Inspirazione! : Crossing Over: Broadening Your Vocal Horizons

Duke Ellington, who did so much to dissolve stylistic and racial barriers in music, is reported to have said: “There are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” I believe he meant that instead of the usual divisions of style and genre, we should use other criteria—such as skillfulness, artistry, etc.—to judge music. So, why do many classical singers think of singing in a different style as vocal abuse or even artistic sacrilege?

Well, a singer may simply feel either vocally or temperamentally best suited to classical music. In fact, these days, many singers feel the label “classical” is not restrictive enough. In the current fad of Fachmania, singers are becoming ever more specialized.  But at what point does discipline become rigidity and love of one thing neglect of another? Why do some classical singers come to believe that classical singing is the “right” way to sing and other styles are “wrong”?

Classical repertoire takes an enormous amount of work simply to cultivate the physical technique required to sing it. It could be that focusing on that specific goal, however, may make singers begin to feel constrained by the very expression that once brought a sense of freedom. Reviving a sense of joy and exploration is one reason to investigate other genres and ways of singing. Financial reasons may be another.

Lisa Popeil, interviewed in this issue (see p. 10) says, “in today’s musical theatre world, most roles are belting roles, so being limited to a classical vocal technique narrows the range of audition opportunities. A singer who can belt and sing ‘legit’ well and effortlessly has real competitive advantages, and though there’s not as much session work as there used to be, a versatile singer will be used again and again by producers and jingle houses, because these singers can give the producer whatever they need: rock, jazz, R&B, country, or opera.” She also notes that it is a competitive advantage as a teacher to be able to sing in other styles.

Deciding whether to perform in other styles may be putting the cart before the horse. Back to Ellington: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” Even if classical singers have no practical interest in performing non-classical kinds of music, they may want to explore other styles to enjoy, as Popeil puts it, “their vocal gifts in a fuller way.”

Rather than singing other kinds of music with exactly the same technique you use as a classical singer, which often sounds inappropriate, it’s important to retain a sense of play with the instrument and truly experiment with other sounds and positions.

One way to view this process is to liken it to the sports and fitness concept of cross training. As I mentioned, classical singing requires a very specific throat position. What in shorthand is often called “open throat” involves an expansion of the pharynx, usually with a lowered larynx, creating a space to maximize resonance. More specifically, it’s a shape that enhances a certain range of harmonics or overtones that can be heard over an orchestra. Classical singers work long and hard to find and stabilize this position, as anyone reading this piece knows. With the knowledge that certain muscle groups are used for certain activities, cross-training aims to balance a person’s primary technique with the exercise of other, less used muscles—for example, football players who do yoga, or runners who do weight training.

One thing that can be a big obstacle to this kind of exploration is the idea of belting. (For a further exploration of this, see Neil Semer’s article on musical theatre in the January 2004 issue of CS.) The word “belting” is used, and misused, to describe a host of stylistic and technical elements in singing, and I think it’s important to break that down a bit.

If you think of belting for women as a question of whether to use chest voice in the middle register, that is an important issue to consider. I’m sure there are as many descriptions of belting as there are singers and voice teachers, but my experience is that the larynx is higher, and the soft palate lower, creating less of a yawn, and allowing the chin to lift a bit can facilitate this. As voice teacher Neil Semer wrote, “Belting is a more aggressive use of the thyro-arytenoid muscle,” or as Popeil calls it, the “laryngeal lean.”

With that said, all the other principles of good singing still apply. Popeil calls them the four “no-nos”: “no pressing of vocal cords, no sensation of laryngeal discomfort, no squeezing in of [the] upper belly and no singing above [the] ‘volume threshold,’” or in other words “no singing louder than your ability to control it.”

It is also my experience that singing in this way can be a wonderful tonic to the voice. I will often come home after a classical performance, sit down at the piano, and gently sing a jazz standard in chest—and it feels like a wonderful massage for the throat. Perhaps the old adage “a change is as good as a rest” can apply here.

But even if you have no desire to belt in that sense, if you want to sing other kinds of music you can explore many other elements of vocal sound. Let’s look at some of these musical building blocks.

Pitch: In classical singing, you should be in the center of the pitch most of the time, unless you are using portamento for effect. As an experiment, I once took a recording of a good classical singer and used an electronic “pitch correct” device. I heard virtually no audible difference. Looking at other styles, you can hear people come at the pitch from underneath, work their way up and end on the down side of the pitch. That’s very common in jazz and can sound “off pitch” to a classical singer’s ear, but there is much to be learned from it.

Continuing with jazz as an example, if you want to understand more complicated chords, such as 11th chords, listening to good jazz singers can be a great help. If you want to improve your appoggiaturas, listen to the jazz singers. They know how to lean on a pitch!

Timbre: Back to the shape of the pharynx. The classical shape has the advantage of maximizing overtones to carry the sound over the orchestra, but singers in almost all other styles these days use microphones, so volume is not a priority. When you put the issue of volume on the back burner, a host of other elements come to the fore. Playing around with the shape of the throat, you can find new expressive colors that shift the resonance as well as the color of the vowel. This wisdom may, like listening to jazz’s more complicated chords, find its way into your classical singing. At intense quiet moments, perhaps a breathy “O Dio!” will be just the thing, or a sharp retort of a buffo character may call for more nasality.

Diction: Also, when you let the open throat take a back seat, your options for pronunciation expand quite a bit. You may find a new vowel or a new way to hold on to a consonant that will surprise you. (For articulate, expressive diction, I don’t think you can beat the better musical theatre and cabaret singers. See the sidebar for a list of such singers, from whose books we should all take a page.)

All of this is simply to say that it is important to bear in mind that we are storytellers and creative people. Looking at any of these other components more closely expands your artistic palette. Even if you are an “A list” classical singer, the days of vocal perfection are numbered. The time will come when the perfection of the voice is gone—but the song is still in your heart.

It is limiting, and ultimately, inaccurate to feel that our entire artistic existence is dependent upon these two little folds of tissue in our necks being in perfect condition and working in one particular way—and how else can we discover our full potential but by exploration? At the very least, don’t deprive yourself of listening to singers in other styles.

I recently began listening to Hindustani singing, and I was astonished. The sheer number of notes in a run made operatic coloratura seem lethargic. It was eye opening, or rather, ear opening. Here is a quote from my download pick for the month. It’s a song called “Be a Child,” recorded by the great Eileen Farrell, the gold standard of a crossover artist.

“Be a child and run out to play. Don’t mind it if the grownup children laugh, and they may. It’s fun to paint your dreams and go find your special hill . . . and you will. Why not look today?”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at