Self-accompanied singing:
reviving a lost tradition in the professional practice and development of classical singers

Written by Lucy Green, Emerita Professor of Music Education UCL Institute of Education, London UK

Our Expert Advisory Board will include: Professor Eric Clarke (Oxford University), to advise particularly on the listening experiment; Dame Sarah Connolly to advise on musical interpretation, performance and vocal/instrumental technical matters; Prof. Libby Allison (Berklee College of Music, USA), Timothy Palmer (Trinity Laban College of Music) and Anthony Gritten (Royal College of Music) to advise on matters concerning the conservatoire level. A contemporary composer who writes for and performs self-accompanied music.
And Paula Bär-Giese singer/pianist - Amersfoort, Holland. The wonderful Paula Bar-Giese from the Netherlands has kindly and enthusiastically agreed to join our board. She has huge experience of self-accompanied performance, and seems daunted by nothing from early music to Bellini to Ravel.

Organisations willing to support us in various ways will include: the British Voice Association [AGREED], the Australian Voice Association [AGREED], the Guildhall School of Music and Drama [AGREED], the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Royal Northern College of Music, Trinity Laban, and the Leeds College of Music, all in the UK and Berklee College of Music in the USA [AGREED]

Short summary (26 Oct 2020)

Self-accompanied singing was once regarded as a basic necessity for any professional singer. It was practiced from ancient times throughout the medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic periods of music, not only by amateurs in the home, but top professionals in the court, salon, concert-hall, and even the opera-house. It is not commonly known that the practice only died out among classical (broadly defined) singers in the 1930s. As just a few examples: in 1933 Richard Tauber was filmed accompanying himself singing ‘Schwanengesang’ by Schubert; throughout the 1920s Michael Head gave regular self-accompanied recitals at the Wigmore Hall; and in 1907 Nellie Melba was recorded self-accompanying a performance of ‘Mattinata’ by Tosti. Many others around this time were self-accompanying in the opera-house, including major stars such as Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti and Maria Malibran (see Bier, 2013, The Ideal Orpheus: An Analysis of Virtuosic Self-Accompanied Singing as a Historical Vocal Performance Practice, University of York). Today, whilst many popular and traditional musicians engage in this unique form of music-making, it is almost completely absent from classical music and music education. A tiny minority of classical singers do accompany themselves professionally in the present time, mostly in either early music or contemporary classical music. Very few accompany themselves singing 18th or 19th century music.
Although scant, evidence already suggests that self-accompanied singing might bring a range of as-yet un-investigated advantages, as well as challenges. As part of the preparation for this bid we conducted a small-scale questionnaire amongst 6 professional classical singers. From those early results, and a range of other communications we have received from singers in the UK, Europe and the States, it is reasonable to surmise that a) self-accompaniment is mainly engaged in partially, sporadically, and never on stage; and yet b) it would attract the interest of professional singers. From other research - phenomenological research by the CI in preparation for the bid; Bier (2013 above); and Nystabakk (2020, Singing With the Lute: in Search of New Tools in Lute Song Performance, Norwegian Academy of Music) - we can anticipate that it may prove to be a highly fulfilling musical activity for the singer, who is likely to experience an exceptionally immersed, fuller engagement with the music. Possibly also, a self-accompanied singer might build a higher level of spontaneity and engagement into their performances than one who is accompanied by another person: a study in the psychology of music (by Keller et al, ‘Pianists play better with themselves’, 2007) found that pianists who duet with a pre-recording of themselves play better than when they duet with another person: we believe comparable findings are worth seeking in relation to self-accompaniment in singing. This belief is supported by the psychologist of music Prof. Eric Clarke of Oxford University, who will be a member of our Expert Advisory Board. There are indications that audiences may respond well to what would be a new and fresh concert experience too, such as comments posted on Sarah Connolly's self-accompanied lock-down performance of Schubert's 'An die Musik' on Youtube. Ms Connolly has agreed to be a member of our Expert Advisory Board. Regarding challenges, our early investigations, which are backed up historically by Bier (2013), suggest many unspoken, implicit assumptions circulate amongst singers and singing teachers. These include the notion that singers would not be able to sing to their fullest capacity if they were self-accompanying, that the voice might be damaged, that audiences would not enjoy seeing or hearing a classical singer accompany themselves, and others. But as yet there is little or no actual evidence to back these up. We aim to investigate them and to provide some concrete data on this topic in various ways, explained below.
We believe the field of classical singing may be losing out from having dropped the practice of self-accompaniment. We suggest that self-accompanied singing deserves investigation as a musical practice in its own right; a contribution to historically-informed performance practice; and potentially as a candidate for re-introduction in music education, from beginner to post-graduate levels. This project is a first step towards a) investigating the nature and uses of self-accompanied singing among professional classical singers mainly in the UK, North America and Australia, but also in Europe, and a sample of conservatoire students in the UK and USA today; b) charting and analysing the experiences of purposively selected singers in preparing a self-accompanied performance; c) eliciting expert 'blind' comparisons of self-accompanied performances; and d) creating a forum for performance and debate.
We plan to investigate the field initially through an online questionnaire collecting both qualitative data such as the extent to which classical singers believe self-accompaniment is a good or a bad thing, and why; and quantitative data such as how many classical singers actually do self-accompany, and in what contexts. We will then conduct interviews with both a cross-section from the questionnaire, and a sample of singers who already accompany themselves professionally, to examine their views and experiences in depth. We will engage some novice self-accompaniers, working both inside and beyond conservatoire training, who have advanced singing and instrumental skills but have never put them together before. We will ask them to engage in self-accompaniment and keep a diary of their experiences. We will also request them to make two home audio recordings: one of their self-accompanied performance and one of the same song, but with an accompanist. These recordings will be evaluated by a panel of experts including musicologists, psychologists of music, voice scientists, singers and singing teachers. Comparisons will be made between the self-accompanied and the accompanied performances. Finally, we will hold a conference in which project participants will be invited to give self-accompanied performances to a live audience, and there will be presentations of our findings, other relevant research and panel discussions.

Conversation about self -accompaniment with Ewa Leszczyńska, a polish singer and pianist

Self-accompanied singing Paula Bär-Giese videos

Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München

Johannes Brahms - Lied (um 1889) Text Joseph von Eichendorff (1837)

Walther Wolfgang Freiherr von Goethe compositions

Henri Duparc 1870 - l'Invitation au voyage

Gabriël Fauré - Clair de lune

Franz Liszt Haus Weimar

AVE MARIA - Bach/Gounod


'O quante volte' - Bellini

Doll's song from “The Tales of Hoffman”

Casta Diva Bellini

Amarilli, mia bella - Giulio Caccini


Queen  Hortense - Palace 't Loo