I recently went to a student recital, an examination, which was remarkable for how the singer’s voice responded to her imagination. Musical phrasing, dynamic shading, timbre, emphasis and so forth all seemed to arise spontaneously from her understanding of the text and her desire to convey it meaningfully and with feeling. She trusted her voice, and took risks which mostly paid off. While it was not perfectly consistent, neither was it boringly predictable. It was, all told, a compelling and expressive performance. I later heard that her examiners criticised her for, as they put it, ‘lack of control’.
This was, I thought, typical of a certain approach to singing based on the belief that the singing voice can be or needs to be manipulated – the idea of ‘taking the reins’, or something akin to sitting at the controls of a machine. Either this is based on misunderstanding the nature and physiology of the singing voice, or it arises from a fear or distrust of freedom.
The digital manipulation of recordings has two opposite effects. On the one hand it suggests that performances have to be ‘perfect’, and this leads to control of the wrong kind. On the other it encourages laziness, because technology can mask imperfections.
One sometimes hears singing, especially among lieder singers and those with a particularly ‘cerebral’ approach, which is near-perfect in terms of musical and verbal accuracy and consistency of tone, but, dare one say, insipid and predictable.
At the outset of training, many voices are already being controlled by their deficiencies – physical tensions, or the imbalance of strength between the various muscle systems. ‘Controlling’ the voice amounts at best to smoothing out the inconsistencies or replacing one set of blocking tensions with another perhaps less insidious set. Both can give, at least temporarily, an impression of improved vocal and musical competence. But it is only a matter of time before these new controls no longer serve or satisfy.
I have often found that the original false controls have to be discouraged or inhibited, unhelpful tensions alleviated and weak muscles strengthened, before it can be discovered exactly what Nature has in store. A period of ‘losing control’ to some extent is therefore usually called for. We eventually discover that not only does the voice ‘work’, without us having to interfere with it, but that Nature has provided us with a natural control which doesn’t have to be thought about or felt for. The neurological realignment of the organs of hearing and voicing comes with the realigning of the physical voice. Signs that this is happening are:
- The singing and the person feel ‘all of a piece’;
- The tone does not need ‘persuading’ – it begins in a clean spontaneous manner;
- The vocalisation is consistent;
- The voice is reliable without deliberate ‘support’.
The healthy voice is not the one that we manipulate, control or drive, but the one that responds in a natural and spontaneous manner to our imagination, feelings and musical sensitivity.
Harrison, Peter T. Singing: Personal and performance values in training. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2013.