Related to the question of muscularity versus relative weight in music is the mind-set which states that notes are held when they are long. However, holding a note is a major contributor to tension. Indeed the very definition of the verb, to hold, connotes tension. When sung, long notes are elongated, emotionally inflected vowels. In instrumental music, long notes are emotionally expressed points in a line elongated in time. Whatever definition we give them, they are most definitely not held notes.
Singers have an emotional release to avoid the tension involved in holding a note. When we get up from the dinner table and say "Aaaaaaah", there is a physical decay of the intensity of the voice that serves a specific anatomical function: it prevents tension. During the emotional impulse in that decay (which we may call a state of neutral emotion) the space that allows the voice to resonate does not collapse during this neutrality.
Saying "Aaaaaah" without that decay, one feels the chin pull upward from the jaw muscles tightening which in turn pull the neck muscles upward, causing tension in the throat. That is singsong. It is emotionally negative and the gradual increase of tension causes the space for resonance to collapse. Singsong specifically produces tension; speech which is free of self conscious production does not. Free speech is not only mechanical in the sense that it is physically produced, but also impelled by our emotions which allow us to communicate freely and with underlying meaning (subtext), i.e. we inflect emotionally. To prevent undue tension, nature has provided that as we speak, there is a natural decay of mechanical intensity while the emotions carry us through to the end of our thought. The mechanical decay of the voice does not in any way take the speaker off the voice. Indeed the fact that we speak in strong and weak syllables proves it. The vocal mechanism is voicing positively as its intensity decays. It is this very capacity of the voice to maintain its positive power of expression in time, at different levels of intensity, that makes singing possible and allows notation to indicate to the performer emotionally weaker inflections wherever they occur on the staff. When reading music it is obvious how many weak beats and their subdivisions are higher on the staff than the first beat of the measure. Ponder well Mimi saying: "Il primo bacio d'aprile è mio" when "mo" and “e” are on much higher pitches on the staff on subdivisions of their beat.
Only if the singer allows the decay of the voice to affect the weight of the unaccented syllables will those notes high on the staff be spoken freely. But if the singer exerts pressure to those notes, she is not speaking expressive Italian. Further, if the language is distorted by wrong syllabic accents, then the musical phrasing is wrong because the musical phrase must arise from the composer's proper emotional approach to the text, rather than from a concept of pushing the voice to produce a "high note".
The ability of instrumentalists to inflect differing weight from note to note is rooted in the very same principle. The proof of this is that one does not need to back off the instrument to achieve weaker inflection. Obviously, to back off one's instrument would wreak all kinds of havoc. The speech of the instrument is nourished by the player's feelings for the musical line.
To add pressure to a higher note on the staff means that when the next lower note occurs, the performer must do things to maintain linear and musical integrity and doesn't notice that he or she is now stuck in a muscular mode.
Beethoven has been accused of being unsympathetic to instruments, both vocal and otherwise. His late choral works are quoted as examples. Of interest is the long soprano pedalpoint A above the staff on the word "welt" in the Ninth Symphony. If the word is inflected as in speech instead of held as a note, then, when the voice decays, the usual increasing tension does not happen. Incidentally, as we will see in the next chapter, if the previous A on the second space of the staff does not resonate in the high space in the head required for the A above the staff, the resonance of the latter will be insufficient; then the singers must go to the muscles (and screaming) to achieve the conductor's demands.1
The decay of the voice or wind instrument is not a manipulable phenomenon. It is a natural result of emotional speech or proper instrumental processes of expression. We do not intellectually control the decay; it happens naturally to prevent tension because it is a result of not holding. For singers and wind players, this phenomenon will happen with the constant release of the jaw hinge, the chin, and the lower back teeth and their attendant musculature, that is, when the music is not a series of notes and rhythms under quality control, but instead emotionally expressed in the state of feeling like singing or playing (see next chapter). It also must be stressed that release is not a physical activity; it is a feeling, an emotional state of well-being.
