"Spinto"

In Italian the word “spinto” when applied to singing voices means “pushed”.

Every singing teacher worth his or her salt is against pushing the voice, so what’s up with that?

You have to know classical singing to understand this term. Jerry Hadley was a light lyric tenor. He studied for a long time with a teacher who “beefed up” his sound until it had more “heft”. Mirella Freni started her career singing Susanna and ended it singing Elisabeth in “Don Carlo”…….some change! Both of these singers made these changes gradually, over a period of years, and ended up singing well as they grew older. There are many examples of singers whose voices gradually got sturdier or fuller or more capable of sustaining sound at a loud volume for longer periods of time who move from one “fach” to another, or, (for those who don’t know this world), from one kind of singing to another. They sing one kind of operatic role in various works but finally move into another one. Rarely does a voice get lighter throughout a career (although it can go higher or lower).

Most people who survive singing loudly for a long period of time without losing their vocal chops manage to develop the ability to sustain the sound without hurting the voice. We don’t know why some people can manage this and others can’t, but it probably has to do with anatomy and with the kind of singing and training (if any) for singing the person has.

There is something to be said for 10, 15, 20, or more years of doing something that produces a result which simply cannot be had in 5 years. A mature adult who has been doing anything for decades is simply not the same as someone who is in his 20s and has been singing as an adult for a brief period of time. The old (meaning centuries ago) teachers understood this and understood that taking on a really big, heavy role too soon could do things to the voice (that were not necessarily vocal health issues) that were hard to undo, functionally. Many a career has been ruined by singing material that was too taxing and demanding on a body that was too young to manage it well.

This is true in dance as well. Although 30 is old for a ballet dancer, the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake is not done by a very young dancer because it is so demanding. It takes enormous stamina to sustain that role. That’s also typical of the role of “Norma” in the opera of the same name. Only Rosa Ponselle was able to do it while young (28), but she took a year off to work on the role, during which time she sang nothing else. No one would do that today, but she did and she was not harmed by doing just that. When Laurence Olivier prepared to do “Othello” for the first time he took two full years to lower his voice by two steps so it would sound authentic rather than imitative. Imagine that — two years!

Why would people do this? Isn’t it foolish? Isn’t it a waste? Why not just change?

Because the voice doesn’t work that way and the body doesn’t either. Things in the body, like all things in nature, take the time they take. You don’t grow a garden in a week and you don’t develop the stamina or strength to do a marathon in a month. Singing is no different.

Yet, in the world of vocal training, few have an understanding of this and almost no one has any reference to in CCM material at all. Why should belting be an automatic thing? Shouting is immediate. Singing loudly in a sustained sound that is freely produced is not. It is not a natural activity unless you have a loud voice and you talk incessantly, and even then, that’s not a musical function, so it isn’t exactly the same.

The singers of the world should pay attention to and understand why the things that were observed many long years ago made sense and why they should not be thrown away blithely just because we live in a very different era today. Bodies may be quite different now than they were then but not THAT different. Going slowly worked then and it works now.

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