Voice Placing*

Lilli Lehmann’s diagram on the sensations.

My thoughts this week have been on how simple classical singing is and how complicated singing teachers can make it. Here are a couple of quotes on this subject.

If the scale, power, quality, and compass of the human voice were established as are those of the piano, the great problem in the training of a singer would be much simplified, possibly eliminated; but the singer must form the pitch, power, and quality of each tone as he uses it; therefore in the training of a singer we are constantly facing what has crystalized into the term Voice Placing.

This term has been used as a peg upon which to hang every whim, fancy, formula, and vocal vagary that has floated through the human mind in the last two centuries. It has furnished an excuse for inflicting upon vocal students every possible product of the imagination, normal and abnormal, disguised in the word Method, and the willingness with which the students submit themselves as subjects for experiment is beyond belief. The more mysterious and abnormal the process the more faith they have in its efficacy…

…Now voice placing means just one thing, not half a dozen. It means learning how to produce a beautiful tone.

Clippinger, D.A. The head voice and other problems: practical talks on singing. Page 3.

What I find most appealing about the technical principles I have learned is that they are few and simple.

Pilotti, Katarina. The Road to Bel Canto. On my re-training to Chiaroscuro. Masters Thesis. Page 51.

This week, I have reflected upon the imagery/sensation descriptions that teachers use and whether or not these descriptions are helpful. For example, ‘place it forward’, ‘drinking sensation’ and ‘you feel the note here’. My conclusion is that this imagery did not help me! It confused me and, even worse, caused a manipulation of the sound that is unhelpful and unnecessary.

Here is an example of how simple mechanics has led me in the right direction more than imagery/sensation.

This week, I managed to significantly ‘close down’ my mouth when I sing. (My big wide open mouth has destroyed so much of my control and sound.) I achieved this smaller and more relaxed mouth not through ‘relax your tongue’, ‘make sure it is flat with a little curve here’, ‘sing like an idiot’ or ‘be like a ventriloquist’. Rather, I have achieved this through my studies of historical vocal pedagogy and realizing that I need to build up a ‘system’ that is integrated and common sense.

Luckily, a year in a Covid-19 Lockdown is helping me with this retraining because Bel Canto requires 100% awareness and concentration. It also requires compassion.

Anyway, back to the ‘closing of the mouth’.

I have been using the pencil in the mouth ‘cure’ suggested by Garcia together with a combination of simple Bel Canto techniques. These simple techniques (support, lowered larynx and chiaroscuro) together with the pencil in the mouth, have produced the sensations that I am singing from ‘above’ and that the tones resonate in different parts of my skull like the Lilli Lehmann diagram. Now, for years I have battled to find these sensations because the imagery/sensations were described to me by my teachers before they fully and methodically dealt with the mechanics which produce the imagery/sensations. In other words, they put the cart before the donkey. It has taken a year of daily hard work in solitude for me to achieve the sound you hear in the SoundCloud demo below. I didn’t use imagery/sensation at all this year. I focussed on simple mechanics.

To reiterate, the mechanics lead to the imagery/sensations described in Lilli Lehmann’s picture. Not the other way around. Here is the SoundCloud audio file of how the voice floated upwards when the pencil was in the mouth.

No amount of imagery has helped my float the top C in the same way that shutting my mouth did! Mechanics leads to sound. Not all that imagery!

Here is a diagram from Lilli Lehmann’s book ‘How to Sing’ so we can look at it one more time. The value in this diagram for me is that now, after pulling together a framework for myself, I can ‘check in’ whether or not I am on the right path. This is what I felt in this SoundCloud audio, so, maybe I am. Perhaps there is some value in imagery/sensations after all?

*This blog is part of my three year ‘project’ that I have called ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’. The goal is to learn how to become a Bel Canto singing teacher.

Voce di petto – Chest Voice

Maria Felicità Garcia( 24 Mar 1808 – 23 Sep 1836) known as Malibran, was born in Paris as the daughter of the Spanish tenor Manuel del Pópolo Vicente Garcia.

