A Voice Lesson in 1886, Part 1

Talks About Singing” by Annie M. R. Barnette was originally published in the Chicago Tribune (IMAGINE a column on singing in the Boston Globe!). These essays were originally intended for those students that lived in rural or remote parts of the United States. They gave singers in these locations some rudimentary advice on singing, and helped them understand what to look for in a voice teacher.

There is such wisdom in these ‘Talks,’ that I am sharing the first one here with the readers of this blog over the course of several posts. This is the first installment of these talks.

Why is this so amazing? Because these prescriptions for singing still hold up today, over 100 years after they were first written.


I will begin my first talk with you about singing, by stating that, although it will ultimately be of great importance for each one to know exactly what sort of a voice she has, since almost fatal mistakes are constantly made, and delicate voices thus ruined, yet, in the commencement, there are certain general rules to be observed, which apply to all voices equally. The first is; Do not sing loud; the second; Do not sing long at a time; the third; Be careful not to carry the tones beyond their proper and fixed limits; the fourth; Do not practice much on the very high or very low tones.

The ancients acknowledged two grand divisions, only, of the female voice, and gave to them the names of contralto and soprano; but the moderns subdivide into basso-contralto, contralto proper and mezzo-soprano, contralto; then contralto mezzo-soprano and mezzo-soprano proper; and into soprano proper, soprano giusto, robusto, acuta, sfogato, puro, etc., as well as into other intermediate grades, varying from each other by scarcely a shade of difference.

Women’s voices may be classed as contralto or low voice, mezzo-soprano or middle, and soprano or high; but it is always the quality, not the compass of a voice which determines its rank; thus, some sopranos are so extremely limited in extent as to be overtopped by an ordinary mezzo-soprano, or even by an extraordinary contralto, while a robust soprano often has fine low tones extending down into the contralto region. I have heard the Contessa Marianna Barbiere-Nini, one of Italy’s great singers of the past, begin, with a firm ringing tone, on E flat (3rd space, Bass clef), and sing in one unbroken, brilliant run, up to E flat, (3rd line above Treble clef); she was then over sixty; but hers was a phenomenal voice, and it is not with those that we have to concern ourselves now.

You may here ask, perhaps, how shall we be able to tell what our voices are, unless they have been tried by a teacher competent to judge. To this I answer that a very high soprano or a pure contralto, particularly of the robust order, if not previously misused or misdirected, will so assert itself, with the proper practice, as to leave no doubt as to what class it belongs; the only difficulty would lie with the mezzo-soprano, and the ordinary light, high soprano; a great many girls, possessing this latter voice and having a good ear for harmony, are impelled, as it were, to supply a second to any melody they hear; from this they conclude that they have what they call “an alto voice,” and having no power in their low and middle tones, they force their voices and ruin them, in their endeavors to be heard on the lower notes, and often bring on a constantly irritated and sore throat. The speaking voice will be a sure guide for you, for it scarcely ever misleads; however, do not regard the pitch alone, but the quality or body, as well; by this I mean, where two different voices habitually use the same note in speaking, the contralto will be characterized by a certain firming tone, and the soprano, by one that is sweet and persuasive. One general rule may also be given, which will safely direct your practice: do not sing for any length of time in that part of your voice, whether low or high, which it fatigues you to use.

The light soprano is the voice most prevalent among American girls, and can be distinguished by the weakness of its few low notes, a particular lack of strength in the middle tones and a certain brilliancy, clearness and ease in the upper. The mezzo-soprano comes next, and is ordinarily inflexible and stiff, but, as compensation, is rich, sweet and full, especially in the lower and middle parts; the high tones of this voice are gained slowly, one by one. and are usually very effective. A pure contralto voice is the rarest in the world, especially on this side of the Atlantic; in fact, an old master of mine told me that, among the five-hundred voices he had had under his charge during the latter years of his life, there was but one real contralto, and its possessor was a Swede.

The tones of the human voice are divided by certain natural causes, resulting from the peculiar construction and condition of the vocal organs, — which it is not necessary to explain at present, — into chest or lowest, middle, and head or highest registers; each division differing from the other in quality and strength of tone; to unite the three into a smooth whole should be the endeavor of all who wish to sing well.

