Fancy Old Vocalises and Modern Singing

The Bel Canto repertoire required singers to be able to sing high and low, loud and soft, slow and fast, including the ability to trill. The music of that genre was designed to exploit these parameters. The kinds of exercises in use in the early 19th century which developed these capabilities were not so different from passages in the repertoire of the time.

As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, different styles of writing for the classical voice came about. The functional parameters noted above were not equally exploited. Some genres stressed loud singing more, some were all about sustained singing with little ornamentation, and more recently some have asked for vocal qualities that blur the lines between singing, speech, and other vocal sounds. In 1900, while Puccini and his long sustained lines were the rage, the training was still largely composed of florid vocalises handed down from decades past.

In the modern opera scene, we have a remarkable homogeneity in timbres and approach to singing, compared to previous eras. We have young singers learning to “sound like opera singers” but not sustaining careers, because their voices give out. We have few active singers that can truly trill – instead, we hear a sort of warbling that is barely distinguishable from the sustained tones that come after. We have a lot of singers who sound like each other.

There are very few bright and free voices, especially among the lower voice types. I attended three productions at the Santa Fe Opera this summer and only one of the several baritones I heard did not have the typical added “woof” that drags the voice down the road to a slow decline. No wonder people get turned off when they hear opera! The standard “tone production” is a depressing, sad sound. How we yearn to hear something uplifting and vibrant!

Modern popular musics use a wide variety of vocal sounds. If you hear recently popular singers off of the microphone (look for them on Youtube), some are loud, some are soft, some have clear timbres, some have breathy or distorted timbres, some have huge range extensions, others are limited to an octave plus a couple of notes. Some have amazing agility, while others barely move their voices. One huge difference between opera and CCM is that CCM singers are allowed and encouraged to sound unique more of the time, although there are plenty of sound-alikes there as well.

I believe that there are certain principles of training singers that are necessary for both classical and CCM styles.

Even if you are singing only “la cena e pronto” roles, or basso villains, or backup in a rock band, or belt roles in music theatre, your voice needs balance in order to stay healthy. You need to move it, first and foremost, even if most of your repertoire does not move. You need to have strength and flexibility in the different registers. You need to keep your voice responsive to your expressive desires. The voice needs varied stimulation, just like legs need to walk and brains need to think in order to remain useful.

If you are an opera singer, singing the great Bel Canto roles in which the movement and flexibility is exploited to the utmost, you MUST practice gymnastic vocalises and trills. You can’t just “warm up and wing it”. Violinists, pianists, and horn players play lots of scales and etudes to learn their craft. Why should singers not do the same? What is not so obvious is that we ALL need some of this in our vocal study.

If a wedding band singer comes for lessons complaining of reduced range and stamina, similar principles apply. A program of varied exercise for the voice can help the opera singer and the CCM singer alike. The sound ideals may be different, the technical demands may be different, but what the voice needs in order to stay healthy is remarkably similar for all singers.

I have seen how stuck voices can become unstuck by using the same kinds of exercises that were used in Rossini’s time. You have to separate the “resonance” needed for the different styles from the functional health of the voice. And maybe, just maybe, when your voice can start to move and your “regular singing” feels better, you will explore more options in your own singing. When I work with singer/songwriters it is frequently the case that they start writing a little differently as their voices become more capable. Funny how that works.

I must express my appreciation to my colleague Justin Petersen, who has encouraged me to look again at the many collections of vocal exercises from the 18th and 19th centuries, and explore new ones that I had not seen before. Many of the exercises are quite difficult, but so was the music of the time. Many of these are excerptable and adaptable for our singers of contemporary styles. Other pedagogues such as Jeannette LoVetri have brought these ideas to the forefront of modern vocal pedagogy and inspire many of us to apply functional training to singers of all genres.

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