The Basics

Getting fit is an interesting psychological and physical undertaking.

One of the things that can be difficult is the consistency of basic exercises day in and day out.

To become physically fit, it’s important to build a repertoire of ‘basic’ exercises that can be done over long periods of time. While there can be many variations of exercise, there are reasons that tried and true exercises take prominence in an exercise regimen.

You can get quite far in a fitness regime with basics like the squat, bench press, pull ups, and shoulder press. These may not be ‘glamorous’ exercises or the latest and trendiest, but they do offer the most benefits over time. The squat, in particular, is an exercise that people loathe, yet it is a tremendously important exercise that is often neglected. This could be due to the challenges of executing the squat with the proper form. It’s also not a glamorous exercise.

Many people go to the gym and wander around aimlessly with no plan whatsoever. They meander from machine to machine, doing a few reps here, a few reps there. They record nothing – reps, weight, etc. So they have no real measure of physical gains from these haphazard routines. When they DO finally execute an exercise they invariably do so with bad form, and too much weight.

Singing is the same.

I recently became aware of someone online running a “Marchesi 30 Day challenge” wherein they would vocalise the Mathilde Marchesi exercises over 30 days to see how the exercises would benefit the voice.

Personally, I find the endeavor a little vainglorious. Firstly, it will be very difficult to maneuver into a 19th century pedagogy through a 21st century ‘breath and resonance’  lens. These exercises can prove daunting even for the most advanced singer.

Also important to remember is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A MAGIC EXERCISE. Many singers have taken it upon themselves to work on the collections of Concone, Lamperti, Panofka, and Marchesi in an attempt to better their technique. Yet their efforts were frustrated each time. Singing these collections WILL NOT make one a better technician unfortunately.

The harsh reality is that there are probably very few exercises that set the voice up for success. The investment is really in the TIME one spends on basic and simple exercises.

The principles of bel canto are utter simplicity.

Lest we forget, the great teacher Nicola Porpora wrote all of his vocal exercises on a single sheet of paper.

A career of a different sort was begun by a young man, who applied to a certain Italian music-teacher for instruction in the use of his voice. “You have a voice?” asked the teacher. “ Let me hear it.” The young man sang a few notes; the professor nodded. “Yes, I perceive you have a voice; so much the worse.” “How so?” asked the young man in surprise. “Those who have voices,” answered the teacher, “seldom are willing to study and learn.” But on condition that he would follow his teacher‘s instructions without a murmur, the professor consented to give him his first lesson. He therefore wrote on a sheet of paper a few simple exercises; below these some others, a little more difficult; and finally a few ornamental passages. Then, with a few words of instruction, he sent his pupil away, saying, “When you can sing these, return to me.” The young man practised the exercises a whole year. At the end of that time he returned to the master and asked him for his second lesson. The professor heard him sing the exercises on the sheet, and then quietly handed it back to him.” Study it for another year,” he said, “and then come to me again.” The docile pupil did so without murmuring. At the end of the second year he was informed that he must study a third year on the same exercises. A fourth and a fifth year passed in precisely the same manner, and then the young man began to rebel. “What did you promise me? ” said the old master sternly. The young man turned and went away without a word. The sixth year passed; and the young man began to ask himself, if it took so many years of patient practice to acquire the rudiments of singing, how long would it be before he could sing in an opera? At this rate, I have no doubt he thought, he would have to go and sing among the angels by the time he was ready to take the part of a prime tenore. But at the end of the sixth year the old maestro took his sheet of exercises and said, “Go, my son; you have nothing more to learn— you are the finest singer in Italy or the world!” The pupil was Caffarelli, the greatest tenor of his day. The teacher was Porpora.

Logan, Olive. “Voice as a Source of Income” Galaxy Volume 18 (1874).

While hundreds and hundreds of vocalization materials have been written over the centuries, there are possibly very few exercises that need to be incorporated into a voice building routine. While we might find it exciting to flip through pages and pages of velocity, scales, embellishments and trills, there are very few exercises needed in order to build a voice, and some of them are startlingly simple. What excites us when reading these collections is the sheer POTENTIALITY of the vocal instrument – yet to aim for success in these advanced scale patterns is to court disappointment.

To consider basics, let’s take the single sustained tone as an example.

I can think of NO exercise that can help the teacher and student solve as many problems as singing a single pitch on a single vowel. There are many vocal faults that can be remedied by such utter simplicity. There is nowhere to hide in a single tone sung at a moderate volume. You can ascertain a great deal about the condition of the vocal mechanism through such simple vocal action. No fireworks, no showing off – just a simple tone can be revelatory as a diagnostic tool of the singing voice. It is truly one of the great isometric vocal exercises. I jokingly refer to it as a vocal ‘wall sit,’ or ‘vocal plank.’

When you become enamored (as I have been) of vast selections of vocal exercises, remember the gym analogy! There are many exercises one can do in the gym – but some exercises will bear fruit more readily than others. Be cautious of your own vanity and boredom when exercising. Listen. Be aware. There is such a thing in the gym as “Ego Lifting” – putting on too much weight with bad form just to show off. Lifting too much too soon in the gym is equally a recipe for injury.

Remember: simple maneuvers offer the greatest physical benefits. In this way, voice training takes on much of the properties of attainment in the martial arts: time is the teacher, not quick and fast results.

By committing to basic vocal exercise, the teacher and singer can be assured of a steady (and yes) slow growth. But this is just as voice training has always been and should always be. The human larynx has not changed in 400-500 years.

Let’s establish basics as the foundation upon which all voices can be built.

Our egos may not like it, but our voices will.

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One thought on “The Basics

  1. That’s a great guide Justin……You said right that there can be multiple errors in a vocal pitch. of course no one is perfect…..i believe with more and more practice one can overcome such hurdles

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