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Messa Di Voce
Douglas Von Edelmann

Messa di voce is perhaps one of the greatest skills and necessary technical functions for professional singers to acquire and maintain.   Its physiological process is complex because it rests largely on the coordination of various muscle bundles comprising the vocal lip, or the main body of the vocal cords.  More specifically, these “tensor muscles” must perform in conjunction with the regulated lung pressure that varies during dynamic modification on a given pitch or within a musical phrase.  The execution of a flawless messa di voce is important to the evaluation of the artistic elements of singing.  Just as an artist is judged on his ability to blend, shade, and merge colors and contour in a painting; so is the singer assessed on his proficiency to mix head and chest tone in an even timbre through varying dynamic levels in a phrase or on one sustained pitch.
           The definition of messa di voce means “putting forth” or “flourishing” of the voice, as it was translated in the eighteenth century. (1. L. Manie)  Domenic Corri, a pupil of the composer Porpora, described it further as a vocal ornament consisting of a gradual swelling and diminishing of a single tone.  Even Giuseppe Verdi’s opera scores contain symbols for messa di voce since the nineteenth century elevated the prominence of the human voice and its grandeur as a solo instrument.  As a musical ornament, messa di voce was considered the epitome of the singer’s mastery of technical skill and vocal technique.  However, it is a pedagogical tool that is essentially the greatest necessity for every singer to master through constant exercise.  (Modern science confirms the physiological processes in the larynx and lungs which are defined in more detail later in this paper.)  Therefore, one defines messa di voce as the ability to join both the head and chest tone in a gradual swelling and diminishing of a single tone from pianissimo to fortissimo and back to pianissimo with little or no change in vowel quality. (2. C. Reid)  The color of the tone is intensified and deepened during the crescendo and then diminishes to its original quality during the decrescendo. 
           The complex muscle bundles in the vocal lip (labia vocalia) are responsible for generating a healthy and successful result in the process of messa di voce.  A certain degree of independence enables these muscles to tense and relax separately, thereby altering the shape of the vocal lips and the space of the glottis.  This is significant since the intensity of lung pressure assists these muscles to perform this function freely without interruption.  The simultaneous emission of air from the pressure in the lungs directly assists the tensor muscles in the vocal lips to alter the waves of oscillation between the vocal folds.  To further explain this process one should think of the expiration of air as a cycle or “glottal period”.  During the crescendo, lung pressure increases while tensor muscle activity decreases.  This allows the vocal folds to have a higher percentage of time and space remaining in the open glottis position, or “open quotient”. (3. I. Titze)  This reduction of activity in the tensor muscles (cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid) stabilizes the pitch when lung pressure is equalized.  Should the tensor muscles not reduce their oscillation amplitude, the pitch would rise because of an imbalance with increased lung pressure.  This is often the case with voices that sing sharp.  During the decrescendo the opposite process takes place.  The tensor muscles increase activity causing more adduction with a lower percentage of “open quotient” between the two vocal folds.  When lung pressure decreases this creates an increase in the vibration amplitude or oscillation of the vocal lips.  One must also realize that the messa di voce not only relies on the clean coordination of the crescendo and decrescendo but should also retain the quality and timbre of the tone throughout the vocal register.  Accordingly, in critical areas of the vocal range such as the “passaggio” (passing through) or vocal break; the ability to mix both head and chest tone should be punctuated with exercises in messa di voce.  The singer who coordinates and succeeds in mastering messa di voce throughout their full range develops a seamless, unified register that will communicate a full complement of possibilities for artistic expression in all genres of vocal music.  In this way, vocal physiology and art are congruent and harmoniously committed to one desired goal in singing.  Eloquent artistry and conditioned healthy technique are the results of messa di voce.
           The stabilization of vibration amplitude, or the oscillation period during the messa di voce is key to a healthy singing technique.  Symptoms of unhealthy imbalance are the “pressed voice” and “white voice”.  Usually, sub-glottal pressure will fixate the larynx and cause extraneous tension in the vocal folds and related areas.  Tongue tension also contributes to an imbalance in the vibration amplitude since there is extraneous tension in the laryngeal region, negating any possibility of executing messa di voce.  The reduced coordination between the lungs and laryngeal muscles will invariably lead to intonation problems; irregular vibrato; and vocal atrophy among many indicators that render the singer incapable of singing properly in a supported-free manner.  It is undeniable that a voice that is not unlocked and imprisoned by physiological obstacles cannot execute the psychological and intuitive artistic components of emotive vocal expression.  Young singers must sing within the natural weight of their voice.  Additionally, singers of any age should adhere to a daily regimen of exercises that foster the development of messa di voce.  Vocalizations that stimulate the vocal lips through careful onset initiated by the breathing apparatus will habitually lead to the ability to crescendo and decrescendo.  Bear in mind that the muscular scaffolding throughout the body must be carefully coordinated with both the intrinsic and extrinsic laryngeal musculature and the full range of mechanisms connected to it.
           To provide supportive evidence of the thoughts presented in this paper one may view the following vocalizations as preparatory exercises to stimulate the coordination between the lungs and larynx during the execution of messa di voce:

