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An infusion of Western and Eastern singing styles into Chinese vocal art: introducing the teaching methodology for training Chinese bel canto singers.

In today's music world, Chinese singers often are found singing leading roles on the stages of well known opera houses. In addition, it is not uncommon to hear Chinese singers garnering top prizes in prestigious singing competitions. What has made those Chinese singers sing Italian bel canto style so successfully in the Western music world?

To find some convincing answers to this question, this writer carried on research while visiting and teaching in two well established music institutions in China from fall 2012 to spring 2013. (1) Through personal interviews with a group of Chinese voice teachers and observation of their studio teaching, it was discovered how the educational system and teaching methods for training Chinese bel canto singers differed from Western vocal music education. While overcoming cultural diversities and aesthetic differences between Italian bel canto and Chinese national singing styles, Chinese vocal music educators have created a unique teaching methodology that has been used effectively in their instructional practices.



Italian bel canto was introduced to China about a century ago, when in the 1920s the first generation of Western trained Chinese musicians returned to Mainland China from Europe. Since then, Western singing styles have had a significant influence on the performance and the pedagogy of Chinese vocal music. The latter went through an early experimental phase in the 1930s and a quick growth spurt in the 1950s, leading to a fully-developed singing style by the 1970s, when all the higher educational music institutions in China successfully established a voice department and enrolled students in a four-year educational program for earning a bachelor degree in vocal music.

During the Reform Movement in the 1980s, China underwent enormous changes in politics and economics as well as in music culture, which created new opportunities for exchange studies with the West. Many famous Italian bel canto singers and renowned vocal music educators visited China to give performances and lectures, and at the same time, numerous Chinese singers went to Europe and the United States to study Italian bel canto. A great number of them won prestigious singing competitions and became successful singers in the opera field. For example, Chinese tenor Jian-Yi Zhang won the first prize in the Belvedere Competition in Vienna (1984) and made his Metropolitan Opera debut singing the title role in Gounod's Faust (1996). (2) Additionally, Chinese soprano Ying Huang was chosen for the title role in Frederic Mitterrand's film adaptation of Madama Butterfly in 1995, after winning the second prize in the 19th Concours International de Chant de Paris in 1992. She then continued to have an international career on both opera and concert stages. (3)

Interestingly, both Mr. Zhang and Ms. Huang graduated from the same music institution in China, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and studied with the same voice professor there, Ms. Xiao-Yan Zhou. Founded in 1927, this conservatory is the first higher educational music school in China and, nicknamed "the cradle of great musicians," has been acclaimed as one of the best conservatories in the nation. (4) The openness of the Reform Movement in 1980s made it possible for these two singers to study bel canto in the United States and become sought-after opera singers in the West.

With its long-standing and competitive advantage, Italian bel canto has become an admired singing style of vocal art and a criterion of voice study in China. There are many distinguished Chinese vocal music educators who have been teaching bel canto successfully in China, such as professor Xiao-Yan Zhou, who, in the fall of 2015, celebrated her 99th birthday and 75-year teaching career at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and still teaches there every semester. Among her numerous voice students, more than three dozen have won top prizes in major singing competitions nationally and internationally, including tenor Jian-Yi Zhang and soprano Ying Huang. (5) In 1996, Mr. Zhang invited Prof. Zhou to his Metropolitan Opera debut as a grateful acknowledgement of her excellent teaching career.

