Questions About Vocal Technique

FAQ from

The Red Thread of Breath Technique and the Art of Singing

What is belcanto?

“Beautiful singing” is a term which came to mean a period of Italian vocal style in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this book, belcanto is defined as the ideal of good singing. It combines high artistic and musical standards with the technical ability to control the breath while singing.

What is legato?

This refers to the use of the breath to connect tones to make a musical phrase which can be perceived as a unit.

What is breath support?

This refers to the balance in the amount of breath needed for the ideal functioning of the muscles of the larynx so that the vocal cords can vibrate freely. This balance is controlled by the abdominal muscles which indirectly influence the respiratory organs.

What is breath control?

This is the ability to consciously use the abdominal muscles for the rhythmical and musical dosing of the breath.

Is there a “German vocal technique” and an “Italian vocal technique”?

No. Historically, the concept of belcanto developed from the Italian vocal schools and traditions. But a good vocal technique will allow any voice student from any voice teacher to sing the music of any composer in any language successfully.

Why are singers so difficult to understand?

Because their lack of vocal technique prevents them from singing pure vowels and freely articulating consonants. The problem is caused by improper tension in the upper mechanism, i.e. in the larynx, pharyngeal area, tongue and jaw. Higher pitches are the most difficult on which to achieve a clear pronunciation.

What does “sing in the mask” mean?

This often-quoted saying refers to the part of the face that a half-mask would cover and where a singer might possibly have some sensations while singing. It describes the feelings of a vocal resonance which can only be produced when the larynx is free of false tension. The conception of the voice “forward in the mask” instead of “back in the throat” is in fact the result of the balance of the breath support and control. If the larynx is constricted, any attempt to shove the voice “in the mask” or to sing “forward” will only produce nasal and forced-sounding tones.

What does “the problem is always the tone before” mean?

The truth in this saying becomes apparent when the singer experiences the technical dependence of the tones one to the other when he is learning to sing legato. When using a conscious breath control while singing through the vocal line, the correct adjustment of the vocal mechanism is being continuously prepared in the “tone before.” This creates the bridge for connecting the tones.

What does “weight at the bottom” mean?

In the intensity curve, lower tones receive more “weight” or intensity of the breath than the upper tones. This also prevents the higher notes from being stressed inadvertently. The ability to shape a phrase is a result of the proper dosing of the breath and the breath impulses which allow for a consistent development of the intensity curve.

What is “Vowel Modification”?

Because we produce tone by way of the vowels, they are our main vehicle for controlling the upper mechanism. Vowels can be modified to produce a better muscle adjustment in the larynx. This process can use all phonetic possibilities in any part of the vocal range. The proper adjustment of the larynx allows a free flow of the breath and the conscious control of the breath allows for an optimal vowel adjustment. In other words, one needs both—the upper and lower control. The ability to sing pure vowels on beautiful tones and produce a musical phrase is dependent on a breath technique.

What is “Register-mixing”?

This concept of vocal production is used by many teachers as a method for the control of the muscular function in the upper mechanism for the different parts of the vocal range. In general, the vocal range is divided into the upper, middle, and lower registers of the voice, along with the falsetto and the passaggio or “break" areas. Of course, a proper mix, balance or adjustment for each tone is an important goal for good singing. The problem lies in identifying the necessary steps from theory to practice. Because many teachers have tried to oversimplify the theory of register-mixing in practice by only working on single tones, they have neglected to teach breath control and legato singing which are absolutely necessary for a good tonal mixture of the registers. The concentration on single tones also causes the voice student to become overly dependent on the teacher’s ear and judgment.

Questions About The Profession

How can I be sure that I have the voice and talent to become a professional singer?

Go to a professional voice teacher, sing for them, and then ask them this question. It is like going to the doctor, you may possibly want a second or third opinion. Good teachers receive a lot of these requests, so be sure and ask what this service costs.

How do I know if my vocal technique is correct?

The answer to this question requires a lot of personal experience and objective judgment. Unfortunately, voice teachers seldom agree with each other in answering this question. The majority of them can criticize or improve some aspect of a singer’s technique. But the singer himself has the biggest responsibility and should be honest with himself in the search for an answer to this question: am I involved in a technical process and direction that allows me to be able to sing the musical phrases the way I feel they should be sung?

How do I know if I have the right voice teacher?

Ask yourself the following questions and draw your own conclusions: Does the teacher work mostly on single tones, or does he try to teach me to sing phrases? Do I receive instructions that I can use as tools to practice on my own, between the voice lessons? Is the teacher enthusiastic about music in general and singing in particular? Am I making progress with a technique which allows me to sing the phrases the way I musically feel them?

How does one know exactly what vocal category one should be singing?

In the earlier history of singing, the many categories as we know them today did not exist. The Fach or vocal category has evolved from the world of opera, with its need for different vocal characterisations. Because the classical opera repertoire consists of so many different compositional styles, the idea of specific categories is difficult to define. However, performance practice and tradition have evolved to give us not only the soprano, alto, tenor and bass; but the mezzo-soprano, baritone, and the lyric, dramatic, or coloratura soprano (or coloratura mezzo, or alto, tenor, baritone, and bass)! You might also be a Heldentenor, a character tenor, or a buffo tenor. The list is endless. To find out what you should be singing, you need the advice and experience of good voice teachers and vocal coaches. Many of the categories are overlapping and there are no set rules to go by. Experience tells us that the important thing is to learn to sing correctly, for only then can one determine what repertoire is most comfortable and appropriate.

At what age should one consider studying at a college or university institution with the intention of becoming a professional singer?

The degree programs prefer to enlist students directly after leaving high school. That means that older students are often at a disadvantage in the competition for slots in the often limited enrolment situations. Sometimes exceptions for exceptionally talented students are made, if there are no official age limits. Realistically, anyone over 25 (in some countries, even earlier) should consider private study for their musical and vocal training. Certainly one is not too old to learn to sing properly, but it helps if the older student has had some type of previous musical training to complement his vocal talent. Most singers are between 25 and 30 when they begin their professional careers, with very few exceptions.