Lilli Lehmann: the great scale

In her treatise Meine Gesangskunst, published in 1902, teacher Lilli Lehmann speaks of the great scale and of the importance of daily and rigorous practice for vocal hygiene and for the life of the singer. 

The great scale

This is the most necessary exercise for all kinds of voices. It was taught to my mother; she taught it to all her pupils and to us. But I am probably the only one of them all who practises it faithfully! I do not trust the others. As a pupil one must practise it twice a day, as a professional singer at least once. 

The breath must be well prepared, the expiration still better, for the duration of these five and four long tones is greater than would be supposed.

The first tone must be attacked not too piano, and sung only so strongly as is necessary to reach the next one easily without further crescendo, while the propagation form for the next tone is produced, and the breath wisely husbanded till the end of the phrase. 

The first of each of the phrases ends nasally in the middle range, the second toward the forehead and the cavities of the head. The lowest tone must already be prepared to favor the resonance of the head cavities, by thinking of ā,1 consequently placing the larynx high and maintaining the resonating organs in a very supple and elastic state. In the middle range, ah is mingled particularly with oo,2 that the nose may be reached; further, the auxiliary vowel e 3 is added to it, which guides the tone to the head cavities. In descending the attack must be more concentrated, as the tone is slowly directed toward the nose on oo or o, to the end of the figure. 

When oo, a, and e 4 are auxiliary vowels, they need not be plainly pronounced. (They form an exception in the diphthongs, “Trauuum,” “Leiiid,” “Lauuune,” “Feuyer,” etc.) As auxiliary vowels they are only means to an end, a bridge, a connection from one thing to another. They can be taken anywhere with any other sound; and thence it may be seen how elastic the organs can be when they are skillfully managed. 

The chief object of the great scale is to secure the pliant, sustained use of the breath, precision in the preparation of the propagation form, the proper mixture of the vowels which aid in placing the organs in the right position for the tone, to be changed for every different tone, although imperceptibly; further, the intelligent use of the resonance of the palate and head cavities, especially the latter, whose tones, soaring above everything else, form the connection with the nasal quality for the whole scale. 

The scale must be practised without too strenuous exertion, but not without power, gradually extending over the entire compass of the voice; and that is, if it is to be perfect, over a compass of two octaves. These two octaves will have been covered, when, advancing the starting-point by semitones, the scale has been carried up through an entire octave. So much every voice can finally accomplish, even if the high notes must be very feeble. 

The great scale, properly elaborated in practice, accomplishes wonders: it equalizes the voice, makes it flexible and noble, gives strength to all weak places, operates to repair all faults and breaks that exist, and controls the voice to the very heart. Nothing escapes it. 

Its use brings ability as well as inability to light —something that is extremely unpleasant to those without ability. In my opinion it is the ideal exercise, but the most difficult one I know. By devoting forty minutes to it every day, a consciousness of certainty and strength will be gained that ten hours a day of any other exercise cannot give. 

This should be the chief test in all conservatories. If I were at the head of one, the pupils should be allowed for the first three years to sing at the examinations only difficult exercises, like this great scale, before they should be allowed to think of singing a song or an aria, which I regard only as cloaks for incompetency. 

For teaching me this scale —this guardian angel of the voice— I cannot be thankful enough to my mother. In earlier years I used to like to shirk the work of singing it. There was a time when I imagined that it strained me. My mother often ended her warnings at my neglect of it with the words, “You will be very sorry for it!” And I was very sorry for it. At one time, when I was about to be subjected to great exertions, and did not practise it every day, but thought it was enough to sing coloratura fireworks, I soon become aware that my transition tones would no longer endure the strain, began easily to waver, or threatened even to become too flat. The realization of it was terrible! It cost me many, many years of the hardest and most careful study; and it finally brought me to realize the necessity of exercising the vocal tools continually, and in the proper way, if I wished always to be able to rely on them. 

Practice, and especially the practice of the great, slow scale, is the only cure for all injuries, and at the same time the most excellent means of fortification against all overexertion. I sing it every day, often twice, even if I have to sing one of the greatest roles in the evening. I can rely absolutely on its assistance. 

If I had imparted nothing else to my pupils but the ability to sing this one great exercise well, they would possess a capital fund of knowledge which must infallibly bring them a rich return on their voices. I often take fifty minutes to go through it only once, for I let no tone pass that is lacking in any degree in pitch, power, and duration, or in a single vibration of the propagation form. 

1 Translator’s note: Italian E.

2 Translator’s note: Italian U.

3 Translator’s note: Italian I.

4 Translator’s note: Italian U, A, I.

Text excerpted from How to Sing: Meine Gesangskunst, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1909.