Introduction: The Singer’s Dilemma

The choice of a voice teacher is not only one of the most crucial decisions a singer faces, but often one of the most baffling. Any young artist who has earnestly undertaken this task recognizes the struggle, not only to find a teacher with whom he or she is personally compatible, but also to distinguish among the profusion of vocal techniques these teachers employ. Initially, the vocalist might ask for help from trusted friends in choosing a good instructor with a sound technique, but often finds that every advisor consulted gives a different recommendation. The student may therefore decide to make the decision after taking a lesson from several different prospective teachers. This, too, frequently bewilders the young aspirant; visiting three or four different studios, the chances of encountering three or four vastly different approaches to vocal technique are great.

Nevertheless, the student ultimately makes a decision and begins to study with a teacher. During the early lessons, his or her progress may seem swift and encouraging. Each session brings new revelations about the voice, new repertoire, and dreams of a promising career. But all too often, this honeymoon period does not last. Perhaps the student’s progress begins to slow, or critical feedback from colleagues or auditioners causes the student to start questioning his or her teacher’s vocal method, teaching ability, or other qualifications. So the student decides to leave the current studio and begin the search for a teacher all over again, this time a little discouraged, much warier, and perhaps even cynical.

In the new studio, chances are fairly good that the new teacher will confirm the student’s worst fear—that much (if not all) of the vocal technique he or she has been struggling to learn with the prior teacher has been completely wrong. For example, the unfortunate student, who has spent two years painstakingly training his abdominal muscles to push out gradually during singing, is told that those muscles must be allowed to pull in gradually instead. Instead of a high soft palate, the real secret to nasal resonance is a low soft palate. Head tones should be felt in the back of the head, not in the “masque”. The larynx should not be held fixed in a low position, but must be allowed to ascend naturally with rising pitch. The yawning position leads to an artificial timbre and poor diction, not to the desired “open throat”. Or, perhaps worse, the new teacher asserts that none of these actions can be controlled at all, and the unlucky singer’s attempts to do so have merely led to tensions and artificiality that are destroying his or her voice!

For over a century, vocal pedagogues have reflected on this hypothetical young singer’s dilemma, sometimes with humor, often with concern, and on occasion, even with ill-concealed cynicism. For example, in his treatise on The Art of Singing, W.J. Henderson characterizes this poor hopeful’s situation as follows:

Among these different schools [of vocal production] the student is likely to be ground as wheat between millstones. . . . He has to learn a wholly new method of breathing, of tone support, of voice placement, etc. He begins to think that singing is an abnormal art that is not founded on nature at all; that it is all a matter of theory and artificiality, and from that moment he is as much adrift as a rudderless and dismasted ship in a gale of wind (Henderson 1938, 20).

Edumnd Myer, imparting his version of the Truths of Importance to Vocalists (1883), portrays the student’s situation with similar wry humor:

The applicant gets nothing definite, nothing tangible, but is rather led to believe that there is something about the art that is beyond the ability of the ordinary mind to grasp. If the teacher has a great theory on the physiology of the vocal organs, he will speak of the action of movement of this muscle of the throat, of that cartilage, or of the combined or opposing movements of certain muscles in a very mysterious manner, using the most wonderful technical terms possible. If he has no great theory, then you must trust to him; you could not understand if he did explain (Myer 1984a, 5).

Sadly, note the Italian writers Taddeo Wronski and Vittorio Vitone, the young singer is the one who suffers from this legendary lack of accord between the teachers of conflicting vocal techniques:

Il resultato? Fra X che raccomanda e Y che respinge, fra un libro scritto da un cantante, a glorificazione del suo facile empirismo, e quellod’un medico che giura nel laringoscopio, i giovani talenti e l’Arte finiscono assai spesso per pagare lo scotto (Wronski and Vitone 1921, 5).

[The result? Caught between X who recommends and Y who refutes, between a book written by a singer that glorifies simple empiricism, and one by a doctor who swears by the laryngoscope, the young talent and Art finish all too often by suffering the consequences.] Emma Seiler, a celebrated voice teacher and author who was herself an aspiring diva at one time, confirms all of these observations as she describes her own years as a student, wandering in the wilderness of “big name” voice studios:

I sought the most celebrated teachers, but what one announced to me as a rule was usually rejected by another:  every teacher had his own peculiar system of instruction. No one could give any definite reason therefore, and the best assured me that so exact a method as I sought did not exist; that every teacher must find his own way through experience (Myer 1984a, 5).

