A few months ago, I had the pleasure of adjudicating the local NATS student auditions. It was wonderful to spend my day hearing so many talented young singers. I was impressed at the overall level of preparation, as well as the commitment to the vocal and dramatic choices these young singers made in performance.
A few especially talented singers competed in both the classical AND musical theater divisions for their age group, and some of these even advanced to the semi-final rounds in both divisions. This is truly impressive, not only because the vocal technique required for each style is very different, but because it also requires meticulous preparation of two sets of competition-worthy rep – in other words, hours upon hours of practice time.
Cross-training – singing in more than one style – is an important aspect of training the whole voice, especially for the young singer. While most of us eventually go on to specialize in one style of singing or another, knowing how to sing in multiple styles has lots of benefits. It makes us more versatile singers; it keeps the various areas of our voice functional and flexible; and most importantly, it ensures that we train every aspect of our voice – not just the parts that are most frequently used for our particular style.
Training the Whole Voice
When comparing and contrasting classical technique with more contemporary styles, one of the first things that comes to mind (or, to “ear,” as it were) is the differences in the voice’s registration – i.e., the use(s) of head voice and chest voice. While breaking things down into a chest/head dichotomy is admittedly a bit simplistic, it can be a useful starting point for training the whole voice.
In my teaching over the years, I’ve discovered that most young singers have a “dominant register,” similar to how everyone is born with a dominant hand. Most young singers will default either to head voice or chest voice in particular areas of their range, as feels comfortable and/or natural for their instrument. Even those blessed with a natural ability to “mix” have either a head-dominant or chest-dominant mix.
Then there are those singers who feel that their “signature sound” is so firmly rooted in one register that they are hesitant to use the other. I sound really good singing this one way, they think – why do I have to learn to use the other part of my voice?
How Do I Train the Whole Voice?
As singers, we must of course build on our naturally strong register; however, we must also work to strengthen whatever area of our voice is weaker. For most of us, our weaker register is NOT where we enjoy singing, so we tend to avoid it. However, it doesn’t matter how much we dislike it. Ignoring your weaker register is ultimately to your voice’s detriment.
For, example, if you prefer to belt, you must cultivate your head voice. Why? It’s a myth that “belting” is just bringing the chest voice up as high as it can go. High belting is really a chest-dominant mix. The head voice muscles must be involved to produce a sustainable sound, especially the higher you go. A good teacher will incorporate some folk songs or classical art song into the musical theater singer’s rep, in an effort to cultivate the head voice.
If you’re a female who prefers to sing classically, you should still exercise your chest voice and your mixed middle voice. Why? Because it will lend fuller resonance to your lower notes. It’s a myth that chest voice is harmful or counter-productive to classical singing. While classical singers don’t use a chest-dominant sound very often, their lower process can and should be involved if they are singing below or even near the bottom of the staff – those notes will not project otherwise. A good teacher will incorporate some musical theater of varying styles into the classical singer’s repertoire, to ensure that the lower half of the voice is strengthened.
Getting the Proper Guidance
In order to train all areas of your voice, it’s essential that you find a good teacher and meet with him or her regularly. Seek out a teacher that specializes in the style you prefer; however, be prepared to explore a myriad of different styles in your lessons, in order to train your whole voice. In the process, you may even find that you really like a certain style of music that you didn’t before – it’s amazing what can happen when you approach something with an open mind!
If you are looking for a teacher, the NATS teacher directory is a good place to start. There are also websites like learningmusician.com, takelessons.com, and musiclessons.com. You could also check out the Find Your Singing Teacher page on Facebook.
And of course, there’s us! Kim and myself are seasoned, qualified voice teachers, and have loads of experience working with beginners and/or young singers. If you’re located north of Boston and interested in lessons, contact us!