years I have studied the recordings of Jussi Bjoerling and I continue
to learn more and more about his approach to singing the more I listen. Without
doubt he was truly a product of the Swedish/Italian School of training. It was
in 1938 and 1939 that Alan Lindquest befriended Jussi Bjoerling and his wife
Anna Lisa Bjoerling. Mr. Lindquest was older than Bjoerling with a longer history
of performing publicly. The two tenors shared an intense time together engaging
in long conversations regarding vocal study and specific technical approaches
to vocal problems. Lindquest was at that time studying with Joseph Hislop, the
teacher whom Bjoerling gives credit for helping him find his tenor upper extension
or high register.
Recently I decided to do a study of a video of Bjoerling's singing combining
what I heard in his singing with what he did with his body to produce his extraordinary
sound. This is the exact reason that my upcoming book will be accompanied by
an instructional video: so that the singer or teacher can actually see what
the body needs to do in order for correct vocal production to result. It is
no surprise that after studying the video of Bjoerling taken from a 1950 and
1951 live television performance, I found that most all the vocal concepts that
Lindquest taught me were represented completely.
as I sat in my living room on the Upper West Side in New York City viewing a
Firestone video of Jussi Bjoerling. I took long detailed notes of his performances.
This particular television series was broadcast from approximately 1950 to 1963.
The name of this video tape is Jussi Bjoerling in Opera and Song, produced
by Video Artists International. As I began my study of Mr. Bjoerling's presentation,
I noticed one thing immediately: the slight look of discomfort in the singer's
eyes while appearing on live television. I know this intense feeling from appearing
on live television myself at a very early age. The pressure is immense to perform
to your maximum capability with few mistakes. No matter how much rehearsal a
singer has, there is still that realization that a camera is taking your performance
to thousands of people. I actually was relieved that I was not the only singer
in the world that felt nervous in such a situation.
As I watched and listened carefully, I decided to study the tape from the
beginning taking detailed notes. The first selection from this broadcast of
March 6, 1950 is Victor Herbert's Neopolitan Song from Princess Pat. The absolute
first thing I noticed about Bjoerling was his posture. His weight was slightly
forward on the front of the feet (Italian appoggio). Immediately this set up
his breath to be low from the start of the performance. There was a slight bend
at his hip sockets which allows the breath to go lower in the body. As he began
the first note, he leaned slightly more forward to engage the lower back muscles
even more. This brought the cords together immediately for the perfect attack
or onset of sound. As he approached the upper register, his head tilted slightly
up (skull away from the jaw) and this created a slight curve in the back of
the neck. The result of this slight physical action allows the root of the tongue
to relax. It also allows the singer to realize a wide and spread dome of space
in the soft palate. One more thing I noticed was that Mr. Bjoerling's ears were
always lined up directly over his shoulders. His head never pushed forward as
he sang. This keeps the back of the throat more open allowing for the vowels
to be more pharyngeal in nature. As he starts the Faust aria, he repeats the
similar posture in order to get the body support under the voice. There is definitely
a "gentle chewing motion of the jaw" that Lindquest spoke about extensively.
On sustained tones, there was a space between the back teeth (molars) which
helped to sustain a more open acoustical space as well. His 'ee' vowel is extremely
rounded with an oval mouth shape and the vowels are NEVER spread. Mr. Bjoerling
was fortunate to have a rather rosebud mouth. This shape encouraged him to round
the vowels consistently. In his pronouncing in this aria one never sees the
jaw thrust downward. Many tenors develop the thrusting downward of the jaw and
it causes a 'gag reflex' at the base of the tongue. Bjoerling never does this.
He stays with the gentle down and back motion of the jaw which allows more of
a legato line.
As he moves through the Faust aria his body becomes more engaged as the more
dramatic passages occur. Instead of pushing too much breath pressure, he works
with his body more and more to hold back the breath pressure. Repeatedly as
he gets more dramatic he leans more and more forward with the body which engages
the lower back. As he goes for the high C at the end of the aria it is obvious
that he opens his mouth with the skull away from the jaw, not the jaw away from
the skull. This allows for the proper acoustical space for the high C. The palate
is domed and open. His jaw is down and back and his body is leaning forward.
Next on the program is the La Boheme duet. Mr. Bjoerling opens the duet with
his back to the audience. His profile is in sight of the camera at about a 45
degree angle. This film proves beyond any doubt that Jussi Bjoerling used a
down and back motion of the jaw. Later, after the first several lines of the
duet, he moves to the side of his wife Anna-Lisa and they begin toward the high
C that many singers dread. This is the only place on the tape that Bjoerling
locks the back of his neck. He locks the neck straight and it is more difficult
for him to sustain the tone because of the pressure the tongue root places on
the vocal folds. As I say to any singer, "There is no perfect performance and
there is no perfect singer. We just strive for consistency." Jussi Bjoerling
never locked the back of his neck on any other part of the tape. It is evident
that the slight curve in the back of the neck allows the tongue to release simultaneously.
