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The Singing Flute, the bel canto singing tradition in flute pedagogy

by Robert Cart

This article introduces flutists to the imagery and physiological concepts of vocal pedagogy as presented by the great masters of bel canto singing (Garcia, Lamperti, Marchese, et al). For centuries, instrumentalists have viewed the voice as the ultimate means of musical expression, and we have sought to imitate the voice in our playing. Likewise, French flutists of the late nineteenth century, through their professional exposure to the great bel canto singers and composers at the Paris Opera, sought to imitate the beautiful singing they experienced firsthand in their own flute playing. In this article, I discuss the impact of that influence on the French flute school, examining the concepts of breathing, chiaroscuro, impostazione del tono, and articulation that emerged from the bel canto singing tradition, concepts that can be applied no matter your pedagogical lineage.

As both an opera singer and a flutist, I have often observed similarities in technique between the two: breathing, placement, vowel shapes, consonants, light/dark tone, etc.  In researching the two seemingly disparate realms, very real links emerged. By removing the borders between flute playing based in the French school and vocal training based in the bel canto tradition, an integrated approach to flute playing could emerge.  

French Flute School

The French Flute School developed at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Paul Taffanel.  Philippe Gaubert and Louis Fleury, renowned students of Taffanel, referred to Taffanel’s sound as a full sound with a uniform tone throughout the range of his instrument. This approach to playing also focuses on a singing tone with balanced light/dark qualities, and a constant shimmering vibrato.  Of particular note, flutists of the French school were the first to adopt the Boehm system flutes made of metal, as opposed to their counterparts in other areas of Europe who continued using wooden flutes with other key systems. It is likely that developments in the flute, i.e., the new flute key system and the use of metals, made it more possible to create a singing tone on a modern instrument. 

Italian Bel Canto Tradition

Bel canto is the Italian word for “beautiful singing,” and it is applied both to vocal pedagogy of the nineteenth-century and to early nineteenth-century opera written by composers including Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioacchino Rossini. Nineteenth-century voice teachers often referred to the voice as being made up of three registers: the chest register (or lowest register); the head register (or highest); and the passaggio (the area lying between the other two registers). It was the goal of the bel canto tradition to develop ease and unity of all vocal registers. Teachers of the bel canto tradition also sought to guide their students to strengthen and coordinate the thoracic muscles, helping the students to develop a rounded tone that resulted in a balanced chiaroscuro or light/dark tone, seamless legato, and phrasing marked by expressive portamento, an Italian term originally reserved for a singer’s ability to slide between notes. 

Pedagogical approaches during this time often began with simple exercises that allowed the student to be immersed in the practice of coordinating complex physiological concepts and imagery related to the technique of singing through vocalises comprised of single pitches.  A vocalise is a vocal exercise that utilizes melodies sung only on vowels and without words.  As the voice student learned to coordinate an assortment of multifaceted concepts into single, larger physiological gestures, the vocalises increased in difficulty by the addition of more complex note passages.

Some of the great teachers of bel canto technique included Manuel Garcia, Giovanni Battista Lamperti, and Mathilde Marchesi.  Many of their students, in turn, became great singers and teachers, including Adelina Patti, Marcella Sembrich, Nellie Melba, and Francesco Tamagno. A resurgence of the bel canto tradition in the mid-twentieth century produced great singers like Maria Callas, Monserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, and Luiano Pavarotti.

French Flute and Italian Voice United

Both traditions center on teaching students to perform with a full, rounded sound, with a uniform tone throughout the range, and with an elegant and shimmering vibrato. 

The commonality between the French flute school and the bel canto school of singing may find its roots in Paul Taffanel’s professional activities. He served as the chef d’orchestra, or chief conductor, of the Paris Opéra from 1890 to 1906, the first flutist to hold this position. As an interesting aside, during his tenure in that position, Taffanel conducted the French premieres of operas by Wagner and Verdi, including Verdi’s Otello. In 1919, another important figure in the development of the French school ascended to the rank of principal flute and chief conductor of the Paris Opéra: Taffanel’s student Philippe Gaubert.  Further, in 1913 Marcel Moyse, arguably the greatest flutist of his time, toured throughout the United States with renowned soprano Nellie Melba, who was a student of the great bel canto teacher Mathilde Marchesi. 

