Operatic vocal instruction continues to be a pandoras box of vying theories, contrasting aesthetics. There is scarce agreement today on what constitutes healthy wholesome vocalism, and the resulting beautiful sound. Confusing, very confusing. Fortunately, there are still great singers performing whom students can use as examples of what they should sound like. We also have a wealth of recordings from the beginning of last century which inform us about the old traditions.
When I was a student in Italy, except for two very different approaches, (Tebaldi traditional and gorgeous versus Callas exotic and exciting), there was a general consensus of what constituted great singing, and this was shared throughout the country and the world, by the critics, impresarios, conductors, artistic directors and the public. There was universal aesthetic agreement on which you could rely. Yet, nowadays there is disagreement on even such basics as breathing, vowel, (beware the purveyors of the “pure vowel theory”) resonation and phrasing. Finally, there are the most virulent arguements of all: which sound is THE truly “beautiful”.
So what is the student singer to do? If you are serious, in good strong health, have a basic musical ability, no bad habits, no paralyzing vocal problems, no paralyzing mental
problems, tenacity, and above all a good solid basic voice that people enjoy listening to, then onward! Here are some guidelines :some of the doʼs and donʼts which I embraced.
First, listen listen listen to old singers - if possible, to non-digitalized recordings. Immerse yourself in the subject of how great singers sound, go to opera, become
obsessed with trying to understand what they are experiencing. Get inside their throats. Inside their heads, their souls. Steep yourself in the traditions. I had such great
coaches, (I donʼt know if they still exist), but people who could say with authority things like,“on this phrase Milanov took a breath here and changed the vowel to o as she went
up”. Or, “here even though you have the vocal line, listen to the orchestra, they are the ones really singing, melt into that poetry”, Or, “donʼt try to lead this ensemble - here you
rest, sing, but in your mind go to Miami Beach - let the chorus and orchestra do the heavy work”. Or, “ʼAlbanese took this cadenza here, - but there are several others you
might consider - Caballe did this Sills did that, letʼs find one that best suits you”. One coach actually told me that the markings in the score were wrong, because he knew
Mascagni personally and the composer didnʼt mean how he had written it down! They were coaches who were veritable encyclopedias of past uses and traditions, had
worked with great singers and conductors and had infallible ears and taste. They didnʼt need metronomes to tell them what the right tempo was.
Find a coach.
Above all, find a teacher in whom you believe, has verbiage you can understand, and with whom you feel that singing is easy, and your voice is always improving. Stay with
them. Sporadic voice study is useless. One lesson every month, or the frantic lesson before an important audition is not going to do it, and it is not fair to the teacher. This is
a physical process and the same training discipline which applies to acquiring an athletic skill applies to you. No magical thinking!
Remember that you might have to deal with some teacherʼs over bloated egos and lots of absurdities like, “after I lost my voice, I got this knowledge directly from God ”, or only
I know the true bel canto technique through direct transmission from Nellie Melba through Flagstad to my teacher to me”. “I am channeling Giuditta Pasta - she comes
and sits at the foot of my bed in the night.” If the teacher is good in spite of this nonsensical stuff, lovingly indulge them. Who knows? Maybe Pasta does fly around
giving out important advice. If you are lacking the metaphysical bent, you will have to put up with this stuff in a good natured way. However, if you feel abused psychologically
or vocally, leave. Mind games are not helpful.
Now that you have both a reliable, knowledgeable coach and a teacher, donʼt expect overnight progress. Like any athletic feat it takes many thousands of hours of study,
repetition, persistence. Because of its delicate musculature, you have to be very patient with the voice. It takes a good six or seven years to develop the operatic voice, learn
repertoire, etc. Practice a lot, but donʼt sing yourself hoarse. Perform for small groups as much as possible - this will be a good measure of your progress along the way.
Some people are born with perfect voices (rare) which just need some gentle coaxing along. It may take less time for them. The phenomenal baritone, Giuseppe Taddei,
studied for one year only and then began his career. He sang well into his late seventies. The Slavs seem to spring out of the womb ready for Verdi. There are such
miracles of nature.
Record everything you do all the time if you can. You are your most severe critic so go easy! Nevertheless, you should be scrupulous about listening to yourself. If you can,
video recordings are good - I might add here they are also very tough to watch at first.
Be gentle with yourself.
Donʼt engage in behavior which can damage your voice. Drinking, overeating, smoking, yelling, weight lifting etc. are all detrimental to your vocal health, injure the delicate
covering on the cords and take away suppleness. The voice loses its luster, the squillo goes, the sound becomes thick, and can only be activated by force, thereby
compounding the problems. There are many good books on vocal hygiene which list dangerous drugs, behaviors, drying drugs, how to protect yourself when traveling,
hormones, foods to avoid etc. Read them for advice on the proper care of the singing voice. Donʼt become obese please! It wil destroy your health, YOUR LIFE. Twenty or
thirty pound are okay, more is dangerous. (People are always citing the rare exceptions to sensible vocal care: those exceptions who can defy nature. Maybe you are in that
category. However, if you are not Swedish Norwegian Finnish or Danish.(throats of steel), powerful physiques, I expect you will have to abide by the rules like the rest of
Stay healthy. Donʼt sing beyond your comfort zone, or beyond the beauty point in your voice. Sing things that suit you and that you love.
I loved studying and practicing and was fortunate to have extraordinary teachers- my first was Marjery Meyer - a wonderful singer herself, then Ricci, Campogaliani and
finally, Oren Brown. I had great coaches - among the best along the way was Gianine Reis in Paris, Eugen Kohn, and Felix Popper in NY.
So you too will be: the eternal student, the conscientious caretaker, of your instrument, the exuberant lover of vocal music, the purveyor of healing beauty. Enjoy the journey!