Pierfrancesco Tosi, The Grandfather of Bel Canto

In his book, “Observations on the Florid Song,” Tosi has given a great deal of information regarding the methods of vocal training used during his day. The book is divided into three parts and consists of instructions to teachers, pupils and singers.

Tosi was a singer and composer, as well as, a teacher. His voice was a beautiful artificial soprano, which had been trained to a high state of perfection.

He sang with a great deal of emotional expression and his artistry was held in high esteem by the great singers of his time. They considered it a great privilege when they were given the opportunity of hearing him sing.

He was a great lover of his art and had the highest respect for those who distinguished themselves in music. On the other hand, he was very critical and outspoken toward all who abused or degraded the profession. Tosi spent a great deal of his life travelling. He made friends readily and some of his best ones were among the nobility. At one time he lived in England and became a leading figure in the musical circles of that country.

That Tosi considered the teaching of singing a serious undertaking is seen by the following quotations:

But above all, let the teacher hear with a disinterested ear whether the person desirous to learn hath a voice and a disposition, that he may not be obliged to give strict account to God, of the parent’s money ill spent, and the injury done to the child, by the irreparable loss of time.

Again warns the teacher:

From the first lesson to the last let the master remember, that he is answerable for any omission in his instructions and for the errors he did not correct.

Tosi also maintained that the pupils were responsible to the teacher in many ways. He felt that if the teacher was instrumental in the success of a singer, he should also be entitled to a share of the fortune made by the singer.

Tosi’s system of voice culture was one of progressive development from the first lesson to the completion of the course. The first few months of study were confined to the middle part of the voice. Single tone exercises were practiced until the student could sing with a clear steady tone, for the full duration of the breath, in varying degrees of dynamics, all the intervals of the middle octave. Short scale exercises for acquiring agility were then added. They consisted of just a few tones which were sung at a slow tempo. As the voice gained in flexibility, the speed was increased. Upon mastering the short scale exercises the messa di voce (swelling and diminishing a tone) was taken up. It was used to develop control and power of voice. Tosi considered the messa di voce of the greatest importance.

After the middle octave was firmly established, the next step was to extend the range of the voice in both directions. To develop the high tones, Tosi used scale passages on the different vowel sounds. The student was cautioned to practice softly, with light quality of tone. The scale exercises would extend three or four tones above the middle octave. After these could be sung with facility, the messa di voce was practiced on the upper tones. Tosi found that the combined practice of the messa di voce and the scale exercises were especially beneficial in extending the range of the voice and in firming the upper tones. He used this method in his teaching, adding note by note, until the upper limit of the voice was reached. Scale exercises of increasing difficulty practiced in varying degrees of dynamics were then added. The lower tones of the voice developed in the same manner.

At this stage of the training, the student took up the study of the appoggiatura, the shake, (trill) and divisions (runs). Tosi demanded musical perfection in preference to speed. He insisted that his pupils practice with this in mind. He would not tolerate a muddy shake or a slovenly executed division. Thus, the process of acquiring speed and agility required a great deal of patience and perseverance on on the part of the student and the master alike. Florid exercises were all practiced with a slow tempo, gradually increasing the speed as the voice acquired flexibility and freedom. Vowels were used, preference being given to the open ones. When the pupil was able to sound his vowels perfectly, the exercises were practiced with words and the building of a repertoire began in earnest.

Pure legato singing was emphasized by Tosi from the first lesson to the last. He never let his pupils become careless, or fall into slovenly habits of slurring their tones. They were taught how to sing with a steady flow of tone moving from one note to another, with perfect assurance and clear intonation. Tosi considered nasal and throaty production two of the worst defects of singing.

Some writers maintain that Tosi was the first voice teacher to refer to the registers of the voice. However, this is in error. If we refer back to Caccini, we find that he believed the voice to have two registers, which he called, “voce piena” (full voice) and “voce finta” (disguised voice). Tosi’s conception of the term register was not the same as that used during the present time which divides the voice into separate sections. The term as he used it had reference rather to a distinctive quality of tone. According to Tosi the term register was taken from the different stops of the organ and was used to describe various tone qualities produced by the voice. He believed the voice to have three registers, which he called “voce di petto” (chest register) and “voce di testa” which he describes as coming more from the throat than the breast. This would perhaps be the same as the middle register. He also mentions the falsetto (head register) which he claimed was formed entirely in the throat. Tosi used the term “feigned voice” for the falsetto. He believed that the falsetto could be developed and made a part of the voice so that the entire range of the voice was of consistent quality. In his teaching Tosi said very little about registers.