Along with Italian bel canto, another important standard in Chinese vocal music education is called [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (yang wei zhong yong), meaning to adapt the principles of Italian bel canto style in accordance with the conceptions of Chinese national singing style for creating typical teaching methods to train Chinese bel canto singers. The instructional principles and components of this standard have gradually developed to be the major teaching methodology in higher music education; it has created an infusion of Western and Eastern singing styles into Chinese vocal art through performing Chinese vocal music repertoire with Italian bel canto techniques. This unique teaching methodology has also produced generations of successful Chinese singers who gained reputations of beautiful singing nationwide and worldwide. Soprano Xiu-Mei Yin, a typical product of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] training, has become a national singing icon of contemporary Chinese music. She performed many Chinese art songs in Italian bel canto style during her European concert tour in 1992. The Western press praised her as "a beautiful singing angel from the East." (6)



Chinese music institutions in higher education recruit new students nationwide in the early spring each year. Due to a large number of applicants, it is always challenging for voice students to audition for top tier music institutions. Not only must they be extremely talented singers, but they also need to meet specific requirements of each institution such as age limits and physical standards. This writer helped a gifted young soprano during her preparation to audition for one of the best conservatories in 2013. Her singing was no doubt first-rate, but her height (not tall enough) cut her journey short after the second-round of the auditions.

A small number of applicants will remain after the third round of auditions. The final step for those applicants is to pass the entry-level tests of music history and music theory. After being admitted by the music institutions, applicants will be notified that some of them will study in the Western vocal music division, and others will go to the Chinese vocal music division based on their voice types: either [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII](xi yang sang zi) or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII](min ge sang zi), that is, either Western music vocal sound or Chinese folk music vocal sound. Consequently, voice students are not given choices for studying their favorite singing styles with their preferred voice teachers in the four-year educational programs.

Voice Study Programs

Both the Western and the Chinese vocal music divisions are under the administration of the voice department in a music institution. The department focuses mainly on training solo performers who will sing in opera houses and professional choirs, as well as win in major vocal competitions. All voice students have goals of becoming such soloists, and their hard work starts from the moment they enter the department. They will do everything to prove their potential as a successful singer; otherwise, they could be transferred to the music education department. Another motivation for voice students' hard work is financial reward. If a voice student successfully enters a singing competition, all competition-related expenses such as application fee, airfare, and hotel arrangements will be covered by the music institution. Additionally, if the student wins a top prize, he/she will receive a full scholarship from the Chinese Minister of Education to study overseas.

The journey of becoming a successful singer requires the student to complete a four-year undergraduate program followed by a three-year graduate program. It is very common that some students may study with only one voice teacher during that entire period. Therefore, the most important part of their educational journey is to meet a sophisticated, knowledgeable, and dedicated voice teacher who can win their trust and confidence, inspiring their professional growth throughout the seven-year program.

Repertoire and Language Studies

In China, many Italian bel canto study materials, art song collections, and opera scores are published in the original languages with Chinese translations, which makes it convenient for voice students to study standard Italian bel canto repertoire. In the early stage of voice study, students are often taught to sing the bel canto repertoire in Chinese, instead of the original languages. For example, they would sing the entire book of 24 Italian Songs and Arias of the 17th and 18th Centuries and the first collection of Schubert lieder without necessarily learning the Italian and German texts. It is considered by many Chinese vocal music educators that the entry-level voice students should feel the spirit of the music and express the mood of the text in their familiar language, Chinese.

The nature of Chinese language has little affinity with the International Phonetic Alphabet format,as some consonants in Chinese, such as zh, ch, sh, and r, cannot be illustrated in IPA symbols for producing similar sounds. This, on the other hand, has created a certain degree of difficulty for Chinese students to understand IPA format; rather, they learn pronunciation of Italian, German, and French without help from IPA format. Thus, the voice department typically does not offer a diction course using IPA format, taught by a voice faculty. Voice students need to study foreign languages with language specialists outside the department. Students are encouraged to learn the languages thoroughly. They understand that knowing the structures and rules of the languages, as well as useage customs, rather than just learning the pronunciations for singing purposes, will allow them to gain a full understanding of the language in the music. Unfortunately, quite a number of them simply take a "short-cut" by using the Chinese phonetic notation for obtaining similar pronunciations of the foreign texts. In fall 2012, this writer had opportunity to coach a dramatic soprano at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. When we were working on the Habanera from Carmen, she showed me her vocal score, which had many interesting marks of Chinese phonetic notation under the textual lines. Obviously she learned the text through that "short-cut." Her French diction sounded fairly acceptable, but, because she did not understand each word in the French text, her facial expression and body movement were largely unaffected.

