During my second lesson with Evgenia, she gave me a volume of vocalises by a Belgian composer called Bernard Lütgen. A vocalise is a short performable composition, rather than an exercise, and is usually sung on vowels rather than text. Each vocalise deals with specific technical skills. The volume contained an article on voice training by Evgenia and she told me to ask my friend to translate it. Here it is.
Recommendations for a methodical, practical pedagogy
Voice building is a spiritual, informational, neuro-psycho- physiological and physical process. It is known that the human body conducts different currents of power and in the process of phonation, electric impulses from the brain travel to the vocal folds. It is from these impulses that the task of modelling – the extension and construction of tension in vocal folds – comes. As a result of the work of the internal ear, the vocal folds take on the task of producing a certain frequency of vibration that defines the pitch of the sound. For a speaking or singing sound to appear, these modelling vibrations should be strengthened with the help of ‘loud speakers’. The role of loud speakers is performed by the resonating spaces of the lower throat, mouth and the nasal and sinus cavities. It is known that sound spreads within a resilient, elastic medium. It is the air contained within the resonators, which is the resilient physical body and swings the vocal folds by its internal vibrations. Based on these conclusions, the task of academic training is to build the ability to contain the air and not blow it out.
Apart from that, it is important to keep in mind that with only two vocal folds, one needs to learn how to manage the process of onset. The level of onset can be achieved through training and depends on the aesthetic quality of the sound that a singer wishes to achieve.
Below, I am offering you some methodical suggestions of how to develop a singing voice at the initial stage. One of the most difficult parts of understanding the process of singing is the fact the vocal apparatus is invisible. That is why it is feasible to draw parallels with visible man-made musical instruments with a view of better understanding the singing process.
Can we talk about a human voice as a musical instrument? Yes, I believe we can. Consider how much music is performed with this instrument and of course, the human voice was the first musical instrument on earth. With time, perceiving the world full of sounds, human beings aspired to respond to this world with all its variety of sound. For this purpose people have created, and continue to create, different musical instruments. And they all originate from the divine musical instrument – the human voice.
What differs in the human voice from other musical instruments? Firstly, it is the material the voice is built of. It is built of living tissues, which entail advantages and disadvantages and creates problems that instrumentalists do not have. One of the main ‘disadvantages’ of the voice of beginning singers is their inability to clearly coordinate the movement of muscles connected to voice production.
Secondly, the human voice has two functions – performing music and performing spoken sound. When you play any musical instrument you do not have to confront the problem of words. For a singer, the second they produce a sound, they have to deal with a word straight away. The difficulty is that often, the functions of speaking and singing do not coincide.
Thirdly, craftsmen can build any musical instrument according to precise calculations and the instrument is not played until it has been made. The singer faces a simultaneous task of ‘building’ the instrument at the same time as learning to ‘play’ it. In the initial period of developing a voice, the issue of ‘building’ the instrument, takes up a major part of the time, effort and attention of both pupil and teacher.
Let us look now at the similarities of the human voice and man-crafted instruments. All musical instruments without exception, have parts with similar functions – the source of sound, resonators, and the source of sound energy. For stringed instruments these are the strings, body and bow. For brass and woodwind – reeds, body of the instrument, lips and breath. If we believe that the voice is a musical instrument, it should also have similar features and exist according to the laws of being. The fact that all parts of the vocal apparatus are invisible, does not free us from the necessity of understanding and accepting the role of each part in building a voice.
The professional singing voice should meet several requirements – it should be bright, beautiful, possess strength and a sustained sound, and be broad in range. It also needs flexibility and longevity. These qualities appear in a beginning singer with time. I mean that with time, a full strength of voice will emerge. A beginning singer cannot expect to find these qualities straight away.
One of the tasks in building a singing voice is that of levelling and stabilising the sound. For this purpose, it is necessary first to work on the stability and even quality of all the vowel sounds and then making sure that this stability is sustained and available within the whole working range of the student’s voice. This is very important. Practice shows that singers who have graduated on different academic levels who have not solved this problem of balancing the sound, continue to have difficulties in their artistic life and problems of distortion within its production.
Our ear perceives the voice as sounding balanced and equal no matter what vowels are being sung or at which pitch we are singing them if they have both high and low singing formants. One of the main tasks of the singer and teacher is to learn how to coordinate the efforts of the voice apparatus in order to allow this even quality of all vowels which should be present throughout the working range.
Working on the evenness of vowel sounds
Let us look in more detail at the evenness of the quality of sound when singing different vowels. There are five vowel phonants in the Russian language: a o u e i. Even when you sing these sounds on one note, you already witness the interaction of the vocal, musical and speaking functions. In the articulation of spoken sounds, the muscles of the lips, throat, cheeks and palate take part. But the main muscle of articulation in both speech and singing, is the tongue.
It should be emphasised that due to a lack of awareness of the importance of the tongue when articulating the sound, the role of the lips and the muscles of the cheeks is often over-exaggerated leading to a distortion of the architecture of the mouth and throat spaces resulting in changes to the quality of voice.
