Vocal Training

An Approach to Vocal Technique
George Bragg
(from "The Big Book")

I would first of all like to say that the Victorian concept and belief that a child’s voice is delicate is a misdirected use of the word "delicate." It is not delicate in the sense that it is fragile, damageable by energetic usage, else the playground or playing fields would have long ago become silent areas of human activity.

To the contrary, the vocal cords and box, the larynx, are a remarkable set of elastic membranes and cartilages which, when healthy and normal to begin with, can be trained for free vocal expression, thereby not only increasing volume by amplification through the use of the resonators, but also by extending the range and compass through suitable exercises, carefully chosen and properly placed.

In that statement are the principles relating to the training of the vocal cords which are the sound producers. The cultivation of the voice is accomplished through the cultivation and usage of the resonators: the pharynx being the largest and most important, and the only flexible variable resonator that we have; the chest resonance present throughout the lower vocal range; and the mask and head resonators which are present at all times, that are more prominent in the upper vocal range.

To utilize any of the resonators effectively, we must educate the ear. We must train our auditory senses to know what we are listening for, how the sound is achieved and when we have achieved it.

At this point we come into a matter of individual difference and preference as a result of individual ability and background. In the teacher, the leader, the one who guides the way, we have the cause, the center of the success or failure of vocal result.

If the teacher’s vocal production is tense, the pupil’s vocal production will be tense. If the leader is lax, phlegmatic, unconcerned about vocal details, the student’s vocal sound will reflect the same. If the guide be a real guide, choosing carefully the path and direction as a result of real knowledge of the correct, practical way to success, his followers will reflect knowledge and purpose by means of a correct practiced route because of pedagogical understanding.

This does not mean that you must have hours and hours of rehearsal, although it requires much time, but it does mean that every time you encounter those choral voices, you know where you are going vocally with the individual as well as with the corporate sound.

F. Melius Christianson once said a great truth about choral groups: "They are never better than the director, and seldom worse." How can they be better than the one who gives them information, knowledge, and inspiration; that sense of spirituality developed by one’s wisdom and awareness of mood and purpose, coupled with a sense of the drama of life? How can they be worse, except the director be a person who is preoccupied with self or the seeming importance of self on the occasion of regular rehearsal or public performance.

It seems that the leader should be one imbued with the thought of sharing – sharing with his pupils valuable knowledge at each opportunity, and, sharing with his audience the treasures that have been found that are worthy of attention through acknowledgeable artistic performance.

Good voice production does not begin with the vocal cords, but rather with correct posture. The general attitude of the body is one of tallness, elevation, anticipation and energized alertness.

Both feet are comfortably apart, approximately the distance of the hips at the front of the pelvis. The bend of the right foot is opposite the arch of the left foot, with the body weight to the front of the feet. The knees remain flexible.

The feeling of elevation occurs in the spine at the small of the back, with some stretch between the "floating" ribs and the hipbones. The lower abdomen should be "glued to the backbone" as Galli-Curci said. This is the only area of the body where there is any awareness of physical involvement or muscular tension.

The sternum bone is suspended from the ceiling, as it were, allowing the chest to be heightened without tension. The shoulders are back and down. The neck should remain alert, but free of tension, as should the arms and hands.

Upon anticipation of the intake of breath, the singer should breathe upward through the mouth and nose simultaneously. The mouth space is that determined by the vowel to be sung; the nasal inhalation causes the soft palate to be elevated, giving height for correct mask resonance to the vowel already taking shape in the mouth. This also prevents a "gulping" of breath into the pharynx, which cause dryness in the throat and the top of the vocal cords, thereby ridding the glottis of moisture. Excessive breathing is not conducive to a correct feeling for the singer, which should be one of lightness, secureness and flexibility. The matter of over-breathing in itself often tenses the muscles of the thorax and neck, defeating the accomplishment of that which is initially being attempted.

Upon the breath intake, the feeling of the singer should be that the breath is being received in the lower part of the thorax, in what has been called the "breath band," that area of the body located between the top of the pelvis (the waist) and the bottom of the sternum bone, where the division of the ribs begins. The floating ribs are suspended and remain in a suspended state during both the taking in of breath and its release. The large area of muscle of the upper abdomen gradually displaces the release of the breath by moving inward and upward in a supportive manner.

It is this set of muscles on which the smooth release of breath is so dependent, for it is the "sigh" that becomes the ultimate vehicle of vocal production; it is the use of the "sigh" that gives freedom and consistency to the release of the voice and mask resonance.

When the vocal cords are approximated (are brought close together), the only thing they lack for phonation, the production of sound, is breath. Once this release of breath is initiated with just a bit of a tug in the upper abdomen just above the area of the navel, the fuel for singing should be expended steadily and slowly, but firmly, with energy.

To demonstrate the use of the upper abdomen, an excellent exercise is to have the student imagine he is blowing out a candle. He should have one hand on the "breath band." Energy is the key word here, for it is the buoyancy of the body, the anticipation and excitement of singing, the elevation and intensification of speech which are linked smoothly and constantly through that energetic feeling already established in posture and realized ultimately in the soaring of the vocal sound.

