Toni asked me recently to explain the concept of bocca ridente, Italian for “smiling mouth.” This is an old term, first used by singing teachers in the bel canto era.
Like a lot of teaching concepts, bocca ridente contains a kernel of validity along with the potential for misunderstanding and misuse. I guess the originators of the term were acknowledging that in good singing, the facial muscles (along with all the rest of the muscles of the body) engaged in a particular energetic way, similarly to the way they engage in an authentic smile. Good singing technique, therefore, produces a smile-like engagement of the facial muscles.
It’s unfortunately easy to get this the wrong way around, thinking that smiling can produce good singing technique. Like any localized attempt at muscular control, putting on a smiling mouth can imbalance the delicate whole-body muscular coordination we are after, eliciting tension and self-consciousness in the process. The opposite situation — a frowning mouth, or under-engaged facial muscles — is just as harmful to singing technique. Without enough tone in the facial muscles, the face sags, putting downward pressure onto the larynx and creating imbalance throughout the body. If a muscle is not doing its job, if it is under-energized, another muscle must over-work to make up for it. What we are after is balance, which can occur only as a whole-body, simultaneous pattern. You can’t possibly command each of your muscles to pull with the appropriate amount of force, which in any case changes from moment to moment. This impossibility extends to your smiling muscles as well.
Let’s do a little experiment to test the differences between a smile that arises spontaneously and a smile we consciously produce.
All you will need is some images that delight you, and these can be mental images. I will provide a selection of actual images for anyone who needs a little inspiration. (Moderation is key here. We are looking for a state of delight or mild amusement. If your image is too uproarious, it may over-stimulate your facial smiling muscles, which will be counter-productive. You know how your face hurts after seeing a particularly hilarious movie? This is not the state of ease and balance we’re after.)
Think of an image of something delightful or mildly amusing, something that brings a real smile to your face. (You may even feel the smile behind your eyes when it is authentic.) Here are some images that delight me:
A fondly remembered day at the beach in Puerto Rico:
A beloved entertainer in one of her classic skits:
A couple of attractive underwear models:
Whichever image you are contemplating, notice the effect that this has on your face. You may feel an energized engagement of muscles above your mouth, up into the cheekbone area or even beyond. (This is a smile.) Notice also the mental state that accompanies this physical shift. Perhaps you feel relaxed and happy. Well, all these physical and mental conditions are perfect for singing! Try out a phrase or two of “Row, row, row your boat” as a test.
How did that go for you? I felt joyful during my test run and noticed a sense of ease to my singing. Very pleasant, indeed!
Now plaster a big, fakey Miss America smile onto your face. You know the kind I mean, you’ve seen them on every contestant during those cheesy opening numbers just before they cull the first 40 losers. You just know that behind those toothy grins those poor girls are thinking “step to the right, step to the right, turn, and…….clap” — the choreography they were taught the day before filming.
[Note: if the idea of participating in the Miss America pageant is truly delightful to you, this exercise may produce the authentic kind of smile we already tested in part 1. If this is the case for you, use instead the kind of smile you make when unwrapping a horribly ugly or inappropriate gift. I will end today’s blog with the story of the worst gift I ever got. . . .]
Got your fake grin in place? How does that feel? Kind of tense, right? and stiff? Not to mention the accompanying emotional tones. Want to sing? Well, sorry, sweetheart — just keep on smiling and perform a chorus of “Row, row, row your boat” anyhow.
How was that? I found it disagreeable to sing in this state. My face, locked into its fake smile, would not easily move into the various positions needed for the consonants. I felt over-aware of my face to the exclusion of the rest of me. My singing sounded forced and tense.
Your experience might not be the same as mine, of course. Try out both parts of the experiment again, ending with whichever version you prefer. And take off that tiara already, for goodness’ sake.
Here, as promised, is the story of the worst gift I ever received: