Science & Art Of Messa di Voce
Douglas J. Rice
Messa di voce is perhaps one of the greatest skills and necessary technical functions for professional singers to acquire and maintain. Its physiological process is complex because it rests largely on the coordination of various muscle bundles comprising the vocal lip, or the main body of the vocal cords. More specifically, these "tensor muscles" must perform in conjunction with the regulated lung pressure that varies during dynamic modification on a given pitch or within a musical phrase. The execution of a flawless messa di voce is important to the evaluation of the artistic elements of singing. Just as an artist is judged on his ability to blend, shade and merge colors and contour in a painting; so is the singer assessed on his proficiency to mix head and chest tone in an even timbre through varying dynamic levels in a phrase or on one sustained pitch.
The definition of messa di voce literally means "putting forth" or "flourishing" of the voice, as it was translated in the eighteenth century. (1. L. Manie) Domenic Corri, a pupil of the composer Porpora, described it further as a vocal ornament consisting of a gradual swelling and diminishing of a single tone. Even Giuseppe Verdi’s opera scores contain symbols for messa di voce, since the nineteenth century elevated the prominence of the human voice and it’s grandeur as a solo instrument. As a musical ornament, messa di voce was considered the epitome of the singer’s mastery of technical skill and vocal technique. However, it is a pedagogical tool which is essentially the greatest necessity for every singer to master through constant exercise. (Modern science confirms the physiological processes in the larynx and lungs which are defined in more detail later in this paper.) Therefore, one defines messa di voce as the ability to join both the head and chest tone in a gradual swelling and diminishing of a single tone from pianissimo to fortissimo and back to pianissimo with little or no change in vowel quality. (2. C. Reid) The color of the tone is intensified and deepened during the crescendo and then diminishes to its original quality during the decrescendo.
The complex muscle bundles in the vocal lip (labia vocalia) are responsible for generating a healthy and successful result in the process of messa di voce. A certain degree of independence enables these muscles to tense and to relax separately, thereby altering the shape of the vocal lips and the space of the glottis. This is significant since the intensity of lung pressure assists these muscles to perform this function freely without interruption. The simultaneous emission of air from the pressure in the lungs directly assists the tensor muscles in the vocal lips to alter the waves of oscillation between the vocal folds. To further explain this process one should think of the expiration of air as a cycle or "glottal period". During the crescendo, lung pressure increases while tensor muscle activity decreases. This allows the vocal folds to have a higher percentage of time and space remaining in the open glottis position, or "open quotient". (3. I. Titze) This reduction of activity in the tensor muscles (cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid) stabilizes the pitch when lung pressure is equalized. Should the tensor muscles not reduce their oscillation amplitude, the pitch would rise because of an imbalance with increased lung pressure. This is often the case with voices that sing sharp. During the decrescendo the opposite process takes place. The tensor muscles increase activity causing more adduction with a lower percentage of "open quotient" between the two vocal folds. When lung pressure decreases this creates an increase in the vibration amplitude or oscillation of the vocal lips. One must also realize that the messa di voce not only relies on the clean coordination of the crescendo and decrescendo, but should also retain the quality and timbre of the tone throughout the vocal register. Accordingly, in critical areas of the vocal range such as the "passaggio" (passing through) or vocal break; the ability to mix both head and chest tone should be punctuated with exercises in messa di voce. The singer who coordinates and succeeds in mastering messa di voce throughout their full range develops a seamless, unified register which will communicate a full compliment of possibilities pertaining to artistic expression in all genres of vocal music. In this way, vocal physiology and art are congruent and harmoniously committed to one desired goal in singing. Eloquent artistry and conditioned healthy technique is the result of messa di voce.
The stabilization of vibration amplitude, or the oscillation period during the messa di voce is key to a healthy singing technique. Symptoms of unhealthy imbalance are the "pressed voice" and "white voice". Usually sub-glottal pressure will fixate the larynx and cause extraneous tension in the vocal folds and related areas. Tongue tension also contributes to an imbalance in the vibration amplitude since there is extraneous tension in the laryngeal region, negating any possibility of executing messa di voce. The reduced coordination between the lungs and laryngeal muscles will invariably lead to intonation problems; irregular vibrato; vocal atrophy among many indicators which render the singer incapable of singing properly in a supported free manner. It is undeniable that a voice which is not unlocked and imprisoned by physiological obstacles cannot execute the psychological and intuitive artistic components of emotive vocal expression. It is critical for young singers to sing within the natural weight of their voice. Additionally, singers of any age should adhere to a daily regiment of exercises which foster the development of messa di voce. Vocalizations which stimulate the vocal lips through careful onset initiated by the breathing apparatus will habitually lead to the ability to crescendo and decrescendo. Bearing in mind that the muscular scaffolding throughout the body must be carefully coordinated with both the intrinsic and extrinsic laryngeal musculature and full range of mechanisms connected to it.
