Applying Technique to Repertoire

One question that comes up over and over in my voice studio in New York is "How do I apply technique to repertoire?" So many singers do such a beautiful job of vocalization and then when they go to the music, many of the old technical problems come out. This is a great frustration for teacher and singer in this kind of circumstance. In this article, I will try to clarify some of the answers as to 'how to' apply technique to repertoire. What does this journey entail and why is it often difficult?

Vocalization using different emotional responses

In 1979, when I studied with Alan Lindquest, he often used emotional reflex as a teaching tool. The term 'joyful surprise' became almost a chant in his studio. Of course this emotion triggered a physical reflex which I needed at the time; i.e. higher soft palate, lower larynx, open body at inhalation, and loose jaw.

Lindquest was quite a performer in his day, not only in concert and oratorio, but also on the Vaudeville stage; performing sometimes 8 performances per week 7 days per week. I remember in one lesson he said he would perform often not feeling his best. He once said, "However, when I saw the faces of the people in the audience, I felt something deep inside me inspire the internal energy to sing for these people. I cannot explain exactly what it was, but a deep desire to express the depths of my soul emerged." I will never forget this quote. It inspired me to want to sing after years of struggling with a bad technique. I knew this man possessed the deepest of wisdom. He taught the entire singer, not just the voice. I now realize that inspiration is the only tool that has a lasting response in the body. The desire to sing inspires our physical sensations. Then our physical sensations become our 'road map' for the act of singing. The importance of 'lining up' our desire to sing and the physical response to singing is the key to successful singing.

One of the greatest tools that Lindquest gave me was on training the emotional response. He would have me vocalize with many different emotions, even on the same vocalise. One time it would be anger, another sadness, joy, determination, surprise, grief, and on and on with all the emotions we could find. This is a simple (I thought old fashioned at the time.) and effective exercise. The singing reflex is then attached to an emotional response. This in turn gives the singer the ability to 'paint different emotions' within the voice. A wonderful variation of tonal colors would begin to develop for the singer. This is not to say that this was a replacement for good solid vocal technique. Quite the contrary; it was designed to enhance a good solid understanding of how to use the voice with the different colors of different emotions. This exercise begins to seal the gap between 'emotional singers with little technique' and 'technical singers with little inspiration in their singing'. This is just one way that vocalization can prepare a singer for repertoire because different emotions will be present within the music. Having a variation of colors in the voice simply makes interpretation of music more natural and effective.

The jaw/tongue relationship:

It is crucial that every singer develop a clear understanding of the tongue/jaw relationship. (See article on legato line.) Most of us pronounce with the tongue and jaw 'hooked together' in function. This is not a healthy way of pronouncing in singing. The tongue and jaw should be able to function separately from each other. This allows for the freedom to pronounce Italian 'flipped or dentalized' consonants without the jaw closing at the consonant. Remember, every time the jaw comes up or closes with the teeth together, the pharynx closes. This creates 'closed throated' singing. It is impossible to create a legato line when this condition is present. It is also crucial that the jaw 'wrap back' after each consonant in language function. This allows the larynx to drop after each consonant and the throat to stay open; this allows maximum resonance.

The Sieber Vocalises: Alan Lindquest recommended the Sieber Vocalises (Shirmer Publishers) to all of his students. It is important to know why Sieber is so good for the voice. He was a Viennese, Italian-trained voice teacher who knew the importance of vowel alteration and its role in keeping the balance of the registers. The Sieber Vocalises are designed to balance the registers using 8 measure melodies based on the Italian syllables da, me, ni, po, to, la, be. The register balance is achieved in the ingenious way Sieber arranges the syllables. Again, his goal it to allow the space of the open vowels in the closed vowels, and the ring of the closed vowels in the open vowels. Lindquest called these vocalises the 'bridge between vocalizing and singing music'. In my 25 years of teaching, I have never found a singer that the Sieber Vocalises did not help tremendously. Sieber wrote a different group of exercises for each voice type i.e. tenor, bass, baritone and soprano, mezzo, and alto. It is crucial that each singer/teacher use the correct book for the correct voice type. (See article on vocal fach.)