“Exercises for strengthening the low and middle notes of the voice are more important for sopranos than for voices of any other class ; first, because, in general, that part of the voice is most feeble ; and next, because the transition from the voce di petto to the voce di testa tends to deteriorate the purity of some tones, and to impart a feebler, or, if I may so express myself, a stifled effect to others. It is, therefore requisite to keep up a continual practice of the defective note with the pure note which follows or precedes it, in order to obtain a perfect uniformity in their quality. This practice was one of the greatest difficulties which Maria Garcia had to surmount, the lower notes of her voice being strong and well toned, whilst the notes of transition were feeble and husky.”

Memoirs of Madame Malibran by the Countess de Merlin and other Intimate Friends, Volume One, page 20.

Practising Chest Voice so that it unites seamlessly

The most important exercises to practice are scales. We must begin nice and slow and be very critical of how the registers unite. Here is an example of how I practice Number Five in Manuel Garcia’s ‘Treatise on the Art of Singing’. I don’t launch straight away into the vowel [a]. I usually begin with something easy like ‘bree’ or ‘zee’ and then I will sing ya and then finally an ah vowel. In this example below, I was pleased on the ascent that I used chest on the first E and then mixed on the next E and they blend in nicely. It was a little more obvious and clunky on the descent and needs more practice. This happens around 1 min 48 seconds in this recording below. (Please note the guitar is tuned to 430HZ).

Here is an example of me battling through Number 5 of Garcia exercises – I began with bree, then ya and then a. It is a very difficult exercise to blend in the chest voice to the mixed register.

Do I use chest or mixed?

Some singers may have the question, which notes are chest? Which are mixed. The answer is that it depends. Some notes can be either chest or mixed. In the opening exercises of Manuel Garcia II’s book on the Art of Singing (Manuel Garcia II was the brother of Madame Malibran and son of Manuel Garcia I) you will find exercises devoted to uniting chest and mixed register. These exercises will also aid the technical skill of being able to chose either a chest or mixed tone colour. The choice will depend on the context, piece of music, period, emotion etc.

A very important exercise, especially for Sopranos

Applying chest voice

In the first example below, a You Tube video, at 1 minute 20 seconds, you will hear the uniting of the chest voice with the other registers. This occurs on the descent down from the head voice, through the mixed and then to the chest lower notes. I was pleased with this because the different parts of the voice (chest, mixed and head) blended in nicely.

If you forward to 1.20 you will hear the transition from head to mixed to chest voice.

Using chest is sometimes an artistic choice. In the second example below, the audio file, I do not use chest voice on the lower notes. I could have but it would not have sounded delicate.

In this piece – an Arietta by Giuliani – I chose NOT to use chest voice. Some notes can be sung either chest or mixed.

Finally, if you are singing folk or popular styles, chest can be taken up as far as you dare. However, it is really tough on your voice and if you do too much of it you could be in for a problem! When I sing Karanga (a traditional Māori call) I use chest up as high as I can go. If I sung in Head Voice the whole Marae would be laughing their heads off!

In this last example, you will hear me singing in chest voice on the stave. This suits the style of music but is heading into dangerous ground!


Bel Canto and the Modern Singer

Porpora – as relevant today as he was centuries ago!

I have never met a singer who was not looking for “ping” or what is called brightness. Most voices are hopelessly dead, and therefore lack sweetness. The voices are filled with night – black hollow gloomy night or else they are as strident as the caterwauling of a Tom Cat. The happy mean between the extremes is the area in which the singer’s greatest results are attained.

Evan Williams, How I Regained a Lost Voice, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, James Cooke.

Whether we are singing Classical or Pop, our tone, to the Western ear at least, requires a balance between dark and light. In the modern world, filled with technology and all the shrillness it brings with it, singers face a tougher challenge than ever to maintain this balance – chiaroscuro – while they sing a programme of often contrasting styles.

In this respect, Bel Canto singing is as relevant to the modern singer as it was in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Daily exercises and self-assessment are essential for the maintenance of our singing voices. We must rely on our ear to continually maintain this balance.

From personal experience, as a professional cross over and avant garde singer, I struggled and continue to struggle daily with this task. However, Bel Canto training in the early days and now a refocussing on Bel Canto for the next three years is my refuge. Bel Canto is as relevant today as it was in the past.

To demonstrate this, rather than a classical demonstration, today I have a demonstration of Norah Jones’s song ‘Come Away with Me’. Here I have stripped a couple of things away (the feeling of ‘o’ and and beginning the note on pitch, for example) to come up with a version of this pop/jazz/folk song that, hopefully, is reasonably true to the style but yet is vocally ‘safe’ and can be sung to an audience of up to 100 or so without a microphone. I think this is important because the modern audience that I love to sing to (communities across Southern Africa and the Antipodes) does not want to hear classical music from beginning to end. What a drag.