The link between French flute playing and bel canto singing, and the historical intersection of highly accomplished practitioners of the two schools, encourages a study of the application of bel canto singing techniques to flute playing.  Specifically, we turn our attention to four hallmarks of bel canto: Appoggio, Chiaroscuro, Impostazione del tono, and Articulation.


The foundation of the bel canto school of singing is appoggio.  While it is the Italian word for “leaning,” in the bel canto school of singing, appoggio refers to the muscular sensation of holding one’s breath, or expanding the rib cage, while exhaling. The concept of leaning derives from the concept of leaning into the sternum – the long tie-shaped bone in the center of the chest.


As Lamperti says, when the breath is steady, the tone is steady; when breath is unsteady, the tone is unsteady. The concept of breathing in the bel canto tradition centers around careful control of breathing, knowing that inhalation gives strength while retention of air during exhalation provides steadiness and energy.  That retention of breath while exhaling is essentially appoggio. 

The Physiological Foundation of the Italian Bel canto Tradition

To understand appoggio, it will help to be aware of some basic physiology involved in the inhalation and exhalation process.

External Intercostals

There are two layers of muscle between the ribs, referred to as the intercostal muscles. The external intercostal muscles each attach to the outer surface of the twelve ribs. The external intercostals raise the ribs, expanding the thoracic cavity and stretching the lungs during inspiration. 

Internal Intercostals

The internal intercostal muscles attach to the inner surface of the ribs and run in the opposite direction of the external intercostals. The internal intercostal muscles contract the ribs forcing air out of the lungs during exhalation.

Levatores Costarum

The levatores costarum muscles connect the vertebrae and the ribs at the posterior or back of the rib cage.  They are twelve small triangular shaped muscles that connect the thoracic vertebrae with their adjacent ribs. Along with the intercostal muscles they form the intrinsic muscles of the chest wall which play a key role in expanding the rib cage during inhalation.  The levatores costarum muscles are also grouped with the muscles of the back. Levatores costarum functions primarily in elevating or expanding the ribs. 

Quadratus Lumborum

The quadratus lumborum muscle begins at the pelvis and stretches up to the lowest rib. It stabilizes the pelvis when a person sits or stands in an upright position, and it supports the core of the body when we breath.


The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle that divides the lungs and heart of the thoracic cavity from the viscera (liver, spleen, kidneys, etc.) of the abdominal cavity. It is attached posteriorly, or at the back, to the ribs and spine, and anteriorly, or at the front, to the sternum. The diaphragm contracts downward, increasing upper thoracic space and allowing the lungs to fill with air. It is important to note that the diaphragm only actively moves downward during inhalation, which means that it releases passively during exhalation. As the diaphragm contracts downward, the viscera are forced outward. This means that the abdominal muscles must expand, or the diaphragm cannot expand and allow adequate air to enter the lungs. This also means that, in order to keep the diaphragm from moving up too quickly and exhaling air too abruptly, the abdominal muscles must remain expanded or be carefully controlled in their inward movement.

Appoggio Summary

To recap, Appoggio is the sensation of remaining in the position of inspiration even while exhaling. This means that the external intercostal muscles, or the muscles associated with inhalation, must remain engaged while exhaling, working in antagonism to the internal intercostal muscles, which try to collapse the lungs and push the air out.  This is done to maintain the ribs in an open position. This activity also slows the recoil of the diaphragm, which must maintain tonicity while recoiling slowly in order to control the outflow of air. Assisting this process is the quadratus lumborum coordinated with the levator costae muscles, giving the sensation of back expansion, particularly in the lower part of the back. The feeling of leaning into the sternum is employed as a means of maintaining anterior expansion of the ribs and to counteract rapid diaphragmatic recoil. As Giovanni Battista Lamperti stated: “You do not hold your tone, you spin it. You hold your breath.”  In short, appoggio is the sensation of holding the breath while exhaling.

