Crossing Over to Contemporary Commercial Music
The market place 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 entirely by consumer demand. When it comes to commercial music 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 merely 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. The good news is everyone can learn to sing commercial styles, it just takes a little specialized training. Here are four small 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 when singing classically, but for CCM styles they need to lighten up a bit and add 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.
Adjustments that affect timbre include laryngeal height, soft palate elevation, and tongue position. When singing CCM styles, it is important that the tongue is free and agile. To improve tongue agility, utlilize tongue twisters in your vocalizing. You can find many great examples in David Blair McClosky’s “Your Voice at Its Best: Enhancement of the Healthy Voice, Help for the Troubled Voice.” You can also find examples here: https://tinyurl.com/y3o3mjcm
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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. When singing this rep, try to maintain your everyday speaking voice when moving into singing. First speak the text, then begin to inflect it; follow the contour of the melodic line. Then 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.
Classical singers must constantly make adjustments to ensure that their voice will be heard in an unamplified venue. However, 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. Begin with the book about a foot away from your mouth and then slowly bring the book closer while adjusting the volume of your voice. This trick alters your auditory feedback and will often help you automatically adjust your voice to a less acoustically powerful quality.
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 “Vocal Athlete” by Wendy LeBorgne and Marci Rosenberg, and “Popular Singing and Style” by Donna Soto-Morettini. I also 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.