In addition, I must know how to teach my students modern styles as well as classical. ( I must also be able to educate my students how to adapt to classical music post-Donizetti – a wretched task if one is to avoid shouting from beginning to end- but I will save that for posts in the future).

Come away with me – Norah Jones

Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.

Articulation in Singing

Manuel Garica

A singer who is not understood, wearies his auditors, and destroys almost all the effect of the music, by obliging them to make continual effort to catch the sense of the words.

Garcia, Manuel. Treatise on The Art of Singing, page 42.

2021 marks the second year of my three year project that I have affectionately named “The Lilli Lehmann Project”. Lilli Lehmann writes in her book “How to Sing”:

No letter, no syllable ought to be pronounced badly.

Lehmann, Lilli. How to Sing, page 279.

Here is a playlist I have assembled on Spotify of pupils of Anna Schoen-Rene, a friend and colleague of Lilli Lehmann as well as “descendant”, vocally speaking, of Porpora. In this playlist you will hear example after example of fine pronunciation. I especially love the Bass, Paul Robeson.

Here is a rough sketch of Porpora’s “descendants”. Incredible singers with first class pronunciation. Many of these singers wrote singing books which teach us how to pronounce well.

My whiteboard from Porpora to the Present Day…

These old singing books are still 100% relevant today. For example, Garcia reminds us on page 44 of “The Art of Singing” not to be negligent of the final consonant. Here is a simple folk song in which I am trying my hardest to remember to pronounce the final consonants. To use Garcia’s words, I am often guilty of neglecting final consonants!

The most important reason to study Garcia

The most important reason to study Garcia is to develop an easy way of singing. His method is common sense and natural. There is no forcing or using silly tricks.

Garcia’s singing exercises, if practised with determination, provide everything that is needed for singing. His singing books are available free on the internet.

Here is a video of me singing “Una Voce Poco Fa”. I am self-accompanying so it is not as easy for me as singing with a accompanist or orchestra but you will hopefully see it is easy and fun for me to sing. It is simple: I breath quietly and pronounce with a tongue that is mostly returning to or against the lower teeth. I feel no tension at all in my throat. I could sing for hours like this.

Rossini – Una Voce Poco Fa

I really recommend that singers who are struggling to give Garcia’s singing books a go.

Sustainable Operatic Singing vs Unsustainable

Here are three examples of my singing. The first two examples are sustainable. I can sing for hours on end and the next day I am ready to sing again. In fact, the first example is basically sight singing and was recorded at the end of hours of practice. The voice is as fresh as it was at the beginning of the day. The third example is unsustainable. It leaves me hoarse.


The difference is that the first two examples are an extension of my speaking voice. The third example is not. By the way, I wrote the Māori waiata (song), I hope you like it.

Sustainable Sound

What sort of tone should an Opera Singer make?

It is possible to form new habits!

Over Lockdown, I tore my vocal technique apart. I questioned everything. Changed a lot. Kept a lot. Fortunately, I was taught well and, even though I didn’t grasp everything at the time, my past teachers’ words are in my ears. Now, I am putting the pieces together to form a whole.

How do I know I am putting the pieces together correctly?

One way to know is to ask myself “does my singing sound like my speech?” One should sing as one speaks. I am not talking about my Kiwi accent! I am talking about the tone quality. Do I sound like me? Or am I trying to be someone else?

Here are some examples I recorded from today’s practice:

Baroque – Porpora – speech to singing
Romantic singing – Donizetti – speech to song
20th Century singing – Puccini – speech to song

The principle “sing as you speak” is also true for today’s popular song. Here are a couple of examples…

Folk/pop singing – Sting – speech to song
Jazz/pop singing – Norah Jones – speech to song

Demo of page 71 of Garcia’s ‘Art of Singing’

Garcia’s Treatise on the Art of Singing is having a profound effect on my singing.

On page 71, Garcia teaches us how to sing plain passages. In this post, I am going to try out his instructions on a short passage from Lucia’s Mad Scene. See the audio files below.

