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Bel Canto…Beautiful Singing

Text by: Amy Carpenter

B

eginning

I started performing when I was four years old. My first "gig" was a church talent show for which my mom made me a darling little Bo-peep costume and I sang, "My Mother Told Me Never Tell a Lie." I still have a photo and recording of my performance, along with the sheet music, the printed program and the costume, which I now let my own little girls wear. I was the hit of the show, the apple of everyone's eye, the cutest little thing on the block, and I knew it! I loved getting on that stage and standing in the spotlight. I loved music, and I loved making people laugh and cry when I performed.

I continued performing for the next few years. I sang "Tomorrow" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" from the Broadway musical Annie. I sang at wedding receptions, in church, at school, and in more talent shows. I received coaching from my accompanist but never took formal voice lessons. I started piano lessons in first grade, but my first love was always singing. Performing on the piano is more of an inward experience, hiding behind the instrument and getting lost in the music. When I sang, I loved the connection I could have with the audience. I could look them in the eye. I could see the emotions passing on their faces. I could express myself through my body, my face, and my voice. It was symbiotic, and I thrived on that interconnectedness.

Then, when I was eight years old, something awful happened — at least, it was awful to an eight-year-old who loved to perform. I was singing the song, "Where is Heaven," in church. When I got to the second verse, the lights went out in my mind, and I completely forgot the words. It was so bad, I couldn't continue, even after looking at the pianist's music. I'm sure it had something to do with my grandmother's long illness and death that had occurred around that time. Whatever the cause, the memory block was something that had never happened to me before, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I was embarrassed, frustrated, and scared. I never sang a solo in church again until high school. Instead, I sang in choirs, where I could melt into the background, and it didn't matter if I forgot the words.

Bel Canto

During my sophomore year of high school, a family friend convinced my mother (who wanted me to focus on one thing and would not allow me to learn any other instrument, take dance lessons, or participate in sports) to allow me to take voice lessons. She recommended a wonderful, kind lady named Joan Neff who had a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice. Joan coaxed me into performing in recitals without the crutch of sheet music or words written on a note card. She helped me overcome my fear and pushed me to get out of my restrictive comfort zone. I will always be immensely grateful for her guidance.

Joan also trained me in a special vocal style called Bel Canto. Bel Canto, directly translated from Italian, means "beautiful song," although most people translate it as "beautiful singing." It can refer to a particular opera style of the 19th century, but it also refers to a quality of singing that focuses (obviously) on the beauty of the voice. It was the style of singing used in baroque and classical music. For models, my voice teacher had me listen to great operatic Bel Canto voices like Kiri Te Kanawa, Beverly Sills, Dawn Upshaw, and Kathleen Battle. Later, I studied another great singer of Bel Canto, Maria Callas. The light, airy beauty and quickness of Mozart and Handel are perfect for the Bel Canto voice. When you hear a voice singing trills and runs and jumps, you are hearing Bel Canto. It is coloratura and lyrical, and it reaches into your very core, resonating with the natural beauty that lies hidden within you, whether you're singing it or listening to it.

The Instrument

A singer knows that singing doesn't just come from the throat — it comes from the entire body. The first step in singing is taking a breath. As you breathe in, the diaphragm, a long muscle that sits between the ribs and the stomach, pulls down, increasing lung capacity and allowing air into your lungs. Then, as you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up to its original position, pushing air out of your lungs and into your throat. If you're just breathing, the air moves silently past the vocal cords. But if you want to sing, your vocal cords — two tiny folds in the throat that you use for talking and swallowing — contract a bit, flapping back and forth against each other, vibrating and creating sound as the air passes though. The vocal cords lengthen and shorten as you talk and sing, changing the pitch of your voice. In addition, men have longer vocal cords than women, which accounts for their deeper voices and women's higher voices. The length of the vocal cords is also responsible for which part your voice naturally sings —bass, tenor, alto or soprano.

The vocal cords are fragile and can be injured easily, so it is important to use proper breathing and sing correctly. Screaming, talking too loud, and pushing the voice (neglecting to rest it) can create nodules on the vocal cords. These nodules result from the vocal cords being pushed together too tightly when trying to produce loud sound. If nodules become too large, they can interfere with normal sound production. The voice can become hoarse and eventually lose most, if not all, of its ability to produce sound. Bel Canto actually uses the healthiest vocal technique. It doesn't require heavy singing, and it focuses on proper breathing to produce beautiful sound rather than trying to get that sound mostly from the vocal cords. It provides an important foundation for branching out and singing in other, more strenuous styles, such as belt (Broadway and other modern power singing).

Getting air past the vocal cords, however, is not the end of the process of singing. The air, along with the sound, continues from the throat into the mouth and nose. It resonates with the bones and muscles in the face and head. Where you place the sound in your head effects what it sounds like to the listener. If you place that sound all in the "mask" area of the head (nose, nasal and sinus cavities), it will have an annoying nasal quality to it. If you place it at the back of your throat, it will sound low and garbled. The trick (and the focus of Bel Canto style) is to get that sound centered so it's a good mixture of mask and throat sound.

Singing sound is also changed by the way you move your mouth, especially the tongue and the lips. Some sounds are just inherently ugly — a twanged r, the sustained ee, a lingering s, and the drawn-out diphthong (a combination of two or more vowels stuffed into the same syllable) to name a few. In order to avoid these ugly noises, classical singers have special diction they use when singing. They roll their r's, pass quickly through consonants to linger on vowels, and avoid diphthongs by choosing the longest vowel to sing on, barely singing the shorter vowel. In traditional Bel Canto style, diction is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of producing a beautiful sound, leading to some very difficult-to-understand performances. I believe, however, that it is possible to sing beautifully and still be understood. In fact, a song is more beautiful when the message is understood as well as felt through the music.

