October 15, 2016

Imposto di Voce

Here, I return again to some of the questions by my pupils. Some ask whether they must practice with the mouth shut or the mouth open; whether to give the lips a smiling position, as in singing eh, or a round position, as in singing oh,—whether I admit the existence of the three registers in the human voice; whether I teach the falsetto voice or the chest voice, and other questions of the same kind, all requiring a patient answer, with examples sufficient to convince them and make them stop talking. It is my conviction that all these ideas came from their former teachers, who had used them as cornerstones on which they intended to build the voices of their pupils. 

The only builder of the human voice that I believe in is the Supreme Maker of all things in this world. Those who usurp the functions of nature, and pretend the they can build voices, claim power not given to man. These self-styled voice-builders had better leave their hobby, and carefully study the school which has not been the result of any one man's experiments, but which represents the accumulated experience of our ancestors. This school has given much to art and to artists, as we can learn by reading the annals of all the great theatres of the Old World. 

This art of educating the human voice consists first in sustaining separately each note of the diatonic scale, keeping well within the vocal range of the pupil, starting the sound very gently, and gradually giving the crescendo and diminuendo, being careful not to force or prolong the tone beyond the natural strength of the lungs. This, in Italian, is called the "study of the messa di voce," the placing of the voice. Lablache asserted that the main cause of the wonderful power and flexibility of his voice was the constant and daily practice of the sustained scale, with the crescendo and diminuendo

Next to this comes the study of the intervals, then that of the major, minor, and chromatic scales, then arpeggios, turns, syncopated notes, and finally the trill. This is the brilliant solitaire which adorns the scarf of a young dandy, and puts the finishing touch to his toilet. 

After the above, it is necessary to study vocalizations, selecting written melodies by the masters of the art, such as Crescentini, Righini, Busti, Concone, Panofka, Lamperti, and others. Of these exercises, the pupil should select those best adapted to his or her voice. This practice should never be stopped, no matter how far advanced the pupil may be, the old saying of the Neapolitan school being that whoever vocalizes sing ("Chi vocalizza canta."). This practice will instruct the pupil in the knowledge of musical phrases or periods, enabling him to sing them with correctness of breathing, of accent, of expression. Next to this comes singing with words. My teacher, Busti, used to say that, when the words are well pronounced, with pure accent, the piece of music is half-learned. I find the recitative the most fitting means for the beginner to acquire a good pronunciation. After this, he may take up songs. 


In vocalizing, we must use a compound vowel-sound made up of all the vowel-sounds of the Italian idiom. This is the mystery of the voice in which many ministers of the art are confounded to such an extent that they sometimes ruin voices by compelling them to adopt an unnatural vowel for the production of tone. This vowel-tone can only be communicated to the pupil by the expert teacher through the medium of his living voice; and when the pupil has imitated the teacher to perfection in this, then he first begins to sing. 

This compound tone should be formed within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth striking against the hard palate, with an inclination toward the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone. The cavity of the chest, and in fact those of the entire trunk, are of great assistance in giving fulness and roundness to the tone. 

By following this system of developing the voice there disappears any necessity of discussion concerning head medium and chest registers, which many teachers cultivate and impose upon the voice; and in this way the voice will acquire a homogeneous tone and character, enabling the pupil to express the inner sentiments of the soul, which will thus be spontaneously displayed by the singer, and not produced by any artificial means, which are often more disagreeable than pleasant to the ear. 

Speaking of registers, I may say that all voices have naturally three different registers, or timbres, or qualities. These are more perceptible in the soprano, and gradually less prominent in the mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass. There are two additional registers sometimes to be met with: the first occurs in exceptionally high soprano voices, and is called sopracuto;  the other, in deep bass voices, and is called doppiobasso. It is the duty of the skillful teacher, from the very beginning, to unite and mingle these registers by the study and constant use of the compact* sound formed by the five vowels of the Italian language. 

When the pupil, by following the foregoing system, has rendered his voice flexible and fitting to give with ease either the pianissimo or the fortissimo, I can warrant him that his voice can make itself distinctly heard among a hundred uncultivated singers, like a cornet among a hundred stringed instruments. This was shown at the time of the Boston Jubilee, when the voices of the leading artists were heard above the volume of the immense chorus. This system will secure to the pupil a correct emission of the tone, which the Italians call imposto di voce, assisting him to sing in tune and preventing his voice from cracking or breaking. The placing of the voice must always be accompanied in singing both forte and piano by a full supply of breath, which should be easily and flexibly taken and economically used. 

—Cirillo, Vincenzo. A Lecture on the Art of Singing (1882): 11-17.  Student of Alessandro Busti.

*The previous text indicates that the word "compound" may have been the intended word in this sentence.

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