The cuperto has been described by NYC voice teacher David Jones as an exercise having the importance of uniting the registers through the ‘thin edges’ of the vocal folds:
The term cuperto in the old Italian School meant “singing through a tiny mouth space with a large throat space.” What is the result? A blending of the registers and the exercising of the thin edges of the cords from the high range to the low range. When Dr. Van Lawrence (laryngologist for the Houston Grand Opera) first saw the cuperto function on the fiberoptic camera, he said it looked as though the cords were receiving a massage. While doing graduate research at the University of North Texas, Dr. Barbara Mathis of Lamar University discovered that singing the cuperto exercise actually strengthens the “thin edges” of the vocal cords.
The embryo of such an exercise goes back in print (according to William Vennard) as early as Lilli Lehmann’s book How to Sing (1902).
She describes her version thus:
Registers exist in the voices of almost all singers, but they ought not to be heard, ought not, indeed, to exist. Everything should be sung with a mixed voice in such a way that no tone is forced at the expense of any other. To avoid monotony the singer should have at his disposal a wealth of means of expression in all ranges of his voice.
If, as often happens when the registers are sharply defined, tones fall into a CUL DE SAC, escape into another register is impossible without a jump, which may lead to disaster. With every tone that the singer has to sing, he must always have a feeling that he CAN go higher, and that the attack for different tones must not be forced upon one and the same point.
The larynx must not be SUDDENLY pressed down or jerked up, except when this is desired as a special effect. That is, when one wishes to make a transition, LEGATO from a chest tone to a tone in the middle or head register, as the Old Italians used to do, and as I, too, learned to do, thus: –
In this case the chest tone is attacked very nasal, in order that the connection may remain to the upper note, and the larynx is suddenly jerked up to the high tone. This was called breaking the tone; it was very much used, and gave fine effects when it was well done. I use it to-day, especially in Italian music, where it belongs.
The scale proceeds from one semitone to another; each is different; each, as you go on, requires greater height, wherefore the position of the organs cannot remain the same for several different tones. But, as there should never be an abrupt change audible in the way of singing, so should there never be an abrupt change felt in the sensations of the singer’s throat. Every tone must be imperceptibly prepared in an elastic channel and must produce an easy feeling in the singer, as well as an agreeable impression upon the listener.
The small peak indicated in the illustration is enormously extensible and can be shifted into infinite varieties of position. However unimportant its raising and lowering may appear, they are nevertheless of great importance for the tone and the singer.
After Lehmann, a similar vocal maneuver was described by Douglas Stanley. Stanley, acerbic writer that he was, left behind no written examples of exact exercises he utilized in lessons, and those he described in print are difficult to interpret without recourse to HEARING them performed.
Stanley did, however, describe an exercise that may be seen as fitting the requirements of the cuperto. From his book Your Voice: Applied Science of Vocal Art (1933):
An octave jump is sometimes a good exercise for purifying the registers and improving the resonance adjustment. The low tone must be sung loudly in the pure lower register. The pupil must then stop singing and IMMEDIATELY attack the upper tone in the pure falsetto, and then carry down on the vibrato to the low tone in the pure lower register once more. Owing to the vigor with which the lower register can be sung, the extensor muscles of the laryngeal pharynx are more apt to be in action for the lower register tone than for the falsetto. Hence, the “stop” and the immediately executed attack of the falsetto, after singing the lower register tone, has a tendency to bring these extensor muscles into action for the falsetto. It is important to note that the falsetto tone must be very dark, and will inevitably be darker than a lower register tone of the same pitch, until an advanced state of development has been reached.
Another version of the exercise fitting Stanley’s description would appear in the book The Living Voice (1935) written by John Wilcox. Wilcox was heavily influenced by Stanley, and Vennard states that Wilcox was an ‘interpreter’ of Stanley’s work.
Wilcox’s was one of the first to use the words Heavy Mechanism and Light Mechanism when referring to the two main registers, a concept perhaps inspired by Stanley’s two register view of chest and falsetto. Wilcox elaborates a step-by-step approach to the exercise whose purpose is the working out of registrational concepts. I’m including the entirety of Wilcox’s process as I feel it offers an unparalleled view of the process and reasoning behind the exercise that has come to be known as the cuperto.
