Recommended Reading and Listening: Bel Canto/The Old Italian School of Singing

Pathway to Bel Canto

I have found the following books, manuals and listening to be a ‘pathway’ to studying a way of singing that some refer to as ‘Bel Canto’. Others may refer to it as the ‘Old Italian School of Singing’. Others may describe it as the ‘Italian School of Singing’. (For me, the last description is unreliable because the Italians adapted their singing techniques in the early 20th century to meet the new demands placed on the voice by verismo composers).

There is a great deal of confusion about the term ‘Bel Canto’. This is because the term can mean different things in different contexts. The list below is the ‘pathway’ to ‘Bel Canto’ as I understand it to be; a way of singing as described by Celletti (see below) and taught by Klein’s phono-vocal method (see below) and heard on some (not all) of the early gramophone recordings (thankfully there are some modern examples of ‘Bel Canto’ too, see below).

I don’t think ‘Bel Canto’ should be only academic. I think it must be experienced in the same way that riding a bike must be experienced. In other words, studying books on how to ride a bike does very little for the person who cannot ride a bike but wants to go for a bike ride in Amsterdam. Accordingly, I recommend a good starting point is to try the exercises of Garcia Snr. or Melba (see below). Both books are uncomplicated and free to download on the internet.

Celletti, Rodolfo. A history of Bel Canto. Oxford University Press. 1991.

Garcia, Manuel,Snr. Exercises pour la voix. Between 1819-1822?

Garcia, Manuel, Jnr. Hints on Singing. Canoga Park, Calif. Summit Pub. Co. 1970.

Klein, Hermann, and William R. Moran. Herman Klein and the Gramophone : Being a Series of Essays on the Bel Canto (1923), the Gramophone and the Singer (1924-1934), and Reviews of New Classical Vocal Recordings (1925-1934), and Other Writings from the Gramophone. Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press. 1990.

Melba, Nellie Dame. Melba Method: Part One. Breathing and Other Exercises, Examples, and My Daily Exercises. Part Two. Vocalises. London. Chappell & Co. 1926.

Nicola Porpora. 25 Vocalizzi. Published somewhere between 1686 and 1768.

Pilotti, Katarina. On my re-training to Chiaroscuro. Master’s Thesis at the Academy of Music, Orebro University, Sweden 2009.

Radomski, James. Manuel García (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a bel canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism. Oxford University Press. 2000.

Daniel James Shigo, and Hermann Klein. Hidden in Plain Sight : The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia. New York, NY: VoiceTalkPublications. 2013.

Striny, Denes. Head First: The Language of the Head Voice: A Concise Study of Learning to Sing in the Head Voice. 2007.

Collection of examples of mostly pre-Verismo voices.


A trip to the library has made a new girl of me…

Musical Theatre refers to singing in a classical style as ‘legit’. However, it has bothered me for a long time that the classification is too broad. Therefore, I was pleased to read the following in the library today:

Legit can be further divided into traditional legit and contemporary legit.

Robert Edwin, A Broader Broadway, NATS Journal of Singing, 2002-2003, Volume 59, page 431.

Edwin goes on to say that traditional legit is ‘…heard in many of the pre-1960s musicals…’ and that contemporary legit ‘…can maintain some of the classical requirements such as vibrato from onset to release, chiaroscuro, and sostenuto, but can also include pop and rock-influenced sounds.’

I think this division of legit into traditional and contemporary is very useful for singing teachers and students. For example, if there is a microphone available, a singer of legit material may be able to sing both traditional and contemporary legit in concert. Conversely, if there is no microphone, it may be prudent for the singer to perform only traditional legit material (to sing contemporary legit may result in overloading the voice when singing the pop & rock influenced sounds without amplification).

Legit does not mean the same thing to me as singing classically. Classical singing to me requires the perfection of chiaroscuro, alignment of vowels and consonants and the seamless use of ‘chest’ and ‘head’ voice registers. Classical singing divides into many styles that have their own techniques, ornamentation and conventions. In contrast, I feel legit voices should come as close as they can to classical but not jeopardize the expectations of the audience.

The audience of musical theatre expects the triple threat.

