Better Singing With Vocalises —
Étude is a French word, meaning “study.” Most études are short musical compositions which present the musician with specific technical challenges, the mastery of which develop the particular skills for which the étude was composed. It is common for great instrumentalists to include playing études in their daily practice.
In vocal music, an étude is more commonly known by the name vocalise. While it is appropriate to call any vocal exercise a “vocalise,” what we are describing here are actual études for the voice, which have been composed by great masters of singing.
Including vocalises in daily study was quite common throughout the 18th and 19th century, however, the practice has become less and less common; in fact, some of the most beautiful and challenging of the vocalises are often considered un-singable by a great many vocalists today.
While fewer singers are employing vocalises, a great deal of the finest vocalises from our rich history have been adopted by brass players to be used as études for perfecting their technique and musicianship. Books of vocalises by Concone and Bordogni in particular have been reedited for use for trumpet, trombone, tuba, horn, etc. It’s no mystery why brass players have such an affinity for the vocalises of our own singing tradition: they work.
I was fortunate in my early vocal training to have teachers who insisted on including daily vocalise work as part of my repertoire. It’s a part of my daily practice to this very day, and I try to pass that tradition on to my students who are ready for the challenge.
One of the biggest misperceptions of how vocalises should be used comes from the inaccurate belief that singing vocalise literature is a substitute for basic developmental vocal exercises, scales and arpeggi which are designed to build and balance the voice. Yet, the vocalise masterworks were never composed for such a purpose. Vocalises are best reserved for the intermediate and advanced singer who has already developed a significant level of technical ability, and who is ready to be given challenges both technically and musically.
Vocalises are a means by which a singer can develop skills such as singing legato lines, phrasing, ornamentation, drilling the ability to sing dynamically and perfecting tonal accuracy. The ability to sing melismatic phrases as well as vocal improvisation are also greatly enhanced by including these challenging pieces of music into one’s practice.
Some vocalises, such as Concone’s Opus 9, numbers 1 through 25, are meant to be practiced both on solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) as well as on open vowels. Other vocalises such as Lutgen and Panofka, were composed specifically to be sung exclusively on open vowels. There are a few, such as Vaccai and Seiber, which are meant to be sung using text provided by the composer.
I have encountered vocal teachers who completely despise the idea of using vocalises in their teaching. This may be due to them either not having been properly exposed to the literature, or having encountered the literature being used inappropriately in study.
It is never appropriate for vocalises to be mindlessly sung. These are highly challenging pieces of music that must be thought of as repertoire that won’t be performed on the stage; it is music that is used strictly in the studio in order to develop virtuosity. It is never appropriate for vocalises to be given to beginning singers who have not yet developed a basic usable singing technique.
Another misconception is that vocalises are only for students of opera or other classical forms of music. This has been proven incorrect time and again. I know many very fine non-classical singers who use the timeless vocal literature of Concone, Lutgen and Panofka each and every day of their practice; and as a result, they have a great virtuosity in their singing that is unparalleled.
When opening up, say, the Concone book, one is struck immediately by how this music was very obviously composed by someone who intimately understood the human voice. Here you find a vocal vocabulary–a singer’s lexicon–laid out from start to finish. There are no types of patterns, intervals, runs, trills or melodic structures that aren’t encountered and drilled in extremely musical ways. A singer who includes a few minutes each day working on vocalises finds that they have a heightened awareness of line, intonation, flexibility and registration that they would never have achieved singing only scales, arpeggios, songs or arias alone.
Like anything worth while, there is no quick mastery to these musical gems — they must be worked a little at a time over many years, under the supervision of an expert teacher who is intimately familiar with the literature. It’s a slow steady process, but it’s something that is missing from so much of the singing world at this time. Are you as good as you would like to be? Perhaps it’s time to kick things up a notch. See what your teacher thinks about adding some vocalises to your daily practice; it may be just the thing you are ready for!