“The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms.” — Socrates
I saw this quote recently and I thought it was a great place to start in our exploration to define what singing is. I think it only makes sense that if we are interested in singing that we figure out what actually comprises the act. On first thought it seems too obvious to even bother with. But it is important that we are very clear on what singing is if we are going to investigate how to do it and what makes it good. So that’s what I want to try and find out here. I think why this is important is so we don’t get confused by the different aspects of singing when trying to work on or assess one aspect.
For example, this site and my efforts are focused mainly on the function of the voice. This is only one aspect of singing. There are others that make up the whole. But I feel it is the least understood and has great potential to improve the overall result. But if we are going to be able to objectively discuss this aspect of singing we have to understand what role it plays and that it is just one part.
This is why there is sometimes confusion over what I am saying when I talk about a singer having less than ideal function. There are sometimes strong reactions from people who admire him/her. This is the kind of thing I want to go into and explain. So in order to help us understand the importance of function we have to understand the role it plays in the overall act of singing.
The logical place to start is to simply ask the question “What is Singing?” If we were to brainstorm on this question I’m sure we would come up with many answers. I find myself starting from the statement that “singing is the act of vocal musical expression that makes an effect on a listener.” The key for me is the effect we make on the listener. This is what determines if we, as listeners, like or dislike a performance. If we take this farther we can identify several components to this situation and see why we may like a performance even if one of the components is not well done. (The main example we will illustrate in later posts are performances where we like the effect even with poor function)
An obvious component, since it’s what we’re discussing on this site, is function. Specifically the functioning of the vocal instrument. I have stated in other places that when I talk about the voice I usually am referring to the larynx, the voice box. But it is important to recognize that the vocal instrument consists of more than just the voice. It includes the larynx, probably the most important part, along with the respiratory system and the resonators of the airway, pharynx and head. There are also the additional parts of the mouth for distinguishing words. And all of these are linked to the brain through the nervous system. These are the things we are going into through our exploration on this site. So when I say function I’m talking about the functioning of these physical parts of the body that make up the vocal instrument.
Now what I want to establish are the other components that make up singing. We could probably give each of these different names, but I think of this next one as “expression”. This comprises the feeling the singer is trying to convey. And just like function it can be done well or poor. Expression contains the mood of the piece and the emotional context of the character that is communicated through the words and how we say them. This is the aspect that is unique among musical performers because no other instrument can include words. Many good acting singers make their living by being good at this aspect, which usually combines well with personality/presence below.
This could also be thought of as “musical expression”. It is hard to separate these things but I think of this as the musical aspect of what the singer is doing. If the previous section dealt with mood and textual expression this would be expression of the music in melody and rhythm. It can be thought of as the instrumental aspect of singing. The actual making of music like any other musical instrument.
Another component that makes up a performance is the singer’s “personality and stage presence”. What do they communicate just from their presence. This is a subtle, but often obvious, thing. This is communicated mainly though “body language”. It is obvious when we watch an inexperienced performer because it is lacking. And with a great performer this aspect can make up for deficiencies in the other components. Something we could look for is a sense of calm and confidence being communicated to the audience. The performer should appear comfortable so we can feel who they are as a person. If the performer lets their fear or nervousness overpower them the audience won’t be able to feel their personality. And that is a poor presence.
So the point I want to make is that what I am usually talking about, function, is only one part of the whole performing situation. A means to the end product. It can make the final performance much better. And many people can give wonderful overall performances without doing well in this one aspect.
This is how we can have someone with poor vocal function and still be a great singer. Because the measure of a singer is the overall effect they make on the audience. Some can make a very strong effect from the emotional expression they tap into in their performance. Others make a beautiful effect through their musical expression. Still others make a very successful career from the sheer power of their personality and presence. And many great artist become recognized because of their ability to combine these all at a high level.
So in a way function is the least obvious aspect of great performance. Great function alone will not make a great performance like great expression or great personality can. But function can open the door to better expression. It can allow the voice to act like a musical instrument to maximize beauty and musical expression. It can provide the peace of mind that will allow the performer to feel calm and confident to communicate their personality freely and have a powerful presence. It’s like good function super-charges all of the other components of performance.
But the most important benefit of good function may be something that we don’t notice for years. It is the ability to keep the instrument fresh and youthful for life. To have a voice that doesn’t deteriorate over the years allows us the time to improve in the other aspects of performance and still have an instrument worth hearing by the time we become great artists.
