Review of the September, 2014 Choral Journal article “Rehearsal Break: Vocal Versatility in Bel Canto Style” by Ethan Sperry and Mary Goetze, Vol. 55, No. 2.
Recently I returned from a mission trip to India where I was responsible for leading music to children who were more than willing to oblige. When it came their turn to teach our team, their vocal stylings were vibrant and unabashed. I later mentioned to members our team that India uses different modalities for singing and the reactions were: “oh – I thought they were just singing off-key” and “it was very hard to listen to the same sounds for so long.” In addition to India, I have led music in the U.S.A., China, Thailand, and France. I was happily surprised to find the above article in next month’s Choral Journal discussing non-western musical techniques as they relate to the bel canto style. I agree with the authors that it is critical to listen to recordings of indigenous peoples (or the people themselves) in order to grasp the timbre of a piece. It would be naive to look only at a score and guess at the vocal timbre based upon western musical notation. (p. 61 “The Why”) Bringing vocal timbres from non-native songs to our choirs in the U.S.A. requires diligent preparation. The article explains the basics of bel canto style, typically taught by vocal scholars in the western world, by explaining that there are the following elements:
1. Onset of tone from the breath
2. Lowered Laryngeal position
3. “Forward” placements of tone (a subjective point made clearer in the article)
4. Blending of registers to maximize range with a preference for head register. (P. 62, ¶ 2)
Under further instruction as one dives into the article the statement, “Don’t be afraid to let your ear be your only guide,” should be taken as a bit of a caution to those of us who strive to get out of our heads even though it is crucial to obtain excellent listening skills. (P. 62, ¶ 4)
Under the section Laryngeal Position there is an important distinction: “In contrast to bel canto, which calls for lowered larynx and lengthened vocal tract, a shortened vocal tract produced by raising the larynx (or simply not lowering it) is common to numerous non-bel canto vocal styles.”
Under Registration and Pitch we learn that in foreign music, the chest voice is brought as high as can be mustered, making for lower female voices. “One myth of bel canto is that it is healthy to sing in chest voice all the time. This is contradicted by generations of singers from myriad cultures who sing for hours a day in their chest voices with no vocal harm. However, singing in one register naturally tends to strengthen the muscles used in that register.” Male voices in other cultures have been known to use more falsetto, stretching the higher ranges of all male voice types. (P. 63, column 1)
In the Resonance columns are the “forward” placement discussions which state that “there are far more forward placements to be found in the voice than what bel canto thinks of as forward.” Customarily, one will find nasality in other cultures that varies greatly in resonant spaces depending on palate placement. There is a wonderful chart listed in the final column of page 63, duplicated below, to help choirs develop the extent to which they can explore resonances:
1-2 = too dark to be used for anything other than humorous effect
3 = Slavonic church music
4 = British church music
5 = What we have probably been using in our normal choral singing
6 = Italian bel canto solo singing
7 = Modern pop singing
8 = Indian (not Native American) or Chinese singing
9-10 = too bright to be used for any thing other than humorous effect
Special Techniques on P. 64 discusses ornamentation, bleating, yodeling, köömii (overtones), and vocal whistling. With these techniques, the authors urge vocalists to study close enough with a person who is native to the sound in order to empathize with the “physical sensations” elicited by making the sound. One can also learn by reproducing sounds via quality recordings if adaptable to non-visual queues.
The article intersects with what I have learned in my on-site studies of many cultures. The Amish in Indiana may use a western scale but the timbre is non-bel canto in that it is very palate-forward with a straight and loud tone. Universal popular music also depends on a higher larynx, palate-forward and unblended sounds. There is a strong distinction between chest and head voice in pop music that is accepted. Today’s pop music also implements the “yodel” found in German and Baroque stylings. Southern Indian vocalists have both pop and Hindu stylings in their musical adaptations today because of Bollywood films and cultural musical modes. They use a yodel that is very high in the palate and forward in the nasal cavity, just as that used in China. Much of the vocal sounds can also be heard in their instrumentation. The tabla resembles the yodel and the flute a whistle. Other cultural music is not unlike jazz improvisation where a vocalist scats as if she is singing a guitar or piano riff. The vocalists are used to hearing the timbres of instruments in their section of the world and they stylize their voices to the timbres of the culture. Bel canto is very much assimilated to the instrumental timbres of western orchestras.
I agree with Sperry and Goetze that non-bel canto music can be understood in all of its context. I believe that is very difficult but not unachievable and that educators should be teaching a variety of cultural music so that our view of choral music isn’t that of only western sounds. The questions raised in the article, with respective answers were:
1. Should we ask bel canto-trained singers to approximate the timbre of other styles of singing? Yes, and it will bring us to better understanding and friendship with those of other cultures.
2. How do other vocal styles differ from bel canto? Answered above.
3. How could we as choral conductors teach an unfamiliar vocal technique? By teaching ourselves, learning how to make the sounds and then passing on that knowledge through modeling and also by helping choir participants to find their own way into the voice.
4. Will approximation adversely affect their hard-won vocal technique and our choir’s sound? It was briefly discussed at the beginning of the article that singing in the style of another culture enhances solid bel-canto voices. It makes sense that just exploring the voice and its full capabilities would allow for better understanding, not only how to sing in culturally diverse settings, but also in western repertoires.