Even though it was over 22 yrs ago, I can remember my very first voice lesson. My teacher asked me to define singing. I shrugged. He looked at me and said,
“Singing is sustained talking on a tune.”
He asked me to repeat that back to him, and I have never since forgotten those words.
More importantly, over the years I have grown to greater understand their truth. It seems such a simple, pithy statement, easy to brush off as practically unhelpful. And yet, like many compact and simple statements, if one returns to it, dwells on it, and investigates it…..one can mine it for truth for many, many years.
The longer I sing and the longer I teach, the more I see just how true it is that our singing is at its best when directly related to our speaking. More than this, our speaking can improve when informed by the discipline of our study of singing. Now, of course, most singers will have heard something like this at some point along the line. However, I must observe that I don’t often hear it in many people’s singing. Similarly, I don’t hear it in the corresponding language employed.
Not only do people mostly only pay lip service to this notion, it is often in the same breath as other words that belie a deeper disagreement; words like “singing voice”. The speaking voice is pitted against the singing voice, and the singing voice is then separated into parts, based on anatomy. How many voices does a person end up having, and how many corresponding means of generating them?
Jean de Reszke, a highly celebrated Victorian-era singer and later a teacher of great repute, is someone of whom I am a staunch admirer. In some biographical reading I have done on the man and his teaching, I ran across the following phrases:
“He said himself….. “‘Au théâtre, il faut geuler, mais il faut savoir geuler.’” (In the theater, one must shout, but one must know how to shout.)
In my own teaching, I try to differentiate between a shouting that is screaming and a shouting that is raising your voice, a raising your voice that is raising the pitch, and a natural increase in volume that accompanies this action. This, I believe is part and parcel of “knowing how” to shout. This is commented on yet further-
“He had heard Salvini (Italian actor, and inspiration to Stanislavsky) act Othello, and used to imitate him, using the whole range of his singing voice…”
A singer benefits by realizing the relationship between the two. The job of the theater actor, as regards vocalism, is not so far removed as many like to think. The great divide being that of specificity of pitch more than some perceived difference of style-specific vocal production.
“The vocal cords were to do their work as if the singer was speaking; one of his demonstrations was how the speaker’s voice gradually merges, imperceptibly, into the singing voice.”
This is a great exercise and rule that many singers would benefit by revisiting often. As I said above, the longer I spend in this profession, the more true these words become. Every time I try to connect my singing, or that of my students, back to normal, steady, even speech, I find it gains immeasurably from it. And in so doing, speech and normal human communication is also understood better. What is it to articulate a word clearly? What is legato as it pertains to a sung phrase, and even to a spoken phrase? What does it mean to sing and to speak in a resonant manner, and how often am I physically lazy in both posture and breathing in speech as well as song? All of these questions can justifiably be asked as though they are being asked about the same physical process. Because they are.
Too frequently, in our eagerness to be engaged in something rich and beautiful, we lose touch with the very natural and physiologically simple elements that are the roots of the thing. I’m reminded of a famed martial artist who warned his pupils against trying to “hasten the bloom”. The bloom will happen as a natural result. But the doing of the thing means the engaging in the roots and foundation that make it possible. So, as often as you can, try to remember: More than anything else, your job is to tell a story. Don’t stray too far from that.