What is Technique?

There often seems to be considerable confusion when the question of technique is raised; and when it is answered in several different ways, as so often happens, the confusion is further compounded. Most of the muddle stems from the fact that technique divides into two interrelated halves: technique of emission – the method of making the sound; and technique of facility – training to sing difficult musical patterns. Summarising, one could say the first is making the instrument and the second playing it.

Of course, every singer knows that an improvement in one affects the other, and the same goes for deterioration. A practice regime at every level should include work – exercises – of both types, depending on natural gifts and the level of skill already achieved. Even the most beautiful voice must work continually to maintain the beauty, just as an ugly one must work to eliminate faults.

Commonly, the word ‘production’ is heard for the technique of emission. ‘Voice production’ and ‘voice building’ are perhaps the commonest terms used, but their precise meanings are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. What is not commonly understood is the fact that interpretation itself is largely dependent on how the sound is produced. Interpretation without technique cannot exist. It must begin, for singers as with all musicians, with an exact realization of the black marks that the composer has put on the page, and must continue with the meaning of the words and their clarity, plus the emotions that lie behind the meaning. The technique of emission therefore includes the correct pronunciation and enunciation of vowels and consonants, volume, resonance and eventually the timbres needed to create colours and emotional changes.

Most singers are aware of the legacy of technical exercises dating from the late eighteenth century, which still connect us with the castrati and the bel canto period. The information on emission in these treatises is pretty minimal but a lot can be learnt from intelligently reading between the lines. However, the technique of facility is extensively covered, far too extensively for most modern singers perhaps. Few are prepared to invest the time in practising to such an extent. It is worth noting that singing fast does not necessarily mean singing well. Some voices have a natural gift for speed and some do not. It is true that all voices should be agile but sheer speed does not necessarily equate with quality. A fast faulty emission is quite possible, but agility alone will not cure faults.

To sum up: if the emission is perfect, the voice will be naturally agile as there will be no muscle stiffness or tightness to inhibit it. A perfect emission is the elimination of unnecessary muscle tension. The criteria used in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to define a sound technique still hold good, and of course, are the reason for the development of the da capo aria and its later bel canto development, the slow arioso followed by a fast cabaletta. To master such music, a voice must be able to sustain long notes and slow melodies and be agile enough to encompass any florid pattern of notes, all with perfect diction.

© 2003, Neil Howlett