The Where, When and Whether of Marking

Road marksRichard Miller, in his book “Solutions for Singers”, gives this good definition of marking: “Sparing the voice during rehearsal through reducing dynamic levels; indicating certain pitches rather than singing them fully.”

While the purpose of marking is to save the voice, particularly when directors are placing high demands on a singer, or a singer is “out of voice” (due to illness, oversinging, etc.), many teachers and singers claim that it hurts more than it helps. Still, I have yet to meet a professional singer that does not mark from time to time, and have met many an amateur who could benefit from marking techniques.

The important thing to know about marking is that it is a learned skill like any other. The problem comes when singers assume that singing loud and high is hurting their voice, thus singing soft and low will save it. The problem is that singing softly (pianissimo), if done properly, takes even more energy and a more refined technique than singing loudly. Thus many singers hold back psychologically and physically when marking, tightening the throat or manipulating the voice to induce a pianissimo. This tension of course is counterproductive, and ends up hurting the voice more than a full sing-through would have.

How to mark in a way that saves the voice? Luckily the word itself gives us a clue: “marking” derives from the German word “markieren”, which means “to indicate.” Marking is the practice of clearly “indicating” entrances, tempos, etc. for the benefit of our peers, while still going easy on the voice. In marking, the artistic and dramatic impulse behind each phrase remains the same as in normal singing. Otherwise, why rehearse at all?

How to practice marking at home:

  1. Choose a song or aria (solo or chorus) that you already know.
  2. Sing all the way through, full voice. As you go, identify mentally any parts that have the potential to tire your voice. These may be extreme pitches or dynamics, repetitive phrases, use of chest voice, etc.
  3. Identify any parts that an accompanist, director, or fellow singer needs to hear in order to follow you and make rehearsal worthwhile. Consider entrances, endings, tempo changes, conversational bits, recitative, etc.
  4. With these in mind, sing through the piece again, but this time only mouthing the song. See how much you can “indicate” to your imaginary fellow singers/accompanists through the use of breathing, consonants, and exaggerated facial and body expressions.
  5. Repeat #4, but this time using a light, free, spacious head voice, changing the octave, using falsetto, or dropping out in places you identified in #2 that don’t conflict with #3.

Once you’ve had a go at marking your song in the practice room, it’s time to decide where and when to actually mark.

DO MARK…

When you are out of voice, but still need to rehearse. Happens to all of us at one time or another!

During choir or ensemble rehearsals. I almost always mark at some point during a 2-hour choir rehearsal, partly because in choir it is harder to hear oneself (thus there is more potential to tire the voice) and I have other solo commitments during the week to save voice for. In choir, it is usually better to drop out completely for a phrase or two, rather than singing lightly. That said, mark wisely to make rehearsal worthwhile. Repetitive phrases are usually good bets, as well as unisons and pitch extremes. It’s still important to watch the conductor, participate with energy, and breathe before entrances. If you plan to mark a lot during a rehearsal, tell the director ahead of time.

During staging rehearsals. If the point of the rehearsal is getting the music together (such as during a Sitzprobe), it’s important to sing fully. If it’s a staging rehearsal, however, marking can be of use, especially during arias. Be sure to still indicate entrances and recit for the benefit of your peers.

On the day of a performance. Save your best for the stage, not the dressing room, as they say.

DON’T MARK…

At home. Unless you are practicing the technique of marking (see above), there’s no need to mark when you’re singing by yourself. If you are in good voice, sing fully, and if you are not, then practice mentally, or rest.

When sight-reading. Some people recommend marking while learning music, but I think it’s important to sing a song fully and with ease from the beginning. To “save” voice, learn the song in small chunks (measure or phrase at a time), and hear it mentally before you sing it.

All the time. Singing fully is necessary for getting a song in the voice. In my experience, no matter how much I practice mentally, I still need a good 10 or so solid sing-thrus before a song is truly in my voice. The voice figures out and navigates passages over time in a way that the mind cannot.

Of course, in an ideal world, where rehearsals were always perfectly spaced out and organized, where vocal technique was unfailing and where colds and illnesses were just a myth, marking wouldn’t be necessary at all. And indeed, marking is no replacement for warming up, practicing regularly, building up stamina, and being well-prepared. At times though marking is an essential voice-saver. Just remember to do it well!

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