Messa di Voce

A surprising result of research into the writing of vocal experts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that not one of them before 1850 ever mentions the placing of the voice. Why ever not? Following the many theories put forward in the last hundred years or so, the singers of today are deluged with advice, much of it conflicting: to place the voice ‘on the chest’, ‘in the mask’, ‘forward’, ‘behind the front teeth’, ‘on the hard palate’, to list only a selection; as well as to aim it at ‘the nape of the neck’, ‘the top of the head’, ‘the breastbone’, and so on. This is the world we live in now; this everyday confusion is familiar to all of us. In consequence, squadrons of singers are produced adhering to the particular mantra they have been taught, and swearing by no other; and the unfortunate others rebound from one teacher to another, until their heads are filled with so many theories they don’t know what to believe. In the light of the present muddle, how is it that the singers survived for whom the music of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and even Verdi and Wagner, was written? A good question – not often asked. The answer lies in the study of messa di voce.

In the past vocal study began with long notes, in order to develop strength and steadiness of breath. At first, notes were held at the same volume, attacked and released cleanly. Only after a certain mastery of this process had been achieved were the notes modulated in volume. Vocal primers of the past are filled with early exercises of this type, usually in the form of simple scales but sometimes given as scales of messa di voce. This practice was intended to start beginners on the long road towards complete control of the breath and simultaneously to make sure that the vocal mechanism coordinated correctly and healthily. Messa means placing – messa di voce means (the) placing of (the) voice. The early attempts were not expected to be especially wide-ranging in volume, nor was the duration overlong. The beginner did what he could. Expertise came later – years later. In modern times, a dispute has arisen between experts whether messa di voce is a beginning or a finishing study. The truth is:  it is both. It was one of the essential elements in daily practice in the past, and there is a strong case for its inclusion now.

All nineteenth treatises are in agreement as to the ultimate aim of the exercise: a single note is to be started pianissimo, increased through to fortissimo, and returned whence it came. Ultimately, the duration should be eighteen to twenty seconds. Such expertise is obviously only for the extremely advanced. In fact, it is doubtful whether more than a handful of singers of any period have had the skill to achieve this throughout the voice; however, this is the goal. The classic method of practice is given by Manuel Garcia: three bars (measures) of common time, the first devoted to a crescendo from piano, the second sustained forte throughout, and the third a diminuendo back to piano. Eventually, the aim should be: pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, f, mf, mp, p, pp – on one note and one vowel. Luigi Lablache states that two months practice of four diatonic scales up and down of messa di voce notes is the most beneficial practice that any singer can do. This will last between thirty and forty minutes; and so will require a separate session of practice.

It is obvious that such a long sustained effort will improve the breath span and strengthen the whole mechanism. But what about placing? Anyone who makes a serious attempt will quickly notice that unless the voice is kept firmly and securely on the breath, messa di voce is next to impossible if the voice is to be kept even and of the same timbre. Hence, in the past, there was no need for any theories or queries concerning placing – if you could sing a decent messa di voce your voice was placed correctly, if you couldn’t, or there were areas where it became difficult, ergo your placing was wrong. I imagine that the mantra, ‘the voice on the breath’, has its origin here.

In order to acquire the strength and skill to succeed, the accepted method, agreed on by all authorities, was to start with long steady notes in full voice, (piena voce); and when that was mastered, progress to the second half, (the diminuendo); after that the crescendo; and finally – and only when the first three sections were satisfactory – would the singer be allowed to attempt the complete messa di voce. The duration would be gradually extended until it lasted eighteen to twenty seconds. Garcia recommends the four-part format, Lablache insists on the duration; both of them were associated in their youth with training descended directly from the castrati.

