The Role of Experimentation in Developing Vocal Technique

The vocal artist–particularly the young singer who is developing his/her vocal technique–must never be so committed to a particular sound or way of singing that creativity suffers.  This is not to say that technical mastery must not be a goal, or that the expressive end justifies any means.  Far from it, as great expression may be found in technique that is limiting, or even damaging!  One should develop techniques that allow increasing options for both today and tomorrow, though.  The basic vocal approach should be simple and integritous, so that it is dependable and will support decades of artistry.  Yet, it must be comprehensive and thorough, so that a multiplicity of stylistic choices can be supported, and the maturing singer will be able to continually grow and adapt.

The serious student must be willing to experiment with a wide range of choices, attitudes, timbres and vocal directives.  Voice lessons, vocal coachings, opera rehearsals, even choral/ensemble rehearsals provide the dedicated student with opportunities to expand her/his horizons.  A teacher, coach or conductor may suggest or insist that the singer employ a particular timbre, intensity level, even a specific vowel (things that may seem manipulative or wrongly motivated) but the singer may discover an authentic result that becomes a viable option for other situations.

Above all, though, the practice room is the place to discover those abilities and talents that have been there all along, simply not recognized!  The student (you) must not be so focused on being correct that expressive energy disconnects from technique-building.  The goal of mastering “the sound” alone will disappoint; you will lose motivation and the basic joy of singing–what I call “the fun factor.”  Surprise yourself by discovering new sounds, effects and abilities that you actually already possess!

Vocal Health/Recovery

For the singer, it can be upsetting and confusing to encounter anything from a simple cold or sinus drainage to more serious illnesses affecting the voice.  In fact, one must not forget that any illness can affect his/her singing, even if the condition is not specific to the throat or respiratory system.  Since singing requires coordination of various physical and mental processes, a great chain reaction of interrelated events goes on, below the level of conscious control.

Every runny nose does not dictate that the singer go on vocal silence (more on “vocal silence” later).  In general, though, the body sends a message with pain; that message is usually, “Leave me alone!”

Once the singer is in better health and resumes practicing, he/she must not forget that a period of retraining and recovery of sensation is to be expected.  The voice will not respond normally for some time–even if the mechanism is back to a state of normalcy, with no swelling, etc.  Don’t get frustrated and think you have forgotten how to sing.  Remember:

In learning to sing well, patience is not only a virtue, it is a must!

View of Progress

Look back to understand how yesterday affects today.

Determine which past choices should continue into today.

Determine which new choices will avoid the repeat of past disappointments, moving you positively towards the future.

Sing and live in the present, with an eye to the future.

Progress (technical, artistic, and otherwise) will be guided by self-knowledge of past performance, but you have already dealt with the past.  Continuing to look back only distracts and discourages you, wasting energy and time.  The eye to the (not too distant) future helps you to make current choices that yield future options.  This translates into constant transition–a concept I often use in the studio for resonance, musical line/momentum, etc.

Do give yourself the option of occasionally looking back at successes (we will define “success” later), to be reminded that you can expect similar–even greater–successes in the present and future.  After all, those successes were not random, once-in-a-lifetime happenings… Keep moving ahead!

Bruson the Athlete!

You may know that I am a particular fan of the great Renato Bruson.  The more I listen with my current ears and sense, the more convinced I am that Bruson is perhaps the ultimate model for the young baritone singing Italian repertoire.  His voice seems very dark at first (it is), but that quality may be wrongly interpreted as forced or “manufactured.”  Quite the opposite is true, though, in my opinion.  Remember, my own opinions are the ones I generally write!  That’s why people blog.

I was in a barber shop, about a block from the Duomo in Florence, enjoying my first Italian haircut (what singer doesn’t want “Italian hair?!”).  The 2 barbieri were playing cassettes of Sinatra and Perry Como; Como, at least, was a shocking choice.  In my best Italian, I asked, “Who is the greatest Italian baritone?”  Immediately, without the slice of an ear, the answer rang out: “Bruson!”

