Is it better to bellow or to squawk like a castrated turkey?
Learning to sing often involves a lot of misunderstandings and apparent contradictions. I always describe singing as “speaking music with the voice, and in my opinion, most singers – especially opera singers, who have to sing without a microphone, of course – make the mistake of singing “too much, too high and too loud”.
You might deduce from this that I hate or demonize it when singers really let rip, which is not the case at all – as I demonstrate in the intro melody of my podcast, “The Songs that I Sing”. I love big, fat, loud, high notes, BUT: If you overdo it, you will quickly develop one of those “barn-door vibratos” that you hear in lots of ageing singers – and not just Wagner singers!
Too much forte, too little piano?
Some singers sing quite passably and produce an impressive sound so long as they are singing mezzoforte to forte, but have absolutely no piano. As a result of this deficit, they are forced to sing loud, with an unhealthy piano, or not at all.
The problem: Too much forte, too little piano! To keep the voice healthy, you need to sing mostly piano and mostly in the lower middle range – the home of the voice. If you ignore this maxim, you will end up, sooner or later, developing an unhealthy wobble in your voice.
Too much piano, too little forte?
On the other hand, if you don’t occasionally squeeze your buttocks together, you’ll end up sounding like a castrated turkey.
OK, it’s time I explained the castrated turkey. I once had a colleague who not only bore a certain resemblance to a turkey, but he also sounded just like one. He was constantly doing coloratura exercises – which aren’t in themselves a bad thing, but in this case, they were accompanied by a high larynx and an unpleasantly weak, tremulous sound rather like the gobbling of a castrated turkey.
This colleague had a habit of sneering whenever other singers sang in a healthy forte. Seen from the limited perspective of his “turkey-technique”, the colleagues were simply bellowing in an uncultivated manner, whereas he himself was, as far as he could see, absolutely on the right track.
Lack of balls?
There are, however, also singers who can sing a beautiful piano – with no sign of the turkey effect – but somehow can’t really let rip. That’s often the case if the larynx constantly wanders upwards with each step on the scale, instead of going down.
I’ve heard there was a well-known Professor of singing in Frankfurt who used to advise his pupils to “sing like a bull with 8 balls”! A beautiful metaphor, in my opinion – but as I said: Only in moderation, otherwise you may end up with a big wobble.
Hold on, stop – just so there is no misunderstanding:
Does that mean that you can only sing loud and high with force? No – on the contrary! The loudest, most voluminous tones grow out of a state of deep relaxation, known as Inhalare la voce! But in this case, the basic physical position is nonetheless powerful and by no means lax.
And this powerful basic position requires a considerable amount of mental and physical tension, which is not always easy to access.
And until you manage that, assuming you do at all, it probably will be necessary to invoke the bull with the 8 balls.
It is primarily a question of personal taste, whether you want to stick to “belcanto” (with or without turkey effect), or whether you need to take a tougher approach.
Personally, I stick with my recommendation: Both, but above all, the former! Because the home of the voice is always, in every singer, the lower middle range and the piano. And we should always return to this home – otherwise we will one day have to sleep under the bridge!