Overview of Vocal Technique


In an effort to better serve my students as well as the community at large, I am planning to supplement the song postings here with some articles on vocal technique. I would like to remain as agnostic as possible regarding proper methods of instruction, but I do have my own biases. (I am, for example, very concerned with pitch problems, overt tension and unmusical singing, while I think a great deal of effort is often misspent in lessons trying to achieve ever larger levels of loudness.) Nevertheless, my teaching philosophy is neatly summed up as “whatever works,” and I hope that approach will result in a useful text.

The textbook used for my Master’s level vocal pedagogy class was Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing: System and Art of Vocal Technique, and that informs much of what I will write about in this post. I also greatly value William Vennard’s Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic, though I disagree with a few of his biases, particularly his rather narrow views on vibrato. Finally, during my teaching career, I have arrived at some conclusions of my own, which I intend to write about as I have not seen them adequately explained elsewhere.

Core Principles

First, some core principles that guide my teaching, regardless of style:

  • Good singing is healthy singing
  • Good singing is artistic singing
  • Good singing is both physical and psychological in nature

Good singing must be healthy, or the singer will be unable to meet and sustain the physical and artistic demands placed upon them. Unhealthy singing can result in vocal nodes, breathy or raspy tone, or even inability to phonate.

Good singing must be artistic, because otherwise there is no point! We sing to communicate, to enlighten, to inspire. Without artistry, none of this could happen.

Finally, good singing is both athletic and mental. It requires development and coordination of muscles, but that effort springs from psychological intent. It can be very helpful to train the body with specific exercises to fix physical impediments, but it is unreasonable to think that a purely mechanistic approach to singing would achieve an artistic end.

Overview of the Physical Systems

It seems convenient to break down the physical process of singing into three categories.

  • Breath (The main source of energy in singing)
  • Phonation (The act of creating sound with the vocal folds)
  • Resonance (The shaping of the sound with the vocal tract)

Each of these physical systems influences the others, so changes made in one will often result in changes elsewhere. We could also add a fourth category, “Articulation”, but I am inclined to treat that separately, along with other, more psychological aspects of singing.

In each of these systems, there are goals which I also believe apply regardless of the style of music being sung.

Goals of good breathing include utilizing the full capacity of the lungs and managing appropriate subglottal air pressure througout the range of breath.

Goals of good phonation include a coordinated onset of tone, a free and efficient production, and appropriate registration.

Goals of good resonance include coloring the tone appropriately, providing adequate amplification for the repertoire, and supporting good phonation. It is also important that efforts to achieve those goals do not interfere with good articulation.

In all of the above, it is important to remember that technique is not a goal unto itself, but is a tool to allow greater artistic freedom and stronger emotional impact.

Articulation and Artistry

These are harder to sum up, but I think it’s worthwhile to note that it is critically important that a singer be understood when they sing, and that they be expressive and artistic.

This requires study of all the languages in which one expects to sing, and how adequate pronunciation is achieved within the realm of song. (Good singing diction is quite different from good speaking diction in every language, including English.)

Artistry must spring from the student, but can be expanded and informed by listening attentively to other singers, and through good coaching.

Rather than make this post too long, I will create additional posts to go into more detail about the concepts introduced in this article, and link to them from here.

I leave this post with a quote by Lamperti, as found in Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti: “I have never written a method … because all that a singer need know could be written on the palm of my hand. Fundamentals are three: control of powerful breath energy, trueness and ease of all tones, and distinct, correct diction, — after which a pupil unfolds according to his talent, his temperament, and his intelligence.”

© 2007 David Newman