A History of Vocal Pedagogy: Intuition and Science

Joseph Talia, OAM

Beginning in 1564, with the first physiological treatise of Giovanni Camillo Maffei and ending with the remarkable development of solo singing, the Italian dictum 'chi sa respirare e pronunciare sa cantare' (He who knows how to breathe and pronounce knows how to sing) has been transformed by science into the most sophisticated and complete vocal paradigm in vocal history.

In this ground-breaking work, noted tenor, teacher, researcher, and operatic director, Joseph Talia, takes us on an inspiring journey through 450 years of history tracing such important topics as the development of voice production and vocal science, the transition from the sostegno system of breath management to the appoggio system, the debate on vocal registers as a purely a glottal phenomenon, and the importance of vocal elements such as posture, messa di voce, portamento, trills, and many other coloratura techniques and ornaments. All of these are analyzed through the overarching framework of human emotions and impeccable aesthetic appeal, remembering always Tosi's dictum that 'the heart is the greatest of teachers'.

Within these pages you will find a wealth of knowledge accumulated by the great singing masters of the past such as Bernacchi, Porpora, Tosi, Mancini, the Garcías, the Lampertis, and the Marchesis, as well as the tremendous and assiduous work performed by vocal scientists throughout history by such scientists as Janwillem van den Berg, Vennard, Hirano, Fant, Ingo Titze, and Sundberg to name just a few.

"A History of Vocal Pedagogy" is a vital resource for voice teachers, vocal researchers, serious vocal students, and vocal connoisseurs.

About the Author

While studying singing, piano and music theory, Dr. Joseph Talia gained valuable experience and early success competing in vocal Eisteddfods, as well as making appearances on television. He was also awarded a scholarship to the Australian National Opera School in Melbourne. He later studied in Milan with Fernando Bandera, Vladimiro Badiali and Aldo Azzali, was engaged to sing Rodolfo in La Boheme and Alfredo in La Traviata at the Teatro Eliseo in Rome, and performed as a concert artist in Milan, Vercelli, and other Italian cities.

His repertoire consists of over 50 major tenor roles in operas as diverse as Don Giovanni, La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Il Tabarro, Cavalleri Rusticana, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Corsaro, Faust, Carmen, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Consul, Albert Herring, The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus, Student Prince and many others.

Dr. Talia maintains a successful studio in Melbourne where apart from his regular students, he teaches visiting students from New Zealand, Europe, Japan, China and Korea. He is also in demand as an adjudicator of international competitions, such as the Paolo Tosti, in Ortona, the Mattia Battistini International in Rieti, and The Izmir International in Turkey. He has conducted International master classes, in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Belgium and other European centres. He has also collaborated with such luminaries as Rolando Panerai, Gabriella Tucci, Afro Poli, Francisco Ortiz, Carmen Bustamanti, Gabriela Fontana, Salvatore Fisichella, Vincenzo La Scola, Roman Vlad, Gianni Tangucci, Alberto Triola.

Dr. Talia has pursued tertiary studies in business administration with an emphasis on the Arts. His doctoral thesis addressed the issue of cultural hegemony and the economics of the performing arts. Throughout this time he devoted himself to the study of vocal pedagogy via the works of the old masters and whatever vocal science was then available. His special interest has resulted in his current work.

Dr. Talia was artistic director of Melbourne City Opera from 1996 to 2014, and the Globe Opera Company for ten years before that. He has been involved in over 140 opera productions and has directed such masterpieces as La Boheme, Carmen, Andrea Chenier, Tosca and La Rondine.
Dr. Talia has been awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his dedicated services to opera over a period of four decades.


Combines expertly researched and supported insight into historical vocal pedagogy with an endearing, almost bibliographic tone relating the work of the many well known, and some less well known but equally influential, pedagogues through the last 400 years. A valuable tool in the singers and singing teachers toolkit. — NEWZATS     

A History of Vocal Pedagogy – Intuition and Science

By Joseph Talia, OAM (Australian Academic Press)

Reviewed by Dianne Spence, B.Mus (Adel), AUA (Adel), A.Mus.A, M.I.M.T

Private studio teacher, Balaklava, South Australia

A History of Vocal Pedagogy – Intuition and

Science is the first in a series of several books on

vocal pedagogy by Melbourne based noted tenor,

teacher, scholar and opera director Joseph Talia

OA. Encompassing 45 chapters on over 650 pages,

and with foreword written by esteemed soprano

Lisa Gasteen OA, A History of Vocal Pedagogy

sets expectations high.

