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The Development of Vocal Pedagogy

Vocal pedagogy is an art form. Have you ever thought of it that way? There aren’t many professions where you need such highly developed skills from so many different areas in order to do your job well.

We’d like to present the highlights of what vocal pedagogy is (and used to be), so keep reading! It really is a fascinating journey, from our earliest accounts of vocal pedagogy in ancient Greek theatre to today’s technological and medical breakthroughs in vocal science. And although it’s impossible for us to include references to everyone who has contributed to its history, rest assured that we respect and deeply value all contributions in the development of vocal pedagogy.

Early traces of vocal pedagogy

The first known traces of vocal instruction can be found in ancient Greece around 500 B.C. They developed as a reaction to the increasing vocal requirements and demands in Greek theatre and music. The Dionysian[BC1]  Society was founded in Athens, which educated actors, musicians, and singers; it spread rapidly through Greece and its colonies and even made its way to Rome.

Evidence of vocal instruction can also be found in Jewish cantorial and synagogue music. Its florid, melodious intonation required a level of vocal agility that needed formal instruction. It’s hard to say when exactly this tradition started, but we know that even in the original Temple in Jerusalem, music and singing played an important part. We also know that this type of Jewish music and instruction was introduced into Europe in the seventh century and then rapidly developed.

In both cases, very little is known about how vocal training worked in those ancient days. It's likely that there was no standardized approach other than having singers practice the songs they needed to perform, so learning was probably happening purely on a trial-and-error basis.


From the Medieval to the Old Italian School

In the seventh century in Rome, the Schola Cantorum was founded. What started out as a choir for Gregorian Chants became the cradle of vocal pedagogy. Its goal was to educate liturgic singers, and training normally took around nine years. After they finished their training, some of the Schola Cantorum singers moved to other cities and founded more singing schools in order to spread the tradition of liturgic singing.

With the influence of the Schola Cantorum spread well beyond Rome, monks and priests in the Catholic church started to sing and think about singing. Many of these monks dedicated much of their time studying the human voice with the means they had available, and (with so much time on their hands in those days) it comes as no surprise that monks were the first to start classifying the different zones of the voice. The terms “chest voice” for the low part of the voice, “throat voice” for the middle part of the voice, and “head voice” for the high part of the voice were introduced.

The idea of classifying certain parts of the vocal range—according to what singers feel when they sing in those ranges—became one of the first pillars of vocal pedagogy. This classification from hundreds of years ago created a point of reference for those who aspired to learn to sing, to help them know what to expect, and to guide them on their singing journey. Even today, the singer’s perception has remained of huge importance in vocal pedagogy. Using these terms for the different zones of the voice continues to serve as a means of communication between teacher and singer, helping singers understand whether a certain coordination has been achieved or simply whether they are going in the right direction.

But in the Schola Cantorum, efforts in studying the voice didn’t stop there. They noticed that most people weren’t able to transition smoothly between chest voice, throat voice, and head voice, so they tried to find out whether there was a way to teach singers how to do so. The story goes that as a first step in this endeavor, they started studying so-called “natural voices,” or singers who could naturally blend all parts of their voices and access all dynamic levels of the voice without having had any vocal training. From the study of these voices over the centuries, they developed methods to teach others to sing like these natural voices.

We don’t know for sure whether this was exactly what happened, but the methods developed by the Schola Cantorum formed the basis for the Old Italian School of Singing and were essential to the careers of many celebrated castrati in the mid-sixteenth century and later tenors, baritones, basses, sopranos, mezzos, and altos.

The Schola Cantorum’s techniques for blending chest voice and head voice in perfection included using the so-called pharyngeal sounds that trigger a muscular coordination that helps find a middle ground in between chest and head voice. Once the singer would find a connection in between chest voice and head voice on a pharyngeal sound, the pharyngeal quality was blended with more normal vocal sounds. The goal was to achieve a natural vocal sound with clear and pure vowels. So without being fully aware, the techniques they developed were actually already a functional method of vocal pedagogy because its goal was to achieve certain desirable muscular coordinations in the voice.

Unfortunately, as orchestras got larger and everybody started singing louder, concepts were introduced to singing that had a different goal from a natural vowel sound. Ideas like “covering the sound” or “strong breath support” became popular. Luckily, some institutions and private teachers in Italy that were connected to the church, like the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, continued to use the method of the Old Italian School.


The Twentieth Century: Huge developments in vocal pedagogy

At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, voice teachers began to shift away from the Old Italian School’s goal of producing “natural” voices, instead focusing on a more artificial, overproduced sound. As mentioned above, concepts like breath support and covering the voices dominated the world of classical vocal pedagogy. In some ways, this was bizarre because the great voices of that time—like Caruso, Gigli, Schipa, or Björling—all had a very natural vocal sound that wasn’t overproduced at all. These voices were like leftovers from the Old Italian School, admired by many who tried to reproduce their results but with unsuitable techniques.

Cornelius L. Reid (b. 1911) was one of the few who dared to take a look back at the functional concepts that were taught in the Old Italian School. Based on what was known about vocal physiology at the time, Reid also looked into what actually happens on a functional level when the voice was coordinated according to the bel canto ideals. With these efforts, he contributed hugely to demystifying voice instruction, pointing out that learning to sing means coordinating the processes in your larynx so that they function naturally and that breathing is only one part of this process, not the entire process.

