I shall do everything, nonetheless, for the love of studious youths, to introduce the love of this exercise, and hatred for presumption, into their souls.Giambattista Mancini
If you read the oldest texts on singing, (roughly 1500s to 1820s), you will be immediately struck by the lack of detailed discussion on breathing, or the manner in which breath is to be studied or ‘managed’. The earliest texts on singing have no charts, graphs, or anatomical drawings. (That wouldn’t occur until the 19th century – although Berard’s French treatise L’Art du Chant of 1755 does include images).
When reference is made to breathing, it is done within the realm of postural alignment, and the expression of the face. Grimacing, gasping for breath, or raising the shoulders were all seen as faults to be eliminated. There is no written pedagogy that goes into any detail of a ‘system’ of breathing in the Old Italian school of singing, except that breath taking should be taken calmly and in a poised manner, and never in the middle of a word.
How did Farinelli accomplish his astonishing vocalism in a time when relatively little was written in pedagogical texts on a system of breath management?
Mancini was 60 years old when Practical Reflections was published in 1774. Despite his long teaching career, there is little in Reflections in the way of a method of breath control – (control being a term that belonged to a later age). This omission seems to not have troubled a veteran pedagogue of Mancini’s calibre.
I’ve always found it staggering that during the era of sweeping vocal gymnastics in the operas of Handel, Pergolesi, Broschi, Vivaldi, Caldara, and Porpora, pedagogical texts of the time say little to nothing about the subject of breath. We look at that through our modern lens of a hundred years of acquired pedagogical information centralized on breath and wonder: where is the information? Why was it omitted?
It’s my opinion that a vital exercise – introduced early in voice study – was the reason: the messa di voce.
It would seem from historic evidence that breath management for singing was taught in two simple ways: the long tone, and the messa di voce. A cursory examination of the Italian treatises of the 17th and 18th centuries show long tones as first studies in singing. Surely a practice of these exercises would build a system of breath control organically over time?
For Mancini, the messa di voce was to be used liberally in musical compositions – on nearly every long tone, before cadenzas, and even on fermatas. This lends the tone a ‘life’ of its own, that also gives it a forward momentum, driving the phrase forward in time.
Ordinarily this messa di voce should be used at the beginning of an aria, and on notes with hold signs; and similarly it is necessary at the beginning of a cadenza: but a true and worthy professor will use it on every long note, which are found scattered through every musical cantilena.
Many authors of the 19th century often throw around the term “secrets of bel canto.” For Mancini, he tantalizingly alludes to the fact that the messa di voce was the secret, and that the messa di voce would:
…make a singer perfect in the sense that it enables him to sustain and graduate without any defect, and with facility, his voice; then he can hope to have come into possession of the secret no less than the art.
Interestingly, even singers during Mancini’s time were beginning to shun the use of the messa di voce, much to his chagrin.
Today, the messa di voce seems to have fallen out of favor. It is rarely discussed in modern pedagogical circles, and if it is, it is usually within the context of a mere historical footnote or curiosity. Perhaps the independent teacher or academic finds the time constraints of the messa di voce a burden, and so thereby discards the exercise as too time-consuming for the already harried student. (Festina lente is the motto of messa di voce).
This was not so for Mancini: messa di voce was central to his pedagogy.
…they disregard them and not only consider them useless, but like noxious things commend them to exile and oblivion.
The exercise of messa di voce is not glamorous – it exposes much of the vocal technique. Ian Howell, teacher and pedagogue at the New England Conservatory, once said, “Your ability to sing with dynamics is your technique.” The messa di voce is the skillbuilder for that exact purpose: the building of technique.
Anyone who commits time to study the messa di voce will be rewarded by an increase in breath control, vowel definition, and thereby improved resonance. Laryngeal strength is also improved through greater vertical phase depth of the vocal folds. The supra- and infrahyoids will also get a workout as they energetically suspend the larynx in an elastic manner as the tone increases and decreases. It can be a guardsman against constriction through dynamic change.