This reminds me of an old quote. I don’t remember who said it, but I know it was an old operatic tenor that had great function so his voice had retained its youthfulness. His son commented to him about another tenor being a great artist. The sage responded by saying, “people become artists when they can’t sing anymore”. This was his way of saying what I described above. With poor vocal function the voice deteriorates over time. When the voice stops being able to do the things the singer wants, they are forced to be “artistic”. Which in reality is not really artistic, it is faking their way through to cover the fact that the voice is not all there anymore.
This happens to opera singers and it certainly happens to non-classical singers as well. I remember when Mariah Carey came out with her fourth or fifth album the critics were praising her “deepening artistry”. Well, she was also singing lower in tessitura because her voice was wearing out from all of the high singing she did early in her career. The voice was already breaking down, but she changed her musical approach to cover that up.
Now that is not necessarily a sin. But I think if any of us were given the option to either have our voice break down and not be able to do the things vocally we could, but become a better artist; versus keeping our voice fresh and healthy so we can do everything vocally we want and more, while also improving as an artist, I think we would all choose the latter.
Unfortunately that is a choice we can only make at the beginning. We can’t destroy our voice and then decide we want to stay vocally young for life. We can still choose after but then it requires rehabilitation. And that is never as good as being healthy from the start.
There is more that can be discussed about this topic, but I’ll save that for as we go along. The main thing I wanted to illustrate is that there are several components, or aspects, that make up a performance. People can be fulfilling them at different levels, which when combined determines the effect they make on the audience. And it is this effect that makes the audience decide how much they like a singer.
Please add your responses and comments below. Thanks.
Thanks for your comments, Mirvat. I'm happy to hear your views and how these concepts are organizing in your mind.
Hello Martha. First I will say I always appreciate when someone reads what I write. But after reading your comments I have to ask "why?". Why, in response to a post that dealt completely with generalities and no specifics, are your comments so defensive and combative? I mentioned no singers, no beliefs, no judgments. How could I have said anything that insulted you. Some of your comments are actually examples of what I'm talking about. Then at other times you contradict even yourself.
You bring up the idea of perfection or the perfect function/technique/singer. I don't think I said anything about perfect function in this post. If you are referring to a previous post where I did say something about perfect function, you completely missed what I said about it. I said that perfect function is completely natural and spontaneous. It is not what most think of when they hear the term "perfect". Perfectly natural function has the imperfections of nature. It is alive. If the technique is perfect, or is trying to be perfect, it will be dead. It loses the spontaneity of functioning totally naturally.
You comment on the criticism of active artists, yet you litter your comments with many harsh criticisms of other artists, not to mention your criticism of me. You can't have it both ways. I have never publicly criticized the artistry of any singer. I have only pointed out that certain singers have less than ideal function. This is important in my role as a vocal educator. I am looking for healthy models for singers to observe while they try to figure out their own voice and artistry.
You have stated before that you don't need my help and that you have many fine teachers and coaches at you disposal. Well, others appreciate the help I am trying to provide through this web site and blog. It makes me wonder why you are still reading if you disapprove of what I say so much. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to change my assertions. Is that what you want me to do? What is it that you are looking for? This is not a public forum for you to voice your opinions. This is my private blog where I am presenting my research for others. If you don't find it helpful perhaps you would prefer not to read it. Maybe the open forums at Classical Singer magazine would be more appropriate for you. Thanks.
I enjoyed the article. It organizes what is usually a general answer we might have when we ask, "what's so special about this artist".
I understand what you mean by function being important to an artist but not the final determinant to be called a great artist. We all can name artists who can't sing but have done wonderful art (music).
But I like to think of function as extra clothes in my closet. Just like it's best to have different kind of clothes for different kinds of occassions, I'd like to have good function that allows me to sing different ways, different styles, different genres, and still maintain the health of my instrument.
I think about it this way: How beautiful it is to be able to sing a rock song like a rock star/musician and then almost instantaneously sing a slow love song with a pure voice.
If my voice is not functionally strong, I don't believe I'd be able to do that.
Just my opinion.
It seems though that it is hard for someone to have an opinion on your site Michael, without being bashed for having it (the comments left earlier are harsh and uncalled for). Thank you for the valuable info that you share with us, and like many have stated before on your site,
it really is valuable to most of us who are keen on listening to what you have to say.
