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The Art of the Bel Canto Singing Voice
©2004 All material is protected and is not to be
duplicated in any form or by any means
without the author's permission.
(Four part series)
Therefore, to understand the working of the singing voice, one has to understand the workings of the different parts of the human anatomy and how those parts interplay with each other; thus, creating the beautiful sounds we have come to love.
The four main parts of the body employed in producing a high quality tone for the professional stage are the head, throat, thoracic cavity, and diaphragm. The sound box or larynx (the vocal bands) is acted upon by air taken into the lungs by the diaphragm; which, acting as a control pump, pushes air up to and pass the vocal bands, causing them to vibrate. The sound produced is then focused up past the nasal passage and into the head’s sinus cavities where it is amplified.
Sounds simple enough; however, teaching this is extremely difficult. Everyone's vocal mechanism is unique, and should be developed in the method best suited for that voice. It is here where a person, wishing to pursue a singing career, needs to find a voice teacher who has a complete understanding of the singing voice and the method of training it, and is capable of imparting this information. The connection between the voice teacher and student is of the utmost importance. Teaching one how to sing is based upon many intangibles, like feeling sensations in the chest, head or physically experiencing an "open throat", which can only be shown by example. The voice student conceives these theoretical ideas as mental images, but they must be comprehended completely. Once the sensations have been learned, they are repeated by practice, until the student can reproduce them correctly. Much of this abstract feeling takes place in the neck (throat) and head.
A good mental image of what should be occurring in one’s body, and making certain that this imagery of "placing the voice", by means of an open throat, is what makes the singing apparatus work under the many different challenges it will be called upon in performing. By perfecting it, the voice will continue to grow and mature, and build a foundation that can last a lifetime.
A brief comparison between a violin and the human voice reveals many similarities in principles. Both instruments employ a vibrating mechanism (violin strings and the vocal bands) to produce sound. These vibrating mechanisms are put into motion by air moving across or over them. The produced sound travels inside the cavities and emerged through the openings. With the human voice, the sound comes out of the mouth. With the violin, sound emerges from the F-holes on the face board where the bridge, holding the 4 strings, is located. The human’s pitch is created by flexing the vocal bands. On the violin, pitch is produced by moving the fingers up and down the narrow fingerboard on the neck that is connected to the face board. The human singing voice is created by the larynx (vocal bands) opening and closing as air is pumped up from the diaphragm. Like the violin, the sound for the human voice is rendered from the chest to the head in one spontaneous action. Like a violin, the sound depends upon the nature of the body: type of wood, lacquer, finish, and maker. Likewise, the human singing voice tones, colors, and sounds depend upon the singer’s vocal bands, thoracic cavity, and the nasal and head resonators.
It is these three parts of the body’s interplay which produce sound. The vocal bands, vibrating, produce sound, and if done correctly will travel up along the back of the throat, past the soft and hard palate, then forward towards the nasal resonators and up into the sinus head cavities. The diaphragm supports this up and forward movement of the vibrating sounds, giving it a rich tone by using the chest cavity resonator as a base foundation to the voice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
There are many terms used for this sound production, but in the Art of Bel Canto Singing, this is what is called "Placement." The most important part of singing is placing the voice in the right position in the head, as the throat stays open and the sounds vibrate upwards from the vocal bands. The art of singing is learning first what is meant by an "open-throat" and then learning how to sustain an open-throat. The Italian method of opening the throat is to relax the face and drop the bottom jaw in the shape of a yawn. The lips are extended in a forward position and shaped in the "Ah" sound. As the mouth opens, the breath is taken in as the diaphragm expands outwards. This diaphragm expansion opens the chest cavity—thus pulling down the larynx and opening throat. This motion sets the singing Open-throat position.
In time, the chest cavity will be developed into a natural expansion, supporting the thoracic cavity from collapsing. The muscles in the neck and vocal bands will be strengthened, allowing the throat to remain open and the voice to sing in a natural free state. As the body is being built from the diaphragm to the neck, slowly beginning to operate as one single mechanism, Placement of voice must is achieved. This mental and physical action of focusing the sound into the head’s sinus cavities will complete the singing mechanics from bottom to top. A voice is only as good as its support system, and that starts from the diaphragm, the foundation of the singing voice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once the most important parts of the singing apparatus have been perfected (open-throat and placement), time will be needed to build it into a singing instrument capable of performing a wide range of the most rigorous and demanding challenges place upon it. After two to three years, as the diaphragm and thoracic cavity expand to a state which can support the voice, the singer should graduated from Bel Canto Anthology songs which have helped shaped and round the sounds of the voice. Slowly the vocal bands will grow stronger and develop a smooth and flowing vibrato (the pulsation of vocal bands) from one note to another throughout the singer’s register. In time, each tone will blend evenly without a break and the fluidity of the vocal line will blossom into vocal artistry.
In the early years of study, when the voice is untrained and delicate, the voice teacher should introduce, slowly, songs suited in the middle range of the voice’s registry. By singing lightly, the voice will develop the lower and upper registries, until there is no break in the voice between the three parts of the registry, and one even voice, from the bottom to top, has emerged. Again, the wisdom and trust of a good voice teacher will lend in this early stage, by always making sure that the growing voice is never pushes upon its capabilities. In the Bel Canto method the early vocalise is soft and light, and always flowing up into the head, and outwards, effortlessly.
