June 9, 2010

Bel Canto Breathing

In my last post, I wrote about Lucie Manén's the Art of Singing. One interesting thing about the book is Manén's referencing of Dr. George C. Cathcart, an ear, nose and throat specialist, who studied voice in Italy "with Scafati, whose own teacher had been Crescentini, one of the last of the celebrated castrati." Cathcart gave Manén two books of exercises, one by Allessandro Busti, Studio di canto: Metodo classic del Conservatorio Reale di Napoli (1863), and the other by Gaetano Nava (the teacher of Charles Santley), Metodo Practico di Vocalizzazione (c. 1870). Cathcart explained the texts to Manén, and "the special breath-control required for producing the particular Bel Canto timbres," and it was then that she realized that "the method I had originally been taught (by Anna E. Schoen-René) was, in fact, that of Bel Canto."

Of course, this sent me looking for the two texts mentioned (I found the Nava on Abebooks) as well as information by Cathcart himself about 'bel canto breathing'. What did I find? An essay Cathcart wrote for The Singing of John Braham (1944) by John Mewburn Levien - a student of Manuel Garcia. John Braham was England's first leading tenor. He studied with Venanzio Rauzinni, who was a student of Nicola Porpora-  the main root of the Old Italian School.

Here are some of Cathcart's thoughts on breathing in the essay titled "A Scientific Justification of the Historic Method of Voice Production".

The first resonator is the chest, and it is obvious that the larger it becomes the greater will be the size of the tone which it resonates, and therefore the first essential to make it fulfil its function as a resonator is to increase the size as much as possible. The old Italian school taught that there were two kinds of breathing, of which one was carried out chiefly by the diaphragm, and was characterized by the swelling out of the front abdominal wall and lower part of the chest, and was the proper kind of breathing during sleep; the other was characterized by an increase in seize of the upper part of the chest, accompanied by a sinking in rather than a swelling out of the front abdominal wall. By the latter method the lungs are also inflated to their great extent with the least possible exertion, and are thus enabled to take in a very large quantity of air.  p. 24-25

After the chest the most important resonator is the pharynx. Upon its proper development and use depends all the richness, quality and depth of tone of a well-produced voice, and herein lies the difference between the voices of the old school and the voices of the modern school. The pharynx can be enlarged in three directions; from top to bottom, from side to side, and from back to front. It is another of the secrets of the old Italian school that it cannot be enlarged from side to side, or from back to front, until it is first enlarged from top to bottom, and it can only be so enlarged by causing the larynx to sink. Now the extent to which the larynx descends is entirely dependent upon the extent to which the lungs are inflated. The greater the inflation of the lungs the more the trachea sinks down into the chest, thereby carrying the larynx with it. It is for this reason that the old Italian school attached so much importance to thoracic breathing. The writer well remembers hearing Signor Scafati say to a bass who's voice he was trying: "Voi respire troppe basso, Signore" ("You are breathing too low"). p. 26

As far as controlling the breath is concerned, this was learned unconsciously. Signor Scafati did not trouble the pupil with any directions to hold back the breath during the elementary stage, well knowing that by the time all sense of "push" had disappeared the tone would have become balanced, and there would no longer be any waste of breath. Signor Scafati did not know how the breath was held, he only knew that it was held in the larynx, and that all efforts to control it consciously, by "consciously keeping the ribs extended and the midriff down," invariably led to the voice being stiff and throaty. p. 29
Manuel Garcia, who was John Mewburn Levien's teacher, wrote instructions that echo the thoughts above.
In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach. - A complete treatise on the art of singing, Part I, p 33, translated and edited by Donald V. Pasche, 1984.  
Others have translated the line "set the hollow of the stomach" from the original French as "draw in the abdomen."

Cathcart's essay makes for fascinating reading.  To read more, search WorldCat to find a copy near you.

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