Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gentleness in Singing

There is nothing so strong as gentleness and gentleness is real strength.
(Francis de Sales)
I once asked my very first voice teacher, “Do you have to be really strong to sing  high notes?”

She answered, “Yes, but it’s not the kind of strength you think.”

I have always remembered that answer as something of a mystery.  And finally in my life I’m beginning to understand the mystery.

Don’t manhandle your voice.  A soft sigh is the way to great resonance and sound.  This is what I’m discovering. A very gentle beginning will carry you very far.

Did you ever watch the classic scenario of a child with a toy that wouldn’t go?  At first she tries to get the object to go every which way, and then at some point – when she can’t figure it out – she starts slamming the toy harder and harder and trying to force it to perform the desired action.  The frustration becomes enormous and the effort grows greater and greater.  The child doesn’t seem to understand that her method is wrong.  She makes the mistake of thinking she is not powerful enough to make the toy work, and she concludes that she needs more strength and more and more force to achieve her ends, and doesn’t understand that what she really needs is a new approach.

I have been down that path and made that mistake as I’ve literally engaged in a wrestling match with my voice over the years in my attempts to master it. Buy nowadays I have been discovering that what I perceive as small is actually the key to getting big and beautiful sound.  I think this “smallness” is what Jean-Ronald Lafond refers to when he writes on his blog about “the little voice.”

I have recently been doing some exercises to find my falsetto voice.  Apparently women have falsetto too but it isn’t as obvious because of women’s head voice.  I always thought that falsetto, if I would bother to play around with it, would be something that would occur in my higher range. But I have been experimenting with finding it throughout my entire range, including the lower.  In the process of doing these exercises, which I shall post in Frescamari’s Practice Room at some point, after only a day or two I was surprise to find this soft little cooing voice.

This is a voice that many women singers may already be aware of, but I -- with my big loud voice, coming from a family that spoke very vigorously because we had to compete to be heard -- was not accustomed to nor familiar with this soft approach.

I have begun  to use this little voice to sing songs.  To my surprise, when I played the recordings back, the sound was big, resonant and beautiful.  The wobble or distortion that often crept into my singing has receded, because the forcing that was causing it has ceased and my apparatus is responding to the more gentle approach.

I do find that I have to be very strong to use this voice.  Even stronger, in fact, then when I mistakenly let loose all the other kind of strength that I had.  The strength is hard to describe, and it is not what I thought it would be.  I’ve heard some singers say it is isometric strength.  At any rate, it is not for those that cower at the thought of using great effort.  But it is finally an effort that is being used constructively, as opposed to destructively, like the child banging the toy to try to get it to work.

I am very excited about this discovery.  It is leading me to a greater versatility.
Click here to hear some samples.


  1. This is an interesting post, because as you know I have struggled with the concept of "whistle register" which I seem not to have (my teacher concurs and says that some larger voiced mezzos have voices more like tenors). I can sing falsetto, however, which is what I call my "fake Julie Andrews choir soprano voice" but it only goes up to a G and when I sing that way a G feels like a very high note, which it shouldn't.

    Gentleness, however, is something else. One should never ever feel anything in the larynx area. All that should just be soft.

    That being said, I think one (or I should say "I" as a large voiced mezzo) needs a great deal of strength in the body core. Since I've been doing Pilates I have much more stamina for singing, for example. And as a result of the past five years of serious vocal training, I no longer ever get that tired feeling in the sides of my neck that I used to get.

    It's interesting you mention your loud-voiced family. My mother (who died recently) had the loudest voice in all of Brooklyn Heights, most likely because she spent her youth standing on a street corner screaming about the coming of the great communist paradise. I suppose I inherited her cast iron vocal chords, but I use them for singing, not screaming.

  2. babyD, that's what I've been learning -- to not feel anything in the larynx. That's why the soft cooing was so interesting to me. I don't feel anything in the larynx when I talk. I thought I had not been feeling anything there when I sang, but once I found the little voice, I realized that I had been. It was revelatory.