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Classic Italian Vocal Exercises: Oldies but Most Definitely Goodies

I’ve loved to sing for as long as I can remember, and I was fortunate enough to begin private lessons with a voice teacher at the age of 12. I continued my studies in college, but it wasn’t until later that I encountered nineteenth-century Italian vocal exercises. After a gap of several years, I had decided to renew private singing lessons with a new teacher, since I felt that my voice had undeveloped potential. Indeed, to my surprise and great delight my new teacher informed me that 25-35 is the perfect age range during which to develop one’s singing voice. During one of our first lessons, my teacher introduced me to a set of exercises we would be using: Fifty Lessons, op. 9 by Giuseppe Concone (1801-61). Although initially unenthused, I gradually discovered the effectiveness and brilliance of these vocalises (singing exercises using individual syllables or vowel sounds to develop flexibility and control of pitch and tone).

Concone’s Fifty Lessons are far from dull technical drills. They are enjoyable to sing, and some of them sound like full-fledged arias in their own right. These brief pieces target many areas in which singers need to develop their voices in order to perform the repertoire of art songs and operatic arias. For example, they provide practice with learning to sing legato (smoothly) throughout one’s vocal range, even when faced with large leaps in the melody line. One also gains vocal agility and flexibility by encountering triplets, grace notes, and trills. Concone was also careful to write exercises that vary in character, from a dolce cantabile (sweetly singing) in a gracefully lilting triple meter to an emphatically spirited march with frequent marcato notes. The singer is also challenged to express varying dynamics (pianissimo, fortissimo, crescendo, and decrescendo) and different types of articulation (staccato, marcato, or legato). Not only do Concone’s exercises serve their pedagogic aims–they are musically pleasing and a joy to sing.

Observing the ingenious design of the vocalises, I often found myself remarking to my teacher at the end of an exercise, “This Concone guy really knew what he was doing!” After several years of regularly working with Concone’s exercises, I can personally attest that, along with the essential guidance of a skilled voice teacher, these studies have helped transform my voice in multiple dimensions: a smooth transition between head voice and chest voice, comfort singing in the passaggio range, greater vocal agility, improved sense of pitch, better breath management, and greater clarity of tone and richness of timbre. In fact, after just the first couple of years working with my teacher, I felt that I had an entirely new voice, such was the improvement that she (and Concone) had brought about in my technique. I’m now able to perform challenging arias and art songs that seemed beyond my grasp six years ago.

As an expression of my gratitude to Maestro Concone, today I present you with classic Italian vocal exercises that are still used by voice teachers today and are available from the NLS Music Section’s collection. While most of these methods are currently available in braille with some large print, at the end of this post I also provide links to the Music Section’s singing courses that are available in audio format.

Please note that all materials listed below are available to borrow by mail, and some are also available for instant download on BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille music and large-print music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

Giuseppe Concone (1801-1861)

Little information appears to be available (in English, anyway) regarding Giuseppe Concone, the Italian singing teacher and composer. So for now, he remains a bit of a mystery for me. But in Grove Music Online, Elizabeth Forbes relates that, born in Turin in 1801, Concone became one of the most significant voice teachers of his era. He taught in Paris from 1837-48 and there published many books of vocal exercises. He also composed songs, duets, and two operas. Upon returning to Turin in 1848, he became organist and choir director at the court of Sardinia.

Concone, Giuseppe. Fifty Lessons, op. 9. For alto and piano. Paragraph format (BRM04930)

–Fifty Lessons in Singing. For the middle register. Paragraph format (BRM01202)

–Forty Lessons in Singing. For bass or baritone voice. Paragraph format (BRM01512)

–Mass in F. For SATB chorus and organ. Section by section and bar over bar formats (BRM08195)

Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848)

