At this point in my teaching career I deal largely with singers who have an excellent foundation and who need to be refined, what the Italian School might refer to as corso di perfezionamento. The other group of students I deal with come with problems to be corrected in terms of fundamental principles. Those in the first group I consider to be muscularly strong. These singers, whether through unconscious development due to cultural/environmental habits or through rigorous purposeful training have developed the necessary strength in the muscles that govern breathing, phonation and resonance adjustment. Our work is prinicipally one of coordination leading to musical concerns such as legato, correctly executed portamento, fioratura and trills. We may also discuss refinements in breath management, vowel modification and onset and deal with issues of pacing and efficiency, dynamics and phrasing, concentration and mental strength. The second group of singers is comprised of those who have fundamental muscular imbalances and weaknesses including issues of physical fitness. The process with them is fundamentally one of fitness and muscular balance. While the exercises I use are meant to support the singer through all phases, their application may be different and certainly the expectations are different in the short term.
The singer who comes with issues of muscular imbalances and weaknesses cannot expect a final product in the short term. With such singers I am not interested in a beautiful sound immediately because a truly coordinated beautiful sound is simply not possible with such a singer. Such a singer will not be producing high notes with ease and will probably not be able to produce a perfectly supported sound right away. The exercises will yield muscular effort, yes! And the singer will have to experience many periods of imbalance until the muscles have been trained to balanced strength. Every muscle in the body is paired with a balancing antagonist. Both muscles must be equally strong in order for the person to have full range of movement. So it is not only with the muscles of breathing, but also with those of phonation. Gradations of pitch require a careful antagonism between several pairs of muscles working in concert. Weakness in one muscle causes an immediate imbalance in that paired system and then has a domino effect that touches upon the entire muscular system. Indeed we sing with our entire body. Resonance relies on efficient phonation, which relies on balanced respiration, which relies on balanced body alignment. And the entire system relies on a complex and refined nervous system.
Unfortunately a great and growing number of teachers concentrate on refinement issues before the funamental muscular training has been done. Too often, a singer who believes himself/herself to be advanced is confronted with the idea that there is fundamental work to be done. Not everyone has the courage or patience to take the time to address fundamental issues especially when they have received adulation with their current way of singing. I am often addressed with the question: “How did so and so get to sing at a major opera house if the technique is so unbalanced?” I will let the celebrated mezzo-soprano, Luciana d’Intino reply as she addressed the issue in an interview with Liricamente.it (I have requested permission from Liricamente to translate this important interview to English here on the blog and my request has been granted. This translation will appear soon):
E’ cambiato tutto: è rimasta la passione, ma c’è molta ignoranza…
Accostarsi ad un’arte necessita di tempo, di studio, di umiltà, non si può improvvisare, altrimenti si rimane sempre a livello di esordio. Oggigiorno addirittura non è richiesta nemmeno la tecnica di canto: c’è lo spartito con delle note e delle parole, ti dicono “canta”… ma cosa significa “canta”? Significa emettere un suono? No, non è così. Non è come ho studiato io.
Everything has changed: the passion remains but there is a lot of ignorance…To take on an art form requires time, study and humility. One cannot improvise (technically). Otherwise we remain always at the level of a beginner. Today, truly, not even vocal technique is required: here is the score with some notes and words and they tell you: “sing”…But what does “sing” means? Does it mean simply make a sound? No, it is not so! That is not the way I learned!
The issue at hand is one of voice building. Until a voice has been conditioned to endure the muscular challenges that operatic singing demands, musical issues are not even possible. A student of mine said today after accessing her full voice:
When I feel the full voice engaged like that, expression seems inherent in the sound. My feelings seem to come through by default!
This is very true. The problem is that a great deal of pedagogy is approached as if all students belong to the group whose voices are already muscularly trained. As I have said here often, many singers come to classical singing having developed their voices through some cultural ctivity that promotes vocal conditioning, whether a young Mexican who grows up singing Mariachi tunes full voiced and with full emotions or a young African-American who grew up singing Gospel full-voiced and with full emotions, it is all the same. From such backgrounds, operatic refinements are a matter of degree. Such students will response well to simple directives like “sing on top of the pitch” or “sing with an open throat” or “focus the tone a little more”! These refinements are relatively easy when there is already a coordinated process with respect to the laryngeal musculature. Asking an unconditioned singer to focus the voice more or open the throat is the equivalent of asking a baby who has just learned to crawl to get up and walk like an adult.
Indeed there are even working professionals who need to address certain aspects of fundamental conditioning. Conditioning is the word that needs to be propogated in the halls of vocal pedagogy. When that aspect of the work has been accomplished, the common language that we hear in most voice studios becomes effective. Before conditioning, those words are just empty pronouncements without context.