If a singer can do her job, not complain of any physical discomfort, who are we to say their technique is not competent? I have seen many singers being told awful (including Pavarotti) and yet singing for decades without apparent damage to the voice beauty and health. Some do wrong choices of repertory and renounce to some freshness and flexibility in their voices embracing a more heavy repertoire, but this is not a technical fault "per se". Not every voice evolves as expected. No organism is equal.
I could see Battle live some years ago and she sounded very good, almost in her sixties and suffering from asthma. Even having those bad habits of bringing her shoulders up to catch a breath and making those awful distortions with her face, it was "the" night. Perfect? No, to someone who let his judgement guide him on the technical shortcomings track. And no, comparing to herself at her prime. Well, to me the magic created in the room was more eloquent.
Perfection is boring! I know that for you, northern people, who like soap-and-water music, it sounds absurd…We, latinos, like passion, commitment, excitement, voice, voice, voice. I admire the restraint of singers such as Fritz Wunderlich, who was one of those rare birds who could be excellent vocally, a great musician and yet a sensible artist (for a German he was almost an Italian! lol). But he had his temper. I would not compare his voice to Pavarotti, Domingo, or Bjorling, even in terms of function, because THEIR PERSONALITY, NATIONALITY AND MUSICAL INCLINATIONS are different, thus different THE WAY THEY USED THEIR VOICE. Technique is a whole complex. The larynx alone nothing can do. One sings through voluntary impulses to a certain extent, after that what comes is something else we cannot describe very well, thus we must be aware of the necessity of a previous neuromuscular training to control what is possible to control. The ideal situation, which I call "true artistry", is when someone has the control over his voice (even if not a 100% of perfection, for the day or for missing some technical conceptions) through training and allows the self – you can call it "soul" – to sing.
I could understand you when criticizing Fleming. Really. Her problems are showing up and are clear. I would not be so precise and sure about the origins of it. "Who came before? The egg or the chicken?" – The old philosophical question. You will say, I'm certain, it happened because she sang with too much air wildly escaping through her throat… What if her problems came from an hormonal imbalance?
I cannot understand why criticizing some active artists (many of them I've attended live performances)on the charge of his/her emission being airy or, to be more "hermetical", not perfect in terms of vocal function, if they can deliver their tones without effort or discomfort. You can see some exaggeration in Bartoli's case and you can listen the manneirism of Fleming, used to hide her weakness. However, I listen no deterioration of timbre or any sign of misuse in DiDonato's voice, which was mentioned by someone in another post.
II wouldn't say someone with charisma, presence, expression, but lacking in good function is a great singer. He/She can be a good entertainer and sometimes not even that. Mel Tormè, for example, was a great jazz musician and a great entertainer, provided he could swing and did not imitate Sinatra. Madona, Michael Jackson and all the shit american fashion dictates are bullshit to me. The problem is: to many of this generation (alas!), they are great artists, great singers, and simply because people suffer from the massive propaganda of this fabricated nulities. A person who can not point the difference between Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald (as entertainer only, not to mention as singers!) and a trash like the above mentioned is something seriously disgusting to anyone minimally well fed with Art.
On the other hand, comparing Darin's to Pavarotti's singing on the basis of Pavarotti singing being more "perfect" technically(according to the Orthodox Church of Bel Canto Heritage)is a nonsense and totally out of place.
I remain unremittingly disapproving of your thought when it expresses the presumption that there is a way to ascertain perfect vocal function and even to discern levels of "perfection" when analysing singers who are not AUDIBLY and VISUALLY in vocal difficulties and sing with focus (position). Perfection is a target never reached.
For example, your beloved Jussi Bjorling was really a great singer, technically speaking (ease and homogenous voice), but lacked presence and expression, especially in Italian roles. I CAN NOT SEE or listen a notorious difference in "greatness" or "perfection" between Bjorling and Corelli. They both met their goals. Corelli with more excitement and stage presence, I would say. Of course Corelli used his voice wilderly, pushed it for the sake of expression (and I thank God for it!), but the essential was there, so that he could sing pianissimi without problems. And that, I suppose, prevented him (Corelli) to sound cold in Trovatore for example. He had his technique and his voice on the pocket.
The same goes for Pavarotti and Domingo. I like both artists, but many times I approve Domingo's singing more, even with its deffects. Even with his retroceding tongue, his short high notes, his notorious efforts to sing in many ocasions, he is a great artist and a great singer, because he delivers what he must deliver, creates a suspension of reality, with integrity and full passion. And THAT is ART! Not a competition to know who sings more perfect than the other.