Unravalling ‘Technique’

‘Technique’ – a word much bandied about by singers, teachers, critics and even composers and amateurs of singing. But do they all mean the same thing? I would suggest that mostly it refers to the ability to sing some notoriously difficult passage well, particularly if it is fast. Seldom is the word used for sustained, full-voiced or notably quiet singing yet surely this is ‘technique’ also. The meanings are clearly many, yet it would seem to imply a fundamental concept without which nothing good is possible. Students intending to learn a good technique go to college or a teacher with a good reputation. But after their courses of study, how many pause to analyse whether they have or not? There are teachers who acquire a reputation as ‘technical teachers’, whatever that may mean – one such of my acquaintance ‘did not do repertoire’. But what do the other teachers teach? Is it not technique? If not, what is it? Clearly a subject for investigation.

Technique in singing describes all that happens between taking breath and performance; all processes – both physical and mental. It consists of three elements, usually separated in training, but interconnected and eventually integrated in performance. The first, and most basic, element is the technique of emission, so-called because it is primarily concerned with the quality of sound and clarity of enunciation; and secondarily with the present and long term health of the voice. The second element is often referred to as the technique of agility, but a better name might be the technique of physical prowess, as not only does it encompass a voice’s speed and flexibility, but also its ability to sustain and to increase and diminish. The third and last element is the technique of expression. This concerns the uttering of sounds which convey meaning and emotion: colouring the voice, sighs, sobs, breath noises of all kinds and the like – included in this are the grunts, groans, squeaks, hums and other sounds demanded by modern repertoire. This part of technique is the physical link between artistic aim and artistic expression.

The demarcation line between the first two parts of technique is quite obviously imprecise, because the musical patterns used at the beginning of training are simple and only become more complicated as skill and competence advance. The technique of emission is concerned with posture, vowel quality, control of the breath and mastery over the muscles of the jaw and tongue. It includes register blending and vowel modification, two related subjects, which although they are confronted near or at the beginning of development, are destined to be at the forefront of a singer’s consciousness probably to the end of a career. A further area of study destined to be with every singer from the beginning to the end is the trill. In the early stages trill exercises are one of the most useful of all for making a voice even, by working two adjacent notes together repeatedly. This substantial benefit is to be gained en passant, as it were, in the process of aiming toward the higher goal. The study of messa di voce, like the trill, is an ongoing area, although there is considerable conflict of expert opinion concerning the stage at which it should be addressed during a course of training. A pragmatic approach to this problem is to work toward the final result by practicing crescendi and diminuendi separately at first, until they have become good enough to be united. In this way messa di voce becomes, like the trill, an essential element throughout all stages.

All voices must be worked to increase their natural athletic ability. The study of agility means different things to different voices – strong voices are often stiff and immovable at first, but they will become more flexible and faster with perseverance; natural speedsters can be volatile to the point of unsteadiness and will need disciplining to firm them up. In fact, for all voices, in this area of study, it is important to work hardest at what is least natural. The other golden rule is that every achievement can be improved in time; there is no theoretical limit to development, it is open-ended. These maxims may appear trite to some, or even harsh to others, but truly there is no voice to which they do not apply. The vocal primers of the nineteenth century are a cornucopia of exercises to satisfy the needs of everyone – and it is a feast from which every singer must partake, no matter what their choice of repertoire. However, those voices destined for bel canto repertoire must travel this road the furthest, as this repertoire requires agility of the highest order. Speed work should always be started at a comfortable, moderate pace and increased gradually. Combined with the ongoing study of messa di voce and the trill, such exercise will render every voice athletic, supple and strong.

The governing element at the final level is the imagination; however, it relies on technique to fulfil its demands. For most singers, the idea of performance is the spur which attracts them to the art form in the first place, and for many the magnet of performance draws them inexorably, before their techniques are developed enough to communicate their intentions to an audience successfully. Interpretation cannot be revealed except through technical means; the most vivid imagination is useless unless it can be put into practice. This third level of technique rests, therefore, on a complete mastery of the two more basic levels: on the techniques of emission and agility. These give control of the breath, articulation, vowel shapes, vowel colour, placement and athleticism – essential factors to reveal the mind and personality behind the voice. Imagination can be let loose on text and music in the knowledge that there will be an instantaneous technical response. This is the longed for, somewhat mythical moment, when ’technique’ ceases to exist and brain, performing instinct and voice become one.

© 2008 Neil Howlett