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The Applications of Bel Canto Technique on Transgender Singing

Bel canto is an Italian term that translates to “beautiful singing.” In its original usage, bel canto refers to an operatic singing concept that was widely used in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, however the meaning of the term has changed over time. Today we will explore the roots of bel canto and ask ourselves the question, “what does bel canto mean today, and is it still a viable concept for modern singers?

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What is “bel canto?”

We can date the origins of bel canto all the way back to the Hellenistic period,1 which took place roughly between 323-146 BC. Hundreds of years later in the Renaissance, the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519) brought the concept of bel canto to new clarity. Da Vinci and his collaborators discovered that the voice is composed of different vocal registers (chest voice and head voice for example) and additional qualities which could be used to create a new way of singing and expression.2 In order to understand the aesthetic goals of bel canto it is helpful to look at the visual artistic ideal of Italy in the 15th century. In this era, da Vinci and his contemporaries mastered the technique of chiaroscuro, which is the Italian word for light and shadow. In chiaroscuro, the artist balances the powers of light and darkness to stunning effect. In the same way, bel canto is the balance of these same elements within the sonic realm.3 Light is our vocal brightness, and dark is our vocal roundness. When these two elements are perfectly balanced the voice is beautiful, strong, and clear while still retaining the dexterity to perform quick and elaborate vocal movements.


Bel canto continued to develop until it reached the height of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries with the compositions of Donizetti (1797-1848), Rossini (1792-1868) and Bellini (1801-1835).4 The works of these composers were so definitive that the term bel canto is now frequently used to refer directly to their compositions. However it is a mistake to think that bel canto is only a reference to repertoire of this era. Bel canto at its root refers to the “scientific technique of singing, which makes such repertoire possible.”5

What does “bel canto” mean today?

Bel canto is a musical concept that changed the course of western music, however it never became a codified singing technique. If you go to a teacher who offers bel canto training, there is no definitive method of instruction. Rather, the teacher will offer their own training method to help you to achieve the bel canto ideal (remember the definition: “beautiful singing”). Bel canto at its root is about the supreme balance between light and darkness, and there are different variations of vocal technique that can be used to achieve it. In this way, “bel canto training” has become synonymous with a higher level of voice training.

Bel canto training at Seattle Voice Lab

If you’re not an opera singer you may be wondering…why would I want to study bel canto?! It may surprise you to know that bel canto training can help you to become a better singer in whatever genre of voice you want to sing. This may be hard to imagine because many modern styles use tones that are not “beautiful” according to the bel canto ideal: vocal fry, intentional harshness, or extreme breathiness are just a few examples of vocal effects that are common in today’s popular music. However, studying bel canto will not prevent you from achieving these modern styles. On the contrary, bel canto training can give your voice a healthy foundation that enables you to perform these styles even more effectively. In addition, bel canto can help you to address any vocal issues you may have developed before training.

The bel canto concept evolved in a time where there were no microphones, which means that the voice had to be strong enough to carry over an orchestra with no amplification. Thus, the bel canto singer had to achieve extreme projection, beauty and fluidity without straining the voice.  One of the definitive qualities that sets bel canto apart from other singing techniques is its consistency. Bel canto requires the voice to be consistent throughout, meaning that the dynamic range will be small and the vocal tone will be precisely controlled.6 Bel canto operas are known for exceptionally ornate passages of coloratura where the voice must move through extremely quick and complex embellishments. The style demands that the tone and strength of the voice remain consistent throughout the coloratura, which requires immense skill and precise vocal training. Thus, this training method creates singers that are incredibly strong and able to control the exact position of the voice down to the subtlest movement. Being able to execute coloratura can help in many modern styles, such as pop and r&b, which use embellishments and vocal runs (the modern way to describe coloratura).

