One question that comes
up over and over in my voice studio in New York is "How do I apply technique
to repertoire?" So many singers do such a beautiful job of vocalization and
then when they go to the music, many of the old technical problems come out.
This is a great frustration for teacher and singer in this kind of circumstance.
In this article, I will try to clarify some of the answers as to 'how to' apply
technique to repertoire. What does this journey entail and why is it often difficult?
Vocalization using different emotional responses
In 1979, when I studied with Alan Lindquest, he often used emotional reflex
as a teaching tool. The term 'joyful surprise' became almost a chant in his
studio. Of course this emotion triggered a physical reflex which I needed at
the time; i.e. higher soft palate, lower larynx, open body at inhalation, and
Lindquest was quite a performer in his day, not only in concert and oratorio,
but also on the Vaudeville stage; performing sometimes 8 performances per week
7 days per week. I remember in one lesson he said he would perform often not
feeling his best. He once said, "However, when I saw the faces of the people
in the audience, I felt something deep inside me inspire the internal energy
to sing for these people. I cannot explain exactly what it was, but a deep desire
to express the depths of my soul emerged." I will never forget this quote. It
inspired me to want to sing after years of struggling with a bad technique.
I knew this man possessed the deepest of wisdom. He taught the entire singer,
not just the voice. I now realize that inspiration is the only tool that has
a lasting response in the body. The desire to sing inspires our physical sensations.
Then our physical sensations become our 'road map' for the act of singing. The
importance of 'lining up' our desire to sing and the physical response to singing
is the key to successful singing.
One of the greatest tools that Lindquest gave me was on training the emotional
response. He would have me vocalize with many different emotions, even on the
same vocalise. One time it would be anger, another sadness, joy, determination,
surprise, grief, and on and on with all the emotions we could find. This is
a simple (I thought old fashioned at the time.) and effective exercise. The
singing reflex is then attached to an emotional response. This in turn gives
the singer the ability to 'paint different emotions' within the voice. A wonderful
variation of tonal colors would begin to develop for the singer. This is not
to say that this was a replacement for good solid vocal technique. Quite the
contrary; it was designed to enhance a good solid understanding of how to use
the voice with the different colors of different emotions. This exercise begins
to seal the gap between 'emotional singers with little technique' and 'technical
singers with little inspiration in their singing'. This is just one way that
vocalization can prepare a singer for repertoire because different emotions
will be present within the music. Having a variation of colors in the voice
simply makes interpretation of music more natural and effective.
The jaw/tongue relationship:
It is crucial that every singer develop a clear understanding of the tongue/jaw
relationship. (See article on legato line.) Most
of us pronounce with the tongue and jaw 'hooked together' in function. This
is not a healthy way of pronouncing in singing. The tongue and jaw should be
able to function separately from each other. This allows for the freedom to
pronounce Italian 'flipped or dentalized' consonants without the jaw closing
at the consonant. Remember, every time the jaw comes up or closes with the teeth
together, the pharynx closes. This creates 'closed throated' singing. It is
impossible to create a legato line when this condition is present. It is also
crucial that the jaw 'wrap back' after each consonant in language function.
This allows the larynx to drop after each consonant and the throat to stay open;
this allows maximum resonance.
The Sieber Vocalises: Alan Lindquest recommended the Sieber Vocalises (Shirmer
Publishers) to all of his students. It is important to know why Sieber is so
good for the voice. He was a Viennese, Italian-trained voice teacher who knew
the importance of vowel alteration and its role in keeping the balance of the
registers. The Sieber Vocalises are designed to balance the registers using
8 measure melodies based on the Italian syllables da, me, ni, po, to, la, be.
The register balance is achieved in the ingenious way Sieber arranges the syllables.
Again, his goal it to allow the space of the open vowels in the closed vowels,
and the ring of the closed vowels in the open vowels. Lindquest called these
vocalises the 'bridge between vocalizing and singing music'. In my 25 years
of teaching, I have never found a singer that the Sieber Vocalises did not help
tremendously. Sieber wrote a different group of exercises for each voice type
i.e. tenor, bass, baritone and soprano, mezzo, and alto. It is crucial that
each singer/teacher use the correct book for the correct voice type. (See article
on vocal fach.)