Vocal Science and Pedagogy Studies

Many Chinese vocal music educators devote themselves to teaching the fundamentals of Italian bel canto in their practices. They strive to facilitate the acquisition of desirable performing skills and healthy vocal techniques, preparing voice students to function successfully in their future careers. The intelligibility of singing is deemed much more important than the science of voice in vocal music education; the sensation and perception of human sound are the best guides for producing healthy vocal products. As a result, the subject of voice science is often dismissed in the curriculum of voice departments. Furthermore, many voice teachers who remain at the top of faculty rosters are simply evaluated on their performing achievement rather than their teaching expertise, which somehow encourages the situation that voice students are not required to take voice pedagogy-related courses during the seven-year educational training at school. (7)

Stage and Ensemble Training

Because its main goal is to train solo performers, the voice department usually offers two voice lessons and one rehearsal class with an accompanist weekly to each voice student; opera workshop and choral ensemble courses are often neglected. It is common that music schools are not capable of producing a fully-staged opera production with an orchestra, and, due to the lack of theatrical training, students have to rely on self-taught staging and ensemble skills to survive in their early performing careers after graduation. However, the need for studying opera workshop and choral ensemble in many music institutions is greater than ever, and particularly, vocal music educators who can teach these two courses are in high demand. Furthermore, rising classically trained singers today quite often are required to utilize the techniques of bel canto style for singing theatrical productions or for commercials; therefore voice students need to be well prepared during their educational training in order to meet the challenges in the music business after school.


Vocal music in Chinese is written as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII](sheng yue). The first word means "voice"; the second word means "happy feelings." Teaching vocal music is meant to demonstrate some best methods for playing the instrument of human voice, such as Italian bel canto, and to express human feelings through beautiful singing. Vocal music educators in China have created a systematic teaching methodology for training Chinese bel canto singers, which features [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (xi yang chang fa min zu hua), meaning to make Italian bel canto style serve Chinese vocal art, using Italian bel canto techniques for singing contemporary Chinese vocal music. It has been practiced effectively by many vocal music educators in higher music education, and has had positive results for both teaching and learning. The three principles and four approaches introduced below will help readers understand this unique teaching methodology.

Philosophy of the Teaching Methodology

1. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (yi shu yu wen hua xiang jie he de yan ze)--the principle of connecting vocal art with cultural tradition.

Inspired by the teaching philosophy of Confucius--one day becoming someone's teacher, one life serving as someone's guardian (8)--many vocal music educators have the natural desire to become student role models and life mentors. Not only do they care about creating excellence in beautiful singing with their students, but also about cultivating their thoughtfulness and gratitude for becoming better human beings. However, vocal music educators usually wish students to be obedient during their studies, and to follow direction to develop their vocal capabilities and singing techniques. In other words, voice students are not encouraged to use critical thinking while solving vocal problems together with their teachers.

This principle is also meant to encourage voice students to learn the cultural traditions of Italian opera, French melodie, and German lied, while studying the masterpieces of each genre. It states that a good voice is only the initial part of vocal music study, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sheng), the voice; the second part, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII](yue), the happy feeling, needs to be fulfilled with solid studies of singing techniques and cultural knowledge. (9)

2. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (pian zheng tong yi de yan ze)--the principle of dialectics.

This principle can refer to several Italian bel canto concepts: 1) the higher singing pitch, the lower breath support; 2) the larger space in the throat, the smaller point in the resonance; 3) sing the open vowels narrower in the high register and the close vowels wider in the low register; and 4) project the head voice solidly like the chest voice and sing the chest voice gently like the head voice. (10) The key to this principle is to make a balance between the two ends in all four concepts.

3. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (zhen, shan, mei de yan se)--the principle of synthesizing beauty, truth, and goodness.

The overall aesthetics of vocal art lays great stress on vocal techniques, lingual expressions, and performing skills. This principle emphasizes that the purer the nature of presenting each element, the greater the possibility of producing beautiful singing. Vocal training for Chinese bel canto singers needs to build up in conjunction with the individual's understanding of beauty, truth, and goodness, in order to help them develop an educated taste and artistic standard of vocal art, eventually leading them to have established performing careers and becoming successful singers in the music world.

Components of the Teaching Methodology

Besides the standard characteristics of Italian bel canto, such as belly breathing, round resonance, well defined enunciation, and whole body involvement, Chinese bel canto singers also have their own features of beautiful singing--exquisite passion, concise expression, and perfectionism in vocal techniques. Such a singing style is taught by a teaching methodology that includes some noteworthy components.

1. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (song er bu xie, jin er bu jiang)--to be relaxed but not loose, to be tight but not stiff. (11)

This approach describes the breathing methods summarized by professor Xiang Shen in the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. As the former chair of the Voice and Opera Department, Prof. Shen wrote the first educational book of bel canto in the early 1980s, in which he stated that tightness and looseness during inhaling and exhaling constitute a paradox that cannot be ignored in the early stage of singing study. His teaching practices further elaborate that the balance between these two opposite qualities can be made by a specific control on muscle movement, such as "taking a yawn" at the inhalation.

During voice lessons, Prof. Shen would ask his students to take various sized yawns while singing in different vocal registers--fully yawning for singing head voice and falsetto, half yawning for singing middle voice and mixed voice, and a sensation of yawning for singing chest voice and nonsinging voice. By intentionally making the effort of yawning over and over, students could develop a good sense of tightness and looseness on each breathing muscle--the relaxed larynx and chest muscles, the flexible diaphragm muscles, and the tight lower abdomen muscles. The goal is to train a muscle memory based on consistent muscle movements while singing in different vocal registers.

2. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (chuan zhen yin xian, xi shui chang liu)--to pull thread through the eye of a needle, to make water flow like a small but steady stream. (12)

This refers to professor Xiao-Yan Zhou's approach to solving passaggio issues. As one of the first generation of Italian bel canto educators in higher music education, Prof. Zhou, at the age of 99, still teaches voice lessons at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Her idea of passaggio is similar to the concept in Western voice pedagogy, which considers that vocal unification is an important issue in bel canto training, and the breaks between vocal registers can be evened out with appropriate vocal techniques.

Prof. Zhou thinks passaggio issues need to be solved with specific attention to individual voice and effective approaches to the training. The teacher should create vocal exercises suitable for an individual's vocal condition, and find solutions to develop a smooth transition between the vocal registers. She further explains that the challenge is to discover the body energy that can act as a liaison to persistently support the transition. After stabilizing the sensation of easy phonation and evening the airflow in the middle register, she helps her students identify the ending and the starting points of each register, asking them to make a vocal projection like "pulling thread through the eye of a needle," focused and uplifted, and then continue the same vocal projection with increased body energy to sing like a water stream, steadily flowing. All these efforts are for producing a consistent sound from low to high all the way through.

3. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (yi zi dai sheng, yi qing xing qiang)--to use words for lining-up sounds; letting feelings lead out tones. (13)

This approach is commonly used by professor Kun Xie in the Voice Department of Nanjing University of the Arts, when he tries to improve students' phonetic skills and vocal tones at the same time for singing contemporary Chinese repertoire.

