What sort of training do classical singers need?

The principles of the vocal art, as I shall here describe them, are classified under the following heads:


Adjustment and Attack

Vowel Formation


Management of Registers



Tone-Colour and Expression

Herman Klein, Phono-Vocal Method, page 9.

This post addressed the question: what sort of training do classical singers need?

Above is a quote, by Herman Klein, writing at the beginning of the 20th Century. Klein was a pupil of Manuel Garcia. Klein, for me, sums it up. Singers need a method. They need to be able to isolate the techniques, perfect them and then apply them.

Daniel Shigo’s You Tube Channel is the most reliable gateway for you to listen to the technique Klein describes in the quote above. On Mr Shigo’s You Tube channel, perfect demonstrations are executed of Klein’s Phono-Vocal Method by, the Contralto, Janet Spencer. The techniques are then applied to examples of solfeggio and songs.

Classical Singers should aim to spend several years on technique after which they should sing only songs and only the ‘simpler’ arias for several years. The songs or simpler arias of composers such as Handel and Mozart should be the focus for a developing singer. Why Mozart?

Mozart demands everything. To begin with, a beautiful voice controlled and directed by correct scientific breathing; ample resonance; an equal scale achieved by the perfect blending (or if you like it better, the obliteration) of the registers; a clean attack; a steady sostenuto; a smooth, pure legato, an elegant use of the portamento; a well graduated messa di voce or management of crescendos and diminuendos; flexibility, agility, and brilliancy of execution; and, not least of all, the capacity to sing absolutely in tune.

Herman Klein, Bel Canto, 1923
The wondrous voice of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

And what is the reason for all of the above. The years of toil? The focus on the Old Italian School Method? The focus on singing what is appropriate?

Opera’s lost generation of stars…a whole generation of singers seems to be missing in action. Where are the stars now in their 50s? There are precious few of them. The blight extends to some in their 40s. So what has happened? A significant cause is a lack of proper education, not only about how to sing, but about which roles are appropriate for which voices and, equally important, how to say no.

Anne Midgette, The New York Times, May 28, 2006. Quoted in Denes Striny’s book ‘Head First’

The quote above brings me to Lilli Lehmann. Lilli Lehmann was the opposite of what is described above. Here is a wonderful summary of her talents.

Among the singers of that date whose superiority over their successors is most evident I count Plancon, Schumann-Heink, Battistini and Lilli Lehmann. The last-named, a frequent Covent Garden visitor about the turn of the century and an early pillar of the Salzburg festivals, deserves a place among the wonders of musical history. To begin with, her versatility was astounding; she sang 165 operatic roles, ranging from the Queen of the Night and the Forest Bird in Siegfried to Carmen, Fricka and Ortrud; among the most famous were Brunhilde, Isolde, Norma, Donna Anna, Constanze (in the Seraglio) and Leonora (in Fidelio). I have thirty of her recordings, mostly made about 1907 when she was nearly sixty, and including some of the most taxing music ever written for the soprano voice – such things as “Casta Diva”, “Ah, For’ e lui”, “Non mi dir”, “Martern aller Arten” and “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” Of course there are moments when the strain of age is felt; but the sheer technical mastery, and the command of various styles, are such as to put singers of a later day to shame.’

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Covent Garden, page 52.

When I read the quote above, in a little book on Covent Garden, I was fascinated to learn more about this wonderful singer. Once I discovered she wrote a singing book, biography and diary notes, and, her recordings were reviewed by Klein, I was hooked. Lilli Lehmann loved technique.

It is not enough to sing well; one must also know how one does it.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.
Lilli Lehmann

Lilli Lehmann is my point of reference for this website. Why? I had found what I needed most of all in my classical singing training – inspiration.

Lilli Lehmann's 'How to Sing' (Meine Gesangskunst)

This post marks the beginning of three years of study to refresh my voice and prepare myself to teach singing responsibly. I have called these three years, 2020 -2023, ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’.

The Lilli Lehmann Project will use Lilli Lehmann’s book ‘How to Sing’, as well as her other writings, reviews of her singing and her recordings of her singing, as a point of reference. ‘How to Sing’ is available for free on IMSLP. You can also listen to an audio version on Spotify or purchase it for a couple of dollars on Kindle. I will also be studying other historical vocal pedagogy and historical recordings which are now available on the internet.

My companion on this journey is my beloved guitar. Specifically, a Romantic Guitar custom made by Dr Sue Court to produce as much sound as a little guitar can make and to be as light as possible so that I can stand while I sing. The guitar is strung with synthetic strings that replicate the 19th strings which were made of gut. And, most importantly for singing, I will be re-tuning the guitar. For example, my reference will be 432HZ when I sing Verdi etc. 421HZ when I sing Mozart. Why? Because I am intrigued by Herman Klein’s comments on this subject in his essay ‘Bel Canto’.

Before I start looking at the technique in ‘How to Sing’, it is important to get back to the basics of how to stand, how to form vowels and consonants and how to breathe. To do this, Lilli Lehmann approves of Oskar Guttmann’s book ‘Gymnastics for the Voice’. This book is also free on IMSLP. It is also a wonderful little book and I will be continually referring to it.

Today’s post begins with how to stand while practicing. Mr Guttmann suggests to stand in the base position (see below) for breathing practice. I now always use it. It is fantastic. Nobody has ever suggested this posture to me before for singing. In this position one cannot stand in a slovenly manner or sway. It is not a performing posture but is excellent for the studio.

Now, let’s stand in base position and get started!

Lilli Lehmann
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