What exactly is the Historic Bel Canto Method?
The term "bel canto" has been so misused that it has almost lost all meaning nowadays. You can have voice instructors who teach their students entirely contrasting things while both claiming to teach "bel canto". Who is right and who is wrong? Well, we have to go back to the original teachers of bel canto and see what they taught in order to answer that question. My teacher's teacher studied with Manuel Garcia who is considered one of the great vocal teachers of all time.
One of the earliest teachers of bel canto was Giovanni Battista Mancini who wrote in his book Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing (1777), "The voice in its natural state is ordinarily divided into two registers, one of which is called the chest, the other the head or falsetto. I am speaking only of the voice in general divided into two registers, as commonly happens." Additionally, and not by any coincidence, the great Rosa Ponselle also wrote in her autobiography, "Although there is some disagreement about the number and kinds of registers in the singing voice, I have always found it accurate, as I've said elsewhere here, to dissect the voice into "chest" and "head" components. In various segments of a voice's overall range, either the head or chest sound can be emphasized, for any number of reasons." Likewise the old bel canto teachers Tosi, Bernacchi, and Pistocchi also discuss the vocal registers being naturally chest voice and falsetto or headvoice. Subsequently, this training developed the greatest singers in history, but is all but lost today. And that is a shame. One of the greatest singers of bel canto was Farinelli. There once was a contest held in Rome where the greatest trumpet virtuoso was put up against Farinelli to see which instrument, the voice or the trumpet, had more expressive capabilities. Farinelli was able to out sing the trumpet in every way. He had more power, more range, faster movement (fioratura) and better ability to diminish and swell a tone. And this was all possible for Farinelli because of his bel canto training of developing the two vocal registers.
The bel canto teachers greatly focused on developing each of the vocal registers so that they could be properly balanced and coordinated together. And there is a good reason for this as there are only two muscle groups in the larynx which produce sound. These muscle groups directly correlate to the two registers. So if one of the muscle groups is out of balance with the other one there will be varying vocal issues from vibrato problems, lack of range, constriction, and distortion. If you notice, most of the greatest singers in history - in any genre - have very good chest and falsetto/headvoice registers. From Enrico Caruso to Whitney Houston to Mahalia Jackson to Maria Callas. So it is vitally important that each register is fully developed for maximum ease, range, beauty and skill. So if a teacher claims to teach bel canto, but fails to work on the two registers, they are *NOT* really teaching bel canto.
I will be discussing exactly what constitutes falsetto/headvoice and chest voice in future posts. There is an exact physiology explanation for each.