Vocal training today has little in common with the technique used for centuries up to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Over the next few articles I will reintroduce some of the basic principles of that old technique known today as the bel canto technique and debunk a few myths about singing, including: Singing is all about breathing and Singing in the mask and forward resonance.
I will also to provide healthy and safe ways to develop the voice—specifically in a choral setting—and offer easy and efficient warm up exercises.
First, a bit of history and background on the bel canto. Since the antiquity, voice training relied upon an oral tradition. It was based on the natural function of the voice. The technique evolved with each generation to push the limits of the vocal range and ability. This evolution culminated into the bel canto technique (the term was adopted in the late nineteenth century)—not to be confused with the bel canto style. The bel canto technique is the traditional Italian head voice vocal technique and style of the eighteenth century, with an emphasis on beautiful sounds and brilliant performances. The technique focuses on building the voice, strengthening vocal muscles, and unifying the registers while refining the voice.
One hundred and sixty years ago, a dramatic shift happened and the bel canto technique almost completely disappeared. Thankfully, a few teachers kept it alive and passed it on, while others had to rediscover it from old texts and experimentation.
What happened that caused such a shift? In simple terms, Manuel Garcia II—either motivated by a scientific mind, or simply looking for shortcuts to vocal training—tried to explain the functions of the voice by looking inside the throat. He invented the laryngoscope (still used today by ear nose throat doctors to see in the throat) and used it to explore the vocal instrument. When looking in his new invention he saw vocal cords that were flat in the throat, contradicting the principles of the bel canto he had learned from his father which state that the vocal cords are on a downward angle in the throat and that those cords need to be stretched, and strengthened, giving the voice its large range and power. Since, according to his new discovery, the old principles of the bel canto no longer held true, he theorized that the difference between a non-singer and a trained singer depended on other aspect of the body. He concluded that breathing and resonator placement were the basis of voice training. These two elements are still the cornerstone of today’s technique. His theories caught like wild fire or in today’s lingo; went viral.
There was one serious flaw with his theory: when a foreign object is introduced in the throat, the body reacts and assumes a defensive position. It is impossible to sing properly with a medical instrument in one’s throat as I experienced recently when visiting the E.N.T. doctor. (As an experiment, try having someone throw a grape in your mouth and feel your throat close up to prevent choking.) When Garcia introduced his mirror into the throat, the throat closed up in a defense mechanism. He saw horizontal vocal folds with a high larynx. (The vocal folds are indeed flat when at rest, when speaking, when singing without proper technique.) In full singing mode, the vocal folds are angled and stretched, lower the larynx.
Garcia eventually realized his mistake and retracted his original findings. He realized it is not possible to rush nature and that there are no shortcuts to properly train a voice. Unfortunately by then, singers and teachers had already embraced his theories and much preferred the easier and (supposedly) faster approach to voice training.
The results of the “modern” approach are voices that are weak and superficial with little foundation to the sound. Singers need to push the sound, forcing their voice without being able to truly project and have their sound carry in performance spaces. This often results in vocal problems ranging from polyps, nodules, voices that loose their ability early on, and that stop working before their time. Singers used to be able to sing with full, strong, mixed voice well into their seventies and eighties. Nowadays, those who make it to their sixties can count themselves lucky.
It is important to bring back the bel canto into use today because it is the truly natural way to develop the voice. The bel canto has many benefits; it develops and protects the voice. It ensures longevity, broadens the vocal range, ensures flawless and easy projection, encourages clear diction, and blends registers (head voice and chest voice). Beyond that, it adapts to all styles and genres of singing (from opera with Pavarotti to pop with the Everly Brothers), and most importantly, it even repairs damaged voices.
Although many claim to use or teach the bel canto method, the loss of the knowledge of the technique and the misunderstanding of how the voice really works leads to the misreading of the old texts. Over the next articles and blogs on my site, I will compare the modern approaches to singing and how they conflict with the bel canto and natural function of the voice, I will contrast the modern and the old ways of voice training.