On Planning a Practice Regime

As for any other athlete, a clear differentiation must be made between exercises for warming up the voice and exercises that are designed to improve performance. Nowadays, most of us are familiar with the concepts of strength training, training for speed and flexibility, and training for endurance; but I would wager that not many singers realise that the training methods evolved over three hundred years ago in Italy embraced all these disciplines, and worked out a coherent and consistent method which holds good today.

The elements of clean attack, equal development and eventual equalization of the registers, evenness of tone throughout, adequate agility, good clear diction, dynamic control, an even accurate trill, all combined with singing in tune, must all be mastered in a complete technique. And it is a mix of exercises to produce these elements which combine in a good practice regime.

Exercises for the beginning of the sound – the attack or onset – are essential. If the vocal muscles are set up incorrectly to start with, what follows is sure to be faulty; it is next to impossible to put right an incorrect start. Ill begun is usually ill sung. All attack exercises must be on vowels – no musical figures started with a consonant should be permitted – the onset at the vocal cords is the point of concentration.

The second essential element is work on the trill, both from the lower and from the upper note. Trill exercises make the voice even throughout, note for note, and are the basis for all even agility. Without them, scales and the like will have areas of inequality which will not resolve even with assiduous practice. Only in the very advanced stages should a true free trill be attempted. Until then reiterations should be measured and kept in time.

The various vowel shapes must be perfected both in individual exercises devoted to clarifying the shapes, and by their use in other figures such as scales. The seven basic Italian vowel shapes should be mastered first and used as a basis for all other derivative shapes. An essential item should be the modification of the vowel shapes in the upper middle and top of the voice. Without this work no scale can be even in these areas and the voice will remain lumpy and clumsy.

Dynamic control first starts by contrasting forte and piano when repeating any figure – for instance scales; and continues with work on messa di voce. The principle of upward diminuendo with a stable larynx is of utmost importance once the voice is comfortable in forte and mezza forte.

Scales and other agility figures should form an essential part of daily practice, but not to the exclusion of the other elements. A corner of practice should be reserved for figures that are particularly difficult; awkward runs etc. in concert repertoire have a place here.

A practice session should last no longer than forty-five minutes. Ideally, a daily regime should consist of a session as here described, a long interval of rest, another session devoted to messa di voce or the ‘great scale’, another rest – and then repertoire. Even half of this would guarantee marked improvement.

© 2003, Neil Howlett