The Descending Diatonic Scale

The following is taken from Walter Foster’s important book, Singing Redefined, published by Recital Publications, 1998.:


A study of the descending scale will help establish concepts of breathing and energization in conjunction with the inception and duration of tone. It will also help with the process of disassociating pitch-rise with increase in effort, a misconception that leads to struggle in the upper range. Correcting this fault requires eliminating the element of “effort” from the singer’s concept.

D. Ralph Appelman and William Vennard are two writers whose research justifies this conceptual image. In his book, The Science of Vocal Pedagogy (1967), Appelman noted that the necessary breath pressure for pitches anywhere in the singer’s range is provided by the natural, balanced interaction of exhalation and resonation when the singer is singing at a medium (mf) dynamic level (p. 16).

William Vennard, in Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic (1967), determined that the normal elastic nature of the lung capacity provides sufficient pressurization for most singing needs, and that, therefore, forced expiration is not necessary (¶ 124). He also stated that in an adjustment in which the glottis is not completely sealed, tone can be started and sustained by a pattern of “breath-flow-breath-pressure” alternation that occurs through the operation of the Bernoulli Effect. For Vennard, this constituted singing “on the breath.” (¶ 244).

If these researchers are correct, then the natural elevation of the pressure that occurs in the lungs as a result of inspiration and lung cavity recoil provides the energy for singing tones of substantial volume on any pitch in the singer’s range. This conclusion, noted historically by a number of other researchers as well may be difficult to accept by those singers who have pushed, shoved, shouted, screamed, forced, squeezed and driven their voices for years. However, its correctness will become perfectly clear to any singer who adopts it as a point of departure for singing the descending scale and pursues the study of this musical phrase with patience, courage and aural dare. One must dare to hear one’s own upper notes sung with ease, to image the event and to allow it to occur.

What makes singing upper notes difficult is the interference imposed upon vocal function by any deliberate, conscious, localized muscular gripping of any part of the drive system. Any such action over-pressurizes the larynx, disbalances the vocal tract and calls into play the reflex tensing of constrictor muscles attempting to close the throat and rebalance the system. Singing on “the gesture of inhalation” means just this: taking a quiet breath with gentle expansive movement of the torso and singing, not stopping to deliberately compress or grip anything: not the abdomen, not the chest, not the epigastrium, not the buttocks, nothing. The inspiration of the breath and the reflex lung cavity recoil have already created the requisite breath pressure in accord with the intention to sing.

The singer must dare to trust the instinctive preparatory reactivity of the body to the artistic intention, and not to interfere with it. This is what “let go” really means. To do so at first may be virtually impossible, because the singer will feel unable to control anything. One must recognize that the singer has been using a direct muscular control, based solely on force and constriction. The only thing one can do consciously with a muscle is grip it. This impedes the coordinative activity of the whole complex of muscles that must act together if artistically expressive singing is to occur.

Sing Exercise 4.1 at a median volume level that can be initiated without deliberately compressing the breath. If an overly massive tone form has been forced upwards habitually, it may take considerable courage to begin on upper notes without bringing all the usual force to bear. The tone may not suit the singer’s aesthetic at first because it will be quite different in texture, feel and sound from the customary forced, overloaded tone with which the singer has struggled and identified. Sing this musical phrases with single vowel sounds, allowing each vowel to express its own emotional identity. Then sing the phrase with one syllable words and finally with sentences. These sentences are presented successively in ascending order of the vowel scale. Create your own texts as well. Trust your imagination and emotional responsivity, guided by your sense of musical and artistic appropriateness, to initiate and vitalize the singing tone.

Exercise 4.2 permits the study of duration and dynamic change before descending the scale. Just as one sings a particular vowel or a particular pitch by first hearing it mentally, the same process must be used to sing a particular volume level correctly or to initiate a change in volume. Do not push to sing a larger sound; hear precisely the new volume level and sing it. To do so requires developing an awareness of the volume scale that is parallel to one’s awareness of the pitch scale and the vowel scale. Singers generally have no well-defined concept of incremental degrees of volume. In order for conceptually correct to singing to take place, the volume scale must be heard in as evenly and minute late incremental degrees as is the chromatic pitch scale.If it is not heard it cannot be sung, only pushed or held back.

Exercises 4.1 and 4.2 may also be sung with any of the sentences provided, in any of the arrangements given.