Vowels convey emotion by their inflection. When a composer sets a text, he hears the emotional inflection in such a way that the music which results is a reflection of his hearing and also the intensification of it. But, if a singer doesn't deliver the spoken inflection, how can the rhythm and pitch convey it, since the notation of the rhythm and pitch grew out of it?
To repeat, given the natural decay of the mechanical voice, the emotional aspect of the voice is at this point neutral. In ordinary speech, the speaker adds emotional inflections that cause the voice to undulate expressively. Otherwise the constant decaying from the first syllable to the period becomes intolerable and questions literally become impossible to ask.
In "dead" music, however, the neutral state of the emotions in the mechanical decay of the voice is acted upon by the composer's emotional inflection of his musical ideas without the performer interacting with his own preconceived notions. In other words, the performer must be in a neutral state of feeling and allow the necessary added emotional inflections to come from the composer. The freedom of expression which the performer allows the composer through his or her own feelings produces a musical experience whereby the expression becomes both flexible and buoyant. Later we will see how the performer gains from this process.
The quote from the Shaw novel at the head of this chapter is appropriate at this point.
Singing is emotional speech in musical pitch and rhythm. The three components of the art of singing (1) resonance, (2) breath to support the resonating instrument, and (3) a vowel. Unfortunately, the complexity of the interrelationships between those three elements is what makes learning to sing both, vocally and instrumentally, a long term process.
The only modification to the process of emotionally inflected speech, and it is a very difficult one in terms of concentration, is that the vowel must be pure instead of colloquial. It must be a tiny speck of pure light to illuminate dark space. And the darker and more inert the space, the brighter and more active the vowel must be.2
A simple analogy is the incandescent light bulb in a dark room. When the light is turned on, it does not enlarge itself to light the room. The photons illuminate without adulterating the relationship between the bulb and the room. With the voice, the vowel (as articulated by the tongue) is a tiny speck of brightness and the space needed for resonance is separate, large and dark, which the vowel brightens with the energy of sound waves.
We can conclude from the above that when a text is set to music, the music serves as an enhancement or enlargement of the emotional subtexts of the words. The larger-than-life touches performers and listeners more deeply than merely singing notes with muscular control.
Even in instrumental music, emotional inflection is the wellspring that produces the musical experience. Sustaining an elongated pitch with a non-vocal instrument requires the same experience that singers must feel. Schubert once wrote to his father, "I was happy when several people assured me that the notes under my hands became singing voices. No compliment could please me better, because the cursed hammering in which even some of the most famous piano players indulge is to me intolerable, being neither pleasing to the ear nor soothing to the mind." The quote brings to mind the piano teacher mentioned in the introduction of this work who insisted that the piano is a singing instrument.
I have found that when instrumental students, especially wind players, vocally sing whatever work they are learning, their instrumental response is more musical and easier. Several of my students who conduct bands, whether in elementary, middle or high school, make their ensembles sing. The constant feedback is that the students hate singing but are surprised at the change in the ensemble when they pick up their instruments again.
As singers concentrate not on the note but on the emotionally inflected vowel poetically weighted within the text, so instrumentalists concentrate upon the emotion involved with the pitch. They must sense the weight of the pitch within the line according to the principles deduced from the bar line while releasing themselves from creeping muscular tension that is the result of holding notes. This distinction between a note and a pitch is urgent and needs to be explored within practice sessions. (When I coach instrumentalists who must sustain a long pitch, I tell them that while sustaining the pitch they must go look for everything in their bodies that they can release.) By definition a pitch, being a specific number of vibrations per second, is a sensory experience and therefore emotional when related to other pitches in a line. A note is merely ink on a page which signifies more than pitch and duration. But, as we have been exploring, if it is confined to the notions of pitch and duration, it causes the music to lose emotional depth and viability.
We do not know what composers experience beneath the conscious that makes them compose, but surely the depth of feeling that impelled them to the compositional act must be taken into account by the performer, for it is that very emotional depth that caused the rhythms and pitches to be notated. It also cannot be stated often enough, that those very emotions inherent in the composer's ideas are as clearly indicated upon the page as the rhythms and pitches.
