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:

The setting: Bremerhaven, Germany, 1987.  Carl Schurz Casern, to be specific, the Army base where I was stationed as a new lieutenant.  Yes, I was in the Army.  This revelation surprises even me, and I knew it was coming.  This was before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I, a mildly effeminate and very insecure young man, was living in constant fear of being discovered as gay.  I didn’t really care about being forcibly discharged from the Army — in fact, I would have preferred it — but I wasn’t sure if they would then require me to repay my college tuition, which the Army had covered as part of my ROTC scholarship.  How could I possibly come up with the cost of four years at Princeton?  In any case, our story requires you to know that I was in the Army, gay, and trying desperately to pass as straight.
My job was “Custodian of Postal Effects” at the local Army Post Office.  I was in charge of the whole financial operation of the APO, in other words, and had several civilians and a platoon of soldiers under my command.  My authority was tenuous at best.  The soldiers all knew I was gay (how could they not, based on the amount of product in my hair and the fact that I was living with my boyfriend) and knew that that meant that according to the silent codes of the military, they were under no obligation to respect me.  In fact, I was treated with barely concealed contempt by everyone from the lowest private to my commander’s commander’s commander.
Anyway, the civilians in the APO (mostly women) all adored me.  One of them — I’ll call her “Carmela” — returned to her home in the Philippines during a vacation and returned laden with gifts for everyone in the office.  She was proud of having chosen just the right gift to suit everyone on the staff, and commented over and over and very publicly how my gift in particular was fitting to me.  She kept tantalizing me by saying how much I was going to LOVE the gift she’d brought me.
By the end of the workday, everyone was eagerly anticipating the unveiling of my gift.  We all, civilians and soldiers alike, gathered around my desk.  Carmela distributed her many packages, starting with those for the lower-ranking workers.  In turn, each employee unwrapped Philippine specialty foodstuffs, native crafts, t-shirts.  Eventually, all eyes were on me and my largish gift-wrapped package.  Finally, we would all get to see the perfect gift Carmela had chosen for Lieutenant Hanko.  I looked around to the faces staring back at me — some friendly, many contemptuous.  At least I could soon console myself and assuage my loneliness in a wonderful gift.
I slowly undid the ribbons on the box, as everyone watched, wondering along with me what was about to be revealed.  I finally got to the last layer of packaging.  I removed the sheets of tissue paper to expose. . . .a thick, foot-and-a-half-long, wooden penis sculpture.  It was strangely heavy for its size and anatomically rather accurate.  There were even large wooden testicles in a huge wooden scrotum.  I wish someone had captured my face at that moment on film; I’d have been interested to see my expression of horror and embarrassment and the color of red my cheeks must have turned.  The craziest thing was that Carmela continued behaving as though she had not made an enormous social gaffe.  She seemed not to be aware of the sexual connotations of the, um, penis, or that it might possibly not be something you’d give to your (gay and trying to hide it) boss in front of the staff.  She had always come across as sweet, slightly religious, and proper to the point of dullness.  What a shocker!  I can conclude only that in Philippine culture, the penis must be a symbol of gratitude and respect.
All these years later, my heart still races as I type these words.  I can’t summon even a fake smile onto my face.  I will not try to sing “Row, row, row your boat” in this state.  I think I’ll go make an appointment to see my therapist. . . .


  1. wildcat says:

    Okay, the dogs in their underwear made me smile, but so did the idea of your "oh my where do I look now and what do I say" expression. I guess it's just the mean part of me. lol

  2. Michael Hanko says:

    I'm glad to hear you responded that way, Nanette! In recounting that story, I was going for a balance between comedy and horror and am happy that, for you at least, the scales did not tip too far in the direction of maudlin.

    If only we could always remember that what is distressing us out of our minds today will probably seem funny someday. . .sometimes we just have to wait 23 years for this shift.

    (Actually, the bad present episode was hilarious to me while it was occurring. One of the frustrating aspects of the situation was not being able to bring to it my natural campy sense of humor, since I was in uniform and in the presence of soldiers under my command. Handing a gay guy a huge erect wooden penis and denying him the opportunity of making even the teensiest innuendo? Utter cruelty!)

  3. David says:

    I've been told in the past by teachers and coaches that the smile-like facial engagement you describe creates beneficial inside space. One sees very successful singers–people who sing beautifully–using it. But one also sees cases where it can cause tension.

  4. Michael Hanko says:

    Hi David,

    You hit the nail on the head: depending on *how* you employ this concept (or any other), it can help or hinder.

    I've been thinking more about "facial engagement" since I wrote this posting, and have decided that it is important to acknowledge that the engaged state that brings about (among other benefits) increased internal space is the DEFAULT state. That is, unless we interfere with our natural coordination, our facial muscles will be ideally engaged for singing.

    Of course, every one of us is interfering in some small or large way with our natural coordination, meaning that there is a good chance that facial muscles might be among those exhibiting less-than-ideal tone. There are many ways to address improving our overall coordination when this happens, but a specific manipulation of the facial muscles is highly unlikely to restore the whole-body conditions we are seeking.

    Thanks for reading my blog and for contributing your thoughts!

  5. Taminophile says:

    David again–meant to sign in with this id before.

    Based on what those teachers said and my own non-scientific observations, I've come to believe that somehow engaging the upper lip–and I've seen it done in various ways–helps with inside space.

    The more I learn, the more I see what those previous teachers were trying unsuccuessfully, often badly, to say. With this point and so many others.

  6. Toni Schiavone says:


    Thank you for yet another fab review on bocca ridente. Great pics of you and Peter and the dogs of course.

    I still think of that wooden thing and laugh hysterically when I think of it. With you telling the story again so many years later, well, I almost died laughing…..again.



  7. Michael Hanko says:

    Glad I could rekindle some funny memories for you, Toni! Perhaps in the future, when you want to bring about an authentic smile for singing, you can just visualize an enormous wooden penis. Let me know how this works……

  8. Stephen Lawrence says:

    Michael, I came across your article in a search for "role of facial muscles in singing" – I have been suffering for the past two years with a really troublesome voice (but one that has been getting better all the time) – all of a sudden I just could not get any resonance in the front of the face.. Recently I've become aware that a lot of the muscles in my face (around the nose and forehead areas) have been completely frozen – hard as rock. And since they started to warm thru again, and singing became easier, I realise this has been a big cause of vocal problems. I suspect the cause is related to letting the jaw go free. Without the action of this powerful muscle all the other muscles tightenend up as a result…

  9. Michael Hanko says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Stephen. I'm glad you are on the road to better vocal coordination…something to smile about for sure!

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