In order to provide supportive evidence of the thoughts presented in this paper one may view the following vocalizations as preparatory exercises to stimulate the coordination between the lungs and larynx during the execution of messa di voce:
Nr. 1 BREATHING CYCLE/PERIOD:
The singer, with one hand placed flatly on the umbilical area of the abdomen and the other on the sternum, should practice inhaling and exhaling in one complete uninterrupted cycle. On the inhalation, breathe through the nose only, then release on the vowel ‘ah’ during the exhalation. The tone should travel on the breath until all the air is released. The placement of the vowel should sit forward in the mask, sounding in a round fashion that is continuous in color. The emission of air should be constant and uninterrupted.
Nr. 2 REARTICULATION OF ONE PITCH:
Singing on the vowel ‘ah’, practice a legato repetition of one pitch in a mid point of the vocal range. Keep the acoustical chamber of the buccal area open and round. Gradually crescendo each time the note is rearticulated and joined to the next. The climax of the crescendo should be held longer and then followed by a gradual decrescendo on the same pitch, which is also rearticulated with a diminishing dynamic. It is crucial for the timbre or vocal color to remain constant throughout this exercise.
Nr. 3 ONE SUSTAINED PITCH:
Utilizing three vowels ("ee-ay-ah"), gather the sound together on one note and sing each vowel in an even length of time, one after the other. Begin very pianissimo then allow the sound to flourish in richness, dimension and dynamic until the loudest dynamic is acquired without disturbing the vocal quality. The decrescendo must follow on a constant emission of air over a lengthy period of time until it fades to a molecular focused tone which may seem almost colorless. The jaw should be stable as the sound is gathered on all vowels.
Ultimately there are many exercises that promote the mastery of messa di voce. Practicing octave leaps using the messa di voce is also very effective for mixture between the head and chest registers. Only a few exercises are presented to point the singer in its path of success. Whatever exercises are implemented, the singer should be aware that a healthy process in the activation of muscular patterns in the organ of singing (larynx) and the organ of breathing (diaphragm) will create assenting results. The entire organism for singing relies on the integration of all bodily muscle groups; various cartilage; and systems of breath control which build a healthy singing voice. Superimposed ‘masking effects’ to disguise faults in technique; temporary tricks which serve as band-aids that lead to irreparable damage in the voice; psychological and physiological inhibitions in the instrument will all contribute to negative achievement in messa di voce. The natural condition of the human voice should display the singer’s true organic, intuitive, spiritual and intellectual artistic expression which is revealed in a seamless technique.
In review, the process of singing involves a plethora of other related issues such as resonance, vocal formants, placement, vowel formation/modification and others which assist in the evaluation of a singer’s expertise. One may conclude that the art of bel canto singing lays deeply in the roots of what began as a vocal ornament in the baroque era to what evolved as a fundamental vocal exercise in the technical training of singers. A vocal ornament, revealing a human sentiment, emotion and wide range of expressive possibilities gave way to an approach in the evolution of vocal technique. Long before Manuel Garcia invented the laryngoscope, singer’s vocal technique was an aural tradition passed through the experience and vocabulary of great singers and teachers of their time. And though modern science clarifies answers to suppositions of vocal technique, there will never be a substitute, book or replacement that surpasses the human ear and what it perceives in the human voice. The groundwork, skills and necessary technical functions for singing must be acquired through a healthy regiment of vocal discipline. Understanding the physiological processes should occur after the singer discovers sensations and an aural understanding of their individual instrument. The regular implementation of messa di voce will equip all singers with fundamental tools to unveil their musical artistry and enlightened instinctive expression in music. Nothing penetrates more deeply or transmits so highly as a freely functioning voice capable of expressing the most intrinsic, soulful emotions which are suitably revealed in the fragile beauty and delicate deliverances during the messa di voce.