The role of the Flagstad 'ng' in application of technique to repertoire:

In 1938 and 1939 when Lindquest worked with Joseph Hislop and Mme. Ingebjard Isene, he learned several ways of applying technique to repertoire. Flagstad, who studied with Mme. Isene after the death of her teacher Dr. Gillis Bratt, said that she 'vocalized every phrase on the "ng" in order to feel the sense of threading each phrase.' I now understand what she meant. I often vocalize singers on the 'ng' within the context of a piece of music. This allows the singer to 'understand the exact feel of the correct sound' for each phrase. This tool is especially effective in dramatic voices that seem to carry too much chest into the middle register. I do not use the 'ng' in the upper extremities of the voice, however I find it to be tremendously effective for phrases from approximately the upper passaggio down to the lowest range. Lindquest would often tell me to 'breath in the ng position and pronounce in the ng position'. This idea never left me in terms of importance and today I use it in my teaching all the time.

Using the French 'ain':

With some singers, there is so much tongue pressure that the singer cannot realize proper 'nasal resonance'. This is NOT nasality but using the 'ng' ring with a slight sense of 'air through the nose'. The French 'ain' allows the root of the tongue to release in order for the singer to realize a 'small and even flow of air through the larynx'. If this is not present in one's singing, the result will be an overly dark and muted tonal quality. In applying technique to repertoire, I often have the singer start the first note of the phrase or sing the entire phrase on the French 'ain'. The result is a release of the root of the tongue plus a 'freedom of breath flow' otherwise unrealized. This is a technique that works especially well for tenors and sopranos for some reason. It allows the singer almost immediate access to the upper overtones of the instrument. When one threads this French 'ain' over the language function, the result is a free and beautiful tone. The correct body support is almost an immediate reaction to the proper 'drawing of the breath flow'. The back muscles and lower abdominal muscles suddenly begin to coordinate properly.

Use of the 'cuperto' in language function:

I remember an interview from the 1980 Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne recital. Each artist was asked several questions on vocal technique and how they worked their voices. Since this school of training is strongly based on the Italian School with the Swedish influence, I found Pavarotti's interview especially interesting. He spoke of vocalizing every phrase of an aria on the 'small Italian u vowel' (cuperto function). Then he would sing the aria on the vowels keeping the 'feeling of the u in the throat or pharynx'. The last addition was the consonants 'without interrupting the vocal line'. The tiny Italian 'u' is crucial in teaching a 'protection of the throat'. When a singer first finds this 'small place' which Lindquest called the 'sweet spot', he/she almost always reacts with the same statement: "It feels so very small." In truth, the voice becomes more 'concentrated' with the smaller more oval shaped mouth position. The sound travels more like a concentrated 'laser' rather than becoming 'defrayed or spread'. Spread production in singing NEVER carries in the opera house or concert hall. (See article on "Vocal Acoustics in the Theatre".) Even though I have studied for many years, I still tend to spread if I am not careful. This is why the 'mirror work' is so good to use in practicing. It is quite a discipline because most of us do not want to look in the mirror, especially when we sing. This work is 'critical' in finding the proper mouth position, which effects the resulting resonance in the vocal sound completely. It is quite obvious that when a singer 'spreads the mouth opening too wide, that the sound defrays and does not carry properly'.

I found it very interesting to learn how Pavarotti vocalized. I agree with his technique completely and have used this idea in my teaching with very positive results.

Bjoerling and Flagstad are two famous singers of this century who came from this school of training. A couple of years ago, I had the possibility of purchasing a video of Bjoerling. It was amazing to study. He NEVER spreads his mouth opening until he goes into the higher range above the staff. Even then, he opens with the lifting of the cheek muscles rather than the spreading of the mouth in an east/west position. As a result, his sound is always balanced, warm and correctly produced for proper theatre acoustics. I can actually see the Italian 'u' training in his production. This was quite an interesting experience for me.