I believe singers and singing teachers should not maintain a rigid dichotomy between classical and contemporary. For example, two weekends ago I was called in to workshop a new opera. The music the composer presented to me, in my opinion, included legit, jazz and traditional belt styles. In my opinion there was no classical singing required. I explained my choices of vocal style to the composer and she was happy with this. Furthermore, during the workshop performance I used a microphone for the contemporary styles. I hope these decisions enabled the composer to hear her music in its best light. I think in this circumstance classical singing would have not fulfilled her intent.

Finally, here are a few examples from You Tube. I would categorize the first as classical, the second as traditional legit and the third as contemporary legit. I would do so to enable myself, as a singer and singing teacher, to make informed decisions about style and to choose the vocal techniques to enable myself or my student to be true to style.

Classical Singing
Traditional legit
Contemporary legit Soprano- this is not the way G&S would have been sung in the 19th Century. The breathiness, use of chest higher than a classical singer would and scooping is the reason I have placed this video in the contemporary legit category. I love it though!

Sustained notes

Dame Nellie Melba 19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931

I love Dame Nellie Melba’s singing book called ‘Melba Method’. Here is an audio example of what happens when I follow Melba’s simple instructions which I have included below. The example is recorded in close proximity on my iPhone.

Sustained note

For fun, here is an example of suddenly slouching.

Sustained note with a collapse of the rib cage partway through to demonstrate the effect on the note
Melba Method, page 16


A month ago, I completed the mandatory New Zealand Managed Isolation Quarantine (“MIQ”). (New Zealand does not have Covid-19 in the community. Therefore, the country sets about quarantining every person who arrives in New Zealand from overseas, in isolation, for two weeks).

Naturally, during my time in MIQ, I could not vocalize. Therefore, I set about choosing to correct something about my singing that was silent: I was not maintaining a noble posture when I sang.

Once I was released from MIQ I began to integrate this new habit into my singing.

To cut to the chase, the noble posture is yielding results far beyond what I could have imagined. I can’t wait to post some sound files once I have a better space to record in. The noble posture was a habit I desperately needed in my singing. It has stabilized my body; a noble posture allows me to maintain appoggio.

For me, Vennard’s famous book ‘Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic’ sums up this positive change:

Mechanistic pedagogy is applied behavioristic psychology. Behaviorism is a philosophy based upon the famous experiments of Pavlov, who conditioned the salivary reflexes of dogs. This concept assumes that personality is the sum of simple units of behavior called reflexes, and that experience conditions these into various behavior patterns, various habits. The mechanistic voice teacher assumes that singing is a complex skill made up of simple skills, and that when a singer is less than perfect it is because one or more of these skills is deficient. He therefore sets about, first to analyze singing itself…and second to analyze each of his students to see which skills need development, what new habits must be formed and what old habits need to be changed.

Vennard, William. Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic. Carl Fischer. 1967. Para. 758.

Jeanne Jomelli

Jeanne Jomelli

What a find on You Tube this morning! Dutch Soprano Jomelli (1879-1932), student of Mathilde Marchesi, singing an exercise from Herman Klein’s ‘Phono – Vocal’ method.


This singing is informative on many levels. The onset, gentle vibrato, the lightness of production, delicate use of messa di voce, the sound of chiaroscuro, portamento, legato and more.

The Trill

If you enjoy these recordings, I recommend listening to the Mezzo Soprano recordings of Klein’s Phono-Vocal Method which has been posted by Mr Daniel Shigo on YouTube and SoundCloud. For example,

Herman Klein Phono-Vocal Method

Head and Chest Voice for Pop Singing

Sia – Wonderful example of expression with head/chest voice

An understanding of Bel Canto’s simple, yet difficult to master, techniques, can be of tremendous use to classical singers who crossover to popular styles of music. Crossing over to popular music, convincingly and safely, is a necessity for the majority of classical singers, both amateur and professional. At some stage, most classical singers are going to be called upon to sing crossover, whether we like it or not!

One of the fundamental differences, between classical and pop singing, is the need for a microphone. Generally speaking, classical singing has carrying power and pop doesn’t. In upcoming posts, I will be demonstrating some microphone techniques but, for now, I wanted to begin with a post on the use of head and chest voice in pop singing because, in many ways, this is putting the horse (tone colours) before the cart (microphone).

In Bel Canto, a Soprano would normally use chest voice until around ‘e’ on the bottom line of the stave. The voice must then transition to head voice without the listener noticing. To learn more about this, I suggest reading and practicing Dame Nellie Melba’s ‘Melba Method’. I have been practicing Dame Nellie Melba’s exercises on blending every day and I now feel a lot more secure. The Melba Method is available on the internet for free.

