November 2, 2011

Tony Bennett: singing to the center


Tony Bennett


When Tony Bennett was on Charlie Rose a few years ago, I heard him say that he was taught to get to the center of the note, and that this was the essence of bel canto singing. And you know what? He's right. Bennett also remarked that he studied bel canto vocal technique with Pietro D'Andrea, and credited his vocal longevity to the exercises and techniques he learned. 

So what does singing to the center mean? One way to answer this question is to listen to what Bennett does. Here he is singing The Second Time Around.  

One thing stands out: Bennett's vowels are clear, not nasal or guttural, which is what the great 19th century vocal pedagogue Manuel Garcia said should be avoided. Is that so hard to do? Yes, if you don't know what a clear vowel sounds like. Often, the voice student, when nudged and coaxed by a skilled teacher into making a clear vowel will say - when quizzed as regards the 'where' of the tone - that the vowel is 'out there,' gesturing with the hand a good two feet in front of the the face. Others will gesture towards the center of the head.

So which is it?  Outside or inside the head? 

How about both? 

We hear through air conduction and bone conduction. An effective mental image for this is a bow and arrow. Two directions, two places, two ways of hearing one's own voice: they can't live without each other. 

You have to go back to go forward, which applies as much to vocal technique as it does to musical tradition. As it is, Bennett is perhaps the last great 'crooner' alive before the Beatles changed the world of popular music, one who took the tools from a historic vocal school and made them his own. That he is still singing, and singing well is ample evidence that old traditions still have legs. I find myself telling young classical and musical theater tenors that if they want to hear great phrasing, clarity of diction and sheer thrill of sound, there is no one better than Bennett.  


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