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.

Articulation in Singing

Manuel Garica

A singer who is not understood, wearies his auditors, and destroys almost all the effect of the music, by obliging them to make continual effort to catch the sense of the words.

Garcia, Manuel. Treatise on The Art of Singing, page 42.

2021 marks the second year of my three year project that I have affectionately named “The Lilli Lehmann Project”. Lilli Lehmann writes in her book “How to Sing”:

No letter, no syllable ought to be pronounced badly.

Lehmann, Lilli. How to Sing, page 279.

Here is a playlist I have assembled on Spotify of pupils of Anna Schoen-Rene, a friend and colleague of Lilli Lehmann as well as “descendant”, vocally speaking, of Porpora. In this playlist you will hear example after example of fine pronunciation. I especially love the Bass, Paul Robeson.

Here is a rough sketch of Porpora’s “descendants”. Incredible singers with first class pronunciation. Many of these singers wrote singing books which teach us how to pronounce well.

My whiteboard from Porpora to the Present Day…

These old singing books are still 100% relevant today. For example, Garcia reminds us on page 44 of “The Art of Singing” not to be negligent of the final consonant. Here is a simple folk song in which I am trying my hardest to remember to pronounce the final consonants. To use Garcia’s words, I am often guilty of neglecting final consonants!

The most important reason to study Garcia

The most important reason to study Garcia is to develop an easy way of singing. His method is common sense and natural. There is no forcing or using silly tricks.

Garcia’s singing exercises, if practised with determination, provide everything that is needed for singing. His singing books are available free on the internet.

Here is a video of me singing “Una Voce Poco Fa”. I am self-accompanying so it is not as easy for me as singing with a accompanist or orchestra but you will hopefully see it is easy and fun for me to sing. It is simple: I breath quietly and pronounce with a tongue that is mostly returning to or against the lower teeth. I feel no tension at all in my throat. I could sing for hours like this.

Rossini – Una Voce Poco Fa

I really recommend that singers who are struggling to give Garcia’s singing books a go.

Sustainable Operatic Singing vs Unsustainable

Here are three examples of my singing. The first two examples are sustainable. I can sing for hours on end and the next day I am ready to sing again. In fact, the first example is basically sight singing and was recorded at the end of hours of practice. The voice is as fresh as it was at the beginning of the day. The third example is unsustainable. It leaves me hoarse.


The difference is that the first two examples are an extension of my speaking voice. The third example is not. By the way, I wrote the Māori waiata (song), I hope you like it.

Sustainable Sound

What sort of tone should an Opera Singer make?

It is possible to form new habits!

Over Lockdown, I tore my vocal technique apart. I questioned everything. Changed a lot. Kept a lot. Fortunately, I was taught well and, even though I didn’t grasp everything at the time, my past teachers’ words are in my ears. Now, I am putting the pieces together to form a whole.

How do I know I am putting the pieces together correctly?

One way to know is to ask myself “does my singing sound like my speech?” One should sing as one speaks. I am not talking about my Kiwi accent! I am talking about the tone quality. Do I sound like me? Or am I trying to be someone else?

Here are some examples I recorded from today’s practice:

Baroque – Porpora – speech to singing
Romantic singing – Donizetti – speech to song
20th Century singing – Puccini – speech to song

The principle “sing as you speak” is also true for today’s popular song. Here are a couple of examples…

Folk/pop singing – Sting – speech to song
Jazz/pop singing – Norah Jones – speech to song

Demo of page 71 of Garcia’s ‘Art of Singing’

Garcia’s Treatise on the Art of Singing is having a profound effect on my singing.

On page 71, Garcia teaches us how to sing plain passages. In this post, I am going to try out his instructions on a short passage from Lucia’s Mad Scene. See the audio files below.

Plain Style

Garcia writes, on page 71 of his Treatise, ‘”..chief resources are – steadiness of voice, true intonation, choice of tone-color, swelled sounds of every variety, finest delicate shadings of forte-piano slurs, tempo and rubato, and neatness of articulation…[d]ifferent appoggiature, and trills, may be happily employed, and give pleasing relief to a melody.”