Vaccai wrote compelling poetry in his adolescence before going to Rome in 1807 to study law. He decided to study music instead, earning a degree by 1811. He wrote operas, ballets, and librettos, hoping to gain success as an opera composer. He became a sought-after singing teacher in Venice but had limited success in the operatic field. Giulietta e Romeo (1825) was his only opera that received regular performances outside Italy. This success was soon eclipsed by the arrival of composer Vicenzo Bellini on the Italian opera scene. In 1830 Vaccai went to Paris to teach and also enjoyed great success in England, teaching and writing salon pieces. While in England, he published his Metodo pratico di canto italiano per camera in 1832. Known in English as Practical Italian Vocal Method, the book is still used by many voice teachers to this day. After returning to Italy, Vaccai took a position at the Milan Conservatory in 1838 and overhauled the school’s voice program. Julian Budden writes in Grove Music Online that “…he reorganized the study of singing, inaugurated opera performances among his students on the Neapolitan model and began a new choir school. He also enlarged the repertory to include the German classics.” Apparently he resigned in 1844 when he was not permitted to include Handel’s Messiah in the program for Holy Week (I’m a big fan of Handel too, so I don’t blame him). Although Vaccai tirelessly continued teaching and composing up until his death, as Budden writes, “It is, however, as a singing teacher that Vaccai left his chief mark. His Metodo pratico is not only an excellent primer for the amateur but also a valuable document for the study of 19th-century performing practice.”

Braille

Vaccai, Nicola. Practical Italian Vocal Method. For soprano or tenor with piano accompaniment. In three parts, with separate volumes for Italian and English texts and piano accompaniment. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM20394)

–Practical Method of Italian Singing. High soprano. Edited by John Glenn Paton. Line by line format. (BRM24699)

–Practical Italian Vocal Method: Alto or Baritone. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM24666)

–Practical Italian Vocal Method (BRM32061)

Large Print

Vaccai, Nicola. Practical Italian Vocal Method: For Alto or Baritone. Vocal part only. (LPM00018)

–Practical Italian Vocal Method. For soprano or tenor with piano accompaniment. Revised edition with translations by Theophilus Marzials. Biographical sketch of the author by Theodore Baker. (LPM00147)

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913)

Born Mathilde Grammau in Frankfurt, Germany, this mezzo-soprano trained in singing in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Paris. She made a career as a concert singer and recitalist in Germany, the Netherlands, and London, appearing in only one opera performance. In 1852 she married fellow singer Salvatore Marchesi and for the next 30 years gave recitals and taught singing in Paris and Vienna, where she was a professor at the Vienna Conservatory. In 1881, she opened her own singing school in Paris, which attracted many students from around the world up until her retirement in 1908. She began publishing sets of vocal exercises beginning in the 1850s and in 1886 published her vocal method (Ecole Marchesi: méthode de chant théorique et pratique). Marchesi is remembered as a great vocal pedagogue of her time, and her exercises and ideas are still studied and used by voice teachers today.

Marchesi, Mathilde. Elementary Progressive Studies, op. 1. For voice. Opus 1 is also sometimes known as “Elementary Progressive Exercises.” (BRM04394)

Audio Instruction

If you’re looking for audio instruction for singing, check out the following resources from the NLS Music Section. Browse our full collection of audio courses in the Music Instruction Catalog on our website. This catalog is also available in audio format on BARD and digital cartridge, as well as in large print:

  • Voice Courses: Browse the “Voice Courses” section of our Music Instruction Catalog. We have courses for singing basics as well as practicing particular styles, such as gospel, bluegrass and even yodeling!
  • Practice Tracks: These lessons will help you practice repertoire you may be learning, such as Handel’s Messiah (chorus parts) or arias by Mozart.
  • Nico Castel Series: If you’re learning arias and art songs, this is the place for you! All titles in the Nico Castel series include a performance of the song with accompaniment, a reading of the lyrics for diction guidance, a translation of the song, a recording of the melody (on piano), and a separate recording of the piano accompaniment alone for use in practice.

To learn even more about the Music Section’s audio courses for singing, check out a few of our past blog posts on the topic:

Song Stories: Just the Facts!

For this week’s NLS Music Notes blog post, learn more about the legal drama surrounding one of the most recognizable musical themes in television history, “Dragnet.”