Joyce DiDonato and The Naked Voice

One of my favorite pedagogy books from the past ten years is W. Stephen Smith’s book, “The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing“.

A concept that is near and dear to my heart is the idea of “uncluttered” sound in classical singing. What I mean by this is a vocal sound that is free from interfering tensions.  These tensions are usually created in the mind of the singer as they attempt to ‘make’ their voice sound a certain way. Much classical singing suffers from a ‘postured’ or ‘over-cultured’ approach.

An uncluttered voice is natural, beautiful, free, easy, and flexible. When singers TRY to MAKE a sound in a way that stresses an end product, muscular interference will be the inevitable result.

In Smith’s book, he lays out a system of working on the voice that enables freedom and individuality. Pre-conceptualization of the tone has no place here, hence the term “Naked Voice”.  Smith utilizes what appears to be a two-register view of the voice, although he doesn’t discuss it in any depth.  Working on the chest voice and falsetto, he guides the voice to greater freedom and functional ease. The book was also the first I ever read which went against the oft-repeated saw that breath and support are the sine qua non of singing.  In fact, he states that the word ‘support’ is the S-word in his studio!

I can’t think of a better exponent of Smith’s ideas than the celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. I’ve blogged on her before as a major influence and inspiration for my own work and singing. She was asked in an interview how she fell into vocal distress while in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and her response went through me like a bolt of lightning, “I was trying to sound like an opera singer…People were convinced by the sound I was making. You can create a lot of good sound by going “aaahhh!” – really forcing it out. Plus, I was musical, and I acted okay. So they saw the final product without actually analyzing what was happening. I got by with it for a while.”

I repeat that quote a lot in my studio. Here we have one of the world’s greatest singers in classical music today, asserting that in trying to sound like something else, she trained muscular tension into her voice.  Working with Smith in a way that helped her release her pre-concept of her voice allowed a freer and more beautiful sound to emerge. This was Joyce’s ‘naked voice’.  From Smith’s book:

It was my first week in the Houston Opera Studio, and I was feeling quite on top of the world, having been accepted into such a prestigious program. Steve (Smith) looked at me within ten minutes of beginning our first session, and said, “Joyce, you’re talented and obviously very musical, but there is simply no future in the way you’re singing. You’re singing exclusively on youth and muscle.” I was old enough (twenty-six years old) to trust that he just might be right. He then dug his thumb under my chin straight into the core of my tongue tension, which at the time was my favorite type of “support” and fought upward against the intense pressure I was applying downward, and he said, “now sing [a]” I looked up to him, with the enormity of the situation slowly sinking in (what if the people at the Houston Grand Opera found out that I didn’t know the first thing about singing?), and I told him that I honestly could not phonate. I didn’t know how to sing without the tongue muscle forcing the tone out. I could not manage the most simple of [a] vowels without this crutch. I remember recoiling in horror at the situation, but deciding in that very moment to put my voice into his hands. We then spent my entire first year in the program tearing down all the devices I had firmly put into place to aid me in sounding like an opera singer. The second year was then spent building up the natural, naked voice. Every single lesson was a breakthrough moment.

3 thoughts on “Joyce DiDonato and The Naked Voice

  1. Hey there Jordan, I stumbled organically onto your blog again- and it’s another great post. Thank you for writing it. I own this book as well, though I have to admit I found it a little over my head (I’m not an opera person, as such, and I really felt like I’d need a lesson with Smith). I’m a huge fan of Joyce as well; and her masterclasses seem to be similar to Smith’s m.o., in that they’re less technical and more about expression/freedom. She’s just a lovely, free-spirited wonder. But I was just wondering: is this what you yourself teach? I just mean: gold-standards like ‘expanded ribs’ and ‘feeling like we’re inhaling’, do you not explicitly teach that? Or are you more concerned about that being a by-product, maybe??
    It’s semantics, of course, but: even though Joyce is an obvious proponent of Smith, I saw her talk about “tentpoles, holding her up” in a recent masterclass; and yet in another when someone asked “what’d you think about appoggio, do you employ it?”, she kinda weaved around it w/o answering it. I don’t think it’s disingenuous, but at the same time: if what someone is doing is basically appoggio, yet they refuse to label it as such (because it violates their code of ‘freedom’ and not talking about ‘support’), then that just serves to further confuse me!

    1. Hi Jeff – I had the most wonderful response to your comment and then when I hit enter it was deleted! GRRRR

      Suffice it say I don’t teach complicated concepts of breathing because they become a hindrance and end in a kind of singing based in self-consciousness. Manuel Garcia II found the same thing at the end of his life, as he experimented with all kinds of breathing manuevers, he found that the best thing to do was to leave it ALONE!

      The old masters taught breathing indirectly on two concepts: the long tone, and the messa di voce. All were done with a rather quiet postural disposition (no heaving up and down, no grimacing, etc.). After a long period of work in this, the tone became ‘self-supporting.’ It’s also much more psychologically peaceful to pursue something as simple as a single note.

      Hope that helps!!

  2. Hey, that’s just the kick-in-the-ass I need, Jordan; thank you for writing it. Ever since reading your ‘messa di voce’ article the other day, I’ve been trying it. It’s something that wasn’t really in my repertoire, and yeesh- it’s difficult for me. Gotta love that feeling of re-embracing the white belt.
    If you have any ideas beyond what the (older fella) in your Messa article said about the technique, i’m all ears. Truly, madly, deeply.
    But, thank you again for what you’ve written, and for being such a good bridge between past and present. (for us anti-Ludditians!) Cheers, Jeff

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