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.






11 thoughts on “What IS Classical Singing?

  1. Reblogged this on The College Audition Blog and commented:
    This is a GREAT blog post describing what classical singing IS and IS NOT. This is a must read for singers who are trying to figure out what “classical technique” means. The answer in today’s world = not much. However, functional training (much of which happens to be based in centuries old techniques) will help you free your voice and unlock your full potential regardless of the style(s) you are interested in singing.


  2. I’m writing my book “Technique For Non-classical Singers” and the issues you raise are important ones: functional freedom as a goal, technique versus aesthetics, etc. Very enjoyable article. Thank you.

    1. Please understand that I’m not posting as a way of marketing my book, but as a colleague wishing to exchange ideas about this fascinating question. I attempt to sort this question out in “Vocal Technique For Non-Classical Singers”, a book I wrote last year for my students and all others who may be interested. These are interesting times for voices, when boundaries are blurring and bridges are being forged. Looking forward to the ongoing discussion.
      Rita di Ghent BFA, MA
      Vocal Faculty, York University

  3. I just read the article. As someone who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century, i can assure you that “classical singing” in the last century was common jargon among musicians. It meant singing vocal music in the style of the classical composers. Usually meaning the composers who also wrote for the symphonic or chamber orchestra. Very simple.

    Due to the lack of microphones in the 18th and 19th century the training of the artistic voice was aimed at producing a volume and projection that could be heard above the accompaning ocrhestra in the backseats of the hall.. As the orchestras became bigger, Only the voices that were audible above the orchestra were payed for the theater. Smaller voices usually stayed in chamber music with smaller bands and more intimate arrangements.

    Classical singing uses a mega-phonic vocal technique: a technique that mimics the function of the mega-phone and where large vocal gestures are the norm. Whereas non-classical singing usually employs what i call a microphonic technique: a technique that needs miking to be heard comfortably in a large concerthall and which concentrates on developing the more intimate micro-nuances of the voice. It is obvious that both kinds of singing need completely different stylistic preparations. It is comparable to theater and camera acting.There are singers that can do both, as there are actors that act in the theater as well on the big screen (Cinema) or small screen (television).

    Contrary to what many believe, the techniques of classical singing where initially developed as a response to musical ideals and not based on the “nature” of the vocal organ. For example It is Rock music that demands a certain kind of voice. Not the nature of the voice that created Rock music. As Rock became more popular it generated several superstars. There were songwriters that were inspired by Rock balladeer John Bonjovi, or Steve Tyler (Aerosmith) or Mick Jagger and wrote a special composition for them and other famous rocksingers. That’s how it worked out historically in classical music as well. it was the demands of the musical activity that fuelled the training. Just like is was not the nature of the human body that created romantic ballet (Like the Black Swan, Giselle or Nutcracker). It was the ideal of weightlessness that created the high leaps and the floating movements and the ballerinas dancing on tiptoes. You have to create a technique for that or else the toes break. That is how it went with this singing tradition as well. I reiterate it is the musical activity that created the standard for technique. Just like the activity of soccer created a certain form of physical training exercisies and a preference of certain physical qualities for the sport. (different for every spot activity). If you ask any sportsman what are the standards of correct technique to use his arms legs, trunk or body, he will not be able to answer you apart from his particular sports activity. The health benefits of any sport depend on the vitality and longevity factors built into it, but that is not the standard. The efficient use of the technique is mainly inspired by the Activity itself. If you ask a dancer how to move correctly, she will tell you it depends on the choreography. The relative standard of technique is the so called Disposizione (Giulio Caccini): The proper Disposition for successful activity.
    I apologize for the redundancy, but i had to make this abundantly clear. As i think it was a dangerous statement to say that there are no standards for classical singing. There are lots that are connected with repertoire. Thats why a classical singer has certain arias for his/her voice-type, that (s)he has to train upon, to develop disposition and to hold a job in the industry. ..

