One theme that emerged from this discussion is the oft-repeated idea that today's singers can't hold a candle to the luminaries of the late 19th-century Golden Age, and that it is futile for voice teachers to strive to improve upon the pedagogy of the Great Masters of the bel canto era.
There were without question extraordinary leaps forward in vocal pedagogy during the bel canto period, and we owe a tremendous debt to the voice teachers who developed these methods. But our knowledge of anatomy, physiology, motor learning and psychology has grown exponentially over the past 150 years and now provides for endless insight into how to cultivate great singing. It's absurd to suggest otherwise. And besides, we don't even really know what these beloved singers of the Golden Age sounded like and thus cannot begin to objectively compare them with today's artists.
But given how few aspiring singers fully realize their potential, there is a pervasive sense that what it takes to master the art is fearfully elusive and shrouded in mystery. And given how we still naively lionize the Great Masters, any voice teacher who declares themselves an authentic master of The True Bel Canto Technique will do a thriving business. Particularly if they claim a direct lineage from one of said Great Masters.
However well-meaning, a teacher who builds their practice on such a claim is a modern-day snake oil salesman.
Consider the case of self-help snake oil salesman guru Deepak Chopra. Chopra, who earned a medical degree in endocrinology and purportedly combines aspects of Eastern spiritual practice with elements of Western science. He offers alternative forms of medical care at his Chopra Center for Wellbeing, but most of his vast income flows from lectures, books, and appearances on shows like Dr. Phil and The O'Reilly Factor. Time Magazine commented that "Of all the Asian gurus…, Chopra has arguably been the most successful at erasing apparent differences between East and West by packaging Eastern mystique in credible Western garb. …His quest to construct a pleasing and seamless model of the universe tends to jump to easy conclusions and to spackle over problematic gaps and inconsistencies in the ideas he presents — obvious to all but his most starry-eyed fans."
Chopra crafts messages of hope and self-realization from the lingo of Eastern meditation practices and the mystique of quantum mechanics, messages that sound utterly sublime… unless you happen to be well-versed in one or the other. Here's a scathing take-down of the way he likes to play fast and loose with quantum theory, and here is famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calling him out on his poetic interpretation of scientific terminology:
Chopra's intentions are sincere. He's drunk his own Kool-Aid, and he believes we will all be better off for partaking of it as well. So as Steven Novella suggests in the above link, he really "doesn’t care about getting the science right. He seems to be working backwards from his metaphysics, and then happily misinterpreting QM to suit his needs."
The vast majority of voice teachers claiming to teach bel canto are doing the same as Chopra. They're working backwards from whatever their real agenda is and shoe-horning it into 19th-century Italian jargon to suit their own needs. In the words of a frequent NFCS contributor, "The problem with the term 'bel canto' is that every teacher I have ever met thought they were teaching bel canto technique. It's a term everyone uses and it means whatever the person speaking or writing wants it to mean. I mean, no one would admit to teaching brutto canto, right?"
The larger issue is that even those teachers who have earnestly tried to immerse themselves in the practices of the Great Masters are at best employing methods that were cutting-edge 150 years ago and failing to inquire how advances in anatomy, physiology, motor learning and psychology can and should expand our practice.
Why be nostalgic for an era when our grasp of anatomy, physiology and science was such that we performed surgery without anesthesia and people died of infections that are now routinely cured with a brief course of antibiotics? An era before theories of multiple intelligences and neuroplasticity began to inform our teaching strategies? Before our understanding of emotional experience and expression was forever transformed by the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers?
Yes: some people still do learn to sing by practicing principles inherited from the bel canto era, just as there are still plenty of successful trumpet players who aren't using David Monette's mouthpieces. (Perhaps even some people who find enlightenment and healing at the hands of Deepak Chopra.)
However, these trumpet players are working much too hard, and the singers likely are too.
More to the point is that a paltry percentage of aspiring singers fully realize their potential regardless of the methods they study. They annually graduate from degree programs broken-hearted and burdened with massive student loan debt, still miles from being capable of producing a professional quality sound. We owe it to them to look beyond traditional methods and expand our practice.
The influence of the great bel canto teachers of the 19th century was so pervasive that even those of us who have never heard of any of them have in some way been impacted by their methods. We are all heirs to the bel canto lineage.
Let us be grateful for their legacy and honor them by continuing to build on it.
Bear with me. It's going to take several columns to detail what I mean by this. In the mean time, if you would like to learn more about this legacy, you will find The Bel Canto Forum a wonderful resource.