(This post originally appeared in The Bel Canto Chronicle)
You know that singer that commands the room the instant they take the stage? The one that, when they sing, time stops and you forget about everything else for a while, just wishing it wouldn’t end? That singer is alive—their voice is alive. So where does it live? How does it happen? And how can I sound like that and project that kind of artistry when I sing? Inquiring minds want to know… where does the voice live? Tailored to beginners and students and presented in the idiom of the top ten countdown, here are my thoughts:
- The Voice Is Alive In The Beginning.
“WHAT is my motivation?” From whence comes the impetus for you to sing? Joy? Pain? Worship? Wealth? Boredom? Are you a student? Be careful not to sing only because it is for an assignment—rather, remember why you came to school in the first place: because you love the art form and you want to hone your craft so that you can become a contributing member in the fraternal profession of singers and teachers of singers, right? Guys, this is important. Sometimes this is the most important thing; it certainly can mess things up if you lose sight of it. Your voice, the very sound of it, and the quality of your vocal execution, is rooted in what motivates you to sing. Think on that.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Accompaniment.
Get your music out. Open it up and have a look—find your line, and then look beneath it, and promise yourself to do the following: PAY ATTENTION to what you see and hear down there! Any composer worth their salt, regardless of the era or style, has made conscious decisions about the accompaniment to a song or the orchestration of an aria for reasons that go beyond a “sufficient support” for your vocal line. What’s going on in there? What are the colors, the changes, the figures, the references—dig deep, and know how to dig into it everytime. What you do with your voice, if you want to sing well, must be informed by what the composer has given to the ensemble as a whole.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Setting.
Now look back up at your vocal line and sing through that bad boy. How does it make you feel? Of what does it make you think? Are there colors, tastes, idioms, abstracts evoked to your mind or heart from the line you sing? The voice must connect to these in order to be produced honestly, authentically, as your voice, your interpretation. The voice must be found in the setting from the composer, or rather, the setting must be found uniquely within your voice, in order for the two to be married.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Staging.
As in, the voice is alive in your body. Are you standing, sitting, lying down? Where will you direct your gaze? If this is in a show, what your director asks of you at any given moment will (or should, if it is good direction) have an effect, however nuanced, on the sound you produce. If you are in recital, either plan out your gestures and emoting or train yourself to listen to your body very well so that you are aware of the connection between the voice and your physicality. How you position yourself, the rate of any motion, the positioning of any facial muscles—these factors will have some influence on how you sing, both at the base physical and at a more subtle artistic level.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Text.
I highly recommend you actually start here before you give too much consideration to the previously listed conditions. Anything you sing (with words) is, first and foremost, a verbal communication, be it the poem of a Lied or the libretto of an Opera. Any other artistic considerations should, 99% of the time, be subservient to the needs of the text. Understanding your text is crucial, and the better your understand it, the more honest your singing will be. Any freshman soprano already in the top voice can get up and give a contrived rendition of “O mio babbino caro” (Oh. I so wish they would not). But how much would you rather listen to a seasoned artist, a veteran performer stand and sing even “Caro mio ben” with the integrity and simple elegance that comes with comprehension of the language and poetry?
- The Voice Is Alive In The Tradition.
It’s really hip these days to talk about how what we want is the most natural vocal production possible, and of course if you’re playing a little semantic game on the side then this is perfectly true, but let’s get honest, people: if you want to sing classically, you have to learn a foreign vocal technique. It’s just not the mainstream sound in our culture right now. So be aware that although the goal is to build as natural and honest a sound as possible, as healthy a use of your natural instrument as possible, you need to be brave and experiment with technique—and then be diligent and stay true to the technique—in order to optimize and cultivate your natural instrument to reach its inherent potential. You must find your voice in the tradition of classical technique—or again, you must rather find what the traditional technique means and does within the world of your voice.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Imagination.
Where does the human voice really begin, anyway? Where does it truly reside? My graduate pedagogy instructor posed this question to us one day, and her answer was: within the imagination. You don’t push keys or valves, or type or write or lift machinery; you just open your mouth and sing, and it is a glorious thing. And I suppose that if you zoom that out a bit, all music exists first in the imagination, and if you want to get even more esoteric, really every word you will ever speak and action you will ever take proceeds first from an imaginative impulse within you. So capture that imagination. Visualize. Project confidence. This self-awareness stuff works for a reason! What is the pathos, the ethos, the attitude you want to bring onto the stage with you? Find it first within yourself, and then open your mouth and sing. The voice lives first inside of you.
- The Voice Is Alive In Muscle-Memory.
Practice, practice, practice!!! It’s just the way it is, son. I don’t care how easy things come to you or how much natural talent you bring with you. If you neglect to practice, then sooner or later you will be surpassed and forgotten by your peers who are diligent. The best singers are the ones that sing. Study your score. Vocalize. Memorize. Visualize. Internalize. There are layers and layers of things that can only happen when you practice regularly. And at the most physical level, you NEED to practice just to get your chops in shape! How do you expect to run around the stage for three hours as Leporello if you never sing more than ten minutes a day besides a choir and your weekly lesson? Shame on you, sir! Get thee to a practice room! This is where numbers 10-4 will happen!
- The Voice Is Alive In The Breath.
This is really the bulk of what makes the magic happen, isn’t it? So so many student singers are sitting on the cusp of really good things but not quite tipping into them yet just because they can’t breathe. Ha, I feel like I’m one of them! Ribcage expansion. Breathing low. Back expansion. Appoggio, the epigastric lean. Strengthening the intercostals. Strengthening the abdominal wall. Strengthening the diaphragm. There is SO much to do, so much to coordinate! And then in the end, being the monster in the room that has the confidence together with the know-how to tear through those inhuman phrases and make it sound easy. I want to go to there! Remember, young grasshopper, that the actual resonator of the human voice is the column of air; it is air that resonates. And that achieving and maintaining constant breath pressure at the base of the vocal folds is key to producing both the classical vocal timbre and the invaluable legato line. The voice truly IS the breath.
- The Voice Is Alive In The Connection.
But perhaps the most crucial, and often one of the more difficult things to capture starting out, is that the voice must live in that exact moment of connection between one human being and another, when you produce a sound that for you signifies some transcendent truth, whether of sacred devotion or farcical whimsy, and that truth travels on the vibrations of your voice through the air to the ear of the listener where it is reinterpreted and finds resonance within them of their own understanding of that same truth. It’s just magic, that’s all it is. It’s pure spirit moving along from mouth to ear like electrical charge through copper wire. And in that moment, not only does the voice do this wonderful thing; but also, this wonderful thing occurring will change and shape the voice. It’s that last shine, just the icing on the cake really in terms of technique, but it’s what all the rest of it is for, and singing means nothing without it.