There is a huge divide in the classical singing world between those who believe in seamless, beautiful singing and those who believe in exciting, visceral singing. Both sides are entrenched in their beliefs and have difficulty seeing the other side of the argument. In this article I would like to discuss some the differences between the two sides from a vocal technical standpoint and put forth my view from decades of singing, listening and teaching.
As a child and teenager, I was educated in classical music from an instrumental and choral standpoint, but all the solo vocal repertoire I sang on my own was from Broadway musicals with a few old standards thrown in for variety. I was enthralled by the marriage of theater and singing, which is what brought me to the world of opera. At that time I believed expression to be by far the most important point of any song and was willing to change my very young technique accordingly with no thought of any consequences. It was only when I went to college and started seriously studying singing that I realized that the demands of classical singing were quite different and my previous outlook had to be changed.
Being a serious classical singer is like being a potential Olympic athlete. Anyone can run around a track or kick a soccer ball on the weekend. The serious athlete has to train rigorously, work with a high-quality coach/teacher, develop a consistent, reliable technique and have the right equipment. Only by analyzing the minutia of technique and making changes can any athlete or singer hope to rise to the top of fiercely competitive fields.
Classical singing in concert or the operatic stage requires that a singer be in tip-top shape vocally, in order to meet the strenuous demands of the challenging music itself, singing over an orchestra and acting and moving on stage. Relaxation and consistency of technique are the keys to survive. In an excellent, healthy vocal technique, the approach is to keep everything from the vocal cords up open, coordinated and relaxed, while muscles in the lower torso and sternum area provide energy and breath resistance. Since everything is open, the type of changes it is possible to make are much more limited and fall within a certain range. Keeping technical consistency going is of primary importance.
It is very, very difficult to get the best vocal technical training now. Often teachers can take a student to a certain point technically, but not beyond. As a result singers are never able to develop the characteristics and technical advancement of the professional classical singer. But some of these singers still make it on stage and are in the unenviable position of having to survive the rigors of rehearsals and performances without the requisite training. This leads singers to adapt their techniques under the strain, usually to the detriment of vocal beauty. Over time these changes become habitual, making it extremely difficult for the singers to find their way back to a healthier, more beautiful-sounding technique.
Here is the salient point – the healthier the vocal technique, the more beautiful the resultant sound. The wonderful singers of the past and present with amazing techniques had gorgeous voices, because there was no tension interfering with the tone quality. Of course talent is also an important component in the equation, but talent without technique will most often remain unrecognized. Singing in a technically correct way that honors the functioning of the vocal mechanism allows the voice to be free and unhindered, soaring beautifully and easily.
Visceral singing is something different altogether. It is exciting and often puts the audience on the edge of its seat. It returns to my initial concept in my youth of expression being all and people without an understanding of what beautiful singing is can believe visceral singing to be this pinnacle of operatic achievement. For visceral singing changing the vocal technique to accommodate the demands of words and emotions is the norm. This clashes with the ideal of a healthy vocal technique, the way in which the vocal mechanism was designed to be open and unhindered. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these differences. The requirements a beautiful singing and visceral singing are in direct opposition to one another. Visceral singing requires compromising the vocal technique and beautiful singing requires minimizing the verbal and emotional expression to within a certain range.
My inspiration for starting Aria of the Day several years ago, my popular posting of excellence in classical singing on my professional Facebook page, was another Facebook posting I saw. An opera fan had posted a video of this modern dramatic soprano with the words, “Now this is opera!” I was intrigued, so I listened to part of the excerpt. It was terrible. The soprano was literally screaming her way through the aria with a harsh, ugly sound. I knew from who the soprano was that she had made expression primary in her career and was singing viscerally with little regard to vocal technique. It could be construed as an exciting sound to those without experience enough ears to understand the difference, but to me it was torture. I decided to take up the gauntlet and make a concerted effort to educate people more widely on what really wonderful singing sounds like. Aria of the Day is designed to give positive examples of wonderful, beautiful singing that is technically sound, so that people can learn for themselves to know the difference.
Here’s my problem with visceral singing. No one would ask a professional athlete to use the wrong equipment or to go against the training that the coach has been giving. That could cause injury and would most certainly affect the athlete’s performance. This is what visceral singing does for singers. Deliberately singing in direct opposition to the way in which the vocal mechanism needs to function to be at its healthiest in an already demanding situation puts the singer at great risk of injury. And the vocal cords are not big, strong muscles that can recover easily from injury. They are tiny, frail and needed to be cherished and treated with their innate delicacy in mind. When singers do not keep healthy singing foremost in their minds, they almost inevitably begin to have issues, large or small. It is a downward slide from there, causing the beauty of the voice to suffer tremendously.
Healthy, beautiful singing is very exciting, but exciting in a different way. It relaxes, amazes and astounds us. It lifts us up emotionally and spiritually and makes us feel at one with everything. We feel the singer is in control and we have nothing to worry about. Visceral singing makes us feel quite different. It is like watching a sporting match. We feel the struggle of the singer with his/her voice and start pulling for the singer to win. We start to feel more personally involved and cheer when the singer manages a high note adequately. The sound seems less ethereal and more corporeal. It is an easy way for many people to start listening to classical vocal music, because it can be a compelling sound. But it is a sound that puts the singer at serious risk. A few singers learn to survive and find a type of balance between some visceral singing and a certain technical functioning of the voice. However the majority of singers crash and burn when attempting anything of this sort and suffer major career repercussions. Many have had severe vocal issues or even lost their voices altogether – the ultimate punishment for a singer.
Visceral singing is an extremely dangerous example for young singers to follow. Instead beautiful singing goes hand-in-hand with healthy vocal functioning. It is crucial that singers understand this concept and not get lured into thinking that they are the exception to the rule that can survive singing viscerally despite an inadequate technique. Beautiful singing is what needs to be recognized and appreciated as the very best singing for everyone involved, both the singers and the audience.
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