There is a place in this world for the serious noisemakers, the Mario Del Monacos, the Birgit Nilssons, the Dolora Zajicks, the Cornell MacNeils, the Ethel Mermans.... And Lord knows we love the noises they make! Especially the high screamy bits!! It’s thrilling. Everyone loves a loud high note. But there is a great quote of which I am fond, from the respected early 20th century soprano and teacher, Isobel Baillie, who used to tell her students, “Never sing louder than lovely, dear.”
Now of course the corollary to this, as I tell all my students, is- never sing quieter than audible. Certainly in the course of instruction we hear requests from teachers for more or less volume. And we are told various things about support at various volumes and range. But all of this does bring to mind an aspect of the volume question that I rarely hear addressed. First, however, a a quick detour on the subject of strength.
I recently quoted a book on the legendary tenor and teacher Jean de Reszke, and will quote the same passage a little more extensively -
“He knew that in the theater one wanted all kinds of resource and color in the voice, but primarily power, “In the theater it is necessary to shout, but it is necessary to know how to shout.” and he was out to get more power from voices, both increasing their size and by the proper use.....”
Now any teacher who has extensive experience with true beginners is familiar with the process of encouraging the beginner to get comfortable with making a sound that is larger than talking. The shy in particular have a very hard time. But as much as this building, investigation of native dynamic range, and sense of requisite stamina is necessary, one thing perhaps gets lost. And so we return to the aforementioned aspect of volume that I rarely hear explained:
A mere rise in pitch is often already a distinct and appropriate rise in volume. This may sound like words for beginners, but once people cross that chasm of fear of their own noise, it often happens that they jump into eager vocal offerings, singing loudly and proudly sometimes oversinging. A common flaw among younger singers learning to sing higher and trying to bang out the notes this is accompanied by tension and over-muscularity in the sound as they ascend. These singers need to be reminded that it is often sufficient to simply make a moderate offering in ascending phrases. The volume will be there.
I have heard it said by singers, tenors Jan Peerce and Alfredo Kraus for example, that “one should sing on the interest, not the principal.” And part of this is the understanding that if you are speaking generously in a perfectly audible fashion and the phrase is ascending; without much or any additional vocal intensity or pressure, you will gain volume merely by that ascent. You are speaking (melodically), and you are rising in pitch. You are quite literally “raising your voice”. And this goes back to de Reszke’s words. Many people, when shouting, apply an unnecessarily aggressive and overly muscular physicality to their speech. To “know how to shout” is to understand that pitch alone works to your advantage. Beyond this, dynamic variation must be balanced against support, etc. But in many ways, some additional volume is already built-in to the schematic.
There is a lovely Finnish baritone, Jorma Hynninen, whose singing of Verdi always strikes me. While many other equally appropriate voices set themselves on “roar” and run with it, his Verdi sounds much more conversational, at perfectly appropriate volumes, and rising and falling as the music dictates. Not only do I find this provides for much greater communication, it no doubt may allow greater vocal longevity.
So remember to seek a balance. Yes, be heard by the guy in the back row. And by all means, speak up. But if the phrase is ascending. Remember, at least in some measure, you already are.