The Great Oz has Spoken!

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gets all the way to the Emerald City, only to find out that the Wizard is a fake.

So, too, many singers come into classical voice studios every day in hopes of training their voices, and getting to their goals of singing better and with greater ease and beauty. Little do they know that for some voice studios, the Wizard is just behind the piano, waiting to wow them with powerful vocal pronouncements on singing technique, and vocal ‘knowledge.’

One of the Wizard’s greatest frauds, perpetuated for nearly 150 years could be written in the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West on her broomstick:

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CLASSICAL VOCAL TECHNIQUE, DOROTHY!

By that statement I mean to say there is NO body of knowledge by which any 10 classical voice teachers can stand and agree with a collective body of pedagogy. Introduce topics of breath, resonance, and registers to a group of classical voice teachers and you will hear 10 different ideas, all based upon varying degrees of either experience or assumption. There ARE NO STANDARDS. Those same teachers’ loyalty to (often erroneous) past instruction, their belief in certain vocal maneuvers and concepts despite their glaring fraudulence ( ‘spinning the tone’), coupled to their strong aesthetic preferences for sounds that they prefer, ‘poison the well’ of what classical singing really is. The confusion of EFFECT with CAUSE has grown over like an enchanted poppy field, putting us all to sleep, and stagnating our students’ vocal growth.

And yet, this is tolerated in our profession as ‘doing your own thing’, or ‘singing with Madame X’s Method’ or ‘teaching classically’. Only in the singing community would this attitude be tolerated. Can you imagine mathematicians not knowing about Pythagoras or the latest mathematical studies and research? So we continue to hear instructive gems such as:

“Lower your epiglottis to widen your pharynx and place the tone in your forehead.”

“Feel the tone coming out of the back of your head.”

“Drop your jaw back as far as you can to open your throat.”

Sing this book of Concone exercises and you will perfect your vocal technique!”

“Let your diaphragm release down and out, and clench your buttocks when you feel yourself running out of air at the end of phrases.”

All of these pronouncements are direct from vocal “Wizards of Oz”.

But “Silence, Whippersnapper!” – all of these voice teachers are teaching classical technique! And the profession turns its collective head.

As long as voice teachers continue to allow this type of training in their midst, we will never advance down the Yellow Brick Road as a profession.  We will not move collectively if we cannot come to understand and agree on some basic physiology that has ACTUALLY been proven by scientific research. We can point to certain functions of the voice and attribute them to the movement of muscles. We can also attribute faults in technique to RESULTS of a functional CAUSE.

A pedagogy that is based on actually solving vocal technical problems is something that I believe WAS THE AIM of the Old Masters until around the 19th century. If you want to read about the path of vocal training and education, DON’T TAKE MY WORD for it. Read W.J. Henderson’s wonderful book, “Early History of Singing.” You can even read it for FREE HERE.

What were the goals? Freedom. Following Nature. Sustained and agile singing. Register unification. Easy management of breath. That’s pretty much it. You can get a long way training voices to do JUST THOSE THINGS.

If your voice teacher isn’t studying with other teachers, or reading books on the latest pedagogical research, or hasn’t attended a voice teachers conference since 1986, you OWE it to yourself to ask why you’re studying with that person.

  • To have a ‘name’ on your resume or you think they’ll help your career? (Always a sorry reason if you are not being technically helped by them. Singing well should still be the goal. Can you do the thing you’re being hired to do?)
  • Because of their connection to a particular person or musical figure? (If they weren’t in the room with Maestro X or Diva Y taking dictation for every lesson there is NO guarantee they are teaching that person’s principles – we’re all biased in some way, and teach based on our own peculiar set of personality traits and skill.)
  • Because another teacher to whom you are loyal referred you, and you don’t want to ‘hurt’ the other teacher? (Another altruistic but ultimately unhealthy reason.)

Would you see a doctor that hadn’t learned about anything new in the past 30 years? Would that feel safe to you? I have found that teaching a voice functionally connects and correlates to the work of all the great masters of teaching going back to the Scuola Cantorum.  This has enabled me to EMBRACE the past and the future SIMULTANEOUSLY. I need not give up one for the other as they are beautifully CONGRUENT. Function is always true, regardless of the person or pedagogue teaching it. It doesn’t need a ‘personality’ or an ‘established star’ to be true. If all VOICE TEACHERS STOPPED teaching tomorrow, vocal function would STILL BE TRUE.

