What is Voice Placing?

It seems to me that many students misunderstand what is meant by voice placing. They seem to think that to place the voice means to throw it down into the chest, to the bridge of the nose, the front of the mouth or the top of the head. The word placing, in some respects, is rather unfortunate and has led to such misconceptions. For lack of a more accurate nomenclature we are obliged in singing to use terms that do not represent actual phenomena but only imaginary ones suggested to the mind by subjective sensations. 

I can assure the perplexed vocal student that voice placement and in fact the whole subject of correct voice cultivation is a much simpler process than he would be led to believe by a perusal of our modern literature upon the subject. The numberless discussions and pros and cons about the various phases of this subject are proof of the fact that but few understand the basic principle as it was taught by Lamperti and the great masters before him, since the time of Porpora and Bernacchi. This fundamental idea is: 

Training of the singing voice consists in educating the vocal organ to respond to will, to tone conception and to breath release with absolute spontaneity and without conscious or visible effort. Everything else, registers, resonance, tone locating, articulation, etc., is secondary and self-adjusting when the basic condition is right. I think that any one can grasp the meaning of this definition. Like all great truths, it is very simple. It is the application of it that puts to the test the ability and patience of the teacher and the fitness of the pupil. I believe that much of our modern teaching lacks the understanding of the possibilities of the faithful application of this principle. Too much has been said about breathing in a vague indefinite sort of a way. Much that has been said on the subject is mere repetition of half-truths, an incomplete echo of what the old masters said. Yes, breathing is of prime importance, but it is only one segment in the arch upon which rests the structure of the singer’s art; the other segment is tone attack and legato. The complete and perfect arch we call voice placement upon the breath. 

To define and describe vocal processes is exceedingly difficult on account of the lack of an accepted nomenclature. If your description is expressed in terms of actual physiological processes you are accused of taking an inartistic point of view that is of no real value to the pupil. If, on the other hand, you speak in terms of subjective sensations of the singer or of impressions on the hearer your language is condemned as being intelligible only to yourself and the narrow circle of the initiated. 

True “voice placing” analyzed involves three things: breath control, adjustment of the instrument, adjustment of the resonators. The “placing” of the voice therefore is accomplished: 

First.—By the study of the proper taking. retaining and perfectly controlled release of breath. 

Second.—By the study of a clean-cut induced attack and legato. I use the word induced purposely and significantly. To induce means to lead on by persuasion and not by force. The acquisition of this clean-cut, induced attack is the missing link in modern voice culture. The untrained singer has not, a clean-cut attack because he allows breath to escape before the tone begins. Some teachers and singers, on the other hand, force the attack; they compel the tone to start with the beginning of expiration, by, as Garcia expressed it, a slight cough, that is by the so-called stroke of the glottis, which is nothing more than a pernicious short-cut method. The tone should begin neither with a particle of breath escaping before it, nor with any impulse, it must start out of repose and in singing each tone must be separate and perfect by itself and yet join its neighbor like pearls on a string; no escape of breath between; that is what is meant by legato. 

Third.—By acquiring such freedom about the throat in tone production that the resonating cavities can spontaneously and automatically adjust themselves to each tone. The acquisition of this freedom depends entirely on the breath control and the induced adjustment of the instrument just spoken of. 

Within the resonance chambers of the voice each tone has its focus of vibrations but it is a most pernicious modern fallacy to suppose that voice placing begins by assuming the right focus to be in a certain place and to send the voice there. It begins with producing first the fundamental conditions necessary for good singing: these conditions relate to breath control and development of internal laryngeal adjustments by study of precise attack, steady tone and legato. When these conditions have made it possible to sustain the voice on the breath, and not until then should the consciousness of the resonance focus he allowed to play a leading part in voice development and control of tone quality. What I mean to imply is, that it is more important to learn to sing on the breath than it is to develop a big resonant tone or what is often called a forward tone; that during the tone building stage of training all the attention should be directed to breath control, attack, legato and steadiness of tone. 

Importance of Study on "Ah.” 

I have compared breath control and attack to the two segments of the arch upon which rests the whole art of singing. In the building of this arch the pure Italian “ah" is used as a keystone. The fundamental work of voice training must be made on this vowel, because it is the only one that has an open relaxed position of the throat, a position that allows unhampered vocal adjustment within the larynx and favors breath control for the reason that it is formed in the back part of the throat. The hold back on the breath is best acquired when practicing on “ah." The quality of the “ah” sound is to the teacher a sensitive index and to the pupil a reliable guide to right position and production. The slightest change in the quality of this vowel indicates unsteadiness or tension. To sum up what I have tried to set forth in these remarks I would say: 

I. The term voice placing is misleading and it might be well to strike it from our vocabulary. 

2. In the final analysis voice “placing" is not so much a placing or locating of tone as it is a development of breath controlling power and of the fine adjustments of the vocal instrument. 

3. The whole subject is much simpler than modern theories would make it appear, but the application of the principles calls for exceptional talents on the part of the teacher and perseverance on part of the pupil. Teaching singing is an art at least as great as the art of singing itself; in fact, there are more great singers than there are great teachers. The wonderful results of great teachers have been achieved not alone by virtue of great tone perception and musicianship, but by hard, conscientious work, an alert ear, an ever-watchful eye, a never relaxing exactitude, and the infinite patience of creative genius.

What is Voice Placing by Lena Doria Devine, student of the great Milanese maestro, The Etude, April, 1908, 259.