A little Treatise on Singing by Elizabeth Parcells


Why do I say that singing is easy?  Because it should be.  It should come easily to the born singer.  I wanted to sing since before I can remember.  As a child, it was frustrating to wait until I was old enough to join the choir at church.  I started asking at seven.  At age ten, I was in.  Choir was what I looked forward to all week.  I sang my first solo in church when I was eleven. 


A child destined to become a singer starts out with a love of and talent for music and a good ear, learns two or three instruments, listens up in theory class, and looks up to worthy role models.  As the artistic personality develops, the young person finds what it is he wants to express, the urge to perform, and personal charisma.  At age sixteen it is time to begin vocal lessons.


A nice voice helps, but is not a requirement.  Artistry is what counts.  Flawed voices have not deterred great singers from becoming important artists.  Our fascination with the beautiful voice is ephemeral, but our obsession with great artistry compels forever.  So in the pursuit of vocal accomplishment, neither teacher nor student should dwell on voice “quality” too much, but instead focus on vocal technique and education.  It is like the famous prayer.  The Lord gave you the voice you have, and you cannot, should not change it.  You can influence what you accomplish with the voice, and it is the wisdom to know the difference that will determine the success of your studies.


Now, one will work harder in a fertile field than a wasteland.  Where there is talent, there is worthwhile work to be done.  The motivation of talent is strong.  And it is a privilege to follow a line of work one loves.  Hard work helps assure a good niche in the business.  Healthy ambition and competitive spirit fuel progress.  The work feels great when you can keep your goal out front.


But none of this guarantees worldly, career success.  That is a subject for another treatise!  Singing is the easy part.


To become a good singer you will need to study:


The Art of the Bel Canto


Bel canto means “beautiful singing,” worth striving for.  The Italians said it best, as this school of singing traces its history back 500 years to Florence and the dawn of opera.  There are many good histories to read on this subject.  The singer needs to know what the practical application of the bel canto is for singing today.

There are three Ideals of bel canto singing.  All three are vital. If any one of these Ideals is missing from your singing, it will never be great. So a thorough study of singing techniques must be built on these three ideals.


              I. Legato line        II. Pure Vowels         III. Flexibility


I.                         Legato Line.  This is the passing from one note to the other smoothly, the phrasing for which singers are renowned most among the instruments.  This is a function of breath capacity, control and stamina.  The breath sustains the singing tone and keeps the phrase from breaking up by managing the sometimes troublesome registration transitions in the range.  The object of this study is to unify the tone, top to bottom, without discernable “bumps.”  The portamento is a legato technique that binds larger intervals.  The downward portamento is more easily learned than the upward one, much like downhill is easier on the breath that uphill work.  In working with scales, it is important to work in both directions.  Triplet sequence scales are very helpful with legato training.  Without legato line, one could hardly call oneself a singer at all.


II.                      Pure Vowels.  A favorite topic of mine because the vowels are the colors of the voice.  A variety of vowel colors keep singing unique and interesting.  The human voice is the only musical instrument that phonates words, a uniqueness that must be cultivated in singing.  The vowels sung purely make the text comprehension much better and easier for the audience.  Some singers are afraid to form the high vowels like ee eh aa (at) in the higher range for fear of sounding shrill.  Many singers rely too heavily on aw to keep the voice warm, but they end up muddying and obscuring the text.  Bad vowel formation can even effect intonation, and singing consistently out of tune is a cardinal sin.  All vocal exercises should include a careful study of vowels, the five main Italian vowels at least.  Ah Eh ee oh oo.  (I haven’t found my IPA symbols on this computer yet.)  Always use IPA, it is the most accurate and consistent system.  A thorough study of diction is paramount.


There are only two vowel formants, the lips and the tongue.  The jaw, the throat, the “mask” have nothing to do with forming vowels, only allowing them room to ring.  The tongue forms the vowels from oo to ah; the lips form the vowels from ah to ee.  In practicing these I like to use a kind of vowel glissando from oo all the way up to ee and back again.  This way you get an entire spectrum of vowels ringing in the voice.  Understanding formants can liberate the jaw, throat and mask for their true tasks, resonating tone.


