Discovering The Art of the Vocal Line
Singers and visual artists alike often refer to the concept of “line” when discussing their art. It makes perfect sense why this term crosses over from one discipline to the other. Let’s look at a few ways in which the notion of line has similarities in both drawing and in singing.
In drawing, a line is a moving dot. A line can be straight, curved, shaded, dark, light or heavy. A line can be simulated by having many separate dots arranged in particular patterns. In singing, a line is a moving pitch. A vocal line, like a line in drawing, can have many different shapes, shades and qualities and can be either smooth or broken.
In drawing, a line is created visually in space, whereas in singing, a line is created aurally in time.
Many singers think of a vocal line as always being a series of separate notes which are strung together. However, just as a sketch artist needn’t always portray a line as an obvious series of dots, neither does a singer need to think of singing a vocal line as a series of separate pitches.
On a piece of sheet music, a melody is mapped out by using a sequence of markings which represent different pitches, rhythms, dynamics and phrasing devices. A singer must take this melodic information from the page and draw a line, sonically. As a singer, rather than conceiving of a vocal melody as being a series of separate tones, it is helpful to think of a melody as being a string of continuous lines, or phrases, for which the notation on the page gives a very precise indication.
In drawing, a line is often used as a contour which defines the object being drawn. But just like nothing in nature is perceived as a simple outline moving through space, contour lines in a drawing of an accomplished artist are able to define an object without calling attention to the contour lines themselves. Similarly, one of the most difficult abilities an accomplished vocal artist must develop is being able to spin a vocal line which, for all intents and purposes, is seamless.
In order to add interest and realism to a drawing, an artist must enhance contour lines by adding form and value, using darker and thicker lines in certain areas, and lighter and thinner lines in other areas. Often this is done to simulate light and shadow. Likewise, in a vocal line, a singer must add variance to the contours of a melody in order to enhance the text, and give emotional realism to the piece of music being sung. These heavier and lighter lines are made by using what are called “dynamics,” or singing louder and softer in different areas of the melody.
A visual artist adds what are called “cross contour lines” to the object they are drawing. These lines are very important in a drawing because they start to add shading, shadow, light and form to the object being drawn. Cross contour lines begin to give a drawing the illusion of depth and realism. In a vocal line, a singer also uses a type of cross contour lines by varying the vocal weight being sung. Some parts of the melody call for a heavier vocal weight, while others need to have a thinner, or lighter vocal weight. In singing this is often referred to as “registration.”
Just like a sketch artist can “burnish” a line so that it has luster and blend; so can a singer burnish a vocal line so that it spins like threads of pure gold. There is nothing more beautiful than hearing a singer give a performance of a fluid line of melodic phrases which have effortless contour, shading, chiaroscuro (light and dark), and dynamic control. Good vocal artists accomplish this in a seemingly effortless manner, transporting the audience to realms they never knew existed.
As a singer, I encourage you to begin now to practice finding a line in every melody that you sing (and every vocalise that you sing for that matter). The time to be an artist is the moment you open your mouth to sing. There is no reason to wait until some time in the future to sing beautifully.