The role of the Flagstad 'ng' in application of technique to repertoire:
In 1938 and 1939 when Lindquest worked with Joseph Hislop and Mme. Ingebjard
Isene, he learned several ways of applying technique to repertoire. Flagstad,
who studied with Mme. Isene after the death of her teacher Dr. Gillis Bratt,
said that she 'vocalized every phrase on the "ng" in order to feel the sense
of threading each phrase.' I now understand what she meant. I often vocalize
singers on the 'ng' within the context of a piece of music. This allows the
singer to 'understand the exact feel of the correct sound' for each phrase.
This tool is especially effective in dramatic voices that seem to carry too
much chest into the middle register. I do not use the 'ng' in the upper extremities
of the voice, however I find it to be tremendously effective for phrases from
approximately the upper passaggio down to the lowest range. Lindquest would
often tell me to 'breath in the ng position and pronounce in the ng position'.
This idea never left me in terms of importance and today I use it in my teaching
all the time.
Using the French 'ain':
With some singers, there is so much tongue pressure that the singer cannot
realize proper 'nasal resonance'. This is NOT nasality but using the 'ng' ring
with a slight sense of 'air through the nose'. The French 'ain' allows the root
of the tongue to release in order for the singer to realize a 'small and even
flow of air through the larynx'. If this is not present in one's singing, the
result will be an overly dark and muted tonal quality. In applying technique
to repertoire, I often have the singer start the first note of the phrase or
sing the entire phrase on the French 'ain'. The result is a release of the root
of the tongue plus a 'freedom of breath flow' otherwise unrealized. This is
a technique that works especially well for tenors and sopranos for some reason.
It allows the singer almost immediate access to the upper overtones of the instrument.
When one threads this French 'ain' over the language function, the result is
a free and beautiful tone. The correct body support is almost an immediate reaction
to the proper 'drawing of the breath flow'. The back muscles and lower abdominal
muscles suddenly begin to coordinate properly.
Use of the 'cuperto' in language function:
an interview from the 1980 Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne recital. Each artist
was asked several questions on vocal technique and how they worked their voices.
Since this school of training is strongly based on the Italian School with the
Swedish influence, I found Pavarotti's interview especially interesting. He
spoke of vocalizing every phrase of an aria on the 'small Italian u vowel' (cuperto
function). Then he would sing the aria on the vowels keeping the 'feeling of
the u in the throat or pharynx'. The last addition was the consonants 'without
interrupting the vocal line'. The tiny Italian 'u' is crucial in teaching a
'protection of the throat'. When a singer first finds this 'small place' which
Lindquest called the 'sweet spot', he/she almost always reacts with the same
statement: "It feels so very small." In truth, the voice becomes more 'concentrated'
with the smaller more oval shaped mouth position. The sound travels more like
a concentrated 'laser' rather than becoming 'defrayed or spread'. Spread production
in singing NEVER carries in the opera house or concert hall. (See article
on "Vocal Acoustics in the Theatre".) Even though I have studied for many
years, I still tend to spread if I am not careful. This is why the 'mirror work'
is so good to use in practicing. It is quite a discipline because most of us
do not want to look in the mirror, especially when we sing. This work is 'critical'
in finding the proper mouth position, which effects the resulting resonance
in the vocal sound completely. It is quite obvious that when a singer 'spreads
the mouth opening too wide, that the sound defrays and does not carry properly'.
I found it very interesting to learn how Pavarotti vocalized. I agree with
his technique completely and have used this idea in my teaching with very positive
and Flagstad are two famous singers of this century
who came from this school of training. A couple of years ago, I had the possibility
of purchasing a video of Bjoerling. It was amazing to study. He NEVER spreads
his mouth opening until he goes into the higher range above the staff. Even
then, he opens with the lifting of the cheek muscles rather than the spreading
of the mouth in an east/west position. As a result, his sound is always balanced,
warm and correctly produced for proper theatre acoustics. I can actually see
the Italian 'u' training in his production. This was quite an interesting experience
A friend of mine sent me a copy of the 1938 film from Hollywood called the
"Big Broadcast of 1938". In that film Flagstad made her Hollywood debut singing
a Wagner aria. Even though the sound is dubbed in at a later time, you can see
how Flagstad 'forms her mouth in a rounded position'. Again she NEVER spreads.
