Feats of vocal agility can be breathtaking – listening to singers who can pull off the most extraordinary vocal acrobatics in any genre is thrilling, and the likes of Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli fill concert halls and opera houses all over the world with their technical fireworks.
However, there are several things that you as a singer should be looking for in terms of singing basics when training your own voice – listening to recordings may make you think that a similar level of agility is beyond you, but like all vocal milestones, proper practice and the right exercises will help you get there. For example, vocal agility comes more easily when you have the building blocks of good legato, proper breath control, and adequate support of your instrument without tension. There’s only one correct way to sing – without forcing the voice, and with no tension – and it doesn’t matter how you get there, or which genre you sing in.
It’s true that some voices will always have more natural agility than others; for example, higher, lighter voices will naturally have an easier time negotiating Bach, Handel, and Rossini simply because there’s less voice to move around. Heavier voices, certainly within the classical world, aren’t generally called upon to sing rapid passage work, and it can be tricky negotiating an instrument with the turning radius of an ocean liner through what appears to be a sea of sixteenth notes.
Exercises to Improve Vocal Agility
It may surprise you to know that some of the best exercises to improve vocal agility do not involve fast passage work at all. Some of the following exercises may prove surprising – that is, until the next time you have to sing fast notes:
Singing basics typically include slow, well-supported arpeggios through a fifth or an octave. Continue to work on these, paying special attention to keeping your voice even through all vocal breaks, including in volume and tone. Practice these throughout your comfortable vocal range, and record them – don’t just trust your ears, as it’s not possible to hear your own voice properly. Practice on all vowel sounds, and with a succession of consonants in front of them.
Starting on a hum, and at a fairly moderate pace, hum up a major second and down, and then up to the third and down, then using a two syllable word – mini works very well – sing the word twice on each note up through the third and back down, then repeat the hum section on a vowel. Increase the speed over a period of days, and check this against a metronome. This exercise is an excellent addition to your singing basics repertoire, as it not only provides a quick warm-up, but encourages diction and, as a consequence, vocal agility. It’s best to work this exercise through a tenth or so, and make sure you incorporate at least one of your vocal “problem” areas.
Now try scales through the ninth (i.e. a scale ascending through the octave, then beginning your descent from the note above). Don’t attempt to articulate individual notes, but instead pay special attention to what the notes feel like within your voice; for example, know where that octave is, know where you’re heading, and allow your brain to make the notes. The less you try to micromanage rapid passage work, the easier it will become.
Why Vocal Agility is Important
Vocal agility is important because a voice that can move is a healthy voice! Vocal health issues that may require the support of an ENT specialist often first manifest themselves with “holes” in the voice, or difficulty negotiating register breaks that were once easy. Think of vocal agility exercises in the same terms as an athlete working different muscle groups, and use them after you’ve finished singing as well as before you start to work on repertoire or begin a rehearsal.
What Repertoire Demonstrates Vocal Agility
In classical repertoire, vocal agility is required to a greater or lesser extent for almost every voice type – even a dramatic soprano might find herself cast as Bellini’s Norma, and have to tackle “Casta diva”, and a tenor who would sing Lohengrin might just as easily find himself cast in the title role in Idomeneo if he’s on contract at an opera house. It just goes to show that adding vocal agility exercises to your daily singing basics is as important to sing Sieglinde as it is to sing Semiramide.
Examples to Watch
- Casta diva (Bellini – Norma), Ghena Dimitrova (soprano)
- Fuor del Mar (Mozart – Idomeneo), Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Perhaps the most famous arias to demonstrate vocal agility, however, are those for coloratura soprano, a particular voice type that is known for exceptional height, clarity of tone, and great agility. The Queen of the Night’s two arias from “The Magic Flute” are perhaps the most famous examples, but this example from Delibes’ Lakme, sung by the great coloratura of the 1930s, Lily Pons, demonstrates great beauty of tone.
It doesn’t matter how diligently you follow your own exercises and cover the singing basics in the comfort of your own practice studio, there is no substitute for a good vocal coach who will guide you, and be able to identify any potential vocal issues long before they start. Good luck!
Photo by Walter