But the twentieth century also brought other (much more extreme) changes in vocal pedagogy. New forms of music, like blues and jazz, had initiated the development of what is now known as modern music. These forms of music had very different vocal ideals than the classical music from the past. Belting and other new forms of vocal expression puzzled voice teachers; it seemed like a completely new pedagogical world for singing needed to develop in order to get along with these new types of music.

Throughout the next few decades through today, many new ideas on singing contemporary music have developed. Let's talk about some of the people who have had a particularly important influence in our modern world of singing:

First in line is Seth Riggs (b. 1930), whose teachings were largely influenced by Edgar Herbert-Caesari (b. 1884), who was a student at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and wrote books on the teachings of the Old Italian School. Seth Riggs became well-known through the branding of his teaching as Speech Level Singing™ (SLS). What made his approach so special was that he was the first vocal pedagogue who managed to make the traditional and functional ideas of the Old Italian School compatible with the sound requirements of modern music. In this way, he brought bel canto into mainstream modern singing.

Riggs' teaching was about giving you the ability to go from low to high without strain or a break in your voice while maintaining control over dynamics. He wouldn’t teach from the perspective of a certain sound ideal; he cared only to make your voice function better. Riggs was, so to speak, wiring the backbone of your voice.

But SLS didn’t deal with how to control your vocal sound for stylistic purposes. Quite the contrary, many would find Seth Riggs’ ideas on larynx position and vowel shape restrictive to their creative freedom. The SLS Method also received criticism because some of its concepts were in conflict with discoveries in vocal science about the workings of the voice. Additionally, the terminology Seth Riggs used was found to be inconsistent.

But Seth Riggs and Cornelius L. Reid both need to be given credit for another component in their teaching involving singing “tools,” like vowels, consonants, scales, etc. to trigger certain functional conditions in the voice. So instead of telling a singer to do a certain thing that they probably aren’t capable of controlling yet, it is possible to make them sing a certain vocal exercise that will make them do what you want them to do. We call this indirect vocal control, and it is one of the most important strategies in helping singers learn faster and without frustration.

The twentieth century also introduced other approaches to singing—specifically modern singing—that have nothing to do with classical vocal pedagogy. Some of these approaches were created by those who have tried to completely revolutionize the world of vocal pedagogy. The founders of these approaches were out to literally reinvent the wheel, rebelling against most of the concepts developed in vocal pedagogy, like vocal registers, passages, terminology, etc.

Such methods like Estill Voice Training® and Complete Vocal Technique both have a very modular view on the voice, though their approaches are quite different from each other in their specific ideas and philosophies. But both methods advocate that there are certain functional conditions that a singer needs to learn to isolate and then can select and combine in order to get the desired sound result. In many ways, it’s like a modular assembly system: in order to meet stylistic requirements and play with the sound of the voice, both systems have proven to be helpful in delivering fast results in certain parts of the vocal range. However, these strategies seem to produce rather extreme results. They don’t seem to consider the fine nuances that make or break great singing, and they also don’t seem to care a lot for vocal ease across the whole range. The focus of these approaches lies on sound results, not on balancing all systems involved in singing. 

The Twenty-first Century: The arrival of vocal science in vocal pedagogy

Beginning in the twenty-first century, vocal science has become a tool that not only helps us understand how the voice works but also helps us to develop faster as voice teachers. Scientific discoveries help us understand why certain vocal exercises do what they do and why some teaching strategies work better than others. There is even a new discipline called vocology that includes a mostly scientific approach to vocal pedagogy. And although practical experience has proven that vocal science can be a useful tool for a voice teacher, it can’t replace the pedagogical component involved.

One of the newest approaches to improving vocal pedagogy lies in neurological studies about the events in the brain when we sing or train how to sing. The findings in these studies are deeply related to how we learn to sing and can therefore be expected to help greatly improve the outcome of our learning efforts. They will also help filter out the most effective strategies for teaching and learning singing.

How we have been influenced by this rich pedagogical history

At the Institute for Vocal Advancement (IVA), we do something that is still not a very common thing in the world of singing, which is educating voice teachers in the art of teaching singing. Some people may ask, Why is this even necessary? Don’t you know how to teach if you know how to sing? Well, the answer is a definite no! When you learn to sing, you only deal with your own vocal problems and ways of learning, but other people might face totally different vocal challenges and might not learn the same way as you do.

Based on decades of teaching experience, we have created a system for teaching voice that shows you how to develop a natural feeling for what an individual singer needs and how to teach it to them. This system works for teaching singers of all levels and in all genres and styles of music.

We continually refine and improve our system as new research is published or when experience shows us that some concepts work better than others.

The basis of our pedagogical system lies in the belief that every voice should be tuned toward vocal balance. Vocal balance means that all systems involved in voice production work in harmony with each other across your whole vocal range. This makes your voice function in the best and freest way possible, giving it a natural sound. When you have a foundational knowledge of how to find vocal balance, it’s easy to then help singers create their desired, genre-specific sound.

But for a voice teacher, it is not only about what to teach but how to teach it. This is also where the pedagogical value of a teaching system is so beneficial. In order to reach optimal results, we teach from the singers’ perspective. This means that we use perceptional models like chest voice, mix voice, head voice, or vocal passages in order to give the singer direction.

For fine-tuning a voice, we use something much more precise: the power of indirect vocal control. We can utilize this power through vocal exercises, introducing teachers to an arsenal of tools they can choose for certain voices. We use this huge range of tools, forged throughout the history of vocal pedagogy, as a central focus in our education. You’ll learn to use everything, from the tools of the Old Italian School to the exercises promoted by vocal science, as a teacher at IVA. Begin your vocal pedagogy journey with us!

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