To contrast with this, in pop singing, there is more opportunity to use head and chest anywhere in the range because the microphone will amplify the voice. In addition, a pop singer is not so concerned with blending the voice to make a seamless instrument – all they need to do is compensate with the microphone or sound engineering. Hence, a pop singer can use head down low or chest up high. A first class example of the mastery of chest and head voice is Sia. I love the emotion Sia achieves with her highly skilled use of head and chest voice. For example, in her acoustic performance of the song ‘Chandelier’. The use of chest voice up high also adds expression by creating cracks and a shredding sound. I love this in Sia’s voice. (I wouldn’t want it in my voice, to be honest, but it is such a perfect sound for her style of music).

Sia’s brilliant use of head and chest voice

Here is a short and simple video from Lisa Popeil that explains where to begin exploring head and chest voice.

Lovely explanation of where to begin exploring head and chest for pop singing

Finally, here is a video I made demonstrating this use of chest up high and head down low. It is not too difficult if, as Lisa Popeil says above, the singer thinks of chest as being the speaking voice.

Demo of using head and chest voice differently than in classical to achieve a pop sound.

The analysis of the first few six notes of the song are – chest, chest, head then chest, chest head. Again, to reiterate, this form of voice production does not carry like classical singing does. You will notice, if you know my voice, that I have also stripped away resonance to thin the sound down. However, that is what a microphone is for. We classical singers shouldn’t be afraid of it but we do need to learn more about it. More about that in later posts.

The importance of transparency in teaching singing

Luisa Tetrazzini

The country is overrun with inferior teachers in singing: men and women, who have failed to get before the public, turn to teaching without any practical experiences, ruining many good voices.

Luisa Tetrazzini, The Art of Singing, quoted in Denes Striny, Great Singers: An Endangered Species – How to get back to Mother Nature, page 13

This month marks the completion of the first year of my three year project called “The Lilli Lehmann Project’; the purpose of which is to prepare myself to teach singing.

One of the steps towards becoming a singing teacher, I believe, is to be ‘before the public’. In other words, to be transparent. Accordingly, today’s post is a critique of my performance in this SoundCloud of a 19th Century Arietta written by the great guitarist, Mauro Giuliani. In the 19th Century, thousands of songs were written for the combination of voice and guitar. This Arietta is number 3 of 6.

The guitar is a perfect accompaniment because the singer can focus on beauty of sound rather than volume. In other words, Bel Canto.

Here is the SoundCloud (you may need to go to my website to hear this, I don’t think SoundCloud plays in the post delivered to your email):

Here are my criticisms…

Good, Bad and Ugly…

Here are my criticisms…

GOOD: I like the use of ornamentation and use of messa di voce throughout.

BAD: I don’t like that the voice is a tad too heavy. The test would be whether or not I could sing the Sei Ariette in one sitting and feel nothing in the throat. I think I would feel tired at the end and, therefore, this is not correct singing. I may update this post once I have learnt the Sei Ariette and have had a chance to test my theory.

UGLY: I detest the presence of a few scooping/throaty attacks. This is not stylistic and not good for the voice.

How to fix this…

  1. Focus on a clean onset at all times.
  2. Tidy up the Italian, this will help to lighten the voice (i.e. introduce more upper harmonics).
  3. Sing once through with a pencil in my mouth to avoid opening my mouth too wide. This will achieve a lighter sound, as well as a sound that carries further with less effort.
  4. Remind myself that this is an early 19th Century arietta. In other words, treat the interpretation with a classical approach rather than a romantic approach.

Finally, I leave you with a playlist of Luisa Tetrazzini. Listen to her onsets! Perfection! And her Italian – bright and light! (Not the heavy and dark sound we are becoming accustomed to in modern singing).

Voice Placing*

Lilli Lehmann’s diagram on the sensations.

My thoughts this week have been on how simple classical singing is and how complicated singing teachers can make it. Here are a couple of quotes on this subject.

If the scale, power, quality, and compass of the human voice were established as are those of the piano, the great problem in the training of a singer would be much simplified, possibly eliminated; but the singer must form the pitch, power, and quality of each tone as he uses it; therefore in the training of a singer we are constantly facing what has crystalized into the term Voice Placing.

