Bel Canto: What Was Really Meant?

A simple Google Search of Bel Canto yields a very excellent Wikipedia article as an excellent starting point for discussing Bel Canto. The first paragraph interestingly enough goes as follows:

The phrase was not associated with a “school” of singing until the middle of the 19th century, when writers in the early 1860s used it nostalgically to describe a manner of singing that had begun to wane around 1830.[2] Nonetheless, “neither musical nor general dictionaries saw fit to attempt [a] definition [of bel canto] until after 1900”. The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition.[3]

By this alone, one could not possibly claim to teach Bel Canto technique with any degree of confidence but one could attempt to understand the principles of Bel Canto by not only investing time reading the many treatise of the Garcia and Lamperti families and their contemporaries like Marchesi and others. But particularly in the Internet age, where short impactful oneliners and soundbites are much more appreciated than any attempt to explain concepts more profoundly and truthfully: Who would you go to? A charismatic teacher who claims a direct line to the Bel Canto Tradition, or one who states deference to Bel Canto Principles as s/he understands them?

I would say that the average singer trying to make their way through would be more attracted to the grand claim, naturally. Substance and scholarship is boring to most. In a performance field, students are attracted to performers, whether they be singers or teachers. The fantasy is more interesting than the reality of hard work, no matter how often successful professionals speak about it. Let us go through this a bit!

Let us take one of the most popular terms from Bel Canto: Appoggio! Do you understand with certainty what this word means? Where as an average single-word search on Google brings up the definition of the word first and foremost, the search for appoggio brings up an entire first page of hits relating to singing. I will concede that the fact that I am a singing teacher could have been factored in by Google and factors in relative to the resultant hits. I go directly to Garzanti, a respected producer of Italian dictionaries (Click here for complete definitions):

1. cosa che serve a sostenerne un’altra; sostegno: era solo l’appoggio del bastone a sostenerlo

In English: Something that serves to support another (thing); support: (There) was only the support of the cane (walking cane) to sustain him

This definition is particularly interesting because it deals with the interaction between two objects: the cane that supports what appears to be a masculine object (lo, masculine objective suffix at the end of “sostenerlo”). But we should consider that without the person leaning on the cane, the cane itself would fall, the ground being a third element in the system. Likewise, in the interaction of breath and vocal folds, we should ask ourselves, what is supporting what and is there a third element in our vocal system. The answer is yes. The system of expiratory musculature that gives a ground (compression of the breath) is the third element. Via that compression, one could say that the breath leans against the folds. Yet, if the folds do not close appropriately, the compression of the breath would be diffuse and there would not be adequate compression to maintain fold oscillation. In a sense, the folds efficient closure might feel also like leaning against the breath. The words leaning against translate to Italian as appoggiarsi a or appoggiare su, which is what the idea of leaning on the breath derives from.

Let us assume we have achieved this sensation of connection between the compressed breath (the cane and the floor, in our analogy) and the vocal folds (the person leaning on the cane). The system is complete! But let us go further in our analogy! Is the cane strong enough to sustain our person without snapping (meaning is the breath compression enough to prevent a collapse in support whereby compensations by other muscle systems would be required)? And if so, would our impaired person end up straining his/her back when the cane breaks (would the larynx have to compensate by squeezing when breath compression is inadequate)? Is it possible that our impaired person is putting more pressure on an otherwise good cane than it can handle (In vocal terms, how would adequate breath compression respond to a pressed tone)? With me so far?

A certain balance is required between all parts of this system. If one part is overactive, it will cause a compensatory response. The system is organic. Therefore, what is the ideal balance? Can someone getaway with a slight bit of pressed phonation or over-compression? Yes. It depends greatly on anatomy, native strength, training etc. There is not one way to maintain the system. However, there is a most efficient balance, and that is the one we seek after throughout our lives. Some of the greatest singers say that when they decided to retire from singing they were just beginning to understand true balance.

Now imagine we have figured out the sensation of breath pressure in the body involving compressed air (via expiratory musculature) against the closing vocal folds, interacting to maintain a manageable balance. There is then the question of how the muscles of inhalation (external intercostals, levator costalis, the diaphragm itself, etc) behave during this compression. Ideally, they should not collapse or they will add breath pressure to the system. Furthermore, if the collapse of the ribcage is the first compression to occur, the actual muscles of exhalation that should activate will not be immediately active until the contribution of costal collapse has been exhausted. It is, therefore, necessary to prevent costal collapse to allow the correct musculature to active for proper support (appoggio).

Now let us introduce the term, morbidezza! I did a search in Google for definition in Italian:

1.Cedevolezza al tatto o alla pressione, spesso associata a delicatezza e tenerezza.”la m. di una stoffa”

In English: Compliance (pliability) to touch or pressure, often associated with delicateness and tenderness. “The pliability of a cloth!”

