Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

James Stark: Bel Canto, A History

James Stark. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 

If you have been a Boot Camper for any time at all you will have noticed that many of us here are into reading historical treatises on singing. So there was no better choice for the first selection for our Book Club than James Stark’s Bel Canto.  I first read this book in a graduate course on the history of vocal pedagogy at University of North Texas with Dr. Stephen Austin. It made for an excellent framework in which to read treatises by Garcia, Lamperti and other famous pedagogues of the last few hundred years. Many of the issues were and are quite controversial (which led to lively discussions in our Wednesday night group). I know I have learned so many new things re-reading it, especially with other singers and teachers each contributing their experience and insight.

Stark does a great job of organizing the vast amount of writing on vocal pedagogy breaking it up into chapters on the onset (The Coup de la Glotte: A Stroke of Genius), resonance (Chiaroscuro: The Tractable Tract), registration (Registers: Some Tough Breaks), breathing (Appoggio: The Breath Be Damned!), vibrato (Vocal Tremulousness: The Pulse of Singing), style (Idiom and Expression: The Soul of Singing), and the very meaning of bel canto (Bel Canto: Context and Controversy). Stark’s writing is clear and ideas are thoroughly discussed, however, there’s no avoiding the confusion that arises from a lack of consistent terminology with which to discuss the singing voice. Confusion is therefore inevitable and much time has been spent in Book Club detangling some of the ideas presented. But that also made for some of the most lively and informative discussions. If you are a member of Bel Canto Boot Camp, I highly recommend joining the Book Club!

None of these topics is without controversy, of course. Here are a few examples:

On the onset Stark sides with Garcia in advocating for a light glottal stroke at the onset (coup de la glotte). In most of the vocal ped literature we read negative comments about the glottal onset, but according to Stark (who prefers the term firm phonation to glottal): 

In the instant before phonation begins, the arytenoid cartilages are drawn firmly together. During phonation, the combined muscular forces of adductive tension, medial compression, and longitudinal tension maintain strong glottal resistance to the breath. There is a large closed quotient of the folds, a vertical phase difference in the pattern of closure, and a muco-undulatory wave that may affect voice quality. Strong glottal resistance leads to raised breath pressures and low rates of airflow through the glottis. The resulting voice quality at the sound source is rich in high-frequency components.  (p. 31)

Stark also spends a few pages debunking the application of the “Bernoulli Effect” to the vocal onset. 

One further debate about the coup de la glotte represents yet another misunderstanding of Garcia’s theory and is also related to the question of muscular balance versus relaxation. This twist grew out of an infatuation with the aerodynamic principle known as the ‘Bernoulli effect.’ It serves as a case history in how a theory can be shoehorned into a misbegotten shape in order to fit a new concept. (p. 22)

At the beginning of a chapter-long discussion of breath and appoggio:

I have seen some professional singers with heaving chests, some with protruding bellies, some with raised shoulders, and some with bouncing epigastriums, all of whom sang beautifully, regardless of their breathing methods. I have also seen awkward postures that have not adversely affected good singing…. (p. 92)

There’s much more. It’s a book rich in sources and context that leads to further discussion and in many cases suggests the need for further research, which, of course, is still ongoing. I think those of us in the Book Club have enjoyed our weekly meetings. There are still a couple left Wednesdays at 8pm (EST) for any Boot Camp members who still want to join. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Reading Fast and Slow

This is the first of many blog posts I will be writing about books, articles and other written (both print and electronic) resources concerning, opera, singing, and various related topics. I embark on this while being told by multiple people on a regular basis that no one reads any more. I disagree. People read a lot these days. It’s just that much of our time is spent reading the flood of email, social media posts, signs, memos and the rest of the endless barrage of words that come at us without ceasing. So the problem isn’t that we aren’t reading. We’re all reading a lot. So what I’m asking people is not to read more, but to take a few minutes every day and reading something that’s longer than 130 characters (the Twitter post limit). 

Short, quick shots of text are good at hitting our buttons to make us feel happy (kittens, puppies, otters) or angry (politics) but they don’t really make us think and don’t cause us to reflect. Even more importantly, they don’t allow us to take in new information, especially any new information or points of view that contradict what or how we already think. What I’m asking for is more “slow thinking” or in this case reading. I’m borrowing this idea from a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). He compares fast thinking (reading a short sign or message and reacting without much need to think) and slow thinking (what we have to do to solve a problem or in this case consider a new idea or point of view). We do a lot of the former but not nearly enough of the latter. 

A good example of the kind of reading I would like to encourage are Rachelle Jonck’s daily posts on this website. Rachelle spends a good amount of time trying to unpack the practical matters involved in each of the Vaccai exercises or other singing matters. Although many of these skills are fundamental to singing, they are no more easily explained that mastered. Skipping over them and jumping to the exercises is a mistake although that’s what often happens. Take a breath, click on one of her posts and start reading. Take your time. Think about it. Re-read if necessary. (There’s no prize for speed-reading here.) Come back to it as often as necessary. Re-reading something after a time away is always a good idea because after practicing the skills you will be reading it with new eyes. Don’t expect to absorb everything at once. Do expect to put in some time. Read, reflect, breathe, practice. Repeat as necessary. 

I’m also going to recommend a book every week that I’ve read and think will be useful to at least some of you. But first I’d like to encourage everyone to start getting into the habit of putting down the devices and taking some time to read and reflect. There’s a lot to learn. And the field of musicology has taken some interesting turns over the past couple of decades which makes for more lively reading and much that is applicable to singers. 

Read, reflect, breathe, practice. Repeat as necessary.