Lilli Lehmann: regarding singing education today

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Lilli Lehmann published in 1902 her singing treatise Meine Gesangskunst (My art of singing) and the book’s success led to two more editions and numerous printings. After the preface, the illustrious artist expressed her purpose and her great concerns for the present state and the future of her art.

My purpose

My purpose is to discuss simply, intelligently, yet from a practical standpoint, sensations known to us in singing, and exactly ascertained in my experience, by the expressions “singing open,” “covered,” “dark,” “nasal,” “in the head,” or “in the neck,” “forward,” or “back.” These expressions correspond to our sensations in singing; but they are unintelligible as long as the causes of those sensations are unknown, and each one has a different idea of their meaning. Many singers try their whole lives long to produce them and never succeed. This happens because science understands too little of singing, the singer too little of science. I mean that the physiological explanations of the highly complicated processes of singing are not plainly enough put for the singer, who must depend chiefly on his vocal sensations. Scientific men are not at all agreed as to the exact functions of the several organs and the fewest singers are informed on the subject. Every serious artist has a sincere desire to help others reach the goal —the goal toward which all singers are striving: to sing well and beautifully.

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.

In former times eight years were devoted to the study of singing —at the Prague Conservatory, for instance. Most of the mistakes and misunderstandings of the pupil could be discovered before he secured an engagement, and the teacher could spend so much time in correcting them that the pupil learned to pass judgment on himself properly.

But art today 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 teacher’s diploma of the factory. The latter, especially, I consider a crime, that the state should prohibit.

All the inflexibility and unskilfulness, 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.

The incompetence and lack of talent whitewashed over by the factory concern lose only too soon their plausible brilliancy. A failure in life is generally the sad end of such a factory product; and to factory methods the whole art of song is more and more given over as a sacrifice.

My artistic conscience urges me to disclose all that I have learned and that has become clear to me in the course of my career, for the benefit of art; and to give up my “secrets,” which seem to be secrets only because students so rarely pursue the path of proper study to its end. If artists, often such only in name, come to a realization of their deficiencies, they lack only too frequently the courage to acknowledge them to others. Not until we artists all reach the point when we can take counsel with each other about our mistakes and deficiencies, and discuss the means for overcoming them, putting our pride in our pockets, will bad singing and inartistic effort be checked, and our noble art of singing come into its rights again.

Text excerpted from How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1914.