How to Sing, While Only Slightly Overthinking It

There's a lot more to singing than talent and "healthy vocal organs." A technical guide from German opera legend Lilli Lehmann

Just like how learning to listen to music is an acquired skill, learning to make music may have as much to do with discipline and practice as it does with inborn "talent," if not more. In How To Sing, originally published in 1902, German opera superstar Lilli Lehmann sets out "to discuss simply, intelligibly, yet from a scientific point of view, the sensations known to us in singing" by exploring "the expressions 'singing open,' 'covered,' 'dark,' 'nasal,' 'in the head,' or 'in the neck,' 'forward' or 'back.'" But more than a mere technical guide to vocal skill, Lehmann's treatise is really a guide to thinking musically and a dimensional meditation on the general art of learning. Equally enchanting are the anatomical diagrams -- an inadvertent recurring theme around here lately -- illustrating her theories.

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Lehmann begins with an articulate assertion about the osmosis of nature and nurture:

The true art of song has always been possessed and will always be possessed by such individuals as are dowered by nature with all that is needful for it -- that is, healthy vocal organs, uninjured by vicious habits of speech; a good ear, a talent for singing, intelligence, industry, and energy.

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She expresses a concern, eloquently echoed a century later by Sir Ken Robinson, about the industrialization of education:

But art to-day must be pursued like everything else, by steam. Artists are turned out in factories, that is, in so-called conservatories, or by teachers who give lessons ten or twelve hours a day. In two years they receive a certificate of competence, or at least the diploma of the factory. The latter, especially, I consider a crime, that the state should prohibit. All the inflexibility and unskillfulness, mistakes and deficiencies, which were formerly disclosed during a long course of study, do not appear now, under the factory system, until the student's public career has begun. There can be no question of correcting them, for there is no time, no teacher, no critic; and the executant has learned nothing, absolutely nothing, whereby he could undertake to distinguish or correct them.

She stresses the responsibilities of students and teachers:

One is never done with learning. ... Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection.

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Lehmann goes on to delineate a number of technical and strikingly specific recommendations for singing, such as:

The singer's endeavors, consequently, must be directed to keeping the breath as long as possible sounding and vibrating not only forward but back in the mouth, since the resonance of the tone is spread upon and above the entire palate, extends from the front teeth to the wall of the throat. He must concern himself with preparing for the vibrations, pliantly and with mobility, a powerful, elastic, almost floating envelope, which must be filled entirely, with the help of a continuous vocal mixture, -- a mixture of which the components are indistinguishable.

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She gives specific instructions regarding tone:

To attack a tone, the breath must be directed to a focal point on the palate, which lies under the critical point for each different tone; this must be done with a certain decisiveness. There must, however, be no pressure on this place; for the overtones must be able to soar above, and sound with, the tone. The palate has to furnish, besides, the top cover against which the breath strikes, also an extremely elastic floor for the breath sounding above it against the hard palate or in the nose.

This breath, by forming the overtones, makes certain the connection with the resonance of the head cavities.

In order to bring out the color of the tone the whirling currents must vivify all the vowel sounds that enter into it, and draw them into their circles with an ever-increasing, soaring tide of sound.

The duration of the tone must be assured by the gentle but uninterrupted outpouring of the breath behind it. Its strength must be gained by the breath pressure and the focal point on the palate, by the complete utilization of the palatal resonance; without, however, injuring the resonance of the head cavities. (See plate, representing the attack.)

[...]

The head tone signifies, for all voices, from the deepest bass to the highest soprano, -- excepting for the fact that it furnishes the overtones for each single tone of the whole vocal gamut, -- youth. A voice without vibrancy is an old voice. The magic of youth, freshness, is given by the overtones that sound with every tone.

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She gets as specific as the position of the tongue:

The tongue must generally form a furrow. With the lowest tones it lies relatively flattest, the tip always against and beneath the front teeth, so that it can rise in the middle.

As soon as the furrow is formed, the mass of the tongue is put out of the way, since it stands high on both sides. It is almost impossible to make drawings of this; it can best be seen in the mirror. As soon as the larynx is low enough and the tongue set elastically against the palate and drawn up behind (see plate a), the furrow is formed of itself. In pronouncing the vowel ah (which must always be mixed with ?? and o), it is a good idea to think of yawning.

The furrow must be formed in order to allow the breath to resonate against the palate beneath the nose, especially in the middle range; that is, what a bass and a baritone (whose highest range is not now under consideration) would call their high range, all other voices their middle.