In many ways, having bel canto training is similar to being a dancer with a background in ballet. Because you have the skill, strength and knowledge necessary to sing the most difficult type of music, you are thus able to sing other styles (which are arguably much easier) with greater ease. In addition, this “classical” vocal technique can expand your options as a singer by giving you the ability to choose if and when you want to use bel canto techniques. In some cases, you may want to sacrifice the “beauty” of your voice for artistic expression. Examples of this would be: performing a rock song with added grit and vocal fry in the voice, or choosing to “belt” a high note with added weight to create a powerful effect. While these choices may not be considered technically “healthy,” bel canto technique can help you to perform them with your greatest possible vocal health, and can allow you to fluidly transition back to a healthier vocal tone when you are ready. In this way, bel canto increases your tools as a singer and helps to foster long, healthy singing careers in all types of music.

Bel canto technique for gender affirming voice training

The bel canto concepts of breath control and relaxation of the body are helpful to all singers in all types of singing. These elements are the foundation of your singing voice and when they are trained correctly they will enhance your ability for the rest of your life. In addition to these basic principles, bel canto may also be helpful in achieving goals in gender expression. 

Seattle Voice Lab has found that two key concepts have great success in masculinizing the voice: relaxation of the body and expansion of the vocal resonators. These concepts are also foundational in bel canto training, meaning that bel canto can be an elegant and straightforward way to translate your trans voice training skills to your singing. The qualities of a traditional bel canto voice – strong, round, full and rich – are qualities that are generally considered to be more masculine, so you may find that this technique gives you the characteristics you’re looking for. In addition, bel canto technique can give you larger control of your voice, as well as the ability to sing and project without strain, qualities which are truly invaluable.  

The bel canto breathing concept of appoggio may also be helpful in developing a more masculine sounding resonance. Since feminine speakers use way more air than masculine speakers, students new to masculinization may struggle to achieve the lower breath flow that is needed to create the tone they want. In appoggio, the breath pressure is precisely controlled by the engagement of the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles and the rib cage. This training offers you an easy way to create a viable sound while using less air.

Bel canto may be useful in training your vocal registers, which is also a key element of trans singing. In vocal masculinization, we bring the chest register up, and for vocal feminization, we bring the head voice down. This method mirrors bel canto training. In addition, bel canto can help you to hide your passaggio (the break between registers), which may be helpful for feminization.

Is bel canto right for you?

The decision to try bel canto technique is completely personal and your unique goals as a singer will determine your path forward. Bel canto has an advantage over other singing methods because it is a tried and true technique based on scientific principles, and you can trust this method to develop your voice, not ruin it. When done correctly, bel canto can help you to attain a happy and healthy voice that lends itself to supreme freedom and agility. If these are qualities that are important to you, bel canto may be the right training method for you.

Find your singing voice at Seattle Voice Lab

At Seattle Voice Lab we are proud to have helped thousands of trans voices across the world. We specialize in trans voice training for masculinization, feminization and androgynous speaking voices, as well as a singing program to help you translate your speaking training into a singing voice that is confident, healthy and thoroughly you. Click here to connect with our friendly staff to find out how trans voice training can transform your voice and your life. 

References

  1. Silva, G. et al. (1922). “The beginnings of the art of “bel canto”: Remarks on the critical history of singing. The Musical Quarterly. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/737912?seq=1 ↩︎
  2. Celani, L. et al. (1998). The tradition of Florentine bel canto. EIR. Retrieved from: 
    https://archive.schillerinstitute.com/fid_97-01/984_sub_moral_appen_PDFs/chapter-1.PDF
    ↩︎
  3. Amonson, C. (2017). The music major minute: Chiaroscuro: Find your light. Classical Singer Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.csmusic.net/content/articles/the-music-major-minute-7/ ↩︎
  4. Grey, A. (2016). Re-discovering the art of bel canto. East Tennessee State University. Retrieved from: https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1360&context=honors ↩︎
  5. Celani, L. et al. (1998). The tradition of Florentine bel canto. EIR. Retrieved from: 
    https://archive.schillerinstitute.com/fid_97-01/984_sub_moral_appen_PDFs/chapter-1.PDF
    ↩︎
  6. Wang, C. (2018) A new training technique for using the bel canto method to sing chinese songs. Texas Tech University. Retrieved from: https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/server/api/core/bitstreams/e1b0ed5b-cf4b-470f-88d3-b673b295cb03/content ↩︎