Based on the above, Wilcox viewed this exercise (which he doesn’t name) as a way of drawing the two register mechanisms into a functional balance. Wilcox is one of the first authors (along with Stanley) to discuss the importance of drawing the lower register UP in the scale. Wilcox takes the Heavy Mechanism as high as Aflat4, a demarcation point that surpasses the historical “Melba point” of E4. According to written accounts, Marchesi (Melba’s teacher) had a tendency to ‘whiten’ voices, reducing the amount of Heavy Mechanism in her students’ voices, giving their voices extensive coloratura but little dramatic élan.
Many pedagogies deny use of the Heavy Mechanism in women’s voices. Perhaps this in the interest of time, as the working out of the voice can be sped up by simply ignoring one of the two mechanisms. It’s relatively quick for men to learn to sing only in chest without including the head/falsetto; and women can make quick work of working the upper register without access to the chest. But both pedagogical systems leave the singer with half of a voice. This pedagogy is more common than we might care to admit in classical voice teaching circles.
I’ve covered this topic before – Garcia II and Hahn both stressed the importance of the lower register, especially in women’s voices. The idea that women should ignore the lower register is not supported by the historical evidence, or a thorough reading of the historical literature on the subject.
Husler and Rodd-Marling also stress the importance of developing and bringing DOWN the upper register in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organs (1965, 1976):
A reminder: the inner laryngeal muscle (vocal lip, vocalis), which has the active, and the most differentiated, work to perform in singing, is imbedded in a passive, elastic membrane. This elastic membrane is indirectly inspanned in a network of muscles (suspensory mechanism) and these, in turn, are decisively supported in their work by the breathing muscles.
The Tensor, i.e., the inner muscle of the vocal folds, is thus supplied with a very strong kind of framework whose action, a stretching process, gives it the freedom and agility to carry out its many tasks. We have called it the ‘elastic scaffolding’.
In spite of its capacity for autonomous action, the inner muscle would remain a blunt and semi-impotent muscle-body without this scaffolding and without the tautness provided by the stretching process; in most cases, moreover, it would probably stiffen as well in the effort to act as (false) antagonist to replace the missing elastic scaffolding.
If we recognize the existence of an anatomical and functional framework erected during production of the perfectly sung tone, then we will realize the importance of the elastic membrane that forms the vocal band (upper border of the Conus elasticus): for stretching of the vocal bands – if the inner muscle remains passive – produces the falsetto voice.
The best way to practise is as follows: to begin with, the singer should try to ‘support’ the thin falsetto (collapsed falsetto) which he will find most easily, at first, on very high notes. By increasing the activity of the muscles in which the larynx is suspended and simultaneously intensifying the work done by the breathing muscles he strengthens this falsetto, thus turning it into what we describe as the ‘supported falsetto’. In this way he forms his instrument’s ‘elastic scaffolding’.
The singer should then carry this ‘supported falsetto’ over the whole range of his voice, down to the lowest possible pitch.
The next step is to introduce the action of the vocal lip, i.e., the Tensor (the inner muscle of the vocal folds that produces the ‘chest voice’), into this scaffolding.
To do so, the tensing of the chest voice muscle must be reduced at first to the minimum so as to avoid rupturing the ‘elastic scaffolding’.
This is best practiced at the lowest pitch, where the throat is unavoidably drawn downwards and the chest voice muscle loses its usual rigidity.
To achieve this form of ‘chest voice’ the singer makes use of the type of placing known as ‘nasal’; after which he will place the tone forward, as described under 3b. This brings the Closers of the vocal folds into action and the voice loses its thickness and heaviness.
Formulated as briefly as possible: the aim is maximum stretching of the vocal folds with minimum contraction of their inner muscle. To what extent the tensing of the inner muscle (which strengthens the voice) can be increased in course of time, depends on the capacity of the elastic scaffolding to resist the tension. It is a matter that varies with each individual.
Whether consciously or not, the procedure adopted by all good schools and all great singers invariably follows the same pattern: to start with lyrical roles and pass gradually to dramatic ones.