The modern singer’s dilemma, described so clearly by these five voice teachers, stems in part from a schism in the field of vocal pedagogy. Two antagonistic camps of instructors exist: those whose pedagogy is based on “scientific” methods and researches, and those whose methods are “empirical,” relying primarily on experience and imagery, visual and aural, to guide tone production. Certainly, some teachers combine the scientific and empirical approaches to varying extents, but more frequently, teachers feel a great antipathy for the pedagogical approach they reject.

The first camp, intimately concerned with vocal anatomy, physiology, and acoustics, often characterizes all those not similarly oriented as ignorant, incompetent, and behind the times. They scoff at the “old-fashioned” professors who force their pupils through protracted vocal gymnastics, tinkering with vowel sounds and using colorful images like cathedral domes and unicorn horns, in hopes that in the process the young singers will eventually stumble on a correct method of vocal production. Why rely on “trial and error,” the vocal scientists challenge, when scientific research has established the ideal functioning of each of the vocal organs during phonation? Simply teaching pupils to make these proper adjustments to their vocal organs mechanically will produce far more expedient and assured success. These teachers’ dismissive attitude toward their non-scientific colleagues is admirably represented by the prolific vocal author Richard Miller in his work, On the Art of Singing:

The art of singing is not immune to nonsubstantive instruction. Vocal McPedagogy lives! It consists of quick solutions, tricks, and gimmicks, largely based on mythological notions as to how the vocal instrument works. Pedagogy with Ease, pulled out of a bag of idiosyncratic invention, is an alluring will-o’-the wisp that entices many insecure teachers and singers (Miller 1996, 39).

Meanwhile, the second camp, the non-scientists, deplores the restrictive scrutiny to which their opponents subject the delicate vocal organs. They envision grim technicians, armed with unwieldy instruments, poking, prodding, and pinching at their students in the effort to induce correct laryngo-pharyngeal adjustment. Why do these unenlightened souls, the non-scientists wonder incredulously, try to achieve by mechanical, muscular control what can only be truly gained through schooled instinct? They submit that all the attention lavished by the vocal scientists on intercostals, arytenoid cartilages, pharyngeal walls, and vocal cord segmentation merely encourages students to fixate on internal motions which become more unmanageable and tense the more attention they receive. Another prolific modern vocal author, Cornelius Reid, humorously derides the supposedly progressive procedures of the vocal scientist in his book Bel Canto: Principles and Practices:

Imagine a voice lesson where the teacher looks through the laryngoscope and then after duly considering the situation, solemnly informs his student, ‘Your vocal cords are vibrating along their full length which is an incorrect position for the pitch you are singing. Only permit them to vibrate at their outer edges for the higher tones and shorten the length of the vibrating surface. Then you will find your production will be freer and easier. This way you will learn to produce more beautiful tones.’ Try it! (Reid 1950, 172).

Surprising as it may be, such scathing written reviews of the pedagogies of opposing camps are not uncommon in the vocal literature. Quite the contrary, it is something of a cliché to begin books on singing with an indictment of the entire voice teaching profession. If the majority of vocal pedagogy authors are to be believed, it is practically a miracle that any singer has survived a course of vocal training without entirely losing his or her voice. The following statements are representative of the low esteem in which many vocal writers hold their colleagues:

There is scarcely a subject in the world about which more nonsense has been written than that of vocal technic. Unscientific misconcepts have been handed down from teacher to pupil for many generations until a complete vernacular of meaningless terms has come to be associated with this subject (Stanley, Chadbourne, and Chadbourne 1950, 61).

To pick up a handful of books and articles preaching some new vocal gospel is to be appalled at the utter nonsense they contain, which would be comic if it were not so tragic in its consequences. Nothing is too stupid, too incredible or too impossible to be proclaimed as vocal science (Marchesi 1932, xi).

If a man undertakes the law, medicine, or science, he is supposed to understand his profession or he is pronounced a swindler. If a doctor commits malpractice, damages can be obtained. But any man may put up his sign as a singing teacher and ruin as many voices as he can, and there is no redress (Armstrong 1923, 73).

Charles Santley deplores the “egregiously ridiculous pranks” that incompetent voice teachers play on their students, while painting those students with the same brush, claiming that he is unable to “imagine any human being such a ninny” as to accept such instruction (Santley 1908, 23). Elster Kay considers his small volume on bel canto a dam against the “flood of books on singing which contain more rubbish than any body of dogma since Man first learned to record his ideas,” even awarding one of his colleague’s books the “first prize for idiocy” (Kay 1963, 83). And Frank Miller merely “throws up [his] hands and exclaims, ‘O voice-production, what crimes are committed in thy name!’” proposing the establishment of a “Rescue League, or a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Singers” (Miller 1913, 102).

