What is “Bel Canto” (And Why Should I Care?)

bel canto techniqueWhen you decide to take voice lessons, as you are looking for a teacher you may encounter the phrase “bel canto method” (as in, “I teach the bel canto method”).  It sounds fancy, but what does it mean? Read on as New York voice teacher Natalie W. explains…

Bel canto refers to both a musical style and the singing method that was developed to sing that style.  It originated with the first operas during the Baroque era (early 1700s) – best exemplified by the music of Handel – and was revived a century later with the music of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.  Bel canto music has long, florid, flowing lines, where the voice performs lots of fancy stunts (not unlike the riffs and runs in gospel, R&B, and most of the stuff you hear on American Idol).

In order for singers to learn to perform these stunts, a technique of study emerged.  This technique was codified in the 1800s by Manuel Garcia, a voice teacher from a family filled with internationally-famous opera singers. He observed what all the great singers and teachers did to produce such beautiful singing, and wrote a book full of exercises.

Garcia’s exercises include several different kinds of scales (kind of like what you may have seen or heard people do in movies: “mi mi mi mi mi,” but more elaborate).   While it may not sound like as much fun to sing scales as it is to sing songs, it is very important for building the strength and coordination of the voice, and for keeping your voice healthy.  If you have ever played a sport, you know that you don’t just dive in and start playing, you have to do exercises and training first – like how football players have to run up and down the bleachers to strengthen their legs and build up their cardiovascular endurance.

But I want to sing pop music, not opera.  Do I need to do all that stuff?

The bel canto method can do a lot for you even if you aren’t going to sing opera.

Learning to sing these scales will help you master all those great R&B runs and riffs.  There are a lot of similarities between Rossini coloratura and R&B runs and riffs.  For an example of what riffs and runs sound like, click here to hear clips of Beyonce and Christina Aguilera singing them, or here for Whitney Houston.

Most importantly, the bel canto method can help you sing in a way that feels easy on your throat and won’t strain your voice. Did you follow the story of Adele needing to cancel her US tour in 2011 and go on complete vocal rest after she had surgery on her voice?  She is a very talented singer, but was singing in an unhealthy way that damaged her voice – no one wants that!

In Italian, “bel canto” literally means “beautiful singing”.  And that’s what we all want to do, no matter what kind of music we sing – sing beautifully!

New York music teacher Natalie W. Natalie W. teaches piano, singing, Broadway singing, music performance, music theory, opera voice, and acting lessons to students of all ages in New York, NY. She joined the TakeLessons team in October 2012, with over 20  years of teaching experience. Find out more about Natalie, or visit TakeLessons to search for a teacher near you!


Photo by michael_swan

2 replies
  1. Megan L.
    Megan L. says:

    Hi Francisco! It’s easy to search for a teacher on TakeLessons.com. Just enter your zip code and the subject you’d like to study. Then you can browse teacher profiles and book your lessons online. Here’s a link to search for vocal teachers in the Chicago area: /chicago/singing-lessons


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