The trouble with old books on singing

anachronismSo many modern books, articles, and dissertations on singing contain writings of the Bel Canto era singing teachers in their list of references. We know from reports of the time, and the music that was written, that there were some very virtuosic singers before the age of recorded sound. However, it seems that these same scholars do not trust that the teachers of the time knew what they were doing, because virtually none of them teach that way in their own studios.

Many of the concepts that are taught as a matter of course now were not used back then. Terms such as breath support, placement, spin, resonance, and formant tuning were never mentioned during the time of the Bel Canto singers and composers. When we read the words that teachers such as Tosi, Garcia, and Bassini wrote, we need to take off our 21st century filters and try to understand what they did and did not say, and not “translate” their terms into the breath-support-imagery-resonance complex that rules most voice teaching today. We must be willing to at least entertain the possibility that they didn’t “mean something else” and that they were capable of expressing the basic tenets of their teaching. We need to be open to the idea that they didn’t omit major elements of singing!

Claiming a lineage back to so-and-so doesn’t really mean much. Things change, people add their own interpretations, are swayed by new ideas (both good and bad), and new contexts, and people are prone to synthesize everything they experience. Over time, concepts that meant something in one age become warped or forgotten, as another idea fills that space. It is absurd to claim a lineage back to one of the Bel Canto teachers while teaching placement, resonance, and modern breath support, and then say that “The Bel Canto masters neglected to write down what they meant” in the many writings up to the mid 19th century, just because it’s inconvenient to buck the the modern concepts.

The Bel Canto teachers and singers did not have recordings to listen to. They did not have scientists telling them to use external equipment to monitor vocal effects. They did not have an academic system that requires “publish or perish” projects that divert teachers away from actual teaching. They had a system of mentoring students that gave each student more time with the master, whether in private lessons or classes. People could not hear themselves from a third person perspective, and had to learn to sing from the inside out and let their voices sound how they sounded, under the close guidance of the teacher.

With all the modern things that the old time teachers did not have, some of them still managed to train voices to do amazing things. But we as a profession refuse to believe it. We think that more is better, that modern is better, and that nothing back then was as “advanced” as it is now.

What would happen if every professor who has published material that cites Garcia as a master teacher actually followed the themes that come up over and over again in the old writings? What if students were required to do advanced passagework, trills, the messa di voce, the study of the attack, and other Bel Canto elements every day in their practice? What if the university/conservatory system actually prioritized these things as healthy and beneficial for the voice – in the studio, on the stage, and in the semester juries?

Imagine emphasizing pure vowels, precise attack, flexibility, ease and coordination, using the thousands of pages from the old masters’ exercise books. The flutists, violinists, and pianists are not afraid of the old studies. What makes us think we can throw away everything old, except to give them a nod in a scholarly paper, and then teach our heaving belly breath support, our yawn-sighs, our “up and over” spinning shimmering fairy dust out the crown chakra mumbo-jumbo?

In my lifetime Mozart and Rossini are as popular as ever, and we have had revivals of Handel, Monteverdi, and much other “early music”. But few of our singers can do what that music calls for. We don’t train for it. What percentage of the graduating voice majors at any institution of higher learning can sing a trill? How many can do some degree of messa di voce through most of their range? How many of them have a healthy, compact vibrato and freshness in their sound at age 40? Are the vowels clear enough that you could take dictation from their singing? Do the singers sound like individuals or are they all modifying their sound toward some “industry ideal”?

The Bel Canto materials (vocalises, opera, books, treatises), while they might not be in exact lockstep, do have many common elements, many of which are completely ignored in modern training. What if we tried using the materials they used, and see what happens?

A few of us are already doing this, and it is delightful to see a voice come alive and become capable and grow, without concern for molding it into some sort of over-darkened, inflexible, old-before-its-time industry ideal. If you do not have clear vowels that are distinguishable from each other and that vibrate and connect to each other well, you have a problem. If you cannot sing a fast passage clearly or trill, you are not technically where you could be. If you have been studying for several years, and you still don’t “have a top”, something is probably quite wrong. If singing does not feel good, you ABSOLUTELY have a problem.

Teachers, I dare you to train your singers (or get trained yourself) for a year using the old materials, and de-emphasizing the things that were NOT there during the Bel Canto age. Such an approach didn’t do harm in the Bel Canto age, and it certainly won’t do harm now. Quite the opposite! If you feel like it will wreck your Puccini, then cut out Puccini for a year. I guarantee that you will come back to where you were just fine, probably better, after a year of work oriented toward Bel Canto principles.