Ingo Titze details the benefits of the messa di voce as follows:
- Engages the layers of vocal fold tissue gradually in vibration, medial to lateral;
- Helps singer match tension in muscle to tension in ligament;
- Tests symmetry of crescendo versus decrescendo control under continually decreasing lung volume
- Makes all intrinsic muscles of the larynx work in coordination with changing lung pressure
Titze, Ingo R. “The five best vocal warm-up exercises.” Journal of Singing 57.3 (2001): 51-52.
To begin to work messa di voce, Mancini advises first that the taking of breath should be mastered. I interpret this to mean that the postural alignment should be established, and breath should be taken easily and noiselessly, without gasping or raising the shoulders. This work may take several lessons to establish before messa di voce can be started.
I repeat that the scholar should not presume to be able to execute the messa di voce if he has not first acquired, in the manner described above, the art of conserving, reinforcing and taking back the breath: since on this alone depends the gift of the just and necessary gradation of the voice. Finding himself then in a state of sustaining long notes, the scholar should exercise himself in giving each note the gradation and the proportionate value which he can without great effort: that is to say, from the beginning he gives a little voice, and proportionately reinforces it to that certain set grade from which he can diminish it with the same gradation which he adopted in swelling.
Great effort is NOT a part of the messa di voce.
Learning the boundaries of one’s dynamic capacity is. The student will learn to negotiate where the edges of piano and forte are, all the while learning to balance expiratory pressure against constantly shifting fold behavior.
Mancini’s other suggestion on the performance of the messa di voce was that the singer should use a more closed mouth position at the beginning and end of the exercise, gradually opening the mouth at the loudest dynamic reached. This can also be accomplished, as Titze suggests, by beginning with a partially occluded vocal track to high vowels, and then to low vowels.
My additional suggestion is to move from a close vowel to an open vowel and back. For example [i]-[e]-[i] or [i]-[a]-[i], or also [u]-[o]-[u] and [u]-[a]-[u].
Caution should be urged that the singer not try to surpass their softest or loudest tone. This may mean the singer moves from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte at the beginning of study. As the voice develops, greater contrast in volume will be achieved, but don’t make an unreasonable demand of dramatic vocal dynamics right away. Modest change over time can lead to more dramatic results.
Another point I’d like to make regarding the messa di voce (which I don’t have firm science for but intuited from my understanding of vocal function) is the muscular mirroring of the messa di voce that is found in glissando slides.
What I mean by that is: as one glides from the bottom of the voice to the top, the voice moves from the bulkier muscle (thyroarytenoid action, TAs) to more a ligamentous action (through the crico-thyroids, CTs). When one descends the scale, the action is reversed.
This exact muscular behavior is the opposite of what occurs in the messa di voce, whereby the vocal folds are more dominated by the action of CTs in the quiet portion of the exercise, and as the tone becomes louder, greater activity of the TA engages through increased vertical phase difference. A glide up and down would mirror forte-piano-forte fold behavior. A glide from the top down and back would replicate the piano-forte-piano behavior found in the messa di voce.
When the tone becomes quieter, this indicates the TA behavior has lessened and returned to a thinner, more CT dominant fold. Therefore, my non-scientific opinion is that the messa di voce on a single note is the muscular equivalent of sliding from the top to the bottom of the voice, and back up again.
As the messa di voce improves in dynamic contrast, slides will also become more fluid and flexible. The Italians called these glides scivolo.
I personally also place all of these exercises within the scope of registration in addition to breath management, as did many other pedagogues writing in the 20th century. (I also think that the Old Italian Masters taught perfection of registration through the messa di voce but that’s a post for another time.)
Could the messa di voce contain all the secrets of bel canto? I think so. Could Porpora’s famous page of exercises be just variations and versions of the messa di voce? Quite possibly.
There is a world of vocal skill to be acquired through its use: improved breath management, better vowel definition, greater vocal poise and clarity, as well as registrational balance. For Mancini, his love of the messa di voce came through in Practical Reflections:
I have gone far beyond the call of duty, reasoning so much on the messa dí voce, but I tell you, studious youths, that it is so close to my heart that I could speak of it forever.
Time spent in the practice of the messa di voce will reward the singer in a way that no other vocal exercise can. I hope that the reader will consider adding it – even in a truncated form – to the daily practice of the voice. It is a true treasure of the oldest bel canto school, and time spent in its pursuit is never lost.
It is meditation in vocal sound.