Even the eventual vocal technique, staccato and marcato, are part of this continuous directed and controlled release of the breath which ultimately is heard as exciting, vital, purposeful sound.

The "sigh" is just what the word would imply: a releasing of the breath in an elongated, "arched" manner. The idea of the arch in singing is inherent to the concept of both the breath released and vocal resonance realized. Although we speak of these two elements independently, the two are one and inseparable.

The kind of breath which the singer is to take is of major importance, not how much breath, for the kind of breath implies that there is a preparatory thought preceding the breath. This is true. The kind of breath is determined by the demands of the idea which the singer is to communicate to an audience located 75 to 100 feet away.

In this instance, even the most intimate kind of intonation must have energized intensity and carrying power as the result of proper vocal placement and the correct mental and verbal projection. A great declamation must have a different kind of thought preceding it. What we are saying, in effect, is that singing is very closely akin to acting: "holding a mirror up to nature," as Shakespeare put it – holding a mirror up to emotion, in the case of singing.

We want to create and communicate an emotional mood. Every thought sung should have its purpose; therefore, it must be realized first in the mind of the singer, or the performer, and then, by using all of the technical tools available to the singing artist, he causes the idea to be realized in the mind of the listeners. Without this resulting empathy there is no communication, no meaning to artistry.

What we are now going to consider is how we achieve this concept of sound which gives a sense of reality and authenticity to speech, be it Italian, German, English, Spanish or American.

There are four kinds of vocal emission, of which Speech is the fulcrum: whispering, speaking, shouting and singing.

When the vocal cords do not approximate, we have present the conditions for whispering.

When whispering is vocalized, we have speech.

When speech is energized for communication at a distance, we have shouting.

When sustained speech is energized, through the principle of the sigh, we have singing.

Emotions were the original sources causing humans to approach the origins of singing. No doubt extreme joy and sorrow were the first reasons humankind sang. As we became more sophisticated, our songs became more varied to suit the occasion with the suitable emotion: triumph, religion, misery, celebration, work, contentment, etc.

Emotions have not changed. Our means of expressing emotion from age to age have varied, but the source is the same source. Our true feeling of honest emotion has to be re-created with an actor-like sensitivity. We must be free to express ourselves. We must not be inhibited by limiting ideas of decorum and propriety. We must shout with no apologies. We must emote with no audience-awareness.

Often, when the beginning student hears himself alone for the first time, he can be frightened into a shell from which he may vocally emerge very slowly, if at all. Therefore, in counteracting this possibility, use preventative discipline. Tell him beforehand that he is going to have a new experience. He is going to hear himself as he really is, for the first time. Then have him shout to someone a block away – "hello!" You may even want to demonstrate this for him. With a chorus you simply deal with the group as a unit, or have a few individuals to try the idea on for size.

Once the ice of silence has been broken, you can begin to deal with the real subject at hand, the release of the breath, first as a small concentrated, continuous stream of air directed to the index finger held six inches in front of the rounded lips, and then the same exercise, a vocalized sound on the syllable "loo." The purpose of both exercises is to establish a controlled longevity of breath release. Repeat each exercise ten times. With beginners, try for a 5-10 second duration for each attempt. (No talking or noise by those who finish first; no rewards for the less capable.) The ideal duration to be accomplished is 20 to 30 seconds, although I have known pupils who have produced sound continuously for 1 minute, 20 seconds, once they have caught on to the challenge. Have the student become aware of what the muscles in the middle part of the body are doing.

What we are striving for in this exercise is to establish the feeling of the "appoggio," the suspension of the breath which the Italians so beautifully utilized in the development of that school of singing called "Bel Canto." We should remember that the pupils in those days worked seven hours a day for four or five years. It is not the realization which we are after; it is the right set of principles. In a school, if each of you taught toward the same goal, using the same principles, eventually the children in your school would produce a remarkable and enviable result. You would become renowned throughout the land for the quality of your work.

I am reminded of the impact made by Josquin in the late Fifteenth Century in Cambrai, who from a single medieval cathedral choir school merged together the basic principles of musical scholarship in such a way as to produce master craftsmen who eventually affected the direction of music throughout Western Europe.

We next begin with "ee." The use of this vowel places the sound forward. The student needs to be made aware of the brightness and vibration of this brightest of all vowels. The sound should be centered inside the mouth about an inch above the upper gum ridge. The sound should not be blatant or exposed. It should not be with forced feeling. It should be felt as awareness, and listened to for the ringing quality within the natural mask resonance.

Once this has been sensed, we are ready to begin yet another exercise, one for somewhat the same purpose, for which the previous exercise was preparation by establishing brightness and forward placement. Now, we re-enforce this with an exercise that begins with a hum.

Calling it a "hum" is deceptive, however. It must not be thought of as a "hum," but rather as an "ah" space covered very gently by the lips: an Italian "ah," not the American "uh" or the English "aw." The tongue is involved, helping to make the covered vowel. The tongue tip should lightly touch the lower front teeth.