Now I begin the second broadcast on the tape of November 19, 1951. Jussi
Bjoerling opens the program with "Ah Love, But a Day" by Beach. One of the first
things I noticed in the opening statement was how beautifully the voice traveled
on the ng ring. I often tell my tenors to use the idea of the ng or the french
un as in the English word uncle to help find the nasal resonance. Bjoerling's
jaw position is absolutely down and back and the tone is riding on the beautiful
ring every minute of this piece of music. I noted that he always showed his
upper teeth for the higher notes and many notes on the staff as well. This keeps
the brilliance in the voice. He NEVER shows the lower teeth which pulls the
soft palate down. Alan Lindquest used to use the idea of the 'Mona Lisa smile'
which I see Bjoerling uses throughout his singing: the lift of the cheeks under
the eyes that brings the soft palate higher internally. Also during this song
I noticed that the Italian u vowel was always resonating in the cheeks. This
Italian u as well as the o are often 'dull vowels' which do not ring in the
cheeks enough. Bjoerling handles these vowels quite well and the ring in the
voice never leaves. This is accomplished through the high and spread palate.
I use this concept in my voice studio in New York and my studios in Europe as
well. Another observation I had was of Mr. Bjoerling's Italian a which is never
spread or unprotected. Basically, he never sings a wide open unprotected sound.
This explains why he never sounds throaty.
Next on the program is Strauss' "Staendchen". He begins the song with the
head at about a 45 degree angle. This allows for a high and wide palate to keep
the voice open. As usual he is also using the appoggio or leaning of the body.
Bjoerling uses the idea of pronouncing through the cheek bones almost all the
time in his singing. Never is a tone barked or screamed. In this piece of music
he demonstrates his vocal excellence completely. The gently curved neck is always
present in the upper register. He never locks his neck and the mouth position
is oval with the upper teeth slightly showing.
From Strauss he goes to the "Vesti la giubba" from I Pagliacci. This is quite
a demanding piece of music in terms of tessitura. Mr. Bjoerling handles it beautifully
because of his understanding of the passaggio: it is never spread. The mouth
is always oval in shape and the breath control is balanced from the connection
to the lower back. His jaw chews down and back consistently and there is no
tremendous breath pressure as the music becomes more and more dramatic. Many
tenors could learn how to handle this piece by watching this video. In the upper
register he uses what Lindquest calls the "Italian tiger" or "snarl". This stretches
the appropriate space for the extreme high notes. The pharynx widens when the
"Italian tigering" is employed. The secret for the tenor is not to do this too
early in the scale. I usually does not begin until high A natural and more is
added all the way up to the high C. Bjoerling knows exactly how to handle his
facial posture and negotiates the registers beautifully. Because his jaw is
back, his upper register flips into the tenor extension. Many tenors dream of
such a smooth transition and the secret is right on the video tape.
The end of the program is a "Thanksgiving Prayer" by Krenzer. It is a great
example of how to handle the Italian 'ee' vowel with the rounded mouth position.
There is not much to say about this piece. It is an audience pleaser.
The following list is of concepts to remember that I noticed in the singing
of Jussi Bjoerling.
Concepts to Remember
(1) Neck is never locked straight. There is always a slight curve in the
neck without the weight of the head 'crunching' the spine.
(2) The appoggio or leaning of the body weight is employed to engage the
back muscles. The sternum resists straight forward.
(3) The jaw motion is down and back. When possible, the consonants are
dentalized or flipped as in Italian. If the jaw must move, it is in a gentle
chewing motion down and back.
(4) The tongue is always arched and out of the throat as in the ng position.
(5) In the extreme high register, the Italian tigering or snarl is employed
to open the back of the pharynx more.
(6) There is always a bend at the hip sockets for the breath to go low
in the body.
(7) Most of the time, the upper teeth are allowed to show while the mouth
position remains oval in shape. This lifts the soft palate.
(8) Bjoerling never pushes too much breath pressure for the note.
(9) The lower teeth are never allowed to show. The lower lip is always
relaxed over the lower teeth. If lower teeth are allowed to show, the singer
is pulling down the soft palate.
I hope that you enjoyed this observation of the video tape. The tape is produced
by Video Artists International, tape # 69101. For more information, write Video
Artists International, P.O. Box 153, Ansonia Station, New York, NY 10023.
(c) David L. Jones/2000