I have often defined vocal function as the ability to sing high and low, loud and soft, slow and fast, with clear vowels – more recently adding “a variety of articulations” to the list. In the old writings about singing, along with vocal exercises written around the same time, we can see how these functional areas were addressed. The old exercises and training principles are not used in most voice studios today. I think that we can gain a lot by bringing them back into common practice.
Garcia, Marchesi, J. Faure, (all 19th century), and more recently, Stephen Smith, all taught the importance of a clean start to the tone. This happens by having the folds closed before phonation starts. The start of the tone was often called “attack”. Modern instrumentalists still use this term, but modern voice scientists now call it the “onset”. The way the tone starts is under the category of “articulation”. Articulation also has to do with how one gets from one note to the next.
“Fast” (or “flexibility”) was addressed by many varied exercises with scalar, arpeggiated, and mixed patterns. “Slow” was addressed by the messa di voce (more below). Also the trill, gruppetto, and other ornaments were explicitly studied.
“High and low” was exercised with moving exercises as above, taken to each end of the range, as well as with the messa di voce, indirectly. Getting the registers of the voice to work together in a coordinated fashion falls under this area. Reid used rhythm as an important element in coordinating the high and low ranges of the voice. Both Garcia and Reid explicitly state that the registers need to be exercised separately, in addition to work on coordinating them.
“Louder and softer” was addressed in the 19th century and before by the messa di voce exercise (swelling and diminishing on a single pitch). It is one of the first exercises in the methods of Garcia and Marchesi, and is the very first exercise in Rossini’s Gorgheggi. It is a perfect exercise for exploring the dynamic and movement potential of just one note. There is a connection between adjustments for pitch and adjustments for volume, which I may get into later.
I think many modern singers and teachers are afraid of the nakedness and difficulty of the messa di voce, and consider it an exercise only for extremely advanced singers. I disagree somewhat for two reasons: 1. It was considered a basic and primary exercise by many teachers of the Bel Canto era. 2. It can be approached in small steps even by beginners, once a clear attack is in place.
I will be making some videos about how I help students to get started with these elements, starting with the attack or onset, then moving on to the messa di voce, and then the others. They will be offered as ideas about how to start using long-proven principles to develop each functional area of singing. The videos are not intended as a “how to sing” course. They are more for starting discussion about how some of the old building blocks of vocal function can be used in teaching today.