The marketplace for singers in the United States is rapidly changing. While classical music is by far the most common genre taught in the university setting, in the outside world, it is not quite as popular. In fact, only 2.7% of Americans listen to opera. While North American opera companies operate with approximately a $1.1 billion budget, only 27% of that comes from ticket sales. The rest comes from donors and grants, which means most companies are only a few lost donations/grants away from financial trouble. In contrast, Broadway and Broadway tour ticket sales for musicals come to around $2.37 billion. These are for-profit productions driven by consumer demand. When it comes to crossing over to contemporary commercial music (CCM) genres, consumers spend approximately $7.3 billion on live concerts. That figure does not include the tens of thousands of coffee shops, bars, and restaurants with live music. While church jobs used to be a stronghold for classical singers, even that world is changing with only 25% of congregations using only classical music in their services.
What that means is that today’s singers must be more versatile than ever to make a living. Crossing over requires stylistic, technical, and acting adjustments that are not common practice in classical singing. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of schools that teach performers the skills necessary to compete in the non-classical realm. Everyone can learn to sing commercial styles, it just takes a little specialized training. Here are ten tips that address some of the most common issues I see when working with classically trained singers who want to cross-over. These are broad generalizations but will, hopefully, give you some new ideas to consider and explore on your own.
You’ve spent years honing your mix for classical repertoire; but to cross-over to CCM styles, you are going to need to rebalance your registration. Women are expected to belt, which requires them to sing with thicker vocal folds and firmer closure into the upper part of their range. Men, frequently, carry chest register into the upper part of their voice; but for contemporary musical theater, they need to lighten up a bit and add a head voice into their mix. The good news is that everyone can learn to do this. It just takes fine coordination of the intrinsic muscles of the larynx. Begin by isolating pure chest voice and head voice (in this context, I mean a breathy pop-music quality). Work on carrying chest up into the middle and head down into the middle. Then, begin gliding from chest to head while ascending and head to chest while descending. From there, play around with transitioning earlier and later until you can comfortably carry chest into your mix.
Classical singers use their full lung capacity to project their voices acoustically to the back of the hall. However, in modern musical theatre, singers only need to project their voices a few inches to the microphone. Sound engineers, then, EQ and compress the voice to smooth it out; and, in some cases, they may add a little reverb to further enhance the sound. When first learning to sing CCM styles, try singing with only 50-75% of the air you normally use and see what happens. If you are someone who contracts their abdominal wall as part of the process, try relaxing it instead, and see how that changes things. There is no one size fits all approach to breathing for any genre. The sooner you begin to explore all the possibilities, the more likely you are to discover new vocal qualities.
A warm vocal quality is frequently the goal in classical singing. To achieve this quality, singers must make resonance adjustments to unify the timbre of their voice from top to bottom. Adjustments that affect timbre include laryngeal height, soft palate elevation, and tongue position. When singing CCM styles, it is important not to depress the larynx, but rather, to let it float freely throughout your range. A depressed laryngeal position will not only make the voice darker, but it will also inhibit laryngeal tilt which is necessary for safely carrying chest into the mix. The tongue is the most frequent culprit preventing classical singers from finding a brighter timbre. To see if this might be your problem, try vocalizing on /a/ with your tongue resting on your bottom lip. If your tongue is trembling and/or struggling to stay protruded, it is a good indication your tongue is retracting when you sing.
Classical singers must learn to sing in, at least, four languages. The good news is most commercial singers and musical theater singers only need to sing in one – everyday American English. Speech-like singing is the basis for all CCM styles. While this may sound intuitive and easy to accomplish, many classical singers struggle to create a truly speech-based sound. This is because most English songs in classical literature use a refined/heightened language influenced by Italian vowel shapes. While this approach is beneficial for smoothing out timbre from top to bottom and maintaining forward placement, it distorts the language in a way that is not appropriate for modern musical theater performances. When singing this rep, try to maintain your everyday speaking voice while moving into singing. First, speak the text; then, begin to inflect it as you follow the contour of the melodic line. Next, try to approximate pitches before, finally, landing on the exact pitches. If your voice defaults to your habitual classical quality, go back to speech and try again.