In this short passage from Lucia di Lammermoor’s ‘Mad Scene’, I am going to make the following artistic choices: swell each note approaching the top note, sing the top note piano and then diminuendo to ppp, trill on the Bflat combined with messa di voce, and then turn on the following note. Here goes…

Attempt One

I think the trill was a bit too long and uneven, here is a second version, this time with a fp on the top note followed by a dim to ppp. The trill is now shorter.

Attempt Two

Garcia’s Treatise is having a profound effect on my singing. I recommend using Garcia’s Treatise every day.

Hint: I tick each exercise when I have studied it because it gives me a sense that I am getting ‘somewhere’ with the book. I also diarise the exercises, for example, today I have to do numbers 7, 49, 63, 109, messa di voce and read page 71. I cross these off in my diary as I complete them. (I think if you don’t give yourself a sense of accomplishment, the book can be overwhelming.)

HINT: Write on Garcia’s Treatise to give yourself a sense you are making progress. It is a big book and can be overwhelming!

Tracing Porpora

Nicola Antonia Porpora

In 2021, I will be performing live. All of these concerts are building upon the techniques I am studying in historical vocal pedagogy. These live concerts are listed on this website. One of these concerts is called “Tracing Porpora”. This concert will be performed in May 2021, with Dr John Linker at the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral in New Zealand.

Tracing Porpora is a concert which features the extraordinarily beautiful, but difficult, music of Porpora, the great, great, great, great, great, great, grand daddy of the vocal technique I pursue and adore. This concert traces his legacy. Music includes music by Porpora, Mozart and Donizetti.

Here is a very rough diagram, showing Porpora at the top and the branch of singing teachers and pupils that I am studying. Many of these people wrote singing books, diaries etc. It is a wonderful resource for learning how to sing Bel Canto (Old Italian Singing School Method).

A rough family tree from Porpora to New Zealand

Here are some Spotify playlists I have created of singers listed on the whiteboard. These may be of use to young singers who are seeking to understand where their technique has come from. I hope you enjoy listening to these wonderful and, most importantly, original, singers.

Using the phone to improve singing

South Africa has seen one of the strictest and longest Lockdowns in the World. Since Covid-19 began to isolate us all, I have used this time to refresh my voice. Alongside the historical pedagogy, historical recordings and my own insights from practice, I have used the phone to record every note. In this way, the phone allows me to be both teacher and student without trying to perform both roles simultaneously.

In the old days, the Bel Canto teachers recommended mirrors. However, we are more fortunate! Video allows time to watch and analyse every movement.

The phone has proven to be a wonderful tool for fast tracking my progress. I set boundaries of half an hour by using the timer. Within the 30 minutes, I then record my singing in very small ‘lots’. Each ‘lot’ is no longer than 2 minutes. On average, the ‘lot’ is 40 seconds. I use audio and video, but mostly audio.

Short 30 minute sessions on a piece or scale is plenty of time. After 30 minutes I find it is better to put the piece away and allow the brain time to do its’ subconscious thing. For example, at the moment I am learning Lakme’s Bell Song. It is coming together quickly because I am spending less (but purposeful) time on it.

Recording every note on the phone and then listening back encourages reflection and also creates a moment’s rest. Rest is as important to developing singing as the actual singing itself. This rest has meant that during Lockdown I have been able to interrogate my technique and learn many Coloratura arias without harming my voice.

As well as using the timing and recording functions, I have uploaded recordings made on my iPhone on my website, YouTube and SoundCloud. This creates a pressure to perform and, also, a pressure to improve and replace the recording as quickly as possible. Once the recordings are improved they are uploaded and the old recording deleted. This gives a sense of purpose which is very important during this global disruption.

Finally, I have used the phone to counteract the isolation of Covid-19 by creating social media. This has included weekly thoughts on technique, sharing gems I find in historical pedagogy and enjoying others’ posts.

Thank you for reading this post, I would love some comments from you on how you use your phone in daily musical practice! We have to remain positive during this challenging time!

Don’t overthink!

Don’t overthink!