I would here remark that some musicians, (particularly those who are not teachers of singing) as well as a few physicians, (who cultivate the voice according to their own invented and improved theories, set forth with a grand display of scientific knowledge,) object to the term registers, as applied to the changes in quality of the human voice; arguing that the tones are all produced upon one and the same small organ, the vocal cords, and must, therefore, be all alike; a few, however, reluctantly allow that there is a sort of natural change in two or three places in the voice, and call it “a hitch,” or ”a break,” or “a something they do not comprehend,” etc.; now Nature has made certain fixed, regular differences in the quality of the tones, — as one may hear, who listens to an ascending scale, sung slowly, or may feel, as well as hear, in his own voice, should he sing it himself, — and to unite, to harmonize these differences, to produce one unbroken whole, is the object of the voice trainer; that this may be done successfully, these changes in quality must not be ignored, but their position and characteristics must be determined, defined and understood; the word “registers” seems to me to be as proper and significant for this purpose, as any other, especially since these strenuous objectors, like the greater number of reformers, are content to take away the old, without offering anything either new or better in its stead. What matters it by what name we call them, (unless we could hit upon exactly the right one that would please everybody) so long as they are perfectly comprehended? Again, the term registers has been used in this connection for so many years, that it is now better understood by musical people, than even a more appropriate one would be; therefore I shall employ it throughout these talks, in speaking of this change in the quality of tones.

Calling B.S. on Extraordinary Vocal Claims


I am fortunate that I was employed for a time in Biotechnology in the heart of its ‘Silicon Valley’ in Cambridge, MA.

Working there, I learned about science and specifically the scientific process and logical thinking. This helped me to grow as a teacher because I learned the way scientists work and think. It also gave me a unique logical and rational perspective into the world of voice teachers making interesting and often outlandish claims.

It’s important to keep the following quote by one of my heros Carl Sagan under consideration when we hear or read things on voice forum boards and Facebook groups.


Here are just two I’ve heard recently:

  • “There is no such thing as a chest voice and a head voice.”
  • “African Americans have a third vocal cord; that’s how they can sing all that Gospel music.”

For either of these claims to be true, profuse supporting information needs to be given by the claimant. The first claim discounts and invalidates hundreds of years of writing about the singing voice, as well as the current research of many vocal scientists including Minoru Hirano and Ingo Titze. The second is a biological claim that should be given the same scrutiny as any other scientific proposition. The scientific and medical communities must be apprised of this important anatomical fact so that we understand more about this ‘third vocal cord.’

When someone makes an extraordinary claim about vocal technique that goes against hundreds and hundreds of years of writing as well as current scientific knowledge, then the onus is on that person to give extraordinary evidence for their claim.

Personal experience, beliefs, or anecdotal evidence are not enough evidence to support an extraordinary claim. It is also not on the person QUESTIONING that claim to prove that it is false. For example, if you claim to have $1 million dollars in your closet, the burden of proof is not on ME to prove that you don’t. You are the one making the claim, you must prove that it is true.

There seems to be a great deal of pedagogical relativism among teachers as if all pedagogical ideas are good and should be given ‘equal time’ in discussions and consideration. But that simply cannot be true: there ARE BAD ideas in the teaching of voice in the same way that there are bad ideas in areas of physical health. Eating an unhealthy diet DOES have ramifications. Medical scientists would look askance at someone who believed that bloodletting and trepanning were still modern medical solutions to health problems.

If teachers do not understand how the voice actually works then they are merely tinkering with it and the student is being cheated of time and money. The teacher may hit a bullseye once in a while on statistics alone, but who among us would trust a mechanic who didn’t know HOW TO FIX our car? What would we think of one who just jimmied the doorknobs or kicked the tires or turned the water on and off? – And afterwards was celebrated in Mechanic Forums on Facebook for their cunning and skill in fixing cars? These mechanics might publicly say, “Well, in my experience, this is how I fix cars.” Or “I don’t believe in looking under the hood for the problem,” or “I don’t believe in car engines,” or “Looking at the car’s dashboard only makes it self-conscious. I don’t want the car to feel like its a car.”

Sound ridiculous?

Yet this happens every day in our vocal teaching community and we turn a blind eye to it. We allow bad, wrong, and intellectually misguided information to choke out good pedagogy founded on the nature of the singing voice in favor of someone’s ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs.’

Basing a system of voice training solely on conjecture, personal ‘beliefs,’ happenstance, and speculation is to throw arrows in the dark. I’m reminded of the article written by Richard Miller on “Tricky Teachers”: those teachers who do not have a pedagogy built upon a body of factual information, and instead rely on ‘tricks’ and personal imagination in the teaching of voice.

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 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.

Imaginative teaching is necessary, but inventive teaching based on chance exploration of adjustments to the singing voice is an abomination. Too often it is erroneously believed that such “creative” teaching is easier than taking time to learn how the vocal instrument really works. However, all technical suggestions must be judged against the measurement of functional freedom. Playing “tricks” on a singing voice is not included in the game rules of any respectable vocal pedagogy.

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