    It is true that classical training can bring out the highest potency out of the human voice in terms of volume frequencies, coloring, pronunciation power, projection, soft singing, loud singing and when done correctly in the right repertoire, the moving of the emotions. Before 1570, there was no one who expected to be “moved” and highly “delighted” by a human voice. All these expectations in singing where first discussed by a group of artists, singers, composers and writers. The Camerata Fiorentina was an artistic think-tank who discussed ancient writings and discovered that in the ancient classical world (of Greece in particular), music had a very powerful effect on people and a very important role in society. It went beyond mere entertainment or religious devotion. The Camerata wanted to bring that human and social function back in the music of their day, and invented “New Music” and ways of writing, that excited, moved and delighted the listener. This part of the subject is all over the internet so i won’t dscuss it here. Basically that is where the world “classical” comes from. Composers that were inspired by the character and role of Music in ancient Greece as recorded by ancient texts, and wrote music that would have the same effect on the listeners of their day..

    The classical singing pedagogy that prepared the singer to perform this “New Music” (spearheaded by Giulio Caccini) created vocal superstars because they generated sounds and emotions that no one ever heard or felt before. Classical music is basically all about passion and moving its different variations in the soul.; literally written as”Muovere l’affetti dell’animo” : Move the affections of the Soul. (Giulio Caccini in the introduction of Le Nuove Musiche). This musical Legacy gave rise to opera and the huge projected voices where adored for their power of expression. If we expect to be moved by human voices today, it is a legacy of this era. It became the common norm that good singers had to move the soul and delight the ear. The music written with these goals in mind is the only reason that classical technique exists. Of course like a professional athlete or ballerina you want to stay in your profession as long as possible, so the technique includes staying balanced and healthy in your use of the vocal organs for longevity..

    Referring to the fact that some voices are “locked” into a certain classical style, can be the result of faulty training, but also of specialization in the classical Genre. If your physical instrument is well-built for classical genre it will function best in that repertoire. Classical training not only involves Disposition training in the sense of activity, but also in terms of physicality and muscularity. Once the muscles have acquired power beyond a certain point, you cannot easily “switch” to lighter weight-class, Heavy-weight fighters once they have settled into their activity, dont have the “freedom” to fight in the light-weight category. Its just not possible. Also there are limits to stylistic multi-tasking. Some people can do cross-traininjg and do several sports, others specialize in just one.

    Another aspect you touch upon is the stylistic limitations as a bad thing. The availaility of twenty different styles of music is a new phenomenon proper to the Age of Information.. You take it for granted hat a Vocalist has the obbligation to sing in many different genres and styles according to the physical demands of each. In order to have a paychek your repertoire needs to be as wide as possible. But too much switching to other genres do not work out well for classical repertoire. It is immediately audible when a classical musician has meddled with his classical disposition. When you start singing a Beethoven lovesong with the energy of an Ed Sheeran,lovesong it’s just as bad as the other way around. And classical literature is not just about the physical properties of the soundscape and the text. It has specific psychological energies that need to be connected to the sound and cant be changed into one’s own version. All this Disposition for the literature gets lost when you sing with too much micro-phonics. Your consonants do not “pop” enough to reach the back of the hall, because in a micro-phone you cannot explode too hard on the consonants but should rather implode your K, T and P. It also has to do with maintaining muscle memory which is part of an alert Disposition.before action. there is also the factor of the particular twang used in classical vocalism. it is totally innappropriate for other genres because it’s objective is to fill the theater or compete with an orchestra.

    I could go on and on to clarify all these points with more concrete examples, but i hope this is enough. I also hope this aology for the toughtlessness and arrogance of so-called “classical ” culture has brought a bit more understanding. And that the it is not the fault of the athletes that they have no oversight of training matters, as they are mere players, in a huge field that is over 400 years old. A a singing coach and music teacher who specialized in historic performance i thought it was my duty to shed some light on the issue. Thanks for reading to the end, and please continue researching and quoting the sources. You are doing a good job.

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