At no time in history has the diversity of ways in which vocal sound can be manipulated been more apparent. Nor has there ever been less agreement on how to achieve those diverse sounds, or what constitutes “good singing.”1 On the other hand, contemporary teachers proceed to disagree with much less public acrimony than in the 19th century—for the most part.
The primary consideration for teachers and singers alike is no longer only an “operatic” sound. In the 19th century, opera was the biggest game in town, and a singer trained for opera was expected to be able to scale down his voice for recital work. Let us remember that Tosi in 1723 said there were three styles, opera, chamber and church. He did not say there were three vocal emissions. Today there are dozens of kinds of vocal emissions in use, if we count—as I think we must—the exotic and ethnic styles which have been increasingly imported, and the varieties of “popular” singing, of which I count four:
- Ballad-crooning, which was the first of the new “popular styles” to make its appearance after the microphone was invented;
- Broadway singing, which inverts the usual order and ordinarily asks the female to sing in a chest voice known as a “belt,” and the male to sing in a heady near-falsetto;
- Rock and roll, a high-volume, often high-pitched style akin to shouting;
- “Folk,” in which I include traditional folksinging, Country Western, and contemporary folk styles.
To the “classical” voice teacher, the popular styles are anathema.
Here is a strong statement from Cornelius L. Reid:2
A correct technique of singing is a physiological fact, and the function of the vocal organs is governed by immutable laws. To succeed in formulating workable principles relating to that function, a proper foundation must be laid by asking and attempting to answer two fundamental questions. First, What is ‘voice,’ and what is the functional nature of the mechanism training methods are attempting to bring under discipline? Second, Why is it necessary to train the singing voice at all if its organic function is truly rooted in the natural?
In another book, Reid offers this definition of belting:3
“Belting: the practice adopted by “pop” singers (particularly women) of driving the chest register too high in the tonal range.
Belting is not a legitimate use of the mechanism and is extremely detrimental to vocal health. “Belters” frequently develop nodules on the vocal folds that require either long periods of rest or surgery for their removal.”
Taken together, these two statements seem to me to display a prejudice which excludes the possibility that good voice teachers will undertake to understand the necessary techniques which are in actual use, and learn to teach them sensibly and safely. Teachers who ignore this very large segment of the music industry, or whose critical attitudes encourage other teachers to abandon the aspiring popular singer, do themselves and the profession a disservice.
The very idea that there is one physiologically correct way to use the voice is immediately disproved when we begin to listen to the wide variety of ethnic vocal emissions available on CD. The longevity of Chinese opera singers—falsettists who often sing to an advanced age—belies this dictum, as do the varieties of polytonal singing coming out of Tibet, the Tuvan throat singers, and any number of vocal emissions which do no apparent damage to the physical organs of sound.
It is also apparent that Reid, distinguished teacher that he is, suffers from the same Western “classical” bias which limits the thinking of most voice teachers. I think we have already grappled sufficiently with the problem of a “natural” basis for vocal emission that I need not reiterate what kind of mare’s nest.4
But I think we have to infer that voice teachers teach what they have learned works most satisfactorily in their own singing, and that this is largely viva voce information, acquired by a combination of studying voice one-on-one, and listening to singers.5 A good deal may also be acquired through experimentation with students until one finds a systematic approach which works. This approach is generally termed “the empirical method,” and is looked down on by those who approach voice from the “scientific” standpoint.
It is also true that teachers need to come to grips with the question of “right” singing and “wrong” singing, and divorce the process from the application. Teachers at the end of the 20th century still display a lack of sympathy for the student who wants to sing popular music.6
There is a physical function which is efficient, well-coordinated and reasonably healthy, which can provide a fundamentally sound vocal technique for the popular singer in each of the four categories above. It is predicated not on “beautiful sound” in the old-fashioned operatic style,7 but represents a way of using the voice with fewer interferences and inhibitions, and thus a longer potential lifespan.
Increasingly, teachers and singers are coming to realize the very healthy fact that there is a significant difference between the act of vocal emission and the way in which that emission is put to the use of music.
Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.
- There is no discussion here of the popular “How to Sing” books which appear every once in a while, to teach popular singers how to get by. They are, in general, a collection of maxims, familiar exercises, and personal anecdote which have little value.
- Reid, Cornelius L.: The Free Voice. NY, 1965, p. 13.
- Reid, Cornelius L.: A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology, An Analysis. NY, 1983, p. 32.
- The only book on voice which I consider indispensable is a small work extracted from the large corpus of writings by Sufi Inayat Khan: Music. New Delhi, 1973. It gives a spiritual dimension to the whole of music, especially voice, which is missing from the majority of western writings, and can liberate the careful reader from many limitations about his own sound and its application to singing.
- Unfortunately, this has led many fine singers to teach badly at the end of their performing careers, because they teach the distortions and compromises which have enabled them to survive when good vocal emission was absent, or failed.
- This is a generalization; I know it’s a generalization, and I know that there are many fine teachers out there who encourage their students to acquire a good functional use of the voice for whatever career they may aspire to. To them I apologize. But I have met far too many of my fellow teachers who still consider popular singing beneath contempt, and who therefore deprive potential students of the right to a sound foundation. This is nothing more than an ostrich-like attempt to ignore the statistics which demonstrate that the “high culture” of opera is gradually being overtaken by a very real, definable “popular” culture.
- Which has pretty much disappeared anyway into a welter of mellow tone production which is boring in the extreme.