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Julia Claussen - Modern Roads to Vocal Success

An interview secured expressly for The Etude with the
Noted Operatic and  Concert Mezzo-Soprano
of the Metropolitan Opera Company

[Editor’s Note.—Mme. Julia Claussen was born at Stockholm, Sweden. In her childhood she studied piano, but did not undertake the serious study of voice until she was eighteen, when she became a student at the Royal Academy of Music, under Professor Lejdstrom (studying harmony and theory under the famous Swedish composer Sjogren). Her début was made at the Royal Opera, at the age of twenty-two, in “La Favorita,” singing the rôle in Swedish. Later she went to Berlin, where she was coached in German opera by Professor Friedrich at the Royal High School of Music. Her American début was made in 1912, in Chicago, where she made an immediaate (sic) success in such rôles as Ortrud, Brünnhilde and Carmen. She was then engaged at Covent Garden and sang at the Champs Elysée Theatre, under Nikisch, in Paris. For two years she has been at the Metropolitan. She has received the rare distinction of being awarded the Jenny Lind Medal from her own government and also of being admitted to the Royal Academy of Sweden, the youngest member ever elected to that august, scientific and artistic body. She has also been decorated by King Gustavus V of Sweden with Literis et Artious. In America she has made an immense success as a concert singer. ]

Why Sweden Produces So Many Singers

“The question, ‘Why does Sweden produce so many singers?’ is often asked me. First, it is a matter of climate, then a matter of physique, and lastly, because the Swedish children do far more singing than any one finds in many other countries. The air in Sweden is very rarified, clear and exhilarating. Owing to frugal living and abundant systematic exercise, the people become very robust. This is not a matter of one generation or so, but goes back for centuries. The Swedes are a strong, energetic, thorough race; and the same attributes of industry and precision which have made them famous in science are applied to the study of music.

julia-claussen.jpg“The Swedish child is made to understand that singing is a needful, serious part of his life. His musical training begins very early in the schools with a definite scheme. All schools have competent, experienced teachers of singing. In my childhood another factor played a very important part. There were never the endless round of attractions, toys, parties, theatres and pastimes (to say nothing of the all-consuming movies). Life was more tranquil and therefore the pursuit of good music was far more enjoyable. American life moves at aeroplane speed. The poor little children hardly have time to breathe, let alone time to study music. Ragtime is the musical symptom of this American craving for speed and incessant excitement. In a blare and confusion of noises, like bedlam broken loose, what chance has a child to develop good taste? It is admittedly fascinating at times; but is without rhyme, reason or order. I never permit my children to pollute my piano with it. They may have it on the talking machine, but they must not be accomplices in making it.

“Of course, things have changed in Sweden, too; and American ragtime, always contagious, has now infected all Europe. This makes the music teacher’s task in this day far more difficult than formerly. I hear my daughters practicing, and now and then they seem to be putting a dash of ragtime into Bach. If I stop them I find that ‘Bach is too slow, I don’t like Bach!’ This is almost like saying, I don’t like Rubens, Van Dyke or Millet; please, teacher, give me Mutt and Jeff or the Katzenjammer Kids!’ American children need to be constantly taught to reverence the great creators of the land. Why, Jenny Lind is looked upon as a great national heroine in Sweden, much as one might regard George Washington in America. Before America can go about musical educational work properly, the teachers must inculcate this spirit, a proper appreciation of what is really beautiful, instead of a kind of wild, mob-like orgy of blare, bang, smash and shriek which so many have come to know as ragtime and jazz.


“If one should ask me what is the first consideration in becoming a success as a singer, I should say the ability to criticise one’s self. In my own case I had a very competent musician as a teacher. He told me that my voice was naturally placed and did very little to help place it according to his own ideas. Perhaps that was well for me, because I knew myself what I was about. He used to say, ‘That sounds beautiful,’ but all the time I knew that it sounded terrible. It was then that I learned that my ear must be my best teacher. My teacher, for instance, told me that I would never be able to trill. This was very disheartening; but he really believed, according to his conservative knowledge, that I should never succeed in getting the necessary flexibility.

“By chance I happened to meet a celebrated Swedish singer, Mme. Östberg, of the old school. I communicated to her the discouraging news that I could not ever hope to trill. ‘Nonsense, my dear,’ she said, ‘someone told me that too, but I determined that I was going to learn to trill. I did not know how to go about it exactly, but I knew that with the proper patience and will-power I would succeed. Therefore I worked up to three o’clock one morning, and before I went to bed I was able to trill.’

“I decided to take Mme. Östberg’s advice, and I practiced for several days until I knew that I could trill, and then I went back to my teacher and showed him what I could do. He had to admit it was a good trill, and he couldn’t understand how I had so successfully disproved his theories by acomplishing (sic) it. It was then that I learned that the singer can do almost anything within the limits of the voice, if one will only work hard enough. Work is the great producer, and there is no substitute for it. Do not think that I am ungrateful to my teacher. He gave me a splendid musical drilling in all the standard solfeggios, in which he was most precise; and in later years I said to him, ‘I am not grateful to you for making my voice, but because you did not spoil it.’

