I start with what I see is an undeniable fact: one can no longer make a career doing just one thing. It is, at the very least, difficult. Today’s singer must be willing to traverse the boundaries of style whether they pursue an active performing or teaching career. Even the Renée Flemings of the world are branching out by teaching, producing, directing, acting… many boundaries are being crossed in an effort not only to remain active, but relevant.
When I was attending graduate school, I had the vague notion I would be performing opera and oratorio throughout my career. More years later than I would care to count, I couldn’t be further away from that life. And frankly, I couldn’t be happier. I perform cabaret and solo concerts, teach about 30 hours a week, write a lot of music in a wide variety of styles and run my own online business. In my studio, I play ping pong with styles on a daily basis, from classical to pop/rock to musical theatre. Even country and bluegrass (thanks, BRIGHT STAR!).
I have personally witnessed a hesitation in teachers and performers to move away from a classical style into a more diverse, commercial sound. I don’t believe this is really about the fear of what might technically happen to the voice. I find it to be more based on a lack of exposure to those styles and their requirements. As we all know, one can just as easily develop vocal issues singing opera as from singing rock. Style does not show any sort of bias. It’s up to the singer and their teacher to navigate the technical demands together while also understanding what I call “stylistic markers.”
I wish I was given more exposure to style in my academic career. I did some musical theatre in undergrad but graduate school was strictly classical. oppressively so. And while my training was almost solely based in that tradition, I was surrounded by different styles of music growing up.
I sang in the children’s and later the adult choir in my Methodist church. I listened to Frog 98.6, the local country station at our camp in the Adirondacks. Barry Manilow and easy listening tunes filled our car on family vacations. When my parents got an Oldsmobile in the 80’s, it came with this amazing cassette tape that included everything from the overture to Marriage of Figaro to Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias singing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” My older sister snuck a tape of Meatloaf into the car once, our parents putting the music on the back speakers, not understanding the risqué lyrics their prepubescent son was listening to. In college, I developed a love of jazz after discovering a recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s 40th Birthday Concert Live in Rome. And, of course, the recordings of Diskau, Souzay and von Otter as I studied lieder and mélodie. Oh, but I can’t forget the time I first heard SWEENEY TODD. I can tell you exactly where I was. And in college, my favorite band was Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians, an amazing 9-piece R&B band who played at Styleen’s Rhythm Palace every Saturday night!
We’ve all been exposed to lots of different styles of music. And yet, when it comes to singing, some of these boundaries still seem mighty hard to cross. Part of me has always thought, “Who the hell are you to sing jazz or pop or country?”
One thing I did receive in graduate school was a great teacher, who shared a voice type very similar to mine. In addition to aligning my voice, he gave me one of the best visuals for the difference between style and technique.
He said, “Imagine the vocal chords as a prism and the breath the white light. The colors created by the prism are the style and phrasing. The colors don’t change the prism or the light.”
True, this is simplistic, but to my way of thinking, it’s not far off base. I didn’t have to forsake my training to sing other styles of music. I simply had to learn to use different colors and shadings in a way that was vocally responsible.
Below are some examples of healthy singing in the major genres along with a downloadable list of stylistic markers for each. These markers are compiled from four amazing books I’d like to recommend to you: Popular Singing (Donna Soto-Morettini), Jazz Singer’s Handbook (Michele Wier), Rock the Audition (Sheri Sanders) and The Nashville Sound (Joli Jensen).
- A lighter vocal approach and, sometimes, not as sustained
- Easy play with the language and rhythm (back phrasing) – often phrases are condensed to make the language more conversational
- Here vibrato is used as a stylistic choice
- Certainly improvisational skills can come into play, especially in later jazz songs
- And this, which I love: using the space between phrases as an expressive tool. That’s something I think about a lot as a composer.
Listening Sample: “Let’s Get Lost” – Chet Baker
Pop/Rock: 1955 – 1965
- No riffing – everything was very straightforward
- There wasn’t a lot of syncopation – everything was structured and on the beat
- Speech was over-articulated. My favorite examples of this are “Please, Mister Postman” or “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
- Vibrato happened in the middle of the phrase, but not usually at the end
- Glottal onsets
Listening Sample: “Downtown” – Petula Clark
- There was a crying in the sound, usually at the beginning of the phrase. Janis Joplin is a great example of this, though I opted not to play a recording of her. Just listening to her makes me feel a bit nodes-y.
- The ends of the phrases aren’t as important like they are in classical or even musical theatre. They’re thrown away.
- Again, we will often hear vibrato in the middle but not the end of the phrases.
- And, overall, we’re going to hear a fuller sound with more emotion.
Listening Sample: “You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon
- The tone tended to be more breathy with less or no vibrato
- The tone also turned more nasal. Thank you, Madonna
- We move away from the ache of the 1970’s to vocal styling in the 1980’s – no strain here.
- Melodramatic – As I said, everything is BIG (especially the hair!)!!
Listening Sample: “Take Me On” – A-HA
- More spoken, but not articulated
- Little to no vibrato
- NO RIFFING – now, you may be surprised by this, but we work away from the 90’s Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston riffing for Jesus to a more honest sound.
- Phrase placement behind the beat – these artists are too cool to keep with the downbeat.
Listening Sample: “Say Something” – A Great Big World & Christine Aguilera
American Country: Contemporary
- There tends to be less variation in the total quality of the singer.
- Here vibrato is used, often with a compressed finish.
- There’s not an interest in “sweetening” or rounding out the sound. It’s common folk singing commonly.
- Sometimes there’s a twang there – part of the regionalism that has hung on for dear life in this now commercial field.
- The phrases tend to have more equal weight, though the vocal load tends to be, on the whole, a bit heavier than the pop styles we’ve discussed.
Listening Sample: “Burning House” – Cam
Below is a link to a chart I put together for my students, listing some historical information on each genre along with the above stylistic markers and suggested listening. I hope you find it useful as you begin to traverse boundaries you never thought you would cross in your life as a performer and/or teacher.
For more information about pop/rock singing, you should really check out Sheri Sanders’ website: https://www.rocktheperformance.com. She and it are a tremendous resource!
There are so many different musical means of expression. A solid vocal technique allows us the opportunity to explore these various styles in health ways. Oh, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun! Who knew I would ever have a go-to country song for karaoke…?
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