What does it mean to sing musically? Intonation should be precise; vowel qualities should be unblemished; phrases should always be released on a strong rhythmic impetus; the periodicity of the vibrato should be regular with its oscillating patterns rising and falling with increases and decreases of intensity; the melody must flow and possess a discernable shape and design; breath should be inspired within the rhythmic structure of the phrase being sung; while the total effect should appear to the listener as being a spontaneous utterance.
When Giambattista Mancini contended in his Practical Reflections on Figured Singing (1774) “that of all the difficulties one encounters in the art of singing, the greatest by far is the union of the two registers,” and that any disparity between them can be overcome by those “who will seriously study how it is to be done,” he touched upon the fundamental problem encountered during the many stages of technical development through which the singer must pass to obtain a coordinated seamless scale. Before a training program can be devised to affect a successful unification of the registers several questions must be given an answer. The first being what is the ultimate objective of technical training? According to the consensus among authorities of the Bel Canto era, the purpose of technical study was to bring the two registers (the chest and the falsetto) to a point where each would be blended into a seamless scale covering a range of two octaves. Mancini observed that in rare cases this was a gift of nature. However, it is a skill that fortunately could be achieved by assiduous study.
Of the three broad categories of commonly recognized tonal oscillation, the vibrato, the tremolo and the wobble, the only one possessing positive elements in relation to the mechanical functioning of the vocal mechanism is the vibrato. The oscillating pattern of the tremolo is too rapid and fluttery, the wobble is too erratic in design and without relevance to changes of intensity. On the other hand, the vibrato possesses a regularity of both its periodicity and amplitude of vibration directly proportional to increases and decreases in tonal volume, the effect on listening being that the total mechanism functions in a state of equilibrium. Thus, the vibrato is not an acquired skill, but a state and condition of the mechanism whose presence announces itself after all the physical and conceptual areas of the voice are in place and the vocal mechanism itself operating in a state of balanced tension.
An insistence on singing musically during all aspects of technical training makes it possible to detect errors and institute corrective measures. Register mechanics and good musicality are part and parcel of the same elemental processes, as it is through register mechanics that corrective measures can be taken. The chest voice and the falsetto in their varying combinations are the mechanical tools at the teacher’s disposal for correcting not only technical faults, but musical ones as well.
There are those who believe that it is impossible to hear oneself objectively, and therefore advise the student to “sing by feel,” which is a bit like driving an automobile without looking at the road. While it is quite true the performer does not hear objectively, the fact remains that to sing without a tonal concept is not only impossible, but undesirable. Learning to improve one’s vocal skill depends on a sharpening of tonal concepts and tonal concepts are developed through the development of listening skills.
As a product of organic movement, voice involves the entire respiratory tract from the pelvis to the palatals. Thus, involvement in phonation not only produces sounds, but sounds which, once produced, are capable of releasing the self on both an emotional and intellectual plane. More importantly, from earliest periods of development to the highest level of singing as an art, this function makes contact with psychic forces within us which are profoundly spiritual and therefore universal.
In the original meaning of the Greek word psyche, the term was identified with breath, life and spirit, not, as presently thought, with some kind of mental problem. It is evident, therefore, that ‘voice’ is not just some form of exhibitionism or entertainment, but a revelation of the self and an inner desire to make contact with what is described by some as that ‘other,’ or ‘otherness.’
In singing, the entire respiratory tract is engaged and becomes transformed into a musical instrument. David Ffrangcon-Davies was not only correct from a technical standpoint when he said, “I do not sing, my voice sings me,” but by saying so, indicated an awareness of a spontaneous utterance born of freely expressed thoughts and feelings through the medium of sound. Revealed through those sounds is a self whose richness and profundity is transmitted through a medium of expression inseparable from the Greek concept of psyche as breath, life and spirit, a self which rises above mundane distractions embodied in a materialistic society.
This, in my opinion, is why we sing, because, as our American poet, Walt Whitman wrote, “There is something in me I know not of, but I know it is in me.” To me music and singing are a quest for those spiritual dimensions which go beyond materialistic concerns and, indeed, even word meanings. As long as we remain aware of that unknown something within us we will, hopefully, come to some small understanding of the divine, which as a great theologian some centuries ago wisely observed, “If I am able to have any perception of the divine, then there must be some divinity within me.”
We may not know what that divinity is, or simply choose to think about that ‘other’ in any one of a great number of ways; but it exists as an undeniable reality. Thus, there will always be those among us who seek that special dimension and will to the best of our ability deal with a materialistic society, balancing things out by learning to free the voice. How can that be? Simply because, by freeing the voice, the motility of the organs of respiration which produce it will have been restored to their natural state. It is that freedom, to whatever degree one will have attained it, which, by “washing us thoroughly” will enrich our lives and teach us how to deal more effectively and without compromise with the material world in which we live.
There is an abundance of evidence to support the importance of the influence of the environment on organic systems. Most singers are aware that certain musical phrases are ‘vocal,’ whereas others of different design are considered ‘unvocal.’ ‘Vocal’ phrases create an environment favorable to the continued health and well-being of the mechanism, while those viewed as ‘unvocal’ have the opposite effect. Unquestionably, it is the musical environment contained within a song, aria or vocal exercise, whose special constructs are critical to artistic expression, as well as exerting an overall benefit to all aspects of mechanical functioning.