Maybe, JUST MAYBE, singers and voice teachers will realize what Dorothy did: You’ve always had the power to go back home to Vocal Truth. Those of us who have been introduced to functional voice training can click our heels together and get ourselves all back safe and sound to Kansas, and hopefully bring our friends and students with us.

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A Tour of Vocal Studios in Italy in the Year 1893-1894

“Recently in looking through a twenty years accumulation of papers and documents of more or less interest, we found an old note book in which were memoranda made during the years 1893-1894 while sojourning in Europe for the purpose of making observations of musical education in general, and voice matters in particular.

It was thought that some of these memoranda would be interesting to the readers of this department, partly because of the suggestions therein contained, and partly as giving some data by which to estimate the progress of voice teaching in the last twenty years; some ideas that were not generally received then have become the commonplaces of today.

Vocal Ideas From an Italian Source

Signor G. in one of the musical centers of Italy occupied a high official position and was the teacher of some artists of eminence. He exercised pupils with runs almost entirely, no sustained notes, and made exclusive use of “ah” for this practice. He said that one should not show the teeth in vocalizing but should keep them covered. Neither did he sanction sensation of tone high in the head, saying that it makes the voice too sombre. He would have the pupil “fill the mouth full of vibrations” and feel the voice not behind the bridge of the nose but in and about the ears. In explaining his he pointed to the cheek bones. Breathing was to be with the diaphragm, though in showing how, Signor G. raised his shoulders. He advocated covered tone in the upper voice and used the term “mixed voice” in connection with tones of the male voice at G (fourth space, bass clef). He advocated putting force into the voice in practicing and quoted Signor Marchese to that effect. Nearly all the pupils had a marked tremolo; and our impression was of voices being driven into place rather than being “built.” This teacher did not approve of the modern Italian songs by composers like Tosti and Denza; he used the old classics of the Pergolese and Scarlatti period in addition to work with modern opera.

Signor L.’s pupils, eight of whom we heard, did not use the far forward tone that we associate with Italian singing; indeed some of them showed quite sombre tones in the lower voice. But they sang well and with even voices.

His exercises were scales and runs, but we heard no hint of how the voice or the breath was to be used in doing them. These pupils of Signor L., had loose breathy low notes; but their high notes were brilliant and good.

Signora F., a conservatory teacher, told us that she did very little explaining – that pupils would not understand; but there were no pauses in her work with each pupil at a lesson and the singing was good in the Italian style, with tremolo. This teacher used the Crescentini vocalizes with the vowel ah, also scale work. In seven lessons we did not hear her refer to breathing. The singing was with mouth sometimes widely open and sometimes nearly closed. The middle notes of these pupils, all ladies, were strengthened by carrying up something very like chest tones, which, however, the teacher said were not in that register. She seemed not to be particular about the first head tones which were sometimes hard like many of the German voices. Her work with operatic arias was closely analytical and effective. Her voice sounded worn and had some nasal twang in it; but it served to illustrate all points in agility and expression.

Signor V., a popular teacher, with at least one of the opera artists in his class, appeared to do more detailed work with voices. We heard in his studio some fine elastic mezza-voice exercises sung without external effort unless it were in a slightly forward position of the lower jaw. Signor V. used the early Lamperti exercises with lah, lay, lee, lo, loo, directing that the voice be up in the head and forward. He required pupils while singing vowel elements to hold the lips so as to show the teeth; this applied even to oo. We did not hear him speak of breathing or registers to any of his pupils; but there was some forcing of registers upward in the exercises. Some of his work struck us as rough. One young lady, working up to it with transpositions, sang this exercise at this pitch:

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This performance, repeated several times, was accompanied with spasms of effort in the pharynx which hurt our feelings, whatever it may have done to the lady’s voice. There was some beautifully rich and expressive singing by some of the pupils; but the trail of the tremolo was over them all.”

Root, Frederick. “Observations on Voice Study in Europe”, Etude Magazine,  June 1913: