The Memory of Sound, Sensation, and Emotion in Singing

I wanted to introduce an important aspect of technical learning that dates back to the 1800s in Italy, and immortalized by Antonio Cotogni, the teacher of great singers like Gigli, Lauri Volpi, Battistini, De Reske, Franci, and many others. Cotogni was the star teacher at Santa Caecilia – the Roman conservatory at the time.  My father studied in Rome for years with a teacher from Santa Caecilia and conveyed these ideas to me.

The singer’s technical success, if linked to memory, and specifically the memory of what the voice should sound like, what it should feel like, and what it feels like to say the words you are singing within the technical framework – is greatly facilitated.

Principle #1: a living sound

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped, and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.

The best artist has that thought alone which is contained within the marble shell; the sculptor’s hand can only break the spell to free the figures slumbering in the stone.

 The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.

 (Michelangelo Buonarroti)

 Singing is the same.  Instead of sculpting in marble like Michelangelo, we create sculptures of sound.  We create tone and overtones that fill space just as literally as sculptures fill space.  We reveal human truth to other intelligences through the ears rather than through the eyes as Michelangelo did. 

Just like the great masters, we too must learn to tap into the “divine perfection,” hew away the unnecessary sound, and reveal the slumbering voice which is ours to create in a specific place in space and time.  Great singing is a creative act revealing some of the most profound aspects of human beings; an alluring and even addictive power.

Our endowment of art is very rare because once created it can be witnessed only for a brief instant, after which it can only be remembered by those experiencing it. It is special!  Recording the voice has allowed us to prolong the act of creation and revelation in time but is no substitute for experiencing the act of creation in the space it was made for.  Hearing a recording of a live opera performance by our favorite singer is not the same as having listened in the space and at the time it was created.  The sculpture of vibrating air creates a connection between artist and those who were enveloped by it, who were breathing the very air that was vibrating.

Theater goers who witness great singing live and afterwards listen to a recording of that very show sense a difference. Often hearing a recording is a let-down. It may seem wrong, as if what was recorded defies our memory.  I believe this is not because flaws are revealed, but because the spiritual or inner impact is severely limited comparatively.  Both the singer and the receiving listener were co-participants in this deep form of communication.  Fortunately, we can create new sculptures.  They won’t be the same, but they can be just as powerful, and even more so.

Before our sculpture of harmonics is ever liberated; before we ever set the molecules of air surrounding us into vibration, we need to gather the energy to create.  Nothing just happens in our macro-universe.  Vibrating molecules of air is energy transforming itself.  The energy of our voice before being sound waves was vocal fold vibration and air pressure. Before that it was energy spent to adjust the vocal tract.  Before being air pressure it was inhalation and diaphragmatic support.  Sometime before being any of the above, it was a thought

The process Cotogni wanted his students to envision started in the mind, and then became a sculpting of internal spaces through muscular activation, and eventually became an external phenomenon: a creature of sound – a vehicle through which singer psyche connects with that of others in very deep ways.  Perhaps identifying our voices with sculpture is not entirely apt as a description because sculptures don’t move; the voice instead lives in the space.  It is fluid, evolving, living, and expressing the mutating inner sentiment of the singer.  It is a very dynamic, complex, and even unforeseeable creation.  In many ways the singer is often just as much a witness of this creation as the spectator is.

Our ability to be great vocal technicians depends largely on our ability to very carefully identify the correct sound in all its richness and harmonics.  Having a correct mental image of what we should sound like is one of three fundamental tenets of a great technique.

Above all else, bring away from this section the idea that you must develop a correct mental image of what you should sound like. This process of self-discovery is long and painstaking. Learning to carve out the right harmonics in all their purity and strength is a slow process.  When a sound produced is good, you must attempt to memorize what it sounded like to you. Consciously choose to memorize what that sound was like to you, in-vivo, in the moment.

Because acoustics of theaters throw off this perception at times, its important to consider the other two aspects of learning correct “intenzione.”

Principle #2: the inner sculpture – homeostasis and the voice

If you are like me, you may have spent many years experimenting with various internal modifications and adjustments with the intention of creating a better voice.  Lift the soft palate, lower the soft palate, adjust the larynx, keep the tongue forward, open the jaw, close the jaw, smile, purse the lips, open the throat from behind, even open the mouth wide as if you were biting a Blimpie sub (New Yorkers will get that – it’s a sandwich).  It is all very complicated, and focusing independently on the various parts hardly ever works to produce anything worth listening to.  And yet we must experiment and learn over time what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, a good teacher shortens this process of self-discovery.

Do you remember riding a bike for the first time?  I remember the sensation of moving just the right way and balancing my body so as to keep myself from falling.  It was a huge success!  I believe riding a bike involves a lot more conscious control than we experience in singing.  That may seem ridiculously evident to some, but I mention it to make a point.  We don’t really have a lot of muscular feedback to go by when it comes to singing correctly.  There aren’t many nerve endings to help us feel our way through singing correctly. When we learn about what correct singing feels like is largely the global feeling of what is occurring throughout the body, for it certainly involves all of the body.

