Liz Pearse talks Bel Canto Training and the Contemporary Singer

Soprano Liz Pearse is writing her dissertation on college voice pedagogy and the underrepresentation of contemporary techniques. Here's a preview...with pictures!


College voice pedagogy typically doesn’t prepare the contemporary singer for the variety of sounds composers may write in new vocal literature. Singers of extended techniques – how did you become aware or interested in this repertoire? Where do you go for support, reference, and advice?

Educating the contemporary singer

Never, it seems, has singing been more popular in the realm of contemporary music. In addition to Quince, contemporary choral groups such as Roomful of Teeth ( , Lorelei (, Ekmeles (, and The Crossing ( premiere, commission, and sing a huge variety of contemporary choral music. More and more chamber groups include singers as core members. Ensemble Dal Niente (dalniente.comm) , Fonema Consort (, loadbang (, and ICE ( (among others) present vocalists who perform not as “vocal solo + ensemble” – but as vocal instrumentalists in an integrated chamber setting. The Resonant Bodies festival ( features 3 nights of vocalists of varying disciplines…a wealth of talent, work ethic, and artistry.

What happens in the conservatory...

What I find so interesting about all of this is – contemporary vocal music is generally considered a fringe activity for the collegiate vocalist. As you may know, the general goal-set of the collegiate voice major involves developing a clear, resonant, “loud” un-amplified voice with consistent vibrato; a familiarity with singing coherently in Italian/French/German/English; and maybe if we’re lucky or enterprising, study of acting/movement/dance.

It’s worth mentioning – not all contemporary singers started or ended as voice majors – but most of us sang our way through degrees in “voice”(9.8 singer diplomas amongst the members of Quince – we’ll let you guess who has a bachelor’s in something else, and who should finish her dissertation…)


Bel canto über alles

Though we all draw upon our “classical” voice training almost every time we open our mouths to vocalize, we the contemporary singer community are often tasked with making sounds that do not resemble bel canto (operatic) singing. Senza vibrato is just the tip of the iceberg. Unable to heed our choral conductors’ demands to “Blend!!” - most of us complete our undergraduate degree never having trained to sing that way. Lack of vibrato is considered seriously problematic in the classical realm.

Defining vibrato: a phenomenon in which structures within the larynx oscillate at a regular rate in response to appropriate airflow through the glottis. Personally, I was never taught to sing with vibrato. it just happened when I sang, even in childhood – my voice is naturally wiggly. As opera singing wasn’t popular in my middle school, I quit singing in favor of the clarinet for most of secondary school. Years and degrees later, because I wanted to sing repertoire of earlier eras and work in professional choruses, I worked with friends and teachers to learn how to vocalize straight tones without hurting myself.

It surprises many to learn that senza vibrato is not necessarily “natural” – the ethereal, straight-tones of children’s choirs are as developed and practiced as the opera singer’s consistent oscillation. (I believe the word “Natural” to be a problematic word to use as a description of voice – but I digress).

Classical pedagogy

In school, we learn from our teachers and the titans of “classical voice” pedagogy - Meribeth Bunch Dayme, Barbara Doscher, Richard Miller. Building upon Garcia and Lamperti, they spend volumes describing, defining, and arguing the finer points of bel canto singing. In general, these resources cover range, agility, consistency, and resonance, the ingredients of beautiful singing – you know, bel canto. More recently, technology has developed for the express purpose of studying vocal resonance through spectrography (Voce Vista).

There is an undeniable bias towards bel canto singing in the college voice studio. Beautifully executed bel canto singing is compelling – it’s an incredibly complex set of vocal behaviors that allow a single unamplified instrument (and a tiny one at that – fits inside your head!) to project over an orchestra. The amazingly plastic nature of the vocal instrument (we can change the shape of our articulators, resonators, and pitch source with our MINDS) – allow for a nearly infinite palette of sounds. Though classical singers employ a wealth of timbres to express text and emotion – they generally stay within the boundaries of what is a stylistically “bel canto” palette.

Alfred Wolfsohn with students Jenny and Jill Johnson:

Screaming for new techniques

In the 1940s, therapist and researcher Alfred Wolfsohn ushered in what became the first era of extended vocalism. Originally imitating the sounds that haunted him after WWI (screams of the dying, the sounds of war trauma), Wolfsohn’s and his students developed wildly wide vocal ranges, and abilities to vocalize screams, fry, creaking, and countless other sounds that one would never hear in Mozart. Wolfsohn’s protégé Roy Hart, the original interpreter of Davies’ 8 Songs for a Mad King, continued this study through the development of The Roy Hart Theatre(– a collective of performers and teachers of theatrical vocal works.

Roy Hart: Michael Edgerton:

Building upon this work, pedagogue/practitioner/wizard Michael Edgerton’s research and performance of “extreme” vocalism produced The 21st Century Voice: Contemporary and Traditional Extra-Normal Voice, ( now in its second edition. Within - glottal whistle, multi-phonic sound sources, fry, creaking, screaming, and other sounds are presented as various manipulations of parameters such as air, source, resonance, filter, and other potentials. Reading it slowly and full of curiosity, I’m finding dozens of pieces and hundreds of sounds I’ve never heard – and finding a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of trying to learn new ways of vocalization (I WILL GET YOU, GLOTTAL WHISTLE).

How did I get here, again?

Though extensive and extremely insightful, Edgerton’s research and the research of others in the realm of extended/experimental vocalism take up but a tiny fraction of grand bookshelf of vocal pedagogy. So where do we go, if we’re interested in extended/experimental vocalization? How do singers become aware/interested in a broader spectrum of vocal art?

NERD ALERT: She probably wants me not to, but I have to mention that the shiny new edition of The 21st Century Voice includes a few paragraphs discussing Amanda DeBoer Bartlett’s dissertation on ingressive singing. My bandmates are amazing.

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