The Impulse to Sing

The effect produced by singing depends upon the depth of feeling of the singer. The voice of a sympathetic singer is quite different from that of one who is heartless. However artificially cultivated a voice may be, it will never produce feeling, grace and beauty unless the heart be cultivated also. Singing has a twofold source of interest: the grace of music, and the beauty of poetry. In proportion as the singer feels the words he sings, an effect is produced upon the listeners; his heart, so to speak, accompanies the song.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Mysticism of Sound and Music: Revised Edition (Shambhala Dragon Editions) (p. 164). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

A pedagogical topic long neglected is a discussion on the pre-phonatory impulse to sing. When we make sounds with our vocal folds, there is always an intention behind these vocal vibrations. Babies without language have no recourse except sound to communicate their states of being. A perceptive mother can interpret very quickly sounds of impatience, hunger, annoyance, fatigue or boredom.

This question of impulse would indicate a pedagogical issue more psychological than technical/physical. David Clark Taylor discussed this a century ago when he encouraged singers to work from their ears to develop their concept of tone. The best teachers of the Old School recommended hearing great singing regularly to develop their ears and artistry. (In painting, one studies the works of the Masters as well.)

From Tosi:

Let him hear as much as he can the most celebrated Singers, and likewise the most excellent instrumental Performers; because, from the Attention in hearing them, one reaps more Advantage than from any Instruction whatsoever.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Opinioni de’cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi… Dedicate a Sua Eccellenza Mylord Peterborough... L. dalla Volpe, 1723.

In addition to these values, every successful singer attests to specific inner feelings and impulses which preclude making vocal sound: expansiveness, joy, love, well-being. Marie Withrow, in her book Some Staccato Notes for Singers (1915), encourages a joyous approach to singing when she writes:

The singer must express all Moods and Emotions with his voice, but LIVE habitually with the JOYOUS (p. 8). Let there be positive physical JOY in all so-called breathing exercises (p. 41).

This view of working joyously is a pedagogical approach mentioned by many authors. Clara Kathleen Rogers, (stage name Clara Doria, whom I have covered in this blog) in Your Voice and You (1925) wrote the following:

There is nothing that stimulates the impulse to voice the emotions so urgently as a general sensation of well-being. Consciousness of the joy of living as motive-power to a natural outburst of song. You have, of course, experienced this; we all have (p.4).

Cornelius Reid, writing in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology (1983), had this to say:

Most of the subtle adjustments made in “coloring” the vowel are emotionally oriented. They take position as a response to feelings commonly associated with vocal literature such as love, anger, fear, disdain, happiness, longing, jealousy, and the like. However, before the ultimate purpose of singing is confronted, i.e., to convey with great sensitivity a full range of emotional experience episodically, the pure joy of making sound for its own sake must be developed. How the singer relates to this is another important aspect of vocal color, for the QUALITY of his identification, his response to feeling THROUGH feeling, will in the long run establish his value as an artist (p. 291).

One of the complaints of this writer is the pervasive generalized emotionless ‘dark’ quality cultivated in modern classical singing. Sounds that might be described as grave, woofy, grim, and even sepulchral. This pervades even the most joyous music. (Let us not forget that when Garcia described the two timbres voix claire and voix sombrée he placed them within a context of emotional expression – not technical achievement!!)

And most importantly, could these dark sounds be due to the fact that voice training has prioritized technical rectitude over emotional expression?

We mustn’t forget that singing is an act of connection with other human beings, and we must always bring ourselves fully (emotionally, spiritually, and physically) to the act of singing.  Photo taken by the author at the Duomo museum in Florence, Italy.

In an era when anatomical and acoustic discussion are flourishing, it cannot be ignored that many technically proficient voices neglect to bring their souls to their work. Conversely, technically limited voices can enchant and beguile if their emotional connection has not been severed. It would appear connection to one’s soul is the sine qua non of exceptional singing in ANY style.


Imagine my surprise when I found the article “Consequences From Emotional Stimulus on Breathing for Singing” by Viggo Pettersen and Kåre Bjørkey published in the Journal of Voice, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2009. Their research found that classical singers change their breathing patterns when they vocalize using emotional stimulus compared with using no emotional stimulus. These results implied that vocalizing using emotional stimulus facilitates a more prominent role for lower lateral abdominal activity in the positioning of the abdominal wall and thorax than observed when vocalizing using no emotional stimulus.

This study illuminates the fact that breathing for singing is more delicate and finely tuned than we can imagine.  And more to the point: what attempts do control, manipulation, or management have on the emotional health and expression of the singer? What occurs in the psyche of the singer if these emotional expressions are not ‘released’? Could this emotional repression explain why so many voices tend to be rather darkened, postured, and pre-conceived?

How can we transform our singing with more soul and heart?

It’s a private, personal affair and perhaps should first be done in solitude. Perhaps it can be brought about through meditation, or activities that inspire awe or wonder: starry nights under a blanket of stars, stained glass windows in a church, the expanse of an open field, walking on a beach at twilight, being in the presence of great art in a museum, a particular musical composition which leads to feelings of exaltation. When I am in these situations I always end up singing – I just can’t help it. Most singers would agree with me about this ‘feeling’ as well.

Finding awe in life and joy in living is the vital essence of becoming a great singer and artist. We should prioritize the cultivation of the human heart and soul alongside the voice.

