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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Lilli Lehmann on the Benefits of the Great Scale, ‘the Guardian Angel of the Voice’ (1902/1914)

‘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.

By it ability as well as inability is brought 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 - the 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 became aware that my transition tones would no longer endure that 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 organs 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.’

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Lehmann provides additional evidence of the benefits of the great scale by means of the following anecdote:

‘I remember a charming incident in New York. Albert Niemann, our heroic tenor, who was to sing Lohengrin in the evening, complained to me in the morning of severe hoarseness. To give up a role in America costs the singer, as well as the director, much money. My advice was to wait. Niemann. What do you do, then, when you are hoarse? I. Oh, I practise and see whether it still troubles me. Niem. Indeed; and what do you practise? I. Long, slow scales. Niem. Even if you are hoarse? I. Yes, if I want to sing, or have to, I try it. Niem. Well, what are they? Show me. The great scale, the infallible cure. I showed them to him; he sang them, with words of abuse in the meantime; but gradually his hoarseness grew better. He did not send word of his inability to appear in the evening, but sang, and better than ever, with enormous success.’

An early recorded example of ‘The Slow Scale’ can be heard recorded here, as part of Hermann-Klein’s ‘Phono-Vocal Method,’ published in 1909:

The benefit of singing slow scales is far from a twentieth-century development, indeed many collections of eighteenth-century solfeggi begin with an extended series of long notes. The images below are the first solfeggio as well as the first preliminary exercises from Giuseppe Aprile’s ‘Modern Italian Method of Singing,’ which are accompanied by the following instruction:

‘VI. To sing the scale, or Gamut frequently, allowing to each sound one BREVE or two SEMIBREVES, which must be sung in the same Breath; and this must be done, in both, a MEZZA DI VOCE, that is, by swelling the Voice, beginning Pianissimo, and encreasing gradually to Forte, in the first part of the Time, and so diminishing gradually to the end of each Note, which will be expressed in this way.’ Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing, trans. Richard Aldrich (1902; repr., New York: Macmillan Co, 1914). Giuseppe Aprile, The Modern Italian Method of Singing (London: R. Birchall, 1795).

Hermann Klein, The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method: Based upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia (New York and London: E. Schuberth and E. Ascherberg, 1909).

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