The Myth of Forward Placement

The period 1800-1840 saw the utmost development of the florid style in vocal music, so much so that it was almost possible for an unthinking contemporary to believe that good singing consisted only of the ability to move the voice at high speed. Significantly, this was the epoch of the ascendancy of the coloratura prima donna, and also the period referred to as the age of bel canto – a term not used until 1860. The last operatic castrato had disappeared by 1830, but the eighteenth century technical legacy lived on, not just in the roulades of Rossini, but also in the newer music that was appearing to replace them. The melodies of Bellini and Donizetti were a development away from florid music per se towards a more syllabic style, based on a firm legato and the magic of a long cantilena. Above all, the heroes of their operas were no longer castrati but tenors, and although at first they sang high, lightly and flexibly, gradually their music acquired a robustness and masculinity which was new.

Up until 1880, no instructional publications on singing contained any references to resonance or how to enhance it; the bel canto teaching was concentrated solely on laryngeal function or how to make the sound correctly. During the nineteenth century orchestras increased in size and individual instruments in power. The innovation of the Tourte bow and increased string tension had dramatically affected the power of stringed instruments, and the inventions and improvements of Boehm and Sax had created similar changes in wind and brass. When Wagner, Berlioz and others started to use orchestras with massed numbers of all sections, vocal theorists began to feel somewhat beleaguered and sought for methods to increase power. Vocal writing, in parallel with these developments, had moved away from the fiorature of the bel canto composers to the sparer lines of Verdi and the syllabic style of Wagner. The accent had swung from agility to sostenuto singing.

The cumulative effect of all these changes on voice teachers and singers was a headlong rush for new methods which seemed to promise greater resonance; the old ways were discarded in favour of more up-to-date, ‘scientific’ theories. Chief among these was the idea that reflecting the tone off the hard palate would result in more volume. This fell in neatly with the Italian delight in bright tone, and was taken up with enthusiasm by Lamperti and his compatriots. No one noticed that the tone being reflected had already been resonated, and therefore its power could not be increased, but because the tone was bright and immediate, the illusion was created that it was louder – and that was enough.

The pervasiveness of this theory and its acceptance in Italy resulted in a mushrooming of allied ideas, all taking as their starting point the direction of tone away from the throat. The seeds of heresy against the old empirical eighteenth century methods were sown.

The concentration on leaning the tone forward and upward led to many different aiming points including:

  • In a forward direction towards the upper teeth, the molars, the peak of the hard palate, and even beyond the mouth altogether
  • In an upward direction toward the nasal port, between the eyes, to the dome of the skull and even to the rear of the cranium

These inventive ideas eventually reached their nadir in Ernest White’s ‘scientific’ discovery that vocal tone did not generate from the vocal cords but was the result of whirling currents of air in the sinuses. By this time all connection with the old empirical methods had been irrevocably lost, and the twentieth century dawned almost as if they and their historical school, which had produced generations of great singers, had never existed. From now on, practically all vocal theory was concentrated not on the making of the sound but on placing it. The fact that vocal tone proceeds in all directions at the speed of sound, like the ripples of a stone thrown into a pool, was neither entertained nor understood.

The placing of vocal tone was to dominate much of the teaching of the twentieth century, with a small percentage holding to the old ways, and a few brave souls prepared to put all ideas to real scientific examination. The majority, however, were in the thrall of Jean de Reszke’s dictum that it was ‘all a question of the nose’. The myth of the masque and thus forward placement was born, and a teacher had to have courage to contradict it.

The Italian preference for bright tone, which derives from the need for clear differentiation of vowels and good diction, is in itself not a bad aim, but of course, it is only half of the eighteenth century’s demand that a singer must be master of all timbres, and not just a devotee of one. Linked to this propensity is the concept of squilloSquillo translates as ‘the brassy edge of a trumpet’s tone’, and became a sine qua non for tenors, especially in their top notes. This idea was inspired by the careers of tenors like Francesco Tamagno – Verdi’s first Otello – who had a famously strong and brassy voice. The change of public esteem during the nineteenth century from the florid singing of Rossini’s tenors to the heavy, masculine tenori di forza and Heldentenor heroes by the end of the century is another story. With the advent of verismo, Verdi and Wagner, heavy tenors, whether dramatic or spinto, were to dominate the taste of the twentieth century, and squillo in the tone became a desired characteristic. It was acquired by attempting to lean the sound column forward and upward, whilst simultaneously trying to anchor the tone on to the body.

The flaws in these developments are easy to see, but only when they are highlighted. The illusion of aiming the tone away from the throat in fact disturbs the larynx upwards, and if the stability of the larynx is undermined, the delicate balance of muscles necessary to produce voice is upset, affecting quality, resonance and often diction. The tone becomes permanently bright, penetrating and at worst, shrill; dark sounds become impossible, so does depth of tone; tightness in the throat above the larynx is common, leading to strain and eventually to fatigue and a career’s early end as muscles inevitably weaken. Instability of the larynx leads to unsteady and uneven sounds, making messe di voce, the eighteenth century’s criterion of technical excellence, either impossible or unsuccessful. Other bel canto requirements such as an even scale and agility throughout the voice also become impaired.

Today, alas, the forward placement mantra is still widely taught. However, there is evidence to suggest that many teachers are at last returning to traditional bel canto methods, particularly in the USA, now producing some of the finest singers and teachers in the world.

© 2003, Neil Howlett