For quite some time, the idea that one must train voice classically before singing other styles of music has been prevalent. The condescension toward the contemporary voice world that accompanied this belief has faded some, but we are still recovering and finding our way as a voice community. Now, it’s time to come together! So, I would like to revisit the origins of what it meant to train classically.
Tracing the change in aesthetics over the years, we have certainly arrived in the “era of pressed phonation” in all genres of music, including classical. When compared with 75 to 100 years ago, one can hear the recent increase in vocal fold contact time (e.g. compare Tagliavini with Kaufmann, or Ponselle with Radvanovsky). Perhaps this is due to a change towards a “darker” timbral aesthetic, or perhaps it’s a result of a bored culture that has become addicted to death-defying feats (e.g., How loud could this be sung?). Regardless, this is where we are and we need to become more attuned to this reality as, at least anecdotally, it seems to be leading to more voice injuries.
The classical aesthetic of yore allowed for more use of light mechanism (lower vocal fold contact time) which led to less friction at the level of the vocal folds. Lighter production allows singers to become aware of the aerodynamic function of vocal fold vibration and develop a proprioceptive awareness of heightened flow. “Head voice” is an ideal setting for helping voices experience flow phonation, which has been highlighted in voice research and rehabilitation as an important and healthy element of sustainable singing. Thanks to Sundberg and Titze, we now know what vocal fold configuration allows for flow phonation and, thanks to many clever practitioners, we have exercises to help singers achieve this goal.
So, while I don’t subscribe to the idea that one must train classically first (especially if it employs pressed phonation), I would say it is extremely important to start in head voice when training singers; make them aware of flow before asking them to enter the more challenging coordination of using increased resistance at the level of the vocal folds. When presented with this challenge too early, singers often use pressed phonation. Fortunately, most musical genres have pieces where head voice is employed, so there is plenty of music, in addition to classical, which can be used to train voices.
About the author
Dr. Brian P. Gill has sung professionally in many genres, including classical/opera, musical theatre, pop, country, Indian classical, rock, heavy metal, and jazz. He is currently a Professor of Voice and Voice Pedagogy in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University where he has implemented a Graduate Certificate and Minor in Vocology. Dr. Gill is also the owner of Gill Mindful Voice Training and maintains an active private studio, teaching students from around the globe who perform in many top venues in myriad vocal styles.
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