In February 2020, while preparing for a lockdown in South Africa, I began a three-year project affectionally named the ‘Lilli Lehmann Project’. This project was inspired by the great German Soprano, Lilli Lehmann.
Lehmann wrote several books including a book translated into English as ‘How to Sing’. It was a chance appearance of her book on my Spotify feed in February 2020 which sparked my interest in revisiting singing techniques to become a singing teacher. In particular, the book revealed the philosophy of Lehmann which was ongoing critique, reflection, and evaluation of her own practice as a performer and a teacher.
I decided to seek for myself through an approach of Research, Embodiment and Teaching.
I threw myself into the project as the South African borders closed around me in March 2020. Assuming the period would be brief. As of March 2020, I believed I had about three weeks to complete the project.
I was fortunate to be in a rural situation in the Western Cape and was able to spend the entire day experimenting with my voice in a 17th Century wine cellar. As we all now know, the pandemic continues to disrupt our lives. The lockdown in South Africa became one of the longest in the world. Weeks became months.
The first stage of the project was to revisit my technique completely because I believe that a singing teacher must be able to embody their teachings in order to teach. I kept a record of this progress on social media. I have included one of these videos below. It is with guitar because, of course, the lockdown prohibited me from seeking out a pianist.
The research stage involved an exploration of historical pedagogy. It had long been a goal of mine to sing all of the exercises by Garcia, Melba, and Marchesi. The Pandemic gave me the time to read the author’s instructions with care. I critically evaluated how I had been taught by my previous singing teacher in Auckland, who came from a branch of the ‘Garcia Singing Family Tree’ (through Anna Schoen-Rene and Lucie Manen). The result was my decision to investigate other branches of the Garcia lineage to evaluate how they imparted the knowledge, including the emphasis they put on certain elements of the knowledge.
Accordingly, I worked towards embodying the Garcia method by investigating other branches of the Garcia singing family tree. My first port of call was the work of Daniel Shigo in New York who writes wonderful blogs and has located Hermann Klein’s Phono Vocal Method. I bought Klein’s singing book (edited by Mr. Shigo and available on Amazon.com) and listened to the videos of the old gramophone recordings Klein made which are on YouTube. I then ‘pulled apart’ my technique and put it back together again according to Klein. The result was surprising. My range increased nearly an octave, the legato and tone quality improved and I enjoyed singing more! It was at this stage that I departed the Lucie Manen side of the family tree!
My next step was to investigate Dame Nellie Melba’s work. Melba’s singing demonstrates the old Italian school of singing. She was taught in Australia and then travelled to learn from Marchesi. In other words, Melba was also under the influence of the Garcia lineage.
I have found Dame Nellie Melba’s book to be the best singing book I have used so far. Melba was the first writer that imparted the knowledge of appoggio to me in a way I could understand. I now use her exercises every day to train my body in the system.
Currently, I am embarking upon a major body of research into the work of Madame Virginia Zeani. This research is possible due to the work of the New Zealand Opera School and Mr Roger Beaumont in New Zealand. Madame Zeani is also of the Garcia lineage. The benefit of Madame Zeani’s work is that a great deal of her work has been captured on film, recordings and in writings. Alongside Melba, I believe Madame Zeani is one of the few teachers who embodies and imparts the knowledge of appoggio.
Importantly, Madame Zeani calls appoggio what it is – a system. In other words, every component of the system must be in working order. Otherwise, the system will fail. This system begins with posture ( impossible while playing the guitar by the way) and is reliant on expansion and suspension of the rib cage, especially using the muscles in the back. This expansion and suspension of the rib cage, in my experience, is the only way the diaphragm can do its job as nature intended. Madame Zeani reminds us to be like a Ballet dancer.
I believe that singing teaching in the 21st Century requires the incorporation of both old and new vocal techniques. My experience as a cross-over performer has been the increasing need for authenticity. In other words, the need to embrace a wide range of aesthetic choices. In the past, as a singer-songwriter, I had to discover for myself how to belt, make noises and use aspiration. At the time, many thought I was ruining my career. To my mind, I was embarking upon what I love – exploring the possibilities of the human voice to express.
In this respect, I have been emboldened by the work of Barton and Spivey in the USA. Their teaching/writing pays homage to the Bel Canto methods while incorporating techniques such as belting to meet the demands of musical theatre. Musical Theatre singers require a diverse set of vocal skills to meet the demands of musical theatre. Classical technique is not enough. CCM is not enough. Musical Theatre requires a combination of old and new. It is very difficult.
Therefore, the next stage of my project is to teach in New Zealand in a CCM studio. This will allow me to investigate modern techniques whilst teaching the foundations of the old Italian method.
In addition to this opportunity, I am being given opportunities to deliver masterclasses or to drop into coaching sessions. Last week, I was able to drop in on a young student and teach posture and support. In this student’s case, the benefit of the system of appoggio was instantaneous. The register difficulties disappeared (there is no need to concern oneself with the register if the system is correct because the change from chest to head happens as nature intended) and the quality of the sound greatly improved.
The final word is from Madame Zeani’s teacher, Lydia Lipkovskaya singing Verdi’s aria ‘Caro Nome’. Young singers of any genre should be taught to realize the techniques required to sing like Lipkovskaya will give them the foundations for lifelong singing. It is upon these foundations that the belting, aspirations, and noises can be placed. To think singing technique can be otherwise is a grave error.