Tenors have always been a part of opera even during the rule of the greatest castrati, but the preference at the time was for the “cut” male. In the early 19th century, however, there were a number of gifted tenors that began to have success in the principle roles and even had the great composers write for them. Giovanni-Battista Rubini (1795-1854) was unique among them. He was the first “uncut” male to garner the international reputation normally reserved for the best castrati. Besides being an excellent, natural musician, he famously mastered a vocal technique that gave him excellently-produced falsetto-like tones for his brilliant high notes, which allowed him to execute castrato-like embellishments. On the other hand, it was his wonderfully elegant vocal phrasing where Rubini really excelled and where he made the greatest impact, especially on other musicians like the iconic pianist from Hungary, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Rubini was both a return to an earlier form of vocalism as well as a harbinger of things to come.
Very early in his career, Sinatra rarely sang in the down, back, and open oo and ee positions and this is why his voice could sound light, thin, and nasal. Thin, nasalized vowel sounds are signs that a singer’s vocal musculature—in the larynx and pharynx—is not sufficiently involved in forming vowel sounds. It also means that the larynx is resting too high in the throat—and the soft palate relaxing too low—to allow for their deep-throated formation; a forward-sounding voice is the natural consequence. Sinatra’s young, unformed voice was, in this sense, open vowel-sound deficient, and is one reason why he often crooned, Bing Crosby style, when he performed rather than sing out—and back and down—in a full-throated fashion.
One of the secrets to Sinatra’s lovely singing is the way he expertly Italianized his vowels—that is, how he keeps them open and pure, and this is why he is able to move from English word to English word as though he is moving from Italian vowel to Italian vowel; the overall effect is that his singing seemed to flow along in a honey-like stream of beautifully open tones. That he could even perform his swing tunes with his Italian vowels doing all the swinging is all the more remarkable. His innovative back, down, and open vowels hold the key to this accomplishment.
Mustn’t there be good teachers who have played a vital role in the development of their students’ voices? Without a doubt! Yet, oddly enough, it is often not for the reasons believed by voice instructors themselves. One of my first singing instructors had me press my abdomen against the piano while I sang. He claimed that this exercise “trained my breathing muscles and made them stronger,” and provided “better diaphragmatic support,” which he insisted was the key to singing well. After a few months of doing this exercise, I noticed that my voice, in fact, did become stronger. Perhaps he was right! But then my progress inexplicably came to a standstill. To make matters worse, I actually bruised my hip by continuously pushing my abdomen against his piano. I realized that my teacher was not quite on the mark, so I moved on.
It is common for voice instructors to describe the source of vocal sound—the larynx—as a delicate organ, and easily injured by misuse or overuse. But, the laryngeal musculature, like that of the pharynx and oral cavity, is naturally durable and resistant to fatigue. It makes little sense then to concentrate on how to avoid vocal overuse; instead, our focus should be on how to maximize the considerable power and performance potential that is inherent in our voice muscles. This, of course, takes us into the realm of exercise.