This term has been used as a peg upon which to hang every whim, fancy, formula, and vocal vagary that has floated through the human mind in the last two centuries. It has furnished an excuse for inflicting upon vocal students every possible product of the imagination, normal and abnormal, disguised in the word Method, and the willingness with which the students submit themselves as subjects for experiment is beyond belief. The more mysterious and abnormal the process the more faith they have in its efficacy…

…Now voice placing means just one thing, not half a dozen. It means learning how to produce a beautiful tone.

Clippinger, D.A. The head voice and other problems: practical talks on singing. Page 3.

What I find most appealing about the technical principles I have learned is that they are few and simple.

Pilotti, Katarina. The Road to Bel Canto. On my re-training to Chiaroscuro. Masters Thesis. Page 51.

This week, I have reflected upon the imagery/sensation descriptions that teachers use and whether or not these descriptions are helpful. For example, ‘place it forward’, ‘drinking sensation’ and ‘you feel the note here’. My conclusion is that this imagery did not help me! It confused me and, even worse, caused a manipulation of the sound that is unhelpful and unnecessary.

Here is an example of how simple mechanics has led me in the right direction more than imagery/sensation.

This week, I managed to significantly ‘close down’ my mouth when I sing. (My big wide open mouth has destroyed so much of my control and sound.) I achieved this smaller and more relaxed mouth not through ‘relax your tongue’, ‘make sure it is flat with a little curve here’, ‘sing like an idiot’ or ‘be like a ventriloquist’. Rather, I have achieved this through my studies of historical vocal pedagogy and realizing that I need to build up a ‘system’ that is integrated and common sense.

Luckily, a year in a Covid-19 Lockdown is helping me with this retraining because Bel Canto requires 100% awareness and concentration. It also requires compassion.

Anyway, back to the ‘closing of the mouth’.

I have been using the pencil in the mouth ‘cure’ suggested by Garcia together with a combination of simple Bel Canto techniques. These simple techniques (support, lowered larynx and chiaroscuro) together with the pencil in the mouth, have produced the sensations that I am singing from ‘above’ and that the tones resonate in different parts of my skull like the Lilli Lehmann diagram. Now, for years I have battled to find these sensations because the imagery/sensations were described to me by my teachers before they fully and methodically dealt with the mechanics which produce the imagery/sensations. In other words, they put the cart before the donkey. It has taken a year of daily hard work in solitude for me to achieve the sound you hear in the SoundCloud demo below. I didn’t use imagery/sensation at all this year. I focussed on simple mechanics.

To reiterate, the mechanics lead to the imagery/sensations described in Lilli Lehmann’s picture. Not the other way around. Here is the SoundCloud audio file of how the voice floated upwards when the pencil was in the mouth.

No amount of imagery has helped my float the top C in the same way that shutting my mouth did! Mechanics leads to sound. Not all that imagery!

Here is a diagram from Lilli Lehmann’s book ‘How to Sing’ so we can look at it one more time. The value in this diagram for me is that now, after pulling together a framework for myself, I can ‘check in’ whether or not I am on the right path. This is what I felt in this SoundCloud audio, so, maybe I am. Perhaps there is some value in imagery/sensations after all?

*This blog is part of my three year ‘project’ that I have called ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’. The goal is to learn how to become a Bel Canto singing teacher.

Voce di petto – Chest Voice

Maria Felicità Garcia( 24 Mar 1808 – 23 Sep 1836) known as Malibran, was born in Paris as the daughter of the Spanish tenor Manuel del Pópolo Vicente Garcia.

“Exercises for strengthening the low and middle notes of the voice are more important for sopranos than for voices of any other class ; first, because, in general, that part of the voice is most feeble ; and next, because the transition from the voce di petto to the voce di testa tends to deteriorate the purity of some tones, and to impart a feebler, or, if I may so express myself, a stifled effect to others. It is, therefore requisite to keep up a continual practice of the defective note with the pure note which follows or precedes it, in order to obtain a perfect uniformity in their quality. This practice was one of the greatest difficulties which Maria Garcia had to surmount, the lower notes of her voice being strong and well toned, whilst the notes of transition were feeble and husky.”

Memoirs of Madame Malibran by the Countess de Merlin and other Intimate Friends, Volume One, page 20.

