The Great Scale

The first and most basic vocal instruction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began with long notes; the purpose was to firm and strengthen the vocal apparatus before embarking on more advanced work. Young voices are unable to sustain for long phrases at the beginning of study and must be given exercises to improve this ability. Both Tosi and Mancini in the eighteenth century write of well-trained voices being, above all, firm and well-developed – granito in the Italian. As the vocal mechanisms are constructed and operated by muscle action, this advice can be explained in modern terms, by being equivalent to the first and fundamental exercises given to any beginner in any physical activity whatsoever. In the older texts and those later ones derived from them, the process was known as creating the scale, and the discipline has remained an essential factor in wise teaching of young voices ever since.

The idea of prolonged sounds being a teaching tool seems to have changed, in the nineteenth century, into the practice of starting many singing primers with messa di voce exercises: that is long notes with dynamic modulation. The older insistence on long steady sounds at first seems, I suggest, to have become out-of-date and unfashionable. In the earlier period messa di voce was thought of as a practice to be given to singers of a certain competence – Celoni terms it ‘smoothing the voice’. And as it entails both control of the breath and the subtle changes of register balance while crescendo and diminuendo are performed, it is clearly a skill not suited for beginners. In my view, the rejection of the original method of early training on long notes sustained without modulation, in favour of long notes performed in a messa di voce pattern, is the reason behind the modern confusion whether messa di voce is a beginning or an advanced study. Only the very rare cases of voices which are perfectly formed by nature – and they are exceedingly rare – can truly benefit from its use at the start of study. For the rest, they must wait until the scale throughout the voice is solid and made even.

However, there is an exercise which is versatile enough to combine the strengthening effect of long note study and the plasticity of tone contained in messa di voce work: it is the Great Scale. It consists of a simple diatonic scale divided into four sections. Ascending: from the tonic to the fifth; and from the fifth to the octave. And descending: from the octave to the fifth; from the fifth back to the tonic. Thus the lower phrase consists of five notes, and the higher of four, the fifth being repeated. For beginners, all four sections should be sung in a steady mezzo forte as slowly as possible in even notes, without any variation of dynamic. At a more advanced stage, the two ascending portions should be sung with an upward diminuendo from forte at the bottom to piano at the top; and the two downward phrases with a crescendo from piano at the top to forte at the bottom. The rules for singing the exercise are as follows: all attacks, at whatever dynamic, must be clean, without violence or scooping; the gaps, for breathing, between the sections are out of time; every part of the scale must consist of even notes, in time; when appropriate, register change and vowel modification must occur; the exercise should be sung on open vowels. The exercise should be sung chromatically upward as far as possible, and then downward to the starting place. As must be clear, the duration is 30-40 minutes and therefore practising the Great Scale must be separate from normal daily work. It is best to restrict it to three or four times a week at first, only later when the voice has become strong should it become a daily exercise. After some time, when greater competence has been achieved, the duration of each note can be increased.

The eventual benefits of its practice will be to make the voice stronger and firmer; to increase the ability to sing quieter; to increase sonority, and power without forcing; to gain greater control of the breath and messa di voce; and to lose any fear of attacking high notes.

It requires patience and hard work – but it’s worth it!

© 2015 Neil Howlett