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First things first.

prov-e-nance (prov\[??]n[??]ns) n. Place of origin, source. [LAT. Provenire, to originate.]

MANY VOCAL METHODS BEGIN with perhaps the simplest of all vocal gestures, the sustained tone. The practice is too common to be accidental and can be found in treatises from the eighteenth century to the present day. As is frequently true, the apparent simplicity belies the complexity of the effort and the enormous benefit to be gained from its use.

There are many examples of sustained tone pedagogy to be found in the historical literature. Sometimes we find these first efforts accompanied by an explanation of how and why it should be done, sometimes without. One of the commonly expressed goals of studying the sustained tone is to build strength in the voice, sometimes with the specific goal of strengthening a particular register. In speaking of how to "draw out" the voice, that is, to make the weak or underdeveloped voice "robust," Mancini (1774) suggested:

It will prove to be of great help to a pupil who has a weak and limited voice, whether it be soprano or contralto. He must exercise with a solfeggio with sustained notes in his daily study. The result will be further assured if such solfeggio is kept within the limit which the voice permits at that time. It must be suggested to those who are confronted by these conditions, to increase the volume of their voices each day little by little, directing them thus, with the aid of art and continuous exercise, until they become vigorous and sonorous. (1)

The physiologic basis for this claim is well understood and has been thoroughly explored in another article by this author, called "Treasure Chest." (2)

Madame Cinti-Damoreau was a famous soprano at the Paris Opera who taught at the Paris Conservatory in the 1830s. She wrote her own method, which was officially adopted by the conservatory. Her use of the sustained tone was indeed the first element in her method, but she also included the use of the messa di voce. As has been discussed in a previous column, "Suoni Filati: The Messa di Voce," (3) some teachers delayed the use of the messa di voce until much later in the training process (Garcia among them). Example 1 shows Cinti-Damoreau's first exercise. (4)

Crivelli, whose method was published in this country sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century by Oliver Ditson, included the sustained tone as his first rule.


Rule 1st. The chief attention of the student ought to be directed to the manner of forming and sustaining the voice. The best means of attaining this object is by constantly practicing the scales arranged in semibreves; taking care to begin each note in a tone firm and distinct, yet not too loud; afterwards swelling it out, though not to excess, and then gradually diminishing it to the softest piano. (5)

If the reader were to undertake the process of singing through an octave or more by ascending and then descending in a scale-wise manner, one would certainly appreciate that this is no trivial matter. The work load is significant and demanding!

The great baritone Julius Stockhausen often has been quoted in this column. He brings to the discussion the goal of developing a beautiful tone through the use of the tenuto di voce. As is so typical of the progressive nature of much of the pedagogy practiced by our ancestors, he cautioned in his Method of Singing (1884) that we should take first things first.

The old Italian and German masters, whose schools produced such excellent singers of both sexes, show by their writings that their first endeavour was to teach their pupils how to form a beautiful tone and to render their voices flexible and of a telling quality. There was no question of exercise in a large compass, nor of say, in the solfeggio--our ancestors began by teaching how to establish and sustain the voice. (6)

He went on to call attention to some of the detail of the beginning of the tone, considered to be so important.

It is the well known tenuto di voce, sustained notes of equal and medium power. This is the chief condition of musical phrases for a perfect delivery ... The pupil must first attack the note according to the nature of the consonant, which may be hard or soft or sonant, or according to the character of the vowel, but, as Andreas Herbst expresses it, "on the right note," and I may add with precision and fixed larynx. (7)

Stockhausen alluded to a fault among singers of his day and of ours: the habit of beginning a tone below the center of the pitch with some sort of a slide or "hitch" into the note.

Part of the usefulness of the sustained tone exercise is that it frees the mind of the student to consider the complexity of the gesture. No better exposition of this benefit can be found than one by Frederick W. Root. Perhaps you will recall a reprint of an article by Mr. Root in a previous column, "The Voice Teacher's Problem." (8)

Many habituate themselves to a distorted position so thoroughly, that it seems natural, possibly easy, to them.

