Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy

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University of Toronto Press, 2003 - Music - 325 pages
3 Reviews

In this well documented and highly readable book, James Stark provides a history of vocal pedagogy from the beginning of the bel canto tradition of solo singing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the present. Using a nineteenth-century treatise by Manuel Garcia as his point of reference, Stark analyses the many sources that discuss singing techniques and selects a number of primary vocal 'problems' for detailed investigation. He also presents data from a series of laboratory experiments carried out to demonstrate the techniques of bel canto.

The discussion deals extensively with such topics as the emergence of virtuoso singing, the castrato phenomenon, national differences in singing styles, controversies regarding the perennial decline in the art of singing, and the so-called secrets of bel canto.

Stark offers a new definition of bel canto which reconciles historical and scientific descriptions of good singing. His is a refreshing and profound discussion of issues important to all singers and voice teachers.

  

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I love this book! Stark leaves no stone unturned in tracing this subject. It contains the names and works of of the most relevant (and not so relevant) pedagogues and scientists with fingers in the pie since Maffei's discorso of 1562. It is such a great starting point for someone seriously interested in the history of singing technique. I have now an even bigger list of works to study thanks to Professor Stark. I recommend this book to any singer who is not sure they are interested, or have already been turned off by, the subject of vocal pedagogy. Stark shows the sources of many issues of confusion, and there are many, which is helpful in its way even if the issues remain unclear. A good example is the strange review on this page where the reviewer admits to not having read the book but vehemently defends the value of the work of Herbert-Caesari. If the reviewer had read the book, they might have seen that the word "natural" has very particular significance in very particular contexts, several different ones, depending on the topic (Caccini on register, or Zacconi on vibrato, or Garcia's rivals on coup de glotte). The overall topic of vocal pedagogy sparks very strong feelings, but we don't have a level playing field of definitions. I don't agree with all of Stark's interpretations of Lamperti, but that's just me and my personal experience. That's why a book like this is so useful to a field, a minefield really, of semantics and emotional attachments to concepts. It gives historical perspective and peels back a curtain. Students of singing have so much to learn as it is, but the story told in this book is totally relevant and well worth reading. 

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

Hi:
I haven't read this work and, for all I know it may be an admirable book.
I do take serious exception, though, to the comment I read about Edgar Herbert-Ceasari.
The author says that Herbert
-Caesari maintained that bel canto technique is based on a natural voice. He therefore takes the leap of imagining (he obviously did not even peruse any of the books) that Caesari has nothing to say about singing except that it must be "natural" - and even questions why Caesari would have written a book at all!
In point of fact, Caesari's book "The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone" mentions this as a starting point, saying that, centuries ago in Italy, lovers of beautiful singing would seek out people with absolutely beautiful natural singing voices and STUDIED the way that they produced their voices, setting their observations down. They then taught others who did not possess the natural facility (like most of us), to sing in the way the naturally gifted did. This, says Caesari at the beginning of his book in the section dealing with history, was the beginning of the technique.we know as bel canto.
HC Then goes on, with the precision of a laser, to explain concisely and precisely, exactly how to sing correctly, to the point of showing every note, from the lowest to the highest, on every vowel!
In point of fact Herbert-Caesari's books are worth their weight in gold (literally) to anyone searching for a consistent, reliable, solid, easy singing technique.. They are the Holy Grail!!
The author does a horrendous disservice to his readers by denigrating this fabulous author.
I heartily recommend that Mr. Stark procure a copy of "The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone" and read it instead of just setting down someone else's biased summary, which I suspect we are reading here. Mr. Stark will quickly see for himself the truth of what I am saying and I can only hope that he will find the integrity to amend his text.
a well-thumbed copy of the book I mentioned should be the prize possession of every teacher and every student of singing on earth and I believe the only reason it is now out of print is because of off-handed misrepresentations such as this one.
By the way, it is available on Amazon.com and I highly recommend anyone reading these comments to buy it and read it and add their comments to mine.
And if you've already read any of Herbert-Caesri's books (one with a forward by Gigli saying that this is exactly how he sang!) you know what I'm talking about. You're probably just as outraged as I am. Please don't remain silent. Do add your comment to mine.
Thank you.
 

Contents

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About the author (2003)

James Stark is a singer, vocal instructor and musicologist, with a lifelong interest in vocal pedagogy. He has taught for the last twenty-five years at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.

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