Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Vocal Pedagogy, A History

Brent Jeffrey Monahan. The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published Between 1777 and 1927. Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Several times a year I will find myself reading something and think “where has this book been all my life?” Most often it’s been in some writer’s imagination waiting to be researched and written. But in the case of this book, it was sitting on the shelves of the libraries of several of the school I attended in addition to the one where I now teach! Just sitting there waiting for me to find it. It would even have been helpful a few months ago when I was putting together a list of treatises and vocalise books for Rachelle Jonck. I only found it thanks to another book (Austin’s Provenance, discussed last week) and as the saying goes, I didn’t know what I had been missing.

What I was expecting was a listing and brief description of treatises in the period covered. Yes, that’s part of it, but Monahan breaks down various topics covered in treatises and lists which authors take various views and cover which topics. I could have used this resource so many times when writing papers and preparing presentations for vocal pedagogy classes. This is a must for anyone writing about singing, teaching pedagogy or who is interested in the history of various approaches and methods related to singing. 

Topics covered cover a wide range: Vocal Pedagogy, Breathing, Phonation, Resonance, Range, Vocal Dynamics, Ear Training, Diction, and Interpretation. I’ll use registration as an example of a topic and how we can use this book as a resource. Beginning on page 133, Monahan walks us through a history of how various treatises broach the topic of vocal registers. This topic is covered extensively and continues through page 162. This discussion includes various descriptions of registers, how many registers, and the divergent ideas about registration. 

Also of interest is the extensive Bibliography. The Annotated Bibliography is 64 pages long! (The one I compiled for Rachelle Jonck a few months ago was only nine pages.) Following that is a chronological bibliography which would allow the researcher to focus on the treatises published in a particular era. There is so much information here, all of it very well organized.

Now that this book is 43 years old, it’s safe to say that it is in need of an update, but the coverage of historical writing on singing is thorough. I am finding this incredibly useful and have already updated some articles I am writing to include sources I would not have found without the help of this book. This is such a useful volume, and I am confident that many students and teachers will make good use of it.