A singer who is able to activate his vocal instrument in this way will have acquired most of the elements essential for making music with the voice. Because of the remarkable physiological-physical law governing the manner of functioning, he will now have at his disposal the ‘long breath’: the vocal folds are able to vibrate with the minimum expenditure of breath. So-called phrasing, guiding the voice in a broad and flowing line, will happen automatically as the result of things that take place in the organ itself. He will have no trouble in increasing or diminishing the tone (crescendo, decrescendo; messa di voce): it requires no ‘technical skill’, no ‘art’, but happens simply through the play between the stretching and tensing of the vocal folds. Neither will he have any difficulty in ‘bringing the tone forward’, in ‘making the voice slender’, as it has to be for singing coloratura and other such embellishments: the Closers of the vocal folds are free and unrestricted in their work.
No danger whatever is attached to exercising the ‘elastic scaffolding’, that is to say, in strengthening the falsetto. On the contrary, practising it strongly enough eliminates the danger of ‘cracking’ from one register into another, because ‘registers’ as such will no longer exist.
Vennard also views the exercise described as cuperto as a form of register unification.
(548) Some teachers feel that getting lightness of registration is easier with the vowel [u] than with the others, possibly for the same reason as I have mentioned. Clippinger recommends using it in developing what he calls the head voice, (p. 19). I much prefer to begin with [ɑ], and to work as long as necessary in getting a well rounded production with both “forward placement” and “depth.” However, I also use the other vowels to induce these qualities in the [ɑ]. I have the student sing [i, e, ɑ] to “focus” the [ɑ], and I use [o] and [u] to “free” it. It is said that Lamperti used [ɑ] primarily, but considered [u] “the medicine of the voice.” A useful vocalise is the descending octave diatonic scale, on “lu, lu, lu,” etc., sung as softly as possible, almost falsetto and perhaps breathily. This may be transposed freely. It is then followed with this melody on the vowel [ɑ]:
The low three-tone scale is sung loudly in the chest, or nearly so in the case of women’s voices. Then there is a portamento to a pianissimo head tone at the top with a crescendo as the singer returns to the heavy registration at the bottom. The student should “place the high head tone where he felt the [u].” Transpose freely. Finally the vocalise can be repeated with a crescendo on the top tone before coming down. This must be done with some caution, and not transposed too high. It is an adaptation of an exercise by Stanley (p.143), and reminds us of one by Lehmann which she called “breaking the tone,” (p. 146). I sometimes use a more radical form, developed by Wilcox (p. 27), who was an interpreter of Stanley. In this exercise the leap is two octaves, going into falsetto and descending a two-octave scale with as little break as possible into chest. High voices, especially tenors, benefit greatly from it, and usually can do the two octaves without a break.
The cuperto as described by David Jones matches much of the pedagogical directives of the previous authors. Jones’ teacher Alan Lindquist was a colleague of William Vennard, but I have not been able to locate the exercise maneuver in Lindquist’s written legacy. Additionally, I have not been able to trace the term cuperto to any historical Italian text of merit of the 18th or 19th centuries. Its description in vocal pedagogy appears to be limited to the 20th century.
That being said, considering that register balance has been the goal of much of the training of the human voice throughout history (or at least since the late 18th century if Tosi and Mancini are to be believed), it is not difficult to imagine such an exercise would be included in voice work of previous centuries. We must remember Garcia’s VERY first exercise in the Traité de l’Art du Chant (1841) was, in effect, a register breaking exercise, in order to unite the two mechanisms. While the cuperto may not be traceable to a specific bel canto tradition or manual on singing from the Old Italian School, register unification can easily be found as early as Tosi and Mancini in the late 18th century.
Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. Singing: the physical nature of the vocal organ: a guide to the unlocking of the singing voice. Vintage, 1976.
Jones, David: http://www.voiceteacher.com/cuperto.html
Lehmann, Lilli. Meine gesangskunst. Verlag der Zukunft, 1902.
Stanley, Douglas. Your voice: applied science of vocal art. Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1957.
Vennard, William. Singing: the mechanism and the technic. Carl Fischer, LLC, 1967.
Wilcox, John C. The Living Voice. C. Fischer, Incorporated, 1945.