Humming is excellent for the voice and body. Humming helps massage the vocal bands, as they slowly are warmed and limbered, and keeps the voice focus into the head. It is an excellent way for a teacher to show how a student can place the voice into the head. It also is an excellent means of helping clearing the sinuses and keeping the head rid of other impairments, such as a cold or nasal and throat ailments. Later, when the singer is on his own, he will use the hum as his main means of prepping the voice to sing.
As the voice slowly comes together, it builds range and depth, strength and durability, agility and flexibility, sound and tone, and the over all dynamics of the vocal instrument becomes one: a complete whole, performing all four parts, diaphragm, chest, neck, and head simultaneously. It is at this stage where the singing mechanism acting at the same time, interacts together instinctively. The Bel Canto method has become so integrated in the singer, that no one part cannot function without the other three.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once the body has achieved a sound foundation, the singer has only completed the initial stage into the world of Bel Canto singing. For the rest of the singer’s life, a continued maturing will occur. It is this maturity that will set the tone for a singer and what the singer can sing. A good voice teacher and a well-trained voice student will have learned by the end of the students training what type of music is best suited to perform at this young age. This knowledge is crucial to know at an early age what type of musical pieces is best for them to perform. Maturity is a word used in regards to vocal development as the voice mechanism continues to grow. This expression can be divided by age. It is not written in concrete, but it has proven, through the years, to be an excellent gauge to vocal development and when a singer should best attempt to sing certain musical compositions. The four stages are set by age: 16/17-25; 25-35; 35-45; 45-55 and older.
During phase I, 16/17 to 25, early development, the voice is most vulnerable because of the young tissue. It is during the first stage of a singer’s voice that the voice is at its lightest and brightest. Push too hard and the vocal mechanism can be strained or worse—ruptured and the voice may be destroyed forever. Since during this period of a young singer’s life is formative, it is an excellent opportunity to learn both a lyrical repertoire and stage craft skills. Singing the Bel Canto roles will help the voice grow and ease a singer into the world of opera or concert work.
Singing for recordings or live performances, the works of the great master composers can be extremely demanding upon the human voice. By age 25, singers should have anchored their voices to a solid foundation in vocal techniques and should be able to perform music within the solid range of their voice registry. Phase-I in a singer’s life is exciting and challenging, but if the singer selects wisely the role he chooses, these can be very productive years in helping to prepare for Phase-II, the more dramatic musical works. Although the voice is still set in the bright, lyrical style of singing, it has picked up weight (color). The vocal bands have strengthened and the body has reached the magical period for a singer, where the voice lies between that of a lyric and a dramatic singer. This is the Spinto Age.
Phase-II places the voce in the age bracket of 25 to 35. The voice possesses all of the lyrical ness; but, a tint of the brightness has been colored by the weight put on the vocal bands by singing. A softer, richer tone is developing. This change in voice will allow the singer a wider range of work to perform. The added dynamics in the sound lends itself to the romantic-dramatic compositions, where the light comical, oratorical, and operetta music works are now replaced by the robust, richer and darker works. The Spinto voice is the transitional phase of the voice, maturing from youthfulness to a seasoned singer capable of handling the major body of works of the great master composers...
Phase-III is the stage where the singer, 35 to 45, enters into the meat of the voice. More a Spinto-dramatic singer now, all of the great dramatic roles are available to this singing voice. The tone, color, size, weight, and endurance have all been ascertained, allowing the singer to add to his repertoire the great dramatic works. It has taken twenty years from the initial days of a beginning student to a seasoned singer who is at the peak of his singing career. The voice has matured to its maximum level, and will sustain this high peak of singing well into the middle fifties. The voice will show all of the signs of the beauty of the Bel Canto voice, with its even vibrato, openness of sound and tone, the ringing qualities of the head register, the color of the chest tones adding weight to the voice, and the vocal bands broadening to handle the heaviness of the musical compositions.
Phase-IV is the ending period of the mature singer, age 45 to 55. The voice has taken on as much weight as possible without developing a warble in the voice. The sound and tone is rich and full, with a dark-velvet color to it. Just like the young singer, who occasionally add weight and texture to the voice in the early steps of building and developing the lyrical voice—now the mature singer of 45 to 55 reverses this process, and employs as much lightness in the voice as possible, in order to preserve the voice from becoming too heavy. By implementing the lyrical Bel Canto technique, the mature singer can perform the most demanding roles and still not have to worry about ripping or rupturing the vocal bands. These can be the most thrilling years of a singer’s career. The voice has reached full maturity and still has kept the Bel Canto beauty and ease of voice. However, the voice will eventually become too weighty and heavy, and the vocal bands will have reached the point were they begin to breakdown, and the voice begins its decline. The upper register will drop a note or two and the bottom register will pickup more weight, making it difficult to support this weight in the upper register.
Many singers who were trained in the Bel Canto method of singing have sung into their sixties with great success. Wisely they have selected eclectic works as part of their repertoire that is well within their singing ability. In an attempt to extend their careers as long as possible, they have smartly reduced the number of performances they sing, so as not to over task their voice. Audiences, who have come to love their Bel Canto singers by hearing the most beautiful voices perform the workers of: Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Donizetti, Wagner, Bellini, Puccini, and the other great composers, are thrilled to follow these singers from their debut to their farewell performance.
True, there are great, natural talents—and then—there are great natural talents that having been train in the Art of the Bel Canto Style of Singing have reached the pentacle of vocal artistry.
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