Belcanto

„The rules of study that we apply to our vocal development are not imposed upon us; on the contrary, they are formed from centuries of observation of the natural behaviour of those parts of the body that are used in singing.“ – Jussi Bjoerling 1940

I have been teaching singing since 1989 and have dealt with the tradition of belcanto in detail. But my own experiences and approaches in my own voice training were more ambivalent. Belcanto was something that belonged to old days, something that was „no longer done“ and indeed it often had a dubious reputation of damaging the voice because it would harm ‚the material‘ too much.

However, no one could really explain exactly what the characteristics of the belcanto technique were, at most some fragmentary stories circulated of very one-sided exercises which were considered as outdated. The term was always associated with a particular singing tradition and musical era, but never with technical features.

Certain results were always referred to as being ‚belcanto‘, but the way how to achieve it was never described.

I remember a situation at the beginning of my studies, when the students of one academic session sang for each other in their theory class, and an Asian colleague, who had been trained in Italy for several years, sang an aria in a powerful voice. Our teacher nodded knowingly and said this was the old Italian belcanto technique. The rest of us students was impressed by the vocal power and had the feeling that we did something different when singing, since we did not sound like that, but what exactly the colleague did differently remained unanswered.

So I will try to take this opportunity to describe some of the criteria of the art of belcanto.

A tradition of observation spanning several generations

The characteristics of belcanto, as I understand it, were not invented at some point, but developed in a long meticulous observation of the physical processes involved in singing that lasted many generations. These observations were first of all connected to the Italian language, the southern spirit and the climate. These basic requirements must be remembered: the Italian vowels, for example, are much more often close vowels than the German equivalents which always tend to be spoken more broadly, with the result that the vocal cords are pulled apart.(This is caused by the thickened middle range, which is typical of German voices.)

Also, it is a fact that Southerners generally handle their abdominals better.

The use of vowels will be important in the treatment of the passaggio and coperto, dealing with the very private muscles of the abdomen which are crucial for breath control and thus for phrasing.

Characteristics of vocal training

In my work with people who are representatives of the old Italian technique, I could always find that during training the vocal sound of a German voice would develop into something else – or rather, I learned to distinguish for the first time that there is indeed a typical German sound and a typical Italian one, which was related to technique, not only to national character.

If we want to describe some characteristics:

The ’ng‘-tongue-position

The first technical feature is the position of the tongue: the old Italian teaching has always been the ’ng‘-position of the tongue (as in ’sing‘ or in Italian ‚che‘), i.e the middle edges of the tongue touching the upper molars and the tongue therefore describing a slight curve with the tip of the tongue resting on the lower incisors. Through modern scientific research it becomes clear why this was taught all along:

a camera can now show that keeping the tongue flat causes a narrowing of the throat area by the back of the tongue which almost leads to closure since the back space is too narrow then.

Particularly German singers have to get used to this tongue position, because it gives the vowels a much closer, darker quality.

Unfortunately, we are still often taught the flat tongue position, probably because of the belief that in a big mouth area a big sound is produced. But we know now that a great sound is created behind the tongue in the open throat, and the camera studies have confirmed this.

The ‚u‘ as the basic vowel

The ‚u‘ is the basic vowel of voice training, because it opens the throat if it is made properly, with the tongue in the ’ng‘ position. Also, one must imagine the ‚u‘ being behind all the other vowels, both as a sound, and in the general position of the mouth, which therefore always has to be an oval.

Again, for German voices with their penchant for broad tension while speaking attention is needed here, because the habit of vocal education of the mother language is so powerful.

Coperto

The Italian school does not know the term ‚covering‘, however, the word derives from the term ‚coperto‘: this word is obsolete in Italian and can be translated as ‚covered‘

The German singing techinque has made it a muscular influence of the pitch, but only an acoustic alteration has ever been meant.

A Coperto exercise intends to bring the vocal cords together at a high range, and not to break them apart by the rise in breath pressure. One is then able to establish a thin edge function, which still retains a connection to the full voice, i.e., especially male voices must not go into falsetto, but start a very closed ‚u‘ sound, which can be sent down in a musical scale to the lowest chest function.

This type of exercise supports the absolute high notes, because thus the vocal cords are embedded in air and not harassed by it.

Passaggio

This is a term that I have never been taught clearly in my own training, but which I think has the most important function today – particularly for the male voice – as it decides the control over the design of the true high range.

It is spoken of the ‚break‘ around E’/F‘ in the German technique (for men, for women an octave higher).

When I hear this break in one voice I have only ignored the laws of the passaggio that start earlier (Bflat,B,C). In the passaggio (Bflat-E‘ approximately) the largest change takes place in the nature of the vibration of the vocal cords. In this area, the inner muscles of the cords switch from the heavy full wave oscillation to a lighter one – for higher notes faster oscillations are required, and so the mass is reduced.

Since men have a larger larynx than women, they have to move five times as much muscle mass, and the switching of the modes of vibration is a lot more serious for them.

A well-trained ear can hear this change, a streamlining of the core, very easily.

Inalare la voce

This means ‚to breathe in the voice‘ literally, we also know the term ‚drink the voice‘. Both describe a concept which allows me to keep away air from the vocal cords by letting a tendency of inhaling enter the function of exhaling. The image of ‚drinking‘ the voice rather than sending it out is very helpful and allows for a specific sound.

Among others, these aspects have become important linchpins in my studio work, because experience shows that with them the voice can be put on an absolutely secure technical base, which will remain reliable and available in all stress situations (audition, entrance examination, etc.).

Any candidate who is looking for a good singing teacher, and shows interest in the advert „teach belcanto technique“, can ask to what extent the teacher in question uses these features:

  • ‚U‘ as the basic vowel to open the throat.
  • ‚Ng‘ position of the tongue which perfects this ‚u‘, because the back throat area remains open.
  • Coperto – securing the true high range.
  • Passaggio as the most important switching point of the way to reach high range.
  • Inalare la voce – the basis for a balanced registration.