After the portrait of Maria Callas on the

front cover, it was in fact the bibliography that

first drew me to the book. It is an impressive

assembly of over 240 book titles and monographs

plus over 250 journal articles, constituting an

arguably pretty comprehensive library of the

subject – as far as publications in English are


A History of Vocal Pedagogy represents 15

years of research by Talia. We learn in the

foreword that the author uses "scientific and

physiological frameworks to analyse historical

pedagogies to the art of singing”. For me, the

juxtaposition of the scientific approach with the,

often colourful, characters of the portrayed singing

teachers from the 16th century until the time of

Caruso and Pavarotti, worked well and lent much

charm to the reading.

The reader is first introduced to the Pioneers

of Vocal Art, then given insight into the Bolognese

School. Then come the Garcia and Lamperti

Dynasties, followed by extensive information

about Garcia’s’ Disciples, and finally the

Independents who sought to step out of the

shadow of their predecessors.

It is intriguing to read about the different

concepts, knowledge and methodologies passed

down from teacher to student, e.g. Garcia and

Marchesi, and their influence on, among others,

Nellie Melba. This particular genealogy would

make a most fascinating study on its own and we

realise its reach into our time when Lisa Gasteen

mentions in her Foreword that she was "vocally

twice removed from Garcia Fils!”

I enjoyed learning about the development of

laryngoscopes in 1855 by Manuel Garcia, a feat

that was certainly a gamechanger in the scientific

approach to the singing voice. His quest was to

improve the training of voices in the vocal style

referred to as Bel Canto, which of course simply

means Beautiful Singing. This is the style most

closely associated with Rossini operas in the 19th

century and still held up as gold standard by many.

This book highlights impressively the role

of the "human factor” in any ”clash of ideas” in

the arena of scientific research. In Chapter 23 (on

Manuel Garcia) for instance, we learn how the

coup de glotte incited a great controversy about

the onset of sound and we also have the

opportunity to contemplate his theories of timbres

as presented to the French Academy of Sciences in

1841 (p. 227).

The passion and reliance on instincts innate

to the art form of singing, regularly lead to

conflicts based on real or perceived differences or

misunderstandings between teachers and students

or, even more so, teachers of different "camps”.

There is a description of this phenomenon in

chapter 30, where Talia details a controversy

caused by H.H. Curtis, a New York throat

specialist who worked with Metropolitan opera

singers. Curtis launched an attack on Mathilde

Marchesi’s - Nellie Melba’s teacher - method,

regarding the idea of a "firm attack at the vocal

folds” (p. 354).

Another huge playground for conflicting

ideas is and was the vast area of breathing

technique. The thread of ideas on breathing is set

out clearly and very detailed in the table of

contents, and one can move through the centuries

of vocal technique from the Castrati schools

through to our own time. I recommend in

particular the page on Richard Miller and the

Appoggio system of breath management (p. 272).

Many a reader may recognise their own

teachers’ vocabulary in the book and be able to

trace it back to its historical roots or a particular

pedagogue. There is for instance an account of

Joan Sutherland’s and Richard Bonynge’s.

pedagogical influences. It is fascinating to trace

their roots to De Reszke, who taught Clive Carey,

who taught Joan Sutherland (p. 552).

The validity and longevity of great

pedagogical ideas is confirmed in a quote from

Berton Coffin about De Reszke: "Great teaching is

not lost: it is handed down in various forms, and

the fruits may be heard afterwards for many

generations” (p. 552).

Talia also ventures to give his own opinion

on several occasions and for instance rues the

"emasculation” of young singers of today, trying

to be "inoffensive” (p. 555). A fairly modern

consideration seems to be the perceived conflict

between vocal technique and the desire to give

everything to the operatic (or, although not

mentioned here, musical theatre) role. Emotions in

opera (and MT) are notoriously larger than life,

making it even more imperative that singers have

the technique and passion to match this heightened

level of expressivity. It is important that teachers

of young singers recognise this tension and find

ways to overcome it.

I found this book both interesting and, due

to the same comprehensiveness that makes its

quality, also challenging. It shows most eloquently

that the development of singing teachers’ art, craft

and intuition has a long and rich history. Many

deep-thinking and talented people have developed

ideas and systems over the centuries many of

which we still lean upon.

Overall, the book gives the reader a clear

historical record of the development of voice

production and vocal science pertaining to

Western Classical Singing, over 450 years. It gives

surprisingly in-depth characterisations of the great

teachers of singing, their respective approaches

and students as well as a lively account of their

discussions about vocal technique. Most of all, it

encourages us all to keep asking ourselves: what

indeed makes a great singer and a great

pedagogue? And how can we be the best teacher


And this quest is not necessarily limited to

classical voice, but that is for another book.


Dianne Spence is a vocal and piano teacher

from Balaklava, SA. She has taught students in

Classical and Musical Theatre styles for 35

years, and is a choral conductor and church

organist. She has been a founding chairman of

the Balaklava Community Arts and Eisteddfod.