When the throat is open, the jaw relaxed and the mask resonant, the vocal tone can be vital.  The vowels then add color to the tone and the whole effect is as stunning as seeing a brilliant rainbow in the sky.


Beware the tongue!  When it is tense or misshapen in the mouth, it can ruin EVERYTHING!  Never allow yourself to exercise or sing so hard that the tongue gets up to its old tricks.  Singing loud, strenuous phrases is especially dangerous. The treacherous tongue has ruined many a chance at great singing.  Start easy, with the tongue relaxed and lying on the bottom of the mouth like a rug.  And don’t let it get up.



Flexibility:  This is where we put issues like dynamic range (loud and soft), vocal range (high and low notes), velocity (fast and slow), vocal embellishments and effects (trills, staccato, leaps, subito PP and FF, glissandi, cadenzas and high notes, etc) many of these are advanced singing techniques and are studied systematically with exercises.  Registration of the voice becomes an issue here.  It too is used as a vocal effect at times.  If a singer has very limited flexibility, his singing will be bland and uninteresting.


Flexibility is the soul of the coloratura singing technique.  The ability to sing melismas faster than a speeding train, to leap tall intervals in a single bound, the pinultimate high note, the interpolations and cadenzas make her work most interesting beyond the musical score.  She sings for points like a gymnast.  But she is still a singer first. 


Expression is vital to the relevance of any singer’s performance, and it is flexibility that makes dramatic effects possible.   This is certainly not limited to the high soprano, all voice types must master these techniques to uphold the ideal.  Flexibility is especially important for the so-called “dramatic” voices, since drama is characterized more by great contrasts in the music than by simply singing loudly.  A dramatic effect is one where the singer is very soft at one moment and crescendos to a double forte the next.  And back again if he can manage it.  In one breath if that can be arranged. 


The great messa di voce, crescendo decrescendo in one breath, must be exercised daily.  The grand scale, two octaves up and down, twice, is a gold standard for unity of tone and flexibility of range.  Stacatto/legato exchanges in quick succession improve the reaction of the voice to the breath.  Scales, and more scales.



A musical tone has three elements:  Attack     Sustain     Release.  Each of these elements must also be mastered in singing.


The attack must be a clean, on pitch, well prepared reflex involving the coordination of breath and tone to commence simultaneously.  That is, the attack must come during the exact moment where the breath inhale turns to breath exhale.  This is not as easy as it sounds and takes years of practice to get it right reliably on every note in the range, on every vowel and in every relative dynamic.  But when the conductor hits your beat, your voice must appear right on time, or you are “schlepping.”  Conductors hate that.  A clean, reliable attack is vital.  The only exception is when you choose to alter the attack for dramatic effect.  Just don’t let that turn into an annoying mannerism.


The sustain is not without its perils either.  Again, the breath is called upon to be in good supply and well supported.  The longer the sustain, the more breath planning ahead and control the singer will need.  Planning out the breathing for sustained phrases is an important part of your survival when the going gets slow.  Especially when the conductor chooses that moment to slow down some more!  Practice your sustain work diligently, and always prepare for the worst, especially since we know that the performance jitters can make you even shorter of breath.  Plan in extra breaths, just in case you need them, and you often will, so don’t be proud.  The vocal tone needs plenty of breath to keep the energy in it.


The release, ah there’s the rub.  How to make an organized dismount without that tell-tale “cough” at the end.  I call it, “lift and separate.”  The release must be clean like the attack, without decaying or just drying up.  In fact, the release is the last thing your audience will hear from you, so don’t wreck it.  The breath again, control of which lets you end the note with a little lift, if you plan for it.  Great singer trick: save enough for a daring little crescendo at the end, then the elegant release.


The all-important breath!  Teachers love this topic, students dread it.  Who wants to huff and puff and exercise breathing when you really want to sing?  So, breathing exercises should be done with tone to keep it interesting.  Since all good things come in threes, here is what breath is:  Breathe in,     Hold it,     Breath out.


But what does the singer need to know?



The breathing cycle works differently for singers than for the rest of us.  The usual is, take an active gasping breath, hold it, and then let it out in a long passive sigh.


Not in singing:  Take in the breath with as little effort as possible; sustain a tone with it using an active exhale, finishing with a quiet exhale of the unused air.