There is a connection between these feelings of awe and exaltation with the act of singing. I would call this the ‘singer’s sense.’ It is a tremendous feeling of uplift, health, and controlled excitement. It is a lovely, wonderful feeling that sends a positive charge throughout the body, and prepares one to share oneself through the medium of voice. It is not anxious, but energetic, and yet peaceful at the same time.

The cultivation of the human soul and spirit should progress in tandem with all vocal development. Sainte Chappelle in Paris, France.


This impulse cannot be taught directly in a voice studio by a teacher. It can only be stimulated and then cultivated. Every vocal scale should ideally be prefaced with this impulse to sing. It renders an instant LIVING emotionality to the voice which when missing renders the voice lifeless and unengaging – dead. The singer should NEVER sing without this sensation, and should strive constantly to affirm it, by ‘filling the well,’ of beautiful images, sights, and sounds in their daily life.

Beautiful singing should come from beautiful souls. To cultivate the voice is to cultivate the soul. If the voice is the only thing being cultivated, the essential lifeforce of the singer has been lost in a sea of meaningless technical perfection.

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.

La Meri, (1898-1988) American Dancer

Ramblings from the Bench (Pun intended)

Just some random ideas today…

As I work out at the gym, I’m struck by the fact that I don’t really see a high proportion of bodybuilders there. There are a lot of your average, everyday people who wish to accomplish their physical goals or stay healthy in general.

YES, there are elite coaches and trainers for those muscle bound athletes and I’m sure when they compete they need to find higher levels of training to accomplish their goals. Gratefully, there are many high level coaches to help those people win competitions and awards. But how many are helping these people in THIS gym? Zero.

Not everyone is a bodybuilder. And not every trainer works with a studio filled with bodybuilders, unless one is an elite market working in a metropolitan area filled with bodybuilders.

So, too, with voice training.

Not every student that walks in the door is going to be a star. But each deserves to have a vocal tuition that will assist them in finding their healthiest and freest voice.

Elite trainers might not be able to work with the mother who wants to work on her voice to sing for her daughter’s wedding – and may weed out students like her because she isn’t a bodybuilder. I cast no aspersion on that coach whatsoever, but the mother is more COMMON than the bodybuilder statistically.

I find sometimes that pedagogy is geared toward the bodybuilders and doesn’t take into account the average singer. There is a lot of value for these people in singing well. They have no desire to stand on a stage displaying their vocal muscles. For these singers, singing is a delicious pleasure and brings them unmeasurable happiness. Even more, these people DESERVE to sing.

Independent voice teachers tend to get more of your average singer (average here is not seen as a pejorative, merely the statistical average of most voices), while teachers in academia get their pick of talented students. This allows for a higher degree of selection for ‘bodybuilders.’ This can create unbalanced and often lopsided pedagogical discussions: you’re talking about training a bodybuilder, and I’m working with grandma who wants to keep her voice fresh and healthy. You can see how we’d be operating from two separate frames.

There are a lot of ways to exist in the voice training world, but not everyone is a bodybuilder, and we should respect that.


Nature Under High Cultivation

“One of the writer’s acquaintances has declared it to be his belief that there is no such thing as a natural method of singing, because singing is an artificial achievement. It is art. We were never intended by nature to sing, but simply to speak. In a measure this is true. Singing is art, while speaking is nature. But singing can be done by methods entirely opposed to nature, and also by other methods amicably related to her. These latter methods are all simple, the others are all complex.


The truth is that while speaking is nature, singing is nothing more than nature under high cultivation. The culture of wildflowers has in some instances given us beautiful additions to the garden. Speaking is like the wild rose; singing like the American Beauty. The student of singing should always keep this thought in mind, and when he finds himself confronted with some theory which makes the act of drawing and exhaling the breath or beginning the emission of a tone appear to be a complex process, depending on the voluntary guidance of a number of muscles and ligaments, he should examine it very closely and with suspicion.

The art of singing is an aesthetic art, not an anatomical study. It begins with an ideal dwelling in the realm of the conception of tonal beauty, not in the domain of correct movement of muscles. The problem of the great masters of the early period was to ascertain the best way of singing beautiful tones on every vowel sound throughout the entire range of a voice, not to find how to operate certain parts of the body and decide that such operation ought to give the tone.

They reasoned from the tone to the operation, not from the operation to the tone. Too many modern theorists seem to proceed in the latter way, and that is why they build up complicated and unnatural processes which confuse students and do incalculable harm.”


Henderson, William James. The Art of the Singer: Practical Hints about Vocal Technics and Style. C. Scribner’s sons, 1906.


Quote of the Day

Melismatic singing was held by Christian mystics to be the highest form of religious utterance: “It is a certain sound of joy without words,” St. Augustine wrote of melismatic chanting in the fourth century, “the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.”1 It came to be called jubilated singing, after jubilus, Latin for a “call” upon God (as in Charlemagne’s Admonitio, quoted earlier; compare the root ju-, pronounced “yoo,” as in “yoo-hoo!”). This musical jubilation, in fact, was the means through which the Latin word took on its secondary (in English borrowings, primary) association with joy.

Taruskin, Richard. “Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Volume 1 of The Oxford History of Western Music.” (2005).

  1. Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina, Vol. XXXVII (Paris, 1853), p. 1953, trans. Gustave Reese in Music of the Middle Ages (New York: Norton, 1940), p. 64.