Miguel Barrosa: the qualities of the good singing teacher

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Miguel Barrosa (1904 – 1996) was a successful Asturian tenor who developed his career during the first half of the twentieth century. A performance by the famous Tito Schipa at the Teatro Real in Madrid awakened the love of singing in his youth. After a brief military career, he made his debut in Italy with Madama Butterfly, an opera that would become an essential part of his repertoire. Throughout his operatic trajectory he shared the stage with Toti dal Monte, Licia Albanese, Mercedes Capsir, Gina Cigna, Mafalda Favero, Lina Pagliughi, Rosetta Pampanini, Iva Pacetti, among many other great sopranos. In 1951 he published his compendium Bel canto in theory and practice, which addresses the various aspects involved in the mastery of the art of singing and where he states: “I have enough judgement not to try to invent anything in which everything is already invented; and while waiting for the researchers to uncover in the field of neurons the hidden place of the musical centers of the brain, one will have to follow the old static systems, studying, piano, piano, the only system of the old vocalizations, made with the same logical and practical sense of those who knew best and knew how to teach us.”

Many are the things a singing teacher has to possess, but none would be of any use to him if he did not know how to hear. Know how to hear! This is the alma mater of all the pedagogues of voice placement. That is why the teacher of great class will always be the one who knows how to refine his hearing in constant contact with many and great lyrical celebrities. It is undisputed that elegance, distinction, class, in all areas of life…, are given by the environment in which one lives and frequents. That is why the teacher who has had the joy of mingling in select environments of lyrical art builds a sensibility and an ear that repel everything that sounds mediocre.

Know how to hear! The ones who have not heard much, and of great quality, usually have doubts in their appreciations for lack of this base that gives all command; they do not have any certainty because the comparative “model” is missing. They do not have the ear used to what is good, they are not even sensitive to what is wrong. That is why to place the voice correctly we prefer practical teachers over theoretical teachers, provided that their practice is select and forged in the high spheres of the vocal art and, at the same time, is accompanied by well-assimilated theories that need not be profound. An example will shed light on this: I witnessed, at a dress rehearsal, the enthusiasm of a teacher for his disciple. The next day, the day of the debut, the catastrophic failure of that boy was even more painful because of the excessive praise of the teacher, who was full of theories… I am sure that if, instead of being a theorist, he had many “hours of hearing” in big theaters, with great singers, he wouldn’t have let him experience the inevitable ridicule of a presentation before the proper, just and conscientious preparation. […]

If having heard great singers is the basis of the teacher for his category as such, being able to hear good singing technicians, while doing their studies with the teacher, would be highly beneficial for the disciples. […] In my student days in Milan, the nights that tenor Pertile sang there wasn’t a teacher who did not categorically order his disciples to go listen to him at the theater. Pertile’s singing was a constant lesson of unbeatable emission, sonority, diction and interpretation.

A lot is learnt by hearing good things, quite a lot. One can also learn by hearing what is wrong, if only not to imitate it…

Text excerpted and translated from El Bel canto en la teoría y la práctica, Miguel Barrosa, Madrid, 1951.