Jenks Voice Studio

When "Classical" Means Skill

Published on October 7th, 2015 by Brad Jenks

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At various times in my teaching career I have had a reputation as someone who

1) can "teach you to belt"

2)thinks that "classical technique" is the best technique

This is admittedly bizarre, firstly because the two seem opposed to one another, and also because neither is anything I actually think nor ever claimed.

The former is probably because some degree of strengthening is usually called for first in young singers and beginners, and the latter probably because of my expressed disdain for approaches to the vocal instruction in some Musical Theater/CCM corners. I'm not bothered by the former (though as I said, it's not something I ever claim), but I take some exception to the latter, specifically as regards the defining of "Classical Technique." If someone were to ask me if I indeed maintain that preference my answer would be, "That depends what you mean by "Classical technique."

The Problem Of Troublesome Terminology
If you took a poll, no doubt you would find that there are a quite few people out there who would hold that "classical" singers have a "classical sound" because of "classical training" to achieve a "classical technique". I find this to be a gross oversimplification. It is also unfortunately terribly common. In fact, I think it is at the root of a few great mistakes that are floating around the pedagogy world right now, splitting vocal music along unnecessary lines and working terrible habits into countless voices down different stylistic aisles.

Much like the term "classical education", vs. a non-standard education, the point is still the same: education. The point of classical vocal training is actually to sing, not to "sing classically."

Clearly part of the issue is that the use of the term "classical" has taken on some undue connotations of style*, and I suppose I might take less exception to the use of the term "trained singer". That is all "classically trained" should mean: trained. This reality becomes all the more pronounced when we realize that the primary CCM specialty, the belt, has its origins in someone trying to sound "untrained". (Bourne, Garnier, Kenny; Journal of Singing, March/April 2011)

I've often said that I think our language frequently betrays us, giving insight into our actual thought. And I find it interesting that, no matter how much we may try to substantiate or validate CCM approaches, it is always the traditional vocalism we call legit. What, then, is the subtle illegitimacy of the CCM pedagogy, I wonder? Another blog for another time perhaps, but as a teacher, I find it more than slightly ill-advised and contradictory to propose to instruct in the art of the untaught, the method of the unskilled, and to encourage habits that many spend years trying to undo.

When Classical Sorta Sucks....

But wait... Don't read me to mean that "Classical is better". Remember, I just said that classical has often come to mean more than it should. And it's not just those outside the "classical" fold that misattribute. Hardly!

Everyone likes to feel special. And when the classical vocal community gets even a whiff of rejection, they double down on difference. They too buy into this false differentiation. There is a subtle(?) adoption of this same meaning of "classical" by the community, perhaps to define itself over and against (lesser?) arts. This truly is a snobbishness. Classical vocalists become an exaggerated version of themselves, making all sorts of attempts at finding just-the-right-placement, just the right resonance, the perfect sound, for their incredibly specific (and often incorrect) voice type. And in looking for a perfect "classical" technique and sound, even things like intonation and intelligible text go out the window. Some of my favorite moments from young, aspiring classical vocalists haven't been on the concert or opera stage, but have been on evenings of socializing and karaoke, where I have heard wonderful things from voices once a "classical" pretense has been dropped.

So no, neither am I a snob for a "classical" sort of sound. I do love classical vocal music, but it pains me to hear it become a parody of itself, as much as it pains me that the popular singers of today are almost purposefully poor vocalists. The end result of this instituted dichotomy is that both the non-classical and the classical communities begin to sing with something that is more an imitation than not, crossover starts to sound super-weird, and unfortunately, the teaching follows suit and the pedagogs scramble to redefine (eg. legit, mix, etc.)

Nevertheless, I think that the truth of this is evidenced by the recent (though still rarer) successes of teachers and methods with concepts of authenticity, for example The Naked Voice. Here and there, people are gravitating towards finding their own native sound in a steady and methodical way. Not only do I agree with this, but I find it sad and unnerving that this should be a novel concept. To my mind, Classical training should mean something like this - discipline, along some lines of recognized efficacy. The goals should be based on the parameters of human sound production first, recognized common or standard musical demands second, and stylistic demands third. When stylistic demands supersede the other two, bad things happen in voices. Challenging musical material always poses a threat, but the failure to prioritize in this way carries inherent dangers, and odds tip heavily in the favor of poor vocal health.

I'd like to think that once upon a time, "Classical training" meant learning to sing in tune, with clear text, ample volume, steadiness of phrasing, some appropriate measure of legato**, and sufficient movement of breath so as not to strain the larynx. In short- skill. I can't imagine how that should be any different or less necessary for a "non-classical" singer. So now I leave it to you the listener to begin to assess where and why the sound divide......

*Clearly the term "classical" is associated with at least one specific era of music with an identifiable style, but this blog entry is more about sound production than musical attributes.
** I have heard it said, with some merit, that Legato is a thing both specialized in and stylistically notable in Classical vocal music. I would add though, that Legato, as a goal, has many benefits, such as I combatting wasted breath, continuity of physical/muscular motion, and further, is based on two musical principles common to most styles: 1) that we sing on the vowel and not on the consonant, and 2) that singing in phrases rather than syllabically is better for continuity of melody. This relegates staccato, marcato, and other more detached phrasings to an effect, rather than a norm, where perhaps they are more effective.