In singing, the vowel maintains the tone. To sustain a pitch for any required length of time, the singer continues to speak the vowel with the natural coordinated release of energy from the diaphragm. Wind players must perform the same process by relying on the instrument's capacity to do the work of the vowel (that is why wind players have to speak through their instruments). The coordinated release of energy from the diaphragm is natural and, of course, not to be intellectually or muscularly controlled, but rather emotionally experienced. By the principles stated above, the emotional involvement of the performer with the music causes it to happen.
String players have to rely on the instrument's ability to maintain the level of volume without increasing tension in the bow arm. Again this is a matter of emotional involvement with the music, not a control of the musculature.
These technical things seem to have become lost in the past decades. However, the author contends that the principles by which instruments, both vocal and otherwise, operate at their best are directly related to the development of notation in the beginning of the common practice period. For example, the extreme change in the soprano tessitura, from the Netherlandish to the Roman schools of composition in the sixteenth century, has something to do with the rise of dramatic music and the development of common practice notation. Do these things relate to the discovery of the technical ease necessary to get through the passaggio of the voice? Women became prominent performers of secular music during the sixteenth century; this surely resulted in better understanding of the passaggio. Castrati also came on the scene about this time in both sacred and secular music. All had to have discovered the processes that were necessary for the performance of the stile nuovo. Even boys, who also have a passaggio and sang the soprano parts in church music, had to have this training even before the new style; one has only to compare the soaring soprano lines of Palestrina and Victoria in the Roman school to the soprano lines of Josquin of the Netherlandish school to see how vocal production changed.
One of the more interesting results of approaching choral music from this point of view is that concentration on speaking the text to activate the music instead of singing rhythm and pitch enlarges the sound. This goes far to explain the tremendous works written by Bach, Handel and Mozart for performing forces that seem to us insufficient in number. The author has experience of Bach's St. John Passion with a chorus of eighteen whose soprano line consisted of four light voices. Without any force, the Kreuzige choruses sounded like a howling mob.
The principle of mechanical decay for elongated pitches is rooted in natural functions, but it is worth noting that composers wrote and write at keyboards which operate with decay: harpsichords, clavichords and pianos. The only major composer who may not have written at keyboards was Berlioz, who was a guitarist. (Before electricity it was prohibitive to compose at an organ because one had to pay, or at least buy beer for, the bellows pumper. The organ by the way is the only instrument not capable of decay, omitting discussion of bagpipes, accordions, harmoniums, and synthe-sizers.)
Paradoxically, the aspect of music for which Bach was most famous in his time was his organ playing. Numerous people testified to his expressive power at that instrument, which is practically (but not entirely) nonresponsive to touch pressure as well as nondecaying. His hearers were enthralled by the hour, and that was possible only from his enormous depth of feeling, in spite of his own light-hearted assertion that playing the organ is easy because all you have to do is play the right note at the right time and the organ plays itself. A baseball loving, musically uninterested priest said to me of my organ playing, "You sure make that organ sing!" Perhaps it is possible to look at the organ as a metaphor for the ability of music to inform the performer when the performer is in a neutral state of feeling (feeling like playing). The virtual lack of sensitivity to pressure allows the music's emotion to express clearly the composer's intent. Furthermore if the performer adds more emotion than is expressed in the notation, the playing then becomes idiosyncratic instead of personal. Also, no instrument displays more fiercely the need for players to be absorbed in the feelings of the music than the organ, for any added body tension instantly produces wrong notes in the pedal unless muscularly controlled.
- One of the more problematical aspects of the early music mindset is the matter of the natural vibrato of the voice. Vibrato is another natural means by which the body prevents tension (cf. Mozart to his father, June 12, 1778). It is a natural result of a spoken vowel at pitch when the diaphragm does its work without intellectual or muscular manipulation. Wind instruments arrive at the same result in the same manner. Many in the early music crowd insist that vibrato was not used in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The only way it could have been avoided was actively to refuse to use it. Avoidance produces tension because the performer must do something physical to avoid the natural result. The contradiction is obvious.