Mandarin Chinese is the standard language for singing Chinese vocal music. It consists of typical consonants, such as zh or z, sh, and ch that cannot quite fit in Italian bel canto vocal techniques. For example, the words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (zu guo), meaning "motherland," often appear in modern Chinese art songs, and composers usually write an extended phrase for singing the words (Example 1). The best way to sing this type of phrase is to use a familiar bel canto technique, messa di voce. While working on connecting the consonants with the vowels of the two words to sing a long vocal phrase, Prof. Xie would rather suggest his students think about the tender feeling of mother-love, which makes them react with a natural and warm expression, than physically teach students the messa di voce technique. Prof. Xie believes that emotional reaction can help students reduce the tension of tongue and jaw, and suspend the airflow for as long as the music requires.


4. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ying cai shi jiao, xun xu jian jin)--to progress step by step, to teach someone in accordance with individual ability. (14)

This practice embodies the teaching methods of professor Ling Zhou in Xi-an Conservatory of Music, who returned to China in 1993 after studying bel canto in the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini in Italy for six years. Prof. Zhou strongly believes that treating students differently and training them accordingly is the key to success in voice teaching. Very often voice teachers would use the same vocalises for all types of voices at the beginning of voice lessons, as they usually treat this part of lessons to be warm-up, not yet part of main instruction. Prof. Zhou chooses to warm up each voice with specific vocalization scales designed for improving certain vocal capability. Such a thoughtful approach has resulted in students' quicker response to her teaching methods.

In singing coloratura passages, a bel canto singer must be able to present all types of staccato and legato melodic combinations with well controlled breath support and phonetic skills. The three vocalises in Example 2 are designed by Prof. Zhou to train coloratura singers. Numbers 1 and 2 should be sung in legato motion followed by staccato motion, or the other way around, plus a repetition of the melody. Vocalise 3 should be repeated in staccato motion only. The purpose of singing these exercises is to train flexible diaphragm movement supported by well distributed airflow, and develop a solid breath management for singing demanding coloratura repertoire.

The combination of ve and vi in the first exercise will train the collaboration of lips and teeth while alternately phonating v with e and v with i. The mixture of melismatic and syllabic vocal phrases in number 2 should make a smooth crossover between close and open vowels. The rolling r in vocalise 3 can set up a high resonant placement while gaining a comfortable sensation of producing this typical consonant in Italian bel canto repertoire. All three are better practiced at the beginning of a voice lesson.


In Chinese music institutions, voice students studying in the Western vocal music division will become Chinese bel canto singers; they will have some opportunities to continue their studies overseas and pursue international singing careers. Voice students belonging to the Chinese folk music division will turn out to be the performers of Chinese national singing style, and they remain in Mainland China for further career developments.

Based on the characteristics of Italian bel canto, Chinese bel canto singers have carried out a beautiful singing style described as: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (tong), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (shi), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (yuan), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (liang), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (chun), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (huo), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (rou), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (song), meaning to be thorough, solid, round, bright, pure, flexible, gentle, and sturdy. These features encapsulate the aesthetics of modern Chinese vocal art, which has been fostered by generations of vocal music educators in the past century. Their rich teaching philosophy, ambitious teaching attitude, and superb teaching methodology have made great contributions to the development of Italian bel canto style in China vocal art.


Italian bel canto style was a product of Baroque music aesthetic. Chinese national singing style originated from traditional Chinese music in the Qing Dynasty (which ended in 1912). The different cultural backgrounds of these two singing styles continue to influence the development of Italian bel canto in modern Chinese music culture. Italian bel canto in China has been classified as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (xiang chun bai xue, qu gao he gua), meaning the highbrow art is too innovative to be followed. Singing modern Chinese art songs in Italian bel canto style is considered to conflict with Chinese vocal music tradition, and the majority of vocal music listeners cannot fully enjoy the singing style. Furthermore, bel canto style is often overlooked by major Chinese media; for example, none of the famous Chinese bel canto singers were invited to perform in The Chinese New Year Gala recent years; this is the most popular TV program broadcast nationwide by China Central Television on the lunar New Year's Eve each year, and it has held the highest audience viewer rating in the nation for more than three decades.

