A conference With Jussi Björling

Internationally Distinguished Tenor. Leading Tenor of the Metropolitan Opera

Secured expressly for The Etude by Myles Fellowes

(October, 1940, Vol LVIII, No. 10, p. 655)

Each year new groups of young people find that they have voices and set about discovering the best and surest means of developing them. Thus, while the subject of vocal technique is constantly a new one, it is also as old as the race of man. People sang long before they built instruments to play upon, and the fundamental principles of vocal emission must have been the same, ever since our first ancestors experienced the pleasure of expressing their emotions through song. Whether one sings an operatic aria or a simple country call, these fundamental principles are the same, because singing is primarily a natural physical function. The rules of study that we apply to our vocal development are not imposed upon us; on the contrary, they are formed from centuries of observation of the natural behavior of those parts of the body that are used in singing. While the young child must be taught everything he is to do, certain actions are more natural than others. Eating, for instance, is more natural to man than driving an automobile. I like to regard singing in the light of a natural function. It must be thoughtfully taught and carefully learned; but basically, it is a part of natural human living. Its rules and habits, therefore, should always conform to natural physical behavior.

Vocal study, then, is at its best when it is entirely natural. Indeed, the more natural it is, the easier it becomes. It is better to avoid vocal problems in the first place than to correct them after they have become burdensome. The pupil who is fortunate enough to have his groundwork presented to him along the most simple, natural lines, will find few problems with which to contend. Among the chief factors to watch in mastering vocal art along simple, natural lines are breath and resonance.

There should be no “trick” about either. No singer holds the “secret” of good breathing, it is born into every normal human body. If you watch the easy, natural breathing of a very young child, you will find the best model. Observe the full, deep breath that the child draws, bringing into play the powerful abdominal muscles that form the basis of correct breathing. It is only later in life, when the natural, unstudied habits of childhood become alloyed with a certain self-consciousness that the danger of chest breathe (or top breath) occurs. Each breath must be well supported by those great abdominal muscles, and pushed by them against the diaphragm and thence along the tracts of vocal resonance.

To a certain extent, good breath control is an inborn function. Some singers are equipped by nature with wider chests and larger “lung boxes”, and then, of course, can manage a larger supply of air without extra effort. This particular physical structure can never be acquired. But smaller frames can do much toward improving and developing breath control, provided that the process is always calculated along natural lines and never forced. Forced breathing spoils good tone.

To facilitate the proper “resonating” of breath, the young singer must first make him-self aware of the various chambers of resonance, and then utilize them consciously, and to their fullest extent. A preliminary study of anatomy is helpful. When one knows what valuable chambers of resonance lie back of the nose and above the soft palate, and when he studies charts that shows exactly how the air passes into these chambers and vibrates within them, he then has a clearer conception of the goal for which he is to strive.

Between the drawing and resonating of breath there lies the important process of controlling it. The conserving, or budgeting, of breath so that it lasts throughout a long phrase, is largely a matter of thought and practice. If one thinks his way through the phrase before he begins to sing it, he can gradually train the breath to follow this mental picture. The mechanics of the process consist in emitting as little breath on any one note as is necessary for vocalized tone, storing up the breath supply, not for single tones, but for the line of the phrase as a whole. Then, at its close, the singer is never completely at the end of his resources. This process of control is achieved only after long and careful study. The actual details of what this study should be can never be set forth in a single set of rules. It is for the individual teacher, who sees exactly what the student’s strong and weak points may be, to devise the actual ways and means of practice.

Once the student has found his way into the correct drawing, controlling, and resonating of breath, he will do well to forget about it and allow this correct procedure to take care of itself, again as naturally as possible. Too much concentration on breath control, oddly enough, makes for self-consciousness and confusion. Certainly, the student must think about it while he is learning to master it! But once these mechanics are well under control, let them become second nature. It is a fact that if, in singing, one begins to think of breath, breath, and nothing but breath, he will become short-winded. Many natural functions are affected this way. If, for instance, one allows himself to concentrate on swallowing or on blinking the eyelids, he will find himself compelled to such an act far more frequently than normal. It all comes back to behaving as naturally as possible, lest a “problem” grow out of what should be a perfectly natural procedure.

