Simply Singing Simply

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
― Isaac Newton

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

Why are vocal terms, descriptions, directives, and training so nebulous? Until the third decade of the nineteenth century there was little argument over basic tenets of voice training.  The earliest treatises and writings on the voice say very little about vocal technique per se, yet the singers of that time were some of the greatest that the world has ever known.

Vocal terminology is often arbitrary, subjective, misleading, and self-serving. To define is to limit, and since the vocal function is a totality of mental, conceptual, emotional, and physical responses, its product, vocal tone, cannot be precisely defined.

Nevertheless, if order is to be restored out of chaos, a terminology must be decided upon, and anchored in concrete reality rather than aesthetic, metaphysical and/or subjective impressions, whereby intelligence relating to the development, care and preservation of the voice can take place with other disciplines without embarrassment.

Reid, Cornelius L. “A dictionary of vocal terminology: An analysis.” (1983).

The following aria, sung by Farinelli, and written for his talents, was composed in the year 1734-35. It is from the opera Artaserse and premiered in London in a time that the British were mad for Italian opera. This opera aria was written at a time when NO text on singing to that time mentioned the words diaphragm, breath control, or breath management.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Now listen to the aria:

Does this demonstrate breath control as a CAUSE or an EFFECT of a balanced voice? Said more simply, did Farinelli’s breath control cause his flexibility, or did his flexibility cause breath control?

In 1735, when this opera was written, Tosi had been dead for 3 years. His book Observations on the Florid Song was published in 1723, a reasonable distance from the opera that you just heard. What does Tosi say about breathing in his seminal text from 1723? Very little:

§ 24. Let him forbid the Scholar to take Breath in the Middle of a Word, because the dividing it in two is an Error against Nature; which must not be followed, if we would avoid being laugh’d at. In interrupted Movements, or in long Divisions, it is not so rigorously required, when the one or the other cannot be sung in one Breath. Anciently such Cautions were not necessary, but for the Learners of the first Rudiments; now the Abuse, having taken its Rise in the modern Schools, gathers Strength, and is grown familiar with those who pretend to Eminence. The Master may correct this Fault, in teaching the Scholar to manage his Respiration, that he may always be provided with more Breath than is needful; and may avoid undertaking what, for want of it, he cannot go through with.

§ 25. Let him shew, in all sorts of Compositions, the proper Place where to take Breath, and without Fatigue; because there are Singers who give Pain to the Hearer, as if they had an Asthma taking Breath every Moment with Difficulty, as if they were breathing their last.

So, breathing in the right location was important. Not in the middle of words (an Error against Nature!), and it was up to the Master to help the student learn how to ‘manage’ it. Gasping or heaving breaths were to be avoided. However, there’s nothing else in Tosi’s book to show us how the ‘management’ was to be accomplished. VEXING!

Perhaps it’s because vocal training used to be rather simple? Teachers of singing didn’t have intensive backgrounds in science or anatomy, yet they were able to make the instrument sing! Despite their process of ‘cultivation’, which I have covered in a previous post, voices were flexible, expansive, and highly expressive, with a considerable amount of ‘breath control’. By cultivating a voice in accordance with Nature and ‘nature’s laws’, the teachers of the past were able to take the voice gradually from the simple to the complex, as Tosi so eloquently stated in his book.

In a similar vein, the principles and practices of Yoga haven’t changed very much in over several thousand years. Discoveries of anatomy and physiology haven’t influenced to a greater extent the structure and content of ideas yoga has promulgated all these years. Additionally, yoga students aren’t instructed in every single move of every single muscle in a class and tension of any kind is seen as a bad thing. Why is this not the same in teaching voices? Is the voice not in the body? Is it not receptive to the same patterns of growth and strength that have been demonstrated in yoga for thousands of years?

Perhaps simplicity in teaching is the touchstone? We need to replace jargon and favorite words for a straightforward terminology and pedagogy. Fewer names for things and a few technical exercises will all succeed in giving a student a simple and constructive voice lesson, and build the voice in the ‘loom of time’.

Keep it simple…

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