Belcanto in a Vacuum: Coordination Without Structure

My process when I meet a student for the first time is to discover to what degree they have developed the structural vocal instrument and then how well they understand how that instrument should be utilized.  The latter depends entirely on the former.  What good is it to speak about “reducing” pressure when going towards the top of the voice” if the student has not yet developed a tone? A weak tone means either weak or compensatory breathing strategies, “off-the-voice” effects that is supposed to pass for artistry and therefore uncomfortable, cramped and unfocused interpretations, usually lacking in personal emotional involvement.  If only many of those hiring could tell the difference in a small audition room!!!

A student of mine sent me an interesting video about Bel Canto Breathing.  Nothing on this video is wrong! From a position of experience, I find this video very interesting and instructive.  When I think of what would happen if a young student tried to take this video as a lesson (as many do), I tremble.  The person instructing has a very well developed voice and makes a convincing sound.  Naturally there are things one could improve there as well, as with everyone!  More importantly, in the discussion about breathing, the discussion is always on the “How!” One is left with the sensation that one must access this muscle or that in order to have control of the breath.  It is also said in this video that breath for speaking requires much less breath than for singing.  I would say that depends on what kind of speaking.  If one listened to Piero Cappuccilli speaking, or even the moderator in the following video, one realizes that this is not an average voice speaking. Cappuccilli speaks the way he sings (if a little lazier in this interview.  He had just flown from the Canary Islands, he said early in the interview).  Furthermore at 7:50 in the video Cappuccilli said:

“sicome da bambino non ho mai avuto voce bianca, ma invece avevo una voce da tenore…” (Since as a child I never had a white voice [boy soprano; baby voice] but instead I had the voice of a tenor…)

He continues to say he imitated Gigli singing popular songs.

Cappuccilli’s statement about his childhood, as well as the robust voices of both moderator and interviewee are significant in that Italians tend to have well-developed voices.  The nature of the extroverted Mediterranean culture combined with the limited vocalic content in the Italian language make for very primal emotional expression.  Primal in sound and therefore primal in the breathing that supports such sound.  Some singers develop in environments that help develop the voice naturally, unconsciously and others who become great singers have had to build their instruments, and the breathing strength that must accompany it, from weak speaking habits and daily usage . That is most of us mortals.  But mortals can rise to the firmament of operatic legends. Not everyone comes to this the same way. Here is a take of a recent recording session captured on the side by my iPhone.

This period is an exciting one for me! The voice is now coordinating as it should.  This was a song I sang a lot as a baritone and as any singer who had a strong Lieder upbringing, we have a tendency to make effects and sing off the voice, as I do at 2:35 (Sie verstehn des Busenssehnen, kennen Liebesschemerz).

A change from lyric baritone to Heldentenor is not as easy as it seems.  One of my students who went through a similar change once said to me: “Do you realize that as lyric baritones our first cares were elegance and gentleness? Now as dramatic tenors, power and stentorian top notes seems to be our first priority.”  I replied at the time that elegance and gentleness is still a part of what we aspire to just as there were moments as lyric baritones when power and high notes were just as important (Valentin, Silvio, very vocal roles).

Yet on the whole, he was correct.  Correct because we both had to build the vocal structure and accompanying breath support required to become viable tenors.  It felt like a total change of personality; a psychological challenge to be sure. I recorded Max’s aria from Der Freischütz on the same day (too bad the iPhone was not on for that bit. Have to wait for the final cut), and it was Schubert times ten.  The amount of breath compression needed on a continual basis to prevent compensation from the throat is extraordinary.  What I got away with as a lyric baritone was inadequate.  Had I learned to support my voice as a young baritone the way I do now, I would have figured out early that I was actually a robust tenor and even as such I could have been more convincing in the baritone repertoire as well. Ramon Vinay, as Domingo now, sang many baritone roles after he stopped as one of the world’s leading Otellos and Tristans.  In a sense I had to become a tenor to learn what it is really like to fully support the voice.

The video I received also suggests that singers should study with those who have proven that they know how to sing and have had major careers.  I don’t need to poke holes in that theory.  We only need to look on Youtube and see how some of the greatest singers fail miserably as teachers.  Teaching like every other skill requires time.  I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and I get better at it every day.  Still I take the challenge of the video, because I don’t believe that one can continue to grow as a teacher if one is not actively dealing with his/her own voice no matter what stage of our development we are in.  I estimate my best days are ahead.

The main point of this blog edition is that the principles of the  Bel Canto are simply that: principles. Understanding them relative to not only the coordination of some functions but all functions is crucial.

How does an undeveloped instrument behave? The teacher cannot get great results unless the instrument is physically developed.  Teachers who came out with naturally evolving instruments are not aware of this and call a student untalented when they cannot get results using their usual bag of tricks.

Involuntary coordination or physical manipulation? Whether breathing or phonation or resonance, teachers have a tendency to teach the last sensation they had, whether a new muscular sensation or a new resonance sensation.  The fact is that a well-developed instrument responds to the need to express, without exceptional controlling of one muscle or another.  Once the singer knows what his/her complete voice sounds and feels like, s/he begins to expect that sound (it takes some singers very long to accept the newly developed sound).  Once the expected sound is the singer’s true vocal timbre, the body begins to work to “support” the production of that sound.  However in the case of transformed voices (from weak and unsupported to strong and well-supported), the breathing mechanism that drives the new more robust instrument often lags behind, especially with dramatic voices in small bodies, who heretofore conveniently sang more lyrical, lower-tessitura repertoire.

The singing process is rather simple in a sense.  But the specific inadequacies of the individual singer can cause the process to appear very complicated and very difficult. A teacher must not be afraid to put the student through a thorough development program for an operatic voice.  Some freelance teachers are afraid to lose a student (must pay the rent) and so lower the bar.  The better approach would have been to help a few students develop greatly and thereby develop a reputation. Singers are more willing to spend the time if they know there are results ahead.  Some school teachers are burdened with juries and a need to show their colleagues they are good teachers. So they rush the process or try to find students who are already physically developed so they look good.

How many great artistic souls who love classical singing and want to do it but never find the teacher who is invested in helping them develop their weak voices, or musicianship or language challenges or physical limitations?

Thousands upon thousands, who never stop singing for the love of it.  Then someday in their advanced years you hear something extraordinary and wondered why they did not do this earlier. They were discouraged instead of helped but late in life found the right teacher.  Those are more important to me than those who develop their voices naturally and take their talent for granted.  Operatic talent is multi-dimensional: text, music, voice, acting/presence, poetry, history, dance, psychology, physical strength, etc…Who are we to count anyone out? Only the singer can count him/herself out.

For my part I love teaching beginners just as much as I love working details and advanced concepts with one of my professionals. I am a better teacher when I take a new beginner with no experience whatsoever.  Not all such singers have what it takes to grow to fully developed singers. But how do you know until you work with them?

Few cared to work with me when I began my difficult process from lyric baritone to tenor.  Now everyone has a piece of advice for making it better.  I have many coach-pianists who advise me.  But the voice teacher to whom I will hand my voice faithfully, must understand what the last 8 years of my life have been like to get from there to here.  I’m always open to advice, but I take all advice in context and process it. Bel Canto in a Vacuum is not my cup of tea.

© March 10, 2016

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