Without the furrow in the tongue, no tone is perfect in its resonance, none can make full use of it. The only exception is the very highest head and falsetto tones, which are without any palatal resonance and have their place solely in the head cavities. Strong and yet delicate, it must be able to fit any letter of the alphabet; that is, help form its sound. It must be of the greatest sensitiveness in adapting itself to every tonal vibration, it must assist every change of tone and letter as quick as a flash and with unerring accuracy; without changing its position too soon or remaining too long in it, in the highest range it must be able almost to speak out in the air.

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She then moves on to the lips:

Of special importance for the tone and the word are the movements of the lips, which are so widely different in the bright and in the dark vowels. These movements cannot be too much exaggerated in practicing. The same strength and elasticity to which we have to train the muscles of the throat and tongue must be imparted to the lips, which must be as of iron. Upon their coöperation much of the life of the tone depends, and it can be used in many shadings, as soon as one is able to exert their power consciously and under the control of the will.

Every vowel, every word, every tone, can be colored as by magic in all sorts of ways by the well-controlled play of the lips; can, as it were, be imbued with life, as the lips open or close more or less in different positions. The lips are the final cup-shaped resonators through which the tone has to pass. They can retard it or let it escape, can color it bright or dark, and exert a ceaseless and ever varying influence upon it long before it ceases and up to its very end.

No attempt should be made to use the play of the lips until complete mastery of the absolutely even, perfect tone, and of the muscular powers, has been acquired. The effect must be produced as a result of power and practice; and should not be practiced as an effect per se.

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In a section on preparing for singing, Lehmann outlines the three functions that need to be performed simultaneously in order to perform:

First , to draw breath quietly, not too deeply; to force the breath against the chest and hold it there firmly till the upward and outward streaming -- that is, singing -- begins.

Second , to raise the soft palate at the same time toward the nose, so that the breath remains stationary until the singing begins.

Third , to jerk the tongue backward at the same time, its back being thus raised, and elastic, ready to meet all the wishes of the singer, -- that is, the needs of the larynx. The larynx must not be pressed either too low or too high, but must work freely. The breath is enabled to stream forth from it like a column, whose form is moulded above the larynx by the base of the tongue.

When these three functions have been performed, all is ready. Now the pitch of the tone is to be considered, as the singing begins.

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She echoes William James's famous words on habit in discussing vocal routines:

The degree of the evil, and the patient's skill, naturally have much to do with the rapidity of the cure. But one cannot throw off a habit of years' standing like an old garment; and every new garment, too, is uncomfortable at first. One cannot expect an immediate cure, either of himself or of others. If the singer undertakes it with courage and energy, he learns to use his voice with conscious understanding, as should have been done in the beginning.

And he must make up his mind to it, that even after a good cure, the old habits will reappear, like corns in wet weather, whenever he is not in good form physically. That should not lead to discouragement; persistence will bring success.

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Lehmann writes beautifully of the texture of language and the art of listening:

It is very interesting to note how much a word can gain or lose in fulness and beauty of tone. Without the use of auxiliary vowels no connection of the resonance in words can be effected; there is then no beautiful tone in singing, only a kind of hacking. Since it must be quite imperceptible, the use of auxiliary vowels must be very artistically managed, and is best practiced in the beginning very slowly on single tones and words, then proceeding with great care to two tones, two syllables, and so on. In this way the pupil learns to hear. But he must learn to hear very slowly and for a long time, until there is no failure of vibration in the tone and word, and it is all so impressed upon his memory that it can never be lost. The auxiliary vowels must always be present, but the listener should be able to hear, from the assistance of the oo, only the warmth and nobility of the tone, from the a and e only the carrying power and brilliancy of it.

She then offers a number of practical exercises:

The practical study of singing is best begun with single sustained tones, and with preparation on the sound of ahalone, mingled with o and oo. A position as if one were about to yawn helps the tongue to lie in the right place.

In order not to weary young voices too much, it is best to begin in the middle range, going upward first, by semitones, and then, starting again with the same tone, going downward. All other exercises begin in the lower range and go upward.

The pupil must first be able to make a single tone good, and judge it correctly, before he should be allowed to proceed to a second. Later, single syllables or words can be used as exercises for this.

The position of the mouth and tongue must be watched in the mirror. The vowel ah must be mingled with o and oo, and care must be taken that the breath is forced strongly against the chest, and felt attacking here and on the palate at the same time. Begin piano, make a long crescendo, and gradually return and end on a well-controlled piano. My feeling at the attack is as shown in the plate.

At the same instant that I force the breath against the chest, I place the tone under its highest point on the palate, and let the overtones soar above the palate -- the two united in one thought. Only in the lowest range can the overtones, and in the highest range the undertones (resonance of the head cavities and of the palate), be dispensed with.