Exercising

If you took piano lessons when you were young, you may remember practicing scales and other mindless assignments over and over and over again. You may have thought your piano teacher heaped them on to punish you, but these types of assignments actually have an immensely important purpose. They are called exercises. They teach proper technique. They teach you where to place your fingers, and they help you develop dexterity as you slowly increase the speed of your play. They also limber up your muscles, making your performance even better, just like the warm-ups and stretches you do before playing ball, running, or dancing. Singers also have entire sets of exercises that teach them proper technique and get them ready for performing. Here are three exercises that can help you establish a good foundation for singing.

Get ready
Before you start singing, make sure your posture is correct. Your entire body is the instrument, so if one thing is out-of-kilter, it can really affect your voice. Pretend you are a puppet held up on a string that passes through the top of your head and down through the center of your body. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back and chest out. Make sure your neck is in line with your back. Keep your chin held comfortably, not tucked in on your chest or jutting upward and out. Your feet should be shoulder-length apart, and legs should be straight with knees loose (not locked — this can lead to decreased blood flow and ultimately, fainting). You want to stand up straight but still be loose like a puppet. Clenched muscles will interfere with your sound! Fighting gravity is a constant battle, so make sure you check your posture once in a while as you sing.

Breathe
Lie down on your back, on the floor. Put a small book (my voice teacher had me use a hymnal) on your stomach and breathe in, focusing on moving that book up towards the ceiling. The top of your chest should not move at all—only that book (and some lower rib cage expansion). (Watch a baby breathe—they know how to breathe, moving their tummies out as they breathe in.) Then push that air out slowly in a sustained "sss." Try to draw it out over five seconds, keeping the chest up and not allowing it to cave in. The book should move back down. Then breathe in (remember to move that book up!) and push out the "sss" for five seconds. Do this five times total. As you get better at control, you can increase your sustainment time by a second or two (I can comfortably do 30 seconds). You can also get up off the floor and try it without the book. Instead, you can hold your hands over your abdomen and feel that diaphragm pushing the stomach area out. The lower you breathe, the better.

Place the voice
Part 1: To get your voice in the right place in your head, sing a five-note scale up and then back down (e.g. C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C) on a rolled r or razzed lips (blowing through the lips — if you can't roll your r or razz, then hum). You may feel extremely silly doing this, but it can really help you feel your voice in the "mask" area of the face. Move up a half-step and sing the scale again. Continue these scales, always moving up a half-step for the next one, until your voice just can't go any higher. (This is also a great exercise for increasing upper range.) After you get to the top of your range, sing an open "ah," starting at the top of the scale (feel that voice vibrate in the "mask") and moving back down (e.g. G-F-E-D-C). Your "ah" should feel like a yawn — open throat and open mouth. In fact, yawning is a sign that you are breathing right. When you finish the scale, move down a half-step and repeat. Keep going until you get to your starting point again.

Part 2: Continue your scale downward (G-F-E-D-C), this time singing "nyang-nyang-nyang-nyang" (the a should be pronounced like the a in sang). Your "nyang" should sound very nasal and annoying, and it should feel like you've got peanut butter stuck on the roof or your mouth that you're trying to get off. Again, it's really silly, but it should help you feel that voice in the mask area. Especially for women, it's important to keep your voice in this "mask" area of the lower voice rather than switching to the often ugly (and damaging) chest voice. Men usually use their chest voice, so this doesn't apply to them as much. Keep moving a half-step down after each scale until you can't go any further. This exercise can also help you increase your lower range.

The Soul

Proper technique is only the beginning of beautiful singing. If you focus only on technique, you lose the soul of your singing, a phenomenon I know all too well.

When I went to college, I chose vocal performance and pedagogy as my first major. In order to enter this program, I had to take a group vocal class. Our teacher was Clayne Robison, a leading researcher of what makes a voice beautiful. He showed us videos of different singers and asked us to pay attention to how they breathed, how many vibratos they cycled per minute (vibrato is that pulsating change in pitch that opera singers are known for), what their posture was like, etc. He used this research to teach us how to get the best out of our voices. It was fascinating and enlightening, but in the process, I started focusing too much on technique and forgot why I loved singing so much. In addition, everything we did was designed to prepare us for our "finals" — juries. During a jury, you sing before a panel of judges who then decide your fate. They decide whether you move on in your major or if you need to look at some other alternative — either changing majors or waiting and trying again. I became so stressed out, it began to show in my voice. I developed laryngitis because of sickness and stress, and tense muscles caused my vibrato, which should have been developing at that point, to be virtually non-existent. I failed my juries (though I got a B in the class), and I ended up hating to sing. I knew that the vocal major wasn't the right one for me, so I switched to psychology.

When I went home for summer break, I contacted my old voice teacher, Joan Neff, and began taking voice lessons from her again. She helped me climb out of the pit I'd pushed myself into. I stopped obsessing about the technical stuff and regained my love for singing and performing. I found my soul again.

The soul is what makes a voice beautiful. In fact, it's what makes anything beautiful. What we hear and see is only the surface of a richer depth of emotion and expression. While technique is important as an avenue which allows us to get what's in our hearts and imaginations out into the world, it can never stand alone. It needs the spirit to lift it to the higher plane of beauty. Some of the most beautiful singing I've ever heard has come from people whose voices crack with emotion and who place their hearts on the altar of song. They open their souls to their audience, embracing them with their vulnerability. That is what resonates within our own souls. That is what I loved even when I was a little girl — sharing my heart and soaking up the warmth emanating from other receptive souls. Singing is about sharing, teaching, and giving. It's about producing a "joyful noise" that can find its way into the deepest recesses of the heart. It's an experience I eagerly seek after and rediscover again and again.