Appoggio Exercise

To help pinpoint the muscular sensations of appoggio, follow these six simple steps:

  1. Gently cough with your hand at the area where you would normally wear a belt and notice how the muscle bounces. 
  2. Next, exhale all the air from your lungs. 
  3. Inhale slowly through pursed lips, being certain to feel the sensation of very low breathing, or of filling your lungs from the bottom up. 
  4. After you have finished inhaling, hold your breath with your mouth open. 
  5. Finally, exhale slowly and quietly through the mouth, paying attention to the muscle area that bounced when you coughed. Be sure to resist the natural inclinations of the abdomen and rib cage while exhaling. It should feel as if you are holding your breath, or even inhaling, as you exhale, resulting in a slowing down of the process of exhaling.


In the visual arts, chiaroscuro is the application of strong contrasts of light and dark, with chiaro meaning light and oscuro meaning dark. In the bel canto tradition, lightness, or chiaro, is achieved by the resonance at the front of the skull, and the darkness, or oscuro, originates in the pharyngeal spaces of the throat, that is, the nasopharynx (the space behind your nose), oropharynx (the space behind your mouth), and laryngopharynx (the space just above your larynx).  

Chiaroscuro Exercise

To understand chiaroscuro, play an ascending scale slowly.  Each time you play it, form different dark vowels in your pharyngeal spaces (e.g. [u] as in “you,” [O] as in “hold,” and [U] as in “foot.” As you play the exercise, experiment with the various vowels, be aware of the space in the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and laryngopharynx and how it differs with each vowel shape. These vowels form the oscuro portion of the chiaroscuro sound. Exploring these and other vowels develops the flutist’s understanding of chiaroscuro, providing a rich palette of color possibilities.

Impostazione del tono

Impostazione del tono translates as placement of the tone. When singers speak of impostazione del tono, or placement, they are generally referring to a sensation that the sound is ringing in the masque, or the area at the front of the skull around and between the eyes. 

Impostazione del tono Exercise

To find the sensation of impostazione del tono

Hum at a comfortable pitch using the consonant [η] as in the word “hung.” Remaining aware of that placement, Play a scale on the flute slowly while focusing on the spot in the masque (the spot between the eyes) where the sound seemed to resonate when you were humming. Experimenting with the sensation of impostazione del tono will enhance the resonance of the flutist’s sound, allowing it to carry more easily.


Articulation consists of three parts: le début (the onset), le corps (the body), and la fin (the termination or end).  The le début determines how or if the tongue or lips are used to begin a tone, le corps determines the length of a tone, and la fin refers to how we end the tone. For purposes of this article, I will focus solely on le début.

Le Début (the onset)

Though the lips of the flutist do not mimic the vocal folds of the opera singer, there is much to be learned about le début from the singer. In singing, there are three types of onset: Le coup de glotte (glottal attack); L’apparition douce (soft onset); and Le début silencieux (silent onset).  


Le coup de glotte

Le coup de glotte, or glottal attack, exists when the vocal folds are adducted (approximated or brought together) prior to phonation. This creates significant pressure below the vocal folds.  When phonation commences, the sudden release of pressure produces an audible sound as if saying “uh” [ʔ]. In order to understand le coup de glotte in the voice, speak “Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh,” slowly several times, lingering on the glottal sound and noticing when the actual tone begins. This is le coup de glotte, or the glottal attack. To find the flutist’s equivalent of le coup de glotte play an explosive tone, as represented by the consonants P [p] or B [b].

L’apparition douce

L’apparition douce, or soft onset, occurs when a singer releases breath prior to beginning a tone, as in the word “how” [h]. In order to understand l’apparition douce in the voice, speak “Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha,” slowly several times, lingering on the aspirated H and noticing when the actual tone begins. This is l’apparition douce, or soft onset. Notice how much excess air is lost with this onset. To find the flutist’s equivalent of l’apparition douce begin the tone with an audible H [h].