Our ability to create a coherent and executable blueprint in our mind to use in creating our singing would be completely useless if we didn’t have the ability to sense minute changes within the body, including the impact of resonance on our bodily tissue – bone and flesh.  How do the frequencies created in our singing impact our body?  What does it feel like to support a correct sound?  What modifications in the way my body feels and works might I notice as I ascend the scale correctly?  The kind of neural memory we develop over the years of training eventually leads to the establishment of specific pathways we follow over and over in our singing.

Above all else, bring away from this section the idea that correct singing requires one to create a correct mental image of what the production of the sound feels like physically.

Principle #3 – Emotion and la Parola Cantata

Through conversations with many singers, and through my own experience, I have confirmed a very old principle of vocal technique: while practicing a role, one tries in the safety of the studio to connect expression of the role to deep seated emotions, and when on stage, reliving those emotions helps to reproduce the vocalism established in the studio. The stronger the emotion, and the stronger the connection with the singing, and the more secure the recall later on stage.

An essential element for creating a correct blueprint for our mind’s creative force is emotion, and particularly the emotions linked to the inner life of the character being portrayed, and the words being spoken in the singing. 

I can scarcely bear to hear Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly imploring her son to fix in memory the image of her face as she approaches her self determined fate.  My whole soul shutters at the pain as I live vicariously through empathy the terrible loneliness and fate of the poor woman.  The music enhances and stirs the power of the words activating recesses of my psyche that otherwise might lie dormant.

My heartstrings are pulled to the limit as Mimi says “There is something I want to tell you… something deep like the sea, deep and infinite… You are my love and all my life.”  I marvel at the beauty of life and tears flow.

A smile easily comes as I ponder that fleeting “lacrima” on Adina’s face.  I sense vividly the hope and the ecstasy in Nemorino’s soul.

Great singing requires the unshakeable mental association of voice’s correct sound, the feeling of the physical workings that produced it with the spiritual and emotional essence of the phrase.  The stronger the emotional aspect and the stronger the memory of how you produced the voice becomes.  So caution!  Don’t sing incorrectly with strong emotion because you will tend to recall the incorrect way of singing when feeling that emotion.  Conversely, when your singing is going correctly, imbue it with the strongest emotions for the part you are able to muster. Caution also that directors will give you different ways of feeling about things on stage, so you have to be nimble enough, and put in enough mental work to associate the right feelings with the singing.

A Golden Thread

These three elements in the voice’s primordial soup: emotional memory, auditory memory, and homeostatic memory of our body’s internal actions and reactions to singing – make up three potent internal energies that combine to create what traditionally would be called intenzione nel canto – the intention in singing, or just simply l’intenzione.

The power of your heart, your very humanity, is the golden thread that binds together your mental expectation of (1) what you should sound like, (2) your memory of what goes on physically when you sing correctly, and (3) the emotion of the character you are living. As you develop your technique this way, eventually expressing the emotion causes you to recall all the rest, hopefully the rest is worth recalling.

Most successful singers instinctively do a combination of these things.  I think its good to learn the practice.  Singers who fail to do this risk getting on stage and singing incorrectly when they emote because of a loss of control, or they may proceed to turn off their emotions in order to not screw it up. 

Great singing can be a successful affair of the heart only for those who have learned that emotion, expectation of sound, and physical working must be bound together and safeguarded within their soul to be bestowed generously to their audience, as they become the oracle of divine truth in revealing the greatness of humanity through singing.


8 responses to “The Memory of Sound, Sensation, and Emotion in Singing

  1. This is easily the most important thing I have ever read as a singer. There are no words on my end to express how I feel. Profound and beautifully written, Jack. I well know that to get across so succinctly is no accident. Thank you for taking the time to write this. You have NO idea how great and timely it was to read this. I will respond more fully latter.

    (btw, I’m still learning to negotiate this forum. Also, from a user’s standpoint I wish the center text column was wider so I didn’t do so much scrolling in referring to coments. Any way to widen it?)


  2. oh good grief. Another thing to moan about, lack of editing in comments. My syntax and spelling is not with me tonite…


  3. This is the most beautiful expression of the art of singing I have ever read: a must read, must print out and keep expression of the heart and soul of singing, imbued with love for the art form and deeply moving in its humanity.

  4. A very tenuous balance, but when achieved leaves the audience in awe. I am so thankful for having found this blog. Already my singing is better because of it. Bravo!

  5. jeanronaldlafond

    A jewel indeed! Your humanity, spirituality, vocal intelligence and dedication to the art of singing are all necessary to produce a post like this. I am deeply touched! Thank you Jack!

  6. Wonderfully elocuted my man.

    A friend in common once expressed to me that our personality is deeply attached to our vocal production. Superficially speaking, he referred to the velocity and pulses of the vibrato. Upon further inspection, I think that his statement echoed what both you and Maestro Cotogni are surmising. We are profoundly attached to our voices in both an existential way as well as a real mechanical organism which thrives and embodies our emotional as well as physical state.

    You have really opened wide an unexplored territory in modern pedagogy and I salute you for doing so! Bravo!

  7. Pingback: The Feeling of Giro di Fiato – Response to Miles | Tenor Talk Blog

  8. Jack
    Gonna print this out, re-work in different font, blow it up, and frame it. I am also going to make myself a small one the size of a vocal score to keep inside whatever score I am studying at the moment…….
    You are AWESOME bud!!!

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