How's Your Technique

During audition season, the only feedback singers often get is a “Yes” or a “No.” Consider this vocal checklist, written by Mark Watson and published in the November issue of Classical Singer magazine, for getting detailed and helpful feedback to more effectively evaluate your vocal technique.

The Scale
You will need a room—preferably large—and musicians who will give you honest feedback. There are two parts: aural and visual.
In full voice, at a medium-slow tempo, sing a steady, ascending 12- or 16-note scale on “ah.” Breathe, then sing a descending scale. Do not force or go to either extremities of the range. Kid stuff, right? Let’s see.
Aural Checklist
1. Intonation: Was every note in tune?
If a simple scale is not in tune, how will you ever manage chromatic music? When the vocal line is surrounded by lush orchestral sounds, the problem may be less glaring, but when the singer is left vocally exposed (as is often the case in Bel Canto arias) faulty intonation is excruciating.
2. Stability of tone: Was the vibrato even and matched on every note?
The vibrato on every note sung in full voice should be even and matched with every other note. It should not change on high notes or start part way through the phonation. The pitch must never waver nor should the volume fluctuate involuntarily.
3. Ease of production: Was every note produced effortlessly and neatly?
Effortless singing is a fundamental objective of technique. The classical singer is expected to make the difficult look easy—and that includes everything from the top to the bottom of a singer’s range. An amateur or beginner can “hit” a note. Hitting a note is not singing.
4. Rhythm: Was the rhythm solid and steady?
The ability to maintain a steady pulse is indispensable. If air or an “h” precedes the tone, the listener will perceive the sound as late. In languid music the defect will be less apparent. The singer who cannot maintain a steady tempo in a simple scale will be incapable of mastering complex rhythmic passages, unable to stay together in small ensembles, and will annoy the conductor.
5. Evenness of scale: Was every note of equal volume and weight?
If a note is weak, the singer may be inaudible (and, therefore, expressively ineffective) or may force. A professional musician plays on an evenly calibrated instrument. In the same way, the voice should be equalized. Pay special attention to the middle and low notes, which are nowadays often the most neglected. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the great teachers trained the voice from the bottom up. Some arias climax on a written or added high note, yet operas are packed with climactic moments that require a strong middle or low voice.
6. Volume: Would all the notes carry in a theater?
Related to evenness, the power and projection of your voice is a critical factor in where and what you will be hired to sing. Strengthening weak notes is one of the primary goals of training. Remember, a voice with a few strong notes is not a big voice, and small rooms or churches can be acoustically deceptive.
Although projection can be reliably gauged only in a large hall, if one can hear air mixing with the sound, as opposed to pure sound, those notes will have less carrying power. As Patsy Rodenburg, the great voice teacher of actors, has written, “However truthful a performer might be, or indeed creative, it means nothing if he or she cannot communicate over space.” Breathiness could also be an early sign of vocal fatigue.
7. Legato: Were all the notes connected cleanly and smoothly?
The ability to sing legato is one of the pillars of a technique. At this stage of inquiry, all notes must be the same volume and weight and must be connected with no “spaces,” scooping, or cracks. Legato is what gives phrases their shape. When a singer is called “unmusical,” the reason is often a deficiency in the legato. Until you master the above touchstones, the legato will be problematic.
Visual Checklist
The body and face must remain neutral and calm, never showing signs of strain, grimaces, or involuntary movements. Any emoting would be superimposed, artificial, and absurd.
1. The shoulders must not rise on inhalation or move as the pitch changes.
2. The jaw must never shake or lock.
3. The tongue should be relaxed and flat and never tremble.
4. The larynx should not be seen shaking.
5. The arms and hands should be relaxed—no gesticulations or hand ballets.
6. The expression on the face should be composed and pleasant.
7. The neck muscles should be relaxed, never popping or reddening.
8. The mouth should not distort as the pitch changes.
9. The eyebrows and forehead should remain neutral and not furrow or rise.
Facial distortions and involuntary body movements become magnified on the screen. They get worse with time (often becoming comical or grotesque), interfere with sound production, and are incompatible with effective acting. They are also signs of unnecessary muscle tension. Releasing that tension will help the overall freedom of the vocal production.
The Results
Get honest feedback—not compliments, coddling, criticism, or advice. Decide how to proceed after you have had time to reflect. In Marchesi’s system, after solidifying the basics, you would begin to master variations of speed, volume, rhythms, melodic patterns, and articulation. Remember that the basics are your road marks. Speed must never come at the cost of intonation or rhythmic sloppiness. Gaining a note at one end of the range must never come at the cost of losing another note. Everything must always be in tune, steady, and produced without effort. The legato must be seamless.
This is technique. Then comes the part that made you start this journey in the first place: the expression, the text, the colors, the communication and, most importantly, the art.

This article was written by Mark Watson. Trained on full scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music and winner of several international vocal competitions, Mark has sung concerts, operas, and oratorios in Israel, Italy, and Belgium and on national television in Japan. In New York City, he has appeared in Alice Tully Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and Carnegie Hall. He has also sung roles with regional opera companies in America.


For more than 20 years Classical Singer magazine has been an invaluable resource for singers.  Monthly articles feature current and former opera stars who share their secrets of success, as well as their stories of struggle and inspiration.   Classical Singer magazine began in 1988 as The New York Opera Newsletter. For years it provided in-depth insights about the New York opera scene to its subscribers. But interest in the newsletter grew rapidly and the demand for more information by opera and classical singers from around the world stimulated a transformation.   Get a free trial of Classical Singer magazine at