David Clippinger, author of Practical Talks on Singing, finds the humor in such common complaints:

On every side we hear the lacrymose lament that voice training is in a chaotic condition, that bel canto is a lost art, and that the golden age of song has vanished from the earth. The unanimity of this dolorous admission would seem to be a sad commentary on the fraternity of voice teachers; but here enters the element of humor. There is not a single instance of a voice teacher admitting that his own knowledge of the voice is chaotic. He will admit cheerfully and oftentimes with ill concealed enthusiasm that every other teacher’s knowledge is in a chaotic condition, but his own is a model of order and intelligence (Clippinger 1919, 28).

As it turns out, Clippinger is no exception from his own observation.

Well familiar with these types of vituperative critique, author and arranger Luigi Parisotti reflects:

There are three subjects on which I have always found that arguing means squandering of time and breath, namely, political opinions, religious creeds, and voice production, for one always ends by sticking fast to one’s own opinion, and by thinking less of one’s opponent’s than before (Parisotti 1911, 168).

In keeping with Parisotti’s sage advice, the purpose of this study is not to champion the claims of either the vocal scientists or the empiricists, but rather to trace their historical origins. The bitter controversy that rages between them is, in fact, a fairly recent one in the history of vocal pedagogy. From the time of the Schola Cantorum in the fourth century A.D.[1] through the era of Italian bel canto in the eighteenth and early nineteenth, the fields of science and vocal pedagogy rarely intersected. Scientists were only generally familiar with the anatomy of the voice, and they comprehended much less of its physiology. Voice teachers apparently judged even this limited knowledge to be irrelevant to singing techniques. The first section of this study will carefully examine the written teachings of these bel canto masters, noting in particular their pedagogical similarities and their attitudes toward “scientific information” about the voice. It will support Edgar Herbert-Caesari’s contention that when seeking out a voice teacher, an aspiring singer in the bel canto era would never have been faced with the dilemma of the modern student:

. . . all the . . . schools—Neapolitan, Roman, Bolognese, Florentine, Venetian—taught the same vocal mechanics, the same technique. . . . These five schools mentioned above all taught technically the same: there was no deviation of thought, principle, or precept in this respect. . . . The letter might be changed but not the spirit. If say, a student in the Neapolitan school left to study at the Roman or Bolognese school, there would be absolutely no change (Herbert-Caesari 1936, 6).

The concept of “vocal science” was born in the mid-nineteenth century when Manuel Garcia II (1805-1906) invented the laryngoscope, a mirrored instrument that first allowed observation of the vocal cords during speech or singing. This one remarkable innovator and his invention ultimately laid the foundations for a new age in vocal instruction. Though Garcia’s training was in the early bel canto tradition, the attitudes and practices he introduced as a result of his extensive research into the anatomy and physiology of the human voice fundamentally altered the teaching methods of this original school. The second section of this study will trace Garcia’s celebrated career, and detail the perhaps unintentional but highly significant departures from traditional bel canto teaching that his numerous writings suggested.

In the outpouring of enthusiasm which greeted Garcia’s approach to vocal science in the subsequent century (roughly 1850 to 1950), these new practices took root and multiplied, giving rise to both fervent exponents and virulent critics. The third section of this study will investigate the views of the former:  the fledgling vocal scientists. Although many emerging sciences were eventually brought to bear on vocal technique (most notably acoustics), this analysis will focus exclusively on attitudes toward employing vocal anatomy and physiology, especially as revealed by the laryngoscope, in the process of teaching singing. The fourth and final section of this study will review the objections and rebuttals to these attitudes expressed by the “empiricists”—those contemporaries of the vocal scientists who based their pedagogy on more traditional methods, sometimes even despite their thorough knowledge of vocal anatomy and physiology.

Brent Jeffrey Monahan, whose Compendium of Thoughts on Singing analyzes this controversial century of voice training in detail, contends that “the authors of [this period] probably launch more verbal assaults on other teachers and methods than are contained in the remainder of vocal pedagogic history” (Monahan 1978, 44). But neither scientist nor empiricist would likely disagree with Sir Morell Mackenzie, author of The Hygiene of the Vocal Organs, who wrote that “the immediate effect of the invention of the laryngoscope was to throw the whole subject [of vocal pedagogy] into hopeless confusion,” deepening its obscurity to almost “Cimmerian darkness”[2] (Mackenzie 1888, 26). The scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy had begun—and so had our young singer’s dilemma.


[1] The Schola Cantorum is the earliest recorded conservatory of music in the ancient world, established by Pope Sylvester (314-336 A.D.) in order to train canons for musical service in the church.
[2] The Cimmerians were a mythical people whose land was described by Homer as a region of perpetual mist and darkness.