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8. In Conclusion
So in summing up and in spite of the foregoing, I cannot emphasise enough how simple a process singing is. It is a basic physiological action which has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to produce the maximum effect with the minimum of effort. Humanity has a tendency to over-complicate things - we're easily seduced by complex ideas formed by multi-syllabic words, and often more impressed by something we don't understand than by something we do.
Therefore, it is best to avoid convoluted physiological manoeuvres and to take pains in finding your natural sound. This should be easy, but it's not always straightforward. There are so many alternatives to a basic sound that it's difficult to know what's natural and what isn't. In particular it's so easy to manipulate the vocal tract to make an apparently rich and beefed-up timbre. But this is fool's gold and we must resist the temptation at all costs. It stresses the instrument, tires the structure, restricts the propulsion of sound waves and stacks up trouble for the future. Moreover, this unnatural sound is usually rather glutinous and is easily swamped by the clarity of orchestral texture. And worse still, in the young and healthy voice, its drawbacks are not apparent until it's too late. This is one of the reasons why too many singers have vocal problems in their forties and fifties or even earlier. Fundamental vocal building blocks have been bypassed in their early days - often perfectly innocently - in an eager attempt to get an apparent finished product as quickly as possible. Such a trajectory will inevitably lead to vocal problems. At some point, even though the spirit may be willing, the flesh will become weak. The misaligned instrument will have taken too much stress for too long and will no longer function as efficiently as it used to. At best, the singer will have to take time out for rest and recuperation or they may need to undergo surgery for the removal of nodules or worse still, have to give up. At the risk of yet again harking back to the past, many singers of earlier eras such as Battistini, Melba, Lauri-Volpi, Gedda, Cappuccilli, Bergonzi, Prey, Nilsson, Kraus, Ludwig, Gruberová and many more just got better and better throughout their long careers. Many of them singing with barely undiminished powers into their sixties and even their seventies. Of course, that era enjoyed a culture of greater respect for singers than is the case today. They were provided with the kind of conditions for the voice to develop naturally and to keep healthy, and not in any way cause abuse to the instrument. In today's maelstrom of opera over-production there are too many disturbances to the poise of great singing. Even with the soundest technique - there are many pitfalls for contemporary singers.
So find your natural sound. A second pair of ears will help. It doesn't have to be a singing teacher. Try it out on someone who knows you well. If it's right, it will feel comfortable to you, and your listener will be touched by hearing a heightened version of the speaking voice they know and are fond of. It may not be your most spectacular sound, but it will be the rough diamond which can be developed, polished and honed to perfection, and it will be the vocal manifestation of 'you'. If, however, you press down on the larynx, make a cavernous shape in your mouth and try to be 'operatic', your listener might be impressed but won't be moved, as it ceases to be 'you'. When it's right, you'll instinctively know it. If however, it feels constricted; you have an imperfect sense of control; the vibrato is intrusive and irregular; the timbre changes as the voice goes up and down; it's very difficult to do a diminuendo; enunciation is laboured; you lose a sense of breath connection and/or the top notes are effortful - then you can be sure something is wrong.
But having got the natural sound, what then? Then it's comparatively easy. Develop your instrument by the time-honoured practise of exercise. In today's era, many young singers are spending hours in the gym to achieve the body beautiful. And that's perfectly fine in my view. Fitness and strength are good things. But nobody would ever expect a personal trainer - however gifted - to turn someone into an olympic athlete in three easy sessions. And yet that same singer who spends so many hours in the gym over a long period of time, might flit from singing teacher to singing teacher in the optimistic hope that someone will produce a magic formula which will turn them into a Birgit Nilsson or an Ettore Bastianini, simply by adjusting the larynx or the breathing muscles or the soft palate or maybe even the left kneecap! But I'm afraid this X Factor mentality just doesn't work. Vocal development takes time, determination and painstaking work. In singing, shortcuts lead to dead-ends. Exercising the voice in the right way with vigour and commitment; always striving to be better in terms of purity of timbre, dynamic control, flexibility and steadiness of tone and having the patience to let the voice develop at its own pace will do the trick. And keep at it. Think of yourself as a vocal athlete. Roger Federer didn't get and stay where he is simply by playing tennis. Every day he does aerobic and anaerobic exercises, lifts weights and spends hours on court practising his shots by repetition. There's no mystery here. Whether you're a singer, an instrumentalist, a dancer or a sportsman - practice makes perfect. And remember - we hear Nilsson and Bastianini as the finished product, not as students. They also started as rough diamonds.
After a successful recital when he was in his seventies, Carlo Bergonzi was asked how he kept his voice in such pristine condition. His reply was "I vocalise every day". And by that he didn't mean a few grunts, some lip trilling and blowing through a straw into a glass of water, but proper, grown-up vocalising in the historical tradition of Italian vocal culture - scales, arpeggios, vowel exercises, messa di voce and vocalises. Sticking to this regimen kept his voice in peak condition and enabled him to sing in public for over fifty years.
All the above may sound rather like a life of penury. But once you get into a rhythm, it's easy enough and thoroughly enjoyable. Talent alone is not enough, though. The other necessary quality doesn't get such a good press because it's not as glamorous - the willing capacity to take pains. But both are imperative for success.
If you can do all the above and you bide your time and don't try to accelerate the process, you should be rewarded with a long and fruitful career. Provided you lead a sensible lifestyle, there will be no vocal crises and your singing will bring joy and fulfillment both to yourself and to others. Indeed, it is your birthright.
Carlo Bergonzi as Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore
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