One of the most exciting things that the human voice can do is perform long, melismatic passages. While many instruments have the ability to play melismas, there is something uniquely powerful and exciting about the melismatic ability of the human voice. Let’s explore together what melismatic singing is and how we can best practice and perform it!
What defines Melismatic singing?
In singing, the term melisma refers to a passage of music that has a group of notes that are sung with just one syllable of text. This is the opposite of syllabic singing, which is singing one note per syllable.
An informal way to describe a melisma is simply a “vocal run.” Sometimes classical musicians call this “coloratura,” which is an Italian term that describes a melody with runs, trills, wide leaps, and fast passages.
History of Melismatic singing:
Melismatic singing was really designed originally in music history to provide vocal embellishment. For some styles, it was created to portray different feelings in the music, such as a spiritual trance.
Melismatic singing is also commonly found in world music, including Gregorian chant, Arabic, Jewish, Orthodox, and Indian Ragas, just to name a few. As mentioned, almost any genre will include some form of melismatic singing.
Melismatic singing can help characters or singers portray a wide range of emotions: depending on the tempo, it can express sadness, fear, happiness, and nervousness, just to name a few.
Let’s see it in context:
Here is an example of a syllabic passage from an article by the Empirical Musicology Review:
Here is an example of a melismatic passage in Handel’s Messiah from an article at the Houston Symphony. Notice how the passage has multiple notes for just one syllable of text.
Melismatic singing can be seen in multiple different genres, including:
- Classical music/opera
- Pop & Contemporary Music
- Historical genres, such as Gregorian Chant
- Plus others!
How can I practice melismatic phrases?
Melismatic passages tend to require more practice time than long, connected passages. There are a few tips that can help you when practicing these difficult passages:
- Go slow! Sing or play the passages slowly on the piano in order to learn the pitches accurately. Not only will this help you actually metabolize the pitches better, but learning your pitches accurately early on will save you so much time in the future.
- Work on rhythm separately: if you learn the rhythms, you are already half-way there. Sometimes learning the rhythms independently from the pitches will help you.
- Practice scales regularly. You may not enjoy singing scales, but exposing yourself to them will help with flexibility and overall pitch.
- Break it down into smaller sections. If you have, for example, a really long eight-measure phrase on one word, break it into smaller chunks. Depending on the piece this can look different, but four two-measure chunks are way more approachable than all eight-measures at once.
Tip: to prevent vocal fatigue when repeating sections in practice, try singing the passage down the octave or singing the passage on lip trills.
Where can I find resources for vocal exercises?
To work on increasing vocal flexibility and being able to more easily sing melismatic vocal passages, there are many different resources and vocal exercises.
The most popular among teachers is The Marchesi Method; this invaluable resource contains many exercises for building vocal strength and stamina for singers. For example, there are many exercises for blending vocal registers as well as scale exercises. Additionally, the book works on the singer’s breath and control.
Additional vocal exercises:
Building your vocal control and breath support are two of the most important vocal techniques needed for melismatic singing. Here are a few exercises to help you build upon your skills:
- Lip trills or lip buzzes help tremendously with breath support. Not only that, but they help with any inflammation of the vocal folds. To do this exercise, vibrate your lips together without a pitch.
- Scales: as mentioned earlier, scales are incredibly important for building your musical and singing skills simultaneously. Work on singing scales slowly, and then building up and doing them as quickly but consistently as possible.
- Sirens: this is as simple as it sounds, mimic a fire truck or other type of siren, going from the lowest to the highest part of your range and then repeating in the opposite direction.
Melismatic singing, as you have learned, is a really complex (but exciting and fun) topic. Remember to learn your music slowly… but have fun!