In the current state of the teaching and learning of singing, I consider it necessary to clarify some overused concepts in relation to this art. Among them, the notion of school and of method, two closely related concepts.
A school is a set of rules and precepts that arise from the study of nature and from the respect for it —in this case for vocal nature— that enable the development and refinement of a discipline that has its ultimate manifestation in the utmost expression of this nature. The tools born of the observation of physiological phenomena, reasoned and experimented upon, constitute the method. Its inextricable link to the physiological principles makes it possible to correctly develop and use the voice. The legacy is generated through the enrichment and emancipation of all the tools that make up the method throughout history. Not denying the past but securing itself in the same roots to let its fruits evolve.
By this I mean, and I emphasize, that the principles of the emission of sound are always the same, since the physiological conformation of all the organs that participate in the action of singing does not present any type of variation since the origin of the school until now. It is from this single trunk that different vocal expressions have grown to serve different aesthetic requirements that compose different and progressive styles. This legacy is the one composed by the school of bel canto and the Italian romantic school, the latter being the natural evolution of the former since Verdian drama.
If any reason could explain the current situation of decay in the art of singing it would be that singers no longer study under the guidance of a school that preserves the legacy through the application of the method.1 At this moment in history it is essential to restore it and to respect its different consecutive stages, an aspect that cannot be compromised. In the correct order, these stages are: emission (voice production) studies; perfection studies; the study of melodies without words and solfeggi 2 and, finally, the study of the repertoire. At the end of this process, singing artists will be finally able to display the necessary vocal abilities to correctly address the great difficulties of melodramatic art and turn their instruments into a means of expression.
Francisco Viñas, the great Spanish tenor who developed his career during the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 1900s, refers to this concern in his work The art of singing already in the year 1932:
We understand all too well that this way of teaching of the classical age is not possible today; but if professional dignity is to be raised, it is necessary to go back to the olden days, trying to adopt as far as possible those wise rules that had their basis in common sense, strengthened by a glorious practice.
Introduction to the registers of the human voice
Within the full range of the voice, a register is a set of notes that respond to the same physiological pattern. The registers of the human voice are four. In practice they took the names of chest register, head register, upper-high register (sopracuto) and whistle register. It should be noted that the upper-high register and the whistle register are exceptional and occur only in women, specifically in lirico-leggero and coloratura sopranos. From an auditory perspective, the listener does not hear a radical change from one register to the other except in the passage from the chest register to the head register. The rest of the registers are perceived as a whole due to their constitutive resonances.
What follows are tables of the different vocal registers organized by registers 3 and tessiture of the human voice. It should be clarified that, because there are no two voices alike, these graphs merely express the general manifestation of the different voices. This type of categorization has established a standard of vocal typologies throughout history but, given the unique character of each voice, it should not be interpreted as an absolute that could even limit the development of some voices that do not strictly adhere to the characteristics of the canon.
Vocal registers have important differences in volume and intensity depending on the different registers and tessiture of the human voice. For example, in male voices, the lower the voice, the more volume and intensity of the chest register, and the same is true for women if we compare the voices of a soprano and a mezzo-soprano in both the chest and the head registers.
The following examples illustrate this contrast in volume and intensity through the chest and head registers of different male and female voices. The recordings of female voices are by Elvira de Hidalgo, lyric coloratura soprano; Lina Bruna Rasa, spinto soprano; and Giuseppina Zinetti, mezzo-contralto. The male voices are by Christy Solari, leggero tenor; Aureliano Pertile, spinto tenor; and Titta Ruffo, baritone.
Introduction to the union of the registers
The union of the registers is one of the foundations of the emission studies. In this first stage of the singing method each register is developed and their union is addressed through the work on the passaggi. It is an indispensable condition for a singing artist to be able to flow from one register to another without any difficulty.
It is necessary to distinguish the passaggi between the registers from the passaggi of copertura (the covering of the voice), which are passaggi within the registers. Originally, it was believed that some of these, like the half-chest passaggio in the male voice and the falsetto in the female voice, were also registers and later they were identified as internal adaptations (steps) of the registers themselves.
The only two registers that exist in all voices, male and female, are the chest and head registers. Due to the type of resonance they use, they are the most difficult to join and have captured the careful attention of all the masters of the olden days. It is worth clarifying that, although both registers, due to their own different types of resonance, can never be equal in timbre and in character, they can be united, allowing the singer to correctly pass from one to the other with continuity of the vocal line.
The acclaimed baritone and pedagogue Leone Giraldoni, particularly recognized in the Verdian repertoire in the second half of the 19th century and one of the masters who opened the way to the technical evolution that made possible the fulfillment of the aesthetic requirements of romantic singing, expresses his concern over this topic in the following quote:
The equality of the voice depends on the union of the registers, an indispensable condition for all melodramatic artists. The union of the registers consists in joining the confines of the different sections of the voice, so that, by eliminating the solution of continuity that is born naturally in the passage from one register to another, the voice appears homogeneous and evenly coloured in all its phonic range.
Original article by Luca D’Annunzio.
In the next instalment of Union of the registers we will address the description of the registers and the passages of the female voices, with auditory examples, according to the following programme:
- Chest register and first internal passaggio: from chest to half-chest.
- First register passaggio: from chest or half-chest to falsetto.
- Falsetto and second internal passaggio: from falsetto to head.
- Third internal passaggio: chiaroscuro in the head register.
- Fourth internal passaggio: final adaptation of the head register.
- Second register passaggio: from head to sopracuto.
- Third register passaggio: from sopracuto to whistle.
1 Still, it is necessary not only to give life to the school through practice, through the training of singers under these principles. I also consider it essential to recover, protect and make known the writings that have been made in this regard. These materials are the only source that allows us to get in touch with the different ways of that technical legacy.
2 This is an intermediate step in which the tools acquired in the studies of emission and perfection are put into practice within a musical discourse. At first the students use only vowels and then, just like in the past, they start studying consonants, using the ones with which the name of each note begins.
3 From now on we mean two different things with the word register. On the one hand, the set of notes that respond to the same physiological pattern, namely: chest register, head register, upper-high register (sopracuto) and whistle register; on the other hand, we refer to the first category of vocal identity, namely: soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto for women, and tenor, baritone and bass for men.