Why are there different schools of singing?

From the unpublished papers of Yvonne Rodd-Marling


Why are there different schools of singing?


Various schools of singing spring from large numbers of functions and conditions:


* movements in various muscle groups produce different sounds if accentuated


* the taste of the listener, singer, teacher, accentuation and language directly affect these muscle groups


*personality make-up, music, climate, language and taste dictate the end product.


If all these different approaches came together and practised each of what the other teaches then you would have a phenomenal success. Singing would be much less a matter of chance.


It does happen that great singers are born, although they are very rare. These are singers who sing beautifully without a single lesson. However, even great natural singers must undergo correct training to keep them fit and healthy. They must be fit in order to sing the enormous operatic roles over grand orchestras plus do all the rehearsing and travel that is expected. All singers need training.


Most people practice only what comes easily. In Germany, for example, the head voice is favoured. While it is necessary to be able to “float” the voice, as in head voice, and it is important to practice this, too much attention to only this aspect of singing leads to excessive tremolo.


In Italy the verismo approach is favoured. This is a very heavy sound involving the largest mass of the vocal cords. The Italian school of singing takes this sound right up to the top of the voice. Again, this function is a necessary one to train but it must not be used exclusively.


The Spanish flamenco style uses exclusive throat and agility in the vocal cords. These singers take a lifetime to learn how to do this but when they become older they often have little voice left.


The French language fosters singing in the so-called “mask”. This fosters excellent activation of the edges of the vocal folds. If only this is practiced then the stretch mechanism of the falsetto and head voice are forgotten and, yet again, the voice goes out of balance.


The Russian school favours the deep bass, somewhat like the Jewish liturgical singing. This means that the back of the throat is more open and active and is strongly connected the diaphragm, producing a very rich, open and deep sound


The opposite of this is the “white voice” or “voce bianca” which is sometimes heard in tenor voices. This sound is very much influenced by language, as in the English tradition of the madrigal and community singing where emphasis is placed on singers blending their voices. In England, in the past, solo singing was a little too “showy” ! Fortunately things are now different and the English singers are mostly unspoilt because of the high placement fostered by lighter approach to singing which activates the stretching mechanism of the vocal cords. It is this stretching mechanism which enables a voice to carry well.


And now a word about “support”. Support in singing is not proving something up and it is not pushing. It is a coordination of muscles with a minimum of air.


When the voice is well activated in all its parts the singer suddenly hears their voice smaller and thinner. But to the listener the voice sounds bigger, fuller and will carry well.


If one looks at the vocal cords in action one sees that everything sounds like it looks. The falsette is tidy and slim. The chest voice looks untidy.  Rounded muscles (palette, gullet, diaphragm) sound round and produce the head voice or covered tone.


When singing coloratura, Lieder (wth delicate phrasing) or using parlando, the edges of the vocal cords become sharper and more distinct. When using the vocalis (chest voice muscle) – a heavy, wedge shaped muscle – the sound is very strong and useful for dramatic effect. However, this muscle on its own is of little use and must be stretched by the elastic membrane covering it (the falsette function). The sound of the pure chest voice is rather raucous, a sort of “noise” because its shape can contract on its own. If a dramatic tenor’s top is not free this usually indicates an underdeveloped chest voice.


Ron’s note:

It was the genius of Husler and Rodd-Marling that they knew about these various parts of the singing instrument and, furthermore, that they could hear with uncanny accuracy when each part was working–or not. They each could demonstrate with pin-point accuracy each function and they would work their way through the entire vocal physiology in every lesson. They sang, we responded. Without thinking. They had, in Rodd-Marlings own words quoted above, a “phenomenal success” with singers of every type and nationality.


The first exercise in a lesson was humming with closed mouth in order to co-ordinate the breathing organ with the vocal organ. Very little vocal action was required. The desired effect was to loosen the complete instrument.


Once that was done, they would then exercise the stretchers of the vocal cords using the falsette and head voice functions using the vowels, especially the “eu” or “ü” sound.


Then followed bringing the voice forward, again using vowels–the French sound “in” being particularly useful. Then they would exercise the chest voice, usually on a German “ah”. For this exercise all air would first be expelled, no air taken in, and the low sound of the chest voice encouraged to work.


And as a last exercise they would bring all these functions of the voice into balance, often bringing the top of the voice down into the lower register and then springing back up into the top notes.


To say that lessons were a total body, soul and spirit “work-out” is an understatement. My first weeks at the school were exhausting.


There were three school terms a year: they taught us 5 days a week for 13 weeks at a time, followed by a very necessary 6 week rest period. Learning to apply this training to repertoire was yet another whole process which they took us through during a weekly evening master class. Individual coaching was done in the afternoons for those who were preparing for an audition, concert or operatic role.


Such training of singers is, alas, no longer available. Those of us (and there were hundreds) who had the great fortune to study in this way were indeed blessed.