Singing Voice Pedagogy

David Meyer, DM
Brenda Smith, DMA

Training the singing voice presents challenges to both student and teacher. The singer is being instructed in how to “play” the instrument as the instrument itself is being built.[1] Successful singers artfully balance many often-competing forces, including neurological, audiological, musculoskeletal, and aerodynamic systems, with musical, emotional, lingual, and psychological elements.

Treatises on singing voice date to the 16th- and 17th-century writings of Zacconi (1592) and Caccini (1602).[2] These early works discussed the various qualities and registers of the voice and the artistic expression of text. Pedagogue-performers flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries as opera became the dominant vocal art form. These writings (e.g., Mancini and Garcia I) were based in the experiential knowledge of the performer. This subjective framework for singing voice instruction remains standard in many voice pedagogy texts.

The beginnings of a scientific, fact-based approach to singing instruction appeared in the work of Manuel Garcia II, a singer who turned to research and pedagogy following his own vocal difficulties. He described a functional framework for singing in Mémoire sur la voix humaine (1841) and is credited with inventing the laryngoscope in 1854, a device that allowed the vocal mechanism to be visualized for the first time during singing.[3]

The 20th century saw a flourishing of publications on the singing voice. Despite a growing understanding of the functional basis of singing, scientific tools have not been universally embraced by the singing voice community. Indeed, “the mystique of the vague [in singing instruction] is so strong that attempts to define the processes…or codify its instruction are usually met with suspicion.”[4] This suspicion is not altogether unreasonable, for the greatest singers of the last several centuries have largely been trained without the benefit of voice science.

How, then, can the inclusion of voice science in the training of singers be justified? Arguments in favor of a fact-based pedagogy often include the phrase “knowledge is power” or a hope that one can avoid vocal injury by better understanding the biological function of the voice. For many, these valid arguments are not persuasive. A conversation with Dr. Ingo Titze at the Voice Foundation Care of the Professional Voice Symposium in 2006 produced another, potentially more helpful argument. His view (perhaps embellished in this retelling) is that the training of athletes may provide a helpful parallel. The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896. Many elite athletes competed, and world records were set in various events. Today, these former world-record times and scores (e.g., track and field events) are what high school students in decent programs typically achieve. Of course, the human species hasn’t evolved in a mere century, but the training and equipping of athletes have improved exponentially in large part due to scientific advancements. Dr. Titze believes that scientific tools may eventually aid the efficient training of singers for increased performance. This philosophy guided the authors in the preparation of this book.

In its first three decades the Journal of Voice significantly advanced our understanding of the singing voice. The articles in this compilation promote fact-based singing instruction, discuss valuable pedagogical philosophies, and explore the convergence and divergence of the science and art of singing. A compilation of this sort is by no means comprehensive and is subjective by definition. The editors acknowledge that certain articles of pedagogical and scientific value may have been inadvertently omitted. We offer our apologies to any authors whose articles should have been included but were not.

Chapter 1 of this book was the most formidable to compile. It contains articles related to singing voice measurement and mechanics and could likely fill an entire volume. Quantifying the act of singing with measures that matter remains a challenging goal. If clinically useful measurements of the singing voice were developed, the training of the singing voice may move beyond a Hippocratic mentor–student model.

Chapter 2 looks specifically at vocal registration and formant tuning. Vocal registers are of primary importance in the theory and practice of singing, but few topics are guaranteed to generate more controversy and less consensus.[5] Registration terminology remains problematic, but these articles add clarity through the use of scientific tools such as perceptual and acoustic analysis.

Chapter 3 contains articles on respiration in singing, a central topic of pedagogues for centuries. Many historical treatises could be summarized: “One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing,[6]” but (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Scott McCoy) this statement is as logical as “One who knows how to fill up a gas tank knows how to drive.” The cause of car problems is not always in the power source. The same is true of singing.[7] Research in this area may have profound implications for the training of singers.

Articles on pedagogical philosophy and teaching methodologies are examined in chapter 4. These articles discuss how we can best engage students and bridge the theory and practice of singing. Because singing voice pedagogues train people, not voices, these pedagogical perspectives are particularly valuable.

Chapter 5 examines functional and pedagogical questions connected to singing contemporary commercial music (CCM). Compelling differences exist between classical and contemporary singing, and there is growing consensus in the literature supporting a dedicated pedagogical approach for this repertoire.

Chapter 6 contains G. Paul Moore lectures from the Voice Foundation Care of the Professional Voice Symposia. These authors are accomplished luminaries in the world of voice, and their papers share their multifaceted perspectives. They also point to potential areas of exploration as our field progresses.

A book such as this would not be possible without the contributions of hundreds of colleagues, but one man deserves special mention. The editors would like to thank Robert T. Sataloff, MD, DMA. He has had a profound impact on our lives and careers through his encyclopedic knowledge, laser-guided attention to detail, and legendary generosity of spirit. Dr. Sataloff has brought together singers, pedagogues, scientists, and medical professionals in an interdisciplinary pursuit of excellence.

A final word on science and art in singing:

Occasionally, people are afraid that if they know more about the science of how they sing, they will become so analytical that all spontaneity is lost or they will become paralyzed by too much information and thought. In my forty-plus years as a singer and teacher, I've never encountered somebody who actually suffered this fate. To the contrary, the more we know, the easier—and more joyful—singing becomes.[8]

David Meyer, DM
Associate Professor of Music
Shenandoah Conservatory
Chair, NATS Voice Science Advisory Committee

Brenda Smith, DMA
Associate Professor of Music
University of Florida



[1]. Chapman JL. Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing; 2012: 9.

[2]. Stark J. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1999: 58-59.

[3]. Coffin B. Historical Vocal Pedagogy Classics. Lanham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press; 1989: 19-30.

[4]. Bunch Dayme M. Dynamics of the Singing Voice. 4th ed. Wien, NY: Springer-Verlag; 1997: 2.

[5]. Miller D. Resonance in Singing. Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press; 2008: 48-49.

[6]. Stark J. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1999: 91.

[7]. McCoy S. Voice pedagogy: On breathing and support. Journal of Singing. 2014 January-February; 70(3): 321.

[8]. McCoy S. Singing music theater and voice science. In: Hall K, So You Want to Sing Music Theater: A Guide for Professionals. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield; 2014: 40.