Practising Chest Voice so that it unites seamlessly

The most important exercises to practice are scales. We must begin nice and slow and be very critical of how the registers unite. Here is an example of how I practice Number Five in Manuel Garcia’s ‘Treatise on the Art of Singing’. I don’t launch straight away into the vowel [a]. I usually begin with something easy like ‘bree’ or ‘zee’ and then I will sing ya and then finally an ah vowel. In this example below, I was pleased on the ascent that I used chest on the first E and then mixed on the next E and they blend in nicely. It was a little more obvious and clunky on the descent and needs more practice. This happens around 1 min 48 seconds in this recording below. (Please note the guitar is tuned to 430HZ).

Here is an example of me battling through Number 5 of Garcia exercises – I began with bree, then ya and then a. It is a very difficult exercise to blend in the chest voice to the mixed register.

Do I use chest or mixed?

Some singers may have the question, which notes are chest? Which are mixed. The answer is that it depends. Some notes can be either chest or mixed. In the opening exercises of Manuel Garcia II’s book on the Art of Singing (Manuel Garcia II was the brother of Madame Malibran and son of Manuel Garcia I) you will find exercises devoted to uniting chest and mixed register. These exercises will also aid the technical skill of being able to chose either a chest or mixed tone colour. The choice will depend on the context, piece of music, period, emotion etc.

A very important exercise, especially for Sopranos

Applying chest voice

In the first example below, a You Tube video, at 1 minute 20 seconds, you will hear the uniting of the chest voice with the other registers. This occurs on the descent down from the head voice, through the mixed and then to the chest lower notes. I was pleased with this because the different parts of the voice (chest, mixed and head) blended in nicely.

If you forward to 1.20 you will hear the transition from head to mixed to chest voice.

Using chest is sometimes an artistic choice. In the second example below, the audio file, I do not use chest voice on the lower notes. I could have but it would not have sounded delicate.

In this piece – an Arietta by Giuliani – I chose NOT to use chest voice. Some notes can be sung either chest or mixed.

Finally, if you are singing folk or popular styles, chest can be taken up as far as you dare. However, it is really tough on your voice and if you do too much of it you could be in for a problem! When I sing Karanga (a traditional Māori call) I use chest up as high as I can go. If I sung in Head Voice the whole Marae would be laughing their heads off!

In this last example, you will hear me singing in chest voice on the stave. This suits the style of music but is heading into dangerous ground!


Bel Canto and the Modern Singer

Porpora – as relevant today as he was centuries ago!

I have never met a singer who was not looking for “ping” or what is called brightness. Most voices are hopelessly dead, and therefore lack sweetness. The voices are filled with night – black hollow gloomy night or else they are as strident as the caterwauling of a Tom Cat. The happy mean between the extremes is the area in which the singer’s greatest results are attained.

Evan Williams, How I Regained a Lost Voice, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, James Cooke.

Whether we are singing Classical or Pop, our tone, to the Western ear at least, requires a balance between dark and light. In the modern world, filled with technology and all the shrillness it brings with it, singers face a tougher challenge than ever to maintain this balance – chiaroscuro – while they sing a programme of often contrasting styles.

In this respect, Bel Canto singing is as relevant to the modern singer as it was in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Daily exercises and self-assessment are essential for the maintenance of our singing voices. We must rely on our ear to continually maintain this balance.

From personal experience, as a professional cross over and avant garde singer, I struggled and continue to struggle daily with this task. However, Bel Canto training in the early days and now a refocussing on Bel Canto for the next three years is my refuge. Bel Canto is as relevant today as it was in the past.

To demonstrate this, rather than a classical demonstration, today I have a demonstration of Norah Jones’s song ‘Come Away with Me’. Here I have stripped a couple of things away (the feeling of ‘o’ and and beginning the note on pitch, for example) to come up with a version of this pop/jazz/folk song that, hopefully, is reasonably true to the style but yet is vocally ‘safe’ and can be sung to an audience of up to 100 or so without a microphone. I think this is important because the modern audience that I love to sing to (communities across Southern Africa and the Antipodes) does not want to hear classical music from beginning to end. What a drag.

In addition, I must know how to teach my students modern styles as well as classical. ( I must also be able to educate my students how to adapt to classical music post-Donizetti – a wretched task if one is to avoid shouting from beginning to end- but I will save that for posts in the future).

Come away with me – Norah Jones

Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.
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