I have often observed
in concert and opera that two extremes exist in the world of singing performance.
(1) Those singers who are exciting and passionate about the music and (2) those
singers who sing with great technical accomplishment. It is a rare and wonderful
moment when both passion and technique blend within the vocal experience. When
it does happen, the audience knows it immediately; even if only on a sub-conscious
Why are there such extremes
in singing? This is not because there is a shortage of talented singers. We
are constantly reminded that the singing world is very competitive. It seems
that more and more people want to sing and many of them pursue a singing career.
Few, however, learn to achieve a performing level, which is emotionally touching,
and technically exciting. My personal belief is that with a performance that
marries both emotion (communication skills) and technique (good physical execution
of the act of singing) comes a truly memorable musical experience.
The missing link: Often
as a vocal professional I have been asked the question, "what makes an exciting
performance?" We know that a singer must have an emotional connection to the
text and must be able to mirror the meaning behind the text to the audience.
Many singers today take acting classes in order to polish their ability to mirror
text in a realistic and believable manner. I certainly leave that training to
the acting teacher. After seeing such positive results in some of my singers,
I often recommend acting study as a part of their professional development.
The Technical Factor:
Allow me to speak about my expertise in helping singers to "allow their communication
skills to come through". The major question is how does a singer express dramatically
in the text without "blowing out the cords", which so often happens. It took
several years for me to coordinate the support system of this technique and
to truly understand the details involved. I remember teaching a Baritone several
years ago who was a wonderful actor on stage; handsome, engaging, and professional.
However he suffered vocal fatigue after performing in opera or concert. In the
studio, he could sing beautifully without any sign of vocal strain or fatigue.
Something happened to him when he performed for an audience; he "pushed his
What is "pushing the
voice"? We hear the term over and over and seldom do we hear an explanation.
"Pushing the voice" is when a singer pushes too much breath pressure through
the larynx. The result is vocal fatigue through "over-blowing the cords". As
Caruso said, "we need very little air to sing" and he was right. (See articles
on breath and breathe management.) Men are especially strong in their upper
body and often they use too much of this strength which "over-compresses" the
breath. The result is a "blowing out of the vocal cords". The soft palate usually
drops and you have a situation which some call "barking".
After observing this particular Baritone for a period, I discovered that he
sang dramatically by "pushing too much breath at the consonants". This meant
that he was constantly "blowing out the cords" to be dramatic in the text. This
was especially present in recitative. Kirsten Flagstad said that she sang from
her back muscles to the ring in her voice. She felt as though she had no throat.
Notice in this rehearsal photo with Edwin McArthur, Flagstad is leaning forward
(Italian appaggio) with the back rib cage open.) When singing dramatically,
the back muscles must "bounce outward" at the consonants as in a laugh reflex.
This is especially true in recitative or accented notes. The back muscles "hold
back the breath pressure" in order for the singer to express dramatically without
"pushing" or "over-blowing the cords". I learned this concept after much analysis
of different singers. I found that often the most dramatically talented singers
"pushed" their voices more often. Part of this is a result of oneีs "performing
energy" or "personality". Their "dramatic reflex" is not connected to the back
muscles. If one "feels the lumbars" as a singer is performing dramatically in
a correct way, the muscles will "bounce" at the consonants or accented notes
of the phrase. We must remember that in "pure legato singing" that the back
muscles "resist the breath pressure" in a smooth and consistent way without
this "bouncing action". The vocal cords can only take so much pressure before
vocal fatigue comes into play. Vocal longevity is dependent upon healthy, intelligent
singing. Correct "body connection" is a must in order for this craft to develop
in the singer. A singer must learn the natural "body response" in "dramatic
passages" as well as "pure legato passages". Drama does not have to sabotage
technique. The two can work together to form a professional musical performance.