Le Début Silencieux

Le début silencieux, or silent onset, takes place when the singer avoids both the glottal attack and the soft onset in favor of a sensation that is between the two. In order to understand le début silencieux in the voice, speak “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah,” slowly several times, imagining a brief [h] before each sound, but don’t allow the [h] to be heard. Notice how the ribs must remain expanded in the appoggio position in order to achieve a clear début silencieux.


Finding Le Début Silencieux on the Flute

Unlike the voice, where sound is created by the approximation and vibration of the vocal folds, on the flute sound is created when air strikes the outer edge of the embouchure hole.  Using the concept of the balanced onset, as with singing though, engages the appoggio response.

To find the flutist’s equivalent of Le début silencieux, alternate between tones that begin with an audible H [h] and silent onset, or no audible breath.  You will discover very quickly that the silent onset requires that the ribs must remain expanded in the appoggio position 


Why the Bel Canto Tradition

So why did the bel canto tradition emerge? The foundation of the bel canto tradition is appoggio, and appoggio is an explanation of the necessary muscular activity of the thoracic region that enables a healthy onset of sound at the vocal folds.  A healthy onset, or the début silencieux, is necessary to reduce stress on the vocal folds, which results in extended longevity for the singer.  The début silencieux also represents a perfect balance of muscular activity that allows for optimal vibration of the vocal folds, which results in easy and superior tone production for the singer. Chiaroscuro engages a sensation of openness and relaxation and provides a rich palette of colors, while impostazione del tono ensures that the tone carries over an orchestra and does not rest in the throat.

Why Bel Canto Tradition for the Flute

As with singing, appoggio enables a healthy début silencieux for the flutist. Le début silencieux represents a perfect balance of muscular activity that allows for optimal vibration of the sound accompanied by easy and flexible tone production. Chiaroscuro provides a rich palette of color possibilities, while impostazione del tono enhances the resonance of the sound, allowing it to carry.

Hailed by the Baltimore Sun as “performing with a thrilling abandon,” Robert Cart is flutist with Philadelphia’s Network for New Music. He is an international soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player who has toured as soloist throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and has worked with Bernstein, Leppard, Muti, Previn, and Zinman. He has performed at festivals, including Tanglewood, Ravello, and Aldeburgh, and as solo recitalist at The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center. An advocate for new music, he has premiered more than 50 solo, chamber, and orchestral works by Jennifer Higdon, Gary Schocker, and others, and will soon be heard on the Albany and Centaur labels in premiere recording of works by Eugène Ysaÿe, Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, Danbiel Dorff, and David Loeb. As a chamber musician, he is the founding flutist of the Éxi Chéria, a flute viola, and cello chamber ensemble, and PhillyQ, a woodwind quartet. Each summer, Robert serves as a faculty member at the Atlantic Music Festival, where he is also flutist and coordinator of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. He currently serves as Executive Director of the Marcel Moyse Society. As a Powell Flutes Artist, Dr. Cart presents clinics and master classes worldwide. His degrees include the Bachelor of Music (DePauw University), the Master of Music (Indiana University), and the Doctor of Musical Arts (University of Maryland College Park). His teachers have included Francis Fuge, Peter Lloyd, James Pellerite, and Gary Schocker, and he has taken additional studies and master classes with Alberto Almarza, Jeffrey Khaner, Marcel Moyse, Michael Parloff, and Jean-Pierre Rampal. Dr. Cart plays a vintage flute made in 1938 by Verne Q. Powell for Joseph LaMonaca, Associate Principal Flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Robert has taught as a university professor for over twenty years. For fifteen of those years, he was also college of the arts dean, school of music director, and music department chair.

One thought on “The Singing Flute, the bel canto singing tradition in flute pedagogy

  • Kathryn Thomson

    I understand this style of singing and playing. My voice coach learned the Bel Canto style while she was an Opera student in Italy. As her student, she passed this tradition on to me. I did not study voice with the intention of becoming an opera singer. Rather, I studied in order to become a better vocalist. Years later, I recognize the impact this style has had upon my flute journey. I play, as I was taught to sing. Rosemary Patricia Burns, thank you!

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