If the face is not perfectly at repose, if the forehead is wrinkled, the nostrils dilated, or the mouth drawn into a position not used in speaking, it is an unerring indication that there is distortion in the throat. To rid yourself of wrong habits in this respect, or to prove that there are none, try this:


Fill the lungs; let the countenance assume an expression of repose; relax the muscles of the throat; open the mouth well; place the tongue as above directed; then exhale slowly and steadily, at first without producing a tone, but after two or three seconds allow the vocal cords to vibrate, watching carefully to see that there be no change of position. Repeat this process several times, at first making the tone very soft; then, if successful in retaining the right position of all the members, exhale a little faster, making a louder tone. It is often of assistance to watch this process with a looking-glass. (9)

Root's book, School of Singing (1873) is a treasure of sound, logical, no-nonsense advice, and would be widely appreciated by thoughtful teachers today. The insight of this teacher is especially clear in the following advice:

Try to overcome all tendency to tremulous tones, by striving for a steady and regular pressure of breath from the lungs. Certain tones, those in the neighborhood of E, will be, in most voices, more tremulous than the others, and the learner is sometimes surprised to find that in ascending the scale the quality of the tone suddenly changes at a certain pitch. But remember that nothing must interfere with the prescribed rules for producing a tone. Accept without question the tone that comes when you have assumed a natural position. Attack each tone with precision, and so avoid the bad but very common habit, of commencing below the proper pitch and sliding to place. (10)

Root's caution not to judge the outcome of the exercise but to commit to the right process is in line with the teaching of Cornelius Reid and many others whose first purpose is to build upon the natural response of the voice, and not to train the singer to produce a sound of a particular quality. Note here again the caution concerning the precise attack of the tone. Root's book is not only a valuable resource for a voice teacher; it is also a beautiful book, released by a publishing house owned and operated by his own family, founded by his well known father, George F. Root. Example 2 is the first of several tables included in the book to aid the student.

Edmund Myer was a prolific author on vocal matters. In one of his many books, Vocal Reinforcement (1891), he included a chapter entitled "A Study of Level Movements." He described the benefits of singing sustained tones in that it provided the opportunity of proper mental and "moral" focus.

This study is founded upon a balancing of the forces, the motive power and resisting force, or equal pressure and resistance. This is the only way in which it is possible to secure true conditions at the organ of sound ... (11)

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. There are two primary opposing forces that must coordinate their actions in order to create a stable and beautiful tone: the breath and the resistance offered by the vocal folds. How many different ways has this principle been described: lutte vocale, appoggio, and now tenuto di voce. Of course, this balance can be disrupted at almost any point in the body--and it is this point that makes the simplicity of the sustained tone so useful to a great extent.


Like Root, Myer went on to advise caution when judging the success of these efforts.

Be assured that when the effort is right the result will surely be right, or will come right. The tendency on the part of beginners is to study the result at once; the tone must be made to sound something near right, it matters not what the effort may be. (12)

In a very popular class voice method published in 1932, D. A. Clippinger cautioned that first things should not be mastered and forgotten.

The following simple exercises are for the practice of legato and sostenuto--the connected and sustained style. These two principles are so fundamental and necessary to good singing that they should be practiced persistently and with great care. Like all other exercises necessary to gaining control of the voice, they should be practiced until long after the student feels he has mastered them. (13)

In Example 3 Clippinger led the singer to the broader application of the principle of sostenuto to more than one tone--in fact, to a whole phrase. The ability to sustain the intensity and beauty of the tone throughout the whole range with a true legato line is, of course, a characteristic of fine singing.

As a final example we go once again to Richard Miller's The Structure of Singing.