Dr. Ingo Titze, one of the world’s leading singing voice researchers, says that instead of CCM vs. classical, what we should really be talking about is amplified vs un-amplified. This is a great point. Classical singers must constantly make adjustments to ensure that their voice will be heard in an unamplified venue; CCM singers always have a mic. Because classical singers have such a daunting task, they are almost always in search of a feeling of placement that lets them know their voice is projecting. However, when projection no longer matters. thanks to the microphone, consistent placement is no longer necessary. In fact, consistent placement can create an artificial sound in CCM styles outside of musical theatre. Instead of making resonance adjustments to hit the back of the room, try making resonance adjustments as if someone was standing one foot away from your mouth. Try this experiment: hold a book in front of your face so that it reflects the sound of your voice back to your ears and sing. Start about a foot away; and, then, bring the book closer to your mouth until it starts to sound like everyday speech. This trick alters your auditory feedback and will often help you automatically adjust your voice to a less acoustically powerful quality.
6. Onsets and Releases
Most classical repertoire requires the artist to use clean onsets and releases. These are produced by a carefully coordinated closure of the vocal folds accompanied by simultaneous initiation of airflow. CCM singers have a much larger toolbox. They use aspirate (when air begins and ends after vocal fold vibration stops), fry (when you begin in fry and move into the pitch), growl (when you use vibration of the pharyngeal wall before the pitch), cry (when you lean down into a pitch and change registration from light to heavier), and glottal attacks and releases (when you press your chords firmly together before starting or when stopping phonation). Next time you are learning a new piece, listen closely to the choices of onsets and releases the artists make and work some of them into your song.
While consistent vibrato is a requirement for classical singing, it would absolutely ruin most pop/rock and contemporary musical theatre songs. Singing straight-tone requires a reduction in airflow and volume level of the voice. If vibrato comes in on sustained notes, that’s fine. Just try to keep it minimal. If you are singing musical theatre, try to bring the vibrato in at the cadence of the accompaniment. When you begin to learn how to sing straight tone, bring your volume level down, brighten your vowels, take a smaller breath than normal, and maintain ribcage expansion while singing.
In classical music, rhythm is an important ingredient for conveying the words; but a legato line must always reign supreme. Therefore, many singers think of long, horizontal phrasing choices. In many CCM styles, rhythm is a vital component of the story and a driving force behind the music. Singers lock into the percussion of the band and use vocal rhythmic choices like anticipations and back phrasing to make the vocal line pop. To get an idea of what is possible, listen to multiple covers of the same song on YouTube, and make note of the way each singer plays with the rhythm of the song.
Acting techniques, until the 20th century, were mostly gesture based: meaning truthfulness and real emotion were not the primary goals of an actor’s work. That all began to change around 1897 when a man named Constantin Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski’s work was revolutionary and forever changed the way actors tell stories. Musicals performed today are all written after that time. Most are written after his theatre toured the U.S. from 1922-1924, which also changed theatre in the United States forever. Unfortunately, many of the acting techniques taught to classical performers are based on emotion and/or gesture and are not directly applicable to modern musical theatre. If that sounds like your background, sign up for a straight acting class in your area. I recommend Meisner as a great starting point because it trains you to listen and respond to your scene partner without over-thinking. Once your instinct is trained through the Meisner drills, you can add in character work to expand your toolbox.
10. Audition Technique
The expectations for musical theatre auditions are very different than for opera. To get a taste of what is different, check out the audition advice on Backstage.com and watch the documentary, “Every Little Step” (you can stream it through YouTube). The film gives you an inside look at the process for casting a Broadway show. If you are located in or near NYC, you can take audition classes offered by casting directors. These are a great way to learn what people on the other side of the table are looking for in the room.
All of these skills are easy to learn once you know what they are and why they matter. There is also a growing body of literature on the differences between various CCM styles. If this is new to you, pick up a few of the books in the NATS “So You want to Sing” series. I also highly recommend the Vocal Athlete by Wendy LeBorgne and Marci Rosenberg and the “Popular Singing and Style” by Donna Soto-Morettini. Additionally, I have a lot of free resources available on my blog, EdwardsVoice.Wordpress.com. Most importantly – have fun and explore! Audiences are always looking for something new and exciting in the CCM world. Uniqueness is king, and you are most likely to succeed in finding your authentic CCM voice by exploring every sound you can make and every story you want to tell.