Those Old Italian Teachers Knew Nothing of Science. Oh REALLY?

The greatest teachers of the past were singers and musicians who knew by hearing, not by observation alone, what beautiful tone and perfect expression were. That was the rock upon which they built their knowledge. The statement that they had no definite knowledge is in reality without foundation. And some of their knowledge was scientific. Science is knowledge gained by systematic observation, experiment and reasoning; also, knowledge coordinated and arranged. The former is true of the old school, and perhaps even the latter. Mancini certainly tells us some very definite things about his own observation and teaching; so does Tosi, so do others. Mancini particularly tells us that the fauces must point forward, and calls attention to the fact that “modern singers” (that is, singers of the latter half of the eighteenth century) were trying to get more power by stretching or tensing the fauces, to the detriment of their voices, which one assertion tells us as plainly as possible that he believed in singing with freely active fauces, which means freely active palate, at least without willful tension applied locally.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).

How the Greeks Attained Vocal Resonance – Eek!

We all know the story of Demosthenes and his “mouthful” of pebbles” and we may be amused thereby; but we may be a little alarmed when we read that actors of Greek tragedy slashed the back of the throat, the pharynx wall, with sharp instruments, in order to cause an irritation and ensuing “granulation” of the membrane, in the belief that this condition of sore throat increased the carrying power of the voice.

So we find even in the beginning of the art of singing, for the Greek actor was at least half a singer, the inclination toward queer tricks as imaginary “local” aids to the production of voice.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).


The Long Tone: the Embryo of All Music

The reason for working on long tones from 1 to 5, at the bottom of the dynamic range, is obvious: it is the range most neglected by students and professionals alike. In order to expand our limited dynamic palette and play pp with certainty in even the most difficult and exposed concert situation, it is necessary to develop the extreme soft register. When you master this ability, you will immediately stand out from the crowd. In an audition, exhibiting this fine degree of dynamic nuance can be the deciding factor that wins you the job. Musical freedom is attained only through dynamic control.

Remember that nothing in nature, if it is alive, starts out big and gets smaller. Develop your tone from the bottom up. If this means having a small tone for a year or two in school before you build greater volume, so be it. As you grow into your tone over time, always strive to keep that soft control while increasing your dynamic range. Never surrender that.

McGill, David. Sound in motion: A performer’s guide to greater musical expression. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Quote of the Day

Since music exists in time and since time never moves backward, we must guard against loss of forward motion. Even during a diminuendo, there must still be forward momentum so the line will not be broken. Think of a train that approaches from a distance at fifty miles per hour (crescendo), passes by (peak), and continues on its way down the track (diminuendo), never slowing down as it recedes into the distance. Similarly, a diminuendo should also sustain its rate of forward motion as it recedes into silence.

How the last note of any phrase or composition is played has a profound effect on the listener. If the final pitch is support with intensity until its extinction, the feeling of forward motion will continue in the listener’s mind even after the note has faded to nothing. Sadly, it is true that the musical line can be destroyed even during the last note of a phrase or composition.

McGill, David. Sound in motion: A performer’s guide to greater musical expression. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

A Place of Calm

One of the particulars of teaching voice that has always felt clumsy to me is that awkward moment when the lesson begins and we transition from a place of chatting to the first exercises.

For a long time I felt stymied because I wasn’t sure if the first thing I was choosing to do was the RIGHT thing. Is this beginning scale going to set the system in motion in a way that engenders freedom? How can I help the singer find their way to the ‘singing place’ within themselves?

Many teachers start with routines of stretching and massage, and those might be great ways to begin, but they never resonated with me. I recall my choir rehearsals in high school began with a massage train, each of us massaging the back of our neighbor, only to turn and repeat the process on the other side. But in today’s environment massaging a student is a big no-no, and I’ve learned the hard way that even a warm hug can be misinterpreted, causing me no end of embarrassment when the student expressed their discomfort.

One of the most interesting and inspired choices for beginning a rehearsal is mentioned in James Jordan’s thought-provoking book “Sound as Teacher.” I highly recommend this book, intended for conductors, as a way to deepen one’s hearing skills. I know it is a text that I will return to many times over the course of my career. Jordan is an advocate for the use of plainchant in the choral rehearsal to foster listening skills, attention, and a sense of CALM.

I’ve come to realize that allowing for calm is more important than the selection of the perfect scale. Giving the student a transition from the outside, noisy, anxious, frenetic world to a place of calm has proven to be the solution that I’ve been looking for. I make ABSOLUTELY NO CORRECTIONS to anything at the start of a lesson. As I’ve mentioned before, it does no good to make the student self-conscious from the get-go. I call this particular aspect of training “Letting the Horse Out of the Barn.”

I think that it is vital to allow music making to come from a place of stillness and peace regardless of the complexity of emotions being expressed. More importantly, calmness allows the vocal musculature and the body to react in a way that is devoid of a frantic approach to singing. When the throat is free from constriction, sound can more freely ‘resonate.’

It’s also important to understand the difference between CALM and LETHARGY. The two are not the same. The singer can still be in a state of readiness and exhibit qualities of calmness.

Students may exhibit lethargy in lessons, which is the opposite of a calm readiness to sing. One of the best ways to work with this energy quality is to SPEED UP the exercise patterns and tempi. The student will need to vitalize their energy to meet the increased demand placed on the system. This is the same way that increasing tempo on a treadmill requires that the body be ‘ready’ for the task. Contrarily, a student that is ‘wound up’ needs exercises that are more slow, quiet, and methodical in approach. One of the most CALMING ways of working a frenetic student’s energy is to get them into LONG tones sung PIANO for the duration of a single breath. Then repeat. Working this way becomes a sort of ‘meditation’ in tone that has a calming effect on the student’s energy.

At no point though do I make the student self-conscious, or just ask them to ‘energize’ or ‘calm down!’ This is counterproductive from a psychological vantage point. It’s likely that they will overcompensate an energy ‘mood’ in the desire to be where I want them to be.

As a Functional Voice Teacher, I need to work with their energy INDIRECTLY, using – yes – PITCH, VOWEL, and VOLUME – even these simple elements can control the energy in the lesson, and they DO solve a multitude of issues with no recourse to mechanistic, direct, or local-control methods. It gets to the heart of the issue without asking a student to do jumping jacks or lie on the floor for protracted periods of time. Lesson time is precious, and we should spend every minute in the growth and development of the student’s vocal abilities. A calm beginning lays the foundation for productive musical work within a framework of physical and psychological peace.


Quote of the Day

…if strong coordinate action is present, and the voice is obviously being well used, exercises for separating the registers should not be employed at all. Division of the registers is only advisable when there is a patent need for correcting muscular imbalances.

Reid, Cornelius L. The free voice: a guide to natural singing. Joseph Patelson Music House, 1978.

The Same Way That God Makes Trees

A musician is musical when their music making elicits an emotional response from players and listeners. To be musical is to “make music like God makes trees” – that is, in a manner and style that is natural and consistent with the performers personality, intellect and intimate emotional capacity. Being musical is more than juggling notes. One’s music making should awaken the soul.

Frank Battisti, from Eugene Migliaro Corporon, “Principles for Achievement, Enhancing Musicianship and Valued Colleagues,” in Teaching Music Through Performance in Band, Vol. 8.