by Bruce Schoonmaker

The first goal of technique is to serve the art and the artist. Technique facilitates the singer's musical expression by creating vocalism that functions freely, bringing the deepest parts of the singer's personality into the expressiveness of breath control, tone, phrasing, vowel quality, support, and drama.

Just as actors discover that, in playing other people, they bring to light parts of themselves of which they were unaware, so singers bring to light in singing parts of themselves of which they were unaware. The paradox is that, in doing something beyond oneself, one brings more of oneself into life and light. By singing and by bringing into conscious awareness parts of our beings of which we had been unaware, we become more complete beings. We move toward wholeness.

The next goal of technique is to subordinate itself so that the audience is always more aware of the beauty of the music and the beauty of the voice than the functioning of technique. Not only should technique be second nature; it should be, in the moment of performance, less important than the music, the words, and the drama. This may take some time. Beginning voice students are slaves to technique before mastering it. But the student and teacher must be aware that ultimately the art involves hiding the technique behind the music, the voice, and the interpretation. It customarily takes years of study before a singer masters technique to this degree.

The next goal of technique is to facilitate the singer moving toward unselfconsciousness rather than toward self-consciousness. Technique should never inhibit the singer's deepest expression of inner feelings and values. Technique should never become a crutch to the ego of the singer, but remain a means of opening the door to the richness of the singer's inner life. Each performer faces his personal demons prior to performing; each faces his own form of stage fright. It is simply the opening of that which is deepest within us, allowing it to come through expressive beauty, to come out where others may appreciate it.

When we open ourselves the most, we bring into light that which is most personal and most intimate, and we open ourselves to others.

This provides a two-fold opportunity: either those listening to our performance will love what they hear or they will not. The price we pay as performers is that, when they love what is deepest within us, we are deeply enriched by their applause and response. When the audience, however, dislikes what they hear, then we are most deeply hurt because we brought down the barriers between ourselves and the audience. Technique needs to be a means of opening ourselves deeply.

The perfect technique is one that leads in each step toward a natural, non-technical sound. This is the great paradox of vocal technique, that with each successful technical improvement, technique steps aside to let the fullness of the singer's personality, beauty, and goodness escape. So vocal technique becomes a means of opening the heart and soul and essence of the personality as much as it is a means to improve the beauty of the voice. And the perfect technique leaves room for imperfection, for the natural anomalies that occur during singing. Otherwise, we are again caught in the trap of "vocalizing," singing in an unnatural way that leads away from art and expressiveness.

In other words, perfect technique does not exist. And technique must be individualized in order to meet the needs of the singer. The differences in our physical structures and the wide variety in how we experience our bodies means that technique must be adjusted in order to fit the individual mold. For this reason I teach my students from a viewpoint of the sound emitted, building and beautifying the vowels and tone that the singer produces, rarely mentioning the physical apparatus that creates the sound. If the student produces a free, rich, and beautiful sound, then his physical apparatus functions freely and properly.

Form follows function.

Also important in discussing technique is the realization that technique is a living, dynamic experience, not capable of being frozen into the form of words on a page. One cannot learn technique from reading about it any more than one can learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it. It is a dynamic existential experience, full of wonder and creativity.

I organize my thoughts about technique around three principles:

1. Sing in the mask

2. Connect the breath

3. Sigh the vowels

When one sings in the mask, one makes the sounds resonate freely and supply, allowing the tone to project in an unforced manner to the back of a large hall. The Italians refer to this principle by saying, ìposition the vowel high.î I work with students to sense when they are using the resonators to their maximum efficiency, letting the tone project in a legato, leggiero line.

Singers connect the breath in two ways. They connect the breath to the sound in general and they connect the breath from note to note, creating a legato line. Each proves critical to healthy technique. When the breath truly connects to the sound, the phrasing becomes effortless, because the singer uses the breath for more than technical support. He uses the breath for the purpose of expressing himself.

By sighing the vowels, the singer relaxes the vowels and allows them to find the proper balance between chiaro (bright) and oscuro (somber). Sighing creates this balance, or chiaroscuro. In order to relax the vowels, the singer needs to relax his jaw, tongue, and his entire body as completely as possible. This is not a passive, dead-weight sort of relaxation. It is a vital, dynamic state of relaxed readiness.

With all of the wonderful relaxation techniques available for singers to learn (like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Reiki), there is no reason why teachers should not recommend them to students for their vocal benefits. Too long have we suffered in western civilization under the illusion that strength lies in tension. Only now are we learning that we are much stronger when we relax and let energy flow unobstructed through our beings.

Italians call this "morbido," a word that doesn't translate exactly into English. "Supple," "tender," "soft," and "flexible," are synonyms for this word. It is a tender tone that is at the same time light and full. It is a quality of tone in which the vowel can become pure, free, and full. It is the tone where, in moving from note to note, the vowel automatically gathers space and sound. It is defined by feelings of comfort and ease, rather like humming unselfconsciously.

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