Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Messa di Voce

[This is an edited chapter from my mysterious never to be seen again book, the one that explains the purposes and methods for practicing the messa di voce. The person to whom it refers shall remain mysterious. It could be anyone.]

We still haven't sung any repertoire and will not again today. My biggest concern about you is for the general care and maintenance of your voice. My goal is not to give you a standard technique, but to find ways to keep your voice balanced and healthy, the diverse parts connected, and to find unity in the variety of your work.

Today I will teach you the messa di voce, the most classical of all vocal exercises. In its almost absurd simplicity is an enormous variety of benefits, and I wish to give them to you. I'm a big believer in the messa di voce (placing of the voice). Garcia and a lot of other famous teachers recommended it, and I recommend it to you. I used to practice it when all was going to hell in the middle, and sometimes when it wasn't.

Garcia is Manuel Garcia the younger, the brother of the famous mezzo-sopranos.... "Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot," you interrupt. Yes. And the most famous voice teacher of the nineteenth century. His father, also Manuel Garcia, was the tenor for whom Rossini wrote the role of Otello, which means he must have been a pretty damned amazing tenor.

Singing is an athletic activity performed by a tiny muscle in the throat. All of the respiratory mechanism is used to control and shape the sound, but this tiny muscle is crucial. I am reminded of stories about decathletes--the people who compete in the decathlon. They always explain that in order to be good in a big variety of events, their performance in individual events usually suffers. Bulking up for the shot put interferes with developing the right fitness for sprints. Sprinting develops the legs in a slightly different way than long distance running, which in turn is different from the broad jump.

Some uses of the voice interfere with others. Too much emphasis in one area can prevent others from developing. For example, too much emphasis on chest tones can make high notes more difficult. The messa di voce tries to even out the extremes of use, to balance and unify the parts. It is useful to counteract your tendency to prefer certain "hot" zones in your voice, pitches or colors which sound particularly nice and you would like to sell to the listener. In performance you may sell your voice to your heart's content, but not in the messa di voce. Here we place the same value on every pitch and every degree of loudness. It can also tell you what is working well and what is not.

The messa di voce consists of a long crescendo (pp to ff) followed by a long diminuendo (ff to pp) on a single note. It's pretty boring, but worth it. An experienced singer like you should be able to crescendo for a moderate 8 count and diminuendo for another 8. You can do it faster if that seems too slow. If you have a very high tolerance for boredom, you can do this for a few minutes (4 or 5) at a time, covering your whole voice. Don't overdo it.

My suggested tempo is very slow. Many writers on singing recommend it, but I don't remember anyone suggesting such a slow tempo for the messa di voce. I think doing it slowly helps focus awareness on the transitions and off of the extremes.

I want to make sure you learn the messa di voce properly, and remind you that throughout the exercise, you must keep your head still. A little tilting may be allowed, but no backward or forward movement. This is very important. It would counteract the benefit of the exercise to perform it improperly. I would watch carefully to see that you did it right. I would ask you to observe yourself in the mirror, both now and when you are practicing it later.

We will begin in the middle of the voice on a G or A. Extend the pitch gradually down and up, though it is less important to practice the messa di voce at the extremes of range. On high notes you would be doing it to practice controlling the diminuendo and to bring more weight into your high notes. Any vowel is OK. It is more important where you position the vowel than which vowel you pick. Place it forward but not too far forward so you can expand and open it as you crescendo. Begin the vowel in a closed position and move to an open position on the ff, going back to closed position.

"What does it mean, 'open position' and 'closed position?'" you ask. "I don't understand this."

Closed position in a vowel means a narrow, highly focused sound, while open position is wider and less focused. Notice I do not say unfocused. Unfocused is not good. When I am talking about different sounds, I will talk about them in relationship to vowels. A very tight "ee" is closed and a looser "ih" is very open. These are two extremes of the same basic sound. If I am going through the material too quickly, please stop me.

On pitches near the break, you begin in head and crescendo smoothly into chest and back into head. Between the two is mixed registration. Some people mix naturally, but the rest of us have to practice it.

After listening to you and listening to myself when I was about your age, I notice that our two very different voices share certain qualities. We both use a lot of mixing in the middle, and our most beautiful sounds come from this mixed tone. This beautiful mixed sound is delicate and fragile and hard to make loud. When you're doing it right, you show a lot of skill in controlling the mixing. Other times you don't even try to mix and just skip directly from head to chest and back again, usually to achieve a technical effect. At your best, you are more successful at blending your registers than I was.

You must take care to keep your head and neck still during this exercise. The jaw can move. To get the desired benefit, the main activity must be in the larynx and pharynx. Your head must not go forward when you shift into chest or back when you go into head.

The diminuendo must be executed without allowing the tone to become breathy. Intensify the vowel and concentrate on moving it to the closed position. This is especially important on the "ah" vowel which you must be sure to practice. You may limit the crescendo to forte if you want, especially at first. In any event never crescendo louder than feels comfortable or can be fully supported. If you keep doing it, you should be able to extend the dynamic range gradually.

The messa di voce has a number of uses. In addition to helping to smooth the transition from chest to head, it is also an exercise to control the transition from light to heavy singing. Both transitions must be executed smoothly, with no apparent shift. Some pitches will be much more difficult than others, but those are the ones we will emphasize. We will tune the vowels to make it easier, allowing them to move slightly with the crescendo. If you become tense while practicing this, stop and try again tomorrow.

The messa di voce is very boring and requires concentration on technique alone to be effective. It has no musical content and must be practiced this way. Its purpose is to develop coordination of the vocal cords themselves, to develop and facilitate exactly those things, which are hardest for a heavy voice. The instructions should be followed exactly.

The messa di voce connects the extremes together and trains the voice to be familiar not merely with the extremes of loud and soft, chest and head, light and heavy, but with all the levels in between. You use crescendo and diminuendo in performance to bring variety and contrast, but in the messa di voce the objective is sameness and evenness, which means that it must be performed methodically in as boring a manner as possible. Think of it as a meditation, the messa di voce meditation.

The messa di voce is intended only for experienced singers, and beginners should stay away from it. It's not a drill. Repetitions aren't the point. The benefit lies in discovering how to do it correctly, and once mastery is achieved, it can be done less often for review. Practice it occasionally during your warm-up to make sure it's still working properly. If there are problems, return to systematic study.

[This has to be the longest and most boring explanation of how to do a vocal exercise ever written, the obvious result of extreme fanaticism.

For a short demonstration of how to perform the messa di voce chick here. You are not required to repeat it three times or add the huge flourish of fast notes at the end. Fiendish grin is also not necessary, but if it works for you, why not?]

Here is something in an interview with Vesselina Kasarova where she discusses the messa di voce, though she doesn't call it that.  Her description is similar to this.  I also advise her to sing Octavian as though it were Mozart.

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