Sometimes, classically trained students (and teachers) are unclear about how to sing contemporary styles in a healthy way that is also authentic and stylistically appropriate. They may worry about sounding bad, or straining. They may be unsure about which register or placement they should use for a song. Often they want to learn how to belt, but have misconceptions about how to do that. Different methods are offered as the “correct” way to sing popular styles, but the fact is that there is not one method that is the correct one—that is a myth. Furthermore, a student can receive conflicting information about how to sing popular styles from different teachers.
The good news is there are common aspects to learning how to sing popular styles that are consistent throughout different methods. While there is way too much on the topic to cover in one blog, I’ve found throughout the years that besides overall healthy production and breath support, four topics in particular are really helpful to focus on:
- Rhythm, and rhythmic articulation (see the separate blog post on rhythm)
- Mix voice, tone and forward placement, especially when belting
- Dynamic and tonal changes within a phrase or verse
- Vibrato and legato
Because vocal anatomy is the same regardless of the musical genre, shifting singing approaches between styles is more like changing your outfit, rather than changing your voice. By focusing on these topics, and by being aware of unconscious vocal habits as you sing, it’s less difficult than you might believe to sing contemporary styles well. It just takes practice, listening to many songs to embody styles (like learning a new language, you have to hear it), and of course—patience.
Who is the singer?
Ultimately, what’s most important is what the singer is expressing, and who they are as an artist. Personalization. Story telling. What moves her fans when they hear Beyoncé? Why do they flock to her? Or Billie Ellish? Or Stevie Wonder? Or Ella Fitzgerald? Or Bruno Mars? Or Adele? Or Justin Timberlake? Why is pop so huge, with its growls and grunts and belting, the opposite of bel canto (classical, clear-tone training)? The reason is a combination of factors from image, to performance skills, to the songs themselves, to emotional expression, and of course it’s the quality of the artist’s voice. These artists are originals. Their voices are often unique sounding, but so are their personas on stage. It’s about so much more than the tone of their voice. It’s about the person, the story, and communicating directly with an audience.
Bring out something authentic about yourself in your song. There is no fourth wall (a reference to actin)—you are yourself on stage. While this can be frightening, it's also empowering, and ultimately makes for an incredible experience on stage. Audiences want an experience, to be moved. Popular songs touch people by telling stories about how they’re living, now, today. Songs of love, love lost, being angry, being hopeful…passionate singing and songs that make one say, “I know that feeling, it’s like she’s singing my story!” This is why.
Throughout this Series we're exploring Mix Voice, Tone, and Placement. We have a section here dedicated to belting. So, keep browsing through the different blogs, exercises and videos to discover more on these topics.