Without presuming to counsel others as to individual exercises for practice, I will gladly outline my own routine. Each daily practice period is begun with scales and vocalizes. Due respect is paid to the grand scale, devoting a full breath to each tone, striking it squarely in the center, exploring it fully, and resonating it well. Then the scales are taken at a faster tempo, progressing to vocalizes in all the keys, and in all the registers of the voice. It is usually helpful to select exercises that have some bearing on the music one is studying. In practicing a song like Rossini’s La Danza, for instance, with its rapid passages and great leaps, I devote some preliminary minutes to rapid scales and arpeggios.

The young singer should strive for a completely even passage from one register of range to another. Scale work is excellent practice for this. The vocal passage from the lowest to the highest tones must be accomplished as evenly as on a piano, where the tones already exist without possible change of tonal quality. There must be no break, no audible transition, no alteration of voice, in passing from the low register, to the middle, and then to the high. The student does well to train himself to listen to his own singing and to keep his ear alert for the absolute evenness of his scale.

One of the most important lessons the young singer must learn has no direct bearing on vocal problems. He must realize that he is first of all a musician, and secondly, a singer. He must believe that the best technical singing is valuable only insofar as it serves music. There is a possibly natural tendency among young students to look longingly at the “fireworks” of vocal style–the trills, the runs, the long held high C’s. Where these accomplishments follow the normal lines of vocal technique they are, of course, necessary. But the moment they open the door upon conscious showing off, they become harmful. Technical display for its own sake is well named “fireworks”; it may be brilliant and showy, perhaps–but it is also artificial, ephemeral, musically meaningless. The wise student early realizes that his vocal equipment is but an instrument upon which music may be performed–and the music is always more important than the instrument!

Let the singer’s first thought be of the music to be performed. Notes and indications should be read carefully, then followed attentively; the meaning of words and melody should be clearly understood; the interpretations should be planned with due respect for the written symbols and also for the niceties of style or period that lie back of them. Only then can one be ready to sing. Exaggerations or “effects” never should be allowed to mar the fidelity of the performance. During the great operatic florescence of the 18th Century, for example, the style of the period demanded that high notes should be held overly long. In many of the operas of Meyerbeer, Donizetti, and Bellini, there are high C’s, and the like, marked with indications that demand their being held. And in such cases, they must be held–not for the singer’s “effect” but because the composer indicated it. It is a serious error of style, however, to carry over the holding of top notes into music that is not so indicated. What is good in one case, may be distinctly bad in another–and who is the judge? Always, the composer. The fewer liberties taken with “effects”, the better the effect will be.

It is always a great advantage when the student learns the rudiments of good musical habits at an early age, in his own home environment. That cannot be regulated, of course; it is just a piece of good fortune. I had that good fortune. My father is one of the best-known tenors of my native Sweden, and my two brothers also sing tenor. We are, in fact, a family of tenors, all four of us continuing our studies together. My father is the teacher. I began to sing at the age of three, for the sheer instinctive pleasure of singing. I had no studies at that age, of course, but my father began my teaching when I was still a small boy. His vocal creed is built around the complete naturalness of approach that I advocate today–and it is advocated because it has been proven to be good. When I was nine years old, my father brought us to America, to sing as a family quartet. Except for the necessary years of study, I have been singing ever since. My operatic debut was made in Stockholm, at the age of nineteen, and now at the age of twenty-nine, there is already two decades of professional work behind me. I “specialize” both in opera and concert work, and find it very helpful to keep both lines of study in active use. I have no hesitation in saying that the good and helpful things I have learned were given to us at home, as part of our home life. Reverence for music, the careful searching of musical values, and the natural, unaffected approach to vocal study were part of the very air we children breathed. These points comprise the best counsel to hand on to other young students, in their search for musical truth.

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