This week my singing reached a new stage. A stage I never thought possible. I sang through the 17 minute Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in the studio effortlessly. Even faults evident in my Lockdown Concerts earlier this year had disappeared. There was no tension. To my ear, as I sang, I sounded kind of weird, like a buzzy flute, but the recording revealed a sound like the old Gramophone records. How was this possible?

The answer is that this year, in Lockdown, I have fanatically studied historical pedagogy, reviews of Hermann Klein and recordings on Spotify of singers from the turn of the 20th Century. This information is free. Yes. Not a cent was spent. Plus, the information is simple. My mantra is now – don’t overthink.

Now that Lockdown is ending here in South Africa, I am returning to work with a vocal coach. This is proving invaluable because now I don’t have to split my energy between playing guitar and singing. Plus, South Africa is a singing nation with a wonderfully free environment for singing. My coach also believes in KISS. Keep it Simple Stupid!

Historical pedagogy books are freely available on the internet. There is no way I would waste my money on buying scientific singing books. How can I sing better by knowing the complex information these authors are pouring out? Even summaries of the old masters are confusing. It is easier and cheaper to read the old masters for myself!

Here is an example of information that is simple and useful.

William Shakespeare, author of The Art of Singing, written in 1910, on page 19, states the old Italian Masters believed that singing was good breath control combined with freedom of the tongue and throat. Yes. That is it. The book provides an example of how to practice breath control. Like Nike say – Just do it.

Freedom of the throat and tongue is very difficult for me because I overthink.

I was halfway to taming my tongue when Lockdown finished but not quite. My new vocal coach here in South Africa suggested an exercise to loosen my tongue which proved to be the piece in the puzzle I needed. Voila. The Mad Scene. Easy peesy. The exercise was simple to poke the tongue out and roll it whilst singing the notes of the aria. I had seen this before in South Africa but not in New Zealand. Like I say. Voila. A tongue too worn out to be a nuisance plus, more importantly, a shift of energy to the breath and my subconscious.

To summarise, William Shakespeare:

Breath + Freedom of tongue and throat = the Sensation of Voice Floating.

On this website I have referred more than once to Melba’s words ‘Don’t rely on your teacher’. I made this fatal error for years. No teacher will ever know me like I know me. But, I was lazy. I thought I could pay someone else to do the thinking for me.

Today’s post is a plea.

Give the historical pedagogy a decent go. Try it for a year. Combine it with listening to early recordings. Be prepared to sound awful. Record yourself. Try, try, try again. Remember Galli-Curci taught herself. She took four years before she ‘eloped’ with a score of Rigoletto to an audition.

The singers on the early recordings were not aliens. In fact, we are probably in better shape, health wise, today than they were. So, there is no excuse for us. Rather, we need to rid ourselves of our 21st Century tendency to think money can buy us a voice and, most of all, our tendency to overthink.

(Watch this space – I will add a couple of soundbites to this post over the next week when I have time😜 )

Example of relaxed tongue and breath creating a light relaxed sound and allowing for top notes to ping

To whom, am I singing?

Degas’s father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar by Edgar Degas, (French 1834 – 1917) about 1869 – 1872. Image downloaded from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This week, I pondered why I sounded so dreadful singing the Sei Ariette by Giuliani, written for voice and guitar/piano. I ran through a checklist in my mind – in tune? tempi? words? Then it occurred to me. To whom, am I singing? I answered this question by imagining a hall full of hundreds of people. And, this was the problem.

Above, we see the masterpiece by Degas. We see intimacy. We see Lorenzo Pagans, a tenor, playing the guitar to Degas’s father who is listening intently.

The next day, I imagined myself, singing to one person who was listening intently. I had no need for egotistical concerns of ‘do they like my sound’ or ‘can they hear my guitar ok?’. Rather, I sang to a person who believed ‘your voice and guitar is enough’. This person had never heard 20th Century music, let alone a rock band. The world was a quieter place. This intimacy in performance demands Bel Canto technique and faith.

I recorded my attempt. I was pleasantly surprised. Giuliani’s Sei Ariette came alive. The songs were elegant. And, I was using a fraction of my voice. It was a revelation. Thanks to Degas.

%d bloggers like this: