I was working with a student recently who has had a bit of difficulty with stamina. This tenor had worked hard to develop a truly wonderful voice, but often after two phrases the quality of the sound would drop substantially. Yet this is a singer who has successfully sung several roles. He often finds his pace during the rehearsal process and ends up doing an excellent job, but in the studio, at an audition, at a master class, it often take a few corrections before he begins to find a place of balance.
We had already identify that something changes during the intake of air after a phrase. So the longer he sings the less comfortable the voice became. One of our coaches had suggested he sings two phrases together without breathing and then try them detached. That worked sometimes, but not always.
Finally I realized something today that made a huge difference. We are so stuck in a singing world that promotes “relaxation” that this trap manifests itself in all kinds of peculiar ways. This particular singer’s approach (unconsciously) was to relax after each phrase. One would think that would work, yet it did not. The suggestion I gave him was to breathe with the same energy that he exerts when he is actually singing. If the phrase requires his whole body to be muscularly active, then the breath after that phrase should remain in that same world. The piece in general should be at a certain level of physical engagement. Suddenly, phrases that were difficult became extraordinarily strong and fluid.
Does it mean that we must exert an enormous amount of energy throughout the performance without relaxation? Yes and no!
In a sense, the singer must live in the energy of the piece that is being sung. One singer may be very strong and exert the powerful energy for a song without looking like he is doing much. I am often able to show no marked effort as I sing very difficult music. I feel my body working really hard, but most people do not see it. It was not always that way!
There was a time that I felt I was heaving giant stones to sing a well-supported tone. As I trained and my body got used to it, it feels less effortful. The learning curve can be fairly short. Once the singer realized what kind of energy level his body had to maintain, he was able to live in that world much more easily, with a sense of relative calm.
It is not that he reduces his energy expenditure! It is rather that exerting that kind of energy becomes easier to do!
It is a misguided approach to try to get young singers to relax. They need to discover what kind of energy a singer needs to produce a truly well-supported, operatic tone. They will progress by doing repertoire that permit them to use strong energy without overwhelming them. Then gradually they will grow to do repertoire that requires progressively greater energy and stamina. By that point they will consciously learned what an operatic sound is and what it takes physically to produce it. After that, building is a matter of time and personal fitness.