On the Music Stand

Books on Vocal Technique

Don't put drinks on the keyboard like I do!

I received my copy of the Vaccai in the mail yesterday and I blame that for my insomnia, which finally ended, shamefully, with reading an oral history of "Cheers."  Yes, the television program.  That's when it hit me that I must absolutely force myself to sleep.  I don't even enjoy tv.  Nonetheless, if you are curious, here is the link. My favorite quote is from Woody Harrelson, "I became a party animal. You couldn't do what I did now because of all the tweeting and Facebooking. All the shit I did back then, I'd be hung from the rafters." Entertaining, but not as much so as learning about good vocal technique.

Before the internet rabbit hole I found myself in at 7am (Ted Dansen!), I was digging into now ancient vocal technique books.  Ancient, by my account, because they predate sophisticated technical knowledge of the vocal mechanism, i.e. how the vocal cords work, etc.  Also, they may be ancient by others' account, because they teach bel canto, or the Italian (read: old) school of singing for 19th Century opera wannabes.  Even in my operatic training I didn't delve into these technical, vocalises (pronounced voh-cah-lee-say) books too much.  In my research, though, I found that I liked the approach and furthermore, that their old age means they are public domain!

Let me digest some of what I found.

Vaccai: Practical Method of Italian Singing for Soprano or Tenor

I learned of this book when perusing the Berklee College of Music website.  In their "Voice Department Handbook" they outline the repertoire and performance expectations of a student over the course of 8 semesters, each semester including a Lesson from either the Vaccai book or the Concone book.

I began working through this book last night - before my first attempt at going to bed.  Lesson I contains exercises on the diatonic scale and intervals of thirds.  Dustin helped me hook the keyboard up to my GarageBand a la MIDI.  I recorded the accompaniment and sang the two exercises on [a], concentrating on line (I can't stress enough how important this concept is to all singers!), legato phrasing, and the getting relationship of thirds into my ear.  

If you would like to try singing Lesson 1 with my humble accompaniment use these bandcamp tracks.  If you do not already have the book, try searching for a free pdf online.

Next steps: with these exercises: write down IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) for the Italian text, and reinforce intervallic relationships with some sight singing (more blogging on sight singing later).

Marchesi: Twenty-Four Vocalises for Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano, Op. 2

Mathilde Marchesi led an interesting life in the late 19th Century.  She enjoyed singing, but apparently did not have a particularly pleasing sound.  Taking her enthusiasm to the next logical conclusion she became a voice teacher and taught many opera starlets of some renown.  Her books are still a go-to for Classical voice teachers.

I have had a copy of this book since college and worked on 3 or 4 of the exercises.  They do not have any particular text, although the fashion of the time would have been to sing on an open Italian [a].  Believe it not: the Italian "ah" is quite different than the English "ah" which is placed further in the back of the mouth and tends to be nasal.  The goal with these exercises is to build a strong voice able to center on the pitch, execute various ornamentations, and sing both long, consistent notes and rapid, multi-note passages.

I have found it challenging to teach beginning students how to hone in on an accurate pitch. In part, their ears are not yet attuned to the finer distinctions in pitch.  Additionally, they do not have vocal strength with which to hold a pitch consistently.  In other words, pitch will often fall flat as the note is held out and the breath decays.  Breath control obviously plays a role in this, but the singer must conscientiously apply what vocal instructors call the, "glottal attack," or the engagement of the vocal muscles.  This takes exercise.

Next steps: revisit some of the exercises I learned in college and try them out with students who may be having trouble hearing and maintaining pitch.

Marchesi: Vocal Method Op. 31

After four decades of teaching Marchesi published what was to be her most comprehensive text on the topic of female bel canto singing.  This text includes a large compendium of exercises, similar to those in her Op. 2.  It also includes a nice introduction to her philosophy and some tips for producing a fine vocal quality.  There are more extensive directions that accompany the exercises.  Again, there are no words to be sung.  Her belief was that singers should slowly work their voices up to a point of preparedness with which they could then sing nearly any repertoire.  Of course, she never lived to see Janis Joplin.  That may have changed her ideas in this regard.

I read the entire introduction and found some useful and amusing bits:

- She states that a singer can prepare the glottal action before emission of sound.  What I gather she's saying is that we can move our vocal cords together without vibrating them, before beginning to sing, or vibrate them.  Is this true?  The vocal cords do not have nerve endings that we can feel, and as far as I know their action is involuntary.

- She emphatically believes that the female voice has three registers, rather than the two I've always heard about.  Hers are: chest (ending between E4 and F#4), medium (ending around F5),  and finally head.  The medium voice is new to me, although what she defines as the limit of it, F5, is close to what I have personally experienced as my head voice passagio.  Why have I not heard of the medium register before?  Is it simply out of fashion, has it been debunked by modern pedagogy, or did I have neglectful instructors in my youth?

- She recommends that beginning students practice only five to ten minutes a day, but that they do this practice three or four times per day.

- This little bit of advice: "The use of the corset by females causes lateral breathing because it compresses the abdominal walls.  Ladies who would become singers are, therefore, strongly advised to avoid clothes which, by interfering with the freedom of the waist, prevent the inflation of the lungs at the base."  But, you know, only take this advice if you would become a singer.

- Grasseyement is a word that means the incorrect pronunciation of the letter "r," especially by the French.  Take that Serge Gainsbourg.

- She says rather poetically, "Sound is a property of the air, as color is of light."  I like that.

Next steps: wield air as a painter would the sun.