The Style Agnostic Singing Voice

In our conscientious attempts at getting up to date we should not sever our roots with the past. The Old Italian School knew a thing or two even if we have only hearsay evidence. The singing voice has not changed any more than the rest of the body. We are dealing with one and the same God-given instrument. Their concern was to make the very most of it. Ours should be the same.

Peter T. Harrison. Singing: Personal and performance values in training

Primum non nocere. 

First do no harm.

This is a fundamental principle of healthcare, and is also a central tenet of my own teaching.

To that end, I have spent much time in reflection on style-oriented pedagogy. With the influx of music styles in the marketplace, we voice teachers can often feel that we’re hapless participants in the variability of market taste and fashion.

Is there a way to train a voice in all of its parts as a total gestalt?

Is it ethical to train a voice to only do ONE thing?

An effective personal trainer knows that the collected ability of the body in all its capacity is usually the best equipped for a variety of physical tasks and sports. Yes, sports are different, and athletes do need varying skills for their respective sport. But are there similarities of cross-training that can be applied to them all?

I have had students in my studio from all musical backgrounds and experience, not just classical singing. Rock, Pop, Musical Theater, Folk, and Jazz. Each one of these styles of music has varying usage of the vocal instrument. Each has its own ‘sound’ picture in order for it to sound authentic, and this is important for the teacher to understand.

But what I’m talking about is TRAINING. Not the sport itself. A voice that lacks certain functional capacities is not going to be able to sustain this one-sided specialization for a long period of time. A well-trained voice (through all of its functional capacities) will allow the singer the greatest leeway to keep the voice healthy for the longest period of time.

If I keep a pop singer in a chest dominant production only, and never allow this singer to explore head voice, it is my personal belief that I’m doing a disservice to this singer. I feel that it is wrong NOT to explore the capacity of the vocal folds to stretch without the heavy activity of the Closers and Tensors. In the same way, a classical singer that has not explored the strength and power of the lower chest register hasn’t fully explored the vitalizing capacity of this functions, as well as its effect on the totality of the voice. 

When vocal training does not include the holism of the instrument, then I’m basically specializing that voice. This is a pedagogical view that I’ve decided I cannot support any longer. I cannot support a one-sided, market-oriented, “corporate” singing voice.

This is not to say that a vitalized and innervated instrument won’t be able to sing in other styles, it just means that a specialized voice won’t be able to sing much else. There will be a limited musical vocabulary for this singer’s voice. It would be akin to an instrument with only 8 notes. How much music can an 8-note instrument play? Not much. That instrument could have a wide capacity for variety within those 8 notes, but there will not be any ability to evoke much more than that. Many singers sing a terrific 8 notes for their entire career. 

But for the voice trainer, is this acceptable? “Well, you sing pop, so you don’t need a head voice, or flexibility, or dynamic contrast.” To me, this is unacceptable

If you can sing classical, you can sing anything. 

This mantra was repeated to me often when I was a young singer.

It has taken me over twenty-five years to realize what this means. 

If we consider the functional unity that the greatest masters of singing aimed for, we can begin to unlock this conundrum. If we consider vocal training as a collection of the greatest capacities of the voice (i.e., high, low, fast, slow, loud, soft, messa di voce), then we might be well on our way to understanding what is meant by the ‘sing classical/sing anything’ mantra. A functionally opened voice CAN sing almost anything – freedom engenders greater ability of the voice.

We also have to remember that these teachers of the Old School were teaching SINGING. NOT classical singing or pop or whatever. These men and women were the earliest SCIENTISTS of the voice. They discovered and tended to the greatest capacities of the instrument of the throat.

In our own time, however, classical singing can mean many things to many people. If the training is an aesthetic-first approach (which much of classical singing can be), then that is another obvious type of specialization. Think about it: can a classical singer easily move towards pop singing or even gospel? If the voice has been classically ‘specialized’ then the answer would be no. It would be a silly sounding “opera-fied” experience. If an opera singer wants to sing pop convincingly, then training and work in the chest register should be part of the training program.

You see, holism works in all directions.

A functionally awakened, innervated voice CAN sing in more than one style convincingly provided that the singer also possesses a keen ear and ‘feel’ for the music.

It is dishonest in my opinion for teachers of singing not to explore the fullest capacities of the voice. To say, “Well this girl is a jazz singer, why are you working her head voice?” is to enforce a market sound and ignore the fullest POTENTIAL of the instrument. Many jazz singers sing some kind of head voice (Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jane Monheit). To say it’s not needed is to make a prescription for that voice and to LIMIT.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves as teachers: where do we stand in our teaching of the human voice? Should we give the singer ALL OF THEIR VOICE and everything that it can do, or merely rest upon what a man-made market requires, and just teach that? For me, only the former is an acceptable pedagogical worldview. In the same way that fitness should expand the body’s abilities, TRUE voice training should not rest on the limitations of ONE specific style or genre.

Singing should be free of the limitations of one specific style.

Our teaching should reflect this as well.

Unfortunately, the wide range of musical styles (and corresponding voice types) that are heaped together under the word ‘classical’ make nonsense of the single term ‘classical voice’. While ‘classical music’ no longer refers just to the Classical period (1750 to 1830) which historically succeeded the ‘Baroque’ and preceded the ‘Romantic’ eras, we can rarely point to a ‘classical voice’ which is capable of singing (or at least doing justice to) all ‘classical’ music from the medieval to the 21st century. In fact, so differently is the voice generally configured for (say) early music, lieder, romantic opera and contemporary music that we might be drawn into believing that, as in popular usage, the singing voice is merely a question of style or a preferred sound. That might indeed make sense of the term ‘modern’ which is sometimes used to denote a ‘more up to date’ way of singing. But if we look further into the matter we come to realise, on the one hand, that the true singing voice is the most versatile and adaptable (some classical singers, given a sense of style, are capable of singing almost anything convincingly), and on the other, that a so-called early music singer’s voice, a romantic opera singer’s voice, or that of a contemporary music singer often cannot adapt to a genre outside its practised specialisation. On the contrary, it is often specialisation that limits vocal versatility.

Some might maintain that the ‘singing voice’, whether limited to one genre or several, is ‘whatever serves’, and that in any case some voices are more suited to one genre than to another. This is a superficial and misguided view. If there is such a thing as the ‘singing voice’, why should one person’s singing voice be less adaptable than another’s?

Harrison, Peter T. The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning. Dunedin Academic PressLtd, 2006.

3 thoughts on “The Style Agnostic Singing Voice

  1. I am so on board with this attitude, Justin. Starting with my own voice, I realized just how transformative it was to work on developing my pop sound—for years ignored (yes, I was one of *those* classical singers who sang standards with an obnoxiously operatic approach). When I was able to produce a bright, clear, “belty” falsetto, it not only enabled me to sing pop music with no embarrassingly Mozartean resonances, but it improved DRASTICALLY my ability to negotiate the passaggio, even in my classical repertoire. It also enlarged the range of tonal colors I am now able to produce. Similarly, working with my belters and heavy metal screamers on a more “legit” register balance has given THEM access to more colors, more ease, more range. It’s totally win-win; I now use a wide palette of sound options in my teaching for singers of all types.

    Thank you for your brilliant analyses and unbelievable prolificacy.

  2. EXACTLY!!!!! So well said, Justin. “a one-sided, market-oriented, “corporate” singing voice……”- indeed. It is so important that we don’t fall into the ‘American Idol’ trap. Every singer we see isn’t going to be a pop star!! We should prepare them to be as useful as possible as a singer, being able to fit in as many musical situations as possible so they can WORK professionally. A fully developed technique will make that a stronger possibility.

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