Leone Giraldoni: on the tongue and the larynx in singing

Leggere in italiano

Leone Giraldoni (1824 – 1897) was a famous baritone and singing teacher whose artistic career was fundamentally linked to the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who chose him to create the role of Simon Boccanegra in the premiere of the first version of the opera at La Fenice in Venice in 1857 and of Renato in Un ballo in maschera in Rome in 1859. After leaving the stage, he devoted his efforts to pedagogy and was one of the artists whose teachings gave way to the technical evolution of the Italian Romantic School, which made it possible to meet the aesthetic requirements of romantic singing. In 1889 he published his Compendium: analytical, philosophical and physiological method for the education of the voice, where he brings together the learnings of his whole life.

It remains now to indicate which are the appropriate precepts to achieve mastery of each of the elements that converge in the action of singing. First of all, I will focus my attention on two of the most essential points:

  1. The action of the tongue which, by descending or elevating itself, necessarily modifies the repercussion of the sound.
  2. The position of the larynx in the act of singing.

As for the tongue, in the simple emission one should look for it to be naturally spread out with the tip near to the lower part of the teeth and with a slight sinking in the centre, emitting at first the sound on the vowel A, neither open nor closed as in the Italian word madre. As the voice comes out in the tones of the scale it is necessary, little by little, to operate on the base of the tongue a light pressure, suitable for the natural physiological movement done when yawning. — The reason for this is very simple. Just as I affirm that in order to obtain a straight placing of the voice the larynx must, first of all, always remain below its normal position (as you will see in the following paragraph), the tongue, which has at its base a cartilage that is inserted onto the larynx as a wedge, forces it (by means of such slight pressure) to remain in the indicated position, lower than normal, a position that it must never abandon along the entire range of the scale. The only thing to avoid is to also tighten the throat by means of a contraction that would give the voice a very unpleasant sound, on the contrary, it is necessary to let it freely echo in the cavities of the pharynx which, for the voice, is the harmonic box where it acquires thickness, amplitude and sonority, just as the violin through its shape and the quality of its wood gives value to the sound of its strings; a sound that without this would be strident and lacking in sound waves. Therefore, I recommend giving this slight pressure of the base of the tongue upon the larynx as much abandonment as possible. — This is a most essential condition.

As for the larynx, I repeat, when the sound is emitted it must take up a lower position than the usual. — The movement I instructed for the tongue, being completely natural, will help you to achieve this purpose easily. I also repeat that the larynx must maintain this lower position throughout the entire range of the scale, from the lowest to the highest note. This is not only an essential but also an indispensable condition to obtain the power of sound, the equality of the whole voice in the so-called registers and to give the singer a true mastery of his voice. Another enormous advantage that springs from this movement is that the voice will be able to resist fatigue in an extraordinary way, without being affected in the slightest. — With such placing, the half voice also acquires, for theatrical singing, a roundness and homogeneity very difficult to obtain when it is produced by letting the larynx rise above its natural position.

I am amazed that García, in his wise Method of Singing, has barely touched on its great importance and that few teachers and authors of didactic works on the voice have flown slightly over this point that is for me, I repeat, indispensable in a theatre singer; for this reason I do not hesitate to affirm that I give this placing the importance of the sine qua non for the artist destined to sing in the theatre, whatever the genre and the quality of his voice. If I had to make an exception it would only be for the light sopranos whose emission, not requiring the power of sound indispensable in the other voices, needs to have a special sharpness in the execution and that particular light chirping of the birds, so they can, more than the others, leave the larynx in its natural position.

However, this position of the larynx should not be exaggerated, but should rather be graduated according to the requirements of the music that is to be performed, adapting this movement to all the gradations from the pianissimo to the fortissimo, thus imitating the action of the air that is retained in the pianissimo and is expanded in the fortissimo. The more energetic or effusive is the singing in its tessitura, the more pronounced should be the descending movement of the larynx. For soft and quiet singing, this movement of the larynx should be proportionate and consequently less pronounced.

It would be difficult to achieve from the beginning the simultaneous handling of all the parts involved in the action of singing. I therefore advise the student to exercise them separately, studying the handling of the diaphragm, without exaggerating its importance, the position of the tongue and the descent of the larynx, before making them work simultaneously. This will ensure the independence of each movement and will prevent the risk of tightening the throat when the diaphragm has to be pressed during breathing or when attempting to lower the larynx below its natural position.

Once the larynx has been placed in the right place (slightly below its normal position), all the parts involved in the formation of the sound should remain as if abandoned to themselves.

Text excerpted and translated from Compendium, Leone Giraldoni, Milan, 1889.