The singer, with one hand placed flatly on the umbilical area of the abdomen and the other on the sternum, should practice inhaling and exhaling in one complete uninterrupted cycle.  On the inhalation, breathe through the nose only, then release the vowel ‘ah’ during the exhalation.  The tone should travel on the breath until all the air is released.  The placement of the vowel should sit forward in the mask, sounding in a round fashion that is continuous in color.  The emission of air should be constant and uninterrupted.

Singing on the vowel ‘ah’, practice a legato repetition of one pitch in a midpoint of the vocal range.  Keep the acoustical chamber of the buccal area open and round.  Gradually crescendo each time the note is rearticulated and joined to the next.  The climax of the crescendo should be held longer and then followed by a gradual decrescendo on the same pitch, which is also rearticulated with a diminishing dynamic.  The timbre or vocal color must remain constant throughout this exercise.

Utilizing three vowels (“ee-ay-ah”), gather the sound together on one note and sing each vowel in an even length of time, one after the other.  Begin very pianissimo then allow the sound to flourish in richness, dimension, and dynamic until the loudest dynamic is acquired without disturbing the vocal quality.  The decrescendo must follow a constant emission of air over a lengthy period until it fades to a molecular-focused tone which may seem almost colorless.  The jaw should be stable as the sound is gathered on all vowels.
           Ultimately many exercises promote the mastery of messa di voce.  Practicing octave leaps using the messa di voce is also very effective for a mixture between the head and chest registers.  Only a few exercises are presented to point the singer in their path of success.  Whatever exercises are implemented, the singer should be aware that a healthy process in the activation of muscular patterns in the organ of singing (larynx) and the organ of breathing (diaphragm) will create assenting results.  The entire organism for singing relies on the integration of all bodily muscle groups; various cartilage; and systems of breath control which build a healthy singing voice.  Superimposed ‘masking effects’ to disguise faults in technique; temporary tricks that serve as band-aids that lead to irreparable damage in the voice; and psychological and physiological inhibitions in the instrument will all contribute to negative achievement in messa di voce.  The natural condition of the human voice should display the singer’s truly organic, intuitive, spiritual, and intellectual artistic expression which is revealed in a seamless technique.
           In review, the process of singing involves a plethora of other related issues such as resonance, vocal formant, placement, vowel formation/modification, and others which assist in the evaluation of a singer’s expertise.  One may conclude that the art of bel canto singing lays deeply in the roots of what began as a vocal ornament in the Baroque era to what evolved as a fundamental vocal exercise in the technical training of singers.  A vocal ornament, revealing a human sentiment, emotion, and wide range of expressive possibilities gave way to an approach in the evolution of vocal technique.  Long before Manuel Garcia invented the laryngoscope, a singer’s vocal technique was an aural tradition passed through the experience and vocabulary of great singers and teachers of their time.  And though modern science clarifies answers to suppositions of vocal technique, there will never be a substitute, book, or replacement that surpasses the human ear and what it perceives in the human voice.  The groundwork, skills, and necessary technical functions for singing must be acquired through a healthy regiment of vocal discipline.  Understanding the physiological processes should occur after the singer discovers sensations and an aural understanding of the instrument.  The regular implementation of messa di voce will equip all singers with fundamental tools to unveil their musical artistry and enlightened instinctive expression in music.  Nothing penetrates more deeply or transmits so highly as a freely functioning voice capable of expressing the most intrinsic, soulful emotions which are suitably revealed in the fragile beauty and delicate deliverances during the messa di voce.

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