If morbidezza (pliability) is an added ingredient to our system, it is no longer enough to feel in our bodies the breath pressure associated with compression of air against oscillating (compression during the closing phase of phonation) vocal folds. It must be done in a way that keeps the entire system flexible, while maintaining compression. How does that effect the person, leaning on the cane connected to the ground? The amount of pressure by the person upon the cane, the cane’s material, and the nature of the ground, all lead to the nature of flexibility of the system. Therefore, the nature of the closure of the folds (complete closure, without pressing), the amount of air in the lungs (affects pressure) and how the muscles of breathing, both inspiratory and expiratory act upon the breath. Obviously, it now becomes a little more complicated. Can we maintain flexibility without under-adduction and under-compression?

Let us add another often used Bel Canto word: gola aperta!

A simple definition: Open throat! But what does that mean truly? How open is too open? The Bel Canto teachers did consider a “measure” of openness because they also used the term “voce spalancata” or “wide-open voice”. What is the measure, then? What is considered wide-open? There are those who talk about yawning or pre-yawning or avoiding any such talk about yawning. We have additional direction from the Bel Canto teachers: ” Si canta come si parla!” “One sings the way one talks!”

The measure of “open throat” must be taken “in the context” of the appoggio system, as discussed above. To what degree does open throat help in the balance of appoggio and morbidezza (I’m tempted to call it appoggio morbide–pliable support, but then again, I would be creating one more new term for the modern singer to deal with)?

Modern science allows us to see the vocal tract as one unit including the laryngeal pharynx and the buccal pharynx (excluding the nasal pharynx that tends to weaken the resonance–currently there are diverging opinions on the role of the nose). In terms of the open throat, how does the opening of the jaw, depth of the larynx, velar activity, tongue, and lips interact to create the perfect open throat? And does that conform to the idea of “singing as we speak”? How does the shape of the vocal tract, relative to the tone created in appoggio coordination and in morbidezza, give us the sensation of a gola aperta in a way that contributes positively to the resonance of the tone? Is yawning the best way?

For my part, I believe most ideas can be used short term and produce great results, short term. But eventually, all of these functions must relate to one another to produce a tone that requires the right amount of work from all the different muscle groups. Yawning may help a severely elevated larynx. But is it the best set up in the final phase of technical coordination? Glottal plosives may help a singer who’s been singing very breathily to develop a sense of glottal efficiency. But is that plosive necessary when the singer’s folds are already closing efficiently? Is a tight closure conducive to morbidezza?

What is over-working? What is lethargic?

The current culture is more ready to consider a working singer as an authority regardless of the nature of the product. Is it possible to sing a very pushed sound and be exciting in the opera house? Definitely? Is it possible to sing a relatively unsupported tone and be considered the master of piano singing? Also yes. The operatic singer is a package that includes vocal technique, musicality/musicianship, stagecraft, emotional presence, physical beauty as judged by current ideals, name recognition, etc. It is, therefore, necessary for us to consider a singer’s viability as a package and still determine that substantial improvements can be made on a technical level. In other words, a successful singer is not necessarily a model of great technical balance relative to Bel Canto aesthetics.

In this post, I ask more questions with every answer! That is the nature of our art. We cannot put Bel Canto in a box and say we teach Bel Canto technique because we toss a few Italian words in the air with native pronunciation. It is a lifelong quest for betterment using principles that lead to a better and better understanding of the same principles.

There are so many other Bel Canto words I could throw into the mix to show how profoundly complicated the simple process of singing can be. Simple because the vocal instrument is automatic and responds to the level of precision of our imagination. It is easy to imagine “a” sound, but it is another thing to discover our own best sound.

And thus I leave this post with the words of an Italian singer I don’t know; a young Italian tenor making his way into the world. I found him while looking for a quote, from Gigli, that I have forgotten. From what I hear of this young man, he still has work to do to become one of the greats, but there is something I hear in his singing that suggests discipline and adherence to a process. From what I read, he was a skier who discovered Gigli:

“La differenza tra un cantante d’opera e un altro è che noi ci mettiamo in gioco ogni giorno cercando sempre la perfezione e di migliorare il suono – precisa – Ci vuole uno studio costante e continuo. Non c’è differenza tra un cantante d’opera e un atleta che fa agonismo. In tutto questo però non bisogna mai dimenticare di tenere i piedi per terra”. —Aleandro Mariani

The difference between one opera singer and another is that we (the opera singers) place ourselves in play every day looking for perfection and improve the sound–He clarifies: A constant and continuous study is necessary. There is no difference between a singer and an athlete in terms of competitiveness (determination). In all of this, it is necessary to keep our feet on the ground.–Alandro Mariani

The world of opera singing is dangerously made simplistic, these days, for the sake of young singers who do not have that determination. I don’t know how far Mr. Mariani will go, but with that attitude and the knowledge of what it takes to succeed, I would bet on him succeeding. In a sense, with the above words, he understands the Bel Canto principles better than so many who claim Bel Canto pedigree by just tossing a few well-pronounced Italian words around.

© 30 April, 2019

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