Day 8: Taking it down a notch

At the weekend, I was marking an aria, trying to keep it down while Mr Lovelass (Nobby) was checking some emails. Afterwards, he said: “That was nice. I like it when you sing like that.” Well, tiptoeing over a melody under my breath isn’t going to get me heard in an opera house but it was another opportunity to check myself, since I am guilty of indulging in my voice. I suppose, just because you have the capacity, doesn’t mean you should, and this is one lesson I’m still trying to learn.

Today’s tip comes courtesy of a great teacher that I’ve worked with over the years, Lynton Atkinson, who says: “You should never use all of the available voice. In fact, most of the time, you should only use about 60%.” This used to seem crazy to me. Why wouldn’t I impress my audience with everything I’ve got? Having since become fanatical about low heart rate training for endurance triathlons, it’s finally starting to make sense.

The principle of low heart rate training is that, to improve over long distances, you should maintain an 80/20 split – that is, 80% of your training should be in low heart rate zones, at an aerobic intensity level and only 20% should be in high heart rate zones, at anaerobic intensity. You rarely can or should complete a race close to your maximum heart rate. Of course, you incorporate bursts into your training plan to make sure you’re still exercising your heart at its extremity from time to time but, to sustain a core level of fitness and to avoid injury or burnout, you need moderation.

Apply that to singing and there are similarities. As a professional singer, practising and performing day in, day out, you need to maintain good vocal health. How can you keep that in check if you’re constantly singing at your outer limits?

There’s also another specific benefit to the 60% rule – it gives you somewhere to go, room to manoeuvre. Singing with moderation and consistency, there’s still the option to push up to 70%, 80% or 90% when the occasion calls for it – when the piece requires you to convey an intense emotion, when the character needs to express something for impact or when the composer specifically asks for ‘forte’ or ‘fortissimo’.

Basic dynamics in music dictate ‘piano’, ‘mezzo piano’, ‘mezzo forte’ or ‘forte’. But these can’t simply be defined in terms of sheer volume. If voices are different sizes, then you can’t simply measure dynamics in decibels because smaller voices may never be capable of achieving ‘forte’ and larger voices could never strip back to ‘piano’. That would be nonsensical. So, as my very first opera teacher, Patricia Taylor, put it: “It’s more of a feeling.” Within the unique frame of reference of individual voices, we need to be able to access a variety of dynamic qualities.

In today’s blog I attempt to define these feelings using the lockdown scenarios that have become commonplace in Lovelassland! It’s not hugely helpful but it was a bit of happy Monday fun and I hope to expand on dynamics in a more useful way in the future.

In the meantime, stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx


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