Another disappointing consequence is that very little research and a few surveys have been conducted on career-related factors in higher music education, such as voice students' perception of important characteristics for successful careers in music, besides having excellent vocal techniques and performing skills. Due to the fact that all voice students are taught to sing more opera arias and fewer art songs, as they are challenged to sing big arias in order to win in vocal competitions and to become successful operatic singers both in China and overseas, some questions can be raised here: 1) How can the tradition of vocal art be carried on without thoroughly studying art song? 2) What about those voice students who may not have a performing career? 3) In what ways could vocal music education make meaningful contributions to modern society? The bottom line is that voice students need to be trained with multiple skills during their school years, so that they not only can sing beautifully but also have the capabilities of working in related fields like music education, music management, and music therapy, after the completion of their higher music education.

In 1990, soprano Li-Yan Peng, since 2013 China's first lady, was the first formally trained singer who received a master's degree of vocal performance. Since then, all higher education music institutions in China have established various graduate programs for advanced voice studies, although none of them have created a doctoral program for training to even higher standards voice artistry and education. At the same time, none of the voice teaching positions in higher music education require a doctoral degree in order to be hired. It can be said that the majority of vocal music educators in Chinese higher education are respected for their performing achievement and teaching experiences, but not for their scholarly and academic accomplishments. This could be a new direction of further development for Chinese vocal music education. In the end, vocal music always seems to be a mirror of the contemporary culture that reflects the people and the civilization in the contemporary society.


(1.) Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Nanjing University of the Arts.

(2.) (accessed March 8, 2013).

(3.) MetOpera Database, Huang, Ying (soprano) (accessed March 8, 2013).

(4.) (accessed March 9, 2013).

(5.) Mr. Zhang currently is the head of the Voice Department at the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, and Ms. Huang is voice professor at Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

(6.) (accessed March 20, 2013).

(7.) (accessed March 22, 2013).

(8.) (accessed March, 19 2013).

(9.) Yue-Fang Lu, "Study on Zhou Xiao-Yan's Vocal Music Teaching methodology" (MM dissertation, Teachers College of He Bai Province, China, March 2007); (accessed March 15, 2013).

(10.) Telephone interview with professor Xiao-Yan Zhou (March 20, 2013).

(11.) Shao-Zhong Li, Be Successful in Bel Canto Singing--Shen Xian's Voice Teaching, June 2011; (accessed March 20, 2013).

(12.) Lu (accessed March 19, 2013).

(13.) Observation of voice lessons taught by professor Kun Xie in the Voice department of Nanjing University of the Arts (March 28, 2013).

(14.) Chuan Tian, "Research on Zhou Lin's Voice Teaching Methods" (MM dissertation: Xi An Conservatory of Music, China, May 2010); (accessed March 20, 2013).

Wen Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Voice and the coordinator of music programs at Dillard University in New Orleans. She holds a DMA degree in voice from University of Nevada in Las Vegas, an EDM degree in music education from the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, and a MM degree in vocal performance from University of Western Ontario in Canada.

As a scholar, Ms. Zhang has published a research book, An Infusion of Eastern and Western Music Styles into Art Song: Introducing Two Sets of Art Song for Mezzo-Soprano by Chen Yi. She has given presentations at two international music education conferences, based on "Peking Opera, Bel Canto in Chinese: Introducing its Training Process," Journal of Singing 68, no. 2 (November/December 2011).

As a well trained singer, Ms. Zhang has sung Suzuki in Madama Butterfly with many opera companies in America and Asia. Other operatic roles include Carmen and Mercedes in Carmen, Maddalena in Rigoletto, and Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro. She made her New York City debut with New York Grand Opera in 2001, singing Dame Quickly in Falstaff. Her signature role is Lady Thiang in The King & I, which she has performed in more than 700 shows with National and International Tour Company and many regional theaters, and received the nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Musicals from the Carbonell Award.
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Author:Zhang, Wen
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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