Of all the dynamic effects used in singing, one of the most challenging to do elegantly is the 'messa di voce' (pronounced by English speakers more-or-less like 'mess ah dee voh chay'. :-) It is the combination of a smooth crescendo (getting louder) for some amount of time, followed by a smooth decrescendo (getting softer) for the same amount of time, on a single vowel, on a single note.
Using musical symbols, it can be represented this way:
Why is this challenging?
The exercise requires that the singer be able to:
o Start a note cleanly and vibrantly, but softly.
o Crescendo that note smoothly, progressively adjusting the balance of breath energy and laryngeal muscle action so that the tone gets louder, not going sharp or flat, and maintaining the vowel color until a specific louder level is reached .
o Decrescendo that note smoothly, with similar requirements as during the crescendo, while approaching the end of the usable supply of breath
o End the note cleanly and vibrantly, but softly
The easiest of the skills
For most singers with some training, the skill which most readily can be managed is the 2nd one, the crescendo. Even so, the requirement to maintain the vowel and the pitch consistency represents a challenge. If the breath energy is not balanced with the laryngeal muscle action, the pitch will go astray.
The intermediate skills
Next in line of difficulty is the soft starting and stopping of the vibrant tone. This skill requires the singer to be able to manage breath energy at very low subglottic pressures, with the requisite light laryngeal muscle action levels, while at the same time keeping the tone free, clear and accurately pitched. The starting of the note is challenging, because there is usually a surplus of breath energy for the 1st onset, and the ending of the note is challenging, because there is very little left for the release. To correctly do these two skills, the singer must have mastery of soft dynamics with full lungs, and with nearly empty ones.
The most challenging of the skills
This is the smooth decrescendo. As the singer begins to do this on the latter half of the breath, there is a great tendency to make the action too swiftly. If, for example, the crescendo is taken for 5 seconds, the singer will tend to make the first part of the decrescendo very much too rapidly, returning to the original volume in 3 or 4 seconds.
Additional difficulty lies in the need for the singer to perform the decrescendo smoothly, and while doing so, gradually decrease the subglottic pressures by coordination of breath energy and laryngeal muscle action, maintaining pitch and vibrancy on an increasingly smaller lung volumes of air. This presents a breath management/support challenge.
And, to top it off
The exercise should be able to be performed throughout the complete performance compass of the voice.
Pedagogic Use of the Messa Di Voce
The exercise is useful for both voice evaluation, and for training. When performed, it immediately reveals where the singer's issues are, by the characteristics of the individual skills which are combined in it.
When first performed, the student takes a small breath, begins and ends at mezzopiano (mp), and crescendos to mezzo forte. (mf) over a few counts time. When smooth and accurate with these levels and times for all vowels, the teacher may either (1) extend the dynamic range (starting softer, i.e., at piano, or ending louder, i.e., at mezzo forte), and/or (2) lengthening the time for the crescendo and the matching decrescendo, with a slightly larger breath.
As the singer becomes more accomplished, the teacher may vary the dynamics and lengths independently, so that complete facility of dynamic control is gained.
Examples of Use
If you listen carefully to some of the longer notes in 'The prayer' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ELLI2-lRTM you can hear the messa di voce done very subtly. Also, you can hear good examples of the sustained notes in decrescendo, which is the 2nd half of the exercise. Probably the best example I have found of this effect in theatre is the sustained, almost inperceptible decrescendo on the last note of 'The Music of the Night' in Phantom of the Opera. Michael Crawford does it very well at
Amongst the singers of the 'Standards', excellent examples are in the singing of Tony Bennett. In 'Fly me to the moon', at
you can hear some very subtle ones.
Messa di voce is not an end in itself. The abilities it requires, and which it helps to develop, are essential in the dynamic shaping of phrases, the ebb and flow of vocal volume to create arched, legato lines. In Tony's singing, you can hear how he nuances these volume relationships note-to-note so smoothly.
In classical music, especially pieces in Bel Canto style, this effect is very readily found. For example, in the 'mad scene' in Donizetti's Lucia, (eg at
you can hear some of the longer notes with it done subtly, but also how the singer uses dynamic control to connect the coloratura in long, shaped phrases on a single vowel. Interesting note: This is the same aria which begins the 'Diva' section in the Bruce Willis movie 'The fifth element' (as seen at before the 'dance' section ).
By varying the dynamic levels and the lengths of the crescendo/decrescendo pair, the singer becomes very familiar with the way their own instrument responds to these demands, and how they must be thinking to achieve the effect in the various ranges of their voice. The end results is a wonderful ability and sense of mastery that comes from the familiarity of these aspects of singing, and which is directly applied to the artistic use of dynamics in performance.