Have you ever been to a performance and noticed the singer has two volumes: loud and louder? Have you encountered a singer who tends to whisper rather than sing and can’t ever seem to lean in and get some passion going? These are examples of singers who lack the ability to sing with dynamics. Singing dynamically makes the difference between a boring performance and a spell binding one.
The problems that singers typically have with dynamics are usually technical ones. Being able to crescendo and diminuendo on pitches, especially those that lie in the passage areas of the voice is a very difficult skill that far too few singers possess in this day and age. If you notice that the only way you can sing higher pitches is to either sing very loudly or to disconnect into falsetto, then you have work to do on your voice.
Although beginners should not typically be given a lot of dynamic exercises, a good vocal training should ultimately enable a singer to swell from very soft (pianissimo) to very loud (fortissimo) and back to very soft again on each and every usable pitch in their range. A classical term for this exercise is messa di voce which loosely translates to putting (or placing) the voice.
A skillful use of messa di voce is both a technical training device and an artistic choice. If you have ever experienced a singer in a live setting who leaned into a very loud and vibrant tone at the climax of a phrase and the proceeded to spin that same tone while performing a diminuendo down to a soft, yet vibrant pianissimo, then you know what an electric vocal performance can sound like.
While moving from one dynamic to another, the vowel should not alter noticeably, nor should there be any tension that develops in the muscles surrounding the larynx. The vibrato should remain very steady and the tone should “spin.” Both soft and loud tones should remain supported, and the soft tones should be as audible as the loud ones. The facial expression of the singer should not have to change during a dynamic shift. Although this skill of messa di voce is highly challenging, it should appear completely effortless.
Once a singer has the technical ability to perform messa di voce as a technical exercise, dynamics should be used appropriate to the emotion of the song or aria. In much of the classical literature the dynamics may be marked very carefully by the composer; yet in non classical music, as well as in much of the vocal music of the early baroque period, these choices are left up to the singer. Just because dynamics are not indicated in the score, doesn’t mean that the song or aria is meant to be sung on a single dynamic level.
The text and melody lines and arcs should be thoroughly analyzed to get an understanding of, and begin to build a familiarity with, the emotional content of the piece in question. The dynamic choices should be experimented with and notated in pencil. Once the basic overall dynamic structure has been explored and chosen, the singer should experiment with additional dynamic choices improvisationally, in order to breathe life into the piece. Even in music that has clear dynamic markings, a singer should experiment with dynamic levels in order to find the music emotionally as well as technically in their own voice.
Careful building of dynamics into your technique as well as into the music being sung transforms both you as a singer and the music you are singing. A great amount of vocal freedom and artistic expression becomes available once you begin to sing dynamically. Your audiences may not always understand why, but they will definitely respond much more appreciatively to healthy dynamic singing, and you will be a much more satisfied artist as well.
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