Learning how to minimise any excessive movement of the speech muscles is another task the beginning singer must undertake when working on the evenness of vowel sounds. The main role in pronouncing vowels should be given to the tongue. It is proven that with thorough listening and feedback from both teacher and pupil, the necessary coordination of the muscles of articulation appears and after sometime, strengthens the skills that help produce the even quality of the vowel sounds. The key exercise in solving this task is:
a o u e i (ah – aw – oo – eh – ee)
a e i o u
i u o e a
o u a e i
e i o u a
A particular sequence of vowels could be chosen for each lesson depending on any imbalance heard in the sound of the pupil’s voice at the time of the lesson. It is important to sing this exercise on one note as it frees the student from solving the task of achieving evenness of sound throughout the range. At the same time, it is necessary to identify for the singer, the problem of sound in one tessitura. As a rule this exercise is sung within the central quinto of the range of any voice, which simultaneously allows for strengthening the central part of the voice apparatus of the singer. When singing different vowels with the view of achieving an evenness of quality in sound, it is also important to pay attention to the firm closure of the vocal folds. It is known that EE and EH lead to a firmer closure. The old masters used to say, ‘Sing EE and EH softly’ and this simple rule helps the beginning singer avoid any excessive pressure in joining the vocal folds and thus leads to the even quality of the vowel sounds. If you listen thoroughly on a daily basis through the first year of studying to the quality of the vowels, you will gain the skill of coordinating the muscles of the voice apparatus which will allow the even quality of the vowel sounds to be retained when performing exercises, vocalises and simple compositions with text.
Working on the evenness of voice quality within the working part of the range.
A professional voice should have the range of a minimum of two octaves and sound evenly throughout. In other words, it is important to sustain at the lower part of the range, for all types of voices, the bright sound (not to lose the high overtones) and, in the upper part of the voice the roundness and depth of the sound.
Let’s look at the work of the voice apparatus in the middle part of the range up to the transitional notes (passagio). All schools of singing known to us suggest that pupils should sing scales in different variations. We can identify three directions of sound movement in music – up, down, and singing on one note. It is clear what this means when playing different hand made instruments. For example, when you play the piano, playing upwards means moving your hand to the right, downwards to the left etc. But what do these directions in music mean for the singer? What muscles are involved and how do they coordinate when playing the instrument called the human voice? What muscles should be kept relaxed and what should move with the change of the pitch of sound? Here, I would like to identify the ways along which, perhaps, the vocal thought of the singer and his functional (vocal) ear should develop. In working at the evenness of sound in the range, the student confronts the problems of the melody going up, down or sustaining on one note. It is important to emphasise that the problem of the evenness of sound quality within the range is closely interconnected with the problem of intonation so when we are solving the first, we are simultaneously solving the other. It should be kept in mind that the voice is a living instrument and therefore it quickly changes its forms and dimensions, which inevitably entails the change of sound characteristics. Therefore when working on the evenness of the range, there appears the task of sustaining the resonant parts of the voice apparatus (as in other instruments). What do we mean by that?
First of all, keeping the maximum dimensions of the chest and head resonators and the permanent position of the throat. It is well known that the throat of the real masters of singing does not ‘jump’ along a vertical line, but retains a stable and permanent position when singing within the whole range and with all vowels. Sustaining this accurate position is one of the most difficult and important tasks of the singer and his teacher. But what changes with a change of pitch? Firstly, we should pay attention to the change of sub-glottic air pressure. It is known that this rises with the pitch of sound. Therefore if when the pitch goes up, one does not take care to move away from the vocal folds all excessive air pressure, these excessive tensions lead the voice apparatus to force the sound – often to the detriment of the intonation. It is also important that higher pitches are not sung too loudly. The human ear already perceives high pitches as sounding louder. Another important point to remember when singing ascending phrases is the way you organise the first sound. The lowest sound should be constructed with the highest note in mind. In other words, when performing the lower sound you should sing it with the energy you require for the higher note.
The ascending arrows above the notes in this example show the singer that increased control over the muscle of the head resonator is needed when singing lower pitches. The descending arrows point to the necessity of increased control over the muscles of the chest resonator and the breathing muscles when singing higher pitches.
Particularly difficult is the performance of sound when singing descending phrases – we often hear complaints from conductors. In descending phrases the intonation often drops. What causes this? Let us try to analyse. Whilst engaging with the necessary energy required for singing the high notes, the muscles of the voice apparatus subconsciously start to relax when the melody goes down. The fact is that the central part of the range that we also use in speech, is, in other words, the part of the voice where sounds are usually produced with less effort. This is why the muscles relax and why we produce a ‘routine quality’ of sound if we do not know how to sustain the energy needed to support the sound as we sing descending phrases. When singing downwards, we need to sustain the brightness of the sound and the accuracy of the intonation. It is very important to overcome any psychological barriers. When melody ascends into the central and lower part of the voice, it is important not to relax the muscles, but to keep the necessary and proper tension and resilience in the muscles of the whole voice apparatus as in the upper part of the range. In other words, you should sustain the accurate position of the voice apparatus within the whole range.
It is also important to pay attention to another aspect when singing descending phrases. To sustain the evenness of the sound in a descending scale, it is important to pay attention that each descending sound in the phrase is performed without pressure, and is slightly quieter in volume than the preceding one. The analysis of the vocalises of the old masters confirms this.
I have identified only two fundamental challenges for beginning singers and their teachers – evenness in the quality of the voice when singing all the vowels, and evenness in the quality of voice when singing in the working part of the range. I believe that these problems should be attended decisively from the very first steps of teaching and learning singing. Otherwise they will hamper the development of the singer technically and therefore artistically.