Let’s have that again.  On the singer’s inhale, the most active muscle is the diaphragm which contracts and draws air into the passive lungs, displacing the abdomen downwards.  At exhale, the abdominal muscles become active and expel the breath upwards.  The diaphragm counters immediately by “controlling” the flow of air passing through the vocal chords for sustaining tone.


This concept takes awhile to understand and longer to do well.  Practice and training of these muscles takes time.  It is indeed like teaching an old dog new tricks.  A brand new set of reflexes must be learned to build breath power and control for great singing.  In a way it is like learning to walk all over again.


I find exercises that combine staccato and legato work very helpful in training these new breathing reflexes.  It is unaccustomed at first, and the student will feel humbled and frustrated when he can’t do it right away, but patience and hard work will pay off.


What can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong….


Faults and vices in singing include first and foremost: BAD INTONATION.  If you are having trouble with this then there is something very wrong.  Often this comes from faulty or lack of breath energy, causing the tone to either sag under pitch, or when the breath is too aggressive, the tone will blow sharp.  Either way the answer is to learn to center your pitch spontaneously by EAR.  The ear must command, and the body will obey.  If you are unaware that you are singing out of tune, then you really have a problem.  Go back to the studio with a good pitch fork and begin matching pitches like a piano tuner.  Learn about overtones and intervals, natural and tempered.  Make a study of acoustics and vowels.  You will find this a fascinating field, and not such an exact science as you might have thought.  A pitch has only one frequency pattern.  The singing tone has many layers of pitch and resonance which must be tuned, like the multiple strings on one note of the piano.  The pitch of the singing tone must be centered around the concert pitch of the tuning fork.  When you are off, the tones “beat” against each other.  It is this “beat” that tell you how far off or how close you are to the pitch.  To sing in tune requires your constant vigilance and complete attention at all times.


“Breath in the tone” can be considered a failing in mature voices.  In young voices the airy tone is almost to be expected as the vocal cords are immature.  By the age of 22 the breathiness should have disappeared with good training.  It is a mistake to insist that the young voice student purge the air from the tone, as this can lead to excessive tension that will be hard to resolve later.  However, if the breathiness persists, training is required.   A good exercises is quick change from Forte to Piano, loud to soft, to learn the “full voice pianissimo”.  This help the singer to understand registration, breath energy and how they work together, instead of at odds.  There are notes near registration points that are sung in head tone when pianissimo, and in middle or chest tone when sung fortissimo or  loud.  In other words, a particular note may be sung in different parts of the register depending on dynamic or even vowel context.  The goal of this training is an efficient tone that converts close to 100% of the breath passing thru the vocal cords into pure tone.  This is not accomplished by closing or squeezing the voice, but by balancing the breath with the tone.  It takes patience to master this technique.


Too much tension is a common problem for nervous or over worked singers.  One must be ever watchful that the tension is not creeping in and every opportunity.  Every opportunity to relax and drop the shoulders, loosen the jaw and tongue, take a deep relaxing breath, and relax the face muscles help the singer maintain the proper posture and energy for unforced tone. 


A word about the mental game of singing, a calm and alert mind is best for singing well.  Negative emotions like fear and self doubt have no place on the stage or in the studio.  A singer will do well to remember that it’s never about him, it’s only about the music, the singing.  He is only a vessel, a medium, not the thing itself.  Therefore what use is being “self-conscious?”  Being task oriented and keeping the music as the highest thought, one forgets oneself and performs.  You might wake up for the applause, and remember to take a nice bow.


Why do we bow?  It is the humility of knowing that the moment is greater than any one person.  We bow to the Lord of Creation, the Muse, the greater power.


 Other topics of study for the singer:


The study of languages, principally Italian, French, German and Spanish, not necessarily in that order, but Italian is a good place to start.


A thorough study of the phonetics of all the languages you sing in, especially English!  English is your old dog to whom you must teach some new tricks as well.  Use IPA, the most accurate and reliable system.  The book I recommend for this is “Diction” by John Moriarty.  It is a good learning tool and reference book.


