April 18, 2016

Why Portamento is Important

It is the 5th exercise in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García, which is preceded by 1) sustained tones on Italian vowels, 2) blending of the registers, 3) the slow scale, and 4) changes of vowel-tone. Assuming the student has gotten this far—and that is assuming a great deal since the exercises are predicated on the ability of the student to breath and open the mouth in the correct manner and obtain the requisite "singing position" and "voice placement"—the practice of portamento isn't just some musty fuddy-duddy business intended to make the student sound like a swooping Florence Foster Jenkins—whose catalogue of vocal faults were the subject of Souvenir with Judy Kaye, and now a new movie with Meryl Streep.

Portamento—meaning "carriage" or "carrying"—is understood as the means whereby one note is united with another. As such, the ability to execute portamento leads to the fine art of singing "legato," which has nothing to do with the "bald tire" approach now heard on stages around the world—the voice shorn of its foundation hurtling through space as well as the singer's throat. A mighty racket it may be, but beautiful? Hardly.

The ability to sing portamento is not a matter of ornamentation. It's not a frill technique, something you pick up on a whim and wear when you feel like it. Rather, the acquisition of portamento enables the singer—as Manuel García understood it—to "equalize the registers, timbres and powers of the voice."

That's a big deal, don't you think?

Stay in my studio long enough, and I will make you do it. Get off track, and I will make you do it. Lurch from note to note, hacking away, thinking you are singing the finest fioritura, and I will make you do it. And make no mistake: CCM singers need it just as much as their classical cousins.

Will you like it? Perhaps not. Not at first anyway. It's not a hard thing to do for those with ears to ear, but often difficult for who shoot baskets with their eyes closed—and you'd be surprised how many sing with this approach.

But once you get a feel for it—and there is a distinct feeling involved with singing portamento—you won't forget it.

What will the practice of portamento teach you?

  • Enable you to obtain a "feel" for your voice. This involves "inspiration," which is more than the amount of air in your lungs, and has everything to do with what the old Italian school called the "singer's sensation."
  • The meaning of a neat "attack," which portamento requires. 
  • Reveal the size of your voice. If you sing too loudly, you won't be able to perform portamento correctly, the balance of registration having been thrown off. 
  • Show you that "vibrato" is a thing unto itself, and that you can't "straight-tone" your way through portamento. Oh sure, you can "siren" your way through a bunch of pitches, but that is not portamento, the art of bel canto having everything to do with singing full & free pure vowels. 
  • Enable you to sing "legato," and with "line. 

The ability to sing portamento correctly is one of the keys to singing bel canto. Janet Spencer does a great job of it, which you can hear here. 

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