this July weather by pushing down the mercury in the thermometer. Larynx, tongue, uvula – all are perhaps in some measure indicators of what is going on, but it is folly to work directly with or upon them in order to place a voice. None of the teachers who muddle over anatomical matters in detail, and thereby create a distressing and hampering consciousness of muscular arrangement, ever turn out an artist – one who makes a legitimate and successful career.

Walker, Francis. Letters of a Baritone. Scribner, 1895.


Loud, Louder, and Loudest (or Mack Truck Singing)

Pupil: You have made mention of two great basses, Lablache and Staudigl, which leads me to a remark you made some time ago about some bass singers enlarging their tone too much. I would like to know something about the proper action for the bass voice, as it is plain to me that I have had ideas which you would not consider correct. For instance, I, on one occasion, heard an eminent vocalist sing E, with what you would designate an open tone. The effect was very startling, for the passage required great power.

Teacher: It is probable that the effect would be startling, but was it agreeable to the ear?

Pupil: Well, I thought so at the time; or rather — I am not sure that it occurred to me to think whether it was agreeable or otherwise. I expected a loud tone, and it came, consequently I was not disappointed; but as to expecting a tone pleasant to the ear, I do not think I should have desired it: the passage called only for loudness.

Teacher: Then it might as well have been one noise as another. By “loudness” you, of course, mean noise. Now, let us see how that idea would operate. The violinist wishes to gain greater power from his instrument than it is capable of properly producing; and we speak of the rasping effect. The cornet-player desires more tone than his instrument can properly give, and we speak of the noisy blare. The tragedian forces his voice, and we accuse him of ranting. So you see, that loudness is not the only thing desirable. Legitimate power we do want, but that does not consist in shouting. But you have hit upon a matter which needs some attention. A great many bass singers do just this thing of which you have spoken. Let us now go back a little to the action of the organs, and again repeat, that all sound in the voice is the result of vibration of the vocal chord. A certain number of vibrations per second produce a given tone, and a certain number more per second produce a certain higher tone. Now, it is evident, that, with the same chord, the only way to increase the rapidity of the vibrations, is by shortening them. But let us take an example which all must understand. The ophecleide is a large brass instrument, formerly made use of as the bass in a brass band, — a very effective instrument indeed, and in the hands of Hughes, a remarkable performer in Jullien’s orchestra, one of the richest of solo instruments. I heard this gentleman play the “Star-spangled Banner” at one time. This is a tune which extends over a considerable range, and, when sung by a bass, is usually, I believe, taken in the key of G, which carries the highest note to D. The line in which this occurs is the fifth, “And the rocket’s red glare; ” G A B B C D and the usual way to do it is to give a perfect yell, for I can call it nothing else, on the D. Now, how was it with the ophecleide? The tone gradually pointed off as it ascended, the upper tone being full and resonant, but in proportion. This was not owing to the playing of Hughes: it was the law of the instrument, and may be noticed at any time. But it must strike you that the tone which was sung was wholly out of proportion to the rest.

Pupil: Then you would designate the tone which I thought so fine by the name of “yell” ? It seems to me that you are very hard to please: do you ever hear any thing or any body that is right ?

Teacher: Now you are repeating what many others say. I understand that some people do me the honor to believe my standard to be so high that none can attain to it. I think you will find, however, that I have endorsed some singers as being good examples of their art. You will find that I only oppose wrong that is proved to be such. I am not hypercritical, but aim at genuine progress. I detest humbug and false show. I admire sincerity in all things, singing included. I despise the man who does a good action for the sake of popular applause ; and I equally despise the vocalist who sings only for popular applause. As one should do right for its own sake, so one should sing honestly for no other motive than because it is right and just to his composer and audience. I am perfectly aware that my position is rather a quixotic one, so considered; but I am in earnest in my views. Now, having spoken of the wrong way of doing things, let me return to the two great artists we have mentioned. I imagine, from all accounts, that Lablache and Staudigl were both as near perfection as possible. There are many living who have heard both, and the testimony is not conflicting. I once knew a baritone singer, who claimed to have been a pupil of Staudigl. He had a splendid voice, but was a bad singer, which led me to think that he had not been a faithful student; but one thing was very noticeable: he could sing high G with perfect ease; his voice tapered off beautifully, from which I gather that he was so taught by the great master. Badiali was a wonderful singer, with a delivery of tone easy and natural; no trying to make tone too large ; all was beautifully shaped. He was an old man when he died, but preserved his powers to the last. The present race of Italian teachers seem to aimat making the upper part of the voice large and shaky. It may be said that the first fault induces the second. What is the effect ? The real beauty of the voice disappears, and the tones become dry and unsatisfactory. I always feel troubled when I find people so mistaken, knowing as I do, that they might be far more acceptable singers, if they would be more natural. There it is again, they should be more natural. The effect of that would be to make them sing as they would speak, and consequently deliver their voices in the same way for both. I heard a singer, not long since, having a charming voice, but a wrong delivery, and thought to myself, “How I should love to have you hear your own voice once, that you might realize how far superior it is to this false voice, which you think is yours.” But he will probably never know what a treasure he has, nor will anybody else who listens to his artificial tones.

Daniell, William Henry. The Voice and how to Use it. JR Osgood, 1873.

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.

What is Natural Singing?

