The term “La lotta vocale” (vocal struggle) is one often tossed around when discussing breath support or appoggio. All this terminology makes very little sense without understanding 1) What the body does automatically 2) What the singer is responsible for on a conscious level.
Question: Why does a baby exhibit perfect breath support when crying?
Answer: The baby has an overwhelming desire to express a specific need. The expression therefore requires certain mechanical responses from the body, which include strong phonation and excellent compression of the breath by way of efficient muscular antagonism (The so-called lotta vocale).
Therefore we should look at breath support as beginning with a mental concept of the specific sound we need to produce. Quite erroneously, singers often begin with the idea that “if I support I will create a great sound!” It is rather the opposite that is true. If I expect to produce a great sound, excellent breath coordination must be a part of it.
Indeed the compression of the breath is automatic, if:
1) The glottal resistance is adequate (i.e. if the throat is doing its part). Appropriate glottal resistance begins with a mental idea of what sound is to be produced. A substantial sound will produce substantial glottal resistance, providing the singer has the vocal wherewithal to produce the sound that is conceived. A sense of flow must also be part of the mental picture of the sound lest the singer ends up with rigid substance. Nor should flow be considered without sound substance lest the result ends up being unopposed air (breathy singing). Correct glottal resistance requires a mental concept and learned sensation of flowing substance.
2) The muscles of inhalation remain active at and beyond the point of vocal onset. The idea of lotta vocale or appoggio technique, as some like to call it, is indeed simple. If the muscles of inhalation (which muscularly oppose the muscles of exhalation) are continually active (not relaxing to allow the air to collapse), the only muscles that can push the air out are the exhalation muscles, and they will respond automatically.
Question: But what activates the many muscles of exhalation?
Answer: The desire to release a specific sound (as long as the muscles of inhalation do not collapse).
In short, we are left with another axiom from the Old School. Sing on the feeling of inhalation!
A good inhalation expands the ribcage and the belly (diaphragmatic descent pushes the viscera down and out). If we maintain this supple sensation of suspended expansion (not rigid), and we desire to sing a substantial sound, the body’s exhalation muscles (abdominals of many kinds, internal intercostals, i.e. the core muscles) must respond to help produce the desired sound.
Our responsibilities relative to appoggio therefore are the following:
A) Develop laryngeal structure capable of producing a substantial sound (this is not a given and not equal in every singer before training)
B) Inhale deeply so to expand the body fully
C) Desire to produce a substantial and flowing tone (whether soft or loud)
This will yield the desired response:
D) The many core muscles respond to create the breath compression commensurate with the desired sound.
The body is mostly an automatic machine. Our responsibility is to train it, such that it is fit and capable of producing the desired results (like an athlete does. Just because one has athletic talent does not mean one does not need to train daily). Then we must know what activity we are consciously responsible for (maintain body expansion in this case) such that the automatic parts happen without our interference.
Finally, for my part, I believe that the definition of the term, lotta vocale, and indeed of every jargon found in vocal history, should be updated to reflect what we understand about the instrument. Lotta vocale speaks to muscular antagonism between the muscles of inhalation and exhalation. There is a lotta vocale, “a vocal struggle”, happening at every level of singing, not only breathing. The dynamic relationship between muscles of heavy mechanism and those of light mechanism (i.e. TA vs. CT) is a type of lotta vocale. The dynamic relationship between laryngeal depressors and laryngeal levitators is a type of lotta vocale. The relationship between laryngeal stability and tongue movement is a kind of lotta vocale. Indeed the stability of the body in motion depends on a paradoxical and antagonistic relationship between muscle pairs.
A singer’s life is made many times more difficult by the fact that we cannot see the vocal muscles at work. Singers sing by feel and it is very easy to get attached to a particular sensation that might be one-sided. Many great and balanced voices deteriorate because the singer assumed that his/her vocal balanced was due to the one thing that had been lacking.
Whether it is Alfredo Kraus who spoke only about “sensing the voice forward”, or Caballe who speaks exclusively about the breath, or Corelli who spoke incessantly about the low larynx, most of the singers who had great careers began with vocal advantages (mostly cultural stimuli that trained substantial vocal use before the singer was aware). Many of them define technique by the small part they needed to learn. Something that may work for those students who needed the same thing but often ends up being disastrous for students who have other needs.
Great pedagogy is not only giving the students what they need, but making them aware of what they already have and how and why it works!