Mix it up Monday: A few thoughts from Cornelius Reid on designing vocal exercises
In chapter 7 of “The Free voice: A guide to natural singing,” Cornelius Reid discusses his views on vocal exercises. Reid says that all exercises must be “constructed with four main purposes in mind: 1) to reestablish basic functional principles, 2) to reduce complex problems to simpler and more manageable components, 3) to correct errors of technique, and 4) to exercise the voice” (Reid, p.127).
In Reid’s point of view, “no exercise, traditional or otherwise, possesses intrinsic worth. Almost any scale pattern can serve a useful purpose, but no purpose is served if repetition is the sole motivation” (Reid, p. 127). His argument is that thousands of students have used exercises written by teachers such as Marchesi, yet very few students have become mastersingers from those exercises alone. Reid says “every exercise must be designed to facilitate progress, and behind each there must be an objective, or a series of objectives. These objectives are as follows:
- Preliminary ‘warming up.’ Exercises for this purpose are numerous. They can be five-tone scales, single tones, triads and arpeggios, preferably on a vowel, or vowels, the student finds most congenial. It is a serious mistake to become overcritical during this period of instruction. The singer must be permitted to get the ‘feel’ of singing before being plunged into corrective instruction. The ‘ee’ vowel is usually best for women’s voices to begin with, the ‘ah’ for the male voice.
- Selection of total combinations whose pitch, vowel and intensity patterns tend to induce a particular condition within the registration, i.e., in terms of dividing the registers for the purpose of independent development, or uniting them so that they function as a coordinated unit.
- To establish a relationship between registration and resonance, particularly with reference to the effect upon the resonance characteristics of the tone as it is influenced by vowel purity.
- To ensure the maintenance of a resonance adjustment which is common to both registers, with special care being taken that the resonance adjustment never alters its form and dimension as the registers rotate.
- To effect a smooth coordinated relationship between consonant articulation and the vowel form, i.e., resonance, in order to prohibit the tone interfering with the word, and the word with the tone.
- Thinking through technical problems to make certain the directions offered by the teacher are carried out precisely. In general, slower moving passages are used when the student is being encouraged to think, fast-moving passages to bypass his wrong thinking. Slow or rapid, all exercises must be sung legato.
- Learning to ‘let go.’ Eight-tone scale passages at high velocity are admirable for this purpose, helping to destroy wrong concepts to which the body normally responds by habit. By attempting to execute full scale passages with excessive rapidity, even to the extent of not getting some of the notes in place, wrong controls with their accompanying stiffness will be released. This should succeed in removing imposed disciplines and habitual coordinative responses, with the result that intuitive processes assert themselves. In this way new coordinative patterns, usually in greater conformity with nature, will emerge because they have been allowed to happen. Exercises in velocity are also useful in assisting the rotation of the registers.
- Combining the register action. The most advanced of these exercises is the messa di voce, although others such as legato singing of the full scale at mezzo piano or, indeed, at higher levels of intensity as well, while crossing the register ‘break’ will suffice to achieve the same purpose.
- Balancing the intensity throughout the range. The use of two-octave arpeggios are ideal for this, especially if a concerted effort is made to establish a common resonance adjustment. If this is done, facility of access from one extreme of range and dynamics to its opposite will be assured.
- Connection of the five basic vowel sounds, ‘ah,’ ‘ay,’ ‘ee,’ ‘oh’ and ‘oo,’ on a single tone. The intent here should be to have each successive vowel flow logically out of the position formed by its predecessor while maintaining a solid underscoring of basic resonance.
- Combining vowel forms with resonance adjustments and articulatory processes. The use of solfège is the most satisfactory exercise for achieving this.
- All of the foregoing objectives arranged, combined or interposed in such a way as to fulfill a particular need. Normally all scales should be sung legato. Ultimately, however, staccati and trills can be undertaken, but not before the technique is well advanced. Successful execution of staccato effects and the trill presupposes that certain technical conditions have been prepared and made ready. Except for building confidence there is no reason to practice these vocal ‘tricks.’ Either the conditions are right and the singer can do them, or they are wrong and he cannot (Reid, p. 129-130).
“In the fullest meaning of the word, to exercise the voice is to influence the type of coordinative process taking place, to change it as necessary, to strengthen it when it is right, to channel it’s growth and guide it towards the achievement of its fullest resonance potential, to purify the vowel, to effect a better relationship between the interaction of the two registers, and to develop tonicity. When a vocal exercise is designed as a vehicle for the fulfillment of these objectives it is being purposefully used. To this extent, at least, the basic problems of execution are being confronted. If the problems being dealt with are correctly analyzed by the teacher, and the student is responsive, the possibility for a literal vocal transformation then becomes very real (Reid, p. 130).”
I constantly think of the four main purposes of vocal exercises as outlined at the beginning. However, I would be lying if I said I follow his twelve steps exactly as written. We live in a different time with different educational and performance demands than when Reid was writing. Furthermore, as a teacher who primarily focuses on CCM styles, not all of these technical goals are in line with my students’ needs. However, I find Reid’s dedication to such structured voice building inspiring, and informative for my own practice. Many years ago when I began thinking of function instead of the way I was taught myself, my teaching improved exponentially. My students were less frustrated, enjoyed faster progress, and were able to reproduce the goal more quickly on their own than when I relied solely on my own experience as a singer.
Do you have a process that you have codified for building vocal exercises, what are your reactions to Cornelius Reid’s thoughts above? You can contribute to the conversation by posting in the comments section. If you are not already following the blog, please enter your email address below to receive a message each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media. As always, thank you for reading, and have a wonderful week of teaching.
Happy Thanksgiving! ~ Matt