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August/September 2014

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Crossing over – Inter-genre vocal technique

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Crossing over – Inter-genre vocal technique

I recently addressed a NEWZATS conference about teaching contemporary singing to predominantly classically-trained singing teachers. I aimed to show the commonalities of good vocal production between genres. Nevertheless, there are huge differences in vocal usage within the contemporary field(s) alone. Whether it’s alt-country, death metal, jazz, musical theatre, R&B, rock, kapa haka, opera or the thousands of specific vocal configurations of world music, vocal rudiments remain the same – using technique to maximise ease and beauty without strain or injury.

A fit body can play test match rugby or dance with the National Ballet. The skills and training for each are decidedly different, but there’s no question that one must be a great athlete to excel in either realm. To be adept at both simultaneously is damn near impossible. I’ve let my classical chops go and it would take massive discipline to become performance-ready… however, there are always exceptions.

Genre definitions have splintered so radically that there’s no specific ‘contemporary voice’ per se, especially as we aim to be unique. If we respect, study and become aware of the differences in voice usage from style to style, we become better singers, musicians and listeners (and draw upon a more colourful tonal palette). As with culture, the world is a richer place for diversity and deviance.

Though you might cringe at pigeon-holing your music into specific genres, it’s better to define and understand your ‘own sound’ and influences (technically and sonically), otherwise, reviewers and audiences might get lazy, miss the point, dismiss nuance and slap it under some generic ‘singer/songwriter’ umbrella. I’d hate to miss out on using good vocal technique because I distrusted the musical background of my teacher – and I’d hate to short change students because they sing in a style I’m not familiar with!

Ultimately, we fear what we don’t understand. If we don’t listen to, work with and appreciate a wide range of musical genres, we limit our performance and teaching capabilities. Personally, I love investigating how each sound and tone colour is made. Jazz, and particularly scat, utilises very wide dynamic, pitch, tonal and harmonic ranges.

The best way to remove fear is through experience and knowledge. With any luck, when we learn and use the skills involved, we’ll appreciate (maybe even love) musical styles we perceived as having little or no merit. I approach all vocalisation, with interest and curiosity rather than judgment, dismissal and disdain. (Remember, they’re ‘wine appreciation’ rather than ‘wine hating’ groups.)

However, there is a prevailing attitude within classical singing, that you cannot sing contemporary styles in a safe and healthy way. This can keep genres estranged and separate from each other (as have the attempts of some classical artists to cross over into jazz or pop, with disastrous results). Contemporary singers miss out on the wealth of bel canto (good vocal technique) from classical training, and classical students could learn to connect more with lyrics and lose self-consciousness, rigidity and fear of improvisation.

In order to communicate we must share a language. Because I received some classical training, I translate the language used within that tradition into the contemporary context. I don’t use the terms ‘chest or head voice’, but still ‘blend the registers’. What classical teachers call the passagio, we call ‘the break’. We don’t limit voice into fach (tenor, baritone, mezzo or soprano), instead, we use our full pitch range. The female pop/rock voice is similar to a classical male voice in its usage and must be dealt with similarly.

I teach using more twang and open-ness when singing higher rather than ‘belting’ per se. Belting actually terrifies me, as I associate it with push. Understanding our psychological and educational backgrounds, allows us to translate terms for technical tools into our own language. For example, ‘belting’ might translate into: committing to, not flipping, moving the sound forward, using full voice, or discovering your own terminology.

We need to discern healthy from unhealthy vocal production in any genre. If we don’t like a singer or genre, try to ascertain what they’re technically doing. Try not to impose your preferences on what constitutes good or beautiful singing and/or music. This will stop you being hypercritical with yourself and others. There’s skill and beauty present in every genre.

Dislike of a genre sometimes eclipses our ability to listen and truly hear a voice. So, distinguish between ‘the voice’ and ‘how it is being used’. Every voice is beautiful just as every body is beautiful. Unfortunately we use it incorrectly and believe the voice itself is flawed rather than a lack of healthy technique.

Classical styles’ preference: volume, wide vibrato, darkness, heaviness, rich/big tone, singing as written, perfection/getting it right, covering the sound, standing stationary to perform, clear diction, sacrificing words for ‘sound’, a large column of air, larger than life/overblown, acted’/theatrical, exact, oval rather than triangular mouth shapes, categorising voices, controlled, well-set benchmarks and agreed upon standards of excellence, woofy, ‘robato’ compromising the pulse, aiming to pass exams or complete course curriculum, dependence on teachers for repertoire, interpretation and career steerage, strict codes of manner and appearance.

Contemporary styles’ preference: edge, roughness, intimacy, story-telling, improvisation, uniqueness/originality, personal interpretation, constantly-changing phrasing (while retaining the pulse), experimental, diverse tonal colour, emotionally real, conversational at times, un-conventional, authentic, close-mic’ed, risk-taking, more about the song than the voice, twangy, bright, sounds usually associated with push/force/struggle, appearance secondary to sound, Outcomes – to perform independently and find a distinct voice that doesn’t require input from a teacher, allows for mistakes, trial and error, explores and encourages new sounds.

All genres need (to): mean it, be safe and healthy, project, have strength/power, use whole face and body, place sound in head, sing/phrase as spoken, blend registers, align posture, remove push/strain/breathiness, breath support, agility, appropriate energy, shape vowels, reliable, free, open, effortless, resonant, fluid/smooth, full dynamic range, communicative, stage presence and command, remove psychological and physical barriers (tension/fear), musicality and to remain in love with singing & the song!

Technically transitioning voices from classical into contemporary styles requires another column entirely.

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Caitlin@caitlinsmith.com