The ultimate test of technical ability lies in sustained singing. Energy and power are frequently required, but these attributes of the good singer must be balanced by freedom. The problem in sustained singing is that primitive sphincter action, which ordinarily prevails in such heavy activities as lifting and pulling, is often carried over into energized singing. (14)

It can be challenging to make our students understand the importance of doing simple things in their own practice time; to make them really seek perfection of action and clarity of function in something as simple as sustaining a vowel sound. We must find ways to challenge them to spend the time to do the first exercises so that they lay a roadbed for more complex gestures and exercises leading to skillful performance. Mr. Miller put it very well:

Where voice technique is founded on systematically acquired skills, sostenuto fills its role as a builder of the instrument. Sustaining power will increase vocal stamina and ensure vocal health. (15)


(1.) Giambattista Mancini, Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing, translated by Pietro Buzzi (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1912), 102. Originally published as Pensieri e Riflessioni Pratiche Sopra il Canto Figurato (Vienna, 1774).

(2.) Stephen F. Austin, "'Treasure Chest'--A Physiological and Pedagogical Review of the Low Mechanism," Journal of Singing 61, no. 3 (January/February 2005): 241.

(3.) Stephen F. Austin, "Suoni Filati: The Messa di Voce," Journal of Singing 62, no. 5 (May/June 2006): 573.

(4.) Laure Cinti-Damoreau, Method of Singing (Philadelphia: A. H. Rosewig, n.d.), 9.

(5.) D. Crivelli, Instructions and Progressive Exercises in the Art of Singing (Boston: Oliver Ditson, n.d.), 7.

(6.) Julius Stockhausen, Method of Singing (New York: Novello, Ewer and Co., 1884), 15.

(7.) Ibid., 18.

(8.) Stephen F. Austin, "Buried Treasure: The Voice Teacher's Problems by Frederick W. Root," Journal of Singing 63, no. 3 (January/February 2007): 335.

(9.) F. W. Root, School of Singing (Chicago: Geo. F. Root & Sons, 1873), 4.

(10.) Ibid., 5.

(11.) Edmund Myer, Vocal Re-inforcement (New York: American Publishing Co., 1891), 235.

(12.) Ibid., 236.

(13.) D. A. Clippinger, The Clippinger Class Method of Voice Production (Philadelphia: Oliver Ditson, 1932), 36.

(14.) Richard Miller, The Structure of Singing (New York: Schirmer Books, 1986), 108.

(15.) Ibid., 109.

Stephen F. Austin, MM, PhD, is a singer, voice teacher, and a trained scientist. He received a masters degree in vocal performance with the late Dr. John Large at the University of North Texas, and a PhD in Voice Science at the University of Iowa with Dr. Ingo Titze. Dr. Austin's dissertation was titled "The Effect of Sub-glottal Resonance Upon Vibration of the Vocal Folds." This and other research is published in the Journal of Voice.

Dr. Austin recently joined the faculty of the University of North Texas, where he is associate professor of voice and voice pedagogy. He is associated with the Texas Center for Music and Medicine. The center provides a unique opportunity for collaboration among musicians, physicians, researchers, psychologists, educators, and biomedical engineers.

Dr. Austin has presented recitals, lectures, and workshops across this country and in Australia and Europe. He is regularly featured on the faculty of the Annual Symposium: Care of the Professional Voice sponsored by The Voice Foundation. He has made presentations to national conventions of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), and the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). He has been a featured guest lecturer at the summer and mid-winter workshops sponsored by NATS. Dr. Austin has been a regular contributing author to Australian Voice, the journal of the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing, and he serves NATS as the chair of the Voice Science Advisory Committee and as a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Singing. He also is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of The Voice Foundation.

Dr. Austin is a successful studio teacher with students singing in opera houses of Germany and the United States. His students are regular members of young artist apprenticeship programs around the country, including the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Grass Roots Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Seagle Colony, and many others.
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Title Annotation:PROVENANCE
Author:Austin, Stephen F.
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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