“After having sung a great deal and thought  introspectively a great deal about the voice, one naturally begins to form a kind of philosophy regarding it. Of course, breathing exercises are the basis of all good singing methods, but it seems to me that singing teachers ask many of their pupils to do much queer impractical things in breathing, things that ‘don’t work’ when the singer is obliged to stand up before a big audience and make everyone hear without straining.

“If I were to teach a young girl right at this moment I would simply ask her to take a deep breath and note the expansion at the waist just above the diaphragm. Then I would ask her to say as many words as possible upon that breath, at the same time having the muscles adjacent to the diaphragm to support the breath; that is, to sustain it and not collapse or try to push it up. The trick is to get the most tone, not with the most breath but with the least breath, and especially the very least possible strain at the throat, which must be kept in a floating gossamer-like condition all the time. I see girls that have been to expensive teachers doing all sorts of wonderful calisthenics with the diaphragm, things that God certainly did not intend us to do in learning to speak and to sing.

“Any attempt to draw in the front walls of the abdomen or the intercostal muscles during singing must put a kind of pneumatic pressure upon the breath stream, which is sure to constrict the throat. Therefore, in my own singing, I note the opposite effect. That is, there is rather a sensation of expansion instead of contraction during the process of expiration. This soon becomes very comfortable, relieves the throat of strain, relieves the tones of breathiness or all idea of forcing. There is none of the ugly heaving of the chest or shoulders; the body is in repose, and the singer has a firm grip upon the tone in the right way. The muscles of the front wall of the abdomen and the muscles between the lower ribs become very strong and equal to any strain, while the throat is free.

The Most Difficult Vowel

“In the emission of the actual tone itself I would advise the sensation of inhaling at first. The beginner should blow out the tone. Usually instead of having a lovely floating character, with the impression of control, the tone starts with being forced, and it always remains so. The singer oversings and has nothing in reserve. When I am singing I feel as though the farther away from the throat, the deeper down I can control the breath stream, the better and freer the tone becomes. Furthermore, I can sing the long, difficult Wagnerian roles, with their tremendous demands upon the vocal organs, without the least sensation of fatigue. Some singers, after such performances, are ‘all in.’ No wonder they lose their voices when they should be in their prime.

“For me the most difficult vowel is ‘ah.’ The throat then is most open and the breath stream most difficult to control properly. Therefore I make it a habit to begin my practice with oo, oh, ah, ay, ee in succession. I never start with sustained tones. This would give my throat time to stiffen. I employ quick, soft scales, always remembering the basic principle of breath control I have mentioned, and always as though inhaling. This is an example of what I mean. To avoid shrillness on the upper tone I take the highest note with oo and descend with oo.


“The same thought applied to an arpeggio would be

 clausson-ex-2.jpg“These I take with the comfortable limits of my voice, always remembering that the least strain is a backward step. These exercises are taken through all possible keys. There can never be too much in the way of a scale or arpeggio exercise. Many singers, I know, who wonder why they do not succeed, cannot do a good scale, the very first thing they should be able to do. Every one should be like perfect pearls on a thread.

America’s Fatal Ambition

“One of the great troubles in America is the irrepressible ambition of both teachers and pupils. Europe is also not untinged with this. Teachers want to show results. Some teachers, I am told, start in with songs at the first or second lesson, with the sad knowledge that if they do not do this they may lose the pupil to some teacher who will peddle out songs. After four or five months I was given an operatic aria; and, of course, I sang it. A year of scales, exercises and solfeggios would have been far more time-saving. The pupils have too much to say about their education in this way. The teacher should be competent and then decide all such questions. American girls do not want this. They expect to step from vocal ignorance to a repertoire over night. When you study voice, you should study not for two years, but realize you will never stop studying, if you wish to keep your voice. Like any others, without exercise, the singing muscles grow weak and inefficient. There are so many, many things to learn.

“Of course, my whole training was that of the opera singer, and I was schooled principally in the Wagnerian rôles. With the coming of the war the prejudice against the greatest anti-imperialist (with the possible exception of Beethoven) which music ever has known—the immortal Wagner—became so strong that not until now has the demand for his operas become so great that they are being resumed with wonderful success. Therefore, with the exception of a few Italian and French roles, my operatic repertoire went begging.

“It was necessary for me to enter the concert field, as the management of the opera company with which I had contracts secured such engagements for me. It was like starting life anew. There is very little opportunity to show one’s individuality in opera. One must play the rôle. Therefore I had to learn a repertoire of songs, every one of which required different treatment and different individuality. With eighteen members on the program the singer has a musical, mental and vocal task which devolves entirely upon herself without the aid of chorus, co-singers, orchestra, costumes, scenery and the glamour of the footlights. It was with the greatest delight that I could fulfill the demands of the concert platform. American musical taste is very exacting. The audiences use their imaginations all the time, and like romantic songs with an atmospheric background, which accounts for my great success with songs of such type as Lieurance’s By the Waters of Minnetonka. One of the greatest tasks I have ever had is that of relating my rôles in many different languages. I learned some of them first in Swedish, then in Italian, then in French, then in German, then in English; as I am obliged to re-learn my Wagnerian rôles now.

“The road to success in voice study, like the road to success in everything else, has one compass which should be a consistent guide, and that is common sense. Avoid extremes; hold fast to your ideals; have faith in your possibilities, and work! work!! work!!!”


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