Old School Vocal Training:
The majority of students studying singing are interested in developing a sturdy singing technique which will keep their voices strong and healthy for their careers in popular music and musical theater. While any good vocal training can be quite challenging, singers of popular music go through a somewhat different process than those who are training for serious careers in opera. It’s similar to the difference between a person who is extremely serious about personal fitness and one who is training to be an Olympian. Both are equally important goals, and each goal is challenging; but the process in training for each goal can be very different.
Probably only one out of a hundred students are sincerely interested in attempting an international career in Opera. For those few students who are interested in becoming “olympic” style vocal athletes of the operatic stage, I recommend an old school vocal training.
I grew up singing classical music, studying with a teacher who very proudly taught what she called the “old style” method. She had no desire to be a well known teacher, she simply liked passing on what she had learned from her teacher. Much later, I came to realize that the type of technique she was using was influenced heavily by E. Herbert-Caesari, through a gentleman named Vladimir Schustroff.
Until I entered University, I was unaware that there was any other way of training a voice.
In my early twenties, as I started being exposed to more and more singers, I became extremely surprised at how many so-called “advanced” classical singers couldn’t sing a scale, at least not a in a balanced manner.
As a singer and a teacher, I have been exposed to a large amount of theory, science and pedagogy regarding vocal training. Yet, for me, what everything boils down to is, “does it work?” In my opinion, there is very little that modern vocal training has contributed that gives a singer the same virtuosity as the deceptively simple tools that the old singing masters employed. These processes require a great deal of time, effort and diligence to perfect. There is no short cut to true technical virtuosity. I have never found a new, revolutionary method that can do for a singer what the old school has been doing for centuries.
The old school vocal training usually includes: 1. scales, 2. arpeggi, 3. messa di voce, 4. composed vocalises and 5. arie antiche. In addition to these basic technical studies, singers also study musicianship, sight singing and solfeggi. Arias are not usually a part of this type of vocal training for several years, until the student’s voice is ready.
The voice is never pushed. The range is built slowly, over time. The breathing is taught in tandem with the voice, and rarely in isolation.
Posture is of primary importance: the sternum is gently lifted. The head is over the shoulders. The shoulders are over the hips. The hips are over the feet. The knees are soft. The facial expression is gentle.
During both the inhalation and during singing, the sternum is kept in a comfortably tall posture, which enables the lower rib cage to slowly begin to open up and assist in supporting the voice — slowly and naturally, over time.
A singer usually practices for no more than 20 minutes per day as a beginner. As the singer advances, the practice sessions are gradually lengthened bit by bit.
For scale work, the most important exercise is the singing of very slow scales. There are often several variations of these scales, but they are always extremely slow, and simple. Daily singing of slow scales begins to build the resistance in the voice, build the breath capacity, build the ability to support or “lean” on the tones, and give the singer the facility to sing through their entire range without any breaks (often called “blending the registers”). In this type of training, slow scales are always a daily staple. A single scale can take from 30 to 50 minutes to complete when done through the entire range, and taking rests when needed.
Gradually, arpeggi are often added to the regime, sometimes as a replacement for some of the scale work since there should never be so much vocal work as to over tax the voice. Sometimes these arpeggi are sung slowly, and sometimes quickly. Sometimes they are sung legato and other times staccato.
As the singer advances through the years, the messa di voce exercise is introduced gradually. This exercise is simply singing a pitch as quietly as is comfortable, and making a crescendo to the loudest dynamic the singer is able to comfortably achieve. After several months of this work, the singer begins to practice the exercise in the opposite direction, moving from loud to soft. Eventually, the exercise is performed going from soft to loud, and back to soft, on the same pitch and on the same breath. The messa di voce is always started in a very comfortable part of the range, and is slowly expanded to encompass the bulk of the singing range. The process of learning the messa di voce takes several years.
For composed vocalises, it is common for singers to focus on works by composers such as Concone, Panofka, Lutgen, Bordogni and Vaccai. All the vocalises are learned and sung very thoroughly and always are memorized. The dynamic markings in the scores are always given as much care and attention as are the notes being sung. Teachers often prefer one or two composers over others, but at least one or two of these books are utilized throughout the career of the singer. These collections have been staples of some of the best singers of the past two centuries. Some of these pieces are sung on solfeggi syllables, while others are sung on open vowels. The easier of these exercises are sung regularly, and the more challenging ones are worked on one at a time and mastered over longer periods of time.
For repertoire, Arie Antiche are sung exclusively for the first several years, and when other repertoire is introduced, the old Italian Songs are always still kept in rotation. The Parisotti editions of these songs are very commonly the ones used, always paying very close attention to Parisotti’s dynamic markings. Even after the scholars claimed that the Parisotti editions were not authentic, the old style teachers have continued to use them as written, preferring them to the newer, more scholarly editions.
So you see, the actual “method” is simplicity itself, but it requires a lot of very hard work and diligent, contienenious practice every day. A student who s truly serious about becoming a great singer of classical vocal music, mustn’t allow themselves to be one of those singers who can’t sing a scale.
If you work hard and thoroughly and make sure you have a teacher who understands how to build a voice properly, you can sing the works of our great composers.
Even if you are interested in singing non-classical genres, it is worth considering working an old school approach to training your voice. You will have ultimate control over your instrument for the rest of your life.
A Few Examples of Old Style Scales and Exercises: