Si parla come si canta: A two-edged sword and an important discovery!

The tradition of Italian vocal pedagogy developed as spontaneously as operatic singing must have been to the Italians. The Italian manner of speaking is perfectly conducive to the vocal coordination necessary to carry the human voice through an orchestra. The bright, sometimes nasal speaking influences complete fold closure and adequate breath pressure, two essential components of lyric vocal production. What Italian speech does not guarantee are appropriate vocal weight, precision of onset of phonation and the lower position of the larynx that is required for optimal resonance. The following scene from Fellini’s “8 1/2” shows how Italian actors and actresses speak.

Particularly interesting is the woman singing and the children’s voices from around 3:00 onward. One can easily imagine how those voices change from energetic speaking spontaneously to operatic singing. Not such a leap. It is not just the language but rather the Italian life energy that gets translated to vocal expression wether from children playing or two friends talking. What Italians expect from vocal expression predisposes them to operatic vocal production. That is why opera began there.

Yet as said, the correct weight of the voice and the so called “gola aperta” (open throat) is not always a given.

These two gentlemen do not project the purity of production heard in the trained actors. The vocal intensity is clearly Italian, however the quality of the voice of the interviewer is lower than it should be for ideal phonation and there is a breathy quality as well. The interviewee is much better but also has a tendency to let his speaking voice drop to a lower pitch level than ideal.

There is also a stark difference between the production of these two women. The older lady alternates between two vocal weights. One is “chestier” (heavier)and the other clearer and lighter. I believe both qualities are slightly out of balance and that the ideal speaking weight for this woman would lie between those two qualities. Furthermore, the lower chestier quality is very common among Italian women in general. This thicker, chestier voice is often a problem to solve among Italian female singers.

The younger woman who leads the interview speaks close to her optimal speaking pitch however the lack of intensity suggests a vocal weight that is too light. The phonation is somewhat breathy and lacks the strength necessary to graduate to an operatic production.

Nevertheless the common Italian speech quality is closer to the necessities of opera than most other cultures. Yet even among Italians there is a broad range of efficiency levels with respect to phonation in speech. The key issue here is the correlation between vocal weight and efficiency in phonation.

During this year of teaching I have been particularly vigilant when it comes to patterns. Perhaps because of this blog I pay closer attention to what others might find random. I have had several students changing from one Fach to another or even one voice type to another. Because of my own change from baritone to tenor, I have had students particularly interested in my understanding of the process. I have also found that one of the obstacles to success for many of my new students is imprecise vocal categorization. In most cases they have had to change their repertoire before their best qualities can emerge. I currently teach tenors who were baritones, a baritone who sang tenor before, a high coloratura who had been singing lyric soprano, two mezzos who had been singing too lightly in the middle range, etc. In the end the most interesting observation I have made is that easy, spontaneous phonation that produces a brilliant tone rich in overtones depends on the at-rest length of the vocal folds. A production that is either too heavy or too light produces unnecessary compensatory muscular involvement, which results in a poorer quality of tone. When a singer needs to make a special effort to achieve full glottal closure it a sign of imbalance in the vocalis-crico-thyroid relationship. Such an imbalance causes further imbalance in the ancillary musculature (e.g. inter-arytenoids, crico-arytenoids, etc) responsible for the completion of the phonation process. Such imbalances create compensatory contractions (i.e. imbalances) by muscles that should not be active in the phonation process.

I am convinced that the first and foremost component of singing that must be addressed is the vocalis-ct balance throughout the range. A balanced phonation process means a clear, speaky quality that sounds relatively thicker at the bottom of the voice and gradually leaner as the voice goes up in pitch. The speaking pitch of a singer is not problematic as long as the natural weight of the speaking pitch is maintained. However there does exist a pitch level whereby the speaker/singer can be heard with presence and intelligibility without considerable effort. Such is the optimum speaking pitch and is probably conducive to maintaining balance in the voice. Speaking higher or lower is not necessary problematic in theory. However the further the speaker wanders from the optimal speaking frequency the more likely s/he would be to compensate either for lack of presence by increasing air pressure or or lack of intelligibility by pressing the vocal folds to achieve better closure. In either case, the natural snowball effect is that wrong muscular compensation would occur.

My conclusion is that efficient phonation is not possible when production is either too light or too heavy. In many singers the difference is mild and not a career breaker. However a slight reduction in quality is often the determining factor between a world class voice and a very good one. In such mild cases (e.g. a lyric tenor thickening the voice slightly to sing spinto repertoire) the voice loses its unique quality and prevents the singer from reaching the highest levels in the field. Such minor quality reduction are often wrongly judged to be an inferiority in the singer’s native talent rather than an error in assessing vocal weight.

As for the Italian axiom, “Si canta come si parla”, it should not be read as a positive statement but rather as an equivocal one whereby poor speaking yields poor singing as balance speaking yields balanced singing. It is often assumed that the singer’s habitual speaking voice is his/her “natural” voice when in fact the natural voice, which should be the most efficiently balanced voice had not yet been achieved.

© 01/02/2009