A friend of mine sent me a copy of the 1938 film from Hollywood called the "Big Broadcast of 1938". In that film Flagstad made her Hollywood debut singing a Wagner aria. Even though the sound is dubbed in at a later time, you can see how Flagstad 'forms her mouth in a rounded position'. Again she NEVER spreads. I found this interesting in the sense that singers who are singing in film ALWAYS form the sound as though they are really singing at the moment. This rounded embrasure is the element greatly responsible for the beautiful, dark, and resonant quality that was kept throughout her voice. It is sad that there are so few recordings of Flagstad that actually capture the 'ng ring' in her voice. So in the end, Flagstad and Bjoerling both had a strong 'sense of the Italian u' in their training and singing. It does not surprise me in that their videos and recordings reflect a color and resonance that is a strong characteristic of this school of singing.

The psychological fear of singing: failure vs. success in the act of singing: When we analyze the emotion of fear, we realize that the muscles in the body over-tense, making it impossible for healthy vocalization in exercises or repertoire. (This is one reason I NEVER use the word NO in my voice studio.) I remember that Lindquest said, "Singing must come from an internally inspired and uplifted place." I find that the emotion of inspiration creates a relaxation within the lower body muscles which makes for a wonderful feeling in singing. Elastic energized flexible muscles are the result; a state of the body which I strive to achieve with my singers. It is important to remember is that each of us must experience successful singing before the 'emotion of fear' will drop away. I remember Lindquest almost brought me to tears in a lesson in 1979. He said, "David, I see all that fear in your eyes about singing; all that fear that those past teachers put into you. Before you leave, I hope I can help you to overcome that fear." This was spoken with the utmost kindness and consideration. I had never had a teacher speak to me this way. He had a certain way of getting to the deepest root of any vocal problem, even if it came from an emotional place.

When we achieve that wonderful feeling of vocalizing freely, the emotion of fear begins to leave. We develop a healthy 'vocal self-esteem' which takes us forward to learn more and more. As we progress forward, we learn that the vocalizing is only an avenue to express the music freely. The tools that I have mentioned above will help any singer to begin to 'bridge the gap' between vocalization and repertoire.

May each of you achieve this positive experience in singing. Remember that 'inspired singing is joyful singing'. We must all find our inner joy to be free to sing. I wish all of you great success in this journey.

Vocal Ideas to remember:

(1) Vocalise difficult phrases on the 'ng' feel with the root of the tongue released wide, NOT bunched.

(2) Use a tiny Italian 'u' vowel to vocalize difficult passages, especially those passages in the 'passaggio' that tend to carry up 'too much chest voice' into the upper register.

(3) Sit and lean over and 'feel the breath into the lower back and all around the middle of the body'. Take a small amount of air low in the body. Try not to 'rib breath' which creates 'over-breathing'. You can feel this more efficiently if you take a 'slow nose breath'.

(4) Sing on the 'interest and not the principal'. Try NOT to sing loud all the time. This is hard on the voice and does not allow one to achieve pianissimo. Remember in this competitive world musicianship is a MUST.

(5) Try to achieve the 'feeling of sitting' even when standing to sing. Keep the bend at the hip joints; this allows the breath to go low while standing.

(6) Use the idea of 'flipped and dentalized' consonants even while singing languages other than Italian.

(7) Practice slowly; give yourself time to take slow and relaxed breaths.

(8) Do ascending arpeggios on the tiny Italian 'u' (cuperto) which allow the voice to find the proper register changes without vocal weight.

(9) Watch yourself in the mirror and make sure that you 'round or narrow the mouth opening' as you sing consonant and different vowel function. This will line up the vowels in a 'similar acoustic'. Remember that if you 'spread your consonants, you will spread your vowels'.

(10) Psychologically, try to create fun in practice. Take this time as a time of deep relationship with the self. Enjoy your process without demanding quick results. The results will come from the process. Try to vocalize in 20 minute sessions two to three times a day.

Please direct questions to

(c) David L. Jones 2000