November 5, 2013

Bel Canto: A healthy approach to beautiful singing

Bel Canto: A healthy approach to beautiful singing

Much like Goldilocks, CIM vocalists are always striving for just right. Not too loud, not too soft, not too dark, not too light, not too strong, not to subtle, not to slow or too fast, just balance.

Voice Department Head Mary Schiller explains that she wants CIM to be a haven for Bel Canto, an Italian method of singing that focuses on free, unforced sound known for its balance, beauty and seamlessness of tones. Free sound happens when the breath is perfectly coordinated with the muscles that control it.

Dr. Schiller, Dr. Dean Southern, Clifford Billions and Vinson Cole work with 50 to 55 students each semester. The size of the department also speaks to balance—it’s both small enough that all the faculty members know all the voice students and large enough to support two fully-staged opera productions each season (and a scenes program in the spring).

There is an open and constant exchange of ideas among faculty members, all of whom focus on Bel Canto principles such as appoggio (Italian for “to lean”) and legato (a seamlessness of tones) to ensure students have the building blocks for successful careers and vocal longevity.

To achieve Bel Canto, a vocalist has to get rid of the muscular tensions. “We need to find those holds and tensions, the muscular garbage,” Dr. Schiller said. “When there isn’t free, unforced sound, one finds those tensions in the neck, jaw, throat, back, tongue, shoulders. All those muscles are trying to stabilize the larynx but having the opposite effect.” Dr. Schiller and her colleagues work with students on building a physical awareness of where their tensions manifest.

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A sign in Dr. Southern’s studio echoes this sentiment, “Rigidity is the enemy of beautiful singing.” He explains that even he is guilty of holding on (to the muscles.) “I caught myself holding my shoulder up a little bit, and there’s a dichotomy because you feel it, which is what you think you want in singing—to feel it. But when you DON’T feel it is when you’re singing correctly and it sounds even better.It’s free sound.” Students need to engage the entire mid section and see expansion all the way around, keeping the chest free. Lower sides and back muscles need to be involved in proper breathing, not just the stomach.

“It seems as if it’s in vogue to pressurize the voice, make it too large too soon,” said Dr. Schiller of singers she sees when she’s away at summer festivals. “Trying for that big sound can upset breath flow and causes the vocal folds to press too tightly together. It’s just not a healthy way of singing. It causes that ‘red in the face’ moment.”

Returning to the idea of free, unforced sound, Dr. Southern said “I was trying to explain this concept in Graz [Austria] this summer, and I paraphrased Clifford [Billions]. He said that you want to radiate a beautiful tone, rather than drive it.”

Like athletes, vocalists must constantly train in a balanced way to maintain control. It can take a lifetime to perfect all the different pieces of the body working together in just the right way at just the right time. Even the most famous singers, such as Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland, have said they must find their voice anew each day.

Just as an instrumentalist must provide proper care for his instrument, so must a vocalist care for her voice. Good health, nutrition and proper amounts of rest and hydration also help to rid the body of these tensions, while physical fitness helps with muscle control and breathing.

“All the tools we teach are about painting the mood, illustrating the story, the poem and the character. Creating a work of artistry,” said Dr. Schiller.

Read how these tools inspired one donor to give to the CIM voice program on page 18 of the Fall 2013 Issue of Notes magazine.


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It’s How You Say It

“Vocalists have something that our instrumental friends don’t,” said Dr. Dean Southern. “We have words.”


For American vocalists, these words are often in a language that is not their own. By the time they graduate, CIM students must have taken one year each of French, Italian and German at Case Western Reserve University. They also take diction classes at CIM, learning to translate the language into the international phonetic alphabet.

“Free, loose, fast diction is the goal for singing,” said Dr. Southern. “Not the robotic pronunciation that occurs when most people think of diction. Consonants should be released naturally, not pushed out.”

“Students are often surprised by how fast they move their mouths to speak, but yet they go into slow motion when they sing. It is a major component of our teaching to get those two speeds to match,” he continued.

Dr. Schiller strongly encourages students to attend festivals, workshops and competitions abroad for immersion into other languages. The exposure helps them pick up regional dialects and increases comprehension.

“Ideally, we want them to be able to THINK in the language they are singing,” Dr. Schiller said.