Can Classical Vocal Teachers Train Pop/Rock Singers?


Many vocal teachers are classically trained. I believe classical vocal technique is the best in terms of posture, breathing, tone production, articulation, etc. But can classical training benefit pop singers? I believe it can, but only to a point. Here’s why.

Back in the opera days, popular and respected artists are opera singers. The world of opera has its own tradition. The stage, costumes, music, orchestra, and of course the singing, in terms of both technique and style. Having said that, singing technique or style can be labeled as wrong, if it was not in line with the operatic tradition. Today, contemporary music, pop, rock, jazz, etc. don’t have that kind of “rule” so to speak. Who can say that Louis Armstrong didn’t sing correctly? Or Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson is not a good singer?

One of the main characteristics of classical technique is tone production, and how it handles going through the passaggio, or that bridge between the chest and the head voice. Classically trained tenors usually shift gear into that open throat, “kermit” sound when going through that upper area of the chest voice. Luciano Pavarotti once described the vocal tone when going through the passaggio as “covered sound”. This technique maintains the big and rounded tone quality of the voice, even when going through the upper range of the chest voice.

Andrea Bocelli, even when he is singing a non classical piece, still does this. For instance, in “Vivo Per Lei” where he sings in a rock, raspy voice in the beginning, he shift gear in the middle when the song demanded that he go to his upper register of his chest voice. Although, Andrea Bocelli does this in the most amazing way. It seems as if Andrea doesn’t have vocal registers, from top to bottom, it blends flawlessly.

We don’t see this kind of treatment in pop, rock, nor jazz singers. R&B, soul singers, like Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men, often use what’s known as pharyngeal voice when going to their upper chest voice. Pharyngeal voice is this nasal, kind of edgy sound, that resonates mostly at the back of the nose. This technique allows singing high notes without breaking the chest voice. In rock singing, there is Axl Rose of Guns N Roses for example.

Seth Riggs, the popular vocal coach known for training superstars like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, describes the vocal register of passaggio as mix voice. Mix, like mixing the chest voice with head voice. Seth’s method, suggests that in order to acquire mix voice, one needs to practice going through passaggio using the pharyngeal voice.

Other strong characteristic of classical voice training is the formal articulation. In my opinion, most of the times formal articulation doesn’t really work if you sing R&B, soul, or rock. In my experience, contemporary music like pop, rock, encourage individuality in a singer. Classical too, but the basic technique is more uniformed, unlike pop and rock.

When Indonesian Idol first debuted in Indonesia, they hired a classical vocal teacher to train the finalists. Later in the program the producer had to hire another vocal teacher because the finalists were singing in a formal style when they perform popular songs.

So, how can classical training benefit pop/rock/jazz singers?

I think, for the most part, classical training will build our technique so that we can have a stronger foundation in breathing, tone production, intonation, dynamics, and optimising our vocal range, also vocal register blending (passaggio or mix voice).

And although not directly, it can help with articulation too. When we learn to sing in foreign languages that many classical music were written, like Italian and German, we train our articulator muscles in such a way, so that when we go back to singing in our own language we articulate easier and it will sound better.

In the end, it will help us build a stronger voice and ultimately all that technique will protect our voice from vocal injury.

I often say to my students, train the proper technique in the studio, but forget everything when we’re on stage performing. We want to perform without having to think about the diaphragm, tone placement, etc. We want to express freely, that is why it is important to train regularly so we can control our technique effortlessly, naturally, without thinking.

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