The Old Masters who wrote about singing were not trying to be evasive or incomplete. When reading the old books, please do not put in things that are not there. And please, please do not ignore what IS there. There are treasures in the old writings that can help you, even 100, 200, and 300 years after their writing. You can’t just read about them to get the benefit, however. You have to actually use them.

4 thoughts to “The trouble with old books on singing”

  1. Wow, there’s a can of worms. lol.

    Here’s the big difference, Brian: when the Old Masters started with a student, that student wanted to make the sounds they heard the star singers of their time making. So if you had heard (for instance) Malibran, or Patti, or Jenni Lind, or DuPrez… you already understood what we, in our vocally-splintered, modern time, would call “a classical sound” and, more importantly, *had a committed desire to make that sound*. In 2014 that is not necessarily the case, particularly among younger and beginner students.

    The average beginning voice student very often has NO CONCEPT of that sound. If they have never sung in a good choir, they often don’t even know how to access ANY sound other than that which they may use to sing along with their favorite popular tracks. So before you can start working on those things with any success, you have to establish what a classical sound (any sound!) is! That, imo, precedes Old Masters work (which often intimidates beginners as “too operatic” anyway).

    I would also submit that it is very different from being a young flutist. When you play an instrument, it is put in your hands and already has “a sound”; a young singer, you are (literally) creating the instrument at the same time you are learning to play it. I’ve often quipped that the beginner singer is carving the instrument out of the a lump of wood at the same time as trying to learn advance bowing techniques…………..

    So… while everything you say is valid, I don’t think we can, realistically, use Old Masters workflow and BEGIN from that point. We’re starting from a different place than they were, and have to get some other basics established FIRST.

    Once we get those other basics in place, then absolutely.

    My own teaching – from day one, regardless of sound, experience, or ability – is built on establishing “functional legato”, IMO the most important takeaway from our Bel Canto “forefathers”. As soon as I can broach the subject without terrifying a beginner, we work on it. As soon as I think a student won’t be intimidated by it (some are so scared to make a sound that using anything less familiar than a hymn tune freaks them out), I use the Vaccai exercises extensively – they offer a chance to work on good functional legato, reinforce scales/intervals/rhythms, work on vowel clarity, and establish basic Italian diction rules. Because they’re “little pieces”, even a dead beginner can feel they have successfully worked on something “classical”.

    I will say that I tend NOT to hammer on about clarity of diction with beginners – I’d rather have beautifully sung, supported, free-tongue, legato sounds than perfect text initially. Text can EASILY be dealt with after *sound* has been established…. This is, IMO, one of the hardest things to broach with students fresh out of high school with a lot of choral experience: diction has been hammered into them – often at the expense of vocal development and even vocal health – and getting them to relinquish the tongue, lip, and jaw tension which as made that “diction” is a big job. Adding trills, runs, and other “i have to control this” exercises merely compounds the problem, so I leave those well aside until the BREATH is doing the heavy lifting of managing the airflow, allowing the larynx, jaw, tongue, and lips to release appropriately.

    So, in short: yes, we still have plenty we can learn from Bel Canto approaches, but I don’t think we can start from there. It comes a little later in the process.

    1. I appreciate that Madeleine! You have to start from where the student is. However, I have all of my students, classical, MT, and pop, doing the Rossini Gorgheggi e Solfeggi fairly early on. One doesn’t have to wait for perfect legato to start moving. I introduce them in little pieces, shorter scales, different tempi, rote patterns. They are wonderfully compact, challenging, adaptable studies for the acquisition of classical function. As they become more adept at doing the technical movement that singers do, then we go back and forth between getting them closer to the “sound” they want. As time goes on I introduce other of the old exercises. When I say “pure vowels” I am not really talking about diction. I’m talking about just the vowels. Diction comes later, so I am not a stickler for “diction” early on. But if a vowel is in trouble, it can teach us a lot about things that need to be released or strengthened in the system. Thanks again.

  2. challenge accepted! I know it has helped me when I have needed technical help. I have also noticed when I use those exercises for my High School students, they are stronger technically when they get into college. Thank you for the reminder that less is more! 🙂

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