The terrible break in the voice that we hear so much about today, and which seems to be the main source of trouble in the development of an even scale, was given little thought by Tosi and his associates. The chief reason for this was that in their methods of teaching, the weak places in the voice were strengthened gradually and never reached the proportions of a break.

Tosi was considered an authority on voice culture by his contemporaries. Many of his pupils became teachers of voice. It may be for this reason that part of his book was written especially for the teacher.


Klingstedt, Paul T. Common sense in vocal pedagogy as prescribed by the early Italian masters. Edwards brothers, inc., lithoprinters, 1941.

Simply Singing Simply

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
― Isaac Newton

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

Why are vocal terms, descriptions, directives, and training so nebulous? Until the third decade of the nineteenth century there was little argument over basic tenets of voice training.  The earliest treatises and writings on the voice say very little about vocal technique per se, yet the singers of that time were some of the greatest that the world has ever known.

Vocal terminology is often arbitrary, subjective, misleading, and self-serving. To define is to limit, and since the vocal function is a totality of mental, conceptual, emotional, and physical responses, its product, vocal tone, cannot be precisely defined.

Nevertheless, if order is to be restored out of chaos, a terminology must be decided upon, and anchored in concrete reality rather than aesthetic, metaphysical and/or subjective impressions, whereby intelligence relating to the development, care and preservation of the voice can take place with other disciplines without embarrassment.

Reid, Cornelius L. “A dictionary of vocal terminology: An analysis.” (1983).

The following aria, sung by Farinelli, and written for his talents, was composed in the year 1734-35. It is from the opera Artaserse and premiered in London in a time that the British were mad for Italian opera. This opera aria was written at a time when NO text on singing to that time mentioned the words diaphragm, breath control, or breath management.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Now listen to the aria:

Does this demonstrate breath control as a CAUSE or an EFFECT of a balanced voice? Said more simply, did Farinelli’s breath control cause his flexibility, or did his flexibility cause breath control?

In 1735, when this opera was written, Tosi had been dead for 3 years. His book Observations on the Florid Song was published in 1723, a reasonable distance from the opera that you just heard. What does Tosi say about breathing in his seminal text from 1723? Very little:

§ 24. Let him forbid the Scholar to take Breath in the Middle of a Word, because the dividing it in two is an Error against Nature; which must not be followed, if we would avoid being laugh’d at. In interrupted Movements, or in long Divisions, it is not so rigorously required, when the one or the other cannot be sung in one Breath. Anciently such Cautions were not necessary, but for the Learners of the first Rudiments; now the Abuse, having taken its Rise in the modern Schools, gathers Strength, and is grown familiar with those who pretend to Eminence. The Master may correct this Fault, in teaching the Scholar to manage his Respiration, that he may always be provided with more Breath than is needful; and may avoid undertaking what, for want of it, he cannot go through with.

§ 25. Let him shew, in all sorts of Compositions, the proper Place where to take Breath, and without Fatigue; because there are Singers who give Pain to the Hearer, as if they had an Asthma taking Breath every Moment with Difficulty, as if they were breathing their last.

So, breathing in the right location was important. Not in the middle of words (an Error against Nature!), and it was up to the Master to help the student learn how to ‘manage’ it. Gasping or heaving breaths were to be avoided. However, there’s nothing else in Tosi’s book to show us how the ‘management’ was to be accomplished. VEXING!

Perhaps it’s because vocal training used to be rather simple? Teachers of singing didn’t have intensive backgrounds in science or anatomy, yet they were able to make the instrument sing! Despite their process of ‘cultivation’, which I have covered in a previous post, voices were flexible, expansive, and highly expressive, with a considerable amount of ‘breath control’. By cultivating a voice in accordance with Nature and ‘nature’s laws’, the teachers of the past were able to take the voice gradually from the simple to the complex, as Tosi so eloquently stated in his book.

In a similar vein, the principles and practices of Yoga haven’t changed very much in over several thousand years. Discoveries of anatomy and physiology haven’t influenced to a greater extent the structure and content of ideas yoga has promulgated all these years. Additionally, yoga students aren’t instructed in every single move of every single muscle in a class and tension of any kind is seen as a bad thing. Why is this not the same in teaching voices? Is the voice not in the body? Is it not receptive to the same patterns of growth and strength that have been demonstrated in yoga for thousands of years?

Perhaps simplicity in teaching is the touchstone? We need to replace jargon and favorite words for a straightforward terminology and pedagogy. Fewer names for things and a few technical exercises will all succeed in giving a student a simple and constructive voice lesson, and build the voice in the ‘loom of time’.

Keep it simple…