Panseron’s Method starts with them.
So does Abt’s “Practical Singing Tutor.”
Gaetano Nava’s “Method for Baritone” features them as a first exercise.
They’re the first exercise in Rossini’s “Gorgheggi e solfeggi.”
They’re included in Concone’s exercise book of “30 Daily Exercises” as the FIRST exercise.
Salvatore Marchesi also includes them as the first exercise in his Elementary Progressive Exercises.
Pauline Viardot also wants us to do them, and includes them as her first exercise in “An Hour of Study.”
Cinti-Damoreau also wants us to do them. They’re her first exercise as well.
Once we’ve discovered the action of our registers, Manuel Garcia II also wants us to do them!
In the 21st Century, Joseph Stemple wants us to do them for voice therapy.
So, let’s talk about the importance of these exercises.
What objectives can they accomplish for a 21st century functional pedagogy?
The purpose of sustaining a tone is to develop sensitivity to all aspects of tone production.
By slowing the process and focusing only on a single note, the singer and teacher can learn a WORLD of information on how the singer goes about making sound. In breaking the components of phonation down to their simplest elements, a firm foundation of proper healthy singing can be developed.
The sustained tone is a strength builder. The exercise (as will be discovered) helps exercise the muscles that maintain vocal fold vibration over an extended period of time. It also is one of the finest and simplest ways to go about teaching proper breathing for singing, free from cluttered complex directives of directly control ‘doings.’
I never cease to be amazed at what can be learned by such a simple gesture, and am even more floored that singers and teachers don’t avail themselves of such simple ways of building a voice. Perhaps these single tones are not glamorous?
Singers and teachers are missing out by not availing themselves of the long sustained tone.
Why do them?
Because sustained tones give the singer one of the most intimate experiences of their voice and how they make sound. I often call them vocal meditation. There’s something “OM”-like in sustaining single tones. It calms the psyche. It relaxes the body and breathing. It creates feelings of peacefulness. It develops the ear. It gives you a chance to hear your sound in its most unadorned, unaffected way.
Before any sound is made, there is the moment where the brain conceptualizes the sound we are about to make. These pre-concepts can often cause more tension as they singer feels the need to ‘make sound.’ These micro-seconds before tones can help the student inhibit improper tension and direct the behavior to more positive freedom inducing channels. For me, I tell my students to think the pitch, vowel, and volume they wish to sing, then release that into the sound of the long tone. The result will show me how well the pre-concept matches a healthy, clear tone.
Before the tone is made, does the student stiffen the neck? Pull back the head? Overarch the back in breathing? The sustained tone can SLOW DOWN the process of singing and let the teacher observe IN SLOW MOTION how the student prepares to sing physically. What does the student DO with themselves as they are about to take flight. The image of the calm, serene diver about to leap? Or the rushed, tight preparation to sing? These preparations can be observed calmly and slowly through the use of a single, sustained tone.
I can think of NO BETTER exercise to build the breathing system than the slow, sustained tone. In fact, I would agree with Edward Foreman’s assessment, that the slow, sustained tone is how voices were TAUGHT to breathe. Only in the 19th century did teachers go into more directly controlled, manipulated breathing pedagogies. For the classic bel canto teacher, the sustained tone took care of business. Remember, their entire philosophy was two words, “Follow Nature.”
Sustaining long tones can build the breath/tone relationship in a way that is predicated upon SOUND making and not breathing per se. Divorcing breathing from singing is rarely effective. Singing teaches breathing, not vice versa.
REGISTRATION (Pitch and Volume)
For the functional teacher, registration is the core of the vocal training program. To sustain a long tone, muscles that adduct the vocal folds must come into play and maintain their position for the duration of the tone. The posterior cricoarytenoids OPEN the glottis, so their behavior is passive in a sustained tone. Falsetto tones cannot be sustained. Therefore, the closers and tensors of the folds, the thyroarytenoid muscles, must be called into action. In functional pedagogy, these muscles are associated with the chest register.
Throughout the sustained tone, the PITCH and VOLUME of the tone can be monitored. Want more chest registration? Increase the volume of the tone. Want more headiness/falsetto function? Decrease the tone to pianissimo. Is the pitch true? This information is linked to the action of the cricothyroids that adjust for pitch. If the pitch is off, examining the register balance is the best way to make adjustments that go to the core of the issue. Lifting your zygomatic arch won’t help here, folks. Cheekbones are periphery. Registration is CORE.
What is the quality of the vowel? Is it shrill? Squeezed? Stuck? Lifeless? Dark? Hooty? Is it identifiable?
All of these sounds describe ways in which the resonance adjustment has been called into action through the positioning of the throat and the tongue. If the laryngeal suspension is too high, the tone will sound thin, shrill, perhaps even ‘white.’ If the suspension is too low, the tone might sound woofy, dark, or throaty. Reassessing the way the singer conceives of the vowel on a single pitch can go a long way to remedy these faults and allow for a more balanced resonance adjustment.
By bringing attention to the simplest of vocal gestures, the single sustained tone, a great deal can be learned about how the singer sings. It is a wonderful way to learn about habits, pre-conceptualization, posture, breathing, and the condition of the voice itself.
When the components of such an exercise are explored, not only with the student LEARN more about how to go about singing, but the learning will take place in a CALM environment since the sustained tone lends itself so wonderfully to feelings of simplicity.
My hope is that you will re-assess its usefulness and explore it in your studios and practice rooms! Maybe you’ll even LOOK FORWARD to it as your new favorite part of your routine.