I found this interesting in the sense that singers who are singing in film ALWAYS
form the sound as though they are really singing at the moment. This rounded
embrasure is the element greatly responsible for the beautiful, dark, and resonant
quality that was kept throughout her voice. It is sad that there are so few
recordings of Flagstad that actually capture the 'ng ring' in her voice. So
in the end, Flagstad and Bjoerling both had a strong 'sense of the Italian u'
in their training and singing. It does not surprise me in that their videos
and recordings reflect a color and resonance that is a strong characteristic
of this school of singing.
The psychological fear of singing: failure vs. success in the act of singing:
When we analyze the emotion of fear, we realize that the muscles in the body
over-tense, making it impossible for healthy vocalization in exercises or repertoire.
(This is one reason I NEVER use the word NO in my voice studio.) I remember
that Lindquest said, "Singing must come from an internally inspired and uplifted
place." I find that the emotion of inspiration creates a relaxation within the
lower body muscles which makes for a wonderful feeling in singing. Elastic energized
flexible muscles are the result; a state of the body which I strive to achieve
with my singers. It is important to remember is that each of us must experience
successful singing before the 'emotion of fear' will drop away. I remember Lindquest
almost brought me to tears in a lesson in 1979. He said, "David, I see all that
fear in your eyes about singing; all that fear that those past teachers put
into you. Before you leave, I hope I can help you to overcome that fear." This
was spoken with the utmost kindness and consideration. I had never had a teacher
speak to me this way. He had a certain way of getting to the deepest root of
any vocal problem, even if it came from an emotional place.
When we achieve that wonderful feeling of vocalizing freely, the emotion of
fear begins to leave. We develop a healthy 'vocal self-esteem' which takes us
forward to learn more and more. As we progress forward, we learn that the vocalizing
is only an avenue to express the music freely. The tools that I have mentioned
above will help any singer to begin to 'bridge the gap' between vocalization
May each of you achieve this positive experience in singing. Remember that
'inspired singing is joyful singing'. We must all find our inner joy to be free
to sing. I wish all of you great success in this journey.
Vocal Ideas to remember:
(1) Vocalise difficult phrases on the 'ng' feel with the root of the tongue
released wide, NOT bunched.
(2) Use a tiny Italian 'u' vowel to vocalize difficult passages, especially
those passages in the 'passaggio' that tend to carry up 'too much chest voice'
into the upper register.
(3) Sit and lean over and 'feel the breath into the lower back and all around
the middle of the body'. Take a small amount of air low in the body. Try not
to 'rib breath' which creates 'over-breathing'. You can feel this more efficiently
if you take a 'slow nose breath'.
(4) Sing on the 'interest and not the principal'. Try NOT to sing loud all
the time. This is hard on the voice and does not allow one to achieve pianissimo.
Remember in this competitive world musicianship is a MUST.
(5) Try to achieve the 'feeling of sitting' even when standing to sing.
Keep the bend at the hip joints; this allows the breath to go low while standing.
(6) Use the idea of 'flipped and dentalized' consonants even while singing
languages other than Italian.
(7) Practice slowly; give yourself time to take slow and relaxed breaths.
(8) Do ascending arpeggios on the tiny Italian 'u' (cuperto) which allow
the voice to find the proper register changes without vocal weight.
(9) Watch yourself in the mirror and make sure that you 'round or narrow
the mouth opening' as you sing consonant and different vowel function. This
will line up the vowels in a 'similar acoustic'. Remember that if you 'spread
your consonants, you will spread your vowels'.
(10) Psychologically, try to create fun in practice. Take this time as a
time of deep relationship with the self. Enjoy your process without demanding
quick results. The results will come from the process. Try to vocalize in
20 minute sessions two to three times a day.
(c) David L. Jones 2000