What we have produced, so far, is a mouth hum. What we will do later requires that the thought be consistent about the "ah" space. This phase of the exercise is established by having the student place his left hand on his upper abdomen (breath band), thumb at the bottom of the sternum, hand somewhat spread, for the purpose of being sure that the breath impulse is initiated from the right place. The index finger of the right hand is lightly placed on the upper lip just at the base of the nose. It is to this place that the sound should be though and sensed. It is important at this time the mental connection and awareness is established from the left hand impulse to the right hand vibration.

There should be no sensation of tension or rigidity. The only physical awareness is the continuing support from the lower abdomen, the breath gently begun each time from the upper abdomen. This exercise can be done ten times; alternatively, I will begin a group "humming" together, and walk among the rows of singers, listening to the sound of each child. Those needing special help in getting the correct placement are worked with before rehearsal or sometimes afterward.

The mind is concentrated as to where the sound is going to ring, and the ears are busy listening very carefully to hear that pinpoint of sound beginning at the base of the nose. The feeling is the same whether the sound be piano or forte. (Note that we have not used the English translation of "soft" and "loud." These are as incorrect as the use of the English word "tone" to denote "pitch." "Tone" is a quality of "pitch;" "pitch" is the sound level produced by a set frequency of vibration.)

The last of the introductory exercises for establishing the basic concepts for the appoggio and sigh begins in exactly the same manner, use of the hum; the difference is that it goes yet another step by parting the lips, once the tone is established, thereby allowing the Italian "ah," which has been inside the "mouth hum" all the time, to be heard at last. When it does come forth, it should be tall and ringing and free by continuing to contain all of the ingredients of technique which were introduced in the "hum."

This exercise is built on the intervals do-re-mi, with the "hum" and the beginning "ah" on the first do, an intensifying of the sigh for re, while inside the mouth there is continuing focus above the gum ridge, and there is a feeling of lift, height, the beginning of a yawn. The height realized on the re is retained as the voice glides back down to do. This vocalization is begun on "d" above middle "c" and moves chromatically up the scale no higher than "a."

What we are producing now is a voice with a predominance of chest resonance. As confidence in this production of sound increases, the tendency will be for the student to over-sing, which must be handled at the discretion and direction of the teacher, for here we begin to "mix" colors of vocal impression. This is coupled with a descending exercise for head resonance patterned so-fa-mi-re-do, beginning on "e," the tenth above middle "c." Chromatically, the exercise moved downward until the do reaches middle "c." The body reaction and support are the same.

Subsequent exercises are designed to develop these two areas of the voice with the "middle register" being developed as a result of a blending of the chest and head resonances. Too much emphasis will produce a heaviness, hence an unevenness in the vocal line. No emphasis will produce a colorless kind of voice. You must become the final mixer of these various colors which will be subject to your taste, purpose, experience and esthetic sense.

We must remember that chest resonance (not chest voice) is present throughout the entire vocal range, less as the vocal range rises, more as it descends. The reverse is true of head resonance (not head voice); more, as the voice ascends, less as the voice descends.

Beautiful, correct speech is the keystone supporting the structure of singing and makes all vocal sound vital, important and beautiful. Every word must be molded with a sense of physical involvement. The consonants which separate vowel sounds to create words must be energetically formed and produced. The most important factor here is the use of the tongue, which must constantly be the singer’s "alert" area.

The tongue functions in three different ways to assist in the formation of consonants and vowels: the tip assists with dental consonants; the middle helps palatal consonants and vowels; and the back aids the production of the guttural consonants and vowels.

The tongue is attached in two places: at the hyoid bone (a supportive cartilage located under the jaw) and at the area just above the larynx. The first location gives the singer very little trouble. But the second is a constant source of difficulty unless the singer can gain the concept that the tongue rides over the hyoid bone. Never is the tongue pushed down at the back in the production of any sound, for in its attachment to the larynx, depression of the tongue is depression and constriction of the larynx.

Constriction of the larynx causes the cartilages housing the vocal cords to malfunction, thereby failing to allow the vocal cords and all the surrounding component parts of the larynx to function freely and naturally.

This is important because the voice has within its full range two lifts (or adjustments). For treble voices, the first lift is in the area of "a" or "b" above middle "c." The second lift occurs a perfect fourth above the first lift, whatever it may be.

It is through the discovery of where these adjustments by the singer are made that we discover the true classification of the voice of a singer. The rare alto’s lift will occur in the area of "f" or "g" above middle "c." (Here we are not speaking of a changing voice.)

We should say that God did not create all girls to be sopranos and all boys to be altos.  This is one of the cardinal sins of many teachers who fail to understand the real nature of children, and the real purpose of music in our lives.  The student will remain interested as long as he feels he is accomplishing something of value.  We must remember that one must understand before he will accept an idea.  If the result is not pleasurable, the result is loss of student interest.

 It is the gradual working toward musical goals and accomplishments that makes rehearsals enjoyable.  Part of that accomplishment is the distinction of uniqueness and individual worth.  This doesn’t happen when voice ranges are determined by sex.

 Copyright 1984, 2001 by George Bragg. Used by permission.


Copyright 2002 boychoirs.org
This page was last modified on 06 December 2005