Sinatra: Master Of The Divine Couplet Of Singing Part 2
May 18, 2013
Very early in his career, Sinatra rarely sang in the down, back, and open oo and eepositions 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.
As his voice matured, however, beginning with his Nelson Riddle experience in the 1950s, his pure and open vowel sounds—especially the deep oo and ee vowels—eventually took concrete form in his throat, which made possible the timeless Sinatra sound. With throat-based vowel sounds now in full control of his singing, his voice became increasingly rich, warm, crisp—and commanding. When we listen to his classic sound, especially when he sings his intimate ballads, it’s as though he is pulling his voice back and down into himself and creating a sort of self-reflective inner singing. From a technical perspective, this inner singing is based on his mastery and expansive use of the divine couplet of singing.
How did Sinatra find his way to his ultimate voice? Was it Nelson Riddle’s challenging orchestrations that compelled him to push more vocally and, as a result, built the oo and ee vowels and the cello-like tonal quality that emanated from them? In my view, this experience, if not the cause, was the primary impetus for his transformation. On the other hand, is it possible that Sinatra’s new voice resulted primarily from his having formal instruction that reoriented his singing—that is, recreated his vowel sounds? It’s clear that he did receive some private voice instruction. But interestingly and curiously, his formal training, as far as we know, took place in the 1940s, long before we first hear his voice increase significantly in resonance and vocal thrust. We also know that it was during the Nelson Riddle years he had received, at least some, vocal guidance from noted operatic baritone Robert Merrill. There likely were others. We just don’t have undisputed facts at our disposal.
Sinatra claimed on a number of occasions that he had never studied singing formally, and that he had learned his technical art from experience and from emulating the seamless legato (connecting notes smoothly together) horn playing and breath-control style of Tommy Dorsey. He also said that he was influenced by the flowing, bowing technique of violinist Jascha Heifetz. But legato singing and mastering a breathing technique are not sufficient to explain Sinatra’s deep-throated, vowel-sound configurations (much less his discovery of the divine couplet). The reason is that mastering these techniques does not, in any way, naturally incline a singer to sing back and down into the lower throat where the oo and ee vowels—and other similarly created vowel sounds—are formed. One could very easily sing legato with a thin, nasalized voice, for example. In fact, mask-based, forward singing is what today’s voice coaches are committed to teaching to their students, and for their part, professional singers chant this “mask” mantra as well and strive endlessly to perform precisely in that manner.
It’s remarkable enough to think that Sinatra’s mature back, down, and open vowel sounds set him apart from all other pop/jazz singers, but it’s all the more intriguing to note that by singing in that way, he had plainly contradicted how he had sung early on in his career, where he tended to produce more nasalized (forward) vocal tones. It’s no wonder that his youthful voice could sound thin, and was deficient in resonance, texture, and vocal energy. Clearly Sinatra’s vocal transformation—which began in the 1950s—has to have a deeper explanation.
In the final analysis, we have to be honest and admit that we simply don’t’ know with certainty the crucial steps that led Sinatra to create his golden voice, and it’s always unwise to try to second-guess genius. However, it’s instructive to keep in mind that countless singers have received extensive vocal training (and much more than Sinatra), and never found his particular counterintuitive brand of oo and ee vowels and the other vowel sounds that he helped inform. Whatever we can say with confidence about his vocal transformation, clearly, his unique gifts were the decisive factor, whatever tuition he may or may not have received.