Plain Style

Garcia writes, on page 71 of his Treatise, ‘”..chief resources are – steadiness of voice, true intonation, choice of tone-color, swelled sounds of every variety, finest delicate shadings of forte-piano slurs, tempo and rubato, and neatness of articulation…[d]ifferent appoggiature, and trills, may be happily employed, and give pleasing relief to a melody.”

In this short passage from Lucia di Lammermoor’s ‘Mad Scene’, I am going to make the following artistic choices: swell each note approaching the top note, sing the top note piano and then diminuendo to ppp, trill on the Bflat combined with messa di voce, and then turn on the following note. Here goes…

Attempt One

I think the trill was a bit too long and uneven, here is a second version, this time with a fp on the top note followed by a dim to ppp. The trill is now shorter.

Attempt Two

Garcia’s Treatise is having a profound effect on my singing. I recommend using Garcia’s Treatise every day.

Hint: I tick each exercise when I have studied it because it gives me a sense that I am getting ‘somewhere’ with the book. I also diarise the exercises, for example, today I have to do numbers 7, 49, 63, 109, messa di voce and read page 71. I cross these off in my diary as I complete them. (I think if you don’t give yourself a sense of accomplishment, the book can be overwhelming.)

HINT: Write on Garcia’s Treatise to give yourself a sense you are making progress. It is a big book and can be overwhelming!

Tracing Porpora

Nicola Antonia Porpora

In 2021, I will be performing live. All of these concerts are building upon the techniques I am studying in historical vocal pedagogy. These live concerts are listed on this website. One of these concerts is called “Tracing Porpora”. This concert will be performed in May 2021, with Dr John Linker at the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral in New Zealand.

Tracing Porpora is a concert which features the extraordinarily beautiful, but difficult, music of Porpora, the great, great, great, great, great, great, grand daddy of the vocal technique I pursue and adore. This concert traces his legacy. Music includes music by Porpora, Mozart and Donizetti.

Here is a very rough diagram, showing Porpora at the top and the branch of singing teachers and pupils that I am studying. Many of these people wrote singing books, diaries etc. It is a wonderful resource for learning how to sing Bel Canto (Old Italian Singing School Method).

A rough family tree from Porpora to New Zealand

Here are some Spotify playlists I have created of singers listed on the whiteboard. These may be of use to young singers who are seeking to understand where their technique has come from. I hope you enjoy listening to these wonderful and, most importantly, original, singers.

Using the phone to improve singing

South Africa has seen one of the strictest and longest Lockdowns in the World. Since Covid-19 began to isolate us all, I have used this time to refresh my voice. Alongside the historical pedagogy, historical recordings and my own insights from practice, I have used the phone to record every note. In this way, the phone allows me to be both teacher and student without trying to perform both roles simultaneously.

In the old days, the Bel Canto teachers recommended mirrors. However, we are more fortunate! Video allows time to watch and analyse every movement.

The phone has proven to be a wonderful tool for fast tracking my progress. I set boundaries of half an hour by using the timer. Within the 30 minutes, I then record my singing in very small ‘lots’. Each ‘lot’ is no longer than 2 minutes. On average, the ‘lot’ is 40 seconds. I use audio and video, but mostly audio.

Short 30 minute sessions on a piece or scale is plenty of time. After 30 minutes I find it is better to put the piece away and allow the brain time to do its’ subconscious thing. For example, at the moment I am learning Lakme’s Bell Song. It is coming together quickly because I am spending less (but purposeful) time on it.

Recording every note on the phone and then listening back encourages reflection and also creates a moment’s rest. Rest is as important to developing singing as the actual singing itself. This rest has meant that during Lockdown I have been able to interrogate my technique and learn many Coloratura arias without harming my voice.

As well as using the timing and recording functions, I have uploaded recordings made on my iPhone on my website, YouTube and SoundCloud. This creates a pressure to perform and, also, a pressure to improve and replace the recording as quickly as possible. Once the recordings are improved they are uploaded and the old recording deleted. This gives a sense of purpose which is very important during this global disruption.

Finally, I have used the phone to counteract the isolation of Covid-19 by creating social media. This has included weekly thoughts on technique, sharing gems I find in historical pedagogy and enjoying others’ posts.

Thank you for reading this post, I would love some comments from you on how you use your phone in daily musical practice! We have to remain positive during this challenging time!

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