Repertoire. Learn all you can as a student because you won’t have the luxury of time later.  Start with obscure pieces by great composers and great pieces by obscure composers.  Starting on mainstay rep too soon could spoil it for you later when you could have done it more justice.  Work closely with your coach and accompanist, and perform as often as you can.


Music history, Music theory, Composition, Liberal Arts, Sciences like Acoustical Physics, Theater skills, acting lessons for singers, movement and dance, nutrition and good health habits.  Develop a personal image and style too.  All these things will make you an educated and well rounded individual.  Learn how to eat in a five star restaurant, because if you are lucky, you may dine with royalty or something.  I did.  Good manners and conversational skills will go a long way at receptions with big hitters.  Don’t be a hick!


Teaching:  I love to teach beginners because they are free of vices and ready to learn.  As the subjects unfold and the light of understanding dawns, I feel a rush like all teachers feel when the student actually learns something of significance from you.  Finding a talented beginner to teach is really rewarding.  If the beginner is willing to put in the time and effort, they progress quickly.


Intermediate singers who come to you because they were unhappy with their teacher and are looking for fresh voice teacher meat can be a challenge to work with.  It depends on their attitude and how teachable they choose to be.  But often their discontent is because they stopped making progress with their former teachers and need new answers.  Often it is because they underestimated the hard work involved, relying too heavily on talent alone, and became frustrated.  Their frustration tends to rise when I tell them some of the same things their cast off teachers told them, that they still have a lot to learn.  If the teacher was at fault, a new teacher may help turn things around for them.  But every student of singing must understand that a voice teacher merely points the way, is a brain to pick, that the singer him/herself must work it out for themselves as most great singers did before them.  Bad news for the parasites.  Good news for the students who lacked confidence to learn on their own before and are encouraged.


Advanced singers who come for remedial work are tougher yet to deal with.  Problems in their singing may have become unmanageable and they look to a new teacher to conjure a miracle for them.   These students rarely make progress.  They have already been singing professionally with some success, making it very hard to find the courage to do things differently on stage.  The good ones don’t need any more lessons.  The troubled ones find the incompleteness of their earlier training has caught up with them at last.  They are losing their voices.  You find that an ideal of the Bel Canto is missing, or the tension in muscles and breathing have become so inhibiting that the older voice is unable to produce what the younger one did on sheer youthful power.  For these singers it is time to get back to basics, very hard at this juncture, and many prefer to go on as before with at least modest success.  How fair is it for a teacher to insist on change in such singers?  Again, it’s all up to the student, not the teacher, what he will decide to do.


The great Jenny Lind went to Manuel Garcia in Paris looking to repair her nearly ruined voice in her early twenties.  She had been singing since childhood.  Her voice was overworked and injured.  Garcia told her to be completely quiet, no singing or talking, for a year and then come back.  She did this.  But then began to work out her problems on her own.  She went on to become the greatest opera star in American history in 1851 on her famous tour of America with P.T. Barnum, America’s greatest impresario.  She died a successful and very rich lady.

So it can be done, with sacrifices and determination.  Michelangelo was once asked how he could sculpt a lion from a block of marble.  He replied, “I just chip away anything that is NOT a lion.”  This is how remedial voice teaching is done.  Usually there is too much there and you chip away all the things that aren’t good singing.  The lion is in there somewhere....


Maria Callas tried her hand at teaching at the much anticipated Julliard Master Classes.  She wanted to pass along her great dramatic skills, her listening and responding to the music, her expressive energy, the things an advanced singer must master to become a truly compelling presence.  But many of the singers joined the class as if it were a competition.  They were looking for adulation and good references, not lessons.  Callas was frustrated by the students’ attitudes and got a little rough on some of them.  None of them was worthy to kiss the hem of her pantsuit, but were exasperated when she didn’t fall all over them with praise.


She came away from the experience thinking it was her fault somehow.  “Maybe what I do just isn’t teachable.” She reportedly remarked.  She never tried to teach again.  Oh what a loss!  The problem was those stuck up students were unwilling to learn!  Every teacher’s nightmare.


So the real secret to learning is to see the road ever lengthening before you as you realize how much is there to learn and experience.  And if you learn well and display your art, success finds its way to you.  Work like Hell and Advertise.  Still true.


This is obviously just a draft to get going.  I could write and write!


Elizabeth Parcells


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