What IS Classical Singing?

A blog by a voice teacher was recently posted (and since retracted) on why students shouldn’t study classical singing. Needless to say the article received a tremendous amount of vitriol from many classical singers and teachers, and caused the author to finally remove his post.

It got me thinking: What IS classical singing?

Is it a technique or is it a style of singing?

I don’t presume to be able to answer those questions definitively, but I’d like to explore both ideas.

The first thing to do in any argument is to define TERMS, so we can have a productive argument.  We have to agree on what it is we are talking about when we argue so that we don’t become derailed by personal biases, cognitive distortions, and logical fallacies.

Firstly, classical ‘technique.’

What does classical technique mean?

There has never been a consensus from teachers on what actually constitutes a definitive technique of classical singing. Ten ‘classical’ voice teachers in a room would have a very difficult time agreeing on the definition of the term classical technique as a training methodology. This has been so since the middle of the 19th century, evidenced from the historical record we have on singing from that time.

The fact that message boards and forums across the internet are riddled with combative teachers and conflicting pedagogical thought would substantiate that there is no STANDARD of classical singing training.

I will say it again: THERE ARE NO STANDARDS in ‘classical technique’ as a pedagogical training. NONE. A recent book “Master Singers” only exists as further proof that not even classical SINGERS agree on classical singing!!!  How can we presume to know what classical singing technique is if the top 1% of singers can’t even define it amongst themselves?

On a personal note, I have had several students come into my studio for voice training and coaching that were trained ‘classically.’

One girl had no functional chest voice, and couldn’t be heard above the sound of the piano. She had a light, breathy head voice and a collapsed throat. She assured me that she had been classically trained for several years with her teacher who didn’t believe in chest voice.

Another bright, sweet young man’s voice was so locked up that he couldn’t sing anything above D4 with success and had no ability to sing in his upper falsetto/head voice at all. He couldn’t manage even the healthiest of softer singing without a squeeze of the throat. His voice was so muscular that physical strain plagued everything he sang. Yet he was trained at a VERY well known school by a classical teacher with quite an impressive pedigree.

Both of these students had teachers that were teaching CLASSICAL technique.

How can one student fail to improve in their singing, and another blossom if ‘classical singing technique’ works for everyone? Or that this should be the standard for all voice training? Of course, there are good and bad teachers in every field, but if classical technique is to be held in such high regard as a system of training, shouldn’t the ratio of vocal and career success be INFINITELY higher among all who study it?

Secondly, WHO’s classical singing? In most regards we only see classical singing from a Western Euro-Centric viewpoint, ignoring the fact that singing has existed in all times and cultures since the beginning of recorded history. Muezzins, Chinese opera singing, Indian classical singing, chant and intonation; all these existed before the advent of a Western Classical approach. Jewish cantor schools existed LONG before the Schola Cantorum of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Is THIS classical singing?

Now on to the question of classical singing as a ‘style.’

We would consider a classically trained actor to be well-versed in the works of Shakespeare, the Greeks, and other older theatrical works. The connotation here is that he was trained to UNDERSTAND these works as an actor, not that he was TRAINED HOW TO ACT in them. Actor training really didn’t exist as codified system until Stanislavsky in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most likely the actor WAS trained in deportment, language, manners, style, theatrical conventions, so that he or she would be familiar with these older works and be able to communicate them.

In this parallel analogy, we might have the key to another definition of classical singing. Is classical singing learning to sing music that is considered classical in nature, from (mostly) western european traditions (i.e. Mozart, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Fauré, etc)? Many singers go to universities and learn much of this western classical music – does that mean that they are classically trained?

Another interesting observation is the struggle a great number of classically trained singers face when confronted with other musical styles that are NOT classical in STYLE. Can a soprano that sings Mimi in “La Bohème” easily adjust her technique to sing Mimi in “Rent?” Can she apply her classical technique to the rock music of Heart? Pat Benatar was ‘trained’ classically as a coloratura soprano, but does she SOUND that way in “Love is a Battlefield?”

Here is another video of classical singers singing John Denver in an obvious ‘classical style.’

Is this stylistically and musically correct? No. Very few of these singers (René Pape is the exception) can manage to fit their voices stylistically to this music to sing it CORRECTLY. Remember, pop stars singing in opera is an affront to many classical teachers and singers sense of decency (Moral superiority of sound, right?)

Also consider that we’re often told if you can sing classically, you can sing anything. Perhaps, but can these artists convince you that this is how to present this particular music? Would this particular approach sell out an area today?

Perhaps a rapprochement exists in all of this discussion on classical singing: a FUNCTIONAL approach to voice training. Functionally oriented training of the voice gives us a rational basis upon which to INSTRUCT because it shifts the focus from the AESTHETIC (which is in many cases subjective – see the unfortunate above-mentioned students) to focus on actual physical function.

The goal of a functionally oriented voice training is to improve muscular movements at the sound source (the larynx), allowing the voice to respond more freely so that it becomes a servant to the singer’s concepts of musical phrase AND style.

Interestingly, the oldest writings on singing tend to follow such ideologies: a free, rangy voice, able to sing a wide compass of notes with breath efficiency, clear vowels, understandable text, and extreme flexibility and messa di voce. This voice training was exemplary because it innervated and built the fullest capacities of the human voice, a voice SO liberated it COULD sing any style of composition. A voice without technical faults or limits.

The human voice is an ORGANIC mechanism IN NATURE and bound by NATURE’S laws. How we learn to use it doesn’t have to be connected to music, per se. Remember, vocal music DEVELOPED as greater exploration of the voice through empirical study of its FUNCTION allowed composers more leeway to write music for such virtuostic, dramatic, and functionally liberated singing! NOT VICE VERSA! Voices weren’t shoe-horned into music – the music was fitted to the ability of these phenomenally trained singers.

When your classical singing training prevents you from singing other styles of music, your voice has been SPECIALIZED into a classical STYLE.  You cannot ‘get out’ of singing with your classical sound. In effect, the muscles of your vocal system are firmly locked in place, and won’t adjust to other ways of working (style).

When you can sing high, low, fast, slow, legato, staccato, over a considerable range, and at varying dynamic contrasts as a PURPOSE of training, then your voice might be considered CLASSICALLY TRAINED in the sense that freedom of the instrument has been unlocked, and artistic choice has expanded – a hallmark of what vocal training was all about in the Old Italian School of singing.

There IS a difference between the two.