I have a CD of Maestro Bruson singing hits from the 17th and 18th Century “yellow book.”  (He even does an impressive performance of “Se tu m’ami.”)  The first time I heard the disc, I  began to sing along.  My Bruson education accelerated when I realized that he was actually singing in medium high keys much of the time–quite higher than his timbre had led me to believe.  Knowing that warmth and darkness of tone result from so-called “head resonance,” I have reconsidered my younger (less seasoned) opinions of his singing, and I now realize that Bruson is a superb and lyrical singer, a master of Bel Canto technique.  It feels fabulous to empathize with this singer!

I find the following quote to be very illuminating as to how Maestro Bruson employs his athleticism to wonderful effect, delivered through the medium of artistic imagination: “I am self critic enough to understand what I can get at. Since I knew I did not have a thundering voice to make coarse effects, I sought the interpretation since I think it is more important that the public go home with something in their hearts than some sounds in their ears.”

This YouTube excerpt of Bruson’s Rodrigo (Don Carlo, the death scene) demonstrates visually and aurally the strength and coordination that this monumental artist has developed.  Viva Bruson!

ps — One of my regrets is that I never heard Bruson sing live; to my knowledge, he has retired from singing.  In summer of 2002, I was in Verona, at a performance of Nabucco in the Arena.  The program book listed him in that role the previous summer, 2001.  Timing is important.

Voice of the Mind

I subscribe to Classical Singer, a monthly, now-slick, printed magazine for classical singers (obviously enough).  In fact, I began reading it in the early 1990s, when it was the New York Opera Newsletter.  The subscription rate is somewhat high, but probably worth it for most of you who read this.  It may be found online at classicalsinger.com.

One of the best–if not the best–feature(s) in the magazine is the regular column by Dr. Anthony Jahn.  Dr. Jahn is head of the medical staff at the Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s leading laryngologists, and he is affiliated with us at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, through periodic visits to consult and examine students.  I have seen Dr. Jahn in his Roseland, NJ, office (also an office in Manhattan), and know him to be a personable, direct, and ultra-capable physician.

The February 2009 Classical Singer issue includes Dr. Jahn’s article, “Mind Control.”  Rather than rehash all the article’s points, I refer you to Classical Singer.  I am bringing my copy to the studio.  You will also find the magazine in Talbott Library at WCC.

Essentially, Dr. Jahn makes clear the difference between the brain and “the mind.”  He describes connections between mind and body–conscious control of reflexive neuromuscular activities (like laryngeal position and breathing), also hormonal influences.  These hormonal factors come courtesy of the thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, and so forth, delivered through the bloodstream.  Apparently, the mind (cortex) prompts the hypothalamus to activate those hormones that are needed in singing/performing.

This gets complex, but Dr. Jahn’s entire article is perhaps more clear and easily understood than my efforts to summarize it.  You should read “Mind Control” to understand the connections between technique and performance more deeply.

I recently skimmed an essay containing a long list of things to think about while singing.  In the ordinary sense of left-brain thinking, I strongly disagree with that writer’s approach.  “Thinking with your body,” though, is one way that I like to verbalize the process Dr. Jahn describes of making a mind/body connection.

I will write future posts along these lines, but for now here are 2 points:

1. There are occasional times that a singer chooses to think specifically about technique–a particular note, phrase, or section.  Boris Goldovsky called these “razor blade moments,” when the singer must be keenly attentive to an essential task.  Always (even alongside these moments of specific technical intention), the imagination is allowed to coordinate multiple tasks into a fluid process that seems easy, cohesive, spontaneous, honest, and ultimately convincing.

2. Singing in lessons, coachings, rehearsals and in the practice room is largely about learning to allow body and voice to perform under the guidance of the mind/imagination.  Understanding technical goals and their execution is prerequisite to the training that takes place, often over an extended period of time–however long is needed for that technique to become consistent, to become “second nature.”  In this undertaking, patience is not only a virtue, it is a must.

As both the body and the mind become stronger, it is easier for the imagination to artfully blend vocal and interpretive techniques into the performances that you dream of.  More to come, EE