I had one of the most amazing conversations today with some wonderful teacher colleagues and friends of mine.
We discussed the position of the face in singing and its importance not only in the resonance of the voice, but also in the DURATION of the singing voice.
My favorite quote from Isaac Nathan is the following:
The voice can neither improve in strength, nor in quality, if the mouth is distorted like that of a person writhing in convulsions, or suffering under violent corporal agony. All extravagancies are absurd, and destroy the very purpose which they were intended to promote.
For the Old School Teachers, the smiling position of the mouth was the ideal posture of the face. Manuel Garcia, Jr. himself said:
The best position for the mouth is the one that Tosi and Mancini advise. According to them, ‘every singer should put his mouth the way he does when he smiles naturally, that means in such a way that the upper teeth are perpendicularly and moderately separated from the ones below.’
This follows Garcia’s work on the TWO timbres of the voice: bright and dark. For Garcia, the DARK timbre was not to be favored to the exclusion of the BRIGHT timbre. In his treatise of 1841 he had this to say:
This timbre, (timbre sombre) carried to exaggeration, covers the tones, chokes them, rendering them dull and raucous.
Ernestine Schumann-Heink mentions in her writings, “Smile naturally, as though you were generally amused at something.”
In the highly-recommended book, “The Old Italian School of Singing”, Daniela Bloem-Hubatka has this to say on the subject:
The smiling mouth favors the high notes. The drooping mouth makes going up the scale harder. If you want to sing in Italian, French or German or any other European language, a bright “ah” is indispensable. Not only a bright “ah” but also a bright “i” (English “ee”). Both vowels are produced with a smile. You will find that the vowels ah, ay, ee are very easy to articulate from a smiling mouth position. Only a slight rounding of the lips is necessary for O and U (English “OO”)
The discussion with my colleagues also delved into a consensus that the drooping mouth has become a norm in most classical singers. In an attempt at ‘darker’, ‘richer’ tone qualities with more ‘core’, singers are using dropped facial postures that more closely resemble expressions of confusion, fatigue, listlessness, and gloominess. The singing takes on the same character as the face, too, becoming shouty, yelly, aggressive, and bombastic. Singers that sing in this way tend to have VERY little agility in the voice, and very little lyricism. Dynamic contrast is not available to people singing in this manner, and any kind of deeper musicality and expression of happiness or joy are limited by the functional ability that the voice has been muscularly ‘specialized into’.
Another important point that I must emphatically stress, is that the ‘smile’ cannot be an artificial, or ‘mannequin’ smile. Nor is it an attempt to put sound into the mask! Tsk! Tsk! Anything that makes the singer appear unpleasant is to be avoided as a technique of singing. Work with Nature! Temporary sounds OF COURSE must be used as correctives, but these sounds shouldn’t be the default for getting ‘resonance’ into the voice.
For visual examples of this ‘smiling mouth’ position, let’s go straight to video!
Observe the general facial posture of Leonard Warren in this clip from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Smiling! Smiling! Smiling!
Rosa Ponselle, in her audition for MGM, displays the ‘smiling’ mouth in her singing of selections from “Carmen”.
Observe the face of Enrico Caruso singing below and the posture of his face. In every vowel there is still a tendency that the area of the cheeks is lifting in each phoneme.
Let me be PERFECTLY CLEAR: this raised area of the face is not something that the singer should ACTIVELY attempt to raise on a consistent basis. This invariably will lead to a falseness of appearance and tone quality, as well as tension in the risorius muscles of the face. Remember what Tosi said, ‘A Natural Smile’.
What would something like this have to do with registration and function?
First, these two timbres are obtained by movements of the larynx and the palate, which always function in opposition. This is something that Garcia knew about, and WROTE about in 1894 in his Hints on Singing. An exercise given by Garcia was:
In the same breath, on the same note, and on each of the vowels a, e, i, o, the student must pass through every shade of timbre, from the most open (or bright) to the most closed (or dark). The sounds must be maintained with an equal degree of force.
The modern darker, deeper approach to singing leads to sound that tends to be registrationally chest dominant in approach, ruled by size of sound and CORE of tone over flexibility, and a thicker production which tends to ‘fizzle out’ in the singer’s 5th decade. Not to mention that the PSYCHE and SOMA of the singer become one of darkness, aggressiveness, egotism and pomposity. The singer trained in this way over time stands behind this meaty vocal production as a badge of moralistic honor, as if he/she and he/she alone were the exemplar of what it means to be an ‘Operatic Singer’. Ladies and gentlemen, this IS the unfortunate sound of the modern operatic voice. Is it surprising that this sound fails to touch the human heart?
In an Old School approach, the voice was to be trained in a way that preserved the youthfulness of the sound into the seventh and eighth decade of a singer’s life. Countless accounts of singers maintain the theory that they were able to keep the FRESHNESS of their voices for much longer than many modern-trained singers. Wobbles were unknown in this crowd, generally speaking. And the singing had A JOYOUS quality to it. The intrinsic happiness of singing prevailed as a general default for singing. We must return to the JOY in our singing sounds in classical music.
In closing, I’m deferring to my colleague and friend Daniela Bloem-Hubatka once again:
The advice of Tosi proves to be most valuable and simple for the development of the voice that will stay sweet, fresh and pleasing as a result: “Let him [the aspiring singer] rigorously correct all grimaces and tricks of the head, the body, and particularly the mouth, which ought to be composed in a manner (if the sense of the words permit it) rather inclined to a smile than to too much gravity.”
Garcia gives an excellent survey of the vowels and consonants as they have to be formed in historical singing. He answers all the questions that might come up concerning their functions when singing is coupled with words.