Breaking the Chains of “Style”

Certain books come along in our lives that can be life-changing and guide us to new directions and vistas.

Peter T. Harrison’s book The Human Nature of the Singing Voice is a book that I’ve had on the shelf for quite some time but never got around to reading. Having picked it up this summer, it has inspired me to the highest personal ethics and values as a singing teacher. It has assisted me in determining my pedagogical direction and teaching philosophy and empowered me to be the best teacher that I can be.

In the studio, one of the things that comes up with classical singers is the desire to ‘sound’ classical. In most cases this means a high-effort, ‘supported’ loud sound. Very rarely is classical singing coupled with grace, flexibility, ease, or beauty. The need to pursue an aesthetic aim is paramount.  I have struggled with this same problem in my own singing.

Making students trill is psychologically unnerving. Having a big voice sing quick coloratura passages or staccati can throw a singer off their ‘game.’ Singing ‘brighter’ for a voice that is locked into a sepulchral tone can be off-putting. Making ‘other types’ of sounds or exploration in the singing voice becomes difficult for a singer that believes in a moral superiority of certain types of sounds. 

Working from a place of functional training, all attempts at aesthetic should be put aside. The human being in front of me matters more than any style or genre, and giving them the fullest spectrum of ability should be the sine qua non of voice training.

How does the instrument actually work? Can I get the instrument in front of me ‘unlocked’ and liberated within its fullest capacities? This is what I believe is the fullest meaning of the term bel canto. 


I’ve explained that the voice that attempts to respond to our desire to sing is different in structure to that of normal speech. This singing instrument might be trained to make any sound, and indeed there are many sounds that we call collectively ‘singing’, just as there are many sounds that are called speech. Do we as teachers ‘mould’ a voice into, for example, a jazz or operatic singing voice? If a voice seems to possess attributes making it suitable for one of these genres, do we try to make it more jazz-like or more operatic, according to sounds we associate with these styles? It is easy for a teacher to be seduced by the idea of nourishing the next Billie Holiday or Edita Gruberova! Should we train a singer differently for Early Music, lieder or opera? Should a voice be trained to perform specific skills, feats or effects associated with different kinds of music? The negative consequences of specialised aims of this kind are widely evident. Can we justify limiting a person’s capacity to express his or her true self? Surely the role of a responsible voice teacher is to train a voice in accord with its nature so that it works well in all respects.

Healthy design

One current school of thought would argue that there are separate ‘well-workings’ for opera, jazz, musical theatre and other recognised styles. It’s obvious that some ways of vocalising, in any style, are more effective and less harmful than others. However, there must surely be degrees of vocal health per se, just as there are degrees of general physical good health. The question ‘what constitutes a healthy voice?’ is the ongoing concern of many voice specialists just as what constitutes a healthy mind is the concern of psychologists. Teachers of singing should be more concerned about vocal health than about what sounds ‘operatic’ or ‘lieder-like’.

It’s misleading, if not dangerous, to assume that a singer’s voice is healthy because it survives or copes with a style of singing with little discomfort, even if his vocalisation is effective and deemed to be ‘safe’. There is all the difference between being effective according to some given criteria, whether ‘scientific’ or musical, and being in good health. In life, ‘surviving’ and ‘living’ constitute entirely different attitudes and aims. Training can lead a voice away from its original expressive nature while it remains effective musically. On the other hand it can lead the voice to fulfill its original potential, so that it truly lives, a genuine expression of its owner, and an indicator of his or her well-being.

Putting styles of musical vocalisation aside, we can measure vocal health by natural rather than manmade criteria. Training can be a process of improvement in vocal health regardless of what we want to use our voice for. This may not appeal to singers who wish to imitate a particular style or ‘model’, but it makes sense to those who see their voice as primarily an expression of themselves. Too often a trainee singer says something like ‘I want to be a soprano like Callas!’ It’s important to remember that while singers of various styles have become well-known for their own vocal qualities or peculiarities, these have always been unique. It would be perverse to suggest that it’s a good idea (let alone a healthy one) to cultivate strange, limiting or degenerate vocal habits on the off-chance that they’ll make us famous. Emulators of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Maria Callas or Peter Pears (to cite three examples of well-known singers with quite distinct vocal personalities) have rarely succeeded in achieving anything more than poor imitations. That their models became famous is a measure of their personalities or considerable artistic merits.

If singers specialise early on (in Baroque music or musical theatre, for example), they run the risk not only of limiting what they can ‘say’ with their voice, but of straying from their true vocal and artistic personalities. In medical parlance ‘healthy’ means sound, and ‘holistic’ means treating the whole person. Healthful and whole share the same root. A complete voice is bound to be the one that serves us best for whatever purposes it was designed.

Harrison, Peter T. The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning. Dunedin Academic Pr Ltd, 2006.


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