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Italian Sources of Singing (Part 3)

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In reviewing the pertinent literature on 18th-century singing—the best source for information about the old-school, Italian singing art—one great Italian maestro stands out—among a number of notable ones—as perhaps the most articulate with respect to what he understood as proper voice training and artful singing.

Giambattista Mancini (1714-1800) did not subscribe to a number of the concepts that are popular today. Mask singing and forward projection, for example, are not mentioned in his literature. Even when Mancini discusses breathing problems, it’s unclear whether the exercises that he recommends to correct them are breathing exercises per se or exercises for the larynx. In his Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art (1774), Mancini writes, “For those who cannot hold the breath so long and for those whose chests are not so strong, the solfeggio should be written of only two notes in each measure, and they must be two half notes giving to it a slow movement, so that the voice may have time to expand.” This exercise addresses the problem of not being able to hold breath during singing and deficient vocal power. The solution that Mancini offered has the practical result of strengthening the musculature of vocal folds to enable them to hold back breath more efficiently. The strengthening of the laryngeal muscles also permits a singer to hold a note longer and with greater power. The question is whether Mancini had vocal muscles in mind when he devised his exercise. I believe that he did, for he talks a great deal about the throat’s participation in singing and the importance of keeping the throat open and making sure that the throat and mouth are coordinated in their movements. “If the harmony of these two parts, the mouth and the “fauces” (throat), is perfect then the voice will be clear and harmonious.”

In his book Observation On The Figured Song (1774), noted singer and teacher Pier Francesco Tosi (1653-1732) states that performers should not sing in the nasal cavities—implying an admonition against mask singing. “Let the master attend with great care to the voice of the scholar which whether it be chest voice or head voice should always come forth neat and clear, without passing through the nose or being choked in the throat.” At least when it comes to singing in the mask and relaxing or ignoring the throat during singing, the Italian masters were relatively clear in condemning them. In other instances, however, the masters were woefully ambiguous.

For many modern voice instructors, however, the evolution of modern voice teaching technique has not been ambiguous at all. In fact, they claim with admirable confidence to know fully what their Italian predecessors really meant. They claim, for instance, that their ideas and techniques of mask singing, projection, and throat relaxation during singing derive directly from the Italian masters, yet this is clearly not the case, even if we include Garcia in the mix. What is clear, however, is that by the 20th century, these voice teaching concepts and singing techniques—along with a garden variety of new ones like lip and tongue fluttering—were being taught in vocal studios all over the world.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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