Updating Bel Canto: J.F. Botume’s “Modern Singing Methods”

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msm cover small1 Updating Bel Canto: J.F. Botumes Modern Singing Methods

The following is the introduction for the recently published Modern Singing Methods: Their Use and Abuse by John Franklin Botume.

“It cannot be too strongly insisted that the art of singing is not an occult thing. It is very much like the carpenter’s trade: one must have some aptitude for it to begin with; next he must learn how to use the tools of his craft; finally, he must acquire mechanical dexterity by practice. Intelligent and persistent practice is the key to the problem. [...] The course of instruction of the future will be a combination of the intellectuality of the present, with the thorough and patient training of the past.” John Franklin Botume, Modern Singing Methods, p. 2.

“Classical” singing as we know it today owes much of its technique and style to the “old Italian school,” developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. The greatest singers and teachers of this tradition (including Porpora, Tosi and much later, the Lampertis) relayed the accumulated wisdom and aesthetics of this bel canto method through a long apprenticeship of teacher-to-student instruction, the robust ancestor of today’s comparatively light private singing lessons. This lengthy period of intense education included quite extensive training and practice in solfege, keyboard, music theory/composition, diction, grammar, literature, acting and social decorum in addition to the expected instruction in register shifts, tone quality and the proper execution of vocal ornaments. Master voice teachers of the bel canto era thoroughly trained their pupils for a well-rounded career in music, and it has been said that the depth of their preparation is to account for the almost super-human vocalization reported from that period.

Though many of the tenants of the “old Italian school,” bel canto tradition can be heard repeated even today by singers and singing teachers, they are often looked down upon for three main reasons. First, like so many trades of the old world, the “old Italian school” was always transmitted through oral instruction, from the experienced master to the young apprentice. Consequently, there are very few writings by these historical teachers on their methods and the portions that have survived through oral tradition are very open to questions of authenticity.

A second problem arises from the diversity of beliefs and practices from teacher to teacher spanning across hundreds of years. Tosi’s Observations on the Florid Song, published in Italy in 1723, holds several differing technical and aesthetic views to those of Agricola’s Art of Singing, published in Germany only three decades later (and the latter was actually a much embellished translation of the former!). Perhaps the latest unquestionably authoritative teaching of the “old Italian method” was given by Francesco Lamperti and his son Giovanni Battista, codified in their books: F. Lamperti, The Art of Singing, 1883; and G.B. Lamperti, The Technic of Bel Canto, 1905.

The third, and perhaps most substantial complaint with “the old Italian school” tradition is its lack of scientific backing. Bel canto teachers often spoke of resonating chambers in the chest and head (the origin of the corresponding register nomenclature) and even impossibly high notes being sung in the lower register. The impossibility of these beliefs were revealed when the 19th century voice teacher Manuel Garcia II invented the laryngoscope and was the first human in history to observe human vocal folds while singing. He and many voice scientists down to the present day have created the “modern vocal method” that strives to better and more rapidly teach the technique of fine singing through physiologically informed education and complex technical instruction on such aspects as posture, breathing, phonation, throat and mouth position, registration shifts and vowel modification. While the “old Italian school” depended upon expert singing experience and tried-and-true methods, the “modern school” depends upon scientific research and theories on how the body systems involved in singing function.

Unfortunately, reliance solely on one school of singing or the other has proved disastrous for many. In the early 19th century, tenors trained in the old bel canto method of florid singing found their technique incapable of producing the newly in vogue “ut de poitrine” (high C in the chest). One tenor, Adolphe Nourrit, was driven to suicide trying, and another, Americo Sbigoli, burst a blood vessel in his throat and died on stage in rehearsal. On the other side, a generation of singers mistook Garcia’s scientifically-informed direction to perform a “coup de glotte” (stroke of the glottis) at the beginning of each tone and ruined their voices with excessively violent glottal closures. Then, as today, teachers and singers on either extreme revile each other for their methods’ shortcomings.

In his Modern Singing Methods, John Franklin Botume was perhaps the first published vocal pedagogue to bridge the substantial gap between the two schools, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each method alone and how they could support each other combined. Botume believed that one of the greatest strengths of the “old Italian school” is its regimen of developing the voice over a long period of training and exercise. He also found this to be a weakness in the “modern school” training:

The teacher of the future will […] follow the old process. He will attempt little the first or the second year, and will go gradually, carefully, regularly and, above all, slowly to the end. […] Nature is a hard task-mistress. What you steal from her to-day, she will exact with compound interest to-morrow. The end of these “short-cuts” is, that every quick result which the pupil gains is attended either with some physical weakness or disease, or else with an accompanying fault; such as a tremolo, a tendency to sing “off the key,” a nasal, sharp, foggy, hard or weak tone, a lack of flexibility, a premature decay of the voice, or some other disagreeable thing, which, like Banquo’s ghost, is apt to pop up at the very moment you wish to display yourself on some festal occasion. (pp.22-23)

Another strength Botume identified of the “old” method is its focused viewpoint on what the singer feels. While modern science can tell us what a good singer’s vocal folds are doing while they are singing, it has often been at a loss to help inexperienced singers achieve the same technique. In the “old Italian school,” singers would listen to the proper execution of a vocalization and attempt to emulate it. The teacher would then use their experienced ears to inform the student when they had achieved the desired results and the student would memorize the sensations accompanying the correct technique. Botume recommends that this old method be continued in modern voice training. He himself describes five different vocal registers by the region of the body in which they are felt to vibrate.

Botume did not, however, discount the “modern school” completely. Indeed, he praised it for bringing a level of “intellectualism” into singing, allowing a method of scientifically-based techniques to be taught (“how to sing”), whereas in the “old Italian school” only the desired results were taught (“what one should sound like”). He also praised the “modern school” for dispelling the myth that voice teachers possess some unknowable, mystical power for transforming common voices into magnificent ones:

It cannot be too strongly insisted that the art of singing is not an occult thing. It is very much like the carpenter’s trade: one must have some aptitude for it to begin with; next he must learn how to use the tools of his craft; finally, he must acquire mechanical dexterity by practice. (p. 2)

Botume’s Modern Singing Methods is a ground-breaking work that held influence over several later vocal pedagogical works. In his Psychology of Singing (MacMillan, 1917), David Taylor said:

Probably the best summary of the old Italian method offered by any modern teacher is contained in a little booklet by J. Frank Botume, entitled Modern Singing Methods. […] This sums up beautifully the external aspects of the old Italian method, and of modern methods as well. (p. 316)

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The work was also cited in Resonance in Singing and Speaking by Thomas Fillebrown (Oliver Ditson &

Co, 1911), as well as the more recent books Secrets of Singing by Jeffry Allen (Alfred, 1994, 2005) and The Singer’s Companion by Brent Monahan (Limelight Editions, 2007).

Little until now has been known about the life of the author of this important book. For the first time, a biography has been constructed from extant documents and family traditions and included at the conclusion of this work.


About Gregory Blankenbehler

With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, Gregory Blankenbehler has performed in Italy, England and France and completed a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. From his focused studies into comparative vocal pedagogy and private teaching experience, he has become an expert on teaching effective vocal technique to singers of all ages and specializes in rehabilitating "troubled" voices and helping them to reach their full potential. Gregory maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area where he also performs regularly and teaches community music classes for adults and children.