Do I have to learn classical technique to be a good singer?

It is still a common belief that to sing well, you have to take classical singing lessons first – and then maybe switch to more contemporary singing styles later. While many singers go down this path (I did it myself to a certain extent), it is not really necessary and often even complicates matters. Classical and contemporary singing styles are very different, and to learn a classical set-up first if you don’t really want to sing classical is a waste of time, as is learning contemporary styles if you want to sing classical.

So what are the main differences between both styles?

For starters, the idea about what is regarded a desirable or “good” sound is often very short-lived and hugely dependent on the audience’s taste in contemporary music. A vocal sound that is “in” today can be “out” tomorrow. There is no “right” or “wrong” regarding interpretive measures: You can scream, grunt or shout if you feel it is authentic and the only way to get your message across. The only thing you should be aware of is to produce these sounds healthily. What is regarded a desirable sound in classical singing however has grown and developed over centuries, and the singer’s vocal/technical and musical skills have to match this idea quite closely. A classical singer will very often, although of course not exclusively, be mainly a performer, and it is necessary to have a deep technical, artistic and emotional understanding of the music you are going to perform. Contemporary musicians require a different, but not less demanding skill-set. Music theory knowledge is not unimportant and makes life easier, but very often, ideas will be taken into the rehearsal studio and worked on on a more improvisational basis until the final version is found. Classical musicians on the other hand will very often initially work from sheet music, making good skills in music theory almost essential. Improvisation on the other hand is very often not required and even frowned upon.

Contemporary music is also “consumed” in a quite different way: The audience wants to clap, dance, sing along and of course also to be captured on an emotional level. The latter also applies to the classical audience, but the way emotions are experienced during a performance is usually a more introverted one. Performer-audience interactions are quite different in classical and contemporary music. Apart from a few exceptions, classical musicians usually do not interact directly with their audience. This can be the complete opposite in contemporary music.

If we only talk about vocal technique, one of the main differences between classical and contemporary styles is the use of a microphone, and this fact hugely influences the way you can or cannot use your voice. The classical singer will only use a microphone if the acoustics of the venue do not permit singing without it (e.g. large stadiums). Contemporary singers will mostly sing with a microphone. This does not show ineptitude however – mainly two reasons should be mentioned:

1. The contemporary musician will mostly be accompanied by amplified instruments. Even a professionally trained voice with good projection will need a mic in this case.

2. The fact that contemporary singers use certain vocal colours/tones/timbres for stylistic reasons sometimes also means that these sounds do not project without amplification. Think of a very quiet, breathy, whispering sound in a ballad …

Microphone technique has to be learned though. In contemporary singing, the singer and the microphone are a unit – this set-up is basically your instrument, and you are able to change the sound by using effects, even if it is just as basic as using different proximity levels. This is somewhat different from the set-up of a classical singer, where mainly your body/voice and the way you project creates your instrument.

The way language is used is also distinctly different in classical and contemporary singing. Bel Canto uses the term “Prima la musica, dopo le parole” – music first, then the words. This means that you will never compromise on vocal tone, resonance or projection just to make lyrics understood. If you use the highest part of your voice, certain vowels and vowel/consonant combinations are even impossible to sing, and you have to start to shape all vowels in a certain way, so you do not compromise the sound. Not so in contemporary music – lyrics will very often be so important that you simply want them to be understood. This means that your articulation/diction can (not must!) be much closer to the way you speak, and sometimes also that the range used will be distinctly lower than in classical music and somewhat closer to your speaking range to make articulation easier.

Another important difference that I experience in my daily teaching practice: Many contemporary singers will think about lessons when they are already quite active singers, no matter on what level. They usually get to a certain limit, find that their voices tire easily, that they feel somewhat restricted rangewise and therefore mainly would like to improve technique to keep their instrument healthy – WITHOUT changing their vocal individuality. Students with an interest in classical singing on the other hand mostly have a stronger interest in building up the instrument BEFORE they approach an audience.

All the mentioned factors have to be taken to mind when you think about taking singing lessons, and what style you would like to learn. One is not better than the other – just different. Both can be learned, but a classical technique is certainly not the only way forward – it can even stretch out the process of learning to sing if you are mainly interested in contemporary singing styles.

© Petra Raspel 2011

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