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Lehmann goes on to extol The Great Scale, noting:

This is the most necessary exercise for all kinds of voices. It was taught to my mother; she taught it to all her pupils and to us. But I am probably the only one of them all who practices it faithfully! I do not trust the others. As a pupil one must practice it twice a day, as a professional singer at least once.

[...]

The scale must be practiced without too strenuous exertion, but not without power, gradually extending over the entire compass of the voice; and that is, if it is to be perfect, over a compass of two octaves. These two octaves will have been covered, when, advancing the starting-point by semitones, the scale has been carried up through an entire octave. So much every voice can finally accomplish, even if the high notes must be very feeble.

The great scale, properly elaborated in practice, accomplishes wonders: it equalizes the voice, makes it flexible and noble, gives strength to all weak places, operates to repair all faults and breaks that exist, and controls the voice to the very heart. Nothing escapes it.


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It becomes inescapably evident that for Lehmann, art and discipline are inextricable:

In practicing the singer should always stand, if possible, before a large mirror, in order to be able to watch himself closely. He should stand upright, quietly but not stiffly, and avoid everything that looks like restlessness. The hands should hang quietly, or rest lightly on something, without taking part in the interpretation of the expression. The first thing needed is to bring the body under control, that is, to remain quiet, so that later, in singing, the singer can do everything intentionally.

The pupil must always stand in such a way that the teacher can watch his face, as well as his whole body. Continual movements of the fingers, hands, or feet are not permissible.

The body must serve the singer's purposes freely and must acquire no bad habits. The singer's self-possession is reflected in a feeling of satisfaction on the part of the listener. The quieter the singer or artist, the more significant is every expression he gives; the fewer motions he makes, the more importance they have. So he can scarcely be quiet enough. Only there must be a certain accent of expression in this quietude, which cannot be represented by indifference. The quietude of the artist is a reassurance for the public, for it can come only from the certainty of power and the full command of his task through study and preparation and perfect knowledge of the work to be presented. An artist whose art is based on power cannot appear other than self-possessed and certain of himself. An evident uneasiness is always inartistic, and hence does not belong where art is to be embodied. All dependence upon tricks of habit creates nervousness and lack of flexibility.

And yet, she admonishes against disciplinary extremism:

Agents and managers commit a crime when they demand enormous exertions of such young singers. The rehearsals, which are held in abominably bad air, the late hours, the irregular life that is occasioned by rehearsals, the strain of standing around for five or six hours in a theatre, -- all this is not for untrained young persons. No woman of less than twenty-four years should sing soubrette parts, none of less than twenty-eight years second parts, and none of less than thirty-five years dramatic parts; that is early enough. By that time proper preparation can be made, and in voice and person something can be offered worth while. And our fraternity must realize this sooner or later. In that way, too, they will learn more and be able to do more, and fewer sins will be committed against the art of song by the incompetent.

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In considering the line between transformation and authorship, Lehmann offers:

A word is an idea; and not only the idea, but how that idea in color and connection is related to the whole, must be expressed. Therein is the fearsome magic that Wagner has exercised upon me and upon all others, that draws us to him and lets none escape its spell. That is why the elaboration of Wagner's creations seems so much worth while to the artist. Every elaboration of a work of art demands the sacrifice of some part of the artist's ego, for he must mingle the feelings set before him for portrayal with his own in his interpretation, and thus, so to speak, lay bare his very self. But since we must impersonate human beings, we may not spare ourselves, but throw ourselves into our task with the devotion of all our powers.

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Ultimately, Lehmann honors the role of the artist as an educator of the public and a celebrator of the work rather than an absorber of the spotlight -- an ethos the singer shares with the curator -- and shares a heartening sentiment akin to E. B. White's wisdom on the responsibility of the writer. She writes:

To me it is a matter of indifference whether the public goes frantic or listens quietly and reflectively, for I give out only what I have undertaken to. If I have put my individuality, my powers, my love for the work, into a rôle or a song that is applauded by the public, I decline all thanks for it to myself personally, and consider the applause as belonging to the master whose work I am interpreting. If I have succeeded in making him intelligible to the public, the reward therefor is contained in that fact itself, and I ask for nothing more.

[...]

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It is the artist's task, through offering his best and most carefully prepared achievements, to educate the public, to ennoble it; and he should carry out his mission without being influenced by bad standards of taste.

The public, on the other hand, should consider art, not as a matter of fashion, or as an opportunity to display its clothes, but should feel it as a true and profound enjoyment, and do everything to second the artist's efforts.

How To Sing is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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