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).
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.