This may seem at first sight altogether incredible. To understand how the voice can be trained, without ever departing from the natural manner of singing, we must see in the first place just what natural singing is.  What takes place when I sing naturally? Suppose I sing a scale, do, re, mi, etc., just as a schoolboy does, without thinking of how he does it. I can do this perfectly well. True, I know that the vocal tone is produced by the pressure of the expired breath against the vocal cords, and that the pitch of the note is determined by the degree of tension of the cords. But I can forget all this while singing the scale, and just simply sing. Now suppose I sing the same scale again, this time making my voice sound nasal. All I have to do is to think a nasal quality of sound, and then to sing that sound. Here again, I know that the nasal quality is caused by my contracting my nasal passages and then forcing the tone through them. But I could sing the nasal tones just as well, before I ever thought of wanting to know how they are produced.

Once more let me sing my do, re, mi, scale, this time giving my voice as fine, rich, full, and musical a quality as I can. My study of vocal science has taught me that a quality of this kind is produced when all the resonating cavities act in the proper way. But it is not necessary for me to know this in order to get the desired quality. A child utterly ignorant of vocal science could do it just as well. Provided I have a certain quality of tone in mind, my voice will produce it without my knowing or caring how it is done. 

This is what is meant by natural singing. Vocal science has shed a great deal of light on the operations of the voice. We know that each fine shade of tone quality results from some special adjustments of the vocal cords and resonating cavities. But as a result of recent scientific investigation we know something of much greater importance. We have a medium of communication through which we inform our vocal organs what kind of tones we wish to sing. This medium is the mental ear. We also possess a monitor, which tells us how well our voices obey our mental demands in producing the tones we call for – our physical sense of hearing. Natural singing is thus seen to be a rather involved operation. It includes, first, the mental conception of a tone; second, the adjustment of the vocal organs in response to the mental command; third, the actual singing of the tone; and fourth, the listening to the tone and comparing it with the mental conception.

One of these steps, the adjustment of the vocal organs, calls for special consideration. It is on this point that the modern system differs most radically from the old Italian method. According to the modern idea, it is necessary for the singer to know how the vocal organs should adjust themselves for every tone, and to see to it that the adjustments are properly made. In the natural system followed by the old masters the vocal organs are left free to adjust themselves according to their own instincts. There is a mysterious instinct located in the voice. When a tone is mentally conceived, this instinct tells the vocal instrument how to shape itself for the tone. The singer himself need to nothing to help his voice in finding the correct adjustment. Nature took care of all that when she implanted her instincts in the voice. In other words, you must tell your voice what to do, but not how to do it. It is for you to decide what kind of tones you wish to sing; guided by its own instincts, your voice will then find its own way to produce the tones you have in mind.

Taylor, David C. “Natural Singing and the Old Italian Method.” Etude Magazine, August 1916: 594.

Joyce DiDonato and The Naked Voice

One of my favorite pedagogy books from the past ten years is W. Stephen Smith’s book, “The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing“.

A concept that is near and dear to my heart is the idea of “uncluttered” sound in classical singing. What I mean by this is a vocal sound that is free from interfering tensions.  These tensions are usually created in the mind of the singer as they attempt to ‘make’ their voice sound a certain way. Much classical singing suffers from a ‘postured’ or ‘over-cultured’ approach.

An uncluttered voice is natural, beautiful, free, easy, and flexible. When singers TRY to MAKE a sound in a way that stresses an end product, muscular interference will be the inevitable result.

In Smith’s book, he lays out a system of working on the voice that enables freedom and individuality. Pre-conceptualization of the tone has no place here, hence the term “Naked Voice”.  Smith utilizes what appears to be a two-register view of the voice, although he doesn’t discuss it in any depth.  Working on the chest voice and falsetto, he guides the voice to greater freedom and functional ease. The book was also the first I ever read which went against the oft-repeated saw that breath and support are the sine qua non of singing.  In fact, he states that the word ‘support’ is the S-word in his studio!

I can’t think of a better exponent of Smith’s ideas than the celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. I’ve blogged on her before as a major influence and inspiration for my own work and singing. She was asked in an interview how she fell into vocal distress while in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and her response went through me like a bolt of lightning, “I was trying to sound like an opera singer…People were convinced by the sound I was making. You can create a lot of good sound by going “aaahhh!” – really forcing it out. Plus, I was musical, and I acted okay. So they saw the final product without actually analyzing what was happening. I got by with it for a while.”

I repeat that quote a lot in my studio. Here we have one of the world’s greatest singers in classical music today, asserting that in trying to sound like something else, she trained muscular tension into her voice.  Working with Smith in a way that helped her release her pre-concept of her voice allowed a freer and more beautiful sound to emerge. This was Joyce’s ‘naked voice’.  From Smith’s book:

It was my first week in the Houston Opera Studio, and I was feeling quite on top of the world, having been accepted into such a prestigious program. Steve (Smith) looked at me within ten minutes of beginning our first session, and said, “Joyce, you’re talented and obviously very musical, but there is simply no future in the way you’re singing. You’re singing exclusively on youth and muscle.” I was old enough (twenty-six years old) to trust that he just might be right. He then dug his thumb under my chin straight into the core of my tongue tension, which at the time was my favorite type of “support” and fought upward against the intense pressure I was applying downward, and he said, “now sing [a]” I looked up to him, with the enormity of the situation slowly sinking in (what if the people at the Houston Grand Opera found out that I didn’t know the first thing about singing?), and I told him that I honestly could not phonate. I didn’t know how to sing without the tongue muscle forcing the tone out. I could not manage the most simple of [a] vowels without this crutch. I remember recoiling in horror at the situation, but deciding in that very moment to put my voice into his hands. We then spent my entire first year in the program tearing down all the devices I had firmly put into place to aid me in sounding like an opera singer. The second year was then spent building up the natural, naked voice. Every single lesson was a breakthrough moment.