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Musings on Singing Technique

Nature gave us our voices for more than one reason. 1) The first and foremost function of the vocal folds is to protect our lungs from foreign materials. If you have ever done what your mother asked you to not do, and talked while eating, you may have gotten a particle of food trapped in your throat that wouldn’t seem to leave for a long period of time. This is because, the vocal folds instinctively close over this foreign matter and trap it there so that your lungs stay clear. 2) Apart from protecting the lungs, the vocal folds have another task which is one of trapping air against which we can press in order to do things such as give birth, lift heavy objects and excrete waste. 3) Next in the order of importance to our bodies, the vocal folds are capable of making sound. The most important sounds that our bodies are concerned with involve survival, such as a baby crying, a person calling for help and the ability to scream while experiencing pain in order to produce natural pain-relieving compounds into the blood stream which our bodies manufacture. 4) After these very primal needs, the body’s next concern regarding the vocal folds is the ability to communicate through speech. 5) The very last thing that the body seems to consider as being an important use for the voice is that of singing.

A person can go their entire life without ever discovering the possibilities of the vocal folds in regards to making musical sounds. This is because the body doesn’t seem to consider singing as an important life-preserving function. Yet, the vocal folds are capable of the most sophisticated musical sounds of any instrument in the world. Once a person decides to mine the possibilities of the voice, they can spend an entire lifetime exploring and developing this most complex and noble of all musical instruments. The voice as an instrument is capable of a multitude of tonal colors, dynamics, vowel shapes and pitches. There are more options available to a singer than to any instrumentalist in the world, yet there are no keys to press, no valves, no strings to fret, nor any bow, pick or mallet to use. The entire experience of singing is one of an internal relationship between the mind of the artist and a complex series of semi-voluntary muscular systems. To say that the human voice is a mystery is only scratching the surface.

In order to attempt to uncover and master this most baffling of instruments, many singers and teachers understandably look to medical science for help. Yet, in practice, most scientists are no better at teaching or performing singing than those who are ignorant to the science involved. This is not to say that vocal science has no important role to play in the study and health of the human voice; but it seems apparent that nature gave us a gift of singing and the mysteries of this gift are locked away beyond where science is able to reach.

Centuries ago, the Historic Italian School of Singing began examining, interviewing and studying the people in the world who for some mysterious reason seemed to naturally have full control over their vocal instruments. Over time, a successful system of training and study evolved. In the past century, this old Italian method of vocal training seemed to have almost died out, but luckily it has seen a revival in certain circles in relatively recent times. This ancient way of training the voice involves working with nature to discover and build the voice in a way that keeps it healthy and still allows for sophisticated artistic expression. Using this approach, the voice is trained by allowing the singer to discover their own instrument while building it slowly and gently, rather than violently trying to create sounds for which the singer is unready to make, or which are ultimately not healthy at all.

In the school of which I am a part, the Institute for Vocal Advancement, we are concerned with helping students of singing to build voices that are capable of the full spectrum of musical expression using time honored concepts which we have inherited from our ancestors in vocal pedagogy. These concepts include things such as 1) finding a natural balance between air flow and vocal fold resistance, 2) blending the different so-called “registers” of the voice, 3) building the ability to use a crescendo/diminuendo to swell a tone from soft to loud and back to soft again, 4) finding and developing a natural breath support, 5) sustaining a vocal tone with vibrancy, and 6) encouraging the external vocal mechanism to stay in a relatively relaxed posture while building the strength and flexibility of the internal musculature which operates the vocal folds. All this we do in order that singers have the freedom and strength they require as artists to make choices that relate to the music they are singing, rather than having to be vocally limited by unnatural encumbrances.

As singing artists. we are more than technicians. However, our technical abilities offer us more choices and allow us to think less about the workings of our instrument during performances, and focus our attention on the music and the message of the lyric or text we are singing.

A person can go their entire life without ever discovering the possibilities that the vocal folds have in regards to making musical sounds. This is because the body doesn’t seem to consider singing as something that is an important life-preserving function. Yet, the vocal folds are capable of the most sophisticated musical sounds of any instrument in the world. Once a person decides to mine the possibilities of the voice, they can spend an entire lifetime exploring and developing this most complex and noble of all musical instruments. The voice as an instrument, is capable of a multitude of tonal colors, dynamics, vowel shapes and pitches. There are more options available to a singer than to any instrumentalist in the world, yet there are no keys to press, no valves and no strings to fret nor a any bow, pick or mallet. The entire experience of singing is one of an internal relationship between the mind of the artist and a complex series of semi-voluntary muscular systems. To say that the human voice is a mystery is only scratching the surface.

In order to attempt to uncover and master this most baffling of instruments, many singers and teachers understandably look to medical science for help. Yet, in practice, most scientists are no better at teaching or performing singing as a result of their knowledge than those who are ignorant to the science involved. This is not to say that vocal science has no important role to play in the study and health of the human voice; but it seems apparent that nature gave us a gift of singing and the mysteries of this gift are locked away beyond where science is able to reach.

Centuries ago, the Historic Italian School of Singing began examining, interviewing and studying the people in the world who for some mysterious reason seemed to naturally have full control over their vocal instruments. Over time, a successful system of training and study evolved. This old Italian method of vocal training had almost died out, but luckily has seen a revival in certain circles in relatively recent times. This ancient way of training the voice involves working with nature to discover and build the voice in a way that keeps it healthy and still allows for a sophisticated artistic expression. Using this approach, the voice is trained by allowing the singer to discover their own instrument while building it slowly and gently, rather than violently trying to create sounds for which the singer is either unready, or are ultimately not healthy all.

In the school of which I am a part, the Institute for Vocal Advancement, we are concerned with helping students of singing to build voices that are capable of the full spectrum of musical expression using time honored concepts which we have inherited from our ancestors in vocal pedagogy. These concepts include things such as finding a natural balance between air flow and vocal fold resistance, blending the different so-called “registers” of the voice, building the ability to use a crescendo to swell a tone from soft to loud and back to soft again, finding a natural breath support, sustaining a vocal tone with vibrancy and encouraging the external vocal mechanism to stay in a relatively relaxed posture while building the strength and flexibility of the internal musculature which operates the vocal folds. All this we do in order that singers have the freedom and strength they require as artists to make choices that relate to the music they are singing, rather than having to be vocally limited by unnatural encumbrances.

As singing artists. we are more than technicians. However, our technical abilities offer us more choices and allow us to think less about the workings of our instrument during performances, and focus our attention on the music and the message of the lyric or text we are singing.

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