Put the parts where they belong

There’s been a lot of recent talk about musical style and chest voice and head voice as they relate to CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music). It’s an interesting discussion, and I wanted to throw some video clips onto the fire. For some classical teachers and singers, just singing the song in your classical voice is fine as an approach. “Don’t worry! Just use your Classical Technique™ on this music and you’ll be fine.”

So, we get young sopranos singing any number of musical theater or pop songs in some version of a classical head voice. (Men generally tend to fare better in these genres, as their chest voices are usually the dominant register.)

As early as 1936, Jeanette MacDonald sang the title song from the film “San Francisco” with hardly a trace of chest voice, despite the fact that this song takes place in a burlesque and casino. In general, singers who appeared there usually favored chest voice as their means of musical expression. Sophie Tucker is the first example of a singer that comes to mind.  MacDonald’s vocal approach is explained in the film that she ‘got work’ at the Paradise Casino because she was REALLY looking for work as an opera singer. MacDonald ‘sells’ the song, even though she never drops into anything resembling a chest voice.

If you were ‘classically trained’ this was the EXPECTATION of your approach to any non-classical style.

In 1961, Judy Garland paid tribute to MacDonald’s version at her Carnegie Hall concert and later on in her television specials. Garland, by contrast, sang the song entirely in chest voice. Garland does not “MIX” in this excerpt: she BELTS. This is a completely different mechanism, and reflects the then-and-now approach to CCM styles: chest dominance.

Garland’s approach is truer to the STYLE of the music. MacDonald’s approach, while fitting into a narrative of the film is not stylistic outside of this cinematic context.

In fact, Garland and her cohort Deanna Durbin vocally duke it out in what amounts to the bifurcation of musical styles expressed entirely through registration of the voice: chest versus head.

Another example of ‘classical singing’ in popular music (albeit done for more comedic effect) is Cathy Berberian’s version of the Beatles “Ticket to Ride”.  It’s hard to imagine THIS version making any mark on the Billboard charts, as the original Beatles tune did in the 1960s. This is a POP song being sung in HEAD voice. Even someone who wasn’t trained musically would recognize the vocal ‘falseness’ of this version as incorrect. In the clip Berberian says “I couldn’t do the song as THEY did it.”


Because you’re a classical singer and you can’t use anything but your head voice?

I worry a lot (altruism here) about classical singers that can’t ‘get out’ of their classical sound when trying music that is NOT classical. When I hear “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or “Ain’t Misbehavin'” sung in head voice, I want to scratch my eyes out. To equivocate is to say that it’s okay to be fundamentally illiterate of other musical styles.  From a vocal perspective, it speaks more of MUSCULAR SPECIALIZATION. What I mean by that is that a certain vocal ‘setup’ has been built INTO the voice when approaching ‘singing’ and this sound cannot be turned off when moving into other genres of music that AREN’T classically derived.

Classical singers that I know occasionally take much glee in tearing apart singers who sing classical music out of ‘style’ that aren’t opera singers: Sarah Brightman, Paul Potts, Susan Boyle, Michael Bolton.  Yet these selfsame singers see NO issues with the inverse of this musical equation?? Why?

In the clip below, ONLY René Pape (who has an enormous classical bass voice) can pare down his instrument to the true style and character to what in my estimation are classic American folk songs (and HE’S at least in the right REGISTER!) There is no operatic grandeur in any of Denver’s music, nor is it stylistically correct to sing it this way and call it the same thing.

Seth Rudetsky plays up this head/chest issue to comedic brilliance in the clip below. You cannot put HEAD where chest should be and call it the same thing musically. They are NOT the same, and singing something with your Classical Voice without making these adjustments is MUSICALLY and INTELLECTUALLY dishonest. If you sing anything outside of classical music, then you better find a way to get a chest voice and learn to use it in a way that can be musically advantageous and correct in CCM styles.

TEACHING students to sing CCM repertoire in head voice ONLY is musical and pedagogical charlatanism of the highest order, and the student should FLEE any studio where that is the approach to CCM music.

One thought on “Put the parts where they belong

  1. Justin, i would like to offer some insider info in order to clarify the area of contention between Classical Singing Technique and CCM technique. In the 17th, 18th and 19th century, Classical music was Contemporary, so there were no discrepancies between commercial, contemporary or classical techniques. The discrepancies are really between styles that favor falsetto-lead vocalism, as opposed to styles in which the chest-voice mode is the leading (f)actor.

    I will not step into the semantic land(mine)scape of the italian words for false (“finto” and. “falso”). There are many historical descriptions of “finte” voices. Whether they describe the same type of voice as the contemporary falsetto-lead Counter-tenor is still a question of debate.

    The head-voice or falsetto mode has a particular effect on human nerves. That is why belting a lullaby is unusual. CCM singers are very well aware of the neuro-physiological effect of the chest-lead voice in a song that expresses grit and courage (e.g the power ballad). In Classical Singing the voice is trained primarily as an instrument able to produce pitches and volumes as far up and down as possible. More importantly, an instrument that easily projects to the back of the large concert hall or opera theater without screaming effort. The most usefull aspect of the voice in this respect are the high frequencies most readily accessable through the head-voice or falsetto. So the instrument is formed in such a way that at certain relatively lower pitches a “heady” mix encouraged to ensure high overtones. [This should not be done at the expense of a stable core in the timbre (which is another debate.)] In the mega-phonic context of the opera theater and the large concert hall this is appropriate. The problem arises when the vocal response of the classical singing instrument is brought into a micro-phonic context.

    The opera singer in a micro-phonic acoustic would need a complete Alexander Technique overhaul. The vocal muscles were shaped to carry a certain orchestral weight and to project to the back of the hall or towards the opera theater balcony. The type of vocal “ring” (twang, or ping) and vibrato is also used with that objective. This muscle memory and response (to the need for high heady overtones that theatrically project) is brought into the micro-phonic context, and can be judged as inappropriate in terms of style. The strongly propelling vibrato is also “inappropriate”. But basically the inappropriate factor is the expressive strategy: mega-phonic vs. microphonic.

    Having said that, i have some concluding points i would like to offer for further exploration of the issue. Should the classically singing vocalist leading with the head-voice avoid chest-driven repertoire? Does the weightier head-voice mix, projected with vibrato belong exclusively in the museum of the Concert-hall and Opera Theatre repertoire? John Denver sang his songs as a higher thinner male voice. Does that mean that a bass should either not sing John Denver, or abandon the lower meaty frequencies that typify his vocal identity to “do justice” to the song? Can one imply that a low pitched Cello should play Annie’s Song only on the higher strings and without the typical wider cello vibrato but with the narrower more “Denvery” vibrato or not at all? The whole physiological response of the classically singing instrument will need to be reshaped to fit the aesthetic. This type of overhaul would be totally aesthetic. What if the singer’s natural gift for music does not support that biological conformation? It would be like forcing a heavy metal singer to express himself as a “legit” musical theatre vocalist. in such a case, the CCM voice teachers would be making the same mistakes as the “classical technique” teachers, only in reverse.

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