The most common problem of singers who make a first attempt at messa di voce is the sensation of a turning in the throat known as ‘rotation of the registers’. This occurs when the larynx is tilted forward: the paired cricothyroid muscles are activated, lengthening the vocal folds and creating the head register mechanism. No singer sings better by knowing about muscle actions, but as all singers rely on sensation, familiarity with the feeling of register rotation is vital. The sensation begins in the passaggio (chest to medium) for all voices. For everyone, the initial problem is the (natural) imbalance of power between the two registers in this area: all registers are weak at the bottom and strong at the top. Basically, in the passaggio the head (medium) is weak and the chest strong. This has the result that the head (medium) is mostly concerned with the quieter end of the volume spectrum and the chest with the louder. It is essential for all voices, that preparatory work to pass smoothly from one register to the other on one note should be completed satisfactorily in this area. Below the passaggio, in the chest, things are simpler: here, the final successful messa di voce relies on the breath only, with no register change. In consequence, for men in the major part of their voices things are relatively straightforward; however, once past the register change they encounter much more difficulty. This is due to the strength of the chest voice in the mixture. In females, the balance between the registers is more even, and most should be able to accomplish messa di voce throughout the long medium voice.

However, it is in the medium that mastery of rotation is of prime importance. Register rotation is felt initially in the passaggio, but it continues in a gradually reducing form to the highest medium note at the top of the soprano stave – normally F natural for sopranos and mezzos, a tone lower for true contraltos. This is because the chest mechanism continues to function, ever weaker as the pitch rises: on an F, for example, the rotation felt is very small. Above the stave, rotation ceases and everything must be done by the breath alone.

For men, especially basses and the heavier baritones and tenors, the problems on open vowels in the passaggio are considerable. In this area, for most, the head voice is relatively undeveloped, and needs to be strengthened before messa di voce can be attempted. The best method is slow exercises on closed vowels, particularly oo (u) and closed o (ó); in this way all the lower notes of the passaggio in head voice are activated. On these notes, rotation can be experienced by passing from a closed vowel to an open one on the same note. From this small beginning messa di voce can be developed. For open vowels (A, E, O,) which change into the head much higher up in the passaggio, a different tactic must be used: the chest voice must be modulated as high as possible until a true piano becomes impossible. At this point, vowel modification in head voice must be used to create a real piano, and eventually a complete crescendo and diminuendo will result by passing from one register to the other. This is very difficult work which requires great patience, but its benefits are many and well worth the effort, resulting in better diction from being able to sing closed vowels higher in the upper middle, and much more control over the dangerous final notes in the chest.

All the preceding applies particularly to the lower and heavier male voices, but lighter and higher voices can usefully apply the same principles and improve their library of texture in the passaggio. Higher into the head voice rotation still exists because, of course, the male head voice (so-called) is at the same pitch as the female medium (so-called) register. Both are the first manifestation of the head register’s muscular system. As lighter tenor voices go higher, the chest influence lessens and the head influence gets nearer to falsetto. This enables the high diminuendo effects which are so characteristic of this type of voice; however, crescendo is often very difficult, if not impossible, because during the diminuendo the larynx has been allowed to rise. Pure falsetto is always produced with the larynx high; to coordinate the vocal mechanism properly the larynx must be kept stable. A high diminuendo with a lifted larynx is a genuine interpretive effect, but its over use will eventually make a completely coordinated messa di voce beyond reach. These remarks apply equally to light high baritones who ‘croon’ in the upper middle; over indulgence in singing with a high larynx will cause full voice high notes to lack depth (low harmonics) and sonority, making the central part of a messa di voce thin, arid and underpowered.

To sum up, and give hints for good progress:

  • At first, be satisfied with modest results
  • Only sing as piano as you can control
  • Start with the steady held note; follow on with diminuendo; then the crescendo; and finally, full messa di voce
  • Then establish the three-bar Garcia method of practice
  • Practise mostly on the open vowels
  • During vowel modification, keep the vowel shape constant
  • Only attempt long duration when considerable progress has been made
  • Messa di voce practice should be a separate event
  • Be patient

In the eighteenth century, free cadenzas in one breath, were expected to start with a messa di voce before the display of agility and style: to show mastery of breath control before the fireworks. This is the aim! Good luck!