Sing Something Softly

In order to sing well, it is necessary to sing easily – Dame Nellie Melba

Working with the singers that wish to declaim at a general forte dynamic can be a trying experience for a teacher.

In the effort to ‘get sound out’ or sound ‘supported,’ singers resort to all kinds of maneuvers and machinations to get that big, loud sound. These efforts are always drawn from the singer’s misconception of their real, authentic voice. In an effort to ‘sound like an opera singer’ the singer will go to any lengths to get the buzz, squillo, or cut that they so desperately yearn for – because the ultimate goal of singing for them is to be heard over the orchestra.

For singers and teachers of the old school, forcing was anathema to singing. The great masters of singing were horrified that any tone should be forced or pushed.

For Henry Wood, who worked in the studio of Manuel Garcia II, pushing was criminal. He also spoke to the essential element of ‘cut’ in the voice; being a conductor himself knew a thing or two about orchestral/vocal balance. His book was called The Gentle Art of Singing.

The besetting sin of the modern singer is over-blowing. As he strives to make a poor, thin voice into a big, warm, resonant one, he overtaxes his natural vocal physique, and his voice in consequence is generally unsteady, wobbly, breathy, with a dull, veiled, hooty quality. It is only a bright, clean tone which really carries over an orchestra in a theater or concert room. Ring in the tone is the great quality for which to work. There should be vital life in the tone…and this takes many years of careful listening and diligent practice to obtain.

Nellie Melba defined easy singing as follows:

I take it to mean singing without any unnecessary muscular action. That sounds very simple, but is it? How many of us know when we are making unnecessary movements? Not one in a hundred.

Emma Eames also had this to say:

I had a very flexible voice with a natural trill and…an even scale throughout. Nevertheless I worked hard at my technique and strove to eliminate every muscular effort unnecessary to the free production of tone…

For many singers, there is in evidence one way of singing forte and another for singing piano. Jean Baptiste Faure described this same phenomenon in 1886:

With some singers you notice such a disparity between their Piano voice and Forte Voice, you would think you are hearing two different people singing. These artists have no way of moving between an extreme piano and an extreme forte. It’s nearly always with the aid of a change of larynx position that they produce the piano – easily, it may be true, but superficial and without any relationship to their Forte voice.

Taking into account functional voice training, this phenomenon is easy to understand.

There are two registers of the voice: the chest and falsetto. The chest register is dominated by action of the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscles which control closure and depth of fold vibration. The falsetto register is dominated by the action of the cricothyroid (CT) muscles, which stretch and lengthen the folds. These are TWO separate mechanical muscular functions. Loud singing belongs to the action of the chest register or TA muscles; soft singing requires activity in the falsetto or CT/stretcher muscles.

For a singer whose only recourse is to a loud sound, the action of the stretchers (CT) of the folds are largely inoperative or otherwise weakened through misuse or neglect. I often say that they have been ‘pushed out of commission by the chest register.’ If the singer has no ability to sing softly at all, most assuredly the first course of action is to re-invigorate and build the muscle tone of the CT muscles through exercise of the falsetto mechanism throughout the fullest range of the voice. Also, quieter singing in the chest voice for an extended period will encourage greater participation of the stretcher muscles, and help restrain the aggressive nature of this register.

It is important to notice as well that singers that are stuck in forte probably also aren’t able to sing with any measure of flexibility at all. This is the common cry among classical singers who will say (often proudly) “My voice just doesn’t MOVE. I’m more dramatic.”

NO, you’re more loud, chesty, and registrationally unbalanced.

Another limitation of the the too-loud singer is the inability to decrescendo. What Faure was describing above was an obvious textural change in the REGISTRATION of the voice, as one muscle system clumsily switched to another. Because the resonance adjustment (the suspensory mechanism of the larynx) also was incorrectly positioned, the tonal timbre changed dramatically with the intensity of the pitch.

From a psychological standpoint we might ask: What is the effect on the human psyche from singing in a consistently loud aggressive way? What happens to the singer who has no recourse to expression save a consistent forte? I believe that the psyche of the constantly loud singer presents several phenomena:

  1. A highly aggressive personality
  2. A mistrust of any tones that are not mezzo forte or above. They view anything less as ‘unsupported’ or ‘off the voice.’
  3. Anxiety regarding the amount of sound that they are producing.
  4. A ‘loud’ or boisterous personality, which they believe is the reason for their vocal estate.
  5. Fear of singing, period. The singer is loud in an attempt to ‘prove that they can do it’ in the first place.
  6. Compensation for deeper psychological issues. Singing too loudly can be a way to HIDE the true nature of the voice from view, and the loud voice becomes armor against exposure.

In all of these cases, it should be noted that singing softly has a calming effect on the psyche.

For singers that suffer from anxiety and stress in singing, soft singing in an easy range for a time might be just the discipline needed to reset or rebalance a lopsided singing technique, and restore the singer’s mental approach to voice.

For those that worry that singing softly is not enough for opera or other volume conscious styles, the words of Richard Bacon can be a consolation. In his book from 1824, entitled Elements of Vocal Science, he asserts:

The voice will naturally acquire volume from exercise, and the capital circumstance is to obtain power without diminishing the excellence of the tone, either as respects its brilliancy, richness, sweetness or any of the attributes which render it affecting to the hearer…

Michael Balfe, the composer and singer, agrees in his book from 1850 The Italian School of Singing:

There is no voice, however beautiful, which may not, by art, acquire additional purity, volume and extent; and almost any voice, however feeble or defective, if accompanied by a good ear and a certain taste and feeling, may be rendered at least agreeable and expressive… …an amateur with a good ear, and musical taste and sensibility, may become a pleasing and elegant singer, though gifted by nature with very small powers of voice.

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