What is vocal placement?
Many of the older traditions of singing described how a singer must concentrate their sound. These singers often discussed the experience of this focused point of sound which could be perceived viscerally and locally in their bodies. As a singer advanced, they would eventually become capable of willing this sound into various areas in their instrument. Often, teachers and singers will refer to this concept as vocal placement.
In my experience, only the most advanced of singers can successfully utilize the concept of vocal placement. There is almost always excess tension and unwanted muscle involvement which occur when a student tries to place their voice. Therefore, I rarely broach the subject with students who have only primary or intermediate technical abilities.
Building vs. placing
The oldest of exercises for discovering and building the voice is called “messa di voce.” The term messa di voce is an arcane Italian phrase which roughly translates to “putting (or placing) the voice.” This exercise is the means by which the voice will place itself, naturally.
It’s a crescendo/decrescendo exercise. You start singing softly on a given pitch, gradually get louder, and then get softer again.
Many teachers claim that messa di voce is quite advanced, and therefore, only more skilled students should study it. I disagree. I find that it is helpful pretty much right out of the gate.
Once you find a comfortable, relaxed larynx, a tall body posture, and a healthy, natural speech sound, you are ready to practice messa di voce.
Messa di voce starts at the most comfortable area in the voice, and at the most comfortable volume that you can make. Some singers feel most comfortable when speaking softly, while others feel comfortable when speaking loudly. Some feel better talking in a high voice and others must “boom.” Every voice is unique.
Once the student and I discover his or her most comfortable pitch and volume, we begin to take a few minutes to swell and diminish in volume on that pitch, along with a few neighboring tones above and below it. We never go louder than is comfortable, nor softer than can be fully supported. I never spend too much time on this exercise at first.
Less is always more
In my teaching, I recommend students start with only a couple minutes of messa di voce in their daily regimen. They gradually build up the time they spend on the messa di voce. Eventually, they increase the range of pitches and dynamics more thoroughly, while never pushing the voice nor allowing it to lose proper posture.
Over the period of several years, a student becomes more proficient with the messa di voce. As a result, they find that their voice is very “well placed.”
Messa di voce is like “pull-ups.” You just have to do them if you want a good, powerful voice. You mustn’t overdo them, however. Try to accomplish a perfect messa di voce each time you practice it. At the same time, never allow yourself to feel discouraged if your messa di voce is not perfect. The benefits of this exercise become omnipresent in your voice LONG before you are even close to executing it perfectly.
Some of us have been practicing this exercise daily for decades and have yet to execute a perfect messa di voce. But, we are much more efficient singers for having practiced it daily